Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.

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.

11 thoughts on “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.

  1. darkeye

    I’d say that having all the mobs ruin the atmosphere. The player is delving into the dark places that have been abandoned for years, except no you’d be lucky to find a spot devoid of life. The triumph of finding a tomb or treasury that has been lost and sealed for ages is marred when you have to step over all manner of beasts to explore it. It’s a far-cry from how Moria is experienced by the fellowship in the books, now that was tense and creepy.

    Have been playing through Moria recently on my burglar, now just shy of 57. Being able to stealth and bypass most things makes questing there more palatable, except the quests are still a bit ridiculous. Did all the flaming deeps quests and was left underwhelmed, followed by doing some of the quests in the foundation of stone, and giving up after being send back across the entire zone to a cave filled with nameless ones (have to say that is my most hated place in all of Moria) for the second time.

    To make the journey through Moria more tolerable this time around, I did the epic quests as early as possible to unlock the skirmishes. Except the daily quests for XP and rep are not available at 55 or 56, probably not 57 either, most likely 59, which makes them a bit useless for levelling purposes.

    They did something great with the Orchalwe quests in Annuminas, that is a nice way to encourage exploring and not make it tedious and annoying. They could have a named dwarf at each hub that can follow the player around and give out quests as the player discovers points of interest in the zone. The dwarves of the iron garrison just come off a lazy layabouts and that ruins the atmosphere of Moria as a dangerous place too.

  2. Zubon

    In the wider halls, you can avoid aggro with a careful slalom. That creates some interesting sport on the path to the First Hall.

  3. Helistar

    I’m at level 59 on my hunter, on my way out of Moria.

    I agree with the fact that the area has an excellent design, excellent architectural desing of course, the game design sucks big time.

    Listing the problems:
    – fast travel unavailable until you complete a ton of quests…. too bad that after you complete a ton of quests you don’t need fast travel anymore.
    – “normal” mount unavailable, you need the special one. If my calculations are right, I’ll hit kindred and the ability to buy the special one just when I hit 60 and go outside. Talk about careful planning.
    – the “1 mob per square meter” syndrome, which REALLY does not cut it in a “world” (but works fine in a game).
    – horrible quests: half of them is “walk to the opposite side of the area and return”, the other half is “walk to the opposite side of the next area and return”.
    – Moria is not endgame anymore: fellowship quests are just impossible to do, since you find no one interested in doing them (so good luck unlocking the fast travels which require 60 quests…).

    But the scenery is great :)

  4. Zoso

    The only MMOG-o-fog that springs to mind is in Dark Astoria in City of Heroes, a nicely spooky zone. Made superjumping somewhat more difficult than usual as you’d end up smacking into previously unseen skyscrapers, or landing in a bunch of zombies, hurriedly apologising and leaping off again…

  5. Pardoz

    And the award for “Best Use of Fog in an Overland Zone” goes to…*opens envelope*…City of Heroes’ Dark Astoria Zone, which will also be taking home the “Only Serious Use of Fog in an Overland Zone” award tonight.

    Sadly it’s a zone virtually nobody ever goes into, as there’s little reason to, but it’s very atmospheric, especially when ventured into at level.

  6. Melmoth Post author

    @darkeye: I’d say that having all the mobs ruin the atmosphere

    I agree, but we should acknowledge that it’s a tricky thing to balance, because cut down too harshly on the number of mobs and we’d all be complaining that the place was empty and devoid of things to fight. I think it’s currently on the other extreme of the scale, however, where it seems as though the Hindrance Fairy has flown through the zone, liberally sprinkling her mobstacle dust across every conceivable path.

    @Zubon: Ah, that explains why I keep seeing dwarves waxing the underside of their goats. I thought it was just some sort of perverted past time.

    @Helistar: Turbine did seem to stick with their ‘copious travel’ quest design, and this becomes doubly harsh within the confines of Moria where every journey is a forced grind. The scenery almost makes up for it all though, it really is that good, I agree.

    @Zoso, @Pardoz: Curse my memory, yes of course! I suppose it didn’t directly affect game-play in a major way, but it certainly had a deeply excellent atmosphere. The buildings suddenly looming out of the dark at you while hurtling around the zone was quite splendidly done.

    Thinking about it, I now seem to recall that World of Warcraft has a bit of fog in Duskwood around the cemetery that Mor’Ladim haunts; of course, it only seemed to serve to allow him to sneak up behind unsuspecting low level players and one-shot them, which isn’t really what I had in mind.

