Storytelling in an MMO -- Success of the Lich King

Over the past year, a span that has included games like Dragon Age, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Uncharted 2, I can say without equivocation or sense of shame that the best video game story I have experienced is World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King.

You may now vomit.

In just over 12 months since the release of Blizzard’s second expansion, the quiet and too rarely discussed reality is that a phenomenal story has unfolded that is only now beginning to reach its epic climax with the final major content push before World of WarCraft: Cataclysm destroys and reshapes the world of Azeroth.

As they did with Burning Crusade’s Illidan Stormrage — the big baddie for expansion one — they have held the final confrontation with once Prince Arthas now Lich King as the final act before moving on. The difference is that for the year leading up to the ultimate showdown, they have constantly crafted skirmish after skirmish that forwarded a grand story in a way that no MMO ever has, and with skill that absolutely rivals a game like Dragon Age.

Opening scene — you stand upon the parapet of the Ebon Blade, a mighty necropolis floating high above the terrorized town of Hearthglen. Before you, the Lich King himself. You are a minion of evil driving toward a confrontation with the Argent Dawn at Light’s Hope Chapel that may open the door for an all out invasion of Azeroth.

This is not some high level encounter. This is how the Death Knight story line opens. This is the starting area, and in as many ways it is the opening teaser of a grand tale. Within a scant three or four hours you will see a town slowly destroyed and razed, you will engage in a titanic battle, you will see the rise of a new champion against the treachery of the Lich King himself and you will be given a meaningful reason to drive toward the story laid before you.

If you are among the gamers who look condescendingly down your noses at MMOs as empty-calorie time sinks, or even if you played and abandoned WoW prior to the Wrath of the Lich King, mine may seem like the bold declarations of a hopeless fan. While I cannot dispute the latter, I can tell you that historically I have agreed that the weakest part of the genre was the inability of these games to tell a coherent story that a plurality of gamers would be able to enjoy to any kind of conclusion.

In the final analysis, the past year’s work of Blizzard in constructing, improving and maintaining World of WarCraft’s second expansion might be seen as a sea change in how MMOs can and should be crafted.

In the last expansion, The Burning Crusade, the overarching story was the impenetrable realm of lore that only the truly obsessed could parse, and for most of us it was just a matter of clicking the little exclamation points over heads and finding out how many Burning Legion livers we were to extricate from the corpses of possessed orcs. Instance and dungeon runs were loot dispensers, and I doubt seriously that many people came out of Botanica or Shadow Labyrinth with much in the way of a sense of wonder. At least I never did.

For me, the experience of Lich King has been very different. This expansion has provided an omnipresent enemy with a strong story line that walks with you through every zone. Time and again your quests are directly tied into to the fate of Arthas and those he betrayed across the frozen continent of Northrend. It is the culmination of something that began more than a decade ago in Warcraft III, and now as it begins its final climactic act, I have to admit that I’m more engaged with this game’s story than I have been with any in years.

This is not just because I’m a WoW fan or because I have read lore literature extensively — I have not. It’s because time after time The Lich King himself has been involved in my quests, appeared to thwart the efforts I had made, spoke in my mind and taken the battlefield to directly impact the story. Those who last November followed the Wrathgate questline that was almost universally accessible for Lich King players saw what was possible in MMO story telling, and it is extremely gratifying to watch Blizzard continue down that path.

For me, at least, the Lich King himself has become the Darth Vader of video gaming. A bad guy on a grand scale, with more than a few parallels to be made. He should be counted among the industry’s best and most lasting villains, and I am connected to him precisely because we have had so very many encounters.

Blizzard’s trailer for this final content push is, to me, an epic representation of where the story has taken me — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta6Dd.... What is unusual for the MMOs I have played, is that even as a relatively casual player, what I see here makes sense and it seems like content I will actually get to play, not because I will invest endless days into the effort, but because they have made it accessible and fun to reach.

Though the release of this last act is staggered, and the reality is that no one will finally face down Arthas until the snows melts under the spring time sun of 2010, I spent last night delving into the first scenes of this third act, and though I tread dangerously close to spoiler territory here, I can tell you that I delved into a realm of evil, that I raced through a cavern as it collapsed around me, that I followed a hero into battle only to have victory snatched from our grasp, that I encountered yet again the primary evil of this story and that as we eventually ran for our lives I compared what was happening on my screen less to other games and more to my favorite films and shows.

Dismiss the game mechanics of an MMO all you want. I can’t argue coherently with that, but do not hold onto the dismissed illusion that these games can’t tell great stories. On that point, you would be hopelessly wrong.

