Monday, October 14, 2013

The Quest IS the Game

"Frodo himself feels the possibility of failure at every moment.  That's part of what makes his journey so emotionally resonant. Tolkien was immersed in a long tradition of questing. It's a tradition he studied in the medieval literature that he wrote about and taught for his entire life,

That's what lies behind the deep emotional involvement that we feel in Frodo's trip to Mordor. And that we can't yet feel in LotRO. "  Jay Clayton, Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative.  2.6 Questing, continued.

I've been participating in this free online course offered through Vanderbilt Univ. on the recommendation of Roger and Brian.  Dr Clayton makes the connection between medieval and 19th C romance literature and the MMOs that we're playing today.  And very often that connection is through the works of Tolkien.   Clayton claims that the conventions that we are used to in modern MMOs as wide ranging as SW:TOR and The Secret World owe a debt to Tolkien's work.

What's interesting to me is how keenly Clayton feels that these games aren't living up to their potential.  You can see his frustration that the stories being told lack emotional resonance with the participants.  The quote above was taken from a section where he was talking about the importance of failure and how its real possibility makes the journey meaningful to both the quester and the audience.  What he's pointing out is that the things that make romance literature great tend to be things that are difficult to do in MMOs or worse, are being stripped away from the evolving MMO landscape.

Challenge matters

So in the MMO example the completion of quests tend to be inevitable, a trivial matter designed to maximize interaction time, and minimize the struggle. To extend Clayton's idea, the things that make MMOs convenient social games - with repetitive daily quests and easy leveling, make them less compelling to play, less meaningful to the player.  When the quests are challenging and the story is engaging, leveling slows down and players become focused on the their present situation.  Stories emerge.  The very slowness and carefulness of the leveling process imbued it with importance.

When leveling is quick and easy, conversely, the immediate story is meaningless.  The completion of your task is so rapid that the regular mechanisms for engaging the audience are ineffective.  You don't have time to connect with the npc, or marvel at the ominous setting, or experience the elation of success.  It's all over too quickly.

You probably wont even finish the quest series anyway, since you will level out of the zone long before the quest chains reach their culmination.  And even if you do stick around, the difficulty level makes it a matter of a few mouse-clicks in a memorized pattern.  At some point, the tasks we've been given become so trivial that it isn't necessary to read or listen to them at all:
"Bog Hunt: 0/8 mosquitoes"  That's all you really need to know. 


  1. Excellent post! I love the comparison to the literary quest. Ideally we should get quests that feel like the "Hero's Journey", but instead we have to obtain 10 boar livers. The era of 'ultra-streamlined' questing is not inherently a bad thing, it's just that it makes it harder to tell rich stories when the quest format is intended to be over in a flash.

    For a more story-rich questing experience, see The Secret World. I think they actually try to capture the ambiance and the little moments of a true story, even while slogging through a traditional quest structure.

    Might I get a link to that online course? It sounds fascinating.

  2. Thanks for reading, Machination. The course I referred to is here:

    The course ended on October 30th, but I can still see the videos at that link.

    I think MMO game design follows trends, and lately the goal is to make easily accessible content that anyone can jump into if they have a spare 10 minutes. SWTOR is competing against Plants vs Zombies rather than The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's important to understand what's happening so you can temper your expectations.

  3. My question is, what makes leveling quick and easy? or slow and difficult? Because boar livers are never going to add up to epic romance no matter how low the drop rate or how high the boars' hit points.

    It's a failure of imagination to substitute boar livers (however hard or easy to get) for high romance. Frodo doesn't just risk failure; his world hangs in the balance. His task isn't impossible because someone set the drop rate low or the bosses hit point high but because he has to constantly adapt what few skills he has to meet new challenges, most of which can't be resolved with a fight. Actually, that's a plus because he isn't a fighter and never really becomes one.

    Game after game offers the same paradigm -- find something and kill it. And no matter how high-flown the rhetoric or how large the promises of companionship or diplomacy (yes, I'm looking at YOU, SWTOR) eventually every quest devolves into the chore of finding something that needs killing. If that's all there is to it, then it doesn't matter how slowly or quickly it gets done. It becomes routine and loses its interest.