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by Chris Klug
Gamasutra
[Author's Bio]
September 16, 2002

Why Tell Stories?

Dramatic Structure

The Benefits of Telling Stories

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Resource Guide

Implementing Stories in Massively Multiplayer Games

Why Tell Stories?

People like stories; when they play games, part of what they do is play a grown-up version of pretend. When we played as children, we were devising our own stories. Players of massively multiplayer online game, when thrust into a new world, will create their own stories lines. People do this all the time; story is woven into the fabric of our daily lives ("Boy, you should hear what happened to me on my way to work this morning..." "That guy at the check out stand; what a jerk!" "What is with Jennifer today?") These statements all act as introductions to stories. Our very lives are structured in three acts --youth, middle age, and old age -- and we see all the events in our lives as narratives. If the players will create their own drama, why bother trying to tell stories in massivley multiplayer games? Why not just make a sandbox and let people play?

You're already telling a story, whether you meant to or not. Every single thing you do when you create a game, from the look of the interface to the colors of the spaceships to the way the avatars move to the amount of grass you put on the ground tells a story. Sergei Eisenstein, the father of Montage, summed it up like this: if you show an image of a dead man followed by an image of a woman with a knife, the audience will synthetically assume that the woman killed the man. The following two paragraphs quote liberally from a web site on film directing (http://members.tripod.com/~afronord/montage.html). Any errors I have made in interpretation are pretty much mine alone.

"Montage is based on what is known as the ‘Kulishev Effect' -- this early Russian film-maker played with his footage, gluing together man's face and then a shot of a plate with food, or the same face and then a shot of naked girl.... Surprisingly, the same close-up of man looks different next to a new following shot. First sequence -- hunger. Second sequence -- lust. How could it be? It is because of what the viewer does in their head when they see the images. They try to connect the two images and make sense out of the combination of two shots. Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian film director, declared that any single image by itself is "neutral" (have zero meaning till it is revealed in position of context with other shots)."

"You see, the original meaning is only the first part of the visual statement, according to montage theory. It's open and -- incomplete. What montage does is this: the thought (action) in evolution with the next shot "throws the meaning" on the previous shot! (In primitive terms we call it a reaction shot). The second shot in its turn is incomplete also -- it asks for another shot! That's why we crave for continuity and can't take our eyes away from the screen!"

So, Montage effects the experience a player has with a ‘game as story' even more than when that player watches a movie because, in a game, the player is creating the next image by choices he makes during play and is more invested in the secondary image than a movie watcher can ever be. And how does a game player create these images? By interacting with the game universe. And how does the player do that? By using the game systems and interface the designers have provided him. This is, in part, what gives games their great unique power to evoke emotion. But that means that every part of every game tells a story. Game developers need to also be expert story tellers, because we are telling stories even if we think we aren't.

The current state of MMOG stories…

Now that we know we (the designers, not the consumers) are responsible for creating a story, I think it would be incumbent upon us to tell a good one. First, a definition:

Story = change due to conflict.

That is pretty much a universal definition of what story is. You can do a lot of research, and I'd wager a fair amount of money that what you'd find pretty much equates with that definition. Story has lots of elements and such, mind you, but most people would agree that without change and without conflict you don't have much of a story. Games meet the requirements of storytelling very well, actually: a character, controlled by the player, engages in some activity that will, over time, change something (whether that is as simple as going from no state at all to raising their characteristics to ‘winning') and that change will come through conflicts of one kind or the other.

Everquest is a god example of how stories are told in massively multiplayer games. EQ is fundamentally an RPG, and as such it does tell a story; a character is created, changes in ability through fighting MOBs and grows. Okay, so we got a story here. While EQ has a fairly immersive world, and clearly there are lots of moments where the players is drawn deeply into the emotional reality of that world, it ultimately is a very unsatisfying story.

For a story to exist in an MMORPG universe, the world and the characters in it both have to change, and they have to change due to conflict within the world. In EQ, the characters do change as they level, but the world doesn't change hardly at all, so in the end you've got an unsuccessful story. What is EQ missing? Well, for one thing, dramatic structure. For a story to be successful and emotionally rewarding, the experience needs to have a solid dramatic structure.

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Dramatic Structure


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