I must admit, between 2 WoW accounts, The Secret World, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Rift, Guild Wars 2, and the sneaking possibility of Wildstar, I’ve been feeling a bit blase about MMOs. To the point where my ‘been there, done that’ attitude had turned into a brick I was carrying around whenever I logged in. It got kinda heavy, and playing wasn’t fun anymore.
When I was a youngster, I devoured Sci-fi and fantasy books at a very large rate. I imagine that many of the people who are likely to read this did so too. I read LOTR when I was about 7 or 8, and followed it up with the Silmarillion not long after. I read Game of Thrones when I was about 12 or 13. I remember this because I recall my reaction to Daenerys’ predicament, and the revelation that she was my age.
My Dad, who is the awesome geek who is responsible for raising me on a steady diet of David Bowie, Jethro Tull, classic Scifi, LOTR and Red Dwarf, used to look upon my discovery of old authors with a benign sort of amusement. The amusement lasted until I made him read something. His reaction came in two flavours.
“I forgot I read this”
This particular one happened with alarming frequency. Or at least it was alarming to him. I was possibly highly entertained. At the time I couldn’t understand how anyone could forget these amazing reader experiences. There are moments when I wish I could read that scene in Game of Thrones, as though it were the first time. Times when I wish I could absorb THAT moment in Fledgling again. But forget? Nah.
Except that has started to happen to me now. I come across books, and start to read them because the names and synopsis are so completely unfamiliar to me and then I get a moment of ‘Uh, oh. It’s that book!’ I get very disappointed when this happens. Books don’t last me long, as consumable entertainment, so I feel cheated when my memory actually goes to the effort to the point that I know I’ve read a particular book before.
Other times I won’t remember until the last couple of pages of the book, in which case all is well. But hey, even I get old.
Playing older games is a bit like this. I know I played Duke Nuke’m, Secrets of Monkey Island. I know I played an Alien game on something that was probably an Amstrad. I know I played Chucky Egg, and Myst. Do I remember any specifics? No. But I remember that I loved them. It’s becoming much the same way with my early WoW experiences. There is no way to get those times back, tied up as they were in a different phase of my life when WoW was my escape.
“Oh, it’s another one of those”
This second response from my Dad, on the topic of books I’ve recommended to him, is more frustrating to me because it represents a moment where my judgement has fallen short. My judgement often falls short when recommending reading material to my Dad (and my friend @minus_caffeine, for that matter) because the man has had time to read and absorb a hell of a lot more storytelling than I have. He also values new experiences, as well as quality. Getting that balance right is hard at the best of times. For instance, I’m not certain I’d bother recommending that Brandon Sanderson series to him. It’s exactly the sort of book that he’d find tiresome because it tries to do new things, and falls somewhat short when it comes to actual execution. And not actually being that new.
That is not a critique of those particular books, but just an indication that it is extremely hard for creators to do something properly fresh in an established genre. Many authors I absolutely love have fallen at the hurdle of ‘Dad is bored with this now’. I’m now getting to an age where many ‘new’ books coming out don’t feel especially fresh or revolutionary to me, even when other rave about them. I really have to dig to find an author that steps outside the standard milieu. But that’s okay – that’s what happens when one combines memory, pattern recognition, and experience. I suspect most readers will experience similar phases of malaise with their favourite genres, and will similarly find a new way to consume and enjoy the sort of books they’ve historically loved.
What has this got to do with games?
Coming back to the virtual spaces that we’ve all be inhabiting since MUDs opened their doors, the issue is this. Firstly is that narrative and characters need to grow, and evolve. Secondly that the gaming/MMO industry is having to mature at a very rapid rate, as evidenced by the ongoing ‘games as art’ and ‘games and feminism’ and ‘games and other ‘isms’ discussions, and the emergence of credible research communities and programmes in the field of game studies.
We have access to an ever expanding number of games, old and new, through digital downloads and multiple mobile platforms. Mediums like Tablets/iPads are bringing board games to videogaming. We have games like Dear Esther that prompt discussions about agency and narrative.
Yet these huge, massive MMOs that promise us so much, will always be battling against ‘Oh yes, I’ve played this before’ or ‘Oh man, this is so much like x Game.’ A while back I compared Rift and World of Warcraft to two different novels by Terry Pratchett, and the comparison was appropriate, but I think the Books/Games metaphor can be carried a little further. Yes, I know the player has a huge influence on how their MMO experience develops (through choice of in-game progression paths, character identity, guild choice, participation in group activities) and this isn’t something that is present in books, but a game is still a supposedly cohesive presentation of consumable and modifiable content, allowing a player to have an experience through a number of mechanics that will be somewhat familiar to them.
Still with me? I’m not sure I’m with me yet, so it is okay if you’re not!
Authors play with narrative devices, structures, grammatical rules. They break them and and follow them, and do all sorts of things with words in order to present us with the BOOK EXPERIENCE. The publisher adds to the BOOK EXPERIENCE throw marketing, covers, related images, editing and commissioning the rest of a series. The ebook revolution may be changing this formula slightly. Yet the regular reader will navigate the narrative of a book in much the same way every time, and we don’t get tired of the the overall format of ‘reading’.
With gaming, a similar thing holds true. A player of FPS games does not get grumpy because Half Life 24.546 includes a first person perspective and some shooting. And the point here isn’t that ‘fresh new story telling’ is needed to make a new FPS something special in terms of sales and a GAME EXPERIENCE. Nor even that MMOs do. MMOs do a particular job, and each next gen MMO re-iterates familiar formulas in the attempt to give us a newly compelling experience. All in the name of shareholders.
But I’ve had nearly 8 years in MMOs. As fondly as I look back on my first 2 years of roleplaying and regular raiding, it ain’t never going to be like that again. And I have to accept that with my experiences in games, and fantasy ones in particular, that I’m always going to have a sense of ‘oh, its this again.’ I’m rarely ever going to be alleviated of that brick, unless I play something I’ve truly never experienced before. I can’t expect the game developers to come and take that brick away for me – I need to find some way to carry it, or some way to put it down, while I go about my usual business of consuming games that otherwise bring me a large amount of fun and relaxation.
Excuse me, I think Guild Wars 2 has a stress test tomorrow, and I want to see if I can learn to play my Shadow Priest again in the time.