27 January 2010

Gimme Fiction

An interesting discussion at Massively reminded me why I play LotRO and what I wish to see more of in the game: smart, engaging quests that are respectful to the source material. The article, and subsequent discussion, questions the use of Quests and the ubiquitous yellow exclamation mark that have become a hallmark of the "second generation" of MMOGs. For the uninformed, quests are just what they sound like, or perhaps less so; they are tasks given to your character by an NPC (non-player character) that you complete by achieving certain objectives. The prevalent "Kill X" mantra is a recurring theme in these quests. The farmer asks you to kill X number of wolves that are harassing his farm, the sorcerer asks you to kill X number of drakes in the mountains to save the town. Other highly common variants are the "FedEx" quests where you are to deliver a package and gathering quests where you have to collect a certain number of items. You are subsequently rewarded with experience points that advance your character and a trinket or two.

At first read this might sounds tedious and boring and, well, it is.



And so the mold that is the MMOG has been used and reused to the seeming breaking point. I would venture to say upwards of 75% of current MMOGs use this questing/class/experience model (Diku, if you like), and that's being modest. As repetitive as the model can be, semi-mindless repetition seems to appeal to people in their off time and it still lends itself well to great storytelling -- something that both players and many developers have missed. Developers don't write great storylines and players don't read them.There are exceptions to the rule, however, and most online games have utilized some sort of "Epic" story arc that progresses the overall story and advance the lore of the game (or the tangential story to the IP in licensed games like LotRO and the upcoming Star Trek Online). There are also the rare gems you find where a quest chain becomes a very intriguing and genuinely exciting thing to participate in. Again, the model is such that everyone (all player-characters) participates in it and thus the prospect of immersion and true character development is broken, sold off to tell a great story that requires a little ignorance or suspension of disbelief. In actuality, you're not the hero you think you are because, well, everybody is that hero.

This is where LotRO excels. Even the mundane quests are well written and can provide a sense of purpose, even if you're just killing boars or the hundredth orc variant. While it is very linear, as are most games of this sort, the storyline, familiar world, and excellent differentiation of classes makes every new go I have with a new character as enjoyable as re-reading the books it's based on.

But what I want is more. I want LotRO to focus more on exciting stories that are original and respectful to Tolkien's work. The drastic inconsistency of their storytelling has been most evident in the latest expansion, Siege of Mirkwood. For example, there is an amazing and engaging story in the ghost-town of Audaghaim: the wood-men swore fealty to the Necromancer and bought into a lie of progress. Those who rebelled were slaughtered and sacrificed to the Dark Arts, while one oathbreaker, the records keeper of the town, remains in the graveyard as a cursed shade for not doing what was right and standing by those who resisted. Of course the player doesn't know this. The story is uncovered slowly through the revelations of a Ranger you are working with and other clues found in the town. It was one of the coolest quest chains I've ever participated in.

Contrast that with other elf camps throughout Mirkwood that follow the exact same chain of quests: scout the camp, kill the guards outside the camp, kill orcs inside the camp, kill the boss of the camp, repeat. Now this is forgivable as Mirkwood is meant to be in a state of war and in war you take positions in this sort of way. And even though it's clothed in the well-written quests that LotRO is known for, you still find yourself saying "Haven't I done this before...like a lot?" more than a few times.

Now, I will be the first to say there are times when I just want simple "go here, kill that" quests to help level up my character. There is a certain mindless satisfaction, mentioned earlier, that comes from the drone of killing hundreds of orcs and not really getting your brain involved, like a slot machine or a really good action movie with a shit story. You just enjoy the flashy bits and turn off your thinker, save the part that needs to negotiate the myriad of skills your character possesses. Even that becomes muscle memory after a point.

My concern, however, is that games go too far in the direction of pointless and immaterial experience advancing quests. LotRO has to be the vanguard when it comes to story driven games both because of its own history and because of the legacy it has bought into with its choice of franchise. There have to be more great stories to be told apart from the epic books, more great "fan fiction" made more real by its implementation into a virtual Middle-earth.

One more note should be made about the responsibilities of the player, however. A game can only go so far in its use as an entertainment medium and the players have to be able to put a little imagination into their gaming. If a player expects a game, and respectively the developer, to be and provide the entirety of a gaming experience, especially as generic a one as MMOGs are, then they will never get what they want out of the game and will be left to grief the game's forums and move constantly from one gaming buzz to the next, looking for another fix. LotRO has a great community that hosts a lot of social and meta-gaming events where players really make the most of what they have. This brings up the question of role-playing and player driven storytelling. How can it be expanded on by developers? How can the passion and imagination of the playerbase be utilized to, essentially, create content for games? A full exploration of the thought merits its own post but, just as an example, there are mods for World of Warcraft that allow players to create their own books and journals that can be used as quest items. City of Heroes even allows players to create their own quest instances. Exciting stuff that is yet unexplored.


One thing I've realized as I have grown as a person and, for that matter, as a gamer is that I know what I want out of games. I want polished, immersive environments, a good story, and a fine balance between freedom and forced objectives. Sometimes, I want to wander around, sometimes I want to get the high score or save the princess. LotRO seems to offer both. There is a large and familiar world to explore and take advantage of outside the boundaries of the story-proper and there is a very linear path of quests and stories to follow when the mood strikes. Not a perfect balance, nor a perfect game, but close enough for me these days.

I just want more!

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