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Lessons MMO Writers Can Learn From Game Of Thrones

Updated Wed, May 14, 2014 by gunky

Lessons MMO Writers Can Learn From Game Of Thrones

Game of Thrones is a hell of a TV show. It's a great one for binge-watching - start with the first episode of Season 1 and keep watching for the entire weekend. There's currently about 30 straight hours' worth, which should be enough for even the most dedicated couch potato.

While there are a couple of single-player video games already set in Westeros, I believe the setting lends itself perfectly to MMOs. There's magic and dragons and swords and war and hundreds of colorful characters - basically, all the ingredients for a great MMO storyline. But I also believe that the masterful writing of Game of Thrones (and, by logical extension, the series of books upon which the TV show is based) have a number of lessons that can be valuable to the writers of any  other MMO on the market.

I should point out that I'm specifically talking about the television series on HBO, not George RR Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series of novels, the slimmest of which is over 700 pages long. I haven't read the books - I know, I know, I'm a dirty philistine and feel an appropriate amount of shame. Basically, I have too many games to play and too much writing of my own to do to sit quietly and read thousands of pages' worth of novels, even the truly exceptional ones. But I can watch Game of Thrones on a second monitor while grinding out dailies or cycling through alts to check the mail. So let's move past my obvious deficiencies of intellectualism and culture and focus on the TV show, and the lessons MMO writers can learn from it.

1. The High Fantasy Audience Can Handle Mature Content

There is a weird discrepancy in the content of most MMOs. On the one hand, characters roam around committing horrendous acts of violence against humans and other sentient beings. Slaughter quests are fairly commonplace, and heroic characters can carve their way through literally hundreds of enemies in a single dungeon just to get to one chest full of precious loot. Even if a game has a setting to turn off blood - or, in some cases, even if all the kills are more or less bloodless anyway - there's still a ton of brutal, savage physical violence.

Lessons from Game of Thrones - SWTOR skimpy top

But, in most fantasy-themed MMOs, there are a number of seemingly arbitrary taboos that accompany the sword-slinging and murder-by-magic. For example, nobody ever drops the F-bomb. Not even the surly dwarves and foul-mouthed orcs, who usually only cuss in their own secret languages. And women will wear the most outlandishly-revealing metal lingerie, no matter how impractical these "armor kits" might actually be for combat purposes... but apparently they are still too demure to bare a nipple.

Age of Conan is an exception to the "no-nips" rule, and there are a few rated-M MMOs like Fallen Earth that play fast and loose with the blue language. But there are no triple-A Western MMOs that feature mature content on the level of Game of Thrones.

Lessons from Game of Thrones - Danerys

Obviously, there is a concern that youngsters play high-fantasy MMOs, and surely it's not right to expose young children to prostitute-sex scenes and rough language. I'm in no way advocating these things. But neither do I think it is necessarily a great thing for them to be exposed to characters running around slaughtering human beings with swords.

On the other hand, it's not moneyless little kids that are buying and supporting the games. It's adults with credit cards - often as not, the same adults who watch the Game of Thrones on TV. The popularity of the show proves that there is a clear audience for "adult" high fantasy. It may be controversial, sure, but there is obviously a market for it. And an ESRB rating.

2. "Good vs Evil" Is Not The Only Story Template

Black and white morality, the Campbellian monomythic struggle between good and evil, has been around for a very, very long time. The first known example of English literature - Beowulf - follows the Hero's Journey and details the battle between good and evil. It's a classic motif. All the greats do it.

Lessons from Game of Thrones - Good vs. Evil, represented by the Sith

But it's kinda been done to death at this point. We already have so many monomyth stories kicking around that it's difficult for writers to come up with a new way to tell such a timeless story without being compared to all the others. The Good vs Evil war story of something like Star Wars: the Old Republic gets compared to Lord of the Rings, which gets compared to Beowulf, which gets compared to stories of Perseus or Hercules, which comes from some forgotten Sumerian epic, and so on into pre-history.

Game of Thrones tells a very different morality tale. The main focus of the story is not about good-versus-evil - not since Ned Stark, anyway. Everything after his execution has been varying shades of grey fighting it out amongst one another. Some shades are darker than others, sure, but there are no clear-cut "good guys" anymore. The pure and noble get cut down hard because they play by the rules, and the other guys do not. Most characters have varying degrees of both sympathy and antipathy. It's badasses against other badasses. While there are some characters who are quite clear-cut...

