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Meta-story: Doing Stories The Right Way
by Joao Beraldo on 11/28/09 02:12:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Developers, reporters and players alike have been talking about stories in MMOs. Big names are coming out to light saying they have the solution for this paradoxical dilemma. If the player is always special, how can every player be special in an MMO?

Since everyone has some answer to that, ranging from “they can’t” to some miraculous set of features, I come up with my own. 

Hi, I am João Marcelo Beraldo, novelist and currently the Lead Content Designer of the upcoming MMO Taikodom, and I'm here to tell you about meta-story.

What is meta-story?

So, does adding a fancy name before 'story' solves the problem? Well, it doesn't. But it serves to make a point on the difference between a game's story and the player's story. Allow me to  explain. 

I have found memories of the time when I led the Brazilian civilization to world domination in Call to Power 2, and how does pesky Australians had managed to survive for years hidden in underwater cities, as I had no technology to reach them. In X-Com: UFO Defense, how could I forget Rookie John Bryant, younger brother of hero Colonel Sigourney Bryant, as, on his first mission, he was the last man standing in what was supposed to be a simple recon mission, running back to the Skyranger, dragging two fallen soldiers as hordes of Chrysalis chased him. I actually made the soldier dialogues in my mind!

And what (other than showing my insanity) does mentioning all that does for game narrative? Call to Power has no story other than what both AI and player choice leads to. While X-Com has a rich story, what happens depends on some degree of randomness and a lot of player choice. 

What forms between the player experience and the gameplay is what I'm calling meta-story.

Am I implying a game does not need a story, but just a background story and player options? Not exactly. I love a good game story. Interactive narrative is an important thing for me, both as a player and as a designer and I've loved every second of story-driven games like KotOR, Neverwinter Nights and Mass Effect. What is important here is understanding that game story is not completely dependent on what the writer or designer created for the game. It depends on the tools given players by these guys. Which leads us to MMOs.

MMO Story

I have always felt there was something missing on MMOs: story. But wait a minute! Didn't I just say meta-story is what matters? Well, it is. But I also mentioned the need to give tools to the players so this meta-story be easily achievable.

Most MMOs are designed with a single-player concept of story. While there is often cooperative aspects (battlegrounds, raids, etc) or even competitive aspects (Realm vs Realm or, in the least, a fight to see who gets to collect items first), basic game concept is still too much trapped in the single-player experience. Nowadays, each MMOs has it’s own take on storytelling, each trapped (sometimes on purpose) to single-playerness. 

I remember a discussion a while back with a fellow game designer who defended the idea that the player had to feel special and, so, the tutorial had to enforce the concept of how the player was the best, the elite. Yes, everyone wants to be a hero (or a villain!) and that's what games are all about. But when you enter the MMO world, you must thread this path with some caution. How many players can be the chosen one, branded by the Gods, rescued as the slaver ship where he/she was trapped in sunk? And how important do you feel when you boast about how you've defeated a powerful super-villain trying to destroy the city just to hear half a dozen other heroes saying they did that thrice a month or so ago? At a excellent talk at GDC 2009, WoW's lead quest designer Jeffrey Kaplam said a powerful sentence which I later used several times during game development: “You are not writing a fucking book!”

While I believe Kaplan was mostly talking about the infamous walls of texts, I saw it in a different perspective. Aside from the fact that games are an interactive and visual media (which in itself affects greatly how a story is told), books are a linear experience centered on one or a few characters. And while many writers talk about how some characters become alive and lead the stories themselves (I know it happened often with me), its far from the same as having each of these characters (main, secondary or just extras) take them own actions and choose their own paths. 

Orson Scott Card wrote a novel series about character Andrew 'Ender' Wiggin. He is the hero, even if there are other important characters around him. Several years after the first book, Ender's Game, Scott Card wrote Ender's Shadow. It was basically the same story, the same moment, but told through the eyes of a secondary character, Bean.

Now, imagine if these series setting was an MMO. Ender is a player's character, but so is Bean. Both were heroes on their own accord, even if people who read Ender's side of the story never knew how much Bean was important to the whole plot. To Bean, he was a hero too and had his own adventure. What if Scott Card had also written books telling the perspective of other secondary characters? What new adventures might come out of the same story?

