Narrative Choice Is A Boring Illusion In MMORPGs


There’s a notion that freedom to shape a game’s narrative is paramount to creating an immersive world. Players want to feel like they’re holding the pen: will I be good or evil? Will I slay the dragon or negotiate? Will I free the thief in the hope he becomes a better citizen of the Republic or turn him over to the commander, likely condemning him to death? Choices are desirable; or, at least, that’s the common consensus. But I don’t care about narrative choice. Scratch that, I don’t want choice at all: I don’t want the freedom to shape a game’s narrative.

I remember when The Old Republic first released, media outlets praised its quest system. “You have so many options to shape the fate of SWTOR’s citizens: you can choose between A, B, C. The story spins into wild new directions, consequences you can’t foresee. It’s so immersive.” Someone’s been hitting the LSD hard. The choices are tepid, the consequences predictable.

MMOs with narrative choice all walk down the same smothered path.

You’re given a choice between tired clichés, ones that fester into stories we’ve heard as children, stories about the differences between right and wrong, marked with blue and red text. Where’s the innovation? Where’s the moral ambiguity? Where’s the sense that I’m making a meaningful impact and not choosing which script I have to read from today?

In such worlds NPCs become playthings for my choices, impermanent fixtures with no presence as beings within a story. They wait for me to signal what their next step is: ripples from me skipping across the pond, making an indent upon the water for a moment before fading into stillness. I ought to be the reaction to their permanence—I am the foreigner—pulled along by a single-choice fate and dealing with consequences I cannot foresee, because people don’t know what their actions will bring. That’s more interesting.

My own life is full of uncertainty, with no understanding of what next month will look like or even tomorrow. I can’t possibly comprehend how my choice to eat toast on Tuesday butterflies into four flat tires on Monday. Even given omnipotence, my brain would crumble or be driven to madness. Will I have a happy ending? Will I meet my demise in terror? I have no idea. None of us do. That’s why I immerse myself in stories and games and music: to temporarily live in a world where god exists and she has a plan—one I only understand in hindsight.

Give me a story, a logical-entertaining story.

A game’s narrative is great when a storyteller fits the pieces of a puzzle into one neat picture. They control the variables, weave them into a consistent narrative where every story ties into the larger story (micro-narratives within meta-narratives). We don’t look at The Iliad, and say “boy, I sure wish Homer let us choose whether Achilles sailed away from Troy or stayed. That would have made it so much better!” Weave a story, not a loosely connected series of quests.

Because as of now the stories that center around an MMORPG—the ones people talk about—isn’t handed down by a narrative. The real story is the spontaneous interactions between players: an emergent narrative. Do I attack this player? Do I trade my stock of lumber? Do I fish here or by the lake? These seemingly innocuous decisions could blossom into a friendship or plant the seeds of a rivalry. You don’t know.

Look at EVE Online, where some players spend years infiltrating a player-run corporation to sabotage and steal. Now that’s a story brimming with choices, choices that inspire two 17 year olds eating pizza to start playing. Let choice be an exclusive part of the emergent narrative, not the story.

MMORPG narratives suck because they're a disconnected series of independent adventures, with no overarching consequences.

So give me mechanics that let me engage with players in interesting ways and the story will write itself. And give me a narrative that compels me to keep playing, that turns me into a puppet eager to dance to your strings. I happily will, so long as it's engaging, so long as it makes sense: a rare triumph in MMORPGs.

From Mega Man II to Ape Escape, I've been playing games for as long as I can remember. I've spent months killing porings in Ragnarok Online and more recently lived a second life in Eve Online. I usually play as gUMBY, gUMBLEoni, or gUMBLes in-game.