story

Destiny: $500 million revenue can’t guarantee a good story.

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Like a large part of the PS4 owners, I’ve been busy shooting aliens and saving Earth in Bungie’s record-breaking new first-person shooter Destiny. Trying themselves at a RPG shooter a la Borderlands, Bungie sure knew how to turn on the hype machine, generating more than $500 million revenue on release day. Being already the most pre-ordered game in the history of video games, this number is not surprising, but still impressive.

I’ve contributed my part to that ridiculous revenue, and I would be lying if I would tell you I haven’t enjoyed myself so far. Destiny is, without a doubt, a very entertaining shooter with a dash of MMORPG loot and grind. Controls are smooth, the game looks absolutely stunning and the gameplay itself is more than a good foundation for future expansions. Regarding those aspects, I don’t regret spending $60 on the game. However, there is one thing that just bugs me.

You see, the game is made by Bungie, the studio that has created the award-winning, genre-defining Halo series. Next to reviving the shooter genre on consoles and giving us the amusing Red vs. Blue show, Halo is still known for its gripping story, interesting characters and overall great writing (especially when compared with other FPS). It’s not in my Top 5 of best games I’ve ever played, but Halo 2 is one of my favorite shooters ever and that’s not just because I could stick grenades to my friend’s faces. No, Halo 2 had a thrilling story, which was supported by the individual missions you went through and that kept you wanting more. When the game ended with one of the most gruesome cliffhangers since pixels learned how to move, I was both enraged and satisfied, demanding another helping of such excellent storytelling.

Destiny just hasn’t given me this experience yet. I’ve finished all the story missions, and to be honest with you…they are boring. The writers show us all these interesting story hooks and then decide to not do anything with them! That Warmind Rasputin? Mentioned, but it never plays a role in the story. That badass queen and her Fallen bodyguards? Oh, they look sweet and all in the cutscene, but they won’t be back until Bungie runs her event. The actual motivations of any of the enemy factions? What, they try to destroy Earth! Isn’t that all you need?!

Of course, certain hooks hopefully remain unused so they can play a role in some DLC or expansion. However, not giving a single faction any motivation beyond “they want to kill humanity / the Traveler / both” is just unsatisfying and lame. If I’m going to fight something, I want to know what it’s planning and how that affects me. Why did the Fallen ever attack Earth? Why aren’t we exploring that in the missions in Old Russia? Is there any other reason for them to fight the Vex on Venus beyond “the Vex are more evil than all the other evil in the universe”? So far, all we get is some vague info during cutscenes and on some Grimoire cards, but that just is not enough. For a game that calls itself the most expensive video game production ever, I feel like just a nickel and a dime went to the writing department.

All I can hope for Destiny is that future content gives us some more information on the actual universe and what everything does there. Grinding faction reputation to get that sweet weapon can only keep me busy for so long. Once I have that weapon, I want to bust some aliens, and I want to know why I should bust them.

Story matters

As I ventured forth into the continent of Pandaria, curious to see what this new land had to hold for my warrior, I noticed that Blizzard decided to change the way quest achievements were tracked. Instead of rewarding you with some e-peen points after finishing a certain number of quests in a zone, you work off a list of quest “storylines”, and are notified as soon as you finish one. Once you have rounded up every storyline in the zone, you get a nice achievement, showing everyone that you helped all those in need in a part of Pandaria. It’s a nice change from the old way, but next to giving you an easier way to tracking your quest process, it also shows how even the behemoth company of Blizzard has laid their focus on storytelling in their flagship title.

Of course, this way of tracking quest achievements is just a minor part of their new focus on the story of Pandaria. The use of many cutscenes and spoken dialogue helps to immerse the player into the setting, making him a part of the story. I’m a big fan of this focus on the plot that many contemporary MMORPG’s show. Considering the roots of role-playing games, story is a big part of the role-playing experience, but for years, it was taking the backseat in most online titles.

A cynic might claim that this is nothing but a simple reaction to the demands of the market. While struggling with many other issues, the storylines of Star Wars: The Old Republic are considered the best in any MMORPG, and Guild Wars 2 also puts the personal story of your character into the center of the game. My favourite The Secret World almost drowns the player in symbolic and enigmatic storytelling, and looking at the positive reactions all these games get for their attempts at being more than just a grindfest, it seems like the people simply demand a good story.

I mean, who can blame them? Years of simply hacking away at monsters with but a notion of lore and motivation have dulled us, and we want to know why our digital alter egos venture forth to be heroes. We want to the stories we know from offline games online, to share them with our friends. We want to form our own band of daring knights and sorcerers, and fight against evil out of a strong, personal motivation. In the end, we want to know why we had to kill those ten rats, and how that helped achieving our character’s goals. This focus on story and the narrative aspects gives us the means to do just that, and I hope that it will be a part of MMORPG’s that will receive lots of love in the future.

What two games of Fiasco have taught me about narrative gaming

During the final days of 2012, I had the chance to test Fiasco with two buddies. The game had caught my attention a few weeks ago, but I lacked the players to try it. When my two friends came over, we chose to not run a session of Song of Ice and Fire, but cracked open the PDF of Fiasco and gave it a spin. And boy, was it entertaining!

For those who haven’t played Fiasco yet or who haven’t heard of it, let me try to describe it in a nutshell. Fiasco is a cooperative, narrative game meant to simulate stories from movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smokin’ Barrels, Fargo or Burn after Reading. Characters are insignificant people with great plans that eventually go horribly wrong. The game lacks what most people look for in a role-playing game: there’s no real character creation, you don’t have a character sheet and there isn’t even a GM! Instead, all players create everything necessary for the one-shot session together, and then have fun telling a fun, dramatic and fatal story.

I won’t go too much into the mechanics of the whole game. If that interests you, read one of the great reviews out there or buy the game (for $10, it’s a steal). What I want to discuss, though, is what two sessions of this game have taught me about narrative gaming. You see, I consider myself the kind of GM who gives players quite some power in his games. I listen to their wishes, I ask for feedback after every session, and I allow players to play characters who can achieve a lot in-game. Also, my campaigns focus more on the story than on the numbers: I’d rather have my players create intriguing background stories for their PC’s, instead of seeing them delve through all the sourcebooks to craft a character sheet with points in all the right places. Fiasco, however, told me that this whole approach can be taken a step further, and here’s how.

First, ask players to create setting pieces. During the first part of a Fiasco session, all players create stuff for the setting together. One player chooses the relationship between two characters, while another one adds a truckload of TNT as an important object for the game. The point is that all these elements are used during play, and to give every player a way to participate in the creation of the session. Why not use a technique like this in other games? When creating the outline for a campaign, why shouldn’t you ask your players for input? Have them think about the MacGuffin, or describe the town they all hail from. Make sure to give their “pieces” a part in the world, and I believe that they will feel so much more invested in the game.

Second, don’t be afraid to hand over control to them. In Fiasco, players take turns in describing and playing in scenes, meaning that there is no designated GM. This is also something you can easily do in your weekly game of D&D or WoD. Point at a player and have him frame a scene for another player at the table. Have everyone chip in to the “design” of the environment, and listen to ideas that come forth from your player’s mouths. Of course, this might derail your planning, but it will also give your players a way to participate in a completely different manner.

However, both of these ideas require willing players. If you try to hand over narrative control to someone who is just there to slay monsters and collect loot, you won’t get very far. On the other hand, you need to be wary of power abuse. Some players will use these alleys to sneak in advantages for their character, bringing all kinds of problems to your table. Make sure to be on the lookout for these kinds of shenanigans, and your group might experience their everyday dice-rolling in a new way!