I don’t want to be given a story

We’ve been playing a lot of EverQuest lately, and I keep coming back to the fact that I’m not being given or guided by any form of story.  Everything I do feels like I’m creating my own deep story of experiences, but not one NPC has tried to tell me a story or give me direction. I haven’t felt bored.  I haven’t needed direction.  I’m just going out and adventuring with the goal of leveling up so that I can go out and accomplish more.

One of our readers recently made the comment that a ton of writing can be saved by simply saying “EverQuest did it better.”  That’s true, but it’s not just EverQuest.  Plenty of games have done the same: The Realm, UO, SWG, and even DAoC to a lesser degree.  Even though I can rattle off a list of games I’ve loved that were ‘open’ and not based on story, I could have never played any of those and still feel this way.

I don’t need a story.  In fact, I don’t want one.  I don’t want to be told how I’m some grand hero, all the while having to go out and discover or prove my identity.  I like knowing that every time I log in I’m creating the story.  I like it when a game is so open, and the scope is so broad, that I have choices and a world rather than a path ahead of me.

Tonight, Graev and I killed some Orcs then made a 20 minute trek to Kaladim.  We were overburdened by Crushbone Belts we had gathered over the last week, so running was slow.  The run wasn’t dangerous, but we took our time and killed stuff on the way.  We found the belt vendor, turned them in, gained a level, and logged out.  On paper that sounds horribly boring, but it wasn’t like we were trying to progress — we just logged in and PLAYED the game.  Our time was defined by what we wanted to do, and where we wanted to go.

I want that same control over my experience in every game, and I’m pretty sure I can’t have that when the game is trying to tell me a story.  If that’s the case, I don’t want a story in my MMORPG.

  • I entirely agree. I’ve felt that way for a long time.

    When I first played Everquest, I had years of experience playing games that told me stories, allowed me to act out a part in a predetermined script. They did it in lots of different ways, and many of them I loved.

    But Everquest was different. It was one of the first things I understood about mmorpgs, long before I had any concept of what I “should” be doing at all: I wasn’t controlling an actor in a story that had been laid out for me. I was just there, with no direction, and everything I did was my own. I told a lot of stories when I played Everquest. And they were *my* stories.

    I mean, that was the dream. It was the first wonder that enthralled me, the thing that no other type of game had ever been able to accomplish. A world of possibilities, a trove of unique experiences to turn into personal stories and a community of people that cared what I did, whose own stories overlapped, twisted and sometimes tangled with mine. It changed everything.

    I knew EQ wasn’t perfect. There were plenty of things I’d like to have done that I couldn’t, I remember wishing the cities were more bustling or that hanging out in an Inn was something people did. But I also clearly remember daydreaming about the possibilities that lay ahead – surely EQ was just a beginning. I can recall that excitement for where the mmorpg would go in the future. I didn’t even have any doubts.

    Of course it didn’t work out that way. They just got more and more like the games we already had. Old news. But for me, axing that prescribed story would go a long way towards rekindling the dream.

  • When you use the word “story” and say that it is superfluous to have one in your game, or to be told one, I think your generalization went too far.

    What you might not want is to be peppered with mini-stories on the obligatory quest hubs, in addition to being presented as the hero and savior of every province. On the one hand, having dozens of quests per zone, and dozens of zones to go through, means that not only the quality, but also the raison d’être of those quests is underwhelming. Thus you feel that the story part is shoehorned in. On the other hand, there is also the dilemma of being the protagonist of a massively multiplayer story.

    I had just written about the effect of Cataclysm on quest design and on the worldliness of the MMO – http://hypercriticism.net/2013/the-tower-of-azora-and-eqnext/

    MMOs should have a strong story. Or, if you prefer, lore. To me, lore is something that happens in the background. The knowledge of the customs, history, ideologies of the world which you inhabit. Those are stories too, which can be communicated in the form of in-game books, scattered dialogues, occasional quests. Without these the world would feel barren and game-like (as in created for the purpose of being ‘gamed’ instead of being lived). That was my reaction to TERA – its lore, the background collage of stories, was so thin that it couldn’t feel like a world to be inhabited.

