When DC Comics' Jim Lee and Marv Wolfman take the stage at Comic-Con this weekend to talk about how they tell stories in DC Universe Online, they'll be focusing on S.T.A.R. Labs — the fictional R&D center where experiments tend to go hideously awry — as a narrative device. But what about the narrative power of massively multiplayer online games themselves? A couple of weeks ago I spoke about this with Chris Cao, studio creative director of DC Universe Online. From his perspective, it's all a matter of emergent properties.
"In a single-player game, it's my own experience," says Cao, who heads the team that's developing DCUO at Sony Online Entertainment's studio in Austin, Texas. "In a multiplayer game, the experience is shared. Because you're doing it with other people, It shifts from me affecting the world to me and my friends talking about what we did together. It's like serial television versus sports — the narrative is us."
There's a reason game narratives used to be fairly primitive. "A lot of single-player games are very linear," Cao points out. "Even games with branching storylines are basically linear." That limited the possibilities for telling stories: Almost the only way to advance a narrative was to take the controller away and make the player sit through a video sequence. By the time the cut scene was over, the player's fingers were liable to be twitching uncontrollably.
But as advances in artificial intelligence and physics enabled developers to come up with more sophisticated games, the tension between game and story began to diminish. No longer was it necessary to limit players to a linear sequence of actions — open a door, enter a room, kill a bunch of enemies, repeat ad infinitum. You could give them some freedom. And instead of telling the story through cut scenes, you could introduce the characters, set out some conditions, and let the story evolve from the gameplay. "In Grand Theft Auto and other open-world games, the stories are completely emergent," Cao observes.
With MMOs, even more so. "In a game like DCUO, emergence is going through the roof," he says. "Stuff you wouldn't predict is happening, and the world feels more real because of it." In the process, storytelling becomes both more natural and more important. "A shared world creates stories that people tell each other. These stories come from what we experienced together, versus what the designer intended us to. And that's imperative if you want to creates a sense of community" — which translates into passion for the game.
There's also a more prosaic advantage to games with emergent storylines: They're cheaper to build. As consoles grow ever more powerful, game development has become increasingly complicated and expensive. "Linear games will soon cost as much to make as a Hollywood blockbuster," Cao says. "With linearity you have to cover all the cases because you're trying to make a specific thing happen. But as emergence is harnessed more and more to storytelling, you'll be able to create more experiences, tell more stories. Plus, it's a lot more fun than sitting through a movie."
Depending on the movie, of course.