One of the things which I, and many others love about gaming is being able to act out hero fantasies with the only faintest whiff of danger being repetitive strain or muscular atrophy.
Many a game has thrust the player into the shoes of an intrepid wanderer, a young chosen one, or battle wary warrior fighting for revenge.
Now, providing you’re a half-way competent gamer, you’ve seen many a hero through to victory, beaten the villain and got the girl. This is a relatively simple, yet unchanged method for games to tell their tale. Such experiences have been considered typically insular, taking place within the mind of the player; a constant exchange between the mind and the game’s code. In the age of collaborative gaming, of social experiences and competition, it is not simply enough to be the hero as there cannot be only one, therein lies the problem.
The issue of narrative in a multi player environment isn’t new; usually the most simple solution was to remove as much of the story as possible and let the player-on-player action fill the gaps. For the most part this was a completely acceptable solution; in fact most multi player experiences aren’t considered as narrative ones, at least not in the traditional sense. Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, Call of Duty and Battlefield are all examples of hugely successful multi player games without much concern about the who, what, where and why. Whilst each of these conflicts is framed loosely in a space and time to give flavour and a sense of credulity, the reason behind the killing is simply because it must be done in order to succeed. The great antagonist morphed into a team of antagonists, a temporary and changeable foe. Each match has become a snapshot which forms the meta-narrative of your overall progression, either as part of a clan or based on your own skill progression.
One noteworthy example of late, which boldly tries to bridge the growing chasm between a single player narrative and competitive death match scenario is Brink. Brink was a game, which by all accounts, had a generally mixed reception. For me, my greatest interest was on how Brink tried to marry a typical team-based shooter with a narrative-centric feel of progression. Sadly, Brink it didn’t really succeed. A fixed and linear narrative could never operate in a game which was neither fixed, nor linear. The cut-scenes could never provide any real sense of immersion into the world when the action which took place was detached from it. However, what Brink does do, is show an awareness that to make a narrative which tries to operative in a multi player game, the story cannot revolve around the player, just its central characters. Brink’s characters are the mouthpieces of the narrative, the ones which the voiceless players orbit. The idea here is to generate the feeling that you, the player, are complicit or at least present in the action, even if you cannot steer it directly. This is ultimately the key, for the moment anyway.
Games which lead the player to believe that they really have the ability to steer the course of the game often come up short, and as soon as the façade is broken the damage cannot be undone. Beyond the binary win/loose end game conditions, there is no variation in Brink, Counter Strike or the other similar experiences. This operates in a similar way traditional linear narrative gaming experiences end in victory (seeing the end credits roll) or death (seeing the game over screen). One genre I believe, which has the potential to offer up a different dynamic between the player(s) and the narrative and that is the Massively Multi Player Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG). The potential for expansive worlds, rich lore and large dedicated player bases mean that the narrative can move in a more fluid fashion. This, however, isn’t to say that MMOs are always able to make good on this potential.
The very idea that you, the player, are the most important character in the narrative only works well in isolation, not on a server full of hundreds of other players.
The very point I started on, that games make for ideal platforms for hero fantasies, is one which is especially true to Role-Playing Games (RPGs). The idea that you can mould your avatar to your likeness, pick which skills, abilities and weapons you specialise in, and then which quests you will and won’t take point to an ultimate level of choice and immersion. This combination of single player RPGs and the online element doesn’t always go according to plan. The very idea that you, the player, are the most important character in the narrative only works well in isolation, not on a server full of hundreds of other players. This is especially true if they’ve all been told the same thing. If we take a quick look at the premise of DC Universe or City of Heroes we can see what I’m getting at. Want to be a super hero? Just log in, pick you powers and costume and then tu-dah, you’re just that (if only life were that simple). Whilst one spandex-clad man of steel is super, a couple of hundred is not. In fact the reality is, on a server full of players you’ll rarely feel more than painfully normal – at least as far as the over-all narrative is concerned.
I know not everyone plays MMOs for some soloist narrative pay-off, in fact I’d be willing to argue this is such a tiny part of what it means to play an MMO. But, if you’re going establish the player as some kind of God-among-men it is probably best that the game-systems helps to support this notion. Now I’m not suggesting that MMOs fail because of this, far from it – they often don’t fail at all. But I’d be willing to suggest that some narratives fail because they remain disconnected from the world the game is cultivating. As the Left 4 Dead series (not MMOs, but illustrative of my argument) demonstrated only too well, sometimes all you need is a compelling back story and an objective – the interactions between you and your fellow players can create a stronger and more memorable narrative than any dialogue or scripted event ever could. But leaving the emergent narrative to carry the player is a much, much harder thing to accomplish. Firstly, most game designers don’t have enough faith in themselves or the player-base to leave the narrative development to chance or exploration. Secondly, it is considerably harder to write a narrative which isn’t told, but rather, develops in organic ways as the player progresses.
This comes down to the old adage, “show, don’t tell”. A scripted event which sees a Duke cry “Look, the evil wizard who killed my father!” is considerably easier to write than the bread crumb trail of narrative fragments which would lead the player to the same conclusion. However, if the narrative cannot have a rigid and linear progression, anything less than showing the player is at best clumsy and at its worse, downright bad. Successful implementation of this relies on several factors; the game being designed to have narrative embedded within the gameplay – not some eleventh hour addition which has to be retrofitted; and the faith that the player will have the patience to progress even if he/she isn’t the centre of the game world.
Single player experiences of narrative are not broken, far from it – we are seeing the most promising examples from the most unlikely of places. Although, as the spheres of MMOs and social gaming are expanding we need to see something more than “traditional” gaming narrative. Something, which is able to make allowances for the many players on the stage, rather than being led by the one hero. The player (and developer) need to be content on operating in a community of relatively normal characters working together to do extraordinary things. The keys are fluidity, patience, the foresight to plan ahead and the ability to be flexible when the time comes.
Chris Green is a narrative designer/games writer who loves to talk story. Having recently finished working with Bossa Studios on Monstermind, the first PvP Facebook RTS and worked as narrative designer on some indie projects, he’s always looking for that next, great project. Get in contact if you’re the one with that project!
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