    I wouldn’t want that for any MMO. The best stories are, of course, those that spark from your interaction with the environment, especially when you are accompanied by other players, but those orcs that you were killing together have to be eliminated for a reason. It is enough if that reason is communicated in any way that is non-verbal (spatial narratives: remains of orc ambushes on caravans, fire-spewing idols splattered with blood, corpses at the entrance of the dungeon). Those constitute stories that give your activity a meaning inside the world. Illidan was such a coveted kill to many people because his presence could be felt in Outland.

  • I agree with Milady I also think there can be some stories that can very well be done for just a zone or that start as a “zone story” and then arch further. One of my favourite stories that was merely encompassed in the zone of Duskwood was figuring out why the Duskwood had turned in the dusky woods and where the Worgen came from. Of course you never got any solid answers for these and that exactly was the beauty of them as completing the quest line gave you the opportunity to speculate and come up with your own story for some of the “blanks” in Duskwood (Black Riders of Deadwind Pass, the Scythe of Elune etc.)
    In general I enjoy having an overarching story you can follow through quests and lots of exploration as when I get tired of free form exploring the overarching story is always there like a red thread I can follow. Which does not mean I have to be painted as a hero or anything for completing the story.

  • The thing is, Everquest DID have a story, even right back at the start. I just missed Bloody Kithicor, which had happened a month before I began playing but I can recall several other major events from the early years – the Rude Individuals storyline that led into the Bertoxxoulous plague, the eviling of Lesser Feydark, the Dark Elven invasion of Firiona Vie – all of which tied into an overarching narrative.

    The difference is that I never, ever really knew what was going on, and even more importantly, neither did my character. Every expansion had a strong storyline and mostly they tied in one with the other too, making a patchwork history for Norrath, but if you weren’t in a raid guild capable of completing all the content you never found out what the story was.

    Which is exactly how it should be. The top raiders who put in all that time and effort, their characters ARE the heroes in that world. They should be in on the secrets. The rest of us, carrying our orc belts back to Kaladim, shouldn’t know what they know. We don’t need to know. We’re happier not knowing. If the story comes to us, we see the effects but we don’t understand the cause. We run from the dragon, we don’t run at it. We try to avoid catching the plague, we don’t hunt down the God that brought it.

    I’m all for story in MMOs but it needs to know its place.

  • I agree with Milady. The world need to be rich with lore. Take wow for example before cataclysm. All zones had great lore which we knew it from strategies. NPCs had their own stories too. I want the game have story but not thorw it into my face like swtor. I want to search for it, I want to find it if I care enough to go and find it myself. Duskwood is a great example…so much story in one area…you can walk around without doing anything and feel creepy because you know that lot of things happened here. I don’t want to be the hero of Duskwood of course and I don’t even need quests there, but I want duskwood and all the NPCs there have their story, I want to know what happened there

  • I like to see the story going on around me. I don’t really feel the need to read pages of quest dialogue that basically says Go Kill 10 of Something.

  • Lore and Story aren’t the same thing.

    For example, I know the Star Wars lore. I know the Hutts control Tatooine, and the Empire is bad. Conveying that, or getting that point across to people who aren’t aware of the lore is 100% okay. Making me go through a story about being a spy trying to gain access to a Hutt’s gang is something entirely different.

    WoW is another example. I knew going in that the Orcs and Humans hated each other. You can teach me about that, but don’t force me to follow some progression of quest hubs and unravel the mysteries of each zone.

    I want a world full of lore, full of factions and their associations, lots of mythos, etc. But I don’t want to have to be tied to living or progression through any of it.

    I think my post was clear that the story I am talking about is the one impacting my gameplay, not what’s going on in the world.

  • I agree 100%, and not just in the MMO genre. I hate the entire story-fication of computer gaming in general. I grew up playing Bard’s Tale, Ultima III, Pool of Radiance, Phantasie, and while those games all had plots (some were barely even that) they were really just the barest of excuses to get you out and playing with the mechanics of combat and character development. I feel EQ was the same way, and it was awesome. But starting around the time of Baldur’s Gate 2, and with every subsequent Bioware RPG since I’ve noticed that they are less and less interested in letting me develop my characters and revel in the mechanics of combat than they are in shoving a pre-made story down my throat. And nowadays its even happened in FPSes for crying out loud. Bioshock Infinity is hailed as some tour de force of “gaming” because it supposedly has a great “story”. Look, if I want a great story I’ll watch a good movie or read a good book. I play games to get experiences I can’t get in books and movies. And, by the way, I’ve read up on the plot for Bioshock Infinite and it sounds horribly cliched and absolutely dreadful.

