I really like adventuring through Moria, but as I make progress through the zone on my most recent alt in Lord of the Rings Online I find myself experiencing the usual frustrations. The place is claustrophobic, as it should be, but for the wrong reason.
A large part of Moria is comprised of tightly packed corridors which are littered through their entire length with conveniently spaced mobstacles. Moria’s feeling of claustrophobia comes from the fact that, unlike the overland zones, there’s nowhere to run to in order to avoid the aggro of these mobstacles. Nowhere to run to baby, nowhere to hide. I wonder if this is the reason why I’ve read several blogs recently which have talked about trying to avoid Moria altogether, instead levelling via regions such as Eregion and Angmar, the epic book content, and skirmishes, until they are high enough level to move straight to Lothlórien. Do not pass through Moria. Do not collect 200 rusted dwarf tools.
I think it’s a shame that people don’t enjoy Moria because I feel it is a stunning and ambitious zone: entirely underground, with imposing dwarven architecture towering over bridges that span chasms of unfathomable depth, it is a three-dimensional realm which has a level of internal consistency and integrity not often seen in MMO zone design. It is oppressive; the weight of the rock hanging above the player character’s head as they travel the hewn paths of stone is tangible. The relief that one feels when finally being released from the dark depths into the sunlight of Lórien is palpable, and it’s hard to resist the urge to squint your eyes into that bright daylight, even though in reality it is no more than a very minor ambient change in foot-lamberts emitted from one’s LCD window into that world.
Although the lack of sunlight and seasons makes Moria oppressive, the use of darkness is purely relative to the outside world. There are no dank unlit corridors where the player swings their torch about in an Indiana Jones fashion, using it with urgency to highlight features of their surroundings from moment to moment in order to relieve their claustrophobia one cobwebbed corner at a time. As I mentioned earlier, the claustrophobia in Moria comes from knowing that accidentally aggroing too many mobs will likely mean death because there are no safe spots to return to once you’re any distance away from the sparsely separated quest hubs. It is a form of danger, granted, but when it is the only one used it quickly devolves from terrorization to tedium.
The lack of true darkness in Moria caused me to think further on the use of claustrophobic elements in MMOs. For example, MMOs pride themselves on their weather effects, and yet I don’t remember experiencing fog to any great extent with respect to claustrophobic game-play. I’m talking a proper pea souper, rather than the sort that just gives your graphics card a breather by turning down the draw distance a bit. In external MMO zones fog could be an easy way to introduce claustrophobic fear as a player travels. Instead of slowing players down by placing a line of blatant mobstacles all along their path from here to the horizon, it wouldn’t hurt to be creative and try to introduce some atmosphere. Have a fog descend on the player as they travel, with the shadows of various creatures looming in and out of view (was that an ogre flanking around us, or were we simply passing a tree?) and the sounds of animals and monsters floating around the player, sometimes close, sometimes far away, with a random chance within the game engine of them turning into an actual encounter. I feel that this is an example of a claustrophobic mechanic which would be entertaining: it would be short lived, atmospheric, and hopefully get the heart pumping a little bit faster. Compare this to the pursed-mouth resignation one feels when looking at a long Moria corridor or a path through a forest in any MMO, each lined with a conveniently spaced row of Pacman pellet mobstacles, more akin to the challenge of a slalom course on a ski slope than high adventure through dangerous territory.