MMOWTFBBQ

During my aforementioned period of shifting tastes in high school, a few of my closest friends were getting into a little IP called Asheron’s Call.  They regaled me with tales of late-night questing, and often asked me to partake in their adventures.  I declined.

Back then, I claimed it was an issue of money.  I did not have a credit card, and it was always a big thing to ask my parents to use theirs, so monthly transactions were out of the question.  My first real job was cleaning the floors of a grocery store over a summer, and even then, $15 a month is a lot of money to somebody making $7.35/hour on five hour shifts.

Even in college, when I had steadier jobs and started getting into the world of monthly payments for things like cell phones and movies-in-the-mail services, I did not get a taste of the popular flavor (World of Warcraft, at this point).  Now I claimed it was a function of time.  I never claimed that MMO’s were bad games.  On the contrary, I was worried, or so I claimed, that I would enjoy them too much, and pursue them to the point of self-ruin, as many college students have.

Now, with my schooling coming to a close, and the prospect of unstructured life looming, I have begun to ask myself:  “Is it time to make the plunge?  To roll a character and join a guild?  To grind and build and loot?”  To which I feel myself compelled to answer, “Well…no.”

I must confess, I am not complete neophyte with regards to MMO’s.  While I never played any of the MMO’s predecessor, the text-based MUD, I do have semi-fond memories of Second Life‘s predecessor, Active Worlds.  More importantly, I purchased the primary campaign for 2005’s Guild Wars.

I admit that I enjoyed my time with GW, but for me, it was never a social experience.  With rare exceptions, I played through the storyline solo.  My Ranger/Necromancer primary character played through all of the quests, and I reached level twenty, but then I stopped.  I hit a point where the combined force of my character and the AI group members could no longer overcome the obstacles, and I gave up.  I never even touched the PvP mode.

This is not a slight to Guild Wars, just as I do not think World of Warcraft and its competition are any less technical triumphs, but, well, over the years I have come to accept a fact.  Long, drawn out storylines designed to take a backseat to gameplay and social interaction just are not how I roll. Bad pun absolutely intended.

Let us tackle the social aspect, first.  I love playing with my friends.  Playing Gears of War co-op with a friend during the first Berserker encounter ranks among my ten favorite gaming moments of all time.  The established trust and rapport always played through when I played Halo 3 with buddies over Xbox Live.  Even when they shot me in the ass with a shotgun.

The problem is, every time I play with strangers, I manage to dig up the most racist, puerile, grating little snots this side of the internets.  I am a firm believer in John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.  Yes, I’m well aware that there are gracious gamers out there.  People who support their teammates, and maybe let slip an occasional “Aw, damn it,” when they fall to a particularly skilled attack.  I just can’t find them.

Now, I can put up with this in genres such as shooters.  Circle-strafing, bunny-hopping, and nade-spamming keep me comfortably removed from that feeling of immersion found in the single-player campaigns.  I never lose sight for a second that the Russian soldier wearing a balaclava in Call of Duty 4 and calling me a newb is some kid trying to vent after another day in the kill-or-be-killed realm that is the modern high school.

RPGs are another matter, however.  I flee to these games for the chance to be a character in a well-crafted tale of magic or laser rifles.  With minimal effort, I start to channel my character’s emotions, whether or not they are laid out for me.  I felt the pain of my father abandoning me and the trepidation of leaving a clean, hygienic vault for the ravaged wastes of Washington D.C. (Fallout 3)  And yes, I sure as hell got pissed when Aeris died. (Final Fantasy VII)

So when I’m seeing the world through my character’s eyes and some idiot yells “LFG!” it is jarring.  Role-playing games are naturally paradoxical in that they want you to connect with your character, yet abstract that character’s abilities through the use of stats, but I can essentially suspend my disbelief long enough to drop into the menu and swap that hotkey or raise my stats.  It is when I have to communicate using these mechanics or listen to others as they do so that I lose my immersion.

And with regard to that story?  I would have writers beating down my door ready to stab me with a pen if I said that countless hours are not poured into MMO lores, but, and this is a matter of taste, serialized story lines of the magnitude seen in MMOs just are not engaging.  The TV show 24 will start its seventh season in January.  I devoured the first three seasons of that show.  Then I watched the fourth and fifth seasons because I wanted to see what the characters were doing.  Then I got halfway through the sixth season and stopped.  After seeing Jack Bauer break down and cry, I realized I just was not engaged.

The same thing happens with games, and, I will argue, all forms of narrative.  Stories are just not sustainable.  The three-act framework exists for a reason.  Stories need to end.  Otherwise, the story ends up in one of two ways.  Either the characters have so much history that every event is dripping with hidden implications and the plot becomes convoluted and twists back onto itself in some kind of literary black hole, or piece-by-piece, the elements of the plot (characters, setting, etc) get swapped out until the final product looks nothing like the original, and, surprise!, now the writers can use all the old plot lines again!

For the vast majority of gamers, MMOs work.  The lore is there for those who want to sink their teeth into it, and the social component is there for everyone else.  It’s just not my scene.  I know I will catch a lot of flak from some of my friends for this article, who will say I am rationalizing, but that is how it is going to be.  Everyone has their faults.  Mine is a lack of love for the MMOWTFBBQ.

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