metaphysics of MMOs (2/5) : it’s not the deep end


MMOs are shallow.

There is no way around it. Not yet, anyway: not limited by the capabilities of our current technologies (specifically, speed and storage). What you do in an MMO does not matter. You know because everyone else is doing the same thing — performing the same quests, fighting the same mobs, escorting the same NPCs — and they have been before you and they will be doing so after you. And it won’t matter. Because, by and large, the worlds of MMOs are static.

People have tried to find ways around this, of course. There are the instanced environments where you only make it to the instance after you’ve decided whether to save the town, for example. Of course these tend to be linear: there is the pre-town saving instance, and the post-town saving instance. Creating a new instance for each branching decision choice would be a server nightmare, and not only for pure spatial reasons. How many people do you think would log into the game intending to play with their friends, or join a certain guild, only to discover that they’d made a different choice than their intended groupies, and thus cannot see the same world? One person is trapped in the saved-the-town instance, one person is trapped in the didn’t-save-the-town instance, and never the twain shall meet. Complaints would multiply like bunnies.

So you can see why, in MMOs as opposed to RPGs, such instancing tends to be chronologically linear, rather than branching. But while this changed state, even without the branching, is intended to lend agency to the player — “Look at how the world has changed, now that you decided to save the town!” — really it can only push so far in that direction. Since the town’s new state is, again, static. There is the before/after toggle, and that is it. If you’ve just stomped on a horde of enemies in PVP, the townsfolk do not cheer you. If you ganked a couple of innocent bystanders, you are not (generally — I know games like ESO have tried to implement justice systems, with varying degrees of success) hunted down like the jerkface you are. You’re a bit of a ghost, really — floating through the world, touching people’s lives but then drifting off across a new frontier; putting down no roots and cementing no relationships. It’s shallow, is what I’m saying.

But I’m also saying that sometimes, we need that.

I am (unavoidably, if you saw this blog at all in 2015) a hopelessly besotted devotee of deep, engrossing, emotionally compromising storylines in immersive RPGs. I confess to an agony of withdrawal upon finishing such a story: weeks of half-hearted fanfic attempts and replays ensue, and that’s leaving out all my desperate attempts to either engage friends with discussions of What Went Down or, in last year’s case, actually buying the DLC for them in order to encourage them to play through said DLC, so we can discuss it. I’m that into such storytelling.

But I can’t always be submerged like that. I caution this with the obligatory note that everyone deals with things differently, but I cannot now, for example, plunge deep into a game that’s going to tear me apart. I could, once, set about in fiction, after the fact, trying to put back together hearts such games broke (or could have broken), but now? No. Now I just want to tend my crops and level up my horses in BDO, while wait for my phone to chirrup, delivering the next blow about my mother’s health. I have enough depth in my life; enough stop-and-think-about-where-you-are change. I don’t need any more.

I wouldn’t point it out if I thought I was alone on this front. I’ve read plenty of people say that this or that game, or this or that fic based on that game, helped them through difficult times, it’s true. But I’ve also read people say that the shallower games (read: Fantasy Life) got them through some difficult shit. And that’s fair. People are different, and the things that happen to them vary in length, breadth and the degree to which they take over their lives (or their family’s, or the country, or the planet). And when that degree becomes too large, you need somewhere to retreat that won’t break your heart every five hours of gameplay. Where every gaming session is Just Another Day; where your horse never dies, your house never gets set on fire, and the NPCs never get Alzheimer’s and start shitting on the floor just to spite your dad. Everything is normal.

Normal is shallow, it’s true. It’s static. But when everything else is in motion, breaking and being broken, the placid, static worlds of MMOs — yes, despite all the swords-and-shields strife that contributes to their lackluster, predictable storylines — is valuable. Precisely because it’s predictable. Goblins running amok on the trading caravans, I can deal with. My dad coming to loathe my mom because the person he married is gone? That’s harder.

That’s the deep end. If I only ever swim down there, I’ll drown.


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