On Storytelling: Online Games and the Holding Pattern

Words: 1431 Approximate Reading Time: 10-15 minutes

So the latest expansion to Destiny 2 dropped recently, and I’ve been going through it with friends, and will probably stick with it a good while longer. But as I do, I thought this would be a good opportunity to examine a problem of storytelling within video games, specifically through the lens of games that are consistently online.

The problems I lay out here are not strictly speaking unique to these online games. Longrunning series can run into some of the same problems, largely because of the same pressures. When a game – or a series of games – is not designed to end, there can be all these forces that keep it going after it might have reached a reasonable conclusion. The concept of “filler” in media is relevant here, as the same problem impacts television, movies, books, and so on.

But online games do provide us some insight into the problem that other forms of media don’t, precisely because of how online games are constructed. By their very nature online games are designed to be engaged with for a long period of time and on a continual basis. Online games need players to continue paying into the system, which means that the system needs to keep players hooked long enough for new content to come out that can be paid for. If all your players complete the game and then drop off after a couple months, they may not feel like buying the next expansion six months out.

So online games face these pressures in very acute ways.

In doing this analysis, I’m not sure exactly what the solution is going to be. Because the most obvious solutions are also ones that are going to require such massive amounts of work as to make them largely unfeasible, or would require going back and specifically not making an online game. So at best all I can do is help to point out and explain the problems.

One Step Forward, One Step Back…

Online games largely rely on players replaying content. A game gives you a quest, and you fulfill that quest to get the reward, and then you might redo the quest because you need the reward again. Or the game gives you a mission, but you are looking for an item that only drops from a particular enemy in that mission, and perhaps it only drops 10% of the time. And so on and so on.

The point is that these games require the player to grind. The grinding is a way of giving the content purpose. Normally when you complete a mission, there would be little point in replaying it. Maybe after a while you’d want to revisit it, but beyond that there’s not much utility. But by adding additional rewards – especially randomized rewards – a game can encourage you as the player to replay parts of the game over and over again because you’re not necessarily there for the mission, but for the drop. The drop becomes the purpose.

I’m going to set aside any discussion about whether that’s a good thing or not. Instead, I’m just going to take that as the starting point for talking about storytelling.

So since these games rely on you as the player revisiting completed content, the nature of the story surrounding those replays becomes…complicated. You’re fighting creatures that, strictly speaking, you’ve already killed. Maybe already killed dozens or even hundreds of times.

That’s where the problem starts to creep in.

But let me step back for a moment. Let’s think about these things in terms of actual story. Usually these games don’t just hand you isolated missions and quests and just expect you to complete them at your leisure. Instead the game will tie much of that content together with a narrative. There might be storyline missions, an overarching goal that you as a character are trying to fulfill, a way of conceptualizing the fact that there are other players alongside you doing the same thing, and so on.

So when a new expansion drops, the game world changes in some way. There’s a new opponent. Maybe a new zone to explore. And as you go through you build up your character and your knowledge to come up with a plan of attack so that you – and maybe a team of friends – can take down the big bad enemy that is the villain of the expansion.

Of course, that renders the world safe, until the next expansion drops and the next big bad enemy threatens the world.

This cycle introduces three major problems into the game’s narrative.

The first is one can be immediately felt in the act of replaying content, as mentioned above. You as the player are told that you’re accomplishing something, and yet by having to constantly replay content you feel like you actually aren’t. The world is kept in a kind of holding pattern to provide you with the opportunity to grind out equipment drops. There is no real success, because it all just resets once you leave.

The second relates more to bigger problems. In having the game’s entire world be constructed around this “new expansion, complete expansion, wait for new expansion” cycle, the player is also left with no real sense of narrative completion. Successes again don’t feel real, because even if villains die, they will come back later – both in the short term (see the first problem), or in the long term. Because the world needs to be constantly in danger, and if you actually prevailed, there wouldn’t be much reason to keep playing.

The third also relates to the existence of other players. Even when a game highlights the fact that you are merely one member of a group with a unified goal – as Destiny does with the concept of Guardians that are protecting humanity from the forces of Darkness – the game is also trying to make you feel special. There are other Guardians, but you are like a Super Guardian – you’re way more skilled than any other. Which unfortunately falls apart when you realize that there are tens or hundreds of thousands of other players who are being told the same thing. If every player is the Chosen One, then being the Chosen One loses its significance.

These three problems together serve to pull out the rug from under the player when it comes to some sense of narrative impact or closure. What, ultimately, is the point?

There is, of course, the immediate point of having fun with the game. Whether it’s the core gameplay, having an objective in grinding out items, stomping people in PvP, playing with friends, and so on. The lack of narrative significance does not necessarily detract from the fun that can be had with the game.

But it does mean that the narrative becomes a kind of thin veil. The story is not really important, and yet oddly enough is the source of a significant amount of effort.

Concluding Remarks

Like I said, these problems can be pointed out, but the solutions are much more complex.

An obvious solution might be to just rework narrative content so that when players replay, they are given something new. But doing so runs up against multiple problems, not least of which is that when you’re expecting your players to recomplete content dozens or hundreds of times, making dozens or hundreds of different missions is a massive amount of work.

Alternatively, you could construct the larger narrative surrounding the game’s world to incorporate this idea of replaying content. The various bosses that are being faced in a mission are actually coming back to life, and so the mission needs to be recompleted to prevent that boss from doing whatever bad thing they’re trying to accomplish. But this solution may not necessarily be viable for every game’s world.

Or also alternatively, just don’t make an online game. But if that’s our solution, we’re kind of missing the point of the problem.

Ultimately, I point out these problems just so that we can be aware of them. Often we can encounter stories in which the information we’re being told is wrong: a given character or even the entire game is lying to us in some way. And that premise can be interesting if something is done with it. But when the game undermines its own narrative, that premise disappears, and all we’re left with is an unsatisfactory story. Ludonarrative dissonance is major problem that game design tries to avoid, but it can often feel like a problem that online games have struggled with more pointedly.

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