'But that's another story for another time.'
- Michael Ende's 'The NeverEnding Story'
The novelization of The NeverEnding Story is one of my favorite books. The movie is a classic children's film, but the original book ranks up there with Narnia and The Lord of the Rings for me in terms of characterization, scope, and a plot that stays with the reader long after the book is over. The NeverEnding Story has a distinction that those other books do not have however which was also woefully missing from the cinematic interpretation.
And that relates to my recent taking up again of World of Warcraft.
(Bear with me!)
At every major departure of a character from The NeverEnding Story's main plot line there will always be a a short passage hinting that their own story did not end just because they left the narrative we're reading. The centaur who goes to find Atreyu for instance is so tired after his search he remains in the village where Atreyu lives even as he send Atreyu to the Ivory Tower. Now the centaur's role in the story is done so naturally you may forget about him much like any other background character.
But the book is careful to mention this...
'However after recovering the centaur did not return to The Ivory Tower himself but instead had further adventures in the land of Purple Buffalo...but that's another story for another time.'
This concept of characters not ending the story but beginning new ones even if we don't see them continue ourselves gives The NeverEnding Story a true sense of infinite possibility. Every single player has their own story to tell and in fact at the end of the book Atreyu decides to go back and finish the stories that were left untold. The book is truly to me anyway a world trapped between two covers.
And The World of Warcraft as well as other Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games at their best can be the same. Since it was free I decided to try out a trial for WOW as one of the races I'd never tried out back in college when I used to dabble in playing it. The Goblin and The Pandarian sounded so goofy I figured even if the game was dull at least the characters would look interesting.
But Blizzard quite frankly amazed me.
The reason Warcraft was turned into a World may stem initially from aping the popular Everquest, but the other reason apparent when you actually play the game is that Warcraft has MILLIONS of stories to tell.
You might suppose something as silly as a Panda race would have nothing to say for it, but some mad genius crafted for them a world that at once is a parody of martial arts stories (with more than a little Kung Fu Panda inspiration) but is also a fully fleshed out conceptualized setting. The island of the Pandarians is on the back of a turtle, and lo and behold one of the quests involves using a hot air balloon to visit the head of the turtle to talk with it! The Pandarians deal with different factions with their own disciplines and beliefs like an odd little microcosm of Japanese shinto only in the their case the elemental spirits are tangible entities they can play with to amuse. There's cursed pools that turn characters into animals, a race of baboons who have 'wisemen' with their own conflicting philosophies and their own deities. Even the quest to remove giant rabbits from the vegetable fields takes on it's own story dimension when you discover that the rabbits not only have their own clothes and society but in one corner of their burrow they have begun to worship an enormous carrot with candles and offerings!
Same with the goblin. You might think something as simple as a parody of capitalism might come across as boring and preachy, but for all their society is like a twisted mirror of commercialism and industry the goblins themselves still act like people with personalities and always have something to do be it holding parties to gain influence, experimenting with strange gadgets, or in one case burning down their own dwelling for the insurance money...during a volcanic eruption. It could have been treated as a straight up farce and there's farcical elements but the writers intelligently and daringly seemed to tell themselves at every turn 'To the people involved in these stories their lives are NOT a joke'.
We might laugh at the martial arts pandas, but to themselves they have a proud and ancient tradition to uphold, their own lives to lead, and their own beliefs to fight for. Same with the goblins who take themselves seriously even if the rest of the world considers them a punchline.
Even the integration of both the goblin and the Pandarian into the ongoing war between The Horde and The Alliance is a smooth transition. You meet representatives from both sides and ultimately make your choice, and in the process you see the growth of your character from someone deeply involved in their own cultural dealings to someone with a more holistic perspective, now in the service of a grander ideology and actively deciding to pursue that ideology even if it comes into violent contention with another.
So what's the similarity between a German fairytale and an online roleplaying game, and why on earth do I think more stories should be like a type of game a lot of the time people accuse of having no story beyond fetch quests and 'kill x number of things to get stuff'?
It comes down to my favorite concepts again: the story and the world.
In the goblin campaign something as silly as a steam powered motorcar makes sense in the concept of everything we've seen. Goblins are advanced technologically compared with the rest of the world so we as the audience can buy in conjunction with the medieval technology of the mainland something like a submersible or a rocket pack. There's been some attempt to make the impossible seem probable.
And because of that validity the focus turns from the absurdity of the situation to the people involved. I at least find it much easier to care about people if the world they live in makes some kind of self contained sense. If not I keep asking questions and gloss over what could be interesting characters.
Consistency helps to make a world feel real and, by extension, make the characters feel real unto themselves as well.
Of course another aspect of a story and a world besides consistency is something actually happening.
