I finally appreciate story-driven MMOs

It's okay to choose the one where you play The Chosen One.

Last night I decided to check out the new 1.0 update on the Star Wars Galaxies Restoration server. I created a handsome-looking Ithorian character and was promptly dropped into the middle of Mos Eisley. I had no idea what to do next.

Obviously, having played the game on and off for nearly two decades, I knew what to do in terms of the game’s mechanics and systems. In a way, it wasn’t so much not knowing what I wanted to do next, but not knowing who I wanted to be.

Star Wars Galaxies Restoration is unique from other Star Wars Galaxies rogue servers in that it is based on the short-lived Combat Upgrade version of the game. As such, its combat is a little less slow and clunky than the launch game’s, but you’re not locked into one profession as with the NGE version of the game.

An Ithorian player character from Star Wars Galaxies Restoration
My new Ithorian best boi.

Therefore, when I landed in Mos Eisley I had no clear progression path – my character was essentially a blank slate.

Back in 2003 when the game launched, this was pretty much standard issue for the genre. As the years have progressed however there’s been a hard lean into the themepark style of MMO game design, with story becoming a more prominent part of an MMOs gameplay and marketing.

Much of my time in MMOs these past few years has been spent in Star Wars The Old Republic and Final Fantasy XIV. These two games are probably the most story-driven MMOs of all, with your character not just being a part of some wider narrative, but ‘The Chosen One’ responsible for the fate of the entire planet/galaxy/universe.

For years I had totally abhorred this kind of storytelling in MMOs as it doesn’t make any sense to be sharing a virtual world with thousands of other players who are also ‘The Chosen One’. Somehow though I’ve ended up spending hundreds of hours in the two MMOs which most egregiously violate this rule of what should make a great virtual world, when plenty of other games haven’t managed to hold my attention.

A Nautolan player character and Kira Carsen from Star Wars The Old Republic
If you’re logging on to dress up your character and their companion especially for the holiday season then I’d say you have a certain amount of investment in them beyond being a stock avatar.

Spinning around in circles outside the Mos Eisley spaceport last night, it hit me: I am totally devoid of creativity.

Why this is could be down to a number of reasons. In that specific moment, it could be that it was the end of a hellacious week at work and my brain was totally fried. Good old adulthood.

Tiredness alone however may only be one reason why adulthood is responsible for my lack of creativity. There’s also the general sense of losing the ability to use your imagination as you get older. The concerns of the real world exert more stress on the brain leaving less time to fantasize. If you don’t use it you lose it or something.

Alternatively, it could just be modern entertainment sensibilities, with so many choices and other distractions at our fingertips, the most immediately engaging, and least effort-requiring form of media are in many ways the most appealing. You’re no longer beholden to the one game you took home from the store, but every free to play title, Game Pass game, or weekly Epic Store freebie. There’s always something else to play.

Similarly, there’s not so much hype generated in the lead-up to a game’s release, when you’d sit and read through every morsel of information on a game, building up in your mind the kind of character you’re going to create and what place they’re going to have in the virtual world. A cinematic trailer might sweep you off your feet in the moment, but everything feels a little more ephemeral than those days when magazines and pre-Web 2.0 fan sites were the go-to’s for news and discussion.

Bring back game manuals you freakin’ cowards!

There are moments when I feel that creative spark creep into my mind, and in those moments I yearn for the sandbox MMOs of yesteryear. I no longer feel that story-driven MMOs are a taint on the genre, and I no longer feel guilty about enjoying them, because honestly, I’m not sure if I would have stuck with the genre had it not continued to evolve beyond those supposed halcyon years which people are so keen to put on a pedestal.

Ultimately I formed connections to my characters and the worlds of both SWTOR and FFXIV that had nothing to do with the core storyline. Where I might have bounced off of these games otherwise, their relatively rigid progression tracks made repeatedly logging into them an easy and reliable way to spend my gaming time. As I was taken by the hand around the game’s many locations, ideas of the kind of character I wanted to be in the game world slowly took shape over many hundreds of hours.

That’s completely different to a game like Star Wars Galaxies (particularly before the NGE provided simplistic levelling and heaps of quests), where, sure your character will take shape as you play, but having some preconceived notion of who your character will be in the world is practically a must.

There’s long been an argument that big, ambitious, ‘Chosen One’ narratives don’t belong in MMOs, and when so many of them are almost entirely solo-able it’s easy to suggest that you should just play a single-player RPG instead. However, while they may not strictly make a lot of sense from a shared world perspective, I think it’s high time we admit that having different types of MMOs available has turned out to be a good thing after all.

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