Category Archives: Setting

But…I wanna be a hero in MMOs!

Wolfshead published an interesting article yesterday in which he questions heroism in current, popular MMOs and criticizes the player base’s need to feel like heroes all the time. And I do see an issue with spoiling your gaming audience very much myself; the overkill of things ultimately undermining all their value.

However, if you were to go as far as to say that the player’s wish for heroism in WoW & Co. was wrong or somehow the wrong thing asked of the wrong genre, a detrimental thing even, I would very much have to disagree with that premise. The wish that drives us to certain books or movies, drives us into playing online games too and it’s neither wrong nor sad wanting to feel like a hero in MMOs. In fact I wouldn’t be playing them if that wasn’t part of the deal.

I want to be a hero if nothing else

In one passage, Wolfshead questions the “by proxy”-effect that attracts “normal people” to the more heroic: those iconic, shiny beings that lead seemingly exciting and perfect lives under a public eye, celebrities of all flavors but also countless fictional characters, protagonists of movies, books, comics or video games. Virtual or not, they represent virtues and qualities we wish we had and for a short moment they lend us a little piece of that imaginary glamour which can be addictive enough to turn a fan into a die-hard groupie, following his idol around the globe for 5 minutes of VIP-pass glory.

People cult has always been big for this reason; if you can’t lead a so-called glamorous life yourself, at least you can watch those that do with envy or admiration. Nevermind that other, less presentable side of the coin – the pressure such people bend under, the non-existent social life, the fake friends, the complete sell-out of privacy, the uppers and downers to keep them steady on their feet. If we can’t be shiny, someone has to be. And it better be so.

I’d like to think that I have a good life, a better life in fact than most, no matter how easily forgotten. The fact that I’m writing this article on my internet-blog, in my free time on my warm bed, is testimony to such blessed privilege. I’m also no person for people cult which I find silly regarding celebrities and disgusting in politics, to name two more popular, public phenomena. Maybe it’s because looks rarely impress me and I never feel particularly inferior to or in awe of anyone on grounds of mere social status, looks or titles. While we’re at it: Royalty is a joke. Thanks for listening!

I’ve always had a soft side for fictional heroes though; those had the power to inspire me beyond all limits, be they from classic novels, hero or fairy tales, sometimes even an RPG. I have confessed before how I carry quotes around in my head and how that adds meaning to life for me at times. Yep, I am that normal a person. And if you liked to measure me, then yes I probably have a boring and “uneventful” life. I sit behind a desk everyday, like millions do, I (struggle to) pay taxes, I feed my (lazy) cats. The weekend is the highlight of my average week and if it includes a BBQ with old friends and a good glass of red, I am happy. If my partner still brings me flowers out of the blue after so many years (or remembers anniversaries *gasp*), I am fucking euphoric.

I don’t slay dragons and I don’t save the princess like the heroes in my stories do. I still do the dishes by hand instead of wiggling a finger. And God knows, I’d make for a lousy adventurer – I wouldn’t get through the first wood without hopelessly getting lost (been there, done that) and I’d be halfway through my provisions by noon. So just sometimes, I wish I was a bit more like my heroes; a little bit more than myself. Sometimes I long for the epic and magical in my everyday life. And you know what: that’s okay. It’s neither sad nor “desperate” – it’s just life. Unpretentious and real, Mr. Thoreau. That doesn’t make it any less of a life, maybe it just makes me honest a person.

…That’s why we love stories and lose ourselves in them, that’s why we get absorbed watching the Lord of the Rings for the 10th time (extended), that’s why we play mighty warriors and dark mages in games: it’s called escapism. Mankind has done it for thousands of years, in furs, on smokey incense, with bone and dice. So yes, I want to be a hero in my MMOs; I don’t want to play accountant and write reports with my pen on planet reality. I want epic skills, I want to be powerful and kick some magic ass with a flaming sword!

If I can’t be a hero in a game I play so utterly, what’s the goddamn point???

