Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Environmental Storytelling

You've heard of the term "MMO tourist."  Commonly, that means players who are taking a break from WoW to play another MMO just to see what it's like, with no intention of staying for the long term.  However, I was struck by the fact that the way that MMOs tell stories very often puts the player character in the role of an actual tourist, a passive observer seeing the sights rather than an active participant in the dynamic events of the game world.

The player is brought onto the scene not for the initial battle, and the opening exchange of blows, but after the story has well advanced; when the sha-taint has already blackened the ground, the corpses of the villagers are already scattered among the buildings, the enraged yaungol already in residence.  More concretely, most of the action -- 90% or more of the actual story -- has already taken place and you are brought in for the last 10%. 

Then, by showing you clues in the setting, through the artwork, the npcs and the ruined buildings, the game allows the player the chance to piece together these clues like a detective and construct an image of what has taken place.  Developers sometimes refer to this as "environmental storytelling" because the outline of the story is conveyed to you through static elements in the environment.

Here's the problem with environmental storytelling, which tends to be especially heavily used in MMOs:  most environmental storytelling is backward looking.  As you investigate the game space, you learn what's already happened.  But of course if it has already happened, there's no opportunity for the player to influence the outcome of the story.

In Medias Res

Much of this is due to the benefits of the storytelling device known as "in medias res"  or "in the middle of things."  This device throws the player into the middle of the action, and allows us to avoid a lot of tedious backstory, and pages of explication before we can get to the good parts.  The underlying assumption is that the "good parts" are the ones with a lot of combat.  Because that is why people play Warcraft, to make war on something.

But if the good parts are exploration, colonization, and forging a new destiny, then our medias res is actually working against us.  It's the difference between taking the first steps across a pristine blanket of new-fallen snow, and setting out at mid-morning when people have left tracks everywhere. 

You place the first exploratory foot on the new continent and claim it in the name of the Alliance, only to find that a town of goblins is set up just down the road, and there's an inn, and farm fields, and Molly the milkmaid wants a bit of help keeping the kittens out of the creamery.

Another reason for this style in MMOs is that players need something to do;  they're looking for the quest markers that indicate xp and loot rewards.  The assumption here is that players need to be led; they need to be given explicit instructions. It's easier to follow someone else's tracks than to forge your own, but it's less satisfying.

Agency and the Protagonist

This emphasis on environmental storytelling tends to take away the immediacy of the individual actions of the character.  To use an awkward phrase, it tends to de-protagonize the character or remove its agency.  To de-protagonize a character means to remove its role or status as the protagonist - the individual causing change in the story, the chief actor, the character driving the story forward.  When most of the story is told in retrospect - looking backward on what has already happened - there is nothing for the player character to do but learn and react.  This often gives the player the passive role of an observer.

Agency is the ability of the character to act in a meaningful way.  Characters become agents of change in the story's setting, shaking up the status quo.  To remove their agency means to minimize their ability to have a meaningful effect on their environment.  Yes, the player can enter the struggle between the yaungol and the pandaren outside Binan Village, but the player arrives to find the battle well underway and eventually leaves with the fight still ongoing in exactly the same situation as when they arrived.  Any agency that the player's character has in this situation is conveyed solely by the dialogue of the NPCs.

The problem with in medias res in MMOs is that stories that start this way tend to also finish this way.  Players tend to leave in the middle of things as well;  "We'll just wrap things up from here, you go on" the NPCs tell the player.  Or, "Well, even though you can't see it, the tide of the battle has definitely turned.  Your actions were instrumental to our eventual success, even though the situation looks identical to when you arrived."   From the perspective of the Story, the narrative lacks resolution.

Phasing and Dungeons

A recent solution is to use phasing to reflect the changing situation of the environment.  In Zouchin Village, the scenario is almost identical to that of Binan.  The enemy (trolls in this case) are already attacking, but as the player completes each quest milestone, the type of mobs present, the position of the mobs and their animation all change.  This goes a lot further to conveying that the player character's actions are having an effect on their environment.  By changing, the environment is helping to tell the story.

The reason we can do this in Zouchin and not Binan is that Zouchin is relatively isolated with one major entrance point, whereas Binan is the major gateway to the entire zone with dozens of players passing through there at the same time.  When you have two players in the same location but in different phases, normally they can't even see each other.  Or they might see different things while looking in the same direction: one sees burning houses and attacking enemies, while the other sees no mobs at all and cannot even see who is fighting and damaging their companion.  Used incorrectly, phasing shatters the illusion of a consistent gameworld, the one illusion that an MMO can not afford to compromise.

One of the great appeals of instanced content is that it can reflect the change that the protagonists create. Dungeons cast the players as the protagonists, taking a static setting and shaking it up by working through it and eliminating the major bosses, clearing the regular mobs.  When the players are finished with an instance, it is a far different place from the one they found when they arrived. 

Of course, that change is temporary, and lasts only until the instance is reset, but during the time that you're there, you are truly the protagonists of the story, the chief actors, with the villains set in their antagonist roles, opposing your action.  For that brief moment, everything fits into its expected places.  It is a perfectly encapsulated story.


  1. Nuts to environmental storytelling! We are not Prince Humperdink shuffling back and forth through the footprints and saying, "There was a mighty duel!" Environment is NOT story and it surely isn't back story. What it is, is lazy and sloppy -- choosing to foreground the creativity of the visual artist because the writer lacks imagination. I'm all for beautiful backgrounds but they are no substitute for characters, conflict, development, action and crisis. Down with "environmental storytelling"!

  2. Ok, underplaying it a bit, you must admit. The fragments of story offered in most RPGs don't just lack resolution, they are specifically designed to completely invalidate the possibility of resolution. They don't just remain the same no matter what effort player characters exert, they are defined by stasis. Nothing changes and nothing CAN change.

    Until, that is, a major expansion (like Cataclysm) which works like Christmas morning -- the player logs in and sees that everything has changed while she slept & someone has filled her sock with goodies. Am I the only one who wanted to be in Azeroth DURING the cataclysm? Maybe in the Barrens when the earthquake splits it?

    Even when you phase through a story line and can see the changes you helped create there is a cold impersonality to it. I watched a podcast lauding the recent GTA offering with a comment something like, "when you spend a lot of time on your car's paint job, random NPC strangers will comment on how nice your car looks."

    This was celebrating the game's attention to realistic detail & follow-through. I'm not a GTA fan by any means but I was impressed by that idea. I love the thought of returning to the scene of a battle I helped win and seeing the rebuilding phase going on, but how about taking it further?

    How about meeting an NPC that you knew during that battle who recognizes you? How about going into your hometown as a character near level-cap and have the NPCs at the next table whisper to each other that you are that great warrior everyone tells stories about? How about returning to a lower level zone and finding some of the people you helped when you were first working your way through now settled down with farms and families, happy to invite you to dinner and have you meet the kids?

  3. I can't agree about the instances. They are changed by the players presence and actions but not as the result of a story. The instance location changes in the way a cupboard changes when it is cleaned: full to empty. Even when the final boss falls and everyone turns to run back out, they run through empty rooms. Here is the perfect opportunity for powerful story and a glimpse of actual change that is going begging.

    After all, there is usually a reason for the raid or instance that can be paid off at the end. Did you go into a haunted castle to free the princess, slaughtering ghosts and ghouls on your way to her tower? The fall of the final boss is an excellent opportunity for a cut scene or dialogue event, but the run back out of the castle is an even better opportunity to see the castle restored to it's pre-haunted glory!