Through all fantasy games, single- and multi-player, virtual or table-top, runs a common thread: The writing. It has been argued many times, and reasonably successfully, that the history of fantasy gaming was born of the ground-breaking work of Tolkien, however it is more correct to say that he was the great populariser of a genre that has been with us for hundreds of years. The archetypes that exist in his work still inhabit the games we play today: Orcs, Dwar(f|ve)s, Elves, Trolls, etc.
The images that those names invoke, and that are visualised in modern MMOs, aren’t too far from the descriptions found throughout fantasy literature. So what of the state of writing in fantasy games themselves?
Clearly table-top games live and die through the quality of their writing; a fact held up by the sheer volume of books and campaigns produced by table-top games companies every year. Outside of the purely commercial writers, I’m sure that many of us have played in games where the DM’s ability to bring a world to life have determined the immersion felt, or not felt, by the players. Not much has changed in the last thirty years, other than the rise of more clichés, and the efforts of writers to exploit those clichés.
The early virtual fantasy games, the text adventures from Infocom, et al., also clearly owe their success to the quality of the writing: Even grues have a foundation in literary fiction. Text adventures, or Interactive Fiction as the genre is more correctly known, is still very much alive. In 2005, the Interactive Fiction Competition produced as many games as Infocom developed over ten years.
The natural successors to Interactive Fiction in our recently networked world, the MUDs, MUSHs and MOOs, require a great volume and density of writing to satisfy the player-base. Many of these games source their wizards or creators from the player-base and it is often a challenge to find those who can balance interesting writing with the technical know-how to present a living world to the player. There are many fledgling creators who have abandoned the pursuit of creation as they begin to realise the sheer volume of work ahead of them. It is not enough to build a room with an interesting puzzle; the players can and will attempt to peek at and poke every item that you mention in your descriptions. For instance, a room with the simple description:
This room is relatively bare, with low light emanating from a standard lamp in the corner. On the table in the centre of the room, the only item of furniture, stands a vase of flowers.
Will have players investigating the lamp, perhaps attempting to switch it on and off. Perhaps they’ll inspect the bulb and see if they can remove it. As for the table, they may look under it, and they’ll certainly try to take the vase. Flowers are always a tricky item to deal with as the player will try to take them, smell them, give them to someone else; perhaps even water them should they have some water in their inventory.
Among all of this detail, it is easy for quality writing to be lost. But then, does it matter? What percentage of the player-base are actually going to stop and dig into a room? How many will simply enter and leave, not finding the NPC they might be looking for? For a successful MUD, it is absolutely necessary to provide the density of writing to satisfy all but the most curious players. There is a time, however, when it is reasonable to quietly inform the player that what they might have tried is, in this case, impossible. They might write a bug about it, or, if you’re a lucky creator, an idea report, for how to extend the functionality of the room or item they’ve encountered, but a MUD is a dynamic environment. Anything can be updated to include more detail if required.
This is far less true of the commercial MMO. Not only is it harder to add more detail to the world, but the player has far more restrictions on them in the first place. Of course, they can move a camera around and peek around, but in general the set of objects that they can interact with is very limited. Similarly, their interactions with items are defined by the item itself, or the quest they’re on, rather than a set of built-in commands that might be expected to work with anything.
Where MMO writing does come to the fore, however (aside from cinematics which I am ignoring for the purposes of this article) is in quest descriptions. It is through quests that the story underlying the MMO is revealed to the player. It is the body of those quests, along with the occasional pay-off moment on completion of the quest, that allows the player to understand their place in the world. No matter that many hundreds or thousands of players have completed that quest before, this time that you bring the Orc skulls to the Goblin wolf-herder, or the 250kg of Pyrite to the trader in the space station, is the only time it really happened. How sad, then, that the expected player model is to click through that text; to just move on and find out what needs to be done, where it needs to be done, and who to return to.
It is a shame that the culmination of many years of fantasy gaming, a genre founded in literature and strong story-telling, should be one in which the writing is secondary to the experience. I’m not promoting a world where we all play text adventures, MUDs and DnD (although that is what I keep coming back to, no matter how many expansions are released for certain popular MMOs), but next time you are asked to retrieve some vials of some creatures blood, or to escort some poor NPC back to their home town, please take the time to enjoy the words on the screen.