I recently played The Witcher 3 and Elder Scrolls Online. I discovered in my playing two very different and awesome ways to tell a story.

The Witcher 3 enticed me with character based stories. The major plot lines were all moved through an assortment of supporting characters. As you continued their story, you got closer to your end goal. When you finished the main story surrounding the support character you had a personal plot line which gave the relationship some closure.

Usually you were hanging with people. But sometimes you were a lonely mountain.

ESO went a different direction, likely due to the MMORPG aspect. You went from one locale to the next. At each one you were to unravel an issue. Sometimes you fought a war to take or defend a point. Other times there were plagues, spirits, and other oddities to deal with.

Both forms of anchoring gives an easy format to follow as a writer and reader. You can easily trace your story arcs, where they begin and where they end. Readers have easier cues to see the flow of the plot. When you set all conflict for an arc to move along one character or place, it allows better focus.

In The Witcher 3, character based stories hooked us from one person to the next in a hunt for Ciri, a sort of adopted daughter to Geralt, our protagonist. Geralt had to hunt support characters down. Most of them Geralt knew from past adventures, which were hinted at from time to time. After doing a search quest, there was usually some personal favor which occurred. After that, Geralt was given information on Ciri. At this point, Geralt could move on, never to look at that support character again, or he could go back and finish a final personal quest to give the relationship some closure, or provide a little entertainment.

As with anything, there are strengths and weaknesses. For the strength, you get attached to one support character. We get to learn their fears, desires, and wants by the quests they give and the solutions they come up with (or not). The support character’s motives can take them far and wide, so it is easy to change setting. Finally, it gives the opportunity to have your protagonist deal wish issues they would otherwise ignore or not run into. Motivations to keep the protagonist can be money, love, compassion, hostages, information, or any number of other incentives which a support character can provide.

The weaknesses consist of you are very heavily basing the story on a single support character at a time. Other support characters will come in and out, but really we are investing in the one with agency, and any others are in and out with a shrug. The protagonist can be overshadowed as the drive for the story is handed over to someone else. If the support character is flat, you’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort into their tale, and the reader will not stick around.

In ESO, you went into a location and dealt with an issue. As an MMORPG, it requires you to be tied to a place in order to gain levels before forcing you on. To make the game less of a grind, and feel less like you were chasing quest icons, there were locations you ventured into where you resolved some plot. This could be going into a town and discovering some plague. In the next town, you help a temple that is dealing with the ramifications of the fact it’s a zombie plague. You find a cure, then go on to put an end to the organization that created the plague. Each location had its own plot arc leading into the major story.

The advantages consist of you create empathy for a region instead of one character. People are tied into events greater than a single person which allows you to see more politics over a larger scope. More often than not, when a story is revolving around a setting, the character is there to change that location. The character also has significantly more agency as far as how they’re going to deal with the issue, or if they’ll even just walk away and let the location to its fate.

On the flip side, there is the issue of mobility. Your character isn’t going anywhere, so your setting better be interesting, much in the same way the support character above had to be interesting. It can be harder creating a driving force if there is a line of setting based arcs. Home town only works for one location, which is fine if they will be in that one location forever. After that, money or virtue can be excellent motivators. By focusing on a setting, there is the possibility of ignoring people. Make sure you still have a strong protagonist and support cast.

These are just a few of the possibilities. There are plenty more pros and cons, along with countless ways to tell a story, but it was fascinating to see the two very blatant ways these franchises approached storytelling.

One thought on “Character and Location Driven Stories

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