We Don't Need No Stinkin' Heroes
I may get flamed for this, but it’s time I admitted I’m getting a little tired of the fantasy genre in general. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve loved it faithfully for longer than many of you have been alive, starting with Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea cycle and moving through Tolkien and the rest of ‘classic’ F&SF authors to the newer arrivals of the last couple of decades. But at some point in the late 90s formulaic fantasy got stale for me, and formulaic fantasy MMOs have gone the same way. I play them, because the vast majority of MMOs are fantasy-based, but they don’t really fire me up in terms of setting, lore and archetypes. You can add tails and cat-ears to your elves but they’re still elves, and you can turn your orcs into good guys but they’re still orcs.
I’m also kind of ‘meh’ about the endless, epic (don’t get me started on the epic overuse of that word), world-shattering struggle of good vs. evil. Black and white; right and wrong. Yes/no, On/off, 1/0. It’s too simplistic for me now, because sometimes what really matters isn’t throwing the One Ring into Mt. Doom, it’s just pulling someone back off the pedestrian crossing before they get smushed by a truck. You may not know it then, but two years from now that oblivious teenager with her iPod might be destined by the developers to save the world. That doesn’t happen in games now, but it should. And heroes. Ah, heroes. The point with them in literature (and in our culture) is that they are generally few and far between. But in an MMO, every player character is a hero – and not just a little hero, oh no: a world-saving, dragon-slaying, epic-weapon-wielding hero of gargantuan proportions that the world won’t forget in 1,000 years. Or at least until the next group slays the big boss. This gets more than a little weird to me now when muscle-bound PC heroes outnumber the visible NPCs in the world by about 20 to 1.
I’m absolutely not saying we can’t be heroic in our games and our imaginations, but if everyone is an extra-special hero then pretty soon no-one is particularly special. More to the point, when the world is saved a thousand times a day from the same world-shattering but regularly-respawning threat, the whole concept of heroism begins to feel a little hollow. This may resonate more with older readers than younger ones; I remember myself at 20, and I wouldn’t have had any problem being epically heroic amid hundreds of other people being equally epically heroic. I was telling my story, and I really didn’t care what story other people were telling to themselves. Now, however, I have a broader perspective, and I’m aware of how the mega-victories are usually built on a host of smaller, less visible, and often unsung ones. As I’ve grown older, my notion of heroism has veered from Tolkien’s vision (people destined by fate for great deeds, e.g. Aragorn) to something more akin to Philip K. Dick’s concept, where heroes are just people (usually pretty screwed-up people at that) who step up to the plate because somebody has to and they were in the wrong place at the right time. I’d like to see less heroes and more heroism in my MMOs; I would dearly love to win small victories that mean something in the greater scheme of the game world, rather than epic victories that a million other people will repeat in the same week.
It’s not easy to achieve that kind of thing in an MMO, of course. You can’t allow only one player to save the day, because you have eleventy-million other players who will feel cheated if they don’t get to do the same. Still, the concept of small victories that are personally significant to the character (and by extension the player) is slowly creeping into MMO design. Single-player RPGs have been doing it for years, telling deep stories with moral and personal quandaries, and nowadays they even dazzle us with amazing visuals. Planescape: Torment was telling meaningful stories with small (and epic) victories over a decade ago. Part of the problem is that fantasy as a vehicle (for stories, characters, archetypes and so on) is almost custom-designed for sweeping stories and epic stakes. That’s maybe why I’m waiting for a decent non-fantasy MMO. There are a few out there already of course, but I’m not cut-throat enough for EVE and… actually, that’s about all the non-fantasy MMOs out there I can think of that I’d be willing to play or that I consider to be true MMOs, as opposed to massively-multiplayer FPSs. I’ve banged on enough about The Secret World to make it painfully obvious that I’m begging pathetically for a beta spot, and I’ll even consider SW:TOR when it comes out, though I’m not sure that game isn’t more fantasy mutton dressed up as sci-fi lamb. What I would absolutely love to see is a cyberpunk MMO (Matrix Online doesn’t count), and/or a vampires and werewolves MMO (bring on WoD already, CCP!), and/or just about anything that isn’t pointy-eared tall beings pretending they’re not really elves and that they’re not really carrying some word-shatteringly powerful item to be destroyed in some mega-dangerous spot. I’ve nothing against them, in fact I’m a founder member of GLEE (Gamers who Love Elves and Elvenkind), because the elf-hate just isn’t right either – but it’s time for a change. It would rock to be able to pull a Gibson in MMO-cyberspace or play a vampire that isn’t some Bela Lugosi-wannabe (or emo; no sparkly vampires for me, thanks). More to the point, I think more modern settings lend themselves more easily to stories of heroism that don’t necessarily require every heroic moment to be one of universe-shaking epic greatness. Some days, just saving a random pedestrian from squamous or fangy death is heroic. Sometimes just surviving should be considered a victory, as opposed to killing the biggest baddest thing in the universe and stealing his lunch money. I’m not saying I want my MMOs to be unremittingly grim or devoid of any kind of “Yippee-ki-yay MFer!” moments. But if all you have are those moments, they start to lose any meaning. I’m hoping MMOs are eventually going to start moving away from the recent trend of “controlling a toon” and learning how to mash buttons 3 milliseconds faster than you did last week and get back to something a little more character-driven, or even a little more player-driven. The storyline equivalent of being able to dodge spells in Asheron’s Call, as commenters reminded me on last week’s column.
We had that sort of complexity once, and then our games got homogenized. They also got a lot more balanced on a general level, which really wasn’t the case in AC (casters ruled), and that’s probably a good thing, but some spark of life and interest and a more personal dimension got lost along the way. I want to care about my character, not about her gear or her get-stuff tokens. I want to overcome smaller odds and still feel as though that’s made a difference to me and to my play session, let alone to the game world as a whole. And yeah, now and then I want to save the entire freaking universe from a fate worse than death. But not every day, or I’ll stop caring. In fact, I have stopped caring, and I’d really like to recapture that wobbly-kneed sense of having achieved something meaningful. Just because it’s big doesn’t make it better.