Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Role of Lore

Allarond just learned to make his weapons spontaneously light on fire. There is good design logic for this. Turbine decided that removing enemy buffs should be an important mechanic in the expansion. Champions got buff-removal added to an upgrade of a bread-and-butter attack skill we've had since level two - my guess would be that Turbine wanted the class to have more utility for balance reasons. Adding an upgraded graphic to the skill is a good way of demonstrating that it now has a new function, which should become the player's top priority when the enemy buffs itself.

(A cynic might also argue that the flashy animation is a way to paper over the relatively small number of new skills in the expansion levels, but I don't know that this is any different than WoW or EQ2's spamming players with new ranks of every spell in their arsenals on a regular basis while introducing legitimately new abilities equally infrequently.)

The problem? This game is set in Middle Earth. I don't remember Gimli's axes bursting into flames as he fought the malevolent ice wraiths of Caradhras. (Actually, I don't remember the malevolent ice wraiths of Caradhras either, maybe Gandalf was busy whining to Aragorn about being forced to go to Moria while the battle raged off camera. Of course, if the game stuck to just foes the Fellowship actually fought during the story, the beastiary would be very repetitive indeed, especially in the context of a game full of "kill 360 of this type of enemy" deeds.)

"You guys seem to care a lot about the lore, don't you?"
My non-gaming wife's comments on my blogging hobby are always interesting, as they offer an outside perspective on our crazy ways. When I woke up on Sunday morning, I found that I'd already gotten a number of comments on my Saturday night post about the lore behind the PTR class/race combos rumored to be part of the new expansion. She skimmed over the comments - substantive discussion too, not one-line expressions of assent or disdain - and remarked that us MMORPG players must be very concerned with our lore.

The lore plays a conflicted role in the modern MMORPG. On the one hand, the lore is the difference between a game where players fight for a cause and an FPS with slow-paced combat and lots of repetitive battles against weak and poorly scripted bots. On the other, the lore of a fantasy world will almost invariably conflict with things that need to happen for gameplay.

Threats - and players - respawn after being killed. Within a matter of hours of gameplay (perhaps days of in-game time), a player gains enough experience that, if they were allowed to do so, they could attack the entire village they grew up in and stand in the middle of the angry mob, shrugging off blows from their former peers before one-shotting the whole bunch of them. The Mines of Moria, overrun by goblins and fouler things than orcs, needs an Invincible Goat Taxi service to allow players to get around in a timely fashion. These things do not make sense, but you cannot make a level-based questing RPG without them.

Resolving the conflicts
The irony, when you're not talking about a licensed IP, is that the lore is a fictional creation of the game studio. If they say that the big bad guy of Warcraft III was actually the black sheep of an entire race of friendly goat people from outer space who would like to join the Alliance, that's precisely what just happened. Most discussion of WoW's notorious zombie plague focused on the griefing aspects of the event, but, as I wrote at the time:
"As always, Lore is crucially important when some Dwarf player wants to be a mage but the lore says that the Dwarves of Ironforge have forsworn arcane magic, but completely dispensable when Blizzard wants to base an event around a plague that no force on Azeroth is able to cure, only to have players dispelling it left and right and respawning as mortals after being killed as a zombie."

That said, I always find it irritating when the developers cite the lore as a justification for something that players don't like (generally because it's a tedious time sink, like travel times). That's like having a discussion on politics and saying that your view is right because your imaginary friend Senator Makebelieve says so.

Under various circumstances, the devs will:

  • Bend the lore with invincible goats or an unusual decision to hold a jousting tournament using real weapons in the middle of the Lich King's territory (though Euripedes has an amusing theory on that one)
  • Strain it to the point of incredulity, with the pack of ravenous wolves that killed and ate the NPC someone sent you to find deciding to leave you to to "retreat" in peace once you fell over
  • Outright break it, with an entire quest line in Icecrown establishing that there is no way whatsoever for the most powerful lore NPC's in Azeroth to cure an infected hero, only ease his pain and prevent him from rising again as an undead monster - this is the thing that most low level healers in the game were allowed to dispel for a week back in November
  • Present it on a pedestal like some revered and immutable commandment from on high that settles the discussion once and for all, if it happens to support whatever they wanted to do anyway

Go Go Invincible Goat!

Perhaps the reason it bothers me is that I'd rather not be reminded of exactly how fictional the lore really is. Trying to come up with an explanation for the lack of Orc Priests, or arguing whether Forsaken Blood Knights work, immerses us in the world. Being forced to deal with the banal at the expense of actually enjoying our hobby, or rounding a corner to be confronted by something that just does not make sense in the context of what we have seen of the world, pulls us back out into reality, where we pay money to developers so they can set up stuff for us to beat.

If this post seems to contradict itself - for example, on the question of whether mechanics that break immersion are good or bad - that's because it does. Such is the role of lore in the mordern MMORPG.


Longasc said...

I think for LOTRO, Age of Conan and World of Warcraft we talk about different kinds of lore.

Breaking the lore in LOTRO considerably would for sure have more impact on the playerbase than in WoW for example. AoC is somewhere in the middle, Robert E. Howard's low fantasy world is not nearly as complete or set as LOTRO, which allows for some more freedom.

Still, what do you think about riding wolves and tigers in AoC? You raise and train them to be your mounts or companions. This is a planned feature of their next expansion.

To me, it is even cheesier than the silly Moria goat taxis.

On the other hand, most Blizzard players ... well it does not matter if Chris Metzen screwed up lore as he already did several times. In Disneyland, everything is possible, as it is not so much a virtual world but a theme park for everyone.

Klepsacovic said...

Do we want a world to live in or a game to play? A world with perfectly consistent lore might not be much fun, while as you said, without lore and the world it creates, MMOs aren't very good purely as games compared to other genres.

unwize said...

If you separate out the lore as presented in quest text from the lore as presented by game mechanics, LotRO does an exemplary job of placing it's derived characters and stories in a thoroughly Tolkien context. The Volume 1 epic story, especially the later chapters, is a great example of this. There are a couple of fudges and slight inconsistencies, but for the most part, it is extremely close to a story Tolkien could have himself written about Middle-Earth.

On the game mechanics side, well, we could sit here listing lore transgressions all day and still not cover them all. I prefer just to see Turbine's Middle Earth as a theme park version of the real thing. You wander around and explore, see the sights, pretend to be a hero, etc, but if you want to get closer to the real thing you need to pick up a book.