Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column

The Death of Story, Part III: Character Stories


Previously we began our look at the death of story in gaming. We delved into world stories and how they have become more and more static with the world-plotline fading into the background. PvP seems to be the only arena that allows for player influences and yet that is frequently contained to specific regions and seldom has an impact on any broader world story. In this article we’ll shift gears from a broad approach to a narrow one by focusing on character stories.

A character story is the changes that a person goes through as they progress through time. In books and movies, this is primarily caused by major events of the broader plot, but that is not always necessarily the case. Also, character stories are not the sole property of the protagonist. In any good tale, every primary and secondary character, including the villains, has a character arc. Changes can occur at any level of experience: mental, physical, emotional, and so on.

On the simplest level, character stories area told in MMOs so frequently we often don’t even recognize them for what they are. Every time you tell a fellow guild member, “You should have seen that basilisk I just took down. It was five levels higher than me!” or announce to a friend, “Woohoo! I finally looted a blue-value item!” or high-five a fellow gamer who just helped you finish a quest, you are a passing along a character story. Games are experiences and everything you do tells a little of your tale, your character’s tale, and the tales of other people you impact. The examples above are brief stores that could be titled vignettes, while the broader scope of your playing experience could be termed a character’s life story. In any case, character stories will exist whether there are active world stories or not. They survive even if they are completely ignored by the devs. But as with all things in gaming, with proper attention they can be made stronger.

Some may say that character stories are something only role-players care about. This is far from true. While RPers are more attuned to storytelling, it doesn’t take one to brag about a fantastic kill, bicker with a fellowship member of looting rights, or cut a swath through an onrushing group of PvPers. Ultimately, RPers will likely be looking for more from their character life stories, as distinguished from vignettes, but any player who likes to see their deeds and experiences on display or develop a particular class talent progression has a vested interest in character stories.

As there are three phases to a real person’s life (birth, life, and death), so are there three phases to a character’s life (creation, leveling, and end-game). Each has its own particular focus and potential for storytelling.

Computer game character creation these days has become a rather bland thing, very different from the highly developed machinations of the ancestral pencil-and-paper RPGs. Anyone who has designed a character using GURPS, Cyberpunk, or even D&D, and then compares it with WoW, LOTRO, or WAR will know what I’m talking about. When starting an MMO, you pick your race, class, and gender, decide on an eye color, how crooked your nose is, and select an interesting hairdo. That’s it. In games, as with any fiction, people naturally expect a measure of suspension of disbelief. We don’t question (too much) why all new characters start in the same spot. We don’t gripe (too much) about how all characters follow the same, or very similar, quest progressions on their journey to higher levels. But must we really all be so similar as to start out as clones? Okay, so my character’s hair is blond and short while another’s is black and long, but must every human warrior have an identical character sheet? Apparently, we all just get squirted out of some cloning vat to land at our starting point, devoid of any past and empty of any individuality deeper than external appearance.

EVE is the rare exception in that you can select, not only your race, but a subracial group and a couple measures of occupational specialty. While a step forward compared with the vast majority of games, EVE suffers from a weak overall world story (as was alluded to last time) meaning that there is no personal tie to the particular subrace and, to my knowledge, membership in a subrace and choice in a particular occupation do nothing in the game beyond influencing your starting states.

Concepts like backstory don’t only lie in the realm of role-players (though I suspect they’d like them). Depending on whether or not a character was born in a peasant village, to a merchant family, or in a warrior caste should have an impact on how they are treated by various NPC factions.

One of the popular aspects of MMOs is the ability to choose various advancements as you grow that distinguish you from other players. This happens through Trait, Talent, and Career Mastery as well as equipment choices and so on. Yet a level one character, who is presumably a grown adult, has nothing to distinguish him or herself from other characters beyond base class. To get a good character story going, players should have different cultural, caste, occupational, and family backgrounds that influence not only their starting stats, but how they interact with the various factions in the world.

Another method to differentiate starting characters is the giving of various advantages and/or disadvantages in a GURPS-like style. It might even work best if such traits were randomly assigned instead of selected by the player. Otherwise, players would soon pick out a particular set that best meshes with their class and in a few short weeks, all of the rogues would be identical to each other again. For randomization to work the advantages would have to be minor, much like the racial bonuses given in WoW and there should be a sufficiently large number of possibilities that players won’t just “reroll” until they get the ones they want. If they aren’t randomly assigned, however, it would make sense for there to be a small laundry list of choices, some of which are available only to certain castes and occupations, and also the ability to select a disadvantage or two to increase the number of advantage selections.