I love listening to players talk about their multiplayer experiences. At work there is the obligatory WoW players group who often talk excitedly about what happened in game. No, they are not talking about a particular quest's lore. While prizes must be given to Wraith of the Lich King's quests and cutscenes, at the end what stays on players' memories are player interactions. Yes, they mentioned how hard this one quest was or how cool it was to mount on a Red Drake to beat Malygos. But stories that remain are the ones about how they ganked some poor newbie, or how they ninjaed the raid's epic loot. In fact, one guy mentioned once he was grinding quests, delivering them all over when the game suddenly locked up. As he frantically hit Esc, he realized it was the beginning of a cutscene. He was not happy by that interruption.

And WoW is not the only one. It happens all over. There is the story of one time in Star Wars Galaxies, as imperial players led an assault against a rebel player base. Midway into the battle, Darth Vader himself (or at least a Game Master impersonating him) informed the imperials help was on the way. After the spawning of stormtroopers and rebel soldiers here and there, an AT-AT show up. It was the first time any of these players had seen an AT-AT in the game. The battle came to a stop for a few seconds as they looked at it, eyes wide, mouth agap. And, while this friend told me this story several times, never has he mentioned who won that battle. Really, it didn't matter.

There is, of course, the opposite direction. Staying completely away from the story aspect of the game and leaving players the job of creating it may be a worse sin, as many players end up feeling left out. Lets talk about Eve.

Eve's sandboxness is one of its greatest prizes. The game was designed to allow players to create not only their own stories, but to mold the game's overall story. Economy, wars, alliances. Everything is under the players' control.

But there is a problem to it: Eve has a rich backstory, with factions and elements that might give players a lot of tools to develop this fictional universe. But most of it is ignored by the majority of the player base because it serves them only to define ship and avatar looks. What of all these corporations, all these NPCs or the story behind the conflict between the four player races or the other NPC ones?

CCP made an interesting move as they created the militia concept on their Empyrian Age expansion. In a way, it gave reason for story-driven conflict. But it is still a very small part of it. Meanwhile, many new players enter the game just to hit a hard wall, where they feel left alone, invading someone else game. After all, what chance do you have threading your own path in a game where huge alliances already control the universe? While player-created story is a big part of what Eve is (and it keeps hitting the news on bank fraud, treason and such), it is still not something for everyone. I wonder if this is the reason why CCP has been investing on creating more story-driven quests for Eve.

So, is it possible to reach a middle ground on MMO narrative?

Next Generation MMOs?

As I said earlier, many companies have announced the solution to MMO stories. SW:tOR, Secret World, Heroes of Tellara and many others promises to go one step further and really bring stories into the world of MMOs.

But how many of these next generation MMOs really look into the matter in the right perspective? How much of these efforts will really take into mind the fact that MMOs are not single-player games?

How, then, can an MMO have a story? Players must do quests! So is the solution having an automatic quest generator? No. At least not as a solution to MMO story.

What they need are stories from different perspectives. A player becomes part of the story if his actions matter. He feels special if what he does makes a difference. There is a reason why you can't all be Neo in the Matrix. But you can each be a member of the resistance. And, while your story does not become a blockbuster Hollywood trilogy, it should fell like it for you. Because you were there facing the hordes of invading robots, fight side by side with several other players. And, maybe, at some point, you and some others (friends and unknowns) managed to force your way to the enemy commander, causing the enemy to retreat. While your part was very important, so was Neo's back in the Matrix, or many others who defeated other bosses, built Zion's defenses, kept the guys on mechas supplied with ammo and armor parts, etc. And each one of this guys will remember his story and will tell his friends how much fun they had. And THAT is what matters.

Why are events so much fun? And why do they have to be just events?

If the core of the MMO is being multiplayer, why cannot it's story also be multiplayer?

Could the answer to our prayers be right next door, waiting to come out?

Well, I know it is.