Comments

A question for Elysium, or Zonk, or whomever:

If WoW was a single player game, would the Wrath of the Lich King story have been different? Would it have been better? Would you view it in the same light?

If WoW was a single player game, would the Wrath of the Lich King story have been different? Would it have been better? Would you view it in the same light?

If crickets were spaceships would they be triangles?

Ok, so to answer your question in a less "dickish" way, I don't think you can look at it that way. Part of what makes Lich King so great is its grand scope, notwithstanding those who think I'm an idiot for looking at it with such joy.

In the end, if Dragon Age becomes some huge trilogy all tied together from beginning to end then we really have some point of comparison. After all WotLK isn't a single player game and wouldn't work the same way in that setting. I don't think you could tell the story that begins at the Ebon Hold, guides you through the Culling of Stratholm, focuses on the betrayal of the Foresaken at the Wrathgate, incorporates the Argent Crusades search for the strongest and brightest to join the Ashen Verdict, tells the tragic story of Uther, Jaina and Arthas and still culminates into what will be the battles at Icecrown Citadel in the right way without having years to do it.

Well, Sean, isn't that a scenario worth considering? We're not discussing how much effort it would take to make such a game, but rather how making WotLK a single player game would add strengths, or potentially weaknesses to the story. You can't translate the experience, but you're telling me that you couldn't create a game that tells the story of your hero's path from being a death knight, to taking on the Lich King in a single player game?

You've never debated the linearity of the story, it seems like it would be pretty straight forward to translate into a single player experience. I don't know if you ever played that campaign in the Warcraft III expansion, where you play as Rexar in a very simple single player version of what WoW would become, but I've often thought that it would be cool to have more Warcraft content delivered in that format.

Bullion Cube wrote:
I don't know if you ever played that campaign in the Warcraft III expansion, where you play as Rexar in a very simple single player version of what WoW would become, but I've often thought that it would be cool to have more Warcraft content delivered in that format.

Indeed it would. A few years ago Blizzard ounded quite dismissive of another Warcraft RTS coming out, but recently they have called it a possibility, so maybe if we are lucky Many years from now anyway.

While the story could obviously be told in a singleplayer game, it wouldn't be the same experience anymore (not that it would be a worse experience, personally I'd love any Warcraft singleplayer game). Part of the experience is in the fact that its a social, shared experience in many ways.
Maybe the experience is what matters here, and not the 'quality of the story'. Experiencing the storyline(s) in WOTLK can be great indeed. That doesnt mean the storyline itself is comparable to DAOs, as the way they are told and experienced are so different from each other. They both succeed in terms of the player being allowed to have a good experience with the storyline within the context of the game, even if the storyline of WoW is more simple, very often incoherent, and more linear than DAOs.

But then again, people in this thread nearly acts like Biowares self-described 'mature content' in DAO is the pinnacle of storytelling

I'm not sure I would call WOTLK "in-game" the best game story Ive experienced this year (and if it is, its probably because I havent got around to finish most of my games yet, including DAO).
The total experience from the storyline however is much more than the sum of its parts. All the way back to Warcraft 3, and through the Warcraft books, which for me adds something to the game and I enjoy reading them for that very reason, despite the fact that the books themselves unsurprisingly are very bad 'literature'.
Its a much broader experience than what DOA and similar can bring me (which again doesn't mean better). Broader, but not as deep on its own.

On an unrelated note LOTRO did indeed have much better storytelling than WoW at release, but at the same time, so much of its ability to tell a good story relies on the LOTR books themselves, and the knowledge and expectations the players bring in from the books/movies.
Warcraft is very different in this respect.

Never played WoW, but anyone play both Lich King and Guild Wars? I keep hearing people saying how WoW is the very first MMO to tell a progressive story and all that but it seems like Guild Wars was doing it since it launched.

Not trying to shoot down your griffon or whatever. I just think that WoW has so much going for it, has accomplished so much and is so, well, great, that it doesn't need to be stealing accolades from other games that might have contributed in their own little ways. Even if it tells a story better than Guild Wars, Guild Wars had an actual story arc long before WoW did.

That and Guild Wars isn't straight up Warhammer + Tolkien.

The Death Knights start in the necropolis named Acherus, not Ebon Blade. They become the faction called the Knights of the Ebon Blade, but that is not until the end of the Death Knight starter area.

Illidan may have been marketed as the final boss of the Burning Crusade, but the true final boss was Kil'jaeden.

This article is completely inaccurate. IMAGE(http://i.somethingawful.com/forumsystem/emoticons/emot-colbert.gif)

The storyline of Lich King wasn't being attacked because it wasn't Dragon Age. I think most people are aware that it's pretty awesome, within the limitations of an MMO. What was being attacked was the assertion that Lich King is the best "Storyline" of any game out there.

