Monday, February 22, 2010

Of MICE and MMOs

I'll dive right in to this post, because I want to. The Scourge cannot be stopped!

I recently read a book by Orson Scott Card, acclaimed science fiction author, about Characters and Viewpoint. I hadn't read much about the science of writing novels before this, so even the basic concepts it talked about held my interest for a while. One of the points he makes, early on, is about the four different kinds of stories, specifically novels, that exist. They follow the acronym MICE, and I'll briefly sum each one up:

Milieu stories are those that focus on setting and the world the characters exist in beyond all else. It can house such things as poems, recipes, songs, as well as extraneous and unrelated plot points, just to convey the setting (or Milieu) of the story. Examples of this are Lord of the Rings and Avatar.

Idea stories are written to push across a single thought, element, or idea. This can be something relevant, such as the intricacies of modern evolution or gender roles in American society, or something as fantastic as posing the question 'What if a giant lizard attacked Tokyo?'. Inside this category falls all Speculative fiction, and so a great deal of science fiction can be housed here. Examples are Waterworld and the Left Hand of Darkness.

Character stories are just made to show, reveal, and explore different characters in different situations. Most modern drama television shows fall under this category, as well as a few comic books. Examples are Firefly and the Dark Knight.

Event stories simply chronicle one event, one point in time, whether a conflict or a simple day at the park. Nearly every short story has to fall in this category because, you know, they're short. Narrative poems are usually here too. Examples include Poe's The Raven, and the first 20 minute opening scene of Saving Private Ryan.

A short disclaimer:
Yes, I know every single novel has every one of these ideas. But did anyone go to see Avatar for the characters? No. How about watching the Dark Knight solely for the events? It just doesn't make sense. The novels, or movies, we view as amazing, take Lord of the Rings, are strong in three of the four categories, but one truly shines above the rest. You can't tell me that the Battle of the Shire was for anything but more interactions in the world, nor Tom Bombadil, (which is in fact why both were cut from the movies). The characters, the events, the ideas, they all back a strong world that it is housed in. Some are ambiguous - Firefly had a very strong world - but in general, both movies and novels stick to these lines.

Now, you say, what is this doing here? On a blog so previously dedicated to events in the video game world? I'll tell you. Calm down. Relax, man, you're two tents.

I would argue, or at least postulate, that games follow a similar structure. Not quite the same, as they are two (very) different storytelling genres, but they share similar structures. While this could, with a little extrapolation, cover all games, I will focus on my MMO genre rating system that I call SPAM.

Sandbox/Social games take one category. They are not built by developers, but the players that play it. They may have a plot, or a world, that forms around it - even WoW has a massive following of machinima and comics - but true games in this category have all the following categories made up of the people, by the people, and for the people. EVE, Second Life, and LOVE all are versions of this.

Plot games follow a (usually linear, but not necessarily) plot that goes from point a to point b. They have a defined starting and ending, and whether DLC or expansions increase this, its is still a game driven by a single goal. (Every game made based on a movie, ever, in the history of ever, has been this type of game. Some of the blandest, most boring, and lamest games have fallen here too.) For MMOs, plots have been harder to come by - though we see major signs of plot- centric MMOs in Wrath of the Lich King, with Arthas's storyline, and (of course) in SW:TOR.

Amusement games are just made for gameplay. Combat, racing, puzzles, riddles, exploration, minigames, boss fights, sports, whatever you fancy - the developers had an idea for a fun game on the forefront of their minds when they built it. You, naysayers, may say that everything falls in this category. All games have to be amusing, or else they wouldn't sell! But I am using amusement in a "shallower", or more "accessible" sense. Free Realms and the majority of Kids' games fall right here. There are others here too, and games that make excessive use of combat can be tossed into this category. I know a number of people name Aion, but I'm reluctant to take a stance seeing as I've never actually played the thing.

Lastly, Milieau games are all about the world you exist in. In fact, they are very similar to Milieau stories, in that they push worlds in front of them. However, this also encapsulates the Character piece of the novel - because either you are a character, or the character is part of the reactive NPC world. I can't think of an MMO that doesn't, or shouldn't, fall into this genre. World of Warcraft (esp. Vanilla) is most definitely in this breed, with its voluminous lore and all sorts of unnecessary background. Another example would be Star Trek Online, and indeed most franchise settings (because people who pay to play one of these games will leave disappointed if they don't feel entrenched in the world). Avatar: The Game should have been in this category. It wasn't.

And, to end, a brief hypothetical summary. I feel like this makes sense. If not to you, or any developers, then to me. Good MMOs, like good Novels, highlight one of these aspects beyond all else, and use the other aspects to foil that piece. I'm not saying that anything should be done to lessen how well each is executed, just that a game needs to bring the other genre's up to par. If you want to immerse your players in a world, that's fine! Just don't tell them that it's also all about a single plot. Want it to be a very community game? Neat! Just don't waver between a world you build and a world your players build. SW:TOR chose story. LOVE chose gameplay. EVE chose sandbox. It's those other games, the EQ2's and the AoC's and the STOs and oh so many more, that don't (to me) have one outspoken genre. By no means diminish what you have - all pieces, from community to world, are necessary for a successful MMO. But without an point of contrast, the whole masterpiece fades.

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