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Tadhg Kelly
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I think what you are describing is not meta-story or indeed any kind of story at all. What you are actually describing is the concurrent fantasy of play. This effect is a hallmark of most good games and to at least some extent it reinforces and expands on the game mechanics, making the game world feel as though it has more texture.

The problem is that many designers interpret this as the beginning of a player-hero embodiment and forget that players only ever play themselves and not their characters, and that's why game-story (or narrative) doesn't really work. Especially not in MMOs.

Kevin Maloney
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The ancient Greeks had a rhetorical concept called enthymeme, which if you google it shows is an argument structure where a premise is left unstated. The reason rhetoric employing enthymeme is persuasive is that part of the construction of meaning occurs in audienceís head.

Now talking about Xcom I would say it does in fact NOT have a rich story. What it does have is a nice interactive plot and few pegs to hang your imagination on. This is not the first time I have heard of someone making up stories in their head while playing Xcom. The thing is what occurs in kind of an interactive narrative enthymeme some of the play experience happens in our heads and some is constructed and its a very powerful experience. This play experience is what made Transformers, Gi Joe , Power Rangers Pokemon and many others so successful in terms of play with toys. You are supplied with the narrative building blocks for play then you can fill the rest in your head. Its powerful stuff.

But you can only do this when some part of the experience is outright missing. Either through low fidelity as in the case of Xcom or in a sandbox (a real sandbox mind you :) ) with your toys. If you are going to build a world and you want players to feel they are part of story then you have to have their actions change the world and/or have the player base itself (as is the case with EVE) make their own story. Some combination of players creating their own story with pegs for their imagination coming from the Dev team and the Dev team altering the world to reflect actions from the player base I think is the way forward with MMO narrative.

And itís not going to be novel type narrative or movie type narrative itís going to be interactive massively multiplayer online narrative and its going to be awesome.

Tadhg Kelly
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Why insist on attaching "narrative" as a phrase to describe that like some kind of unholy wedding of ideas?

What it is is fantasy. Whether it be toy soldiers or X-Com or a football game where players supply their own mock commentary, fantasy is an embellishing experience. But it's not necessarily tied to storymaking or anything even vaguely structured like that.

(And, as a side note, does anyone else find that the more sophisticated games have become, the less fantastical?)

Owain abArawn
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I am so sick of the endless riding the quest rails in current MMOs. An abundance of quests do not make for a compelling game. They add to endless grindfest feel that so many games currently are guilty of.

There are many many MMOs available now, and more are in development. Which one am I currently playing? A free Ultima Online server. Why? There are no damned quests I have to run in order to play the game.

Take a game like WoW. At any one time, there is a very small subset of the game area where i can reasonably play. Once I level out of that area, there is no reason whatsoever for me to return, and prior to reaching a particular level, going into other areas is nearly suicidal, although with a group, I may be able to go places that are inadvisable playing solo. As you increase in level, your playable world steadily shrinks, which begets the endless rounds of level increases and expansions. So I can do what? Run more quests. Bleh!

In UO back in the day, and on the free UO shards now (I play UO In Mani Ylem,, players created their own stories, which were typically far better than dev run events, in my opinion. I've always felt that Origin could make a first rate MMO by developing UO, original rules, Pre-Trammel, in a full 3D environment. Don't change a thing otherwise. It would be far better, in my opinion, than any of the WoW clones currently available. How expensive could it be? The intellectual property is already there, waiting to be used.

Provide the world. We will write our own saga's.

Joao Beraldo
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What it is called isn't the matter. 'Meta-story', 'fantasy', 'narrative'. Really, its just a name as any other. What matters is that the label tend to guide designers in the wrong direction.

How a story is told varies depending on the media. What we still need to learn is that MMOs are yet another media, that differs from single-players just like novels differ from movies and movies from, say, soap operas.

What matters in the end is the experience the player has lived. THAT is the MMO story. What I believe is that MMO's need to guide players, provide the tools and help them. It's more a co-authoring deal that simply telling a story. As Kevin said, it works if something is missing. The fact is that it MUST be missing. Otherwise the player either feels railroaded (as Owain is complaining about) or given so much freedom that he doesn't know what do and leaves.