RuneScape is a narrative driven game. Even before the recent push in making new updates more tied into the wider narrative, the world of Gielinor has been filled with stories, large and small. Old-timers had the experience of the game and its world developing alongside their characters, but for newer players, there isn't a clear story and the timeline may seem all jumbled. It is no secret that if you look at RuneScape's narrative content overall, it's confusing. The game doesn't stop you from playing content completely out of order. Today I'll take you through how this situation came to be, and how it could have been avoided.
To talk about the messiness of the RuneScape narrative, we first need to establish some terminology. Narrative content can be driven forward in different ways. I want to split this based on two separate aspects: when is the content driven forward, and who drives the narrative content?
The latter question is the more simple one to answer: who drives the narrative content. Here we can make a split between story-driven content, and player-driven content. In story-driven narratives, the game has preprogrammed the story into the game, and the player is mostly just taken for the ride. Even if the player makes choices during the game, all outcomes are predetermined by the story. This is opposed to a player-driven narrative. Great examples of player-driven narratives can be found in sandbox games such as Minecraft, where there is very little in terms of preprogrammed story, and players use their own creativity to fill in the blanks. Some might argue that an open world game such as Skyrim falls into the player-driven side of things, though it also leans heavily on quests that developers put in the game to move the story forward.
In almost every narrative focused single player game, the universe pauses itself when the player exits the game, and leaves off where the player left when they boot the game back up. These games tend to rely on the player doing specific actions to move the story forward through the avatar they play in the virtual world. These games are character-focused, built around the idea that the character we play is pivotal to the story the designer of the game wants us to experience. In contrast, in world-focused narrative the world will develop without our intervention. This generally happens in games where the virtual world keeps spinning even if we close down our game. Even in single player games this can happen. As an example: in the late 1990s, Bandai's virtual pets - the Tamagotchi - became popular. If you didn't check in regularly with your virtual pet, they would starve and eventually die. Still, games can still be world-focused even if they do pause when the player leaves. Events may happen on timers when you're not around.
So with two different ways of distinguishing narratives, we can now imagine four different "boxes" in which we can fit games. Let's look at an example out of each box:
Back to RuneScape
- Story-driven; character-focused: any adventure or action game with a campaign will fall into this bucket. The Zelda games are a good example here.
- Player-driven; character-focused: the aforementioned Minecraft lets players write their own stories. The world sits still when the player is not actively pushing their story forward.
- Story-driven; world-focused: while Guild Wars 2 has a character-focused storyline, it is a small piece of a much more complex jumble of stories. Areas generally tell their own stories, such as a struggle between two factions, with events happening on a loop even if no player is around to see them. The world also transforms over time as the developers progress the world's story (such as the fall and rebuilding of Lion's Arch).
- Player-driven; world-focused: the best example in this category is Elite: Dangerous. Even though there are some scripted events and there is a story-driven component, it often only acts as the backdrop against which players write their own narratives. People roleplay in-game factions and groups, and these are then reflected in the actual game through references and actual changes to the factions' power levels.
Now that we have a common understanding of some narrative terminology, we can come back to RuneScape and try to understand how it fits in our framework. Before the Sixth Age, RuneScape was primarily a story-driven, character-focused game. While deeper lore was always hinted to through Postbag from the Hedge, it was never critical to playing the game.
That all changed when Sliske attacked (reference intended). The onset of the Sixth Age also introduced a world-focused component into the RuneScape narrative. Suddenly, the world started transforming even if the player chose not to do anything. The Divination skill was released, Saradomin and Zamorak went head to head in the first World Event (the hint is in the name), and a memorial to Guthix went up. The entire world knew of Guthix's death, even if your character could not, realistically, know about it.
I find time one of the most intriguing aspects of physics. In more than one way, time acts as any other spatial dimension. Many laws of physics work backwards in time as well as forwards in time. Some particles we know of are indistinguishable from how a different particle would look, just moving backwards in time (for example, a positron could just be an electron travelling the time dimension in the opposite direction). Yet, time could also not be more different than spatial dimensions. While I can step left and right and always go back to where I started, I am bound to follow time forward, always at the same rate.
Narratives follow much of the same principles as time. Barring time travel (a whole other dimension to explore (pun intended)), a narrative will play out by following the timeline of that narrative forward. The primary difference between character-focused and world-focused content is that in character-focused content, this narrative timeline allows us to stand still in the present, while in world-focused content, the narrative will move on, whether we're around to witness it or not.
This is where things get dicey: in RuneScape, character-focused and world-focused narratives started to cross. Parts of the narrative require our character to be around, we are the World Guardian after all, but yet the world finds its own way forward without us as well. We cannot control how and when the world timeline plays out. At the same time, there is something player-driven about the order in which we do quests, and when we do them, so Jagex also cannot control when the player moves their storyline forward. Yet the character-driven and world-driven arcs are required to meet each other at very specific moments for the story to make sense at all.
In the end, it's really as simple as that: Jagex crossed the time streams (again, reference intended). That is not to say that mixing character-focused and world-focused content is impossible. The problems start when both of these need to fit on the same narrative timeline. The existence of quests that could be played at any time during a player's timeline shows that it is possible. Even larger story arcs are possible, as long as they cover a different aspect of the lore as the world-focused arc.
Sadly, with how the lore is already completely intertwined, it's unlikely that we will see this situation fixed with an easy solution. With quests such as Desperate Measures (character-focused) releasing shortly alongside widely available lore in Yak Track, a time limited event (world-focused), it appears that Jagex isn't widely committed to this, and that the full narrative experience of the game is there to be enjoyed only by those who can complete the character-focused story beats at the right moment in time.