The dragon – hero equation

There’s an article I wrote some time ago, early into this blog, that I keep coming back to like a broken record (I apologize at this point). It’s the never ending story of game difficulty level vs. meaning in MMOs, cost vs. reward and how they are opposites that rely strongly on each other to survive in perpetual balance. Hard-won victories last forever – easy rewards mean little no matter how purple they are. There is no adventure, nor real heroism where there are no struggles and challenges to face; your book’s protagonist is hardly a hero if he has no fears and demons to overcome, no dragons to slay.

And this is where me and Wolfshead agree completely: the doom of easy and numerous rewards in this genre we love so much, the loss of depth, adventures and stories because we get fed so much candy we lose all tolerance for downtimes , for exclusive content with high requirements and earning our passage. Along with that, a sort of baffling player self-entitlement, no doubt bred in MMOs like WoW that have overdone it on access, balance and fast rewards.

I don’t think that wanting to be a hero in games has any part in these issues though, I really don’t. In fact, I’d turn the table and say that it’s exactly because of this excess that there can’t be any heroes in today’s WoW (as opposed to there being superheroes everywhere) and that’s what’s leaving so many players feeling slightly unfulfilled – how could they not be in the absence of hard requirements and obstacles to make for such a title? It’s really hard to be a pioneer under such circumstances. And that’s what actually makes me sad and desperate. 

In the end I’d rather be me

We all long to be a hero at times. Maybe we even wonder: if life ever gave us the chance to a moment of lasting pathos, would we be brave enough? In video games and MMOs especially, that are so much about escaping, adventuring and immersion, we get to re-invent ourselves a little and unlike to just reading a story, we get to be interactive. Our real lives might be “average”, but in Azeroth we hurl firebolts at our foes. On our way to work, we cringe at our reflection in the morning mirror, but at night that elvish cloak and sparkling armor sit just tight.

And I know, I might never write that novel that keeps robbing me of my sleep. I might never be able to afford that fairy hut or spooky castle I would call a home. And I might just have to accept one day that neither love nor friendship are as perfect nor epic in this life as they always are in the best of stories, the ones which spoil us so utterly with hopeless ideals early on in our lives. And just maybe that’s a good thing too; because the epic and tragic lie close together and usually come at great cost. Just like heroism comes with high risk and hardship. We are not always ready for what we wish for.

Just maybe, a normal, “uneventful” life is not so bad after all. And being that hobby hero at night – in virtual worlds where death isn’t permanent and dragon’s breath is made of pixels. I like things that way.

Videogames are beautiful

My old friend Cyrille is quite possibly the most dedicated, passionate retro-gamer I will ever know. Before he made his ultimate dream come true – moving to Japan, that mother of artsy videogames, manga and anime, and falling desperately in love with a girl there who is now mother of his son – we grew up together for a time. Cy was a PC Engine (aka Turbo Duo) worshipper down to the bone, with presently 688 out of a total of 735 games owned, and I don’t think he ever eyed any game past the 32bit era with anything but disdain, which made for both entertaining and infuriating discussions sometime. “Video games are works of art” he used to tell me, anything less was not worth his time. He wanted to see love and great care put into them by developers, love for a synthesis between story, graphics, soundtrack and theme, care for the little details that stick in our minds forever. We would watch game intros in solemn awe together or listen to wacky game midis as if they were Beethoven’s Fifth. Truth be told, my cellphone’s ringtone and sounds are still SNES midis – there’s a lot of nostalgia involved.

Why do people play video games? Plenty of reasons there: entertainment, challenge, competition, winding down, the social / cooperative factor, escapism, yadda yadda. Most of these things can also be found while having drinks in a bar or playing poker with friends though. Being into video games goes a bit deeper in my mind, although I am aware not everyone shares the same interest as me. But it’s always annoyed me how anyone into literature, painting or music is automatically a fine “art and culture” lover, while being a gamer gets little to no such credit. Video games are two steps away from movies and TV, with a big fat label saying “passive and unproductive” on the package. Being into teh arts however, is enough to make you seem distinguished and productive. You might not play any instrument yourself or ever have held a brush in your life, still: you = creative!

