One of the things that first got me excited about my first Dungeons & Dragons character—my “magic-user” to use the old fogey term—was not simple combat magic. Sure, Magic Missiles were pretty darn cool, and you could generally take down an orc or two with them, but some of those early utility spells were pretty great. I remember reading those early spell descriptions out of the 1st ed. Players Handbook and thinking about creative ways they could be used. Remember Detect Magic and Knock? Levitation? How about Wizard’s Eye, the spell that allows you to see around corners or down the hall? Sleep was almost more powerful in its way than those early damage spells – you could possibly put a whole group of monsters to bed, and subsequently, death. Tenser’s Floating Disk for carrying your stuff? Spider Climb, which allowed you to skitter up walls temporarily, and Tongues, which allowed you to speak another language.
One of the givens in an MMORPG is that each player must choose a faction, usually right at character creation. In Warcraft, you are either part of the Horde or the Alliance. Alliance players are always human, dwarf or elves, and Horde players are always orcs, trolls, goblins, and so forth. This, of course, all dates back to Tolkien and a perhaps a dualistic view of the world that was made for a very convincing good guys/bad guys story. Gollum may have been the one character in those stories pulled in both directions, a study of the light and dark, Jekyll and Hyde.
If George R.R. Martin has done one thing for the fantasy genre in Game of Thrones, he has blown apart the trope. The “evil” Lannisters certainly have their more admirable members in Tyrion and Ser Mormont, and the “honorable” Starks certainly have their overly black and white view of the world in Ned, and of course many characters who are somewhere in-between. It’s a much more complicated world, which in many ways is very realistic and satisfying, but perhaps a bit less comforting. It’s good to know who the enemy is.
Many early computer adventure games intermingled plot and mystery, action and puzzle – Myst, Silent Hill, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Zork, Ultima, The Longest Journey. Playing these games growing up, friends and I spent long hours taking notes, making maps, figuring out plot connections – all this alongside the combat that could crop up at any time. Figuring out how to open the mysterious locked chest or opening the secret door, or discovering that the king is possessed was half the battle, and when you did figure it out, it was often as exciting as the most challenging combat in the game.
Even better were the games where nothing was truly spelled out for you – you found clues as you explored, and serendipitously the story or mystery emerged as you put the pieces together. Myst was the best at this; you were simply dropped into the situation and left to stumble across strange notes, books, sounds and images, and left to put 2 and 2 together. It was amazing.
So why is the investigation mission completely missing from the modern MMO?
The biggest selling point for the MMORPGs is the “massively multiplayer” part of the acronym. At the time that many small Dungeons & Dragons groups were gathering 3-8 players around the dining room table, folks at Essex University in the UK were creating the first text-based “MUDs” or multi-user dungeons that could have as many users all playing in a shared virtual world.
While on the surface it would seem that there is a lot in common between these two scenarios, they are actually quite different – the former has a small group of players sitting face-to-face and working through a roleplaying scenario using the standard rules of conduct of any public social interaction. Sure, they may be playing in character, but because the person is sitting directly across the table, all the power of verbal and non-verbal communication is at the group’s disposal, making for an infinitely complex and memorable session. In an MUD, the number of players was greatly increased, but there comes with that a great deal more anonymity, and none of the non-verbal methods of communication one can have in-person. Communication was by text only. It’s the difference between a small town where you know all the neighbors and a big city where thousands of strangers walk by without ever speaking to each other. Ironically, while it became much easier to gather large groups of gamers in a MUD, it’s was still very difficult to produce the quality of interaction you’d get in a small tabletop roleplaying session.
At a recent meeting with a group of game developers we were discussing the merits of quest chains vs. open, serendipitous questing.
The original Ultima single-player games used an open system – as you traveled through the world you might talk with a person in a village who, if you asked him about a particular subject (using a method similar to the old Zork games – trial and error typing in your own subject line), he perhaps could tell you a story with a lead you could follow up on – he might tell you of a person in another city who knew more, or possibly of an area in Brittania where an object might be found if you investigated. There was no guide telling the player the exact location, just the name of the city or locale, and taking of notes and using your map was certainly necessary to keep track of the thread. At any one time you might have 4-5 threads you were following, and a decent-sized notebook. If you had somehow stolen from the character or attacked him previously, you might not get the clue or thread in the story. Ultima kept track of your behavior in the world.
There’s a smaller subset of MMORPG players who refuse to play the more popular online games most people know about (Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic) and choose to play what are called “Sandbox Games.” Some examples include Eve Online, Mortal Online, and Darkfall—more obscure titles, but all with dedicated followings. Folks have different definitions for sandbox gaming, but based on some of the discussions on the MMO Smacktalk podcast there appear to be some common threads, though not all the mentioned games are true to these “pure” ideas:
In the pre-RPG days, we had a single gaming style choice. From checkers to chess to Scrabble to Monopoly to Sorry to Risk, not to mention baseball, football or soccer, gaming was one thing: competitive. If you wanted to play a game you were in it to win it. Think of Rocky or the Bad News Bears or even Glee and you already know how highly we value competitive drama.