Sooner or later, most people go looking for a bit of escapism every once in a while. There's definitely a spectrum of how far people like to escape. Some can't stand anything which steps outside the bounds of the possible, others practically require spaceships and dragons to co-exist with emotionally retarded vampires. Likewise, some people look to books for their diversions, some theatre, radio, television or cinema. Some people play computer games or one sort of another. No one is saying that everyone, or indeed anyone, has make a specific and binding choice, though. You can watch a movie about the emotional and theological struggle of gay monks one evening, read a couple of chapters of a book about an adolescent wizard immediately before bed, and take on the role of a greek god laying waste to... well... everything the next day.
The point of my new project (Clockwork Aphid), when you get right down to it, has to do with my own frustrations with a certain kind of computer game. Specifically: the ones I'm going to lump together under the moniker "virtual worlds". There are a lot of them out there, and I can't claim to have tried them all, but I have had a play with a couple of the major ones and that's what I want to talk about today.
Where to start, though? I've gone backwards and forwards about this quite a bit and come to the conclusion that I should probably start at the top. The top in this case being the brute, the sprawling 500 lb gorilla that actually accounts for almost 10% of the revenues of the US gaming industry: World of Warcraft, or WoW, to give it its not exactly modest acronym. What we're talking about here is not just a virtual world, but a massively multi-player online role playing game, or MMORPG. Let's examine the meaning of this working backwards through the words:
- Game - this is something you play, for fun.
- Role playing - it contains some component of playing a role different to that of your everyday life. All games do this to a greater or lesser extent, but the difference here is that your character's own personality and skills have more relevance to the gameplay than your own.
- Online - the game is played over the Internet.
- Multi-player - the game is played simultaneously by multiple people.
- Massively - the "multiple people" playing the game can number in the thousands.
WoW is set in an essentially Tolkenesque fantasy world populated by humans, dwarfs and elves, acting more or less as you'd expect them to had you read or seen the Lord of the Rings. There are other races: Orcs, trolls, undead, gnomes, undead, who are a little more stylised. There's quite a bit of steam punk and tribal culture in places. That's not the point though. The point, as in any game, is the question "what does the user do?" and the answer in this case is:
The user takes on the role of one of a member of one of these races, with a particular profession and proceeds to battle their way through the world, fighting hostile elements and performing quests in order to gain "experience" and improve their character. They can also join forces with other players to take on quests; in fact this is practically required in some cases.
I've spent a bit of time playing WoW and frankly it can be a lot of fun. The world is HUGE and exploring it can be very enjoyable. There's also a genuine sense of achievement to be gained from "levelling up" your character. Most of the time. Which brings me to the first frustration: the grind. A lot of the time you just find yourself killing monster, after monster, after monster. This is partly because a large number of the quests (which are handed out by non-player characters, or NPCs, with large yellow exclamation points above their heads) sound like this:
"Oh no! <insert description of peril>! Please help us! Kill <insert number> of <insert name of monster responsible for this peril>"
Or even worse and with a more concrete example:
"Please bring me 10 giant spider legs."
The problem here being that against all conventional logic, you might only get a giant spider leg for every third giant spider you kill. As you may have gathered, they don't call it the grind because it's fun.
The next frustration is that you don't actually affect the world. You do the townsfolk a good turn by depleting the number of bandits besieging the town, but this changes nothing. Other players come along and do the exact same quest time after time after, because the bandits simply reappear a couple of minutes after you take them down. So, when you do the quest to take out the leader of the bandits, you arrive to find that a queue has formed. The first person kills him, the others wait for him to reappear and do the same. It sort of breaks the illusion of the game. More annoying still: you've been waiting patiently for your turn, but some git comes running in and kills him first. Most annoyingly, to my mind is... Well... Let me give you an anecdotal example:
I was playing as a rogue, which is a nice way of saying thief/assassin, and had been given a quest to recover a particular object from a beach. Needless to say, the beach turned out to be crawling with monsters. So I set about luring them away one by one, depleting their numbers so I could get my trophy without getting my ass handed to me (rogues can give it out, but they cannot take it). The problem being, that by the time I get the to point where I can start thinking about claiming the prize, the monsters I killed first have already started to resappear!
Here's the problem: this is not how the game wanted me to go about this task. It wanted me to find a group of other players and storm the beachhead, quickly despatching the monsters and grabbing the prize. I was playing as a damn rouge, though! That is not how an assassin does business! In the end I got lucky. A warrior stormed the beach as I was creeping up, and I snaffled the loot while the monsters were distracted. Amoral? I believe I did point out that I was playing as a rogue.
In a regular, non MMO, RPG, everything you kill stays dead for the most part. In this case the world doesn't have to be persistent (as in unchanging) because you're the only one playing it and it doesn't matter if no one else can do the quests. In an MMO, almost everyone needs to be able to do the quests, so the world generally performs a decent impression of Kirsten Dunst's hair in Interview with a Vampire. It is a workable solution to the problem, but it can make you feel as though you and your actions don't really matter, which isn't ideal given that you're supposed to be a hero.
I'm not the first person to have these sort of complaints, or to contemplate solutions, but that's a story for another day.