I’ve used this phrase a couple of times. I’ve seen it used in others. Why does a particular MMO ‘feel’ soulless to a particular player? Casting an eye over my initial reaction to the game during release week, I seemed to feel positively about the world.
All the little elements I’ve mentioned – the lore that gets deeper as you look, the rifts themselves being connected to the zones, the ability to skip quests you really don’t like without losing the greater thread, the artifacts (what archaeology should have been) it builds up to a satisfying whole. The game has heart.
I’m not sure if I’d agree with that at this point, but both ‘games having heart’ and ‘soulless MMOs’ are very very odd ways to talk about games and gaming, at face value. Let’s take a look at a couple of quotes from bloggers who have used such phrases more recently.
Guild Wars 2 lacks soul, in my opinion. And, while I mean this affectionately, if I’m going to play a soulless MMO with a great development team then it’s going to be RIFT.
- Liore, Herding Cats
This is the quote that prompted me to asking “Why do I feel this game has a soul, and Liore doesn’t. Also what the hell is a digital construct doing having a soul?” Thus, an exploration of ‘soul’ in MMOs was born.
To me, SWTOR feels like another predictable and soulless experience. It’s akin to a slick Hollywood blockbuster movie with cardboard good guys and bad guys with copious amounts of explosions and special effects thrown in for good measure.
- Wolfshead, Wolfshead Online
Wolfshead can always be relied on to dislike a theme-park MMO. Although all the quotes I’ve included here focus on Rift, SWTOR and Guild Wars 2, I think we can assume that Wolfshead probably has the same criticism of the behemoth that is WoW.
I hate Rift as a game. The content that was around when I left was soulless (get it), dumbed down, and just not what I wanted out of an MMO. What was an interesting evolution of the themepark model in beta ended up being a 2011 version of current themepark design at launch.
- Syncaine, Hardcore Casual
Syncaine is another critic of theme-park MMOs. I’m not sure what changed between beta and launch to prompt such hate for Rift, but at least there was a pun involved. In any case, from the above three quotes it is possible to see that there is this conception that games need to have ‘soul’ in order to be an attractive proposition for a player. I doubt most of us would articulate this need in such a way, so I’m going to say that I think for a game to have soul, the player needs to be able to forge an emotional connection with either the virtual space, or the characters and other players within the game. At least for the purposes of this rambling article.
What makes a game soulless?
How can a digital construct that doesn’t even lay claim to imitating personhood be talked of in terms of a soul? Strictly, it can’t, but like most people I could easily talk about the soul of an old house. The old house has character and all the cracks and bumps and bruises contribute to that, the marks of humans living out their lives within the walls of the house. It’s a way of feeling connected to a building. Alternatively, a city centre tower block will often be seen as a soulless construct, despite the thousand of people living out their lives within it’s offices and public spaces. An ancient church in the middle of rolling english fields is romanticised due to generations of focus on the community rituals and experiences shared within, yet now it lies empty due to the secluarisation of the country and it can still be said to have soul.
What does a game share with a building? It’s a construct, though digital, created by many hands. The NPCs and animations are figuratively created and moved by the will of the animators and designers, the feel and function and mechanics of the construct are created by massive collaborative effort for the consumption of thousands of customers. A building is created through the artistic vision of the architect, and then modified by the owners, the project managers, engineers and the thousands of workers that make the initial plan a reality.
So is it this plurality of creators that renders a virtual world ‘soulless’? Videogames, with their narrative elements, are more often compared to films as the ‘other narrative popular medium’. Now, the videogame industry exceeds the film industry in terms of revenue these days, but films have a greater tradition of popular criticism. Film industry traditionalists criticise the new technology of CGI for being ‘soulless’, so the completely computer generated gaming industry is already fighting a rear-guard action when it comes to the percieved authenticity and emotional heart of a game.
Creating emotional heart
This post came about mainly because of Liore describing Guild Wars 2 as soulless, and then going onto describe RIFT the same way. No piece of digital media can hope to please everyone, and her comment got me examining my own perceptions of Guild Wars 2 (having played the beta) and Rift.
To take a closer look at Guild Wars 2 – the art work and lighting is absolutely stunning. The game is beyond beautiful without trying to be photo-realistic. One of the original trailers for Guild Wars 2 had one of the developers talking about how the game should feel ‘hand-crafted’. In terms of having an emotional centre, that feeling of lovingly created environments is a very good start. Every time I pan the camera around, there are beautiful vistas almost every angle feels like a natural world. The game is huge, and the snatches of conversation I hear as my character wanders around, the way the wind moves through the grass, it feels like a wonderful MMO.
But didn’t I say similar things about Rift? Well, yes, but by the time I got to the end of the levelling curve I was tired of desert, and the lack of social interaction. After the visual clarity of WoW, I started to find the pretty graphics of Rift inaccessible. The more disconnected from the game I felt, the less heart and charm the game seemed to have. To give a game heart, players need to feel an emotional connection to the world. To say that a film, whether big budget or indie, has charm is to say that the film has succeeded in charming the viewer. To say that a game has heart is to say that it makes the player’s heart (or emotional swell) respond.