In NeverEnding Story as well as WOW the story never stops just because the focus has turned away. It's fair to say that from a general standpoint this is highly unrealistic. 100% of the time we are not involved in 'stories' exactly in our day to day lives. We could become involved by choice or by chance but it's more true to life to have periods of downtime in which nothing really is occurring naturally.
However NeverEnding and WOW have the advantage of being...FICTION.
Fiction can be life in fast forward. Sure in between all of your adventures the character in WOW would probably sleep, eat, or use the bathroom and in the course of The NeverEnding Story many characters might be entirely content to live out their lives with no further notable adventures, but the authors in both case realized that an uneventful life is not the stuff of entertainment. If might be a bit hasty for your goblin or other character in WOW to be told by a guy to rescue prisoners right after you finished defeating a boss, but without that being the case where is the story going to go? WOW gets creative in administering the same gameplay over and over again, but because the context changes you barely notice. Capturing cave paintings with a magic camera is not that much different from gathering raptor eggs, but because of presentation the actions seems diverse enough to hold your attention. Killing one monster isn't much different than killing other monsters, even bosses, but the differing scenarios, locations, and stories being told make each undertaking a fresh experience.
Story as I noted in an earlier journal is not 'plot'. Plot is the action occurring and story is the thematic underpinnings; the ties that make events seem as if they have some kind of solidarity. This is why although I enjoy playing Guild Wars 2, World of Warcraft is a much more enjoyable experience for me. Guild Wars 2 has polished graphics and a better interface, but nothing about it feels that thought out. In Guild Wars 2 things just...happen. They can be fun and exciting but they don't have a lot of reasoning behind them.
Why are there two headed Ettins running around? Because fantasy game.
Why griffins and semi-intelligent lizards? Why do some people have connections to spirit animals? Why do some people have magic? Where did the kingdoms of men come from? The answer is in general 'Why are you asking these questions? It's fantasy. Just go with it.'
There's some lipservice paid to backstory but it all feels like an excuse.
In World of Warcraft because of dialogue, a gazetteer, and a sense of history even the wackiest elements all seem to fit together with more than just the excuse of it being in the fantasy genre to do so. Why are there goblins? They have a story about that related to where they came from, what came before them, and why they live the way they do. One boss even announces to goblin players 'I remember when your race first arrived on these shores!'
I smiled when, while shipwrecked on an island, the item for restoring mana in WOW turned from the ordinary spring water into 'Water gathered from a tarp' with the description 'The sand makes you teeth whiter'.
It isn't necessary exactly, but THAT kind of detail shows dedication. That kind of attention draws me into an experience and makes me for the duration of a gameplay session believe in it.
More stories should be like this and it confuses me to no end that they are not.
They tried to release a series of comics based on World of Warcraft and they were all beautifully illustrated but also cripplingly dull. Why? Because you never got a sense of character. It was all based around plot with the major players just going through the motions with the same dingy motivations of revenge or becoming more powerful or the like. Nobody was actually DOING anything. They were being moved around like chess pieces to famous locations and watching battles happen. They never 'talk' about anything either except where they need to go next to fulfill some demands. Exposition is not characterization.
THIS IS NOT A STORY.
A story is when the events are effected by, and effect, characters.
In WOW again although it doesn't play a gameplay role you get the sense of your character directly effecting the world around them. Sometimes at the end of a chapter you will watch hopelessly as the settlement you started is burned to the ground or witness as a deep injury to the world is healed before your eyes because you defended the druids who were repairing it. The reactions of characters to you also indicates some subtle changes to them throughout their adventures. People recognize you as your deeds speak for themselves or make mention of how something you did earlier has come to fruition.
You get the sensation you aren't just playing a game, you're participating in a massive narrative that's unfolding even when you aren't there to see it.
In The NeverEnding Story every event not only happens but it has some kind of payoff. Even something as innocuous as meeting a character puts into contrast the personalities of both characters concerned.
When Bastian finally travels to Fantastica (in the movie they called the world Fantasia) he encounters a group of knights at one point each with their own distinct bearing and goals. He discovers rapidly that since he's literally wished himself to be the strongest that besting one of these knights causes them to become very embittered, especially since he defeated them soundly in the presence of a lady they were trying to woo. Bastian assumes he'll just have his fun and show off. After all he's telling this story by now.
What harm could it do to mix things up: act like a god for awhile?
But the harm comes because he changes the course of a man's life. He forces the knight to depart, looking for heroic deeds to make amends for his loss. In a moment of carelessness Bastian has changed the story because of his actions.
If it hadn't been for Bastian maybe the knight might well have won the love he sought, maybe he would not have been driven to go elsewhere looking for redemption.
And yes, that knight's story is 'Another story for another time'.
We don't learn his fate but the description does say 'He found another love'.
