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.