Lessons from Game of Thrones - King Joffrey

... there are a great many more characters who are less absolutely defined.

This is growing more common among MMO stories now, as more and more writers embrace a grittier grey morality. For example, none of the three factions in the Elder Scrolls Online is more noble or just than the others. They each have their good points and their bad points. While so many other titles follow the familiar "Rebels versus the Empire" model, ESO's faction war is more like "Rebels vs. the Other Rebels vs. the Other Other Rebels, Plus Empire vs. Everyone."

3. Main Characters Can Be Seriously Flawed

This sort of falls under the same umbrella as the "black and white morality" thing. While there are surely exceptions to the rule, in general there is a tendency for main story-characters in MMOs to be truly superlative individuals. If they are good, they are also often pure and just and generally all-around amazing. If they are evil, they are irredeemably wicked and foul, megalomaniacal psychopaths of the very darkest sort. Either way, they are paragon champions - the ultimate representative of whatever team they play for.

Lessons from Game of Thrones - DCUO's Superman

Game of Thrones features flawed, imperfect characters in nearly every role. Its heroic characters are tempered by physical deficiencies, serious defects in personality or decidedly-unheroic origins. Few of its villainous characters are so utterly foul that they are completely beyond redemption or without some degree of relatability. There are obvious exceptions, of course, but there are way more characters that are far less perfectly-aligned and full-on than Joffrey Baratheon. 

Tyrion Lannister is probably the best example of a deeply-flawed main character. He is physically disadvantaged by dwarfism, most of his family hates him and he spends a great deal of time drinking and bedding prostitutes. He is abused and mocked by many, and he has to work very hard to be taken seriously. He is also a shrewd tactician, usually well-spoken and witty, and shows an un-Lannister-like kindness towards his fellow cripples, bastards and broken things. However, he can also be wickedly rude and ill-tempered, often relies on his family's money to solve problems, and can be blinded by love. He is a complex and terribly interesting character - generally sympathetic, but there are times when he is utterly despicable.

Lessons from Game of Thrones - Tyrion Lannister

Few characters in Game of Thrones are paragons of anything, but they keep the story moving along at a very engaging pace. They're the kind of characters that keep the watcher guessing. And not just because they must cope with their own glaring flaws, but because they could get killed off at any moment.

4. It's Totally Okay To Kill Major Characters

I'll try to keep this bit as spoiler-free as possible, but, well... the section header is something of a dead giveaway. I'll try to just stick with the one spoiler everyone seems to know about anyway, and only make oblique references to the other awesome, shocking events that happen later, without going into detail.

When I started watching the first season, almost the whole way through I was thinking, "Okay, this is the story of how Ned Stark fights against the evil Lannisters." Until the second-last episode, when things took that dark turn and they killed off the guy I had always assumed was the series' main protagonist.

Lessons from Game of Thrones - Ned Stark

Having never read the books, I couldn't imagine how they could carry on the series after killing off the main guy - really, one of only three or so big-name actors in the entire cast that I recognized from anything else at the time. I didn't think you could do that. But carry on they did, and by God the show just kept getting better and better.

The shock of Ned Stark's execution was nothing compared to the Red Wedding episode. Again, having never read the books, I was unprepared for that. And it is the only time a television show has ever caused me to utter, "What the f***!?" out loud.

Lessons from Game of Thrones - Walder Frey during the "Red Wedding"

Without giving too much away, never, ever have Walder Frey make a toast at your wedding.

Other characters undergo such dramatic changes that they may as well be dead. Theon Greyjoy, for example, essentially died and transformed into an entirely new character, Reek. Jaime Lannister started out as a blackhearted and nigh-indestructible villain, but has since become much more sympathetic and humanized. Bran Stark underwent a dramatic character makeover within the first two episodes, and continues to evolve as the story goes on.

This almost never happens in MMOs. The main story characters are there from start to finish, essentially unchanging (though they may undergo some kind of soul-searching character growth). Some of them are killed at the climax of the main story, sure. But that's usually 50+ levels in, at the conclusion of a very long main story arc, or as a crucial turning-point during the second act. By contrast, Game of Thrones seems to kill off or dramatically change a character every handful of levels.