Our actions cause ripples in the pond of life, and fiction shows those ripples reach the shore more rapidly than our day to day existence.
But it's those ripples that hold our interest: that keep us reading another page or watching the film or playing the game. Even if it comes to something like gathering the hides of animals to make an orc shaman happy the reason I at least kept doing so was because I knew in some capacity the writers would introduce a reasoning behind the action. In WOW for the most part nothing is just single tier busywork. Gathering naga hatchlings in one mission provides incentive for an ancient naga god to allow the goblins to settle on an island. Gathering materials means that a blacksmith can forge you armor or new weapons. Rescuing prisoners is the first action in preparing an army to attack a base...etc.
Like The NeverEnding Story the addictive quality comes from one thing leading to another: a domino effect of plot and intermingled story.
And is there story in World of Warcraft or the unfinished narratives of The NeverEnding Story? I would say yes. It seems hard to believe but for an MMO based primarily on killing things there's a lot of thematic ideas at play no matter what race you choose. The Horde and Alliance are not only opposed by bad blood and land disputes, they also have conflicted philosophies. The Alliance believes in, well, allying the races in a grand singular vision. Ironically to do so they need to brutally attack races that will not follow their guiding principals. The Horde believe in anonymity and freedom even unto taking what they want and killing whoever disagrees with them, and ironically they need to unite their races in order to stand against The Alliance. The two societies are neither entirely in the right or wrong despite all appearances and both are can sometimes be united against a common enemy like The Undead or the demonic forces. The thematic ideals of the side you choose determines the nature of your missions. Alliance prefer a civil way of dealing with things while The Horde prefer much more direct and barbaric approaches. Serving The Alliance may have you defending villages or spying on orcs while serving The Horde may have you collecting enemy heads or recovering weapons for escaped prisoners to hold their own against bounty hunters.
Is it all the same collect/kill gameplay? Most usually yes.
But the 'story' comes from following a thematic idea throughout the course of the plots. Even races have their own 'themes' like goblins generally solving their problems with technology, the undead looking for acceptance in the eyes of their peers, the orcs with a strong shamanistic and martial discipline arc, the elves with natural defense and magical investigations, the dwarves differentiated from the goblins by a stalwart individualism as opposed to a corproate mentality and so forth. Nearly every aspect of WOW seems tailored to make you feel like you're acting out a role.
It's the difference between playing and role-playing.
In Guild Wars 2 again it's difficult to role-play. There are story based sections but they are detached from the major gameplay. You can only role-play so much as yet another wandering adventurer with inexplicable abilities.
In WOW the game and the story are one.
And in fiction that's the way it should be. Action? Drama? Romance? Comedy? Horror? All of this and more in the course of a story should be woven indissolubly into the fabric of the fiction itself. These should not be discernible 'beats'. The story shouldn't slow to a crawl for someone to have a 'character moment'. If you're good at writing these moments should seem like a logical motivated pause. You shouldn't have to hurl one character at another (sometimes literally) in order to have them fall in love. It should feel like a natural extension of everything that came before.
Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Batman...these kind of big name properties got to where they are in the cultural eye because they seem like treasure houses of story. You could place the enduring character, their worlds, their lives into practically any context and still tell a story. You don't need to excuse Batman for having an adventure, adventures just naturally seem to follow him around. Star Wars isn't just 'that thing that happened to Luke Skywalker' it's the whole history of the fiction universe in which Luke's adventures were only a small part.
This is what cheeses me off about so many reboots/remakes. Reiterating stuff that happened before is NOT a story. In the Star Trek reboot, does anyone seem to have a life beyond doing passable impressions of the actors from the original Star Trek show? Can you imagine Spock taking time off? We see Kirk having bedroom escapades but they don't seem to effect who he is. Scotty hangs out at a bar, but he doesn't do anything there except make a phone call.
In the original Star Trek series you'd have scenes of Captain Picard in his ready room playing a flute. Kirk's cabin in Star Trek 2 has a collection of old flint lock pistols on the wall. Spock in the first Star Trek movie apparently meditates in his cabin with a special ceremonial robe for the purpose. Even when they aren't on the bridge these are people doing things.
Heck The Enterprise itself until the reboot is the size that is it because other things beside the crew's lives are going on. In episodes where the ship is attacked in previous series there are scenes of civilians running for their lives to the escape pods. We see delegates meeting for peace treaty agreements. We see shops and entertainment centers, a rec room, the holodeck. The Enterprise was always intended to be a self contained world which was constantly alive with activity.
The adventure of the week was only part of the story being told.
So where did that go? Why do things like Guild Wars 2 try and fail to tell a story and get that notion confused with just convoluted plots? Fighting a dragon is not a story. Fighting a dragon because you want to defend you homeland IS, but Guild Wars 2 and many other online roleplaying games begin and end with the arbitrary action and only the sparest explanation of the motivation.
