6 Best MMOs for Story
by Tyler Edwards, June 5, 2013
As a genre, MMOs are not very good at providing compelling stories compared to single player RPGs. The massive scale of MMOs tends to lead to a "quantity over quality" design philosophy that often leads to dull, shallow stories. But there are exceptions. There are diamonds in the rough who have managed to tell an interesting story despite the limitations of the genre, and there are even a few MMOs who have made a good story a priority for the game. This list will cover some of the MMOs with the most epic, deep, amusing, or emotional storylines.
Taken at face value, Aion doesn't seem like a game with any special emphasis on story. It's certainly not an innovator in the way its story is told. Compared to other games at the time it was released, it may have had a little more emphasis on cinematics and personal story, but by modern standards, it's nothing special in this regard.
However, if you take the time to dig into Aion's lore, to read the quests and the in game books, it actually has a surprisingly interesting world and story.
One of the main things that sets Aion apart from the pack is the depth and complexity of its playable factions, the Elyos and the Asmodians. Too many MMOs present their factions as quite literally black and white - a light aligned good faction and a darkness themed "evil" faction.
While Aion's factions still follow the light/dark dichotomy, it's not so simple as "good guys versus bad guys." The Asmodians, for instance, may be demonic in appearance and Spartan in culture, but the game is also careful to show the intense loyalty and sense of honor they have. They're a tight knit group that values friendship and family. Far from the monsters they may seem at a glance.
5: Final Fantasy XI:
A lot of the appeal of story in MMOs is the scale of their worlds, and the histories of those worlds. Final Fantasy XI recognizes this, offering an incredibly deep and imaginative world with hundreds of years of epic history behind it.
The setting of Final Fantasy XI, Vana'diel, was originally created as a playground for the gods, but was devastated as punishment for the arrogance of the gods' children, who sought to enter paradise, where the gods dwelled. The five playable races of the game were born from the tears of the goddess Altana upon her witnessing the ruin Vana'diel had become. Another god, Promathia, then cursed the races to eternally fight amongst each other.
The story of Final Fantasy XI, told through long story mission chains spanning the game, follows up on these themes as players attempt to unite the warring nations of the world against threats new and old.
It's one of the most complex and convoluted stories in the MMO genre, and offers lots of epic excitement and memorable characters. Final Fantasy XI had lots of lore and story to offer when it launched a decade ago, and its expansions have only expanded on that over the years, making for a truly story rich game.
4: Lord of the Rings Online:
Far too many MMOs rely on cheap rehashes of the traditional fantasy setting. Lord of the Rings Online, though, is no knock off. It goes straight to the source - the original epic fantasy upon which the entire genre is based. Lord of the Rings is where it all began, and all other fantasy stories are just walking in its footsteps.
Any self-respecting fan of the fantasy genre would jump at the chance to explore the world of Middle Earth, and Lord of the Rings Online capitalizes on this, allowing you to experience iconic locations like the mines of Moria and the plains of Rohan firsthand. You can also interact with members of the Fellowship of the Ring and do battle with iconic villains like the dark wizard Saruman.
Much of the important story of Lord of the Rings Online is told through "epic quests" that roughly parallel the Fellowship's journey to destroy the One Ring and defeat Sauron. They also help to flesh out the world of Middle Earth and expand on lesser known areas of the universe.
The story in Lord of the Rings Online does have its weak points. Some of the "expansion" of the lore is controversial to Lord of the Rings purists, and the plot is developing at a pace that can only be called glacial. The game has been out for six years and they're still dealing with the events of The Two Towers.
3: World of Warcraft:
World of Warcraft may not be one of the first games that comes to mind when you think of great story. It's set the standard for how stories are told in MMOs, but that's not necessarily a good thing, and if you look through its history, you can find many examples of shallow, dull, or downright nonsensical storytelling.
But WoW is a venerable game, and its lore is vast. Bolstered by the previous games in the Warcraft franchise and numerous novel and comic tie-ins, WoW boasts some of the deepest and most intricate lore of any game in history, MMO or otherwise, and it's developed a unique and cartoony personality that no other game can quite match.
WoW's story is big enough to include as many highs as it has lows. For every illogical swerve, like the infamous redesign of the Draenei, there's an epic and brilliantly told storyline, like the plot of the iconic Lich King. For every goofy joke race like the Gnomes, there's a race with an intricate history and culture, such as the Night Elves or Pandaren. For every forgettable quest giver, there's a deep and compelling character, such as the twisted but tragic Sylvanas Windrunner.
If you can't find something to appreciate in WoW's story, you're simply not looking hard enough.
2: Star Wars: The Old Republic:
Star Wars: The Old Republic was probably the first major MMO to use story as one of its core selling features. Developer Bioware was already famous for the rich storytelling of its single player games, and they promised to bring that same quality to their first MMO.
In some ways, their commitment to story may have been a little overzealous. The truth is not every side quest needs a fully voice acted dialogue tree to introduce it. Being told to kill ten rats is still being told to kill ten rats, no matter how much backstory goes into it.
But even if it didn't fully shake the "quantity over quality" that dogs MMO stories, SW:TOR still delivered one of the best MMO plots to date. The game has an over-arching plot about the ongoing war between the Republic and the Sith Empire that is as epic as one would expect from the Star Wars franchise, but the real strength is in the personal class stories.
Each of the game's eight classes has a unique personal storyline running throughout the game that can be affected by the player's choices. While so many MMOs are content to make your character a faceless adventurer, SW:TOR allows you to actually be an important personality in the story.
1: The Secret World:
It's difficult to describe what it is that makes the story in The Secret World so brilliant. You can talk about how its urban fantasy/horror setting is a refreshing change of pace from the usual Tolkien inspired fantasy universe. You can lavish praise on the fact that every single quest giver is given a detailed backstory and deep personality. You can talk about its spooky ambiance and constant feeling of dread.
You could talk, also, about how TSW avoids many of the downsides of a story driven game by not bogging side missions down with unnecessary plot or making the mission flow painfully linear.
But none of that quite captures the experience of actually playing the game. TSW is something that needs to be experienced firsthand, and it's more than the sum of its parts. Which is especially impressive when you consider that the sum of its parts would be pretty spectacular on its own.
The magic of TSW is the dread in your stomach as you follow Tyler Freeborn into choking fog around Kingsmouth. It's chuckling at the banter between Said and Nassir in the Last Train to Cairo arc. It's watching a drunken pagan god sweet talk a Romanian barmaid.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about TSW's story is the way it blurs the line between reality and fantasy. For instance, many NPCs have active social media accounts and websites. Players can have discussions on Twitter with their favorite in game characters, and the web is littered with sites devoted to people and organizations that exist only in TSW.
TSW's story is not only the best MMO plot, but also one of the best video game stories period.