I happened upon a blog post and comment thread–over on Terra Nova–from 2004 asking where the heroes and heroic acts are in MMOs. The comment thread was far more fascinating than the OP, because it involved a whole lot of people trying to actively figure out the answer to the question, as opposed to one dudes hot take.
The issue addressed is this: Why do MMORPGs lack the awesome player-initiated heroic moments that are often found in table-top/pen-and-paper RPGS or you friendly neighborhood game of Humans vs. Zombies(insert any LARP here)?
What does this have to do with writing fiction and literature, you may ask? Well, a lot of things. Also, video games are art. There is writing in games. And if you read the TOS, there’s no rule saying I can only talk about writing commercial genre prose fiction.
But back to my first point, there’s a lot you can learn about writing prose fiction from looking at interactive mediums like video games, LARPing, and pen-and-paper role-playing games.
In a novel(or short story or whatever), narrative is king. You the writer dictate the course of the narrative by divine fiat. In a traditional MMORPG, the developer dictates the limited number of available narrative choices by divine fiat. This is especially true when a game is an interactive narrative or visual novel, but also true in theme park/sand box/open world narratives or even in something like an FPS. Much like a book, a computer game, even when online and multi-player, is a fixed entity.
Now compare this to D&D which has rule suggestions, but is run by a Game Master or Dungeon Master who can dynamically tweak those suggested rules to fit the situation. If we look at these three types of narrative experience as three circles, two of the circle include within them a greater ability to create heroic moments. The reason for this fairly simple: Most of the time, even heroes are boring and normal. Heroism is defined in part by its rarity. Importance is defined in contrast to un-importance. The fantastic is defined in contrast to the mundane,
In prose fiction or a role-playing game, we can work around the mundanity by choosing to present only a very specific slice of the narrative, of the life of the hero. We can chop out all the boring stuff, leaving just enough hints to frame the fantastic and heroic–or villainous–acts. Prose achieves this by fiat narrative. The reader has no influence, they are only consuming what we the author have produced, sculpted, and fine-tuned to demonstrate heroism.
The same is true for a single-player game with a set narrative. The player can fail or succeed in our set-piece conflicts, but no matter how many times they fail, the challenge remains the same. But in contrast to our prose narrative or RPG session, there can be no heroic acts by the player, because they player cannot change the narrative. There might be a scripted act by a side-character. But when we talk about heroic acts in MMORPGs, by default, the goal is player heroism.
Now, in an MMORPG, the player has more freedom to act. The game doesn’t restart when the player dies. There are still often set-pieces, but there are also parts of the game in between. Because the game creator cannot actively interfere in the game, heroism cannot be written in the way an author or a DM might do so. It can only arise from player action.
But although the game doesn’t restart on the player’s failure of a quest, the player’s individual narrative generally does. They might lose some experience or equipment, but their character remains intact. And this is much of what precludes heroic behavior. Losing is essentially meaningless, outside of the meta-issue of having to grind a few more hours to recover from the death penalty. If there is no sense of loss or failure, it’s not really heroism. The man jumping on the grenade to protect his friends usually suffers severe and often permanent consequences. There’s a good chance he will die, and in the real world and even most novels, he’s not likely to be coming back from that. But in the archetypal MMO, there is no permadeath because players invest a lot in a given character and usually don’t like starting over from scratch.
This leads us directly to the first obvious condition for heroic deeds in an MMO. Permanent character death that cannot be avoided by loading a save-game. Now, there’s a lot of momentum against this trope in most MMOs, as I mentioned above. So the question now becomes, how do we counteract this? In most MMOs today, such as the perennial World of Warcraft, everyone can play all the content, because creating it is expensive. This means that when I kill the dragon, it’s not really dead, because then how could you kill it? They can’t write unique content by hand for all 12 million players. Thus, even a heroic act to achieve a difficult goal is essentially meaningless to the player. It has no permanent effect to offset losing your entire character, which also leaves you unable to play with your friends who all have months or years invested in their own characters.
Which leads us to our first road-block on the path to creating meaningful heroism in an MMO. Heroism is expensive. Even if you can just make a new character, returning to your previous narrative position or experience level could take months or years. Heroism in a game you pay to play and in which you are competing with other players requires a commensurate reward. And that reward doesn’t exist when your heroism has not even a temporary effect on the game or the other players around you. How then, to provide that effect?