    I imagine Alan Wake, Silent Hill and the early Resident Evils are good non-MMO examples, and I seem to recall an RPG recently making use of it too, Dragon Age: Origins, perhaps?

    I’ll be interested to see if The Secret World does anything interesting with it, seeing as it’s the sort of thing that should be right up its haunted alley.

  7. Blaq

    “…MMOs pride themselves on their weather effects…”

    Really? If MMOs pride themselves on weather effects of the likes of WoW’s (light rain or snow, and that’s it), I’d question their sanity. I can’t remember when I saw complex and world influencing weather effects in an MMO (WAR, Rift, Champions Online (?), AoC,…). Maybe I just haven’t seen or played the MMOs that do take their weather seriously, so can anyone mention some of them (apart from the CoH one, which seems to be an interesting zone).

    It’s really a shame, since complex, world-affecting weather effects really up the level of immersion considerably. Imagine having mobs hide from a strong blizzard, people seeking shelter from rain, the already metioned thick fog eeriness,…

    Your description of Moria really makes me want to jump into LotRO, despite having several other things I have to finish first. But when you mentioned all the issues with the zone I realised that it’s only an MMO after all. I really can’t expect an overwhelming level of immersion (say similar to the books) from an MMO. :S

    Oh, and as for non-MMO usage of mist, Amnesia had some of that too. Though it was certainly darkness (basically achieves the same thing) that took center stage.

  8. Capn John

    I think it would be really cool if the marshes were shrouded in fog with visibility reduced to approx. 50 metres with ambient sounds like animals snarling, Goblins chattering, etc.
    You could reduce the density of Mobs so you’re not running into one every step you take, although you’d still want density high enough that you can’t just run willy nilly through the gloom. Of course with less Mobs in the marshes you’d also need to reduce the number of Mobs in the Kill Quests for those areas, or when you’re after quest drops have the drop rate increased to almost 100%.

    I don’t like the night time in LOTRO because IMO it’s too dark and just makes me want to turn up the brightness level. Sure, that’s natural and realistic for night time, but I’d rather take the unrealistic approach and have regular visibility within the immediate vicinity of my character (as if I’m carrying a lantern), reduced visibility out to approx. 50 metres, with pitch black beyond that point, much like the marshland’s fog as described above.

    Using darkness in this manner the Mines could be like the marshes, with reduced density of Mobs but increased ambient sounds to enhance the claustrophobic atmosphere of creeping through the dark tunnels, never knowing what’s around the next bend. Those voices could be a goblin patrol, or they could just be an acoustical trick of the tunnels.

  9. Melmoth Post author

    @Blaq: I certainly seem to remember WoW’s weather being introduced with at least a modest fanfair back in the day. Certainly MMOs don’t often make use of the weather in any way other than to go “Oooo, weather effects! Look, weather effects, everyone!”

    Moria as a zone is deeply evocative, it’s just a shame that MMO game-play then had to be layered on top of it until it completely smothered the place.

    @Capn John: If we ever reach Fangorn it will be interesting to see how Turbine approaches the oppressive gloom of the forest. I think Alan Wake does darkness in the way you have described, but it’s always difficult because (as you point out) it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and one probably shouldn’t base a whole zone on a mechanic which a certain set of people will find unplayable. This would be the advantage of using something like fog, as it is an effect which could be dropped on the players for a relatively short amount of time, just long enough to mess with their heads a bit, hopefully in an entertaining manner.

  10. Tremayne

    Not exactly fog, but the snowstorm in Rift’s Realm of the Fae most definitely reduces visibility. I did my first run through the Expert verison of RotF at the weekend, which has an extra boss lurking in that snowstorm… could come as a nasty surprise for the unprepared.

    Oh, and I remember Dark Astoria – a complete PITA for heroes who use the teleport power to get around!

  11. Jim

    The Moria expansion when it happened was so brave, but it really killed LotRO imho…

    It’s so funny, we as a community, demanding things to be different and demanding things to be the same, demanding things to be challenging and demanding things to be so that we can watch TV at the same time.

    I look at developers now as my wife, who looks at me sometimes with that look to say: “Let me know when you figure out exactly what it is you want and give me a call when you do figure it out and let me know”

    To which I reply, I’m working at it you know, I’m sincerely working at it.

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