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.

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