Thursday, February 17, 2011

Can emergent storytelling happen in a world defined by mechanics?

This post over at Stabbed Up and this one over at Tish Tosh Tesh got me thinking about something: when I play MMOs I almost never roleplay. At least not actively. When I'm presented with a choice during a quest line (a very rare occurrence in most MMOs), I'll try to do what I think my character would do. I'll also gravitate towards quest lines that I think my character would care about. However, I never really actively roleplay. In fact, more often then not my decisions about character development and choice of in-game activity focus more on what will make my character more powerful than anything else.

This is a bit odd, because when I used to play Pen and Paper RPGs (D&D, AD&D, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Marvel Superheroes, GURPs, Vampire the Masquerade, and others yet more obscure), my character concept was what primarily mattered to me. I would have an idea for the kind of character I wanted to bring to life, their personality and goals, and then I would do my best to instantiate that character within whatever game I was playing. I would create characters that I thought would have interesting stories emerge around them as I played them:

- a megalomaniacal alien space captain with delusions of grandeur
- a gentle historian that primarily wanted to be left to his research, but got caught up in the political machinations of the vampire clans despite himself
- a simple minded but good hearted barbarian always trying to figure out how do right despite his mental limitations
- a hardened cybernetic killer for hire
- a broken hearted minstrel trying desperately to atone for the atrocities committed by the beast that lurks inside him
- a crazy old man, distanced from the world by his slowly worsening senility as much as by his powerful magical abilities

And so on and so forth. These were not characters I could describe as easily as "Gnome fire mage," and their motivations were far more complex than mine are when I play the average MMO: get more butch, get better stuff, get together a nice looking outfit, ...maybe decorate my house?

I think the reason for the difference in my approach is that the mechanics of MMOs are too restrictive to get me to invest in anything but a broad mental outline of my character's personality. In a Pen and Paper RPG, your first thought in any situation is "What should I do?" or "What would my character do?" In a MMO, your first thought is "What can I do given the mechanics of the game I'm playing and the abilities of my character?" It's a very different approach to playing a character, and pretty stifling.

A really simple example to illustrate this: In an article that Stabbs linked, a book author mentions a PnP session where, when attacked by wolves, his character climbed a tree to escape and threw pine cones down at the wolves. Despite the fact that that the game likely had no set mechanics for climbing trees and throwing pine cones (the GM may have asked for some dexterity checks and to hit rolls I suppose), it seems like a perfectly natural thing to do. In a PnP game the entire game world exists largely in the heads of everyone sitting around the table, so any action you describe can be attempted and becomes a natural part of the ongoing narrative.

In MMOs, I feel like we have lost most of the potential for "emergent narratives" because our vocabulary is so small. If you get attacked by a wolf, you aren't going to be able to get away by climbing a tree unless your MMO has specific tree climbing mechanics built in. Typing "/em climbs a large tree" isn't going save you. In MMOs, I feel like we have retained the parts of PnP RPGs that we used to have a lot of mechanics for, mainly character development and combat, and completely lost access to everything we didn't have set rules for. The stories than can emerge from our actions are much diminished, because the actions we can take are so sparse.

Sandbox MMOs try to give us more freedom to create narratives, but the way they go about it often seems counterproductive. Many do it by giving us more mechanics rather than more flexible ones. Those piles of extra mechanics do indeed give us more stuff we can do. But often the mechanics become so complex and varied that just learning to navigate them is a challenge in of itself. Further, even in sandboxes, you tend to end up defined more by what you do and can do than what persona you are trying to give life to. "I spent my time in SWG as an entertainer" or "I run a fast ship with strong stealth abilities" or even "I made the best weapons on my server" isn't really a huge narrative improvement over "I'm a fire mage" honestly.

We do hear about interesting narratives emerging from MMOs occasionally. For example, power shifts and betrayals in EVE. But those remain exceptions, making news because such events are so rare in our hobby. As great as some writers are at making stories of their MMO exploits entertaining, and I do enjoy a well written "What I did over the weekend" blog post, the narratives we experience in MMOs aren't any where near as varied as what I experienced in my time playing PnP RPGs. As long as MMOs remain games where your actions are limited by what developers have chosen to enable, how could they possibly provide a similar wealth of narrative possibilities? Will I ever be able to seduce the daughter of a mayor and use that influence to gradually become the despot of a small town? Will I ever be able to found a cult and try to spread the influence of my perverse god throughout a kingdom? Will I ever be able to make a living by breaking into the houses of rich NPC merchants and fencing my stolen goods? Will I ever even be able to escape from a wolf by climbing a tree? Probably not.