I think both you and Elysium are better served saying that the Lich King is the best "Experience" you had in gaming this year, or ever if that floats your boat. When I read your arguments Experience is what I hear you talking about, not how gripping the story is as a stand alone feature. Being in an MMO, experiencing the content with all of your friends and guildies - it's like going to the best 80s hair band concert ever. You love it, I get it, and you want to experience it again every night with all of your friends.

But when you start saying "Def Lepard has the best compositions ever" then someone's going to call bullsh*t on you.

Mordiceius wrote:
The Death Knights start in the necropolis named Acherus, not Ebon Blade. They become the faction called the Knights of the Ebon Blade, but that is not until the end of the Death Knight starter area.

Illidan may have been marketed as the final boss of the Burning Crusade, but the true final boss was Kil'jaeden.

This article is completely inaccurate. IMAGE(http://i.somethingawful.com/forumsystem/emoticons/emot-colbert.gif)

Zing!

Looking through the posts Ive made on the Japan topic for podcast 165 and the article by Elysium here, Im coming to a realization that he may not like.

Modern MMORPGs' from the US trace as a core influence the Dungeons and Dragons model of gaming. A main ingredient of that model was that the adventures were crafted by the players' dugeon master. Every expansion on the D&D universe was a sandbox of tools for the role players to individually create another new adventure. (Western social ideals - individuality and freedom of choice)

Modern MMORPGSs' ,and gaming tastes in general, I believe, from Asia trace their origins back to the storytelling traditions of Asian comic art in Japanese manga and Korean manhwa. Players are able to share in a common game/manga/anime mythology that will constantly evolve but will always contain cohesive and uniting elements. (Eastern social ideals - community and societal cohesion)

I had brought up Final Fantasy XI online released in 2002 with its "Crystal War" epic as an example that predates World of Warcraft in terms of an MMO that has a cohesive story. An even better example is the Korean Ragnarok Online which was released in 2001. Based on the Korean comic of the same name, its expansions are even termed "episodes". And as is the fact that the anime/game/manga industry in Asia is linked and interdependent, the original comic creator of Ragnarok is on the staff thats developing Ragnarok Online II. That would be like having Gary Gygax (bless his resting soul) working on D&D Online or Lucas working on KOTOR Online.

So everything that Elysium is praising WOW in the article has been done in Asian MMORPGs ' beforehand, where storytelling is a core part of the game design. That said, I give huge respect for how Blizzard makes and works its games. It may not have built the most original mousetrap, but they refine and homogenize (and often really age) the cheese so that as many of the world's mice fall into its clutches.

Fascinating article and discussion. As someone who has leveled multiple level 80 characters in Wrath of the Lich King, and who has completed the Dragon Age story twice with different characters, I'm really not quite sure what to say. A couple of things struck me though:

Elysium wrote:
The argument seems to be that since DA provides this football shaped pathway through the story, it is fundamentally more superior. I'm saying the choice in delivery structure isn't relevant alone. How that story is handled within that structure is. If WotLK had a great story but failed to deliver it properly in its interactive medium then you'd have a point. Your statement as read seems to state that, for example, DA is automatically better than Bioshock or Uncharted simply because it offers the illusion of choices.

Except the path through Dragon Age is not football-shaped. It's more like a pile of spaghetti. There are multiple junction points that every character goes through. The outcome of each junction, though, is different, based on your actions. Every character goes through every set piece, but the story changes dramatically, and there are multiple pivot points. This is the kind of player-driven storytelling that Wrath of the Lich King doesn't come close to.

Bullion Cube wrote:
Dragon Age also gives you companions with independant personalities that travel with you and enhance your experience. They judge your decisions, they talk to you if they approve of your actions, or are concerned by your decisions. They'll turn on you. They'll joke with you. They'll love you. You'll see the hurt in their eyes if they feel you've betrayed them.

These are all elements of storytelling that Lich King just can't touch.

They are elements of storytelling that are absent from WoW, but the gameplay experience you describe is not absent. In WoW, it's vastly better, because (if you're doing it right) your companions are human beings with more depth than any scripted characters could hope to provide. They'll turn on you. They'll joke with you. They'll love you. You'll hear the hurt in their voices over Ventrilo if they feel you've betrayed them.

Several people have asked "what if Wrath of the Lich King were a single player game"? I don't think that would work. The multiplayer-ness of it is its strength. Where Blizzard has succeeded massively* is that they have taken World of Warcraft lore and shaped it into a story that is best experienced in groups. They haven't forsaken** solo players. They keep adding more stuff for you to do by yourself. Still, the core of the story and most of the high points happen in group play.

