metaphysics of MMOs 3/5 : you can (sometimes) come back

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Heya Feralas. It’s been a while.

I first played World of Warcraft in November 2005. It was getting cold, suggesting that in my efforts to woo the man who later became my husband, it would be best to take up indoor pursuits versus our long frigid walks in the predawn neighborhoods surrounding our college. My first attempt to induct him into the realms of MMOs had not gone well: FFXI had bored us both on multiple levels, and the free Guild Wars 2 disks slipped under all our doors as part of an advertising blitz hadn’t mesmerized us for long, either. Enter, then, WoW, which both of us had heard of but neither had played. Nor did we know anyone else who played.  We entered with fresh eyes, each other’s only known players, and we bought it right when it looked like I was about to leave for Germany for a year. We wanted to keep in contact.

I didn’t end up making it to Germany, but we didn’t end up dropping WoW just because we still lived down the street from one another. In 2007, we stood out in a blizzard for the midnight release of the Burning Crusade expansion, and logged in 3000 miles away from each other to play Wrath of the Lich King within hours of its release in 2008 (my mother opened the box she’d purchased on my instructions, and read me over Skype the codes I needed to start my download). We played both Alliance and Horde (though retained a private penchant for the latter), as various groups of friends and relatives entered the game on one side or the other, and between us have made alts of just about every class (though I’ve yet to play a mage or, bizarrely given my preference for hybrid classes, a shaman). We joined guilds and then left them as they fell apart or became too dramatic to stomach; we vegged out and chatted while grinding or fishing (which is, let’s be honest, just another form of grinding), in wildly different timezones and resultant levels of energy. We abandoned the game twice, once in 2006 when carpal tunnel syndrome rendered my wrists useless, and again in 2010 when my return from Japan and the cramming of a two-year grad school program into a single year made the time constraints untenable. We moved on to prettier games (like LotRO) with better PVP (like ESO), and steadfastly resisted the lure of more expansions like 2012’s Mists of Pandaria and 2014’s Warlords of Draenor. But recently, faced with cooling temperatures that in our AC-less house again allows for extended periods of time in the otherwise too-hot computer room, combined with glowing recommendations from friends, we picked up WoW again with Legion.

And…it’s good to be back.

It’s good, and it’s strange. Nowhere else are we able to return to things as they were when we were once so familiar with them. Our town has been rebuilt. Our college has been restructured. The various houses we used to live in — sold, repurposed, or (in one case, long after we’d left) burnt down. The cars we drove, rusted out and sold for scrap. The professors retired, the friends far away, the places we ate and drank and read closed, closed, closed: such was the way of things in one of the recession’s worst-hit areas.

Recession or no recession, though, this is normal. I get that. “You can’t go back,” as everyone from Higuchi Ichiyo to Thomas Wolfe tells readers time after time. Towns reinventing themselves after you’ve been away from them is normal. Shops and even schools closing is normal — regrettable, but normal. Everything passing away and on, hopefully to something better but inevitably to something different, is so utterly normal. But being able to return and see the same “people” you joked at or about, over a decade ago, occupying the same deserted outpost on the plains, entertaining the same bone-headed delusions of fantastical grandeur? That’s not normal. That’s the space people dream about, but never achieve.

But that is the strange space we find ourselves in. Maybe it shouldn’t feel so different than replaying a static, non-online game years after one’s first (or second, or third, or tenth) playthrough, but it does. People still populate the world. Gen chat still overflows with individuals winsome and less so, except that the references you see there now are topical. The political jokes, the memes, the slang — those have changed. So, too, have some game mechanics, mostly for the good it’s true. But the NPCs, [or most of them, given Cataclysm] the towns, the quests…the form and shape and even largely the content is the same. Trolls still warn you about the voodoo, orcs still go on and on about their precious war machine, and the undead just want to kill everyone, and none of their living, very-much-not-undead allies seem bothered by this.

Some things are markedly different. Communication is way, way down. No one talks in groups anymore. Usually at least you’d say hi when you showed up via the group finder in whatever dungeon, but no more: we might as well be talking to walls. They don’t even read our text, barrelling blindly on into mobs without listening to our (repeated) warnings about waiting for the freaking tank to make the pull. They don’t read, they don’t talk, they don’t listen. Groupmembers are largely on autopilot, and it makes us feel old. It makes me feel old. Back in the day, such behavior would be reported on the suspicion of the player being a bot, operated by a program to run around either gaining experience (in order for the character to be sold [illegally] online) or gathering resources, again to sell. Nowadays, that’s just how people are.

