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.