Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Read This

Picture: you're standing around with your friends, and you hand one of them a document, and go, "Here, read this." The response is pretty standard: "What does it say?"

I love reading, but there's a time and place. It's not a social activity. It requires concentration, it requires a relaxed pace, and it requires something inherently worth reading.

No wonder, then, that MMos do such a bad job of delivering story through flavor text.

As mentioned previously, I'm playing World of Warcraft again. Being a long time Horde player, the Alliance content is wholly new to me, so I just ran the Stockades for the first time yesterday. We killed a bunch of guys. Who were they? I don't know. Why did they need killing? Beats me. I turned in some quests and got given some money. The questgivers seemed pleased that I'd murdered these guys, so I guess it's all okay.

World of Warcraft has thousands of quests, each with a couple of paragraphs of introduction text. Some quests have great introductions that enrich the world, while others are little more than a series of puns and pop culture references. The only way to tell which is which is to read them. Or alternately, you can skip all the text and just click the "Accept Quest" button.

World of Warcraft is a social game. A lot of the time that you are playing, you are intended to be grouping. Other people's time is valuable. When you are standing outside an instance, and somebody shares you one of their quests, you do not have time to read. You can hear their virtual foot tapping.

Reading text is not gameplay. Time spent reading is time spent not killing. It is time spent not levelling. For that matter, it is time spent not chatting with real people.

Text pops up in a window. While you are reading, you can see time passing around you. You can see people moving past you and presumably having more fun than you. Your chat window is scrolling. MMOs are a distraction-rich environment.

For all these reasons, text is an inherently poor way to present story in an MMO. It is not a fault of the players. It is not a fault of the flavor text writing team. It is just a bad idea. If you want to immerse players in the lore and narrative of your game this is not the way to do it.

The acquisition of lore needs to be passive. It needs to happen while players are doing other things. Storytelling needs to be during gameplay, not between it. Players need to be learning while they're fighting, while they're looting, while they're exploring.

Flavour text doesn't have to be long to be deep. A look at collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering or Legend of the Five Rings shows that an intriguing world can be built using only one line of text per card. A lot of small fragments can go together to form a greater whole. Everyone who's played Alliance is familiar with the kobold line, "You no take candle!" This could as easily have been a fragment of lore or flavour text.

Story can be told in many ways. Imagine that you want to tell players that a great war is being fought in an area. World of Warcraft has done this several ways, and is slowly improving. One of their first tries is in the Horde side of the Desolace zone. Here, an NPC who is just standing there, doing nothing, tells you in flavour text that they're in a desperate struggle against the centaur-like Kolkar. It's not terribly exciting.

A later try was during the Ahn-Quiraj war event. Here, NPCs at capital cities presented you with flavour text about the war, and visitors to the Silithus zone would see roving warbands, catapults being assembled, and major factional leaders convened around a map table.

World of Warcarft's best attempt, though, is one seen by all players setting foot in Outland for the first time. Upon stepping through the Dark Portal, you find yourself overlooking a massive raging battle where Horde and Alliance soldiers strive endlessly against huge demonic entities. No flavour text, no quest - you know exactly how desperate the battle is because it's right there in front of you.

This is a long way of saying show, don't tell, which is a key concept of storytellling in any medium.

If you must have text, at least make it dynamic. I understand that Warhammer Online is taking steps in this direction with its Tome of Knowledge. Lore should be collected, and be accessible at any point, any where. It should be broken down into discrete segments, with links to other relevant content. Players in World of Warcraft can already put dynamic links in chat which refer to loot, skills, and other game content; they should similarly be able to link to quick lore summaries. Picture your group leader saying, "Okay, now we're about to do [Uldaman]; this is one of the [Titan] cities so it's all [golems] and [dwarves]." The lore is right there if you want it, which is much better than scrolling back through quest descriptions or running off to find in-game books.

Sound can do a lot of work, too; Blizzard have experimented with zone-wide spoken dialogue in a few areas, most notably outside the Black Temple in Shadowmoon Valley where you can hear Ilidan's voice whenever a raid group reaches the final boss of the Black Temple instance. This can be annoying if done poorly, but with a sufficiently wide variety of dialogue and a reasonable spacing between repetitions players could hear a lot about the world while they quest.

Look, I don't ask for much; just do it a little better. When I do a new instance, I'd like to hear from other players, "The end boss here is Gromsh Arrowsong, who found this cave system but then was driven mad by all the ghosts," rather than, "The end boss is a big orc with a bow." In fact, I'd like to know that for myself when I start the instance, rather than learn it from the NPC nameplate when I finally get to the end. And ideally, it would be nice to have heard about Gromsh and know who he is four to five levels before I even get to his instance, so the whole experience means something and feels like the culmination of a story.

I note that Bioware has promised a story-driven experience for their upcoming Star Wars MMO. I'm looking forward to seeing how they do that. I'm not expecting much, but it's alright to hope, isn't it?


Spencer Greenwood said...

I agree, but I think that many alternative approaches are also problematic.

In many games, I would suggest, narrative and 'gameplay' tend to co-exist opposite one another in a constant struggle. I've been told that this is untrue of Braid, and that that is one of the reasons for the game's greatness, but, as I have only played the demo, I can't attest to that.

Other than mere glimpses of other examples (such as the way in which the player is taught to use the weapon in Portal), almost every game I have ever played has forced narrative and gameplay together very uncomfortably. Super Mario World froze time in order to display a text box to the player. Fable II has Theresa dictate the game's plot events to the player, but, if this happens when the player is interacting with someone else, the experience is spoiled and confused by the conflicting voices. On more than one occasion, I have been trying to listen to what my wife has to say while some guard shouts over her intolerably about a mission he'd like me to accept.

The best way of communicating narrative, as you say, is showing, and not telling. I'm still wary that this could give rise to a situation in which the player is saturated with information/conflicted as to what to pay attention to, but, in any case, I see it as an inherently more potent way of exposing narrative.

Better that the player stumble across a bloodied corpse than read "there are signs that a battle has recently taken place here", for example.

Greg Tannahill said...

I'm not too worried about text in single-player games; that may or may not be a great way of doing narrative but at least there you have the option to completely stop time and let the player read at their own pace. You have to balance off effect versus development cost and if doing things by text means that the game is overall longer and deeper than that's often an acceptable trade-off.

It's the social and real-time aspects of MMOs that make a special case where text is particularly unsuitable. It's not an appropriate game mechanic and developers simply need to try harder to find storytelling avenues.

Anyway thanks for your comment and do leave more in future!

Wordsmythe said...

Quick note to add:
"Showing" is preferred to "telling" outside of storytelling as well. You'll find the same thing in poetry workshops, for example, as showing's imagery tends to be much more evocative than mere description or judgment. It packs more meaning into less space, which is generally preferred in all media.