I have at least three Playstation memory cards filled with Final Fantasy VIII save games. They are at key points in the plot, so that I can go back and relive the story without playing through the sometimes grindy game itself.
Ditto for FFVII, FFIX, FFX, Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2, Front Mission 3 and 4, Valkyrie Profile and VP: Silmeria, Star ocean 2 and 3, Arc the Lad (TotS), and probably a half dozen or so games that I’ve forgotten about. It’s one of the strengths of a console game that allows for multiple saves; I can replay the story (or show it to my wife or siblings) without making them sit through the “game” part. Don’t get me wrong, I usually like the game, or else I wouldn’t bother with it, but sometimes it’s really nice to go back and pick up the story without playing through everything again. It’s the curse of the “cutscene” storytelling in games; there are usually two parts of the title, the game and the story. There’s no way around that if you want a strong narrative without the ability for the player to derail your story.
I love the option to “turn back the clock” and take a quick spin through the game. I love these long, involved RPGs, but I don’t have as much time as I did when I was young and didn’t need sleep. The ability to revisit parts of the game are a nice compromise between the desire to replay the game and the lack of time to do so.
On the other hand, for games like Titan Quest that have a “persistent” character and a trickier “save” system (I can make duplicate saves at points in the story, but it takes tinkering in Windows), I have to settle for taking screenshots. I take a lot of screenshots. I’ve noted before, I’m a Bartle Explorer. I love having a record of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. (Epic gear doesn’t count.) I also have a photographer’s itch, so finding a great screenshot makes me happy. I’m also an artist, working in the game industry, so it can be instructive to see how other devs have put together interesting and evocative visuals.
MMOs are more along these lines, with a persistent character and no real “save games”. Once again, I take a lot of screenshots. I’ve played the World of Warcraft ten day trial three times in the last few months, and I’ve accumulated around 2000 screenshots. (I lost half of them, sadly.) I recently started Guild Wars, and filled my screenshot folder in three days. That’s 1000 screenshots. I renamed the folder, and am working on a new batch.
Some game moments you just can’t play again (alts notwithstanding; midgame moments are lousy to recreate), so pictures are the key. That’s just the nature of the beast, part and parcel of a persistent game world.
That said, WoW and Guild Wars have some interesting mechanics that made me think of this topic.
GW has what they call Pre-Searing Ascalon. It’s effectively the newbie training zone and narrative prologue all in one. The Searing is a world-altering event that shifts the game “state” between one world and another. Once a character crosses that threshold, there’s no going back. The player can only see the “old world” by starting a new character. Some people never even cross that line, because they want to play in the old world. (To be fair, some just stay there for the Title, but that’s borderline OCD, and doesn’t explain everyone. I can’t be the only player who has a character progressing through the storyline and another who just putters around in the Pre-Searing world for when the mood strikes.)
WoW has “phasing” that allows players to see different “world states” according to their own experience. This is most notable in the Death Knight starting quest chain, which has possibly the strongest narrative in WoW. (Or so I gather, I don’t speak from experience.) The only way for a player to go through these quests again is to start a new Death Knight. The rest of the game is largely a static experience, and while quests aren’t typically repeatable, the stage those quests are played on do not change appreciably over time. A endgame capped character can still go wander the starting zones. (And do quests they might have missed.) NPCs typically respawn after ten minutes, and nothing really changes all that much, just the player and their gear.
So what? Well, looking forward and trying to take this concept into something practical, I’d love to see a story-based MMO, say, Bioware’s next opus, use what I’m calling a Bookmark system. (Obviously built on my tendency to put several bookmarks in my favorite novels, so that I can pop right into favorite parts of the story without starting at the beginning every time *cough*playingasanalt*cough*.)
Give the MMO player the ability to set “Bookmarks” in the storyline (or grant them automatically at key plot points, whatever). If the story is great, it’s worth reliving. It may not, however, be worth reliving from the beginning every single time. Hmph, even DVDs have chapter breaks and the ability to jump in midstory. You can open a book anywhere.
