This week, we dive into MMO storytelling by looking at settings. In my brief search of the interwebs, I noticed a few definitions of a ‘good’ literary setting which resurfaced in every discussion. Setting needs to be more than just a backdrop to the plot. Let’s take a look at the literary fiction views about what makes a good setting:
- Immersion. The presentation is deep enough to truly allow you to envision yourself there.
- Novelty. Whether simply a different setting than we’ve seen before, or a familiar setting presented in a new way, it ought to tease our minds with original concepts.
- Personality. A setting should have a consistent mood, feel, and style to it. Some authors describe settings with human characteristics, even treating them like characters themselves.
- Change. An interesting setting isn’t static, (like a generic forest), but should be in some state of change. Even as subtle as night to day or summer to autumn will do. Better still are contextual changes, influenced by the larger whole of what’s going on in the world. Rich context shows the history of a place, and asks more questions than it answers.
There’s a few more common veins running through the discussions I saw, but these four were by far the most advocated by the literary crowd.
Now let’s take a look at how MMOs are doing with settings:
- Immersion: MMOs can generally cop-out on this one. There’s a certain level of immersion that you get for free, just for being a game rather than a movie or book. Still, some game environments are more immerive than others, and there’s room for improvement. Generally, I’d say MMOs do just fine in this category.
- Novelty: Arguable. On one hand, you typically get just about every possible spectrum of biome (both earthly and alien), climate and mood in an MMO. From rolling hills, to secret forests, to unholy caves deep in the earth. However, on the flip side most prolifically copy these ‘novel’ settings from one another, and chances are that any two fantasy MMOs share a good 80% of settings.
- Personality: While there is typically some thought put into mood design, from my experience, MMOs treat settings as dead backdrops and scenery that don’t lend any kind of ‘personality’. The streamlined nature of questing also distracts from noticing too much of the environment either. I think it’s safe to say that the ‘personality’ of a given area or zone is pretty shallow, but you’re welcome to contend this with examples.
- Change: Ah, yes… the massive critical fail. Due to the themepark nature, areas will stay unchanged for (typically) the entire lifetime of the game. The sleepy starting forest area is always peaceful. No context is seen of events transpiring in other areas, nor hints that there even are other areas in the world. Unfortunately, I’ve only ever seen MMOs treat areas as separate, isolated sections of the world. Usually there aren’t even seasons, weather, or subtle changes. Sandboxes push the envelope, but even then I doubt that the environment itself changes.
Until next time, what is the most immersive setting you’re ever experienced in an MMO?