In terms of its applications as cybertext, the Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game is unique in its
structure. Like the Multi-User Dungeons (MUD's) before it, it is an infinitely multicursal design – a system with nearly
limitless branching possibilities – but with no real solution, no real end . In spite of this, however, it is a
system that allows for a user's progress, putting such things even in simple, quantifiable terms. Your character's total amount of
accumulated experience points (XP) defines their Level, a basic reflection of their skill and progress. Beyond this, their
experience points function as a spendable ‘currency' of progress, wherein their individual skills (things as simple as “Sword”
skill, for a swordsman, or more complex, such as “Arcane Lore”, which allows any player to better understand, and thereby equip,
magical items). So where does this leave us, in terms of defining the structure via someone like Marie-Laure Ryan's, or Espen
Aarseth's terminology? The construction itself seems a departure from previous approaches, and thereby seems to evade a proper
The answer seems to lie not in the potential “solutions” to the story, as per a standard video game's construction of the
“Flow Chart” or the “Hidden Story”, but in the more basic functions of the story 's branching tree structures. Indeed,
if any of Ryan's models served to map the player's individual actions , it would seem to be a rather infinitely-scaled
version of “The Maze,” except for the presence of that final node which she marks as the “Goal.” Indeed, mapping the structure of
such a game's individual decisions seems rather hopeless, leaving us to consider only the outcomes of a game's largest decisions,
branching off as they might, in an apparently endless tree structure.
For this study, I use as my example the long-running Microsoft/Turbine MMORPG, Asheron's Call . Though I do not wish
to imply that Asheron's Call is in any way the only valid candidate for such study, certain features of its design, as I will
discuss, make it easier to discuss in terms of literature and cybertext than other, more simplistic or combat-oriented MMO's.
At the time of its release, Asheron's Call was the first game to introduce episodic story structure, wherein large
and pre-planned sequences of story events were written as in-game "lore", relying on the actions
of the in-game characters to dictate the way that the story would unfold. Each new episode, or monthly event, was unveiled as the
result of the previous month's actions. In this way, the history and literature of the game world, Dereth, functioned as
ergodic literature, depending on not just a single reader within the textual machine, but an entire society of some 30,000 players
at its peak. For many of the episodes, multiple outcomes were possible, depending on the actions, or the inaction, of the players.
In this way, ones path through the story of Dereth's history functioned in a very simple sequence of branching path possibilities.
One crucial difference here, in terms of multicursality, can be found in the resulting appearance of the cybertext.
Though players certainly participate in the evolution of their gameworld and its story, the player is kept largely uninformed
about the story's routes that were not traveled. For example, one can easily document the evolving history of Dereth
(as many websites have very studiously done over the now five years of its life), but the literary effect this achieves is one
of linearity, calling to mind Marie-Laure Ryan's explanation of the “tree” model, in which she rationalizes the design for its
“guarantee that choices will always result in a well-formed story” (Ryan, 248). In a sense, the resulting “well-formed story”
the decisions create seems to overshadow the apparentness of the players making the decisions, as well as the decisions themselves.
Thus, though the story was derived through a collaborative ergodic effort, its apparent cohesion creates the illusion of linearity
– the medium itself hides the alternative branches of player choices.
Another key feature that distinguishes the Massively Multiplayer game from other forms of cybertext is the temporal factor
to the story's progression. While the reader of a printed cybertext might feel compelled to backtrack and explore the other
options available to them (given the visibility and continued availability of other routes), the Asheron's Call
player is forced to cope with their circumstances, accept them, and move on. The latter person, in this example, is a constituent
part of, rather than the imaginative “creator” of the world in which he participates. A reader can suspend their disbelief while
backtracking and revealing alternative routes – the player can merely speculate, with or without the corroborative (and thereby
meta-narrational) comments of the developers themselves. The presence of “real time” in the Massively Multiplayer thus shapes the
nature of its multicursality – their decisions move along a temporal as well as physical plane, to the benefit or detriment of the
world itself. Events and “quests” of this sort usually require the combined efforts and cooperation of some tens or hundreds of
players, and must be completed before the next month's events, lest the story move in an unfavorable direction. For my case study,
I've chosen one particularly memorable branch in the history of Dereth.