[WoW] Storytelling in MMOs

NOTE: There’s some minor spoilers in here for the starting Death Knight questchain. So skip this post  if you don’t want to be spoiled.

There are three types of storytelling that go on in MMOs. The first and most traditional sort are the stories we tell about players. Ask anyone about their worst ever PUG or the most amusing mistell they’ve ever seen — we all have stories to tell. Our guilds have histories, our servers have ‘famous’ personalities, we have scandals and drama, and all the flotsam of human nature is there. Game design can definitely have a big effect on the way communities form and interact but for the main part, these are interactive stories that are completely player driven. They aren’t always particularly good or thematic stories but that’s real life for you. At least we can guarantee that most get better with retelling.

The second sort is the type of story that players tell on roleplaying servers, from time to time. These are stories about characters that are partly driven by the game lore but aren’t directly driven by developers. If you’ve ever thought about your character’s backstory and where s/he came from, you’ve done some of this.

(Cybering usually falls between the above two categories because two players writing smut to each other isn’t really roleplaying and has more to do with playing out real life fantasies. Which is basically harmless as long as it’s not inflicted on minors or anyone who isn’t interested.)

The last sort are quest based character storylines. You follow the quests and as you do so, there’s some kind of storyline that your character is experiencing. It may involve helping old ladies to find their lost chickens or saving the world from the Big Bad but the story is written into the game. Human beings enjoy stories, it’s how we are wired, but there are major difficulties with these kind of questlines. The main one is getting players to buy into it. Or even to actually read it at all.

And in Wrath, Blizzard have pretty much taken this to the next level in MMOs (in a good way). The starting Death Knight quests are remarkable in that as a player, you feel personally involved in the choice that your character is making without actually being given a choice. They’re remarkable in other ways too – Blizzard did a super job of showcasing everything they have learned about creating fun and memorable quests, there’s the bombing run, the disguise yourself as a peculiar object quest, the nuke vast amounts of enemy quest, the ‘dodge the elite mob’ quest, and so on. But the writers really outdid themselves with one specific part.

Now backtracking a bit, everyone who plays WoW knows that Death Knights begin their careers as loyal thralls of the Lich King. They also know that Death Knights will eventually be fighting the Lich King alongside the regular members of the Horde and Alliance. Which must mean that either they get a redemption storyline or else they are all really really bad spies (if they were good spies, they’d be disguised as Retribution Paladins – all you’d have to do is whine constantly about not wanting to heal and carry a big 2 hander, no one would ever know).

So the Death Knight starting quests present the player with a redemption quest line. The turning point is where you encounter a member of the same race who remembers you from your time before you became a Death Knight, when you were a hero … And they call you brother/sister and ask if you have the strength to resist. I don’t know anyone who has done that questline who didn’t respond emotionally to that piece of writing, and my hats are off to the Blizzard writers. It is probably the most important piece of quest text in the game because if you don’t buy into that, you can’t buy into the character at all, and they make it work.

I can’t overstate how difficult a thing it is that they pulled off with this. Any tabletop GM will tell you that there are some types of storyline that you just can’t run with some players. I’ve had players who hated storylines where they got captured by the enemy and had to escape (even though I thought it would make from an awesome Escape from Colditz type plot), I’ve had players who were offered a redemptive type storyline and refused it because they liked their character the way it was. Some people just like to feel in control and that they are making their own choices.

And letting people make their own meaningful story choices is something that’s been very hard to pull off in MMOs. So colour me utterly amazed at the writing in the Death Knight quests, because it feels as though a meaningful choice has been made and that the player was personally involved, even though it’s a static questline with no choices in it.

Mrs Spinks Goes to Northrend


Aside from all that, I’ve been very much enjoying questing with my warrior. This is basically what I bought the expansion for and it hasn’t disappointed me. It’s the Blizzard way to deliver a lot of basically competent quests with a few gems in each area. I’m just about done with Howling Fjord, have finished every quest I could find and run the first instance a couple of times with friends.

I really miss the red map blobs from Warhammer!!!

It is also that time in the cycle where there’s a lot of guild swapping going on, as people jockey around and decide how hardcore they want to play for the next few months. My semi-casual guild has lost a few people to more hardcore establishments. It’s inevitable that we likely will lose a few more – experience from TBC says that some people will hit 80 a few weeks ahead of the rest and if they get bored and frustrated while wanting to raid, they’re likely to find different raid groups. C’est la vie. It all happened before and no doubt it will all happen again.

6 Responses

  1. You make me long for the touch of a DK…
    Bad on you for a great post :)

  2. I found this in Pirates of the Burning Sea (and have been trying the last few nights in Warhammer) – if you do one quest at a time you get the story that much better than if you go to hub, grab everything and just follow the red cloud.

    (even if I read the quest text, I eventually boil it down to ‘go to that red blob ooh and then that one that’s near it’).

    Friday night I ran to some red blobs on the map and killed some elves and stuff.

    (saturday night I didn’t play :p)

    Last night I ran an assassination mission, set some fiendish traps for a dwarf patrol (after messing with their tactician’s campaign map) and then performed a daring raid to steal a giant Skull from a rival orc tribe that wasn’t following the Waaaagh!

  3. I bought WotLK on a whim over the weekend and put in just enough time to delete my old main, recreate him as a Death Knight and do the starter zone. I must say I was a bit underwhelmed. Couldn’t help but feel that it was all a rather poor imitation of a single player game, and I’d rather be playing Mass Effect which I picked up at the same time.

  4. Also the conclusion to the zone is a bit rubbish in terms of story, all of a sudden it wasn’t about me but about three NPCs. I guess I was meant to feel betrayed by Arthas, but it just wasn’t convincing. The bit you mention did work though, the appeal to the hero you once were, but I’m not sure how effective that would have been had I a blank slate and not a main with 2 years of history of being that hero.

  5. About the red blobs from warhammer.
    Download and install Quest Helper addon for WoW.
    Offers the exact location of each quest + pathing information for you for 95% of the quests up to now.

  6. [...] wrote a piece a couple of months back on BoG about the Death Knight starting quests. I had just completed them for the first time but one quest [...]

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