Static stories in MMOs are just sets of game rules applied over the existing combat and crafting mechanics.
Static stories consist of quests (or, more broadly, game-induced goals or game-determined tasks) primarily. A quest is a game rule. The rule converts a set of player actions (kill 10 rats, go to a location, interact with a thing, or any combination of such actions) into rewards and allows the player to accept new quests.
We can describe a quest the same way we can describe any other game rule, like an ability:
- Prerequisites. You have no hope of executing this game rule unless you have fulfilled its prerequisites. You need to complete some set of actions or obtain some set of game elements
- A quest cannot be accepted until you fulfill level requirements and have completed the earlier quests in this chain.
- An ability cannot be unlocked until you’re at a certain level, you have a certain amount of gold, and/or you’ve unlocked certain other abilities.
- Triggers. To make this game rule execute, someone has to do something. (Perhaps this trigger could be included in the prerequisite part, but I figured it’d be more clear to include it here.)
- To start a quest, you need to talk to this dude or go to that place or interact with this item.
- When you activate an ability (through clicking on its icon, hitting a hotkey, etc.) you trigger it.
- Requirements. A set of costs that need to be paid in order for the game rule to execute and who needs to pay those costs.
- For a quest, these are the quest objectives.
- For an ability, these are the resources you expend to use the ability (this includes both time, as in a cooldown, and the MP, stam, etc. cost, as well as any other cost you can think of).
- Effects. What comes to pass when the requirements are met for a triggered game rule?
- An NPC may reward you for a completing a quest by giving you experience, some gold, and a dandelion. Maybe he’ll even give you a buff and a cinematic!
- Abilities cause something to happen to the game world. You execute a fireball ability and cause damage to enemies in an area, you pop your trinket to break a stun, you taste the rainbow and find yourself in front of an annoying leprechaun, etc.
- End Conditions. What has to happen in order for this game rule to no longer apply? An end condition can repeal part or all of a game rule (game rules can contain other game rules).
- Some abilities end right after they accomplish whatever effect they have, while some abilities last quite some time (like damage-over-time spells, buffs, and debuffs), and some other abilities require a set of conditions to be true before they’ll turn off (i.e. destroy this idol and the boss’ magical powers dissipate!).
- Usually quests end when you turn them in or you manage to fail at some important part that cannot be reset without resetting the quest.
The “story” part is a bit of text splashed onto the screen to accompany the game rule—just like the flavor text that you see when you hover your mouse over your favorite ability. Both blurbs have the same amount of relevance to the game mechanics and mean nothing by themselves. The “story”, so told, only has meaning to you and other human players because it represents something you’re familiar with: stories as told in prose and poetry. The game itself doesn’t care what language that text is in or if it actually means anything.
People do play games for their stories, though. They play games to become enthralled in a universe. But does this require flavor-text-only narratives? Flavor-text-only is not the most efficient, effective, or involving way to tell a story in an MMO—and players demonstrate it constantly by overwhelmingly discussing their in-game exploits as interactions of game mechanics instead of describing the incredible story they read that was attached to a quest chain. There certainly should be flavor text—it helps with immersion to say the least—but character narratives don’t have to rely on flavor text at all in order to be meaningful to the player and to the game. We can generate such narratives by simply giving the player game mechanics that can effect the world in a way worth noting, then we can allow players to record their story (the game can help them to do this) and share it with other players. You don’t need a meaning-bereft and oft-ignored justification for why you should kill ten more rats when the game could simply let someone (player or NPC) have a rat problem and give that character the power to change that reality by their own hand or with the help of a sword-bearing passerby.
Modern sandbox games (Darkfall, EVE) allow the player to make his own story, yes, but the game limits the player’s story through game mechanics that allow the player to do little, and even less that can be recorded and later analyzed. You can craft and kill things on a large enough scale to capture a city or a planet—but who records these facts and presents them in an easy-to-understand way? And those interactions aren’t the only ones we’d like to hear about. Plenty of great narratives are lost because players do interesting things and don’t think of recording their experience. The game should allow interested, involved, and qualified players to create certain kinds of game rules, like quests and other tasks, and build the story themselves. You can have your cake and eat it too: let qualified players make quests, then less-qualified players can accept those quests and change the world as they complete them to achieve higher status and obtain valuable rewards. Sandbox-lovers and themepark-lovers can co-exist happily in such a system.
We need to liberate narrative from its enslavement to static game rules. Let players make the primary narrative of the game by combining and manipulating game rules to interact with the world. They do this anyway outside of the game through telling stories centered on the game mechanics, like the harrowing tale of how they beat this forty-man raid first on their server—harness the story-telling potential inherent in game mechanics. Let players build stories using the game mechanics as building blocks and put those stories in the forefront. This kind of player-driven narrative would free the story from its static, deterministic drabness that has led many prognosticators to discard story in MMOs as a mere do-nothing formality that is better off ignored. The flood of meaning and fun such reform would cause has the potential to turn the revolutionize the MMORPG.