Ongoing Uru Review: Role-Playing in the Cavern

(This is an edited version of a forum post that I made on Feb 7, 2007 on It was largely in response to an earlier thread entitled "fan-based storylines".)

The big debate, as I write this -- a week before launch day -- is what part players will have in the storyline of Uru Live. Most of the story elements to date have been in-game journals, DRC press releases, and NPCs controlled by Cyan actors. But the Uru web site promises: "For the first time, you are the storyteller. What happens is up to you." So, what does that mean? Players have tried several different strategies for influencing (controlling? expanding?) the Uru story.

The most obvious is talking with Cyan NPCs, when they appear in the game world. This has worked well in some cases, not so well in others. During Prologue (2003-4), a player named Brian Fioca started a player association with a mystical bent, called the Great Tree. This drew the support of Douglas Sharper, a DRC character, and the Great Tree players wound up with Great Tree jackets in the game -- a small reward from Cyan for role-playing. (But this was a one-off ad-lib, not part of a game mechanic that everybody was allowed to compete for.) On the other hand, some DRC appearances have led to shouting, chaos, and a general sense of frustration.

Players have also organized themselves for in-game protests, held poetry sessions, given speeches. Taking a more authorial stance (as opposed to playing "themselves"), players have created avatars to act out roles or story fragments -- attempts to create in-game story in the same way that Cyan does. (Of course, players have fewer game mechanisms than Cyan; we cannot make game-world features appear or disappear.) Again, some of these attempts have fit in smoothly, and others have come off as awkward and unconvincing.

These attempts (the good and the bad) have led to a lot of debate about what "the story" is, and who controls it. I see people talking about fan-fiction, in-game story, and role-playing. That's what led to this essay.

First I must toss aside (with great force) the term "role-playing game", when applied to computers -- as in "CRPG" or "MMORPG". That was a misnomer from the beginning. (The beginning being, perhaps, Wizardry. Or I guess Rogue was earlier.) Yes, those early games allowed you to play a role -- but so did Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Doom, and Myst.

Paper-and-pencil role-playing games -- archetypically D&D -- are a kind of collaborative storytelling. Or, I should say, several kinds. The nature of RPGs has been studied intensively in the past few years... by people who aren't me. I will refer to you the essays by Ron Edwards. They're a bit of a slog, because he defines and uses a lot of jargon, but they are about exactly this conflict: who defines "the story"? How do the gamemaster (Cyan) and the players collaborate to make story? Is "making story" even the goal that everybody is seeking?

I'd love to see Uru Live analyzed as an RPG, using Edwards's critical tools. I'm not going to try it. Although I love reading this stuff, I'm not an RPG gamer. I'm a computer gamer; so I will try to attack the problem from my perspective.

What is "role-playing" in a computer game, if it isn't a particular genre of game? People will answer differently, I'm sure, but I say: it's the sense that you are acting within the game world -- you are involved in what's going on. If the game hands you a choice but then forces a particular response, you're not involved; you're following a rut. If the game hands you a choice but ignores your response, you're again not involved; you are powerless. Ideally, the game should hand you choices that make a difference.

Notice that I do not specify what difference the choice makes. There are always some game elements that you can influence, and some game elements that you cannot.

The naive player says "I want to choose how the story comes out!" Contrariwise, the cynical player expects to have a pre-existing story pass in front of his eyes -- perhaps as cut scenes sprinkled in between meaningless (but time-consuming) fight scenes. Or in between meaningless-but-time-consuming puzzles, depending on what kind of game it is.

Both players are wrong. Or rather, both need to find better games. (And maybe the naive player needs to become a game designer.) An effective game will be built of large and small events; layers of events, really. It will offer meaningful choices in some layers, while guiding the player in others. Obviously, if the player fails to perceive the choices he has, the game will fail. But equally: if the player thinks that he has choices where he doesn't, the game will fail. The player will get stuck and frustrated, trying to find a path that doesn't exist.

I'll use Myst as an example. You have great freedom in walking around and looking at things. (Particularly in RealMyst.) You have very little freedom in picking things up and carrying things around -- but this is clear as soon as you encounter an object; it just plain doesn't come with you. On a higher level, you can choose which of the four Ages to explore first (second, third, fourth). But you can't choose to swim out and explore the ocean. On yet a higher plane, you can choose which of four ultimate story-endings you will reach. You can't make new ones. Making a deal with Sirrus to conquer Stoneship together is a cute idea, but it's not in the game.

Let's apply this thinking to Uru.

When you're exploring new Ages, Uru works just like Myst -- like the middle part of Myst, where you're exploring the four Ages. Your choices are about exploration and experimentation. That works fine. It also doesn't last very long. We've all spent days exploring new Uru content, but most of us have spent weeks or months (if not years) playing Uru. What choices fill the majority of the time?

As everybody has observed, the meaningful choices are few. Mostly, you can run around and talk.

(Some players, in a fit of absolute brilliance, have taken those abilities at face value and formed a marching society. I cannot stress how much I love that. But it's not my thing, and I don't think it will be the primary Uru thing for most players.)

In Prologue, Cyan seemed to be stressing garb as a game-meaningful choice. Yeesha offers "reward clothing," saying "Wear this to show others what side you've taken, when sides are taken." Players went along with that. Some players took the more extreme choice (no longer available) of forgoing a Relto book.

Those examples, I hope, support my identification of player choice with player story-involvement. Those actions (garb and Relto books) were perceived by everybody as ways of being involved. Similarly, the basic avatar commands -- chat and movement -- are co-opted by players into story form: speeches, questions of DRC personnel, marches and sit-down protests.

So when I think about how player-created story is going to mesh with Cyan-created story, I start from what players can do, and work out from there.

At the moment, the choices seem thin. But they may expand as Cyan releases new Ages. To that extent, we're trusting that Cyan has interesting ideas coming down the pipeline. We've always needed that trust, of course, but it's a bit frustrating in the present.

(Yes, I'm skipping over the notion of player-created Ages. Why? Because it's such a powerful notion that it changes the entire game! Once we can build new game content, our problem will not be how to influence the story, but how to create good stories. And that's another topic entirely. In any case, we don't have creation tools yet. This essay is about Uru as it exists today.)

There are also player choices outside the game. That's been a significant part of Uru from the start: organizing events, forum activity, having discussions with Cyan people, writing stories, creating videos. In sci-fi fandom, that would be called "fanac" -- and it has as much significance in that community (if not more!) as reading science fiction. Take a lesson from that. And also from Greydragon (Ryan Warzecha of Cyan), who said in a recent City appearance that Brian Fioca and the Great Tree group were the "best example" of player storyline working out. That may have started out as a player chatting with a DRC actor, but it had impact because it was a well-tended community web site.

So from that point of view, anything you do is influencing the story. Even if it seems unrelated to in-game or in-character activity.

Side note: A great deal of energy has been spent debating whether to behave in-character or out-of-character -- in the game, and in game-related forums. Should there be safe (or forbidden) spaces for these two options? Which behavior choices should be respected and which rejected, where, and by who?

Honestly, I think these arguments are just a distraction. City of Heroes (or WoW) is the same game whether you chat like a superhero (or bad RenFair player) or not. People prefer one or the other, but they're there to play the game. The meaningful choices in those games aren't how you talk; they're how you develop your stats, tools, and powers. In Uru, if we have meaningful choices available to us, we'll be too busy making them to sweat about the character point-of-view.

Last updated February 9, 2007.

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