Is good storytelling fundamentally impossible in loot games?

Before it’s release my (vain) hope was that Anthem would make story a central part and motivation of a loot game. This didn’t happen but it made me wonder if the structure of those games makes it impossible. Lots of them have really interesting worlds but rarely tell engaging stories. I’ve played every Diablo and cannot tell you for the life of me what happened in any of those games. Same with Destiny. Of all games in the category Borderlands probably has the best story but that’s because it’s much more similar in structure to a tradition single-player game.

The genre has two issues that make telling a story really difficult. They require repetition and they are, in this post-Destiny world, usually instanced multiplayer games.

Few stories hold up to repetition. Most people have only handful of movies they will happily rewatch over and over again. Loot games, especially their endgames, require that sort of repetition. A raid might tell a really cool story but by the second or third run I’m usually ignoring story segments or using them for pee breaks. Other games with heavy repetition deal with this problem through randomization, roguelikes do this best because it makes every run mysterious. But that randomization and procedural generation also leads to a lot of unfair deaths and make the carefully designed puzzles that are the hallmarks of good Destiny raids difficult to implement. The other option is the intentional obscurity of the Soulsborne games but that’s fairly specific to their aesthetic and it would wear thin if every story was told through snippets of cryptic dialogue and item descriptions.

Instanced multiplayer games are also a difficult place to create a narrative. Multiplayer games have the inherent problem that any personalized story is undercut by the presence of other players. An NPC telling you that “you and you alone have the power to save this world” is immediately disproven by the seven other players also being told that at the same time. And the clearly much more powerful player running by who is probably much better equipped to deal with a world-ending crisis than your with your level 3 gear. Instanced games are even worse because they eliminate the possibility for the sort of emergent storytelling you can have in massively multiplayer games.

I’m not a designer so these seem like very difficult problems to solve. I’m curious what y’all think.

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Final Fantasy 14 can do a really good MMO story so I dont see why these games can’t. (also yes shlooters are MMOs they just try to obfuscate this fact with a bunch of dumb contrivances)

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I don’t think it’s impossible to tell a good story within the trappings of a progression treadmill. FFXIV uses its leveling quests to tell one large story, and then includes a couple new quests in each update to keep the story slowly moving forward.

What you probably can’t do is have story mechanics that could drastically interfere with the world in a way that single-player games can. Treadmill games are too focused on function to let you have too much control via dialogue choices.

Some people really like the stories in SWTOR, Bioware’s first attempt at an MMO, so it’s clearly possible.

I’d say Anthem’s just not there yet.

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Warframe actually has a pretty good story. Most of what makes it good though is the slow trickle and mystery of the story over the years.

Things like expanding the area of the characters ship and having a creepy locked room that has weird noises coming out of it that wasn’t explained at all for I want to say 6 months to a year was cool.

Basically I think for games that are going for long term player bases like Destiny, Anthem, or Warframe instead of trying to info dump all this story slowly feeding it to your players and giving them this sense that they will get fed more as long as they stay involved is a much better idea.

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I honestly don’t see a significant difference between modern Loot games and traditional JRPGs in terms of gameplay loop. There are many JRPGs with interesting stories (even non-linear ones, or ones where you go through the same dungeons repeatedly).

I think the biggest issue that Destiny and Anthem has is that they try and continue the story along with the gameplay. I tend to consider the audio-dialogue form of story-telling to be less-than-ideal in general; it’s not that I think audio can’t be a good medium for storytelling, just that it’s hard to follow while playing a game. What little concentration the player can give to them is further undercut both by the emphasis on multiplayer (i.e. party-chat). Furthermore, the audio information given to the player tends to be interspersed plot amongst predominantly mechanical orders. Similar to the effect of people on public transport ignoring announcements because often they are repeated statements or superfluous, players learn to ignore the dialogue because it’s often alternative ways of telling them to “kill all the enemies in the area” which they were going to do anyway.

I think they can definitely produce good stories even sticking to the short, blockbuster campaigns that they tend to be going for. I think they need to choose different ways to distil the information to players that don’t conflict with the gameplay, such as: not delivering plot information during gameplay sections when players are likely talking to each other, allowing players to view plot-relevant scenes at their own paces (including skipping them and viewing them later if they just want to play with their friends), and using different avenues for sharing gameplay information and story information so players don’t learn to ignore them.

With Forsaken and the Dreaming City, I think Destiny landed on a pretty viable approach, where the story continues to evolve through repetition of the same gameplay loop week by week. Whereas I think they tried unsuccessfully with the Leviathan raid to explain how you could beat Calus week after week (maybe should never have tried to do that), they have an in-story explanation for the cycling of events in the Dreaming City that’s way more satisfying – though it eventually runs out of steam, in my opinion.

I wish I could remember where I saw it, but there was an article in the past few days about the upcoming Warframe battle pass that will try to very strongly incorporate ongoing story into the progression. I haven’t played Warframe but am curious to see how successful that is.

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Maybe the types off stories these games are trying to tell is part of the issue? Any game designed around you being the (yawn) Chosen One is going to have a hard time incorporating other players into it’s narrative in a meaningful way. Perhaps there’s a way you can get smaller scale stories where you are part of a bigger struggle that would make the world building make more sense.

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I have a friend who still swears the Imperial Agent storyline is the best piece of Star Wars fiction that exists, but I can’t corroborate cause I hated playing that class. SWTOR was…a weird game.

*is

They are still updating that sucker. Darth Malgus came back, apparently, because I guess he died at some point

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I agree, Destiny has imo done quite a good job of delivering its story and iteratively building on a world, though honestly I was quite fine with the way it had a fixed campaign and then playing pure gameplay content to build up to a raid, just from what I’ve heard Anthem doesn’t even really have that.
Also I like the idea of lore cards but feel like they could be delivered better.

