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.