Telling Stories: This is the world we live in

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.

Here’s the funny thing about games: at one point, I realized that my shaman in World of Wacraft was essentially a superhero.  She summoned fire, lightning, and wind to do her bidding.  She was superhumanly fast, strong, and intelligent.  She could walk on water and breathe beneath its surface, shroud herself in deadly electricity, and even speed up herself and her allies faster than the eye could see.  Put her in some spandex and give her the same set of powers and no one would bat an eye.

Except, of course, she wasn’t a superhero; she was a shaman.  Because that’s the sort of world she lived in.

The fact is that there are a lot of assumptions that go into a genre, and a lot of assumptions about the ways that the world works.  You’re aware of them, but you probably don’t know exactly why, for the same reason that you know a shaman isn’t a superhero despite her ability list.  Because the world of a fantasy game works differently, even with the exact same abilities.  Even in World of Warcraft, it’s a lot more lethal.

Oh, you've shot me seven times, that hurt.

Running around with two guns was less dangerous here than you’d expect.

Objectively, that’s not true, no.  My characters in City of Heroes were taking missiles and bolts of fire to the chest about as often as my characters in World of Warcraft.  The difference was that in the former, these things weren’t seen as real and immediate threats so long as someone else was there.  Sure, my characters would get in fights, but there was a certain weakness to the punches being thrown.  It’s an accepted part of the genre, that the people around are dramatic casualties or horrified onlookers, not men and women slapping on armor and dying in battle with an opposing army.

Of course, Azeroth isn’t exactly the most dangerous place to live, either; it operates on a fairly firm set of heroic fantasy tropes wherein the heroes are inherently good and the villains are just plain evil, even if they had proper motivation at one point.  The writers have consistently been simplifying the villains of the franchise so that everyone is more clearly on the side of the angels or the devils, with little gray in between.  Tyria of Guild Wars is similarly intent on making the heroes very clearly good, if occasionally at odds with one another; by contrast, Eorzea is filled with well-intentioned people who wind up harming one another through no real malice, and Telara is a world in which two sides can’t find common ground while being faced with more absolute evil around the bend.

In short, the world that you’re playing in makes assumptions about the kinds of stories that go on there.  And on some level, that’s obvious.  There’s a reason why people get shifty-eyed when DC Comics decides that their new storytelling philosophy is everyone losing an arm all the time; it’s not a comfortable fit.  You can’t do Pulp Fiction in Star Wars, even if you do have Sam Jack running about.

What matters the most is what things look like below the surface.  That makes a character distinctly villainous, for example?  When do they cross the line to doing something unforgivable?  In Star Wars: The Old Republic, you have a lot of things that swing you toward the Dark Side without actually being villainous; you have to be really doing some top-level stuff to be counted as a villain.  Being ruthless alone doesn’t make you stop being a hero.  But World of Warcraft has little love for extremists – devote yourself totally to a cause, no matter how noble, and your character is going to read like a villain even if that’s not your intention.

If your primary objection is the presence of spaceships, it might be best to just move on.

This is why people tend to cite Star Wars as a fantasy setting rather than a science fiction one, for instance.

For all that there’s talk about making sure that your character fits the setting, not much attention is given to making sure that your character fits into the sort of fiction told there.  Technically, a transparent expy of Peter Quill could fit in Star Trek Online‘s setting, but the sort of stories he’s involved in don’t fit at all with the player options.  At best, he’d be a reckless idiot that Starfleet needed to save.  Elric doesn’t make sense in Guild Wars 2, Judge Dredd doesn’t fit into Fallen Earth, and trying to bring shades of Warhammer 40,000 into Star Wars: The Old Republic is commendable but unlikely to work out to well by nature of the storytelling.

None of this makes one setting better or worse than another, but it means that different things are important.  A character I play in both Star Trek Online and Final Fantasy XIV has a similar setting-appropriate backstory for both settings, but where her military experience is lauded in the latter, it’s treated as kind of a black mark for the former.  A character who regularly kills other people would be horrible out of tone in Champions Online but would fit in fairly well in The Secret World.  Knowing the fictional basis means that your characters and stories can be tailored to fit the world.

It also means that some stuff just isn’t going to fit very well.  In some settings, mind-altering devices or objects are treated as not a big deal; in others, they’re rare, indicative of serious problems, and should be treated with extreme prejudice.  (If a major villain was toting one around for a while, the setting kind of regards them as a problem.)  If a character is actually shot in WildStar, it’s a big deal and treated with serious health implications, but being shot in The Secret World is mostly just a slap on the wrist for player characters.

There are a lot of little dials that go on in a setting, and it’s important to understand just what those are.  How common is death?  What makes a character a villain?  How serious is injury?  What sort of powers are common and what powers are rare?  How common are powers through the populace in general?  What’s really dangerous and what’s just annoying?

You can’t assume; you need to really explore these things.  Because they make up a good part of the world you play in.

Feedback, like always, is welcome however you care to leave it.  Next time, I want to talk about not planning and the importance of not having an ending in mind.  The week after that, I’m going to to talk about whiffle bats, serial stories, and what’s interesting in terms of environments.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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