While the genre still doggedly sticks to the acronym MMORPG, that last bit, Role Playing Game, seems to be stretched further and further away from the descriptive mark. Newer online games tend to ask less of players, whether this is through character building or actual RPing, and now rolling a new avatar in whichever fantasyland is nothing more than choosing what abilities you might use to dispatch enemies.
It seems as though, in a bid to widen the audience net, those original nods and winks towards Dungeons and Dragons, and other pen-and-paper experiences, have disappeared. While games such as Ultima and EverQuest found genesis in table top pursuits, newer games are built upon the existing framework put in place by Sony, Origin, and now Blizzard, and not on their influences; we're getting further and further away from where the genre originally started, and further away from a sense of fantasy and personification - and it's hard to know if this is a good thing.
Coming from a small, ex-industrial town somewhere in Northern England, fantasy isn't exactly within the common vernacular. People "phwoar" at car parts with the same aplomb they might at a buxom women, while anything even approaching, what may be termed as, "nerd culture" is relegated to lost and stranded Pokemon Cards, and perhaps a Beano comic (established some 75 years previous).
Outside of videogames, getting anything that steps outside of the mainstream of fantasy films and Twilight is particularly hard. There are one or two outlets scattered amongst the northern scenery that offer graphic novels and pen and paper RPGs, but to the outsider they look scary, foreign, and probably filled with murderous bearded folk dressed in robes and silk finery.
So with the above explained, it stands to reason that last night was the first time I had ever played Dungeons & Dragons. Browsing Amazon.com a few days earlier, a red box edition of the game was randomly recommended to me, as the website will do from time to time. Feeling flush with cash and with a lingering idea that my favourite pastime of MMOing owes Wizards of the Coast a small debt, I decided to throw caution to the wind, dust off a plastic short sword I had laying around, and thrust it into the air in victory. And then I entered my credit card details.
My own perception of D&D is admittedly somewhere lost within the Simpsons "we played Dungeons and Dragons for 3 hours...then I was slain by an elf" and a general air that you have to pretend to be Gorlock the Huge in front of likewise individuals. The mythos of the game has grown bigger than its own description. When you ask somebody what it is, people generally will invoke The Big Bang Theory, or describe how you, equipped with a toilet roll cardboard wand, will crash and clank throughout a house dispatching imaginary goblins and wooing fictional princesses.
My own, first-hand, experience was a lot different. Wading through the compact player and dungeon masters guides, I managed to roll characters for me and a handful of friends. We sat down, beer in hand, treats in bowls, and proceeded to have one of the most hilarious experiences I've ever had over a 3 hour period.
Instead of transcending reality and opening up a portal to a fantasy world somewhere near the Doritos, we all stayed firmly within the kitchen and at the table. Scenarios were read out from the "Choose your own adventure" style text, and, as dungeon master, I was allowed to riff on certain situations.
By the end of the night, instead of raiding a tomb for an elven warrior's missing sword, the three players had managed to rob a travelling merchant, murder said elven warrior for "that long sword they had", fight and bully each other, knock each other unconscious, lose all of their equipment, and have one of their party hung for the murder of said merchant.
We probably strayed from the rules, and perhaps subverted what is your average D&D adventure, but the heart of the experience was there. And we, collectively, loved every minute of it.
So after my tumble with dice and character sheets, it got me thinking. The organic and relative freedom of playing D&D was what made it such an enjoyable experience. We didn't roleplay as such, but like reading a novel, each player had started to paint an imagine in their mind. The scenarios and conversations started strained, but ended with tears of laughter, much guffawing, and truly memorable, and dare I say, physical experiences.
Applied to my own MMORPG history, and I believe I can find similar tales. When playing earlier online games, I did believe the setting more. Perhaps it was because of my age, or because the structures of quests and linear storytelling weren't quite so omnipotent. The world was full of creatures with which to grind, but largely the reason to do so was left to you.
With recent advancements, the genre seems to have left behind that element, or at least illusion, of choice. If EverQuest's initial creators Brad McQuaid and Steve Clover were inspired by their pen-and-paper adventures, the same cannot be said of modern developers.
Newer MMORPGs play more like linear books. If you choose to follow the story, each area has a set of clandestine criteria to fill. The choice is never yours to take, and mostly the actions are simply kill or collect. There is no dungeon master to ask whether you might parlay with bandits in the Dead Mines, or at the very least deviate from a charge from the entrance to the exit.
In the last Touchy Subject, I discussed the lack of community and social within the genre, and how it affects the longevity of a title. I think the element of roleplay, or at least feeling the pangs of character is also key. I look at my time in EverQuest and see a definite story arc. I see the lower level character scrabbling around, fishing for rubies, exploring the land, and forging armour for friends and customers. I look to my time in The Old Republic and see 12 carbon copies of myself bunny hoping to markers on a map.
Do you feel there are still RPG elements within the genre? Are you still as mesmerised by the fantasy created by developers? Or do you yearn for a time when pen-and-paper influences were more pronounced, and character and choice was valued? Let me know in the comments below.
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