Torie Atkinson’s swell post about World of Warcraft’s recently concluded undead invasion is the starting point for this post, but I’m going to range widely. My question for myself is: what exactly is it that I want out of a big sprawling complex game world like the one in WoW? My current thought is that I want chosen, discoverable challenge. And what I don’t want, above all, is a sense of helplessness in a situation I didn’t choose to put myself into. One part of this will get personal; I’ll mark it.
Time to break down terms.
Chosen Challenge: Trouble is waiting for me, but not always seeking me out. There are safe spots in which I can pursue peaceful activities like crafting or just chatting. The nature of the boundary is very negotiable, but it’s critical to me that it be there. Real danger requires me to move, to go to where it is. When I leave the guards and walls behind, I accept that there will be risks along the roads and more if I strike out into wild lands, and when I cross the threshold of Bob’s Citadel o’ Evil, I accept that the threat rating is about to go up a lot. This is fine, as long as sanctuary exists. As long as it does, and as long as it allows me to do something productive, then I can play even when I’m not up to anything major. If there is no space in a big world where I can safely pursue interesting activities, then it’s not the game for me. I love excitement, but sometimes I also like to play without it.
Discoverable Challenge: I need to be able to count on some persistence. When I go explore an area, I want it to retain much of its nature the next time I go there, and the next. There’s plenty of room for interesting change, and I love some randomness and variety in details. But if, for instance, I decide to go to New York to say hi to the folks at Tor, I don’t expect to find it a city full of modern humans one time, a swamp with occasional dinosaurs the next, and then a small assortment of imported chocolate bars. Okay, that’s extreme. But then I also don’t want the New York of Bruce’s Travel World to sometimes be a major metropolis, sometimes a post-industrial slum, and sometimes a war-torn fragmented zone, either.
I make no bones about this at all: I game for escape. I have one of the less pleasant lives available to someone raised as white and middle class in the US, and I have a lot of need to get outside my circumstances from time to time. I look for the exciting and fun parts of a world with many interesting and dangerous things going on, not what I live with all the time.
The Personal Part Begins
I won’t go into my chronic health problems right now, nor the struggle with depression. What really got to me is something much more immediate. Monday night a friend pinged me in IM to let me know that her husband, one of my closest friends in the world, was in the hospital again with a staph infection in one foot, and that the doctors thought they’d have to amputate at least part of it. (Turns out they don’t, but I didn’t learn that until Thursday.) So I went from that to reading explanations of how those of us unhappy with the zombie event really just needed some more spine and face up to the fact that life isn’t in our control.
I was furious. I had a brief moment of thinking about resigning and stomping off, on the grounds that losing a forum might be better than having the fact of my helplessness flung in my face that way. I wrote and deleted, repeatedly, some extremely bitter and ultimately unhelpful diatribes. I cried for a while after stepping away from the computer and lying down in an effort to sleep. It’s been a while since I felt so truly impotent, as what is a really major outlet for me was so thoroughly taken away. Sure, it was only for a while, but I live in one moment at a time, and in the moments of the invasion, I had reasons for wanting some relief, and in the aftermath, I had this new one on top of them.
The Personal Part Ends
The problem for me with moments like that is of course simple enough: the world doesn’t revolve around me and it’s inappropriate for me to even consider holding everyone and everything else hostage to my feelings. And of course I do recognize—and am in fact glad—that the depths of my chronic hindrances are rare.
But the basic situation of real life with a large dose of suckitude mixed in with the goodness, and in particular a player preferring not so much helplessness and more chance to act and react constructively, that’s not rare at all. And it does genuinely bug me to see so much weight given to recreating all the bad parts of reality in a game, as though it’s somehow better entertainment if there’s lots of tedium, grime, and despair. These things can be the fodder of excellent entertainment—there’s a guy named George R.R. Martin doing pretty well with a series that’s rich in all three, for instance. But I don’t think it makes sense to set that as a default, nor to praise its presence as innately more worthwhile than its absence. A Song of Ice and Fire is excellent partly because of the gritty awful edges, but the Discworld series wouldn’t be improved by multiple books in which no protagonist ever gets succeed at anything, the world suffers for his defeat, and then they all die. Excellence comes in many flavors (and many colors besides brown and rust).
It’s true that Blizzard never promised me, “Bruce, we’ll never do anything in WoW that has a significant risk of rendering every major city essentially unusable for several days.” But they have spent four years delivering a lot of choosable, discoverable challenges that didn’t operate that way. That’s why a major shift toward a different style of world, even briefly, felt like such an unwelcome violation to me. There are MMOs I was never tempted to play precisely because of that—I don’t need more chances to learn that I still don’t at all enjoy the kind of environment that the happy players of, say, EVE Online thrive on. I don’t actually at all mind WoW offering some accommodation to its own players who’d like that, but not at my expense.
Which makes for a tough set of design decisions sometimes, admittedly. But there are times when I don’t wish to think about things as a designer and friend of designers, I just want to think about them as a player trying to have fun in the midst of hard times and wanting a break.