Anyone with at least a vague understanding of stories, whether in MMOs or elsewhere, role-playing or canon, recognizes that stories require stakes. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t seem to really understand what’s at stake… and even more unfortunate that that includes not only role-playing players, but also professional writers working on MMO storylines.
The thing about staking is that the strictest definition of staking is pretty straightforward. It’s about what’s at stake. If everything goes wrong, X will happen, and the main characters don’t want that to happen. It’s easy, isn’t it? No. No, it’s not. Because it ignores all the things that make missions work, and it overlooks one of the most fundamental elements of missions, which is that we all know a story doesn’t work real.
I’m not just saying that we all know it’s fictional, even though that’s an element of the game. I mean, we all know that the outcome is decided before the story begins.
Let’s take an obvious example that most people probably at least have some Experiences with. Whenever a new James Bond film comes out, the question naturally arises as to whether James Bond can defeat the henchmen of a colorful megalomaniac, uncover this megalomaniac’s conspiracy, and find a way to foil it while he is in bed with incredibly attractive women rolls around. Can James Bond achieve this goal?
Yes. Of course he can. You paid for that. You knowledge that will happen. Sure, a well-written part can surprise you in terms of what people die throughout the story and how much damage the villain does before the end comes, but realistically you know from the start of the film that it’s a foregone conclusion thing is . While the film’s plot might say that it’s all at stake, it really isn’t.
That doesn’t stop the better films in the series from being fun, though. If it is done well, the question is not will he does all this; You know he will. It’s all about what interesting scenes will happen, what cool locations there will be for gunfights, and what awesome gadgets James will use throughout the film. Those are them actually Calls.
When managed well, disbelief sets in and we all pretend not to know that the actual ending is a foregone conclusion. An entertaining film is also entertaining when you know how it ends. But the whole point of the stakes is that it’s not really about what might happen if the main characters fail; It is What drives the audience to engage in the conflict?.
And when the stakes are bad, you are not invested.
During the main story of Final Fantasy XIV: EndwalkersThere’s a lengthy sequence at the start of Act Two in which what seemed like the great evil was defeated, but we know that in doing so opened the door to something even worse. At this point, however, we enter a longer phase in which the characters go to great lengths to repair the moon, which is intended to serve as an escape ship for the people of the world to escape this catastrophe.
And this is where the bets fail because, as already mentioned, We know that won’t happen. We already know that there isn’t a scenario where we need to use the backup plan, because well, the game doesn’t actually end. And here we see one of the great problems with staking, which is ironically that so many stories fail because the stakes are high too high.
No reality-eating monster will actually break through and destroy reality World of Warcraft because Stormwind and Orgrimmar must still exist at the start of the next expansion. The Elder Dragons never really wanted to destroy Tyria Guild Wars 2 Because that’s where the players play the game. And your promise to kill another character The Elder Scrolls Online sounds hollow because that’s someone else’s character. Nobody dies without the player’s consent.
By raising the stakes, you expose the lie. It’s like you stop worrying after the age of eight if Batman will escape a deathtrap. It’s not “Will he find out?” It’s “What fun way will he find out?”
It feels like it’s more intense as the stakes go up. But there is actually a sweet spot. Once you climb high enough into the doomsday world, it ceases to be even remotely convincing and you realize it’s all… well, fake. You know this isn’t really going to happen because the game has to be playable tomorrow, so you mentally shut down.
However, human interests are at stake…those remain very plausible.
I’m sure some of this is age related. Once you get to a certain point, you realize that what will truly destroy your world has nothing to do with giant spaceships, but with a silent plea to someone never to darken your doorstep again. But it’s also a very real part of the mission. As long as it still feels personal – as long as the basic interaction is about what’s going to happen to the people you care about – there’s a lot more to be gained from it. You may not think the world is going to end, but you may think that you spend your time with people you enjoy the company of Is will end.
I remember once seeing someone express their confusion about how RPGs work Wow would even work; Finally, you know that your characters will not end a war or defeat cosmic evil. And that’s true. But it was never about that. It’s always been about people navigating complex seas of emotions and overlapping wants and desires. It was about people who really wanted to do the right thing for others, but couldn’t. It was about finding meaning in life and a home, and how sometimes you can’t go back there no matter how hard you try.
For me it was never about solving wars or conflicts, but about how wars and conflicts have left behind people who otherwise had dreams and hopes. About budding diplomats being forced to become negotiators on the battlefield. About how the people you love die before your eyes while you are unable to prevent it. And about the many ways you try to create sanctuary after trauma and how fragile it all can be.
Sure, occasionally there was someone who was dangerous and needed a beating. But why should that be the dominant mode of interaction? You know you will not destroy Stormwind. But you might find yourself in a place where you enter Stormwind feels like destruction… maybe even of things you didn’t know you still had in your heart.
Can we convince MMO story writers to maintain a lower stakes ethos? I’m not sure. But when it comes to role-playing, then Is something to keep in mind. You don’t have to fight something big and doomsday. Sometimes you just have a hard time telling someone you want them to stay with you.