The terranova thread explores several possible answers. You could have a persistent game-state shared among all players, at least on the same server. That changes the way you develop your content, and it means everyone can’t be a hero. Which sucks for newer players, or less-skilled players, because likely they aren’t going to be the one who first slays the Lich King. But consider this: with a consistent game state, you close off some avenues, but open others. Perhaps not every character can save the world single-handedly. But what about the village over yonder? Since the game-world can change now, you have small quests that still matter, but aren’t going to be hogged by the high-level players. The hundred gold from saving the village is essentially meaningless to our level 150 Lich-slaying Paladin. But the level 12 Warrior who just started playing a few weeks ago might find it very handy. And if he fails and dies, why then those five weeks are a lot easier to make up than two years. And similarly, if our would-be Lich-slayer fails, well, the quest wouldn’t be so heroic if the risks weren’t so high. So now all out players have level-appropriate tasks with useful rewards. And if you connect enough low level-tasks, your village-saver might just find he saved the world by accident.
The thread at the link above also touches on another issue of prose/table-top vs. MMO games. In prose and table-top RPGs, staying in character is often rewarded, whereas an MMO has no easy way to enforce your tragic back-story and weakness for cigars. Sure, a particularly talented RPer might be famous for their dedication to staying in-character. But why should minmaxxerz47 bother when doing so might hamper their goals? Even a reputation system can’t enforce proper behavior. MM47 is just going to game it.
But wait! What if different player and NPC factions took a closer look at your behavior? Perhaps saving that villager makes the humans happy, but the clan of the vampire you killed doesn’t take it too kindly. And maybe they have something you want. Even without a persistent game state or permadeath, giving different NPCs different opinions of the choices you make can add a sense of heroism.
And, you can make it even more useful by looking at your character sheet. It might be irrelevant in Elder Scrolls whether you follow the lore on your race. Even with the Faction Reputation system, perhaps it’s far better to rob that grave anyway, even if a High Elf wouldn’t, because of the cool equipment you get. But if every Elf NPC in the world now refuses to do business with you because you’ve betrayed the laws of Elf-kind, then staying in character suddenly has some serious in-game relevance.
Or perhaps you have a tragic past. Maybe you were orphaned at a young age. Or a kindly old cleric of Imra gave you food wen you were starving. So killing that Imran Initiate for their expensive clothes is doable, but you take a stat hit for ignoring your respect for clerics. Conversely, perhaps you’re written as a vicious killer, and though showing mercy to your enemy might net a nice amulet, brutally slaughtering them adds to your reputation as someone not to mess with, and those palace guards aren’t quite as keen to detain you when you force your way to the throne room to see the king.
It takes a bit (or maybe a lot) more care in coding and writing the lore for the game to support players for staying in-character, but it’s certainly doable.
Finally, we come to the other side of the perma-death coin: the difficulty of raising a new character. The obvious approach is to pre-level you to the appropriate point. That does kinda defeat the goal of perma-death, however. But what if the game were designed to have you play several characters over the course of your time in it. Perhaps you can only have one character at a time, as opposed to the common use of a few well-leveled alts on different servers. Perhaps characters automatically age and die over time. Perhaps you learn things in one play-through that are useful when you take a different class on your next character. Maybe you could only learn that secret alchemical trick if you once progressed through the mage class. Perhaps your experience using a variety of weapons and armors teaches you something about armor-crafting you can’t learn sitting in the smithy all-day. More off-beat: perhaps you carry-over some stats or skills or items from each consecutive character, sort of like how child units in Fire Emblem differ depending on their parentage. Or perhaps your guild will lose this battle and you’ll all die permanently if you don’t sacrifice yourself.
There are all sorts of ways to make death the more interesting choice or just an equally interesting choice to just grinding on a single character, meaning players will be more willing to take the kind of risks that lead to heroics. Of course, this opens up the door to hardcore players purposefully killing themselves in order to milk the system for advantages, but hard-cores gonna hard-core no matter what, whereas casual or average players are going to enjoy your game more if opportunities to do cool stuff aren’t all downside if they fail.