The emotional heart of a game comes in part from the central vision of the game, the themes explored by over-arching plots and the atmosphere crafted by the game creators. Diablo 3 is an incredibly monetized game, with emotional connections forged by players who have been waiting for 15 years, yet the emotional heart of the game comes not from the rather simplistic story, but from the atmosphere, music, and the attention to detail displayed in the character animations and the addictive gameplay.
Warcraft has the home advantage
As with many things, WoW has the advantage in that millions of players have already forged emotional connections with the game, the community, and the game world. After not logging for a while, the soaring music of Stormwind as one flies through the front gates still tugs at the heart strings. There’s a lot to be said for the emotional centre created by the veritable mountain of memories created by raid triumphs and failures, by RP moments, by silly guild events involving ogre suits and fireworks. Rift, Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World have to fight against 6 years of emotional highs and lows, of the rituals of WoW raiding and PvP (at least in my case.)
How do I forge a connection with a world that is completely new to me? Despite the gorgeous graphics, as an MMO veteran, a game world of a new MMO is always seen as a construct first, and a ‘digital world’ second. Despite the ratty graphics and legacy designs of Warcraft, the landscape of Azeroth has left an indelible mark my history as a gamer. For many others, previous and concurrent Blizzard games will mean that the emotional connection to Azeroth goes even further.
Questing to create a connection
And this is why the ‘questing’ and social aspects of new games really are the make or break features of a new MMO. Firstly there is building on and evolving a system that has bridged from game to game. Secondly there is the relaying of narrative that helps players connect to the stories of NPCs and to their own tales. Guild Wars 2 eschews the linear narrative approach in the way that players interact with the world. A renown heart, on it’s own, has very little story connected to it. Instead the Renown hearts, the continuing events, create the overall background of an area. I’d even go far as to say that every single zone is a quest, and how a player interacts with the Hearts determines how much or how little of the zone narrative you chose. For me it harks back to the early days of questing in WoW where there were some quest chains, but many individual quests that could go in any order.
Which is not the same thing as min-maxing travel time and XP.
The Hearts definitely appeal to the explorer, but they could appeal to the narrative junky if the player takes the time to talk to the zone scouts.
So emotional heart? Well Guild Wars 2 does that for me whenever it starts to tackle issues of gender and parenthood, because those are the issues that matter to me. Whenever I hear a female charr growling “Kitten’s got a sword too” in answer to a patronising male charr, I cheer inside. For me the game has heart because it’s clear that the developers and artists really believe in what they’re doing. The game feels designed with a gamer like me in mind, and I’m not even that much of a PvPer!
On the other foot, Star Wars: The Old Republic hinges it’s emotional connections on how well the storylines are written, and on the playerbase’s emotional connection to the Star Wars IP. Rift was always going to be battling against the lack of established IP, and the juvenile nature of it’s storylines let it down in the early days. My initial reaction on hearing about the dragons and planes was “Seriously? What happens when they run out of dragons?” Trion have managed to balance out a shallowness of concept by setting the gold standard in terms of content release and response to issues. Yet the dynamic content doesn’t really connect with players on an emotional level (at least not in my experience), and the questing is questing we all know and love. Players who love and enjoy the game, and it’s souls, will have found and made those emotional connection with other players and the stories of the game. I still have fond memories of solving some of the various puzzles and discovering caches, and those moments of triumph helped me to forge that connection with the game and start to see it as a game with soul.
What is ‘soul’ again?
I seem to have defined it here as ‘having an emotional centre’, but that is a very ambiguous phrase. Does a game have soul if it was crafted and created with love and passion, or because the designers created a stage suitable for the enactment of ritual, friendship, and emotional highs and lows? I suspect it’s a little of both. There is a tendency to see large companies as faceless entities, with games created by committee with revenue models in mind, and to forget about the passionate individuals that want to create games they want to play. Yet the biggest MMO of all probably has more soul in it, invested by millions of players and thousands of developers and contributors, than the smaller game that is attempting to evolve the MMO genre.
Hence the magic of social features. Rift remains quietly successful and has fabulous social features and connectivity, and many MMO bloggers continue to praise Trion, and I suspect I would find the game a much more emotionally charged experience if I were to start playing it again now. At the moment the personal story in Guild Wars 2 leaves much to be desired, and the emotional connection for me comes from discovering a more motion-based combat style, and hearing of the struggles of Charr females and Norn women. I have no clue if that will persist for me once the game goes live, or if I will find the launch day game lacking in emotional centre. Whether a game is Soulless or not is certainly not an objective thing, in my opinion.
I haven’t touched upon the ‘soul’ of expansions, or on The Secret World, Wildstar, or any number of new MMOs. Do you think my conception of a ‘soul’ for a game is the correct one? There are certainly other things that one could mean by it!