I’d say that Myst Online proved how compelling immersing oneself in the story of another, and walking in the footsteps of people who had existed prior, created by the creators, could be. And then, at the same time, it proved that it wasn’t for everyone, because not everyone wanted a story. How important stories are to you is dependent on you history of gaming and the games you enjoy.
I think that instant gratification, endless action, and even total freedom can get in the way of a good story. Now why did I mention that last one? If you look at Freelancer, it felt open, but yet it was a linear path through that Universe, and I was eaten alive by it until it ended whereas EvE didn’t keep me for very long. (I’m sorry!) The reason? People might believe it to be true, but the average person, especially the sort of average person that plays an online game, is not more creative than a writer. A writer is someone who weaves <i>worlds</i>, they breathe, and realities are born, in their brightly lit minds, lives and stories are continually playing out, and like an old storyteller in front of the fireplace, they share these gems with us, and we are rapt by their boundless creativity, and mesmerised by their ideas, whilst seeing at the same time that the greatest of people, all of them, rest on the brink of insanity, a place that most can and will never go.
This is why I tend to think of stories as important, but I also believe that emergent gameplay is too, so if you can somehow mix the two, then you’ve got something special on your hands. The last game I saw to do that well was New Vegas, it had bugs that resulted in cases of gloriously batshit WTF, brilliant, amazing things that made us laugh, cock an eyebrow in muted surprise. But what happens if you take away the tyranny of the writer from New Vegas and offer total freedom? The 5% chance that something interesting will happen in all the time you’re wandering around the wastes, instead of having a really unique encounter scripted by a writer, just waiting for you to trigger it, you’re instead hoping for a bunch of random elements to pull together in order to provide you with some entertainment. And I don’t think that a game can subsist on that if intrigue is even mildly important to you.
I’m the sort of person who gets bored easily, because on a daily basis my brain cranks out the sort of wild shit that makes Dragon Age look like a dull eyed spud of a child. You know that kid’s never going to go anywhere, they have no potential to tap. And this is why I think a story, a setting, and characters are indeed a bit important. They provide potential. Potential being the magical unobtainium that every game truly needs. And it doesn’t take a lot to craft a memorable character, even VVVVVV managed to do it in a few cutscenes. But they have to be there. You need to have an understanding about the world, the setting and your place in it. Because once you have that, your potential and that of the world opens up. You know this has happened, you know that might happen, and from this point your own mind begins expecting scenarios.
Another element of this is that it’s impossible for proper storytelling to happen in a game like UO, or EvE, or Minecraft, because you can’t trigger surprise from a person – perhaps delight, you can make them happy, but it’s difficult to really surprise them, to challenge them, to introduce them to scenarios where perhaps they might find themselves slightly out of control. I’d love to see something like STO’s The Foundry come to Minecraft for this reason, so that you could script events that would occur whenever someone was fortunate or unfortunate enough to step across them. It’d turn just another jaunt through wood #2,793 to “Uh… three screaming people and a bouncing ball just shot off to my left… I’m curious, I should follow and see what all that is about.” And then you give the player space, a multitude of ways to complete the mission and even leave it open, so that they can cheese their way through it or break it a bit.
A great example of story melded with emergent gameplay is actually Giants – Citizen Kabuto. This game I loved dearly and if you haven’t played it then do yourself a favour and go and grab it. Each mission happened on a rather large map, and there were countless ways to get something done. And yes, you could even cheese it if you wanted to. The developers didn’t put up barriers to tell you that, no, you couldn’t do that, you couldn’t go about that that way, that was impossible, that didn’t happen. In that way it’s actually so much better than the Gamebryo games at this sort of thing. On one level I was given this shrub to hide in to rescue someone. I completed the level without using the shrub and without killing anyone. No, I’m not telling you how, go and figure it out yourself, and then revel in the story that follows.
So I think that the best games sort of sit somewhere between purely linearity and and a completely open world with total freedom. Linear events that happen in a freeform world, then. To say it: Ultima VII. And Ultima VII was better than Ultima Online. Can we agree on that? I thought it was. In U7 you could go whatever you want, do whatever you wanted, but sometimes you’d be stopped by some scripted thing, or you’d get involved in a story chunk in a town somewhere. You’d help each town solve their problems and then you’d move on. There’s that magical space between freeform and storytelling that some games get so right, and yes, Ultima VII is another example. And things placed by a storyteller can make all the difference. Even a Kilrathi ship out in the middle of a farmer’s field that triggers the Wing Commander music when you walk past it. Those moments of brilliance that <i>require</i> a writer.
The same thing happened in Uru – Myst Online. You’d find a machine that was placed there by a writer, sometimes it was a puzzle, sometimes it was just there to surprise you, and sometimes it’d shock you by stealing you away and strapping a skin tight suit to you, these things would happen as you were exploring. And in Uru, you were given options to explore and how to do it. It was slightly more in the linear direction than other examples, but it still had that magic to it, that felt that you were taking your own path, walking through the mind of a writer. And that’s what the best games feel like. If you feel that you’re doing your own things whilst walking through the mind of a particularly brilliant writer, then the game has succeeded, at least from your personal perspective, and that’s all that really matters.
This is the direction that I think games and especially RPGs and MMORPGs need to go in. By taking the best of both worlds – allowing players to explore, but crushing them with the occasional boulder in the middle of a dungeon if they ignore all the warnings and happen to press the wrong button. The sort of thing that, again, can’t happen in Minecraft but should, whereas Minecraft could never be totally linear. Just imagine that – if when generating a Minecraft map, you could have ‘story chunks’ which could appear anywhere. The writer could specify that they happen at ground level, in the sky, or underground. You could be digging underground and you could discover an ancient, sunken temple, crafted entirely by the hands f someone else. You could be swimming through the sea and find an old, abandoned sea dome, built by a race long gone, now crawling with creepers.
And I’ll wrap up by once again pointing at Guild Wars 2 and saying that they got it right. No quests, no limitations in where you can go, and chunks of story that happen as you’re wandering the world. You can wander it, and sometimes, rather than just grinding mob X, you’ll actually have someone run up to you and tell you in worried tones that they think someone is about to attack their village. You could choose to help them or remain where you are. Sometimes your character might even be kidnapped! And you’d have to find your way out of a prison. That sort of thing. It only makes for a more believable world and adds the sort of things to it that players can’t really do by themselves. Writers and scripting can take a dead world and bring it completely to life. What we want to be doing is trying to marry the best aspects of both into one, glorious game. And again I’ll mention having a mission creator for Minecraft that spams approved player missions into generated maps. Are you listening, Notch?
And that’s all that I have to say about that. I apologise for this post being so long. I hope it was worth the read if you do read it.