Not to sound completely glum, but I suspect something along the lines of Minecraft but more of a true MMO or something along the lines of EVE but with a less obtuse UI and a faster pace is about the best we are ever going to be able to hope for. I do realize that there are groups devoted to roleplaying in most MMOs. But honestly, in most cases that comes down to roleplaying despite your environment rather than because of it. It's LARPing in a cartoon world. As much as I love this hobby, I think MMOs are always going to be limited as tools for creating emergent multi-player narratives because they are delimited by their mechanics.


  1. This makes me think that in a sense, all the video games we play today including the ones that allow a tad more freedom or choice are still essentially "on rails" because we are limited by the mechanics. I think it's more of a technology thing more than an MMO thing. Maybe someday our technology will be able to accommodate all that you talked about, letting us act out in actual virtual worlds in whatever manner we please. Until then though, it makes me smile to see that some people still play out their characters and their personalities, motivations and stories in the form of RP in public areas. Right now I guess we can only make do with emotes :P

  2. I think you are right about that. I suspect, the freedom offered by the even broadest sandbox doesn't mean a lot more to an average player than something more "themepark" that has a lot of RP systems like LoTRO or EQ II. And yeah, I get a smile out of that too, even if it's not my cup of tea . . . a few isolated drunken incidents excepted... ;-)

  3. I think there's hope.

    Regarding rp in games the problem I've found is that most people (and me, certainly) need to bounce off other roleplayers in a virtuous circle for it to be any fun.

    If I say "Greetings, Warrior, have you come to serve the Horde?" and iwillhumpurmom says "lol r u some kind of nerd?" it's VERY hard to stay immersed. One can of course do it by cliquing off but that's pretty unappealing to. We're the weird roleplaying nerds who take our orcs off into the back woods of Azshara and do incomprehensible things.

    The next point is that, as you say, the vocabulary is so limited. RP in mmos tends to manifest as chat. When I played D&D, Runequest, Vampire, what was interesting wasn't the chat but the situations and they revolved around the action and the gameplay. It was very cool when one of the vampires I was with smuggled a gun into a nightclub by the icky method of shoving it up his ribcage. By comparison sitting around in a MMO with a bunch of RPers watching someone type some in-character speech is like watching paint try.

    MMOgamerchick is right in that technology will extend the vocabulary and make the creation of interesting stories possible. Imagine if there were an accretive MMO engine where you could try things like throwing pine cones at wolves and rather than instantly failing because the program doesn't recognise the action it gives you a standard small chance of success for any unknown action while flagging it for cataloguing in a growing database of possible actions.

    But until technology changes the disconnect between the player's stories and the gameplay is too great. For instance I had a face-off with a RPer I rather disliked. I challenged him to a duel, /mocked him, /roared then wrote up the encounter on the forums in a provocative way. He continued the story with something completely made up about how rubbish we were. It's how rp in mmos works - like a story where each player tells a little then the next player improvises the next bit. That doesn't mesh with confrontational gameplay.

  4. "If I say "Greetings, Warrior, have you come to serve the Horde?" and iwillhumpurmom says "lol r u some kind of nerd?" it's VERY hard to stay immersed."

    I got a giggle out of that. Great points, there are a lot of reasons why RPing doesn't work well in modern MMOs besides limited vocabulary. It will be interesting to see what opportunities technology creates in the future. Some futurists think we'll hit singularity in about 25 years, surely an MMO that let's you climb a tree and throw pine cones can't be that far off.

  5. Mechanics define a game, especially a computer game, but people define the RP aspects. There were plenty of munchkin numberwonks in tabletop RPGs, too.

    So... yeah, mechanics are a significant limitation, but I think players are the bigger factor. Then again, if all you *can* do in a game is role play, that sort of changes the tone, too.