Well, I have some news: video games are works of art. Video games are beautiful. They’re not just moving pictures stirring behavioural principles to enslave people into passivity forever; they’re the joint product of a hundred art departments come together. Years of meticulous planning and execution, a delightful composition of graphic, music, story, coding and heart. The work of outstanding artists, visionaries and dreamers, appealing to several of our senses simultaneously. If you have a good look at some MMO and general game sites, forums and blog discussions these days, you get the impression that many gamers have forgotten what  they are dealing with. Debates on subscription models and numbers, launch dates, developer vs. publisher wars, playtime, class balances, server and credit card crashes, bargains on collector’s editions. Very little on the art that is games. Very little delight about the concept art, story or music involved.

Has the audience gone numb, deaf and blind or are today’s games simply such cheap creations off the same careless, fast-producing clay, that no appreciation for more artistic aspects is possible? Or is there an ongoing trend in the videogame industry to get closer and closer to movie making, as this author states in his lenghty but interesting article?

When games are works of art

On my recent search for more old-school adventure games, I’ve stumbled into a world that I had not visited for a long time. I’ve asked around for recommendations quite a bit, not just on my blog, but some game forums where I have been resident for many years and people know my tastes quite well. I knew Monkey Island and Siberia were a good starting point – point&click and puzzle adventures in general, as long as they emphasize story and setting over tedious, endless riddle guessing (which I hate) and jumpy acrobatics. I excluded MUDs because I am still looking for the video in game (still, thanks to Jaedia for this recommendation!).

What do you know, I got a lot more feedback than expected. And not just that: I got my finer senses back for what I truly appreciate in games – the scary, the hilarious, the atmosphere. It’s true, a lot of today’s videogames have dropped off the same bandwagon and they are not meant to last; but there are the daring and different still.

One such game that I need to highlight is Limbo (XBOX live arcade, 2010) which has been the biggest surprise to me of the suggested lot – being completely without music (there are sounds though) and text. It is the most unsettling, creepy yet beautiful game I have encountered in years. A boy lost in an deep forest where death is as imminent as the sky and yet as quiet as the wind whispering among the trees. If you hold any love for dark fairy tales and a fascination for the subtly macabre (hello Neil Gaiman readers), Limbo is an absolute delicacy on grounds of imagery and atmosphere alone. It is such a breath of fresh air to find such indie projects still being produced, but judge for yourself.

Videogames are an art form made up of visuals, sound, and a mysterious little something we call gameplay. Limbo is the perfect example of these three crafts working together in harmony to create something astounding. With no text, no dialogue, and no explanation, it manages to communicate circumstance and causality to the player more simply than most games. This 2D puzzle platformer in a film noir style is one of the best games you’ll play this year on any platform. (

Often compared to Braid, I’ve not found the second, very jumpy puzzle game nearly as compelling in terms of atmosphere or gameplay (also, I find the protagonist Tim annoying). Braid has won awards for beautiful artwork and innovative design though and is clearly another pearl in that corner of the genre.

Parallel to Limbo, I have engaged in Monkey Island, re-mastered. After only the first chapters (and some awkward sparring rounds at the weapon master), I noticed my saved gamedata at 40%. I had to smile at this: yes, games used to be this short. Of a great adventure like Monkey Island, you could expect a run of 5 hours max. Today, you can hear people complain if a videogame “only offers 30 hours of gameplay”. But on to some more pearls…

As I hadn’t specified platform, only excluding handhelds (mostly because I have played all the good ones on DS already), I was surprised to get some flash-/browser games on my list. They’re full of love for detail, featuring beautiful tunes and engaging gameplay:

If Samorost’s style rings any bells for you, the games are in fact by Amanita Design, the studio behind the delightful Machinarium for PC, PS3 and Wii. A demo for the game can be found here.

Realizing I am now completely leaving the world of adventures, I still like to mention an old, secret fandom of mine, the Orisinal mini-games by Ferry Halim. The page has been there forever and is not being updated very often, but each game is a little wonder of its own (I particularly like the star girl and dragon flies).

Further Reading

Shinies and oddballs aside, my list of more classic text adventures has grown too. To name a few that I intend to look into: Indiana Jones, Broken Sword (1-3), Discworld, the King’s Quest series, Lost Horizon, Zak McKracken and Gray Matter. For some reason I couldn’t help but feel reminded of the upcoming MMO, the Secret World, when checking out that last title.

