#DigitalFables is Alex Ziebart's column about the boons and banes of storytelling in video games.
Earlier this week, I lamented the sheer number of multiplayer games featured at this year's #E3. There simply isn't enough time to play all of them when compared to single-player titles. Time isn't the only thing we lose as the industry shifts deeper into multiplayer, though. We also lose the stories these games could tell.
The Storytelling Challenges Of Multiplayer
Even if a multiplayer game doesn't skip out on narrative entirely, stories are difficult to tell in a multiplayer setting. In a single-player scenario, the developer has almost complete control over how a player will experience a story, from pacing to writing to camera angles. The player can be as weak or as powerful as the developer wants and, in a single-player game, the player can be given the ability to change or influence the story based on their actions or choices.
Multiplayer games make many of those narrative tools far more difficult to use.
- In a game containing a competitive element, or a game with a large number of players participating in the same activity, you need to sacrifice cinematic control of the camera.
- Power spikes during awesome, climactic moments are often nonviable, because you need to consider balance between players. No one is powerful if everyone is powerful.
- Players can't influence the story when other players need to experience the same story.
Even beyond those items, the scope of a multiplayer game makes it difficult, if not downright impossible, to invest your players in a narrative on a personal level. Imagine an action game where you need to rescue your best friend from the clutches of an evil overlord. That's a personal conflict. The game can get you invested in that character, make you feel the urgency of a rescue, and make you hate the bad guy.
It breaks down when you and thirty other people have all shown up at the same time to rescue a guy who happens to be best friends with all of you. If there's any dialogue, who gets to speak? Most likely, only your best friend, and his dialogue needs to be written as if addressing a parade of generic goons instead of someone who is, in fact, his best friend.
The scenario breaks down even more if this game is an #MMO. You need to save your best friend on a daily or weekly basis for months and eventually it stops being about the narrative and starts being about what loot the evil overlord drops.
This is where player behavior factors into narrative in a multiplayer game, too. You certainly can include cutscenes in a multiplayer game, but what happens when people have seen the cutscene a dozen times? If they can't skip it, they'll grow frustrated. If they can skip it, they will — and they'll expect everyone else to skip it as well, even if it's someone's first time seeing it. Add voice chat as another potential layer of distraction and your narrative becomes muddy at best.
Live Services Are A Problem, Not A Solution
Even if you've ironed out all of the above issues, a "live service" multiplayer game introduces new complications. A "live service" game is one in which the game receives regular updates — patches with new content. For the sake of this discussion, we'll focus specifically on narrative content.
In a single-player game, a story has a beginning and an end. Any DLC released after the fact is usually standalone and self-contained, having its own beginning and end. If there are sequels, those sequels have their own beginning and an end, too. Live service games typically aim to tell a story over a much longer duration, if not indefinitely. The end is in some nebulous, distant place, being doled out to you at the pace of development rather than including the satisfaction of an ending in the base package.
Theoretically, constantly receiving new morsels of a story is delightful. In reality, by the time the next content drop rolls around, you've forgotten what happened previously — or it's lost its emotional impact.
Let's take World of Warcraft as an example. Every expansion has a duration of roughly two years. Over the course of that two years, they tell an individual expansion's story. Patches that include major story content are released roughly 3-6 months apart. That means you're waiting 3-6 months for the story to progress, and up to two years for that story to reach a conclusion. If your favorite character isn't featured prominently in a given expansion, you might not see them for multiple years. You could give birth to a child and not see your favorite character again until your child is in kindergarten.
The theory of a "live service" game is we enjoy serialized stories and serialized content and we're willing to pay for it. Waiting six months (or more) for the next book in a series isn't a big deal at all. If you had to wait six months between every chapter of a book, though? That sucks. You're not likely to put up with it.
Some Games Have Pulled It Off
None of this is to say it isn't possible to tell a story in a multiplayer game. A variety of games have accomplished it.
The approach taken by BioWare's MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic is to turn the story into a single-player game inside of a multiplayer game. The Old Republic is packed with story — good story — and almost none of it takes place in the game's MMO environment. Every playable class has its own, unique storyline, full of BioWare's trademark of allowing the player to make choices. They even include BioWare-style romances! When you're progressing through your class's storyline, it's a solo affair despite the game being an MMO.
Group content in The Old Republic does include some story beats, of course. When there's a choice to be made, it's put up to a group vote. It's frustrating when your choice is the losing choice and your agency in the narrative has been taken from you. Democracy's rough, man.
The #SaintsRow series includes optional, cooperative multiplayer, too. By keeping the numbers small — it's just you and one of your friends — the story beats aren't negatively affected. You can choose to play with a like-minded friend who, hopefully, is as invested as you are. You aren't reliant on strangers who might be harassing you to skip cutscenes.
Saints Row also tends to pretend you're still playing the game by yourself, even when you're with a friend. If a cutscene involves the player character, each player sees their own character in that role. The game respects each player equally. The game doesn't try to integrate everyone into the story — the two players are playing their own story simultaneously. In the eyes of both players, the other player is just a sidekick along for the ride.
What Multiplayer Can And Can't Do
Stretching out a story for "live service" offerings, accounting for player behavior, loss of personal investment, and endless repetition are all enormous hurdles to a compelling narrative. More often than not, the solution to the multiplayer problem is to follow in the footsteps of The Old Republic and split the narrative out of the multiplayer components. These days, even World of Warcraft, still the largest MMO in the world, forces its players to engage in important story beats solo. Directed storytelling is just plain stronger when a player is independent.
Alternatively, they could take a cue from Saints Row and think a little smaller. Most of these games teeter toward MMO territory when they might be better off optional co-op play. The more players you have interacting with each other, the more difficult it is to maintain cohesion. Beyond Good and Evil is taking the "shared world" route in its revival, and to long-time fans of the franchise, that's a terrifying thought. However, if all that means is you can take a friend long for the ride with you, that could be a wonderful thing.
Some of these new titles, such as pirate adventure Sea of Thieves, even have potential single-player games don't: the possibility of a shared, user-created story. If you give players a sandbox full of tools, toys, and just a gentle touch of structure, they can run wild. If players have the framework to create their own fun, drama, or intrigue, they'll gladly do it. EVE Online's fame and longevity is almost entirely rooted in the political intrigue among its playerbase. Those are stories only its players could tell.
Obviously, the multiplayer games announced at #E3 aren't going to stop being multiplayer games no matter how loud our lamentations. If any of them are hoping to tell a good story, though, they face an uphill battle.