It is perhaps unfair to call this an MMO-specific problem. A lot of writers in many genres follow tried-and-true "hero's journey" character arcs with a consistent cast of characters all along the way. But the problem is more pronounced in MMOs, where gameplay often extends far beyond these closed arcs - what happens after a year or so, when all the regular players have played all the way through the main story arc? How do you keep the game interesting after everyone in it has already saved the world many times over?

Lessons from Game of Thrones - Thrall

Thrall has been going strong since the 1990s - what would happen to Azeroth if he died? Wouldn't that be a more interesting story to pursue than yet another expansion where the mighty "green Jesus" survives yet another demon-and-necromancer Armageddon and his legend continues to grow? We've been there and done that for over 10 years now, all the way back to single-player Warcraft III days.

Ned Stark was killed off after just one season, and it changed all of Westeros. The event of the famous hero's death is when things got really interesting. 

Main non-player characters in MMOs should serve as world-shapers, and ideally they become characters that the players grow to love. But maybe they shouldn't be so precious as to be immortalized - the death of a beloved hero can be traumatic, but it can also spur other great events, and open the way for new stories to evolve. This kind of evolution is great for MMOs, where worlds need to constantly evolve or risk becoming stale and tired and having the playerbase drift away out of boredom.

Obviously, you can't have a Red Wedding every 10 levels. That would just be cruel. But you can certainly have the odd hand-amputation or spinal injury or unexpected beheading. Keep the players guessing, keep the players playing. 

Note that, up there near the beginning, I say that these lessons can be learned by writers of "any other MMO on the market." Bigpoint.com, the studio that brought us Battlestar Galactica Online and a number of other browser-based games, is developing a free-to-play browser-based MMO called Game of Thrones: Seven Kingdoms. It will focus primarily on PvP, game was announced at GDC 2012 and is expected to be released sometime this year. It's a bit difficult to imagine that this game will have much focus on storywriting (and, according to one early previewer, they're probably going to scale back on the "Rated M for Mature" stuff), but it will be interesting to see where they go with it. And even more interesting to see if the writers at any of the major development studios take notice.

One of the things I hated about D&D way back when, was its alignment system. I was never a fan of fantasy until some recent stuff (Neil Gaiman, for example). Even the literature, never mind the rpgs and mmos, were very primitive and child-like in its logic. And the alignment system (at least to me) seemed born of racist attitudes, even if it was not done consciously. How can you create a new race and decide that this race is evil? That's kind of backwards primitive style of thinking that most of us would abhor had it not appeared 'in disguise' in a fantasy game.

Honestly, knowing the average MMO player, I don't think that most of us are ready for anything as different as you suggest. It's clear to me that most MMO players don't do well with change. Furthermore, the reason why Game of Thrones is so good is because it has great acting and great writing, the quality of which is so many levels above the best game writers that it's just absurd. Dialogs in games tend to be more speeches, and less interraction.

And Speeches just kill story. There's nothing more boring that listening to one character drone on about how terrible the predicament is. If you are writing a novel (or a television screenplay) you do NOT want to have to explain things in exposition. Yet in games, that's what happens all the time, because in a game, you can't do the one thing that you have to do as a good writer, and that is 'show but don't tell'. If you have too much exposition (and all games have too much exposition or not enough, really there's very little in between). then its boring.

Think about how story is presented in Game of Thrones -- you are showing events (ie. not explaining them) taking place all over the 'world' that Martin created, and we assume that the characters know some things but not others and you really only point out what people know and don't know as necessary. How do you do that when one of the characters is the player? You can't. Games are not movies and games are not books, and games are not television shows, and so expecting quality storytelling from a game is not realistic. For it to work, you literally would have to remove the player out of the story.

It's not the fault of the game writers -- the structure of games limits what you can and can't do. There's no real pacing in game story telling, because the pace is always set by the player, regardless of what the writer intends. Dying kind of ruins any kind of pacing anyway. It takes away from immersion and drama in a story, and removes all sense of investment. If you die, you just rez or reload or with permadeath, restart, and try again, and it doesn't affect the story -- there's no personal stake, just the wish that you finally get to the end.

One more thing... The interesting part of Game of Thrones is NOT the fighting. It's what happens BETWEEN the fighting that carries the story. I'd like to see that work in a game. (j/k. It can never happen, at least with near that quality). Games are all about the fighting and thus story most often becomes exposition. That's very bad storytelling.

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