MMORPGs Need More Liars
I hate being lied to. And let me tell you, I've heard some real whoppers in my day, whether it be from bosses or girlfriends or business partners who were content to let a handshake act as a contract. (Handshakes don't hold up in a court of law, I've found.)
But there's something fascinating about being lied to by a video game. Take, for instance, the classic scene in the original Metal Gear Solid where you find out Snake was intentionally injected with FOXDIE, or the whopperoo that is the first half of the original BioShock. And let's be honest, Final Fantasy VII became a far more interesting game when we realized that even Cloud's memories were probably false.
A well-done lie can go a long way in any sort of narrative. In literature, there's this concept called "The unreliable narrator," which happens when you realize the character telling the story might not be telling things straight. Gothic literature tends to use the effect to blur the lines between dreams and reality and make their worlds more surreal. Both Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut use it to create ironic humor. Even movies use it to some effect, with Fight Club and Shutter Island instantly coming to mind.
It's a bit harder to pull off in a video game, since video games are interactive by nature, but as I pointed out a few paragraphs ago, it has been done. In fact, L.A. Noire built an entire game mechanic around being lied to.
There's a weird psychology behind being lied to, and I love that when it's done in the safety of a virtual environment. I want to be lied to. I find myself far more involved in a story when I'm forced to stay on my guard and actively figure things out, to question the things I'm being told.
MMORPGs are a weird beast, because the storytelling in these games tends to be much simpler. Most players skip the dialogue anyway, so the games' writers have less motivation to write complex narratives, which in turn causes players to not want to read the dialogue. It's a self-perpetuating cycle. (There are exceptions, of course.) But wouldn't it be more interesting if, say, you were sent on a fetch quest to gather 12 pumpkins, then you returned to find out you've actually stolen these from another NPC, who is now upset at you. it takes a simple fetch quest and gives it an extra layer of depth, doesn't it?
Now, I'm not going to say this has never been done. Just in the time I've been writing this, I've come up with several examples from MMOs that I've played where lying is used as an important plot element. In fact, the game I'm currently playing (which I've already spoken too much about in previous articles already) has used this to a pretty great effect.
My all-time favorite example, though, comes from EVE Online, in which players drive the in-game economy. In EVE, lying and manipulating other players becomes an art form, and the most devious of players run big scams and Ponzi schemes to cheat other players out of their hard-earned in-game currency.
I asked the guys at CCP, the studio behind EVE, about this phenomenon when I talked to them at E3 back in June, and they assured me that this is something players accept as just being a part of the game. In fact, there's a yearly gathering of EVE players in Iceland called EVE Online Fanfest, and I was told that the players running these big scams meet with the people they've scammed and everyone is simply cool with it. There's a line drawn between real life and gameplay, and that's essential in making this all work. Sure, when you meet the guy who stole ISK from you, you kind of want to punch him in the face at first. But then you realize that you and he share a love for this complex, niche game, and that means you have something in common and you should be besties.
There's an unfathomable amount of ways to use lies to push a game narrative, and I guess I'm glad there are MMORPGs out there that understand this.
Then again, everything I wrote in this article could simply be a lie... Hmmmmm...