I have also been informed that there’s a rather in-depth guide to classic adventure games available on Amazon; I’m sure that to sworn genre cracks such an encyclopaedia provides a great read. Also, unrelated to the topic of adventures, I found this article on artful videogames well worth reading. I can only second the sentiment on Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

I shall be entertained by this list of adventure games for some time to come, methinks – enjoying their stories, music and world. I dare say, it’s quite the rest and relaxation compared to what’s going on in other corners of the world of games right now.

The beast that wrecked wonderland. Or: Oh noes, I’m an RPer?

The blogosphere is loaded on fundamental design questions and debates lately and it’s not just events like Blizzard’s most recent Call to Arms announcement that make us wonder about where the future of MMOs lies. The more I’m reading, the more I realize how conservative I am – and how I really hopped off the bandwagon somewhere around the Burning Crusade. Very few game design changes have actually appealed to me since then. Maybe I’m just not the average MMO gamer anymore. Maybe I have become too “oldschool” for this genre.

Scrap that “maybe”.

I’ve tried to put a finger on this sentiment lately, but I couldn’t quite find the right word. This recent post by Green Armadillo is a great example of the overall problem though: I really do resent the fact that dungeons have become a synonym for lootbags in MMOs. That is SO far apart from what dungeons used to stand for, game designers might as well stop putting any effort into dungeon design if drops are all that matters. And now, as if loot, gold and tokens weren’t enough, you even have to bribe people further to play cooperatively in there. Sic transit gloria mundi?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg which fast-food, drive-thru MMOs are developing into, with their dungeon finders, achievement points, welfare loot and in-built quest helpers. Big fat red arrows across your fantasy world. Flashy text hovering over your stupid head. Min-maxing guides for teh win.

All the things I want are almost completely opposed to the current trend: no quest helper, no maps, no fast leveling, no soloing major content, no anonymous grouping, no welfare loot, no cookie-cutters, no bottomless bags, no epeen titles and silly achievement points. Instead, more need to cooperate. More need to play intelligently. More consequences when not playing cooperatively or intelligently. More customization. Lore rather than loot. More need to travel without an instant map. More wetting your pants on the way. Proper outdoor PvP. Less linearity and more player-generated content. Player housing. More campfires. A bag-pack with bandages you actually use.

And then it dawns on me, the inevitable conclusion: my wish-list strongly resembles the 100+ pages long RPer’s wishlist that was up on Blizzard’s official RP forums a few years ago, a collection on how to improve the game for roleplaying (unfortunately that topic is long gone). Is to wish for these things, to be an RPer in today’s post-WoW MMO world?

I’m not an RPer in the strict sense. I do play role-playing games, but I’ve always played on PVE servers. I cringe a little at the whole “in character”-stuff some people really take to extremes on dedicated servers. On the other hand, I’ve absolutely no problem with players who enjoy their MMOs that way, it’s just not my cup of coffee to make up a past history for my character, attend ingame weddings or talk in Shakespearean English. But when it comes to everything else that adds atmosphere to fantasy worlds, yes I do want that. It’s been there before.

So, am I an RPer now? A traditionalist? How do you call MMO players like me today? And is it really me who needs a new name?

But finally, I realized what this whole mess is called that’s currently happening to the genre (thank you Spinks): the beast that’s wrecking wonderland is called “Gamification”. It’s been going on a lot more rapidly on consoles ever since the XBOX went live and now it’s made its way into PC MMOs too. And I really shouldn’t be surprised: just the way traditional RPGs have become a rarity on console ever since, the classic MMORPG is doomed to disappear. I never realized the parallels in such clarity. MMOs might be part of the world of games, but they never played by the same rules, their virtues were always of a different kind. They were virtual worlds; not linear, scripted scenarios with the goal of instant gratification, stilling players’ achievement hunger and collection drive whenever they please. Those games were about setting, narrative, simulation and cooperative longterm goals. But there’s a whole new mentality out there today, a new type of gamer walking down my virtual streets. A gamer with different values than me.

And I’m fine with it, really – you can collect achievements ’til kingdom come for all I care. But if game studios start developing more and more MMOs for you rather than me, then I have a problem.