I’m not an authority to speak on Warframe as I’ve put like 17 hours in and disliked the majority of it, its world, designs, and especially its UI, but I guess I can see its radio drama approach working for its repetitive mission structure.
Maybe it’s because you’re often literally flying through those levels slashing through cardboard cut-out enemies that they didn’t really feel like they could script any encounters or story events in them, which is fair enough, not all games are suited for that kind of thing.

Anthem feels like it had a huge opportunity to tell stories in its secluded hub space but it didn’t sound like it delivered. I definitely see potential to expand on it though, but first they should make it more fun to actually move through that space…
I think it’s a matter of priority because I can so clearly see a path for the story to fit, but because it’s expensive and time consuming to create bespoke content and record more lines it’s understandable that priorities are aimed at maintaining the live game and create more repeatable content, more bang for your buck etc.

One weird quirk of SWTOR that’s related to this, which I don’t think was actually possible to see for end-users due to how much the system was biased towards positive companion affection points, was that there were multiple dialogue sequences made for if a companion character disliked you.

That’s not to say that there was no way to make those side-story paths attainable within the confines of its progression system, but because (IIRC) you were mechanically encouraged to increase companion character affection, there were several story sequences that just weren’t accessible due to a system that’s always needing to push for positive feedback loops.

Different studios, but SWTOR and Anthem share some of the same issues with trying to figure out how to marry story agency to the structure of an online multiplayer progression game.

So I haven’t played any of the current era “shlooters” like Destiny or Warframe, but my experience of traditional MMOs using the “everyone is the chosen hero” setup has been that it never bothered me because those games are inherently surreal and dreamlike experiences and generally didn’t shy away from transparently being both video games and a collective social experience we were all taking part in. That made it very easy to mentally silo off the story content and the rest of the game (and it was often instanced), so there was generally no dissonance - the entire thing was kind of silly and frequently immersion breaking just to be a part of.

And I have a suspicion that a game like Destiny or Anthem etc - with its desire to emulate the style of a traditional single player game - falls far more into this trap of both trying to be “immersive” in the way that current era big budget games aim for, but also to be gamey and absurd (but not too absurd because they’re often psuedo-realistic shooters). It’s a lot harder to differentiate between “this part is game mechanics, I don’t need to treat it seriously” and “this part is story, I should consider paying attention” and to know what kind of expectations to have at any given time when they are closely blended together in this way.

Incidentally, after a lot of thought I came to the realisation this was what bugged me most about God of War (2018)'s camera and probably why it felt like it dragged so much: the distinction between “gameplay” (repetitive, fun but irrelevant action) and “story” (important, significant action) was removed, so everything felt at once important and unimportant with none of the usual cues to signal what I should care about or put focus on.

There’s probably also something to be said about the way the camera in shlooters is first person or close third person and how the might contribute to an immersive focus on “you/your character” in contrast to the often pulled back and very maleable camera of traditional MMOs that often served to make it feel like you were directing an avatar around a shared game world rather than you were inhabiting that avatar and interacting with other people in the setting.

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Whether or not you think a shlooter (dies a little inside) or similar loot drive game is capable of having a good story kind of depends on how you treat game storytelling versus traditional storytelling.

Yes, if you consider every action your character takes to be “story” then by the usual standards of storytelling they’re atrocious. “Our intrepid band of heroes courageously stormed the Scarlet Monastery braving legions of foes to claim victory… however xXVegeta420Xx didn’t get the epic pauldrons he was craving so they immediately went back in the entrance to do it three more times until their mage BrosB4Prose had to leave…” If you read a book or watched a movie here the main character repeated the same task endlessly or spent 35 minutes bludgeoning hares for a fistful of coins, you’d check out immediately.

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I was thinking about this a few days ago while I was enjoying yet another Granblue Fantasy event, and the only conclusion I could really come to was it was an issue of business model–primarily, an issue between the costs associated with developing on-going story content at a AAA fidelity vs. the expected financial return AAA executives expect to see.

Like, Granblue has a PS4 game coming out and I’ve started to think about how cool it would be to see the side stories from the mobile game as DLC episodes on the PS4, but… how many people would Cygames need to buy the DLC in order for those chapters at “next gen action-adventure game” development costs to turn an acceptable profit? The presentation of their events in the mobile game is mostly a visual novel style with some traditional JRPG lookin’ boss fights throughout, so really most of what they have to worry about there is the writing and acting, and they likely make up those costs in spades through the gacha system alone. When your delivery method becomes a full action-adventure PS4 game all of a sudden your development costs go up, your resources get split among all of the things that have to get done, and maximizing return becomes more complicated.

I often still think about Destiny 1 and all its grimoire cards. Like, there are obviously good writers there, working on that game in some way? But I feel like the question always came down to “okay but how much money would it cost us to portray this stuff in-game? That much? Well, can’t do that then.”

What’s interesting is that Borderlands, and to a lesser extent something like the Division, decided that the host would be the character, and if you join them, you join their world with their story beats, which can be different from your own. Really they are single-player with co-op loot based games.

I thought Anthem would be closer to that, since IIRC you can only ever have a maximum of 4 players at a time in an instance, so its not like Destiny where you can get 9+ people all hammering away at a public event, but I guess at some point the change from co-op orientated to match-making for everything happened and that puts a hard limit on the amount of progression you can show in the shared instances.

Perhaps a good compromise would be that you only unlock MM after you complete the mission yourself, so you can have your own authored experience before you dive into the shared world.