Monday, January 23, 2012

Lord of Some Things

Current Reading: The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkein

Inspirational Quote: "Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger." -- J.R.R.T.

It's been about 30 years since I read the Lord of the Rings. I loved it as a teenager. Back then, it was the grand-daddy of fantasy literature. Sure you could read Conan, or Elric or that recent trilogy by that upstart Stephen R. Donaldson... you could even read the Sword of Shannara (which was a pale imitation of the Great Work), but if you hadn't read LOTR then you hadn't ready anything, really. So I read it, and my friends read it, and then we tackled the Silmarillion and I hunted down Smith of Wooton Major and Tree and Leaf and read those too (although I can remember little about them... so don't ask me for details). It led directly to my unfortunate D&D addiction, and to my penchant for writing stories with a fantastic bent.

That was 30 years ago. At the time, being a fantasy geek was a great way to avoid meeting girls. It was tremendously effective in my case and thus I was spared considerable heartache for a good year and some.

But I digress.

A decade ago, Peter Jackson released the Fellowship of the Ring. I saw it with my wife, and Wow. It was beautiful and exciting and pretty faithful to Tolkein's vision (as I remembered it) although it included a love story that J.R.R. only hinted at in LOTR.

Back in September, while doing something pointless and time-consuming (web surfing), I saw an ad for Lord of the Rings Online. Great, I thought, another Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Another Ultima Online, or EverQuest or (shudder) World of Warcraft. Honestly, the world does not need another one of those to suck up subscription fees and vacuum up available (and sometimes unavailable) time. But hey, this one is supposedly based on Tolkein's work... and it's FREE TO PLAY.

So yeah, I fell for the classic “You gotta try this, man. The first hit's free,” line that's started every junkie's career. I'm so ashamed. It took a bloody long time to download, and I had to create a server account, but once it was installed and I was registered, I was off to Middle-Earth.

And I really was transported. The people who designed this game didn't just cash in on the MMORPG bonanza. They created a game world that is not only graphically stunning, but is incredibly true to Tolkein's work. Some of the design elements echo those that Jackson used in his movies, but only because those are based on notes and drawings that Tolkein left behind.

The Shire is there, with Bag End and the Green Dragon and Michel Delving and the Bucklebury Ferry. The Old Forest contains Tom Bombadil's house, with Tom himself dancing about and singing nonsense. It also has walking trees and Old Man Willow. Outside that, the Barrow Downs wait, and the road to Bree. I've stood in the Prancing Pony and crossed the Midgewater Marsh. I've stood on Weathertop, and am looking forward to seeking out the Bruinen and the ford where Elrond called the flood down on the Nine before I finally make it to the Last Homely House. Of course, there are a few shortcomings, if you're measuring by fidelity to Tolkein's world. Scale is a big one. Bucklebury ferry is ten miles from the Brandywine bridge, according to the book. It's about 500 meters according to LOTRO. Similarly, even if you subtract the days spent in Bombadil's house, the Hobbits took several days to make the journey from Crickhollow to Bree. In the game you can run between the two in about 10 minutes. That's an achievement even Legolas would find jaw-dropping.

The people who created this game have studied Tolkein's works exhaustively, and they've poured a love of the lore into the game world. Honestly, sometimes I just sit back and marvel at the achievement. It's like a virtual Tolkein museum.

With exhibits that try to kill you.

In fact, the thing I like least about Lord of the Rings Online is the game. It's quest driven, meaning that you follow a grand story that runs parallel to the events of books, and there are many side quest-chains that fill in corners of the story, or create their own. And that's nice, but it's the same as all the other MMORPGs out there: collect this, kill that, go here. More stamina is required than imagination, which is ironic given that sometimes the only reason I keep playing is because I want to see how the story formed by the quests turns out. Sometimes, I'd rather be reading the game than playing it.

What it doesn't do is make the leap into truly interactive entertainment, into a real role-playing experience. I'm going to ignore technical constraints and imagine the MMORPG that I'd really like to play: I'd like to play a game where character really is brought to the forefront. In existing computer RPGs, your character is just a set of skills and attributes that determine how they're going to tackle the challenges (ie: how they're going to kill things) in the game world. The element of moral choice is really missing in the game, and so what kind of person your character is (Hero? Villain? Rogue?) has no impact on the storyline.

I don't have to tell readers or good writers that a story where character has no effect on the plot is no story at all.

Likewise, failure plays no part in this kind of game. Mess up a quest? Try it again. Die? Respawn at a safe point. I'd like to see a game where failure has consequences (I wonder if such an approach could be made commercially viable? Nobody likes to pay for the chance to mess things up). If you mess up a quest, and Fredegar Bolger doesn't get his lunch, then that should change the story somehow. It should change the nature of the quests that follow it. Die during the raid on the Orc camp? Then the raid should fail and the Orcs should retaliate, threatening your home base.

Stories are all about tension. Tension only exists in the presence of a real opportunity to fail. Readers and writers know that a good, well-plotted book should consist of a whole heap of failures which cause the situation to become more and more desperate until, in the final chapters, one last hope for success arises. Anything less than that bores the reader, and in this case, it bores the game player too.

That's what LOTR Online doesn't do.

What it does do is inspire me to read the books again (as I have been), and watch the movies again (as I have been), and submerge myself in the world of Middle-Earth, where I'm surrounded by Elves, Dwarves, Men and Hobbits who get cranky when they miss Elevenses.