    Getting back to EQ, I think one of the things that made its story and lore so great were all the little “artifacts” strewn about the world that really weren’t referenced elsewhere. Much like not fully showing the monster in a good horror movie, it let the player fill in the gaps of knowledge with their own ideas of what they meant and how they got there. Things like the chessboard in Butcherblock, the aviak tree in South Karana, the Diving Board in Lake Rathe, the clickable orbs that did nothing (or did they?) in Ak’anon, and a bunch of others. I remember each zone and the major landmarks from EQ to this day and I haven’t played in 12 years. I hope that EQNext gets back to that kind of game design and moves away from the story-down-throat-cramming, symbols above head crap that all the other games have done since. As much as I love GW2, and they’ve done a lot of good things, easily the weakest part is the stupid personal story. Especially after about level 20 when it’s exactly the same for every single character. Yay let’s help plant-Jesus again, in the exact same way as my other 7 characters. Whee.

  • Yesssss x100000000

    This is why I disagree with people who adamantly state that EQ started theme parks, EQ isn’t a sandbox, etc. EQ didn’t give you direction. It plops you into a world filled with monsters, and you do what you want to do. You explore, kill, die, and make friends. That’s exactly what I want in a PVE sandbox. What I don’t want is to be told where to go. I don’t want a story to follow (SWTOR, GW2), or a pack of exclamation points telling me which way to go (every MMO since WoW). I know I sound like a condescending asshole, but these things have been shoved on the genre to attract stupid people with low attention spans, who have no interest in talking with other people and trying to find a group to kill kobold runts in Steamfont when they could be SAVING THE GALAXY WITH THEIR DUAL LIGHTSABERS AND OMG CUTSCENES AND AWESOME VOICE ACTING AND ON RAILS SPACE COMBAT PEW PEW PEW PEW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    “The thing is, Everquest DID have a story, even right back at the start. ”
    Yes, Everquest had a great story. YOU, the player, didn’t. That is what Keen is talking about.

    If you don’t mind me asking, where are you playing EQ?

  • I agree 100%.

    Really looking forward to the EQ Next reveal coming up this week. I haven’t really closely followed a game’s development since I got burned on WAR, but I am hoping I like what I see and that it gets me excited for an MMO again.

    This is all giving me the itch to play Project 1999 again, but I know I have FF14 coming up in a few weeks that I am looking forward to as well. I know it won’t be EQ, but I am hoping the later levels are a bit less linear than what I have seen so far in beta.

  • @Balthazar You poor soul 🙁

    “but I am hoping the later levels are a bit less linear than what I have seen so far in beta.” Every time I see someone say something like this (or the more infamous “It’ll be different from beta on release!”) I cringe inside. If there is one thing I have learned over these years of MMO releases, betas, “open betas”, etc, it is that once a “AAA-ish” title is open to the public, there will not be any miracle patch to change it up. The core is in, at most you will be getting a makeover (in the makeup sense).

    Sorry to go off topic for that, as for the topic at hand;

    I agree, keep the story off of the character, but keep the lore rich and detailed, encompassing and invigorating.

    But in reality, all we are saying here is “Give us back sandbox games please.” The “sand” of a sandbox is exactly that, the lore, the backstory, the world, the mechanics, the tools… We ourselves are then dumped into said box, and told to “have fun!”

    So yes, overall, a resounding yes from me. Keep the story off of me, I’ll make my own thank you very much 🙂

  • I wish. 🙁 I’m thinking ‘Next’ (see what I did there?) year I’ll be able to make it out there.

  • Hello Keen, first time stumbling unto your blog, came to it from reddit.com/r/mmorpg.