Why do comics think we'll be invested in characters with nothing to do? Sure the character may dress up in a nifty sort of way but just having them travel through time or the world be attacked by aliens or zombies or whatever is not a story, even if the people involved look picturesque on the cover. If they have no personality, no emotional stake in the events, no direct ties to what is happening then I at least find difficulty in caring even if the fiction human race is in danger.
It doesn't help so many comics are convinced the way to make us care is to literally blow up the world and start over. So the human race is so pointless in your story that you can just blow up the world and keep on with the plot anyway? Guess what? I don't care. If all you have to show is invincible scowling space dudes and dudettes beating each other over the head THAT'S NOT A STORY.
It's not a story if the character in the video game is looking for bloody revenge; not unless that effects who the character is and what they do. Max Payne I consider great because, like World of Warcraft, the gameplay is a means to the end of telling a story. Shooting hundreds of bad guys could get repetitive even with slow motion involved, but because the story keeps tight focus on Max who isn't an unlikable guy we want to see what happens to him. Will he get revenge, and more than that, will that revenge even make his life better? It's what sustains a lengthy game with basically the same gameplay, and it's also the reason that for all its variety Max Payne 3 was not an enjoyable experience for me. It turned Max from an active into a reactive character: an errand boy for a bunch of other people we were supposed to care about. But I didn't. Nothing changed about MAX. He never met anyone interesting or did anything important. The gameplay seemed like an excuse for a plot that wasn't investing, making both equally dull to me.
This is why I LIKED The Ewoks animated series. Again, as silly as it might have seemed, at least there were CHARACTERS involved who were always DOING something. Even if The Ewoks weren't involved in some kind of fight, there might still be some action going on. Episodes would begin with something like an upcoming festival, a recent theft, a character who has decided to go in search of something or the like. And the story stemmed from the fact that each character represented their own personal arc: Wicket looking for a way to prove himself as a warrior, Latara struggling with her avarice and creativity, Teebo's shyness and magical affinity and so forth. Their characterizations determined their adventures and each adventure was in turn effected by their characterizations.
As risible a concept as Ewoks might be in theory, in practice the writers had the Ewoks not consider themselves a joke and always gave them plenty to do.
In My Little Pony Friendship is Magic, a show I used to really like for similar reasons as the above, this seems to be a bit of a dying art. Characters forget everything they learned for the sake of a moral which holds iron rule over an episode. People are introduced and forgotten just as quickly: just tools for the plot. Nothing grows. Nothing changes. The characters rarely actually have things to do now. It seems more like they make up their problems by acting like fools or something happens to prevent them from doing not much of anything. We've gone from people who seemed to have their own goals and aspirations to one note objects that spout the same catchphrases. Maybe opinion is against me (again) because there have been some entertaining episodes, but it seems so focused on having episodic plots that it no longer has a story surrounding the Mane Six characters.
Also introductions of characters like Tree Hugger indicate that no one is taking the story that seriously anymore. It's setting its sites lower and lower.
It can still pick up perhaps, but only if they return to the notion of Equestria as a place and the characters as stories in and of themselves: not just a stage for a series of moral plays and actors to eke out the same scenes over and over again.
And with that final tangent I leave with this notion: the plot is like a coatrack for the stories to sit on. The war in Warcraft is in all practicality the impetus for a million side plots revolving around the characters involved with the war itself secondary in importance to the people involved. In The NeverEnding Story the search for The Childlike Empress is only one millions of branching stories to be told with every new location unearthed and every new character met a wealth of opportunities.
The war in Star Wars again introduces us to The Jedi Order, the Sith, The Empire, The Rebel Alliance, the many aliens and creatures that inhabit the universe and even with just those including humans theres a myriad of walks of life from councilor to smuggler. In Lord of the Rings the war is prescient, but only slightly as interesting as the race of elves, the dwarves, the men and hobbits involved in it.
So think of your plot as an introduction to your world and a world as an introduction to your characters. Think of each new subplot as a quest where motive drives purpose and where the outcome effects the nature of the people involved as well as the world itself, even in a small way: where each new action leads to reactions.
Ripples in the pond.
And every character is an untold story, from the guy the heroes purchase things from to the seemingly faceless armored knight guy from the villain's army.
'Maybe it's another drill'.
A stormtrooper says irritably under the influence of Obi Wan Kenobi.
With just that set of words alone you have a sketch of a person we may never get to know but who lived in their own right. It's why the storm trooper was such a phenomena I believe, because as much as they were fodder for the heroes to shoot at they seemed to have their own autonomous reality about them.
Enough tangents: go out and write yourself a world!