Friday, May 11, 2007

In Which We Are Bored By Virtual Worlds

I played Ultima Online for like a minnit back in the day. It was more frustrating than fun. I futzed around with Active Worlds, too. No joy there. That's the summation of my experience with "virtual worlds" or MMORPGs.

But I've just gotten the Internet access back on at Mom's house, and with a shiny new computer and a cable modem (plus an old crazy lady to take care of, which requires, it seems, a specific form of focused inattention) I figured the time was ripe to try another online game. Oops, I mean "virtual world". Cuz an "online game" would be something like Counterstrike or Halo, you know, something fun, whereas a virtual world implies that I have a persistent identity in a staged milieu, you know, like life would be if God were a game designer.*

I knew I didn't want to play WoW, because everyone I know who plays WoW is WAY too into it, so I considered EVEOnline. I'd heard it described as "a spreadsheet simulator...in space" and that sounded rather appealing, actually, because I am a dork.

Then Lord of the Rings Online caught my attention. I'd read Tolkien as a kid, and just as I'd tossed aside my Big Wheel for a real bike I'd tossed aside Tolkien for "real literature". (C'mon fanboys, hate on that. Tolkien took 200 pages and entire geneologies to invoke a sense of wonder, Borges can do it in a paragraph. Who's the better writer? Oh, that's right...Tolkien fans don't read outside the canon.) But I have fond memories of the books, and I liked Peter Jackson's films, and I figured the Middle Earth mythos might weed out a certain percentage of the usual numbskulls (this logic is akin to thinking that the best place to pick up smart girls is at Star Trek conventions -- I think the women at Star Trek conventions probably ARE significantly smarter than their barfly peers, but...there are trade-offs involved).

So I gave LOTRO a spin. Logged on to a newbie server, made (heh...I almost said "rolled up"...I am so old...)an elf hunter, Fithion of Mirkwood.

The server was filled with elf hunters. Elves, at least. OK, that's cool, let's just scope stuff out. I'll reroll a hobbit burglar later, because that's what I really wanted to play, but I figured everyone else would want to play that as well, so I defaulted to elf hunter. So did everyone else. The game begins and NPCs are yellin' at me to do stuff. Huh? I don't even know the controls yet! I'm a console guy -- WASD doesn't come naturally. Plus, having not RTFM, I don't know how to communicate with other players. Where's that window? How do I...oh, I see. Gosh, this is pretty. Ooh a goblin! What's "attack"? Hm. I'm "incapacitated". I respawn. I have a bow. Let's click the red thing with an arrow in it and see what that does. Cool. I have little trouble dispatching the onrushing goblin pincushion with my "Dull Knife". But I still haven't mastered the controls. It doesn't feel right. I wade through a few more goblins. Some dude, elf or human, can't really tell, helps me out when I'm suddenly jumped by a lynx. Thx, I type, or thought I did, when the map comes up. Dammit. The guy stands there for a second, obviously communicating with me in some window I haven't found yet. I really need to RTFM. I find the NPC with the glowing ring over his head, like a perpendicular halo. Hey! I leveled up!

I could go on, but basically I ran around for an hour or so killing lynxes, looting my kills, and practicing basic combat skillz. I see that I reheal over time but my equipment damage is cumulative. I think anything that accumulates damage should have a meter I can see, but maybe I just don't grasp the interface yet. Again, RTFM. I get a quest to bring back lynx pelts. Covered, I think, then realize my inventory consists of lynx PAWS, not lynx PELTS.

Overwhelmed by the semantic distinction and its implications, I log out.

I have Much To Learn. But do I want to learn it? What do I get out of my investment of time and energy (not to mention $$$)?

Here's what I'll do. I'll play the game long enough to master the controls, I'll RTFM, and I'll make an effort to do something besides solo. I may go surf right now and see what I can learn. But initial impressions are not positive.

I mean, I love the idea. I spend half my time online reading about the construction and analysis of virtual worlds, because I do believe that this is a technology in its infancy and we've not yet reached our Buster Keaton, much less our Orson Welles, to push the film analogy until it breaks. But between idea and execution lies...an uncanny valley.

1 comment:

Chappy said...

Ho ho ho. Remember playing some other (gooberish) game at the Demopolis Times in 1989? It was all text. At one point your (sorry) ass was in trouble, typing in commands like "turn" and "walk" and the computer kept coming back with "You can't even do that." Which, of course, led to you typing in obscenities. And the computer coming back with "You can't even to that."
Games have come a long way. C.