[MUD-Dev] RE: Storied Games

Paul Schwanz paul.schwanz at east.sun.com
Mon Nov 26 15:15:40 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001

Lee Sheldon wrote:
> From: Dave Rickey

>> People don't want the games to tell them stories, they want them
>> to be stories.

> And since we've never had a single valid professional attempt at a
> "storied" game, then this is of course the obvious conclusion.

Is it much easier for a professional writer to understand the nature
of games than it is for a professional game developer to understand
the nature of writing?  Or are you saying that something like
Asheron's Call is not a valid professional attempt at a "storied"
game because they don't have paid writers on staff?

Personally, I don't think the lack of story in MMO's can be passed
off as simply a staffing issue.  Interactivity itself has some
characteristics that make it antithetical to being *told* a story.
It is not simply that the stories are often poor, but that having a
story told to a player is an imposition on that player's
interactivity. Certainly both can exist together in the same MMO,
but when the story *telling* begins, the interaction stops.  The
question is not whether players like stories.  They do.  The
question is whether or not they like to stop interacting in the
game.  I think that in many cases, they would rather not suffer
interruptions to their interaction.

> The MMO industry (what's left of it) wants it to be true.  The MMO
> industry (what's left of it) needs it to be true.  Because the MMO
> industry (what's left of it) doesn't know how to deliver anything
> else.  Maybe SW:G will will be the first.  Sims Online sure won't.
> But one of these days an attempt at a real "storied" game will be
> made by a crew with a somewhat less insular vision, shall we say,
> and it will leave all the others in the dust.

Apparently, the MMO industry is not alone in its inability to
deliver a "storied" game.  So far, that "crew with a somewhat less
insular vision" has failed to produce as well.  This, despite the
guarantee that it will leave all the others in the dust. And when
this crew does show, won't it then be part of the MMO industry
(what's left of it)?

>> They want it so badly, they're willing to forgive the brain-dead
>> AI and artifical rules, because even if the story that is their
>> play of the game is boring and repetitive, it's *theirs*.

> Man, oh man, when you can point to an online game that has 1/100th
> the audience of Titantic because so many people want to tell their
> own stories, you will have some right to make a statement this
> self-serving and misguided.  The numbers don't support the thesis.
> The history of our culture does not support the thesis.  The
> psychological makeup of human beings does not support the thesis.
> But throw that all out the window, and continue to insist that
> people want to tell their own stories, and THEREFORE we shouldn't
> try to tell them any of our own.  One does not preclude the other!

People do love to tell stories, but not all play games because they
want to tell their own stories.  Many play games because they want
interaction.  They love stories so much that they often reshape
their interaction into stories.  People love to have stories told to
them, but not all play games because they want to have stories told
to them.  Many play games because they want interaction.  The
success of Titantic may indicate that they love having stories told
to them even more than they love telling stories.  But as soon as
you start *telling* a game player the story of Titantic instead of
letting him make stories out of his interaction, you force him to
give up that interaction.  There is a certain authorial element to
interaction that puts the game player in competition with the

> The truth is so much simpler.  People LOVE to tell their own
> stories, AND they love to have stories told to them.
> AND. AND. AND.  For the first time in modern entertainment we have
> an industry with the theoretical capability to provide both in a
> single mass media product.  But it hasn't done it yet.  Apparently
> this industry hasn't the imagination to do it.  So it says it
> can't be done, and even worse, that the hundreds of millions of
> people who have responded to stories told to them over the
> centuries don't want it either.  It is to weep.

The issue is not that we are having difficulty imagining or even
building an environment in which players can tell stories and game
developers can also tell stories.  It is certainly possible to have
an environment that allows for multiple authors.  I've seen a
"story" written by dozens of authors with each contributing two or
three sentences.  The result was chaotic to say the least.  It is
also possible to have each author contribute her own short story
into a sort of compilation.  While each individual story will likely
be better, they will still be disjointed as a whole.  But the issue
is really that the strength of gaming lies in its interactive
qualities, and I believe that interaction can be very resistant to
interruptions or direct interventions such as an outside source
imposing authorial will.  Certainly good interruptions are more
likely to be tolerated than bad ones, but they are still
interruptions in the interactive nature of the game.

I see three approaches to telling stories in MMO's.

The sandbox approach.  Here, the stories are totally up to the
players. The developer may help facilitate player storytelling by
providing in-game medium and forums for such, but when it comes to
the stories themselves, they take a hands-off approach.  Interaction
will typically by the main focus, which is fortunate since the sort
of stories that arise from this environment may leave a lot to be
desired. The problem is not only that the storytellers are amateurs,
but also that what they are trying to tell (whether deliberately or
simply through interaction) can be quite disjointed or even at odds
with other stories being told. For instance, the story about an
adventurer out to slay a dragon may run afoul of the story about a
thug who waylays unsuspecting travellers.  (A typical solution to
this is to not let anyone tell any stories about anything which
might unduly influence another player's story.) In any case, the
sandbox approach to storytelling suffers from a lack of continuity
or an overall theme to provide context and structure to the myriad
voices.  The result is often something like what one would hear from
a choir in which each member is singing a different song.  But since
the focus isn't really on the story and the developer has
(hopefully) done well with the interactive portion of the game, no
one seems to mind too much.

The data-intensive approach.  Here, the developer *tells* a story to
the players.  The emphasis is strongly on the authorial will of the
developer.  The players lose much of their ability to interact with
or influence the resulting story.  In many cases, the players seem
prone to ignore the story and return to their interaction.  While
this may be in large part a result of poor writing, it remains to be
seen whether players are interested in being pulled away from their
interaction at all.  Personally, I tend to ignore text in MMO's.  I
skim for pertinent information and mentally discard the rest.  I'm
not sure that better written text would have much impact on this
predisposition. If a story is to pull me in without making me feel
like I'm leaving the game behind, I suspect it will do so by using
in-game graphics as opposed to text.  (Obviously, I'm talking about
graphical MMORPG's here.)  Still, even having graphics play out a
scene in which I cannot interact doesn't sound terribly compelling,
especially if I know that scene isn't really directed at me in any
way.  So the developer sings a solo part.  I didn't join the choir
to hear the developer sing solos, I joined the choir to sing.  If I
wanted to simply hear a solo, I'd be out in the audience...or off
someplace watching Titantic.  And really, there doesn't seem to be
much precluding the rest of the choir from drowning out the solo
with their own cacophony.  I still think it is quite possible to
spend a lot of resources creating a really good, professional story
that is subsequently ignored in an MMO in favor of interaction.

The process-intensive approach.  It seems to me that there may be a
middle ground between the above extremes.  Or maybe even lots of
middle grounds.  I believe that a developer can be very deliberate
about introducing theme, context, and structure in the form of
process.  In some cases, they can even introduce very specific data,
but still leave most of the story unfinished.  I've given examples
of this in recent postings.  The deliberate design of mining and
item creation to facilitate varied goals and quests is one example
of how process might be used to nudge players toward telling stories
(interacting) within this context.  You could also introduce
something like the One Ring with its nine companions as specific
data, but then let player interaction determine how the rest of the
story will read.  Here, instead of singing a specific solo part
(data-intensive), perhaps the director suggests a chord upon which
others can improvise (little data, mostly context or process).  I
suppose there still isn't much to keep choir members from heading
off on their own, but I think there is much less chance that the
effort will be ignored, since it still allows interaction to be

OK, it isn't the best analogy, but it is what comes to mind at the

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