While there are many ways in which a culture keeps itself alive, one of the single most important manners of doing so is in the telling of stories. It is through our collective stories that we are aware as individuals, who we are, where we came from, and what we stand for.
The same goes for games – as in World of Warcraft.
I can’t remember who said it, but there is a fantastic line I throw at my writing students at the beginning of each year: If you don’t tell your story, then someone else will. So much comes from the tales we tell, both of our lives and the lives of those around us. Our culture and much of our very existence is shared by our stories. In each telling, we learn more about ourselves as individuals. But this is even more important for a culture.
The root word of history is the Latin historia - which translates as story. History is a story, a story of a culture and social ideal. It is also what creates meaning for us. Along with that, each story is embedded in its current historical and social context. We can learn much about a society by its history, that is, its story. I figure it is for this reason that most fantasy novels read like history, I might even go so far as to say that every fantasy starts from that point. What is the lore for this world I am about to create? In asking that question, the writer has to take many factors into account: mythology, geography, great actors in that world’s story, and the like.
A video game, especially an RPG, is no different. Blizzard has provided its players quite a bit of lore for our enjoyment. Anything a player might want to know about the game, and what he or she is doing, can go by and see how that fits in the lore of the whole world and its history. But, what makes the lore so wonderful, is how it is unfolded in the game.
It is in the story telling that makes games unique. Let’s face it, how different is one RPG from another in the grand scheme of games? How different is one first-person shooter different from another? It is in the immersion of the greater story at play. Sometimes, this immersion in story is lacking – though it does not have to. Our lives are our stories unfolding before our very eyes, it just takes time to realize this. In many ways, this is what diarists do, they recount the story of their day, they realize that it is this daily telling that helps create meaning in their lives. Newspapers, at least at one point, used to serve this purpose, as a writer is called a journalist. It was his or her job to record what happened that day, to journal it. Of course, their purpose has shifted in recent years, but that is another story altogether.
But, when it comes to games, it is the narrative which keeps us going, among other reasons. We are not clearly aware of the role we have in the greater narrative of reality, so we seek the place of a character, whose purpose is defined and articulated in a story which unfolds for us. We are aware of the plot, the conflict, the heroes and villains, and we see our role in that story.
What gives a game like World of Warcraft its uniqueness among all games, is its story – it is, again, what gives each game its reason to stand out among others. As you go through the expansions over the years, you will see that each has a wonderful story which unfolds – and each content patch expands on the story happening. From “Vanilla” through Wrath of the Lich King, each stands out with a story in which to immerse ourselves. Each expansion offered a new arch villain, each offered players a chance to fulfill a role in the development of that narrative, and each followed the traditional narrative pattern seen in the great stories of our culture.
Each expansion follows the same linear development of a good story. We have the conflict, the rising action, the climax, and finally the resolution. In each story, there are the archetypes of the hero, the struggle for freedom, the villain, and so many others.
It is this that seems to be lacking in the upcoming release from Blizzard’s WoW series, The Mists of Pandaria. You may have noticed that my previews have slowed down. Currently, my rogue is is running around Northrend right now. From the beginning until now, he has been engaged in the unfolding narrative, in this case, going after Arthas. Each quest has had some connection to that narrative, each quest has been pointing Eyegöre in that singular direction. It is here where I fear Mists of Pandaria might lose some fans. At this point, I am not too impressed with the narrative, though we will see what Blizzard does with it in future content patches. As it stands, it’s hard to become fully engaged in the story – since, for lack of a better word, the experience is a bit dull.
That said, the trailer displays the over-arching theme of our culture: one side pitted against another in a new land. Our history has revolved around that idea, that any land is ours (never theirs) to exploit, dominate, subdue, and conquer. I fear that Blizzard is retelling this tale for a new generation.
In the end, though, if you want to get to know someone, ask them to tell you their story. My guess is that the better the story, the more reflective and more understanding the person. People who have no sense of their story, seem to have no sense in their purpose. The same is in a game: no story, no purpose.
As you make your way through Azeroth or any game, what stories keep you playing? What is your favorite story in Azeroth?
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