At the end of Part I, I asked: How can we bring more narrative immersion into sandbox worlds, which tend to focus on activity-based and player-interaction immersion? I’m going to look at a few possible ways in this post. The ideas presented are not mutually exclusive, I think it would be cool to have as many different approaches included in the same game as possible, but obviously the more ideas you incorporate the more work it is for the developers, and feature creep is a thing. Also note, that this post is about PvE-generated narrative, which although it may be influenced by PvP interactions, isn’t created by them.
Glory & Consequence
Before we get started on the ideas themselves, I want to address a common foundation that underlies all of these scenarios. I believe that one very, very important distinction separates themepark narratives and sandbox narratives: a fail state. In themepark narratives, the story is already written. You are simply playing through it. If you fail a certain challenge (“boss” fight, finding your way to the next questgiver, locating a lost item, etc) then you simply cannot proceed any further until you go back and do it successfully. You aren’t technically stuck in the game, since you can go and do other MMO-ish things, but most themeparks won’t allow you to access a lot of content without following the story. On the other hand, there is no true fail state either. The story remains there, unchanged, eternally available, until you complete it.
A sandbox narrative will need a fail state. Not only individual storylines, but the grand narrative – the game as a whole – as well. I think the developers (and players too!) need to be willing to see their server world be destroyed or otherwise unplayable. They need to be willing to say, “We’re closing this server down in a week, you lost the game. A new world/server will start in two weeks.” And this fail state needs to be a real possibility, without being too hard to avert. On a smaller scale, individual storylines must be able to end in a fail state, or tragedy, if they are not completed in time or if the player reacts inappropriately. In other words, let that farmer and his family die to the band of roving monsters if nobody helps them. Let the treasure you’re searching for, be found by someone else first if you take too long getting there. If your escort quest fails because your charge dies due to your incompetence, then they stay dead and you reap the consequences of that. None of this “going back and starting again” business that you have in themepark narratives.
My view of sandbox MMOs, of “living worlds”, is that they are defined by glory and consequence. And as far as I am concerned, there can be no glory without consequence. Any narrative structure introduced into such a world must incorporate and reflect that ideal.
There are two main ways that I can see narrative becoming a part of a sandbox world. A top-down approach, and a bottom-up approach. The top-down approach will keep the world- or regional-level events as the focus of developer effort, and players are enabled or restricted in their play by those events. This approach isn’t concerned so much with individual stories, but with grand, sweeping narratives.
The External Threat
One way that sandbox MMOs can add more direction for players is to develop a high-level, existential threat to the game world. This can be done to various degrees of subtlety and visibility, but the end goal is to make players think about their choices in a larger context. The presence of this external threat means that if enough players either ignore it or actively aid it – directly or indirectly by hindering those who are dealing with it – then this threat could become dangerous enough to bring on a fail state (destroy the world, the galaxy, the civilisation, etc).
Firefall has made attempts to implement this kind of external threat to a limited degree. The Chosen are able to push into areas and capture bases which affect players in those areas, and the devs even run events where they take control of some Chosen as part of an invasion. This is a good direction to be heading, but it remains the case that if everyone ignored the Chosen incursions, the game world would not be overrun. There is no fail state at the moment.
An example that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is in EVE. The majority of the narrative there is player-driven, yet there are some small tidbits of lore that are sprinkled throughout the game and in the newsletters. I remember reading a snippet somewhere that mentioned the possibility of the Sleepers being a remnant of a race that originated in another galaxy. What if the Sleepers started to wake, and become active? Rather than sitting passively in their inert bases, only responding to direct intrusion, what if they began to send out recon? Attack player-owned stations (POS)? Intercept fleets? Destroy moon bases and planetary industries? What would that do to the current nullsec balance of power? What if there were hints that this was the prelude to a return of the creators, an invasion that the players are going to have to deal with? It wouldn’t have to be an overwhelmingly powerful force to make major waves in the alliance political scene. And yet, if those alliances went on a backstabbing spree and overextended themselves, they might just let the Sleepers grow into a major threat.
The Internal Conflict
In a different kind of MMO, one where there are established political entities that are in conflict with each other, there is always opportunity for devs to manage an ongoing narrative at a high level. The players cannot be forced into any one faction, but they could choose to ally themselves with, or serve, one or more of them. Warring city-states, or rival countries, or even race-based conflict are easy enough to fit into this mould. Changes to the high-level narrative would affect players in both direct and indirect ways. They may be refused entry to certain towns or areas, they may be attacked on sight by members of another faction, they may be able to earn commendations and other rewards and recognition for acts that are hostile to their faction’s enemies. Indirectly, they may see a shortage of certain goods in markets they frequent, or they may be able to profit from trade routes being closed. If they own property, they may see taxes or rents go up in wartime. All these things can change as the political landscape changes, though. The devs could keep total control over how and when these changes occur, or they could allow players to influence things to a greater or lesser degree.
These top-down narratives are not really supposed to be followed closely. They aren’t detailed, must-read-every-word lore depositories. They are supposed to bring a sense of direction to an otherwise mostly directionless gaming space. The key here is that they reward players for following the narrative attentively, but they don’t punish players for ignoring it. They can be scaled to fit whatever percentage of the game world the developers like, and they can be ended or modified whenever the mood strikes. I like the flexibility of top-down narratives, and of course, they can be supplemented with bottom-up narratives too.
That discussion will have to wait until Part III, unfortunately, as this part is already fairly long. I would love to hear any further ideas for top-down narratives in the comments!