“But Tesh!” I hear you cry, “what of the persistent world?“ If story is important (and that’s a key), I’m going to put it at a higher priority than the pseudo-living world nonsense we get in MMOs. “But, but, what of exploits? The ability to ‘redo’ a critical choice?“ I can already do this in a well-designed offline RPG. Note: If I want a game where every choice I make is irreversible and world-altering, I’ll play Fable or something like that. Notably, those games are short. Very short compared to an MMO narrative. Replay isn’t an issue, since you don’t have to play for hundreds of hours to hit the junction point(s). The only reason it matters in an MMO is because of other players (imbalances in PvP) and the economy. Those are fair concerns, but a few design choices would compensate.
For PvP, go the Guild Wars route. PvP is highly controlled, skill based (not gear) and more or less on even ground. GW could have done some things better (Elite skills from PvE and their potential to be imbalancing in PvP, for one), but at its heart, PvP is a skill-based sport rather than a cycle of paper-rock-gank.
The economy would be a bit trickier, true. To avoid duplication exploits and such, perhaps a player could only have access to the spoils of a single Bookmark state at a time. They could jump freely between Bookmarked storylines (let’s call them Quantum Story States or Parallel Storyverses, whatever), but only one could be “active” at a time, and they don’t see each other. This means there would have to be controls to keep characters from selling or transferring items between Bookmark States. Maybe Bookmark States can’t sell spoils on the Auction House, keeping their economic interaction strictly through vendors, hence controllable by the system. Only the Master State can actually play the full economic game, but the Parallel Bookmark States can play the game, just not affect the world. (A critical distinction.)
It comes back to a matter of priority. If PvP and time=reward are the key to your game, story runs contrary to those desires. If story is key, you can’t make it long, or you have to give the ability to “turn back time” and walk another path. Why? Isn’t that coddling the player? On the surface, yes. That said, demanding hundreds of hours of player investment (grind) to see your narrative is exceptionally poor design, abusing the player’s goodwill. *coughSubscriptionModel*cough* Single player offline games alleviate this a bit via save games, but an MMO has to have other mechanics to avoid abusing their players. If every class has a story, as in SWTOR, playing from the beginning for each class isn’t a huge deal… if, and this is huge, if the story is on rails. If the story presents choices that matter, especially late in the narrative, and each choice is interesting and worth playing, it’s abusive to have a system where the player has to go through all of the preceding content in order to walk that other path. There will always be the hardcore players who see 100 hours a week in-game as a badge of honor, but out here in the real world, also known as the “mainstream”, that’s just a mindset that designers can’t afford to force on their customers.
In the end, perhaps this is more an illustration of the trouble that story has integrating with the highly static world of an MMO. I’m not completely convinced that it’s impossible, but I do think that it’s largely not worth the trouble. MMOs are effectively giant sandboxes because they have to be. Story is largely a function of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” applied on a hugely instanced scale.
A strong storyline means GW-style instancing, WoW phasing, or some other highly individualized experience, by its very nature. Well, that, or a short gaming experience with quick replay turnaround. (Anathema to the sub-desiring beancounters.) That’s not the point of an MMO, or so we’re told. (L2MMO, nub! It’s multiplayer, dood! Stinking solo players…) Perhaps it’s time that designers stop trying to be everything to everyone and make some solid MMO games that explore unique MMO design space (world alteration, player choice and consequence, etc.), and online Massive Single Player Games (as they have been designated elsewhere… my memory fails me) if they want to tell great stories.
I want good stories, but if everyone and their dog is trying to pound a square peg into a round hole to garner some of that sweet, sweet subscription money, we’re just not going to get them. I want to be able to replay the story, at whatever pace and whatever point I feel like, and that’s just not what the typical MMO offers. They can’t. Perhaps that means typical “MMOs just aren’t for me”, but if the industry is going to have a dalliance with the subscription/verification model, these are valid concerns trying to decide where to aim for future game design.