Gaming and the Never Ending Story

I’ve been thinking about stories lately, mostly how they end.  I’m currently reading the Malazan Books of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson (fantastic series!) and am about half way through the planned 10 books now.  The ending will be a complete unknown because it’s not been written/published yet, so I have something to look forward to.  As well, one of my absolute favorite manga series, Fullmetal Alchemist, is obviously coming to an end soon as well.  I read the scanlated chapters so I’m current on the story through the recently released chapter 98 now, and Arakawa is definitely starting to bring events to the ultimate conclusion soon.  It’s a fantastic story (and well worth the read, not the least because her art is extremely high quality as well) and while the overarching storyline has always been there, seeing everything start to come together has been a trip.

How does this tie into gaming?  Being in the middle of a story I’m engrossed in, knowing it’ll end eventually, and being in the middle of a story I know is going to end soon (well, relatively soon, it’s a monthly manga, so 5 more chapters means 5 more months) made me think about the stories and lore of the MMOs I’ve played over the years.  I’ve never particularly gotten into single-player RPGs, but I’m guessing those are closest to a written storyline that has a definite ending.  You take your character through the events until you finally reach the big boss at the end and defeat it for your prize, whatever that may be.  Depending on how the game is written, it’s possible to play an RPG multiple times through, either using different characters or doing quests you skipped the first time or just doing quests in a different order.  I’d liken that to rereading a book multiple times, actually.

But MMOs don’t have that kind of story attached to them.  Sure, there’s lore that seems to keep evolving, and theoretically the various stories in lore all connect in some fashion, but there’s no guarantee of that.  Currently I’m only playing EQ2, so the various expansions have opened new lore when they were released.  The premise has always been “new exploration of an area has discovered this” and then players head to the new content.  Desert of Flames discovered the Sinking Sands, Kingdom of Sky the floating island continents, Rise of Kunark the lands of Kunark and so on, each expansion adding either new content, new levels and skills, or both to the game.

The problem with this kind of storyline progression is that it leads to a treadmill of sorts.  While you can complete and finish a particular storyline in the game (such as the Splitpaw Saga or the Bloodline Chronicles, neither of which I’ve finished ironically), there is always another quest series or lore event to move on to.  Like picking up a new book to read by an author you’d not seen before.  And while it can be exciting to keep exploring new zones and content endlessly, after a while it can also be a drag, knowing that there are still more quests to be done in XYZ zone that you’ve now out leveled (once again) and will have to wait to try doing them on an alt, if you have space available on your account, that is.

But for storyline purposes, what does that give us?  Perhaps sometime in the future, if the game is ever being shut down permanently, then some kind of “big bang” ending will be scripted for the players.  But for now, the lore and storylines of EQ2 are more related to real life, not a book.  There is no ending; there is just a series of achievements and character growth that instead seems never-ending.  Just like real life, only I get to be a quick moving dirge instead of a tired gamer at the end of the day.

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