And no, I don’t want to start playing MUDs or write fanfiction.

Gilneas is my hometown!

Ever since Blizzard released the first snapshots of Gilneas, home of the new worgen race in Cataclysm, I have been a little enamored with the place. Shady, dark and spooky, with rooftops looming over the lantern-lit cobblestone streets, Gilneas looks like the proper medieval Jack-the Ripper setting to me, very atmospheric and also very very Fable:

Streets of Gilneas
Fable II Town

I’ve been considering to roll a worgen for fun in the expansion just so I get to see the starting quests in the area. I don’t exactly like the female worgen models though (wtb facial diversity), so I cannot quite make my mind up about what to do!

Then last night while looking for new screenshots, I came across a picture on MMO Champion I had never seen before….

…and it struck me like a bolt of lightning: Oh my God, Gilneas IS my hometown!! That’s why the place feels so strangely familiar and “cosy” to me, it looks exactly like the place I grew up in! And before you roll your eyes thinking “yeah riiiight”, here’s the proof:

Syl’s hometown

How creepy is that?! =O *shudder*

Have a good weekend everybody!

Elwynn, my lovely

Between Cataclysm preview posts and debates on female gamers (a topic which I am bound to take up sooner or later), I have decided to make my first topic an entirely different one. I am a big sucker for atmosphere in games and I have always loved the world maps, soundtrack and the overall graphical style and level of detail in WoW. It was a big part of playing the game for me in the first place and with a new expansion at our doorsteps I like to look forward by looking back and getting a little mushy (don’t get used to it ;D).

Of all the wonderful maps WoW has to offer Elwynn Forest will always hold a special place in my heart. No doubt Outland introduced some of the most nicely designed areas in all of WoW back in TBC – Zangarmarsh or Nagrand being two of the most popular maps at the time. Later on WotLK graced us with the snowy mountains of Storm Peaks and the woodland beauty of Grizzly Hills. But as wicked as glowing mushroom thickets and flying islands might be, as much as I loved the nordic idyll of the current expansion’s maps: there is no place to me like Elwynn Forest. Elwynn with its light, peaceful tune, its soft river banks and silver ponds, Elwynn with Goldshire at its center from where all paths lead to greater adventures. Elwynn where I stationed my quest giver ‘NPC’ for Adrenaline’s 1st Guild Anniversary.

How many times have I taken the Dalaran portal to Stormwind late at night (when raids were over and you weren’t doing anything really but chatting in guildchat or talking to friends on Ventrilo) and parked my character somewhere in the middle of Elwynn Forest. Every now and then a lowlevel player would pass me by, finding that priest geared in ICC epics sitting alone on a grassy hill, and wonder slightly what she was doing. She was taking a break.

I’m sure that we all have a special place in WoW that is ladden with memories and nostalgia. Often players will talk that way of their starting area because it’s there where their first memories of the game were shaped. It’s there where they cast their first spell, handed in their first quest, got lost for the first time (of many more times to come) and had their very first corpserun. And there is only one first time to all things.

Having leveled a human priest when the game was still young, Northshire Abbey, Goldshire and the whole of WoW from there have created my first impressions of the game. I have picked my first peacebloom in Elwynn Forest, bought my first vanity pet from the Crazy Cat Lady (those 40 silver hurt sooo much!), slain my first notorious villain, the ferocious Hogger – though I admit he killed me first. It is also where I formed my first friendships with other players. Whenever I go back there I am instantly cast back into my noobie days and there is a deep longing in me.

I think that’s why many of us look forward to expansions: we look foward to be an explorer again, to be a noob that doesn’t know what to expect around the next corner with the odd ‘whoa!’ and ‘ooops!’ – feelings ever so often. I am sure many are looking at the Cataclysm beta screenshots right now and hoping that the expansion will give them something back of the thrill and excitement of doing something for the very first time, walking down untrodden roads into unexplored maps.

May it all hold true for Catacylsm, may it fill you with wonder and bring back some of those rookie feelings that are so overdue after a long wait. But as wonderful as new places may be, I will never stop returning to my starting area from time to time. There’s no place like home.

Where’s yours?