[size=8]* sorry
** again, sorry[/size]

Elysium wrote:
Part of what makes Lich King so great is its grand scope, notwithstanding those who think I'm an idiot for looking at it with such joy.

In the end, if Dragon Age becomes some huge trilogy all tied together from beginning to end then we really have some point of comparison. After all WotLK isn't a single player game and wouldn't work the same way in that setting.

If we're comparing interactive storytelling, yes. If we're comparing stories, no. I think the stories are comparable right now. Dragon Age has a much richer story than Wrath of the Lich King, and I would argue an equally compelling backstory. A lot of the stuff in Wrath of the Lich King--most of the Storm Peaks storyline culminating in Ulduar, Trial of the Crusader, everything about the Taunka and Tuskarr--is incidental or tangential to the main story at best. They are entirely necessary to the gameplay experience and storytelling, though, because they provide context for the richly varied world in which the main story takes place.

The storytelling and gameplay really aren't objectively comparable. Dragon Age has the best single player story I've experienced. World of Warcraft has the best multiplayer story I've experienced. Whether Batman, Uncharted, Dragon Age, Wrath of the Lich King, or Bioshock is the best video game story you have experienced depends almost entirely on the kind of game experiences you enjoy most.

Good article - I just want to say though that WOW wasn't the first or only MMO to do a really good job at telling stories that went far beyond the usual "bring me 10 wolf pelts" quest grinding. LOTRO continues to do an excellent job of being story-driven with it's new Mirkwood expansion. Guild Wars had great story missions and a very unique and enjoyable story (especially the Nightfall expansion). AOC did a great job in the early Tortage missions, though unfortunately the later levels seemed pretty lackluster.

Quintis wrote:
Looking through the posts Ive made on the Japan topic for podcast 165 and the article by Elysium here, Im coming to a realization that he may not like.

Modern MMORPGs' from the US trace as a core influence the Dungeons and Dragons model of gaming. A main ingredient of that model was that the adventures were crafted by the players' dugeon master. Every expansion on the D&D universe was a sandbox of tools for the role players to individually create another new adventure. (Western social ideals - individuality and freedom of choice)

Modern MMORPGSs' ,and gaming tastes in general, I believe, from Asia trace their origins back to the storytelling traditions of Asian comic art in Japanese manga and Korean manhwa. Players are able to share in a common game/manga/anime mythology that will constantly evolve but will always contain cohesive and uniting elements. (Eastern social ideals - community and societal cohesion)

I had brought up Final Fantasy XI online released in 2002 with its "Crystal War" epic as an example that predates World of Warcraft in terms of an MMO that has a cohesive story. An even better example is the Korean Ragnarok Online which was released in 2001. Based on the Korean comic of the same name, its expansions are even termed "episodes". And as is the fact that the anime/game/manga industry in Asia is linked and interdependent, the original comic creator of Ragnarok is on the staff thats developing Ragnarok Online II. That would be like having Gary Gygax (bless his resting soul) working on D&D Online or Lucas working on KOTOR Online.

So everything that Elysium is praising WOW in the article has been done in Asian MMORPGs ' beforehand, where storytelling is a core part of the game design. That said, I give huge respect for how Blizzard makes and works its games. It may not have built the most original mousetrap, but they refine and homogenize (and often really age) the cheese so that as many of the world's mice fall into its clutches.

I've played FFXI and Ragnarok and found the stories in both cold and sparse in comparison to the stories found in WoW. In fact playing those made me realize just how much effort Blizzard has put in to their stories. Now when you toss in gameplay and mechanics into the mix. Those games just fall short all together.

I forgot who posted earlier about LotRO and AC, but Turbine was definitely doing this way back when with AC. The monthly story updates kept you engaged with the story and the world around you. Only thing that has kept me attached as far as story goes so far since then has been WoW and the continuation of the story with WotLK.

Filthy enablers! I was hoping to stay away from WoW until Cataclysm. I should have been suspicious when that monkey skipped off into the closet way too easily.

Great article btw.

Quintis wrote:
Modern MMORPGSs' ,and gaming tastes in general, I believe, from Asia trace their origins back to the storytelling traditions of Asian comic art in Japanese manga and Korean manhwa. Players are able to share in a common game/manga/anime mythology that will constantly evolve but will always contain cohesive and uniting elements. (Eastern social ideals - community and societal cohesion)

I had brought up Final Fantasy XI online released in 2002 with its "Crystal War" epic as an example that predates World of Warcraft in terms of an MMO that has a cohesive story. An even better example is the Korean Ragnarok Online which was released in 2001. Based on the Korean comic of the same name, its expansions are even termed "episodes". And as is the fact that the anime/game/manga industry in Asia is linked and interdependent, the original comic creator of Ragnarok is on the staff thats developing Ragnarok Online II. That would be like having Gary Gygax (bless his resting soul) working on D&D Online or Lucas working on KOTOR Online.