One RP-only method that LOTRO has is the ability for players to write character backgrounds that others can read if they so choose. While this doesn’t add anything to the game beyond an avenue for players to display their own creativity, it is a step in the right direction. Some players appear to be less profound than others, though. I recall seeing one player who simply wrote “He is tall.”

In any case, the key point is that characters should start the game unique. Otherwise they might as well be a bunch of FPS clones. To put it another way, consider LOTRO’s PvP system. Players fighting for Angmar make pregenerated end-game characters. They skip all of the leveling, questing, and building of arms and armor that normal player characters undergo. But in a life story sense, are they really any different? A pregenerated L50 Uruk Blackarrow has as much game-developed background as an Elven Champion that has leveled from one to fifty. That is to say, none.

The leveling stage of a character’s life has seen a lot more focus on how to give them their own stories. This is in large part due to recognition by MMOs that players do, in fact, want to achieve individuality and renown. Devs shirk at the creation stage, but do allow some measure of growing choice once the game begins. As was mentioned above, this is commonly achieved through advancement trees: Talents, Traits, Career Mastery and the like. Another method games have begun using are techniques that allow players to catalogue and/or display various accomplishments. LOTRO uses the deed and title systems, while WAR has added bragging rights and its intensive Tome of Knowledge. WoW recently jumped on this bandwagon by adding its achievement system which has much of the same perks as the newer games.

Yet there is still a lot of potential for growth for leveling characters. One means would be to link character stories into the world story by using both character background (as discussed above) and in-game actions as a means for characters to influence, join, and be influenced by NPC factions. As I’ve beaten the faction dead-horse for the past two articles, I won’t delve here any further.

Another method of making the game more real on an individual level would be the inclusion of goal setting. We start doing this in real life at an early age, moving from such childhood ambitions as “I want to be a policeman when I grow up” to dreams of buying a car, owning a house, or taking a vacation in a particularly exotic corner of the world. Expanding on the achievement concept, games could allow players to set one or two goals for themselves that are not related to the leveling grind. The goals could relate to exploration, PvP, factional reputation, wealth accumulation, mercantile acumen, and so on. They should take many levels to complete and, once finished, would include a reward and the ability to choose a new goal. While only a small step from what currently exists, this could have far reaching impact because it encourages and rewards players for stepping beyond the grinding rigmarole of leveling and to truly explore their game world. It also has a perk for the devs. They put a lot of effort into little things that are often times missed or given little credence. Goals can push players out of heavily camped areas to see and do other things that the world has to offer.

The final phase of character life is the end-game. Personally, I don’t usually get there. Only rarely have I maxed out on character level and by them I’m usually in the mood to move on and see what other games have to offer. Because of that, I don’t have as many insights on this phase of gaming life as I do on the others. However, it does make sense that much of the same influences of leveling can apply at the end-game. There are two major changes at this stage: the end of experience gain and the evening of the playing field as all players freeze at the final level. Yet achievements and goal setting can continue as before. It also would make sense to have a whole new level of talents or traits that unlock only at the ultimate level. Recognition is a valuable tool throughout the life of a character, but is especially important at the endgame. In some measure, recognition is being meted out in games, but there is greater potential here through the awarding of rare titles, trophies, and global announcements.

Character stories differ from world stories in the sense that they are more personal. World stories gain their importance by being dynamic and changeable by players. Character stories, however, are rooted in individuality and personal recognition. The possibilities for character stories are vast and most of the ideas noted here have been done before in other venues, such as pen-and-paper and single player computer RPGs. Others are simple steps from what exists today. The particular power of the character story is that when players become more vested in their characters, they are much more likely to stick around the game to see what they can become.

A brief aside on World-Stories:
This article is already a fair amount larger than most, but I wanted to take a paragraph to comment on a new example of world-story I’ve witnessed in the past week. I refer to the Halloween fest on WoW and, in particular, the zombie raids on settlements. Basically what happened is that zombies attack NPCs and characters alike, infecting them and turning them into zombies as well. Because of a protracted incubation period, the zombie disease has the potential to leap cities and spread like wildfire. While this is a fleeting and far from permanent incident, it readily displays what is possible even with older games. Those who are so inclined could allow themselves to be infected and then travel to highly populated areas while the disease was still incubating. Once they became zombies, they were able to infect others and rally NPC zombies to support their assaults. This is a fantastic example of the possibility for players to interact directly with NPCs on a small scale and actually make a tangible change (be it ever so brief) to the world they live in.

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