I began playing World of Warcraft sometime before the Burning Crusade Expansion was released in 2007, at I estimate around age 8. At that point, it was shortly before I transferred schools midway through elementary school, and having played the game on and off for the past 11 years, World of Warcraft represents one of the longest relationships in my life. My early memories of playing characters are extremely sharp and lucid, not from my successes, which were few. Rather, I remember when my Gnome Warlock, “Satso,” was unable to complete the quest to bind his Voidwalker solo. Wandering Ironforge, the dwarf and gnome capital, I acquired the assistance of an upper level cloth character who dispatched the boss in a second. After helping me, the character gave me gold and a set of runecloth bags and set me off to continue the adventure with the aid of the voidwalker, who provided me with a companion that my warlock could not. This emergent narrative represents the community aspect of Pre-Wow MMOs that faded with the second generation.
Early MMO’s were rather minimalist in their design. Developing the hotly debated tab targeting system to replace hitboxes that would put too much strain on early 2000s servers. When you create a character on classic servers of the original Everquest, you are given nothing. You have no narrator to give knowledge of how to progress or where to go and are simply set on your own to journey through the land of Norrath. Instead of a tutorial or yellow check mark overhead, you simply get to experience your character entering a sort of lived in highly conventional fantasy World. To the sort of fantasy-fan that would initially have played Everquest, Sony Online Entertainment created an Evocative Space of both the more literary Tolkien-esque fantasy and the counterculture Gygax-isms familiar to players of Dungeons and Dragons. The High Elves live in their white city in the mountains above the wooded treetop homes of the Wood Elves. Gnomes in their mechanical cities compared to Barbarians in the frozen north. This combined with the embedded narratives. The subtle quests and tasks that emerge from talking to the townsfolk. When players enter the Hole and fight its various magical mysteries, the developers reveal to the players the story of the war that shattered Erudite civilization in the same way as a modern narrative game like Gone Home.
This simple storytelling worked, because it created an inhabitable world for the players to live in and explore their own stories. Beneath the world of Norrath that created so many possibilities, the real story of Everquest was you sitting in the city assembling a party and developing a routine of clearing through enemy camps to level up. The sort of pedestrian street level stories of cooperating with strangers to destroy a group of elementals, rather than a world-ending threat provided joy to the millions of players who made their way through Everquest. World of Warcraft began the process by which this minimalism was done away with. Each World of Warcraft zone in the early days had quests that provided the primary means of advancement, but they didn’t distract from the core interaction with other players to level up and play dungeons, the conventional source of emergent storytelling. The few truly game-changing enacted narratives like the Jailbreak Quest Chain, where players exposed the Dragon Onyxia’s infiltration into the Alliance government in order to become attuned for the raid on her lair, provided a story-telling heavy exception that didn’t get in the way of player interactions.
This tendency changed with the post 2010 Wow-killers released during the games Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm peaked. Their influence would later fall back onto World of Warcraft, which now relies heavily on isolated single-player storytelling in an isolated disconnected world, away from the server community of ostensible strangers from Classic WOW. In 2011’s Star Wars the Old Republic, players experienced a unique solo storyline depending on their class that led to them reaching a high-ranking position in either the Sith Empire or Old Republic. This simplified version of the traditional Bioware storytelling recognizable from Mass Effect or Dragon Age, created an entirely personal enacted narrative for you to play through in the Star Wars universe. While, creating a sense of emerging narrative by giving you choices in the storyline, at its core, by siphoning players off into ludo-narrative dissonant pocket universes in which they’re the head of the Jedi Order, it isolated players from creating their own narratives through simply playing together.
You can find countless forums across the internet wishing for the old style of MMO, for which there is currently no current game that scratches the itch of. To these orphaned MMO players, for whom there is nothing like there old experiences, emergent narratives and the nostalgia about them represents a massive influence on these people. In considering game design of MMORPG’s we should look to the MMO to recognize the strength and power these emerging narratives possess. That we can develop long, complicated, and intentional storylines, but the real memorable narratives can be developed from simply giving people a sandbox and letting them run wild, forming connections with one another that could be remembered for a lifetime.