    So my main MMORPG of choice nowadays is GW2, and I don’t know if you’ve been following it or not, but what they’re doing right now is exactly what this post is disdaining – They are giving us content/story on a bi-weekly basis (along with gameplay, quality of life updates, usual bug fixes and new gameplay systems and all that). In fact, a majority of the playerbase actually want even more story.

    If you’ve heard of all this happening already, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this type of story delivery? Not only do we get the story that Anet gives us, but we also get to influence it in a way – in the content release that’s live right now, we’re actually voting for someone who’ll get into the Lion’s Arch’s Council – The winner of this contest will affect the future of the city for good or bad, and they’ll actually make a fractal based on who wins.

  • Yes, Champions of Regnum has precisely this kind of open ended , “you are your own adventure’ feel. You write you own story because it is pretty much like DAOC but without any crafting.

  • I don’t think I have ever played a game where I cared less about the lore than GW2. I have never made it through one of their events. I never finished my personal quest. Whatever they are doing they are doing it wrong. Its like they are pushing this cartoony and cliche storyline down my throat at every turn.

  • @ Rawblin

    Yes, I am well aware that I am likely setting myself up for disappointment w/ FF14. However, I have one friend whose first MMO was FF11 and so he is really looking forward to it and convinced our little group to give it a try. I haven’t really played a FF game since NES, so what the hell? But, I have heard the slug of delivery/kill task quests that first greets you does lessen quite a bit as you get out of the newbie areas. We shall see.

  • I want a back story to the world, and that’s it. It’s why I loved Anarchy Online. I thought the back story was the most interesting thing (and that got me wanting to play), but when I got to playing, I could do whatever I wanted with my character. Even when choosing a side, you weren’t necessarily bound to the limits of picking a side, especially in terms of players working together. I could communicate, and team up with members of the opposing side. Just because the back story said it was them vs us, didn’t mean I couldn’t have my character benefit from working with members of the other side.

    On GW2, I didn’t like the story. It was boring. It got even worse in act 3 when my character was no longer the main protagonist.

  • A good comparison to prove your point is Star Wars: Galaxies (at release) vs. Star Wars the Old Republic. Same franchise, one was theme park/story the other open world sandbox.

    I had a lot more fun being a no-name wookie, moon walking in cantinas than I did as the savior of the galaxy being herded from quest hub to quest hub.

  • In SWG I enjoyed creating my own story as a crafter who became the owner of a crafting empire. I went from making cheap beverages and pawning them in cantinas to having a real estate empire.

  • Reviewing the comments it seems several people agree with you. I thought I’d add another perspective. I feel exactly the opposite. I am most interested in games that provide me with a compelling story. Games compete for my time with reading. I want the games I play to immerse me in a story like a good book does. My archetype for this is Wing commander 4. Or more recently Last of Us. It is that desire to”find out what happens next” that is most likely to keep me playing a video game (or keep me reading a book). The more “purely” a game leans toward sandbox style play the more quickly I become board with it. For example, I find building and crafting in a video game *extremely* boring (no minecraft for me thank you). When I’m feeling crafty I tinker with DIY electronics and robots.

    I assume there are probably other people, who like me, are strongly motivated by video game stories.


  • please, try Darkfall Unholy Wars.
    every word you wrote is as plausible to Darkfall as it is to EQ.
    no shitty storyline, no big fat hero, nothing to disturb your own way of playing it – except for other players.

  • Sounds like you guys want a role playing sandbox game. I think both sandbox and on rails games have their merits. Neverwinter Nights spoiled me in this aspect. It wasn’t just a static game. You could literally create content for people and then interact with players and change that content mid-play through. I enjoy being able to affect a story even more than I do being told a story but I haven’t seen another game like that since nwn2 flopped. Luckily, I’m similar to @Adam in that I enjoy being told a story even if I all I get are superfluous interactions in changing that story.

    For these MMOs a story won’t do if the world doesn’t feel real and representative of the lore. Zones such Duskwood had a story, they also had more than story, they felt like they were lived in and years had actually passed by there. Once Cataclysm came I also felt out of touch with the world. I remember running through the early content and just thinking how great it was to level up so much more fluidly. However I never loved the zones like I did vanilla WoW zones and I think the problem was more in the zone and lore design than the quest design. The world didn’t feel the same, it had literally changed and some of the magic was gone.