At a time of the year where I always struggle, where it's occasionally difficult just to get through the day without throwing up my hands in despair, it's a tremendous relief to be able to immerse myself like that, whether in book, movie or game. It's escapism at its finest.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

2011 - The Year In Review

Current Reading: The Fellowship of the Ring, by a stodgy old English professor.

Inspirational Quote: "Drop the last year into the silent limbo of the past. Let it go, for it was imperfect, and thank God that it can go." -- Brooks Atkinson

It's my custom to run down a few high- and low-lights of the passed year, but this year my heart isn't in it. 2011 was the worst year in my memory, and although it had its share of good times, there are large parts of it that I would be happy to forget if I could. The best I can say is that if 2012 is no better, then I'm quitting everything and going to India to become a Buddhist monk.

That said, there are a few things I'd like to mention:

Music: Coldplay and Sarah Mclachlan put out new albums, both of which I enjoyed immensely. I also got quite a kick out of Ash Koley.

Television: Doctor Who and the Big Bang Theory were entertaining enough to drag me to the television once in a while.

Movies: Thor was good, as was Source Code and Limitless, but there really wasn't anything that caused me to walk out of the theater looking for someone to tell about it.

Games: If you've ever played D&D, or another fantasy role-playing game, but never played the card game Munchkin, then remedy that immediately. Go. I'll wait. Back yet? Then check out Lord of the Rings Online. More on it anon.

My resolution for this year is the same as for last year. You've got to give me points for consistency.

May your worst be behind you and your best yet to come.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Muppets

Current Reading: Not much, unfortunately.

Inspirational Quote: "I hear his name bandied about a lot, but I don't know him. I don't know who Henson is. He seems to have his hand in a lot of things around here, but I don't particularly know what that means." -- Kermit the Frog on Jim Henson

An Open Letter to Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller, and the cast and crew of The Muppets.

Dear Muppeteers:

I'm a Muppet fan. I have been for the vast majority of my life. I watched Mannah-Mannah on Sesame Street, and sat spellbound as a toddler while Kermit reported on the mysterious Galleo-hoop-hoop from planet Kuzbain. I don't use the word “fan” lightly. I know rather more about the Muppets, their films, specials and television appearances than, I suppose, any forty-five year-old man ought.

My father and I never really got along. As is often the case, we were too similar in some ways and too different in others. But every night the show ran, we'd both be there in front of the tube, sharing some felt-covered silliness with the rest of the planet. His favorite was Animal. Mine was always Kermit. The put-upon frog with the responsibility of keeping everything from going off the rails always appealed to me.

When I became a father, one of the highlights was dragging out VHS recordings of the Frog Prince and the original Muppet movies and watching them with my kids. It was a part of my childhood that I was glad I could make part of theirs. Once they made the Muppet Show available on DVD, well my daughter and I had to have those. She has no idea who the celebrity guests are... they belong to a different era, but Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo and the rest are celebrity enough for her.

The years haven't been kind to the Muppets, though. After Jim Henson passed away, they seemed to lose the heart that made them so relentlessly entertaining. Episodes of Muppets Tonight always left me feeling that the characters weren't exactly sure what they were supposed to be doing. The subsequent movies and straight-to-DVD releases seemed to be things that only very young children could find entertaining, and that just barely.

But I could never give up hope for something better. I kept seeking out the bits of Muppet video that snuck onto television or DVD, hoping that this time I'd find something in them that carried a spark of their former charm. The offerings were few and the kind of bland entertainment I could have gotten from any other trademarked property.

Of course, I'm not five anymore, so as you're very well aware, a lot of that remembered charm shone through the lens of nostalgia, which makes everything look brighter and better. As I grew older, I started to wonder if the Muppets were just an artifact of their time. The world and I had moved on and there was no way I would ever feel the pleasure at their antics that I once had.

So it was with some trepidation that I heard news of the new Muppet movie. I had to see it, of course. I'd drag as many of my kids with me as would come because a grown man sitting in the theater watching puppets sing just attracts all kinds of the wrong sort of attention. But they were just an excuse. I was going for me, because hope springs eternal, and because someone had actually managed to convince a bunch of notoriously tight film executives that they had a Muppet movie a significant number of people would pay to see. I couldn't pass up a chance to see THAT.

I caught a lot of the interviews, the previews and the coverage that Disney issued pre-release. It was all positive, of course, but that was no real indication because the whole point of that kind of publicity is to build expectation. But one thing that kept coming up was your love of the Muppets. You were a fan. A real fan. Someone who “got it.”

Sure. I'd heard that before.

So, I'm afraid my expectations were pretty low. One good chicken joke would have been enough to exceed them.

I didn't expect them to be exceeded by quite as much as they were, however.

Your work, this movie The Muppets, was good. It had all the things I loved about the Muppets: the humor, the silliness, the surreal take on the world and the people in it, and a simple, sentimental heart. Far from avoiding the question of whether the Muppets could still be entertaining thirty-years past their prime, you embraced it. You made that question the focus, and with every frame showed that the kid inside of us never becomes so jaded that it can't revel in a good puppet show with romance, angst and music you hum on your way out of the theater.
So, thanks. From a forty-five year-old Muppet fan and a seven-year-old girl who's upset I can't remember all the lyrics of “Am I a Man or a Muppet?” well enough to sing the whole song. You did “get it.” Each of you is at least as big a fan as I am, and it shows. You brought the characters I loved back, and you built a wonderful story around them. That achievement doesn't sound like much, but I know how hard it is to do. I appreciate and am grateful for the enormous amount of work you must have done to make this a reality.

I've heard rumors that the film did well enough to merit a sequel. I hope so.

I can't wait to see it.