But still, we keep playing. We’ve made it to Outland by now and are so close to WotLK’s Northrend and its beloved musical accompaniment that I can taste it. The people I know who are all the way to Legion content sing its praises, to be sure, but while I’m looking forward to the newness of it I’m not really in a rush to get there. I’ve never been a great fan of WoW’s endgame, with its forced chores of dailies and raids with people I neither know nor, upon coming to know them, like much. Endgame, in the past, always boiled down to mindless repetition and stats and people yelling over voice chat in raids. Whereas what interested me was the exploration, the long journeys between point A and point B, the rare spawns causing sudden delighted detours on your errands. Hilarious quests, awesome drops, landscapes that remind me of this or that place I may never visit again for years.

Maybe though, given the way levels 1-60 have gone so far, I’ll miss the abrasive voices by the time endgame rolls around. Maybe we’ll sign ourselves up for another drama-ridden cesspool of a guild again and endure late nights and flippant asides on voice chat for a chance at that rare mount drop. Maybe we’ll feel like college kids once more, even though we’re tired and have to work eight hours in the morning. And the morning after that, and the morning after that…

Or maybe, as fans of Legion keep saying, it will be different.

Either way, we’ve been able to step back into a world preserved, for the most part, in the dubiously lasting amber of the pay-to-play MMO. And that ability to return has already been worth it.

 

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5 comments

  1. Timothy Streasick · September 21, 2016

    This is an incredibly beautiful post, and it makes me wish I could have had the same experiences. So many games put such a premium on player agency and change that I think it’s great that WoW has sustained a surprisingly conservative approach to its world alterations. Maybe that’s a reason why it’s been so resilient.

    My own game of choice was decidedly different. The entire game was built off of community, so whenever the population of the server changed you’d see the whole flavor of the game go off-kilter. Something I’ve believed for years is that the game forced me to come to grips with realities of change and loss in a way that is usually staved off for a few decades of life. I came into the game optimistic about our ability to affect change in the world and came out decidedly misanthropic about the staying power of any human creation. By the time I finally fully left the game (started Sophomore year of High school, left in my first year of working here, so well over a decade), every aspect of each community I’d belonged to was left completely unrecognizable. And it sucked, because that was the game I’d repeatedly returned to for comfort and to recharge.

    So, you know, kudos to WoW for providing that for people, intentionally or not. And if I ever get in the habit of using my Mic, I’d gladly join you folks for voice chat raids once we reach endgame!

    • metaphlame · September 26, 2016

      Haha you are welcome to all raids, voice chat or no! When you typed in Mauradon was the first time anyone responded to us in 40 levels. Then yesterday we had a guy /cheer and were shocked.

      Re: “decidedly misanthropic about the staying power of any human creation”…I mean…oi. Everything fades, sure, but I don’t know that it’s a case for despair. There’d be no room for anything else if it didn’t. And I say that knowing it includes people and knowing how shitty that is. Even so.

      • Timothy Streasick · September 29, 2016

        Huzzah for human contact!

        Yeah, I mean, despair is a bit of a strong word. Cynical might’ve been a more accurate way of putting it? Basically I was left with the strong sense that everything humans create, especially the stuff that we consider to be bedrocks of meaning (culture, government, etc. etc.) is transient. And for an idealistic (or naive? Probably naive…) 15-20 year old that was an earth-shaking experience. To say nothing of what it meant when coupled with the acknowledgement that the changes that occur are not always in the progressive direction. It’s probably also what made me so susceptible to existentialism.

        I mean, yeah, sure, change and impermanence means that there’s all this exciting stuff in the future we’ll always have the potential to experience. It also means that we’re always a few bad years away from repealing the 19th Amendment and reinstituting slavery. That even our basic concepts of human rights could slip away at any moment. I mean, Trump, amirite?

        …you know, if I’d stopped at the first paragraph everything would have been golden, but after the second maybe misanthropic WAS the right word? I dunno. Ramble, ramble, ramble.

      • metaphlame · September 29, 2016

        Ehhhh, I was probably just knee jerk responding anyway. I have brief blind rages when people say they learned about loss from games or lost scholarships or something, when their parents are still alive and healthy and know who they are still. I’m sorry.

      • Timothy Streasick · September 30, 2016

        Nah, that’s 100% understandable. I think I should have been a bit more clear that I was speaking of a more specific kind of loss (the nostalgic kind).

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