Jill suggests that WoW turns endings into goals, "potentials you can achieve", and that the game gives you a chance to repeat the same story over and over again, perhaps more quickly, but with the same major plot elements.
Then Jill (and eventually Diane and Mark) look at the story from the perspective of television. IMHO, that viewpoint misses the interactive nature of the story and considers it to be something that is devised by some hand on high and experienced in a fixed way by a set of consumers. It's easy to think this way, when the main elements of plot are common to all viewers: the same kinds of enemies, the same character classes, different people doing the same things. Mark wonders, "are we just harvesting gold and arresting 500 villains?" But people aren't doing the same things.
The story of MMORPGs resides in the main plot elements as much as the story in Greek tragedy resides in the main plot elements. When they go to the annual Dionysian festival, the people already know about Agamemnon; they already know about Oedipus. They know what happens. The tragedies are often just small bits taken from the bigger stories whose basic plot remains the same. Why bother seeing the same sub-story again? Because the interesting parts of story reside in-between the "key" parts of the plot. That's why we get away with three renditions of the story of Electra by three Greek playwrights in a short period of time. And they don't fall flat. The essence of story is anchored to the "main" parts of the plot, but the interesting things often happen in-between.
But this comparison doesn't even fully work. MMoRPGs let us think beyond the idea of the gamemakers as authors. Diane realizes this (and more) when she asks,
Although the "game world" may go on, perhaps even in a cyclical way (like life, like Athens), stories in WoW have definite beginnings and endings. (People do tend to index experiencein terms of events and episodes.) I hear gameworld stories all the time. When I go to the cafeteria and meet my MMORPG-playing friends, they never tire of telling me about their adventures hunting Chinese farmers, or taking out some monster. WoW has renewed the oral tradition. When I hear them, I imagine it as a taste of the storytelling in Mead-halls during the time when stories like Beowulf were first told. For them, the main plot elements (I killed X monster) are only checkpoints, something to keep track of the really interesting parts. They talk about who was in the group, how they behaved, what expected things occurred, what they didn't expect. They describe the battles in detail. But some stories aren't even about the battles or quests -- did you hear? Ed just sold his helmet and bought two hundred fireworks. It happened this way... For these people (and I'm sure plenty of others find other reasons to play), WoW gives them a chance to tell stories, to have something interesting to say, something interesting to share, something to argue about. And, just as in the Greek plays, they are happy to relive the same stories in different ways. But unlike the Greek plays, these are their stories, no matter how many others experienced similar ones.
Yesterday, I told some postgrad friends a story about shopping for things with which to bake bread. The plot looked like this:
- I go to Sainsbury's, buy wheat and yeast.
- I can't find a casserole dish.
- I wander central Cambridge,
- I go to Mark & Spencer; they don't have a casserole dish.
- I go to the Grafton Center and buy a casserole dish at that specialty cookware shop.
- I go home and make bread.
They looked at me with incredulity. "What's the point?", I imagine they wondered. Most of us go shopping several times a week -- at the same stores. Then I let loose my final line.
"See! This is what gradschool does to you. It makes something like that seem like an adventure."
I had them in irons.
This, of course is not a General Theory of All MMoRPG playing, because people play for different reasons. Jill's post comes from the competetive side of gaming, where the interest lies in goals and things to accomplish. But sometimes, I play games just because I want to kill time, or because I feel like seeing explosions, or want to see what happens if I increase my character class, or talk with other people, or whatever. But sometimes I just like the idea of being elsewhere.
Jill says that "World of Warcraft isn’t about puzzles, it’s about hard work, navigation, strategy and mastery." Sure, but is that all? It includes these elements, but are they the only (or the key) things that make it interesting?
Goals are a big part of games, because they leave us with a satisfying place to stop playing, a point in the game where it's possible to let go, and thoughts about game won't reach back into the physical world (someone should write about this phenomenon, about the psychology of moving between worlds). But just as story doesn't have to be about success and survival, games don't have to be Story(tm), any more than a walk in the botanic gardens, or drinking tea with a friend has to be Story. Sure, somebody had to plan the garden and maintain it, but even in such a contrived place as a botanic garden, with pathways and glasshouses, it's still just life.