Storytelling in MMORPGs wasn't a big priority back in the early days. Years ago, the massive-multiplayer aspect and scale were so refreshing and exciting that a thinly-laced story was enough to get people on board. Sure, the worlds within them were intriguing enough, with histories across those landscapes that made sense, but there was never a deliberate plan to put storytelling first. Multiplayer content has always been king. But now that MMORPGs have lost that dewy-eyed newness to them, fans of the genre want more to latch on to, one being better stories that actually matter to the player.
How Storytelling In MMORPGs Look Today
MMORPGs are generally immersive experiences with interesting lore bits and cool characters that players can understand. But in most of them, there is no real direction or importance that your character serves outside of being one of the many disaster reliefs when a new threat appears. Being designated as a problem-solver is usually the caveat of MMORPG storytelling. Before long, any decision-making gets sapped out of the story because MMORPGs have objective-based narratives that scoot players along to the next event.
Titles like Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIV follow this motif but proves that players care about the story, especially when their character is in the center of it. For such a long time, MMORPGs have ingrained in players that they are "one of many" challengers sharing a world with others.
FFXIV does involve everyone as well, but in a way that it makes canonical sense to your personal journey as the Warrior of Light. Being the center of all the storytelling, whether it's history that came before or something you have yet to face, there's a deep level of attachment that developers can tap into there because people love the idea that their character is genuinely participating in a grand adventure.
But What Is Storytelling In MMORPGs?
From the very beginning, the character you make or the first quest you pick up begins the storytelling process for MMORPGs. Within the environments you traverse, the classes you play, or NPCs you run into, the game's design is part of a larger scenario, which tells the tale of your character and their place within this new world. "Adventurer," "Champion," and "Hero" are some titles we know well and what become our purpose in the world. But rarely does it mean much to us when we're lopping off heads in a dungeon or getting rich from selling mats we grinded for hours.
Generally, most games try to nail the importance of those titles within the opening hours with some in-game action cutscenes or a drawn-out lore bomb from a quest chain that hopes to draw players in. And for me, from a design standpoint, it falls by the wayside pretty fast because you're always progressing past where you started, so it becomes irrelevant unless it makes a lasting impression on you.
But what's ironic is that even in FFXIV: A Realm Reborn's supposed meandering beginning, which mixes those tropes, it never felt like the beginning hours of my journey were irrelevant. Part of it was because of the cinematic appeal of the game, designed to capture characters emoting at each other with varied expressions in cutscenes. And the simple fact that those characters acknowledged me. With my character being the center of attention in everything I do, it felt like I had a stake in how everything goes down, which even flowed into getting my first Chocobo mount and earning recognition from familiar NPCs I've helped in Eorzea.
Activision Blizzard's World of Warcraft does this differently. You're the new guy at the outset of fame, fortune, and thrilling adventure, and no one acknowledges you until you make something of yourself. That type of beginning comes off gamified because you'll become more focused on getting to the end-game where you know you'll be "somebody" to the characters in the story. No matter how many tweaks or changes WoW's beginning experience would receive, the meat of the game has always been the latter parts of its current expansion.
How Can Developers Change How They Design Storytelling in MMORPGs?
From developing the base of storytelling in FFXIV with a single-player perspective, the multiplayer aspect was able to filter in the areas that make it an MMORPG. Developers should take note of this design philosophy if they want to make narrative-heavy stories.
Because as a player in most MMORPGs, participating in content that has massive stakes creates urgency and seems to make your input relevant, but after the fact, you go back to being the bystander/errand person until the next event. Developers need to move past this. They would have a better game and narrative if development prioritized nailing the single-player experience, with multiplayer content being a separate branch. Then, overcoming those adversaries wouldn't feel so game-y.
If storytelling can't be one of the main focuses, there needs to be a balanced and continually robust story that revolves around the character. WoW tried to yank its players into Shadowlands' story, but it fell flat because there were no big stakes for players' characters if the big bad erased the world. But in FFXIV, players spend time building relationships and solving issues that, in turn, mean a lot when the main scenario threatens to destroy it all. That's a story I can get behind.
About the Author
Anthony Jones is a gaming journalist and late 90s kid in love with retro games and the evolution of modern gaming. He started at Mega Visions as a news reporter covering the latest announcements, rumors, and fan-made projects. FFXIV has his heart in the MMORPGs scene, but he's always excited to analyze and lose hours to ambitious and ambiguous MMOs that gamers follow.
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