Monday, April 13, 2009

One-Track Storytelling Versus the Imagination

It was a busy off-line weekend, but my wife and I finally found the time to watch the last two episodes of Veronica Mars. The show's first season is possibly our all-time favorite from anywhere in television, but it proved a tough act to follow. We lost track of the show during its months-long 3rd season hiatus, during which time the CW network slashed the remaining number of episodes and ultimately canceled the show. A drama which had spent its entire run dealing with multi-episode mysteries was left to tie up loose ends with a series of stand-alone episodes, that had been filmed without knowledge of whether the show would be renewed.

We bought the DVD's over a year ago, but still didn't get around to watching the final episodes until now. I certainly could claim to have been busy - this was technically very true - but the truth is that I did not WANT to see those final episodes. Before this weekend, the story may have ended any way that I might have imagined or wanted it to. Now I know exactly how it ended (or, in part, didn't fully end, because they were leaving the door open for a new season that never happened), and that ending is up against any and every idea I could ever have had for how to conclude the show's run. It's very hard for the real thing to be anything but a disappointment; Rob Thomas literally had to do a better job at satisfying me than my own imagination.

Storytelling in online games
Online games have additional storytelling challenges that non-interactive stories do not. The very idea of an advancing storyline stands at odds with a persistent online world, in which one player has already unmasked the King's adviser as a traitor, while another still needs the traitor standing in the throne room for quests. Beyond these technical hurdles (which games are attempting to tackle with technology, such as instancing or Wrath's new "phasing"), though, games face the same sorts of challenges.

Many players have invested even more time in the characters and worlds of an MMORPG than they have in your average TV show. I can't imagine many players out there who really thought that what WoW needed for the grand finale to the Burning Crusade expansion was for a bunch of NPC's from a book that most players have never read to come and save the day, but that is apparently what Blizzard thought the lore of that particular encounter needed. In the context of a world that is not yet ready for ordinary players to be besting the likes of Kil'Jaeden in a fair fight, perhaps they were right.

The issue, in the long term, is how long that particular type of tactic works. How many Old Gods, Dragon Aspects, and greater Eredar can the heroes really beat because of some gimmick, or because they had the good fortune of arriving too soon (foolish Executus), before the feeling that you're in what Spinks calls a railroaded plot?

Perhaps these questions are only side issues. Many of us are playing for the underlying games, or the company, more than the storytelling. Still, the story isn't pointless - sometimes it's even the main selling point for a game - and it's an area where games could really use some innovation in the future.

1 comment:

Klepsacovic said...

I couple days ago I was discussing WoW with my brother. He doesn't play, but he did play WC3 and Diablo, so he has some idea of what I'm talking about. It seems he has a similar perspective as me, that games are interactive stories. For us, the game should be fun, but if the story is bad, what's the point?

For railroading, I think you're looking at too narrow of a set. We've taken down powerful beings without gimmicks. Onyxia and Nefarian were not gimmicks, they were us being awesome. Hakkar wasn't insignificant and we took him down with careful strategy, weakening him before the final showdown. Again, that's us being awesome.

Many raids have gimmicks, but then again, we are taking on the biggest of the baddest. We already have far more people than normal. Are we the greatest heroes ever? Not exactly. We're like the strongest created units in WC3 supporting the hero.

Maybe the problem isn't the gimmicks but the inconsistency. One raid we're grouping up to take down a powerful dragon by our own power. The one before that we're taking down an elemental lord because he's just in a weakened state (or we woke him up early).

Maybe that's inevitable. It makes sense for us to take on progressively more powerful beings, but if we went in a perfectly linear fashion we'd be taking down Sargeras far too soon and then what's left? I suppose the Legion is still left without him, but it's like dealing with some zerglings after we just took out a cerebrate.