I think you're confusing the western idea of roleplaying with the more eastern, social gaming dynamic. Most Asian MMO's don't really provide all that much of a story in the game, despite the rather considerable backstory or other lore that is created for it. Instead, the focus is on the world itself, and how the players interact with each other and it. Asian MMO's are better examples of emergent gameplay(like EVE Online) than examples of traditional storytelling.

Ragnarok Online, for example, doesn't tell a specific narrative. The player is pretty much left to their own devices in how they play the game. The quests that the player chooses to take are a part of how they choose to play. While there can be sub-plots, there really isn't an overreaching story to guide the player. Instead, the player creates their own story through their interactions with people and with the world.

The problem with this article is that its conflating good gameplay moments and attributing them to good story telling. Sorry, but reading quest text/watching cut-scenes and doing the death knight introduction that is optional does not leap out as great storytelling. They are good, strong improvements on the genre. There needs to be more explanation/examples of storytelling affecting the game in order to support the argument. Saying "well, it would be so full of spoilers" may have good intentions, but it neuters the overall assertion. Doing a bunch of quests and seeing Arthas every now and then doesn't show us how evil of a character he is. It doesn't show us how you felt about what happened or if it transferred a conflicting emotion to the player either. We don't know if all these quests are connected in a flowing plot development arc or if it's simply standard questing grinds that are fragmented all over the place. It's all hollow bullet-points that you feel are strong, but when read by someone else they convey nothing. It feels like when someone writes "this game is compelling". I'll borrow the words of Shawn Elliot and say "don't tell me it's compelling, show me it's compelling."

The Dragon Age comment screws up the context as well. It's like you're comparing storytelling in an open world MMO having little authorial control to a single player RPG with much more authorial control. This is a battle already lost. If you had simply gone on about how Lich King has innovated and redefined story telling in the MMO genre, I bet lots of people would be discussing how and why.

Coldtouch wrote:
Good stuff.

I like this guy. Hurry up and do 1000 posts. I've got some complimentary suggestions for your "tagging".

Bullion Cube wrote:
Coldtouch wrote:
Good stuff.

I like this guy. Hurry up and do 1000 posts. I've got some complimentary suggestions for your "tagging".

Don't scare people away. That's my job, and then only when their grammar reminds me of a metal rake drawn across asphalt.

I feel terrible. I am such a WoW Noob having just started in August 2009 and only having 2 characters. Neither bast 25. Heck my Night Elf isn't even past level 15.

I feel terrible that I am absorbing the WoW Lore so badly too. My Uncle gave me two Warcraft lore books, Warcraft Archive, and War of the Ancients. Not to mention I am addicted to exploring the world more than doing Level 20 quests on my Warrior and druid. I am one of those guys who can wait to explore the full city of the next Grand Theft Auto. Now I've been given a new toy. A world so large it takes literally hours to cross on horse.

Oh and there is one last thing. I am happily not a WoW addict yet... Tho 2 weeks without at least logging in to try a quest is bothering me. Might be time to buy a 2 month subscription card from Walmart.

Michael Zenke wrote:
WotLK, as experienced with a group of fellow MMO-players and friends, is the most compelling and enjoyable storytelling experience you can have in a game this year. The element that I'm trying to introduce here is the concept of grouped play as key to the equation.

Chicken sandwich, as experienced with a large helping of cheese and bacon, is the most compelling and enjoyable eating experience you can have in a meal this year.

I don't disagree with you on your conclusion, Zonk, but you've kind of loaded your argument there with the "fellow MMO-players and friends" qualifier.

How many sh*tty party games have we all played and loved because we did it with friends?

You might as well add "as experienced with rum and Coke" to make your argument stronger. Or maybe "as experienced during intercourse..."

So many options.

Yew wrote:
How many sh*tty party games have we all played and loved because we did it with friends?

To hopefully avoid being misunderstood here - WoW is not the equivalent of a sh*tty party game. I like WoW. I play WoW. Some of my best friends are WoW players.

It's just that I don't quite yet see a strong causal connection between "playing with friends is fun" and "this story is good." They are compatible, but not necessarily related, sentiments.

I killed the thread! Woot.

Yew the Thread-Killer.