Wednesday 5 May 2010

It is not down in any map; true places never are.

Maps are lying swine and never to be trusted. So was my experience in Lord of the Rings Online over the weekend, and so has it been in many an MMO before then. The problem is that maps are devious; your stock and standard openly vindictive sort is not to be found among maps. No indeed, a map will pretend to be your best friend, it will helpfully show you where you are and where you need to be, it may even subtly suggest where sir or madam might like to go next, which it does in an obsequious subservient fashion while bending over to touch the floor repeatedly as it backs out of the door, and then as soon as your attention is elsewhere it attacks like an origami katana.

Sometimes it goes like this:

You stand inside the entrance to the dungeon and are full of enthusiasm for the thing, Tom has the map open and is pointing to the location of the bric-a-brac that you’ve been sent to find, which is helpfully highlighted on the nasty little thing. “Don’t worry chaps”, says Tom, “our goal lies just at the end of this corridor here” and he looks at the rest of you with a smile that says he feels he’s doing you all a tremendous favour by guiding you to such a simple objective, and you all set off, light of step and good in spirit, towards your goal.

Of course, you have to fight group after group of angry orcs on the way there. Of course you do. And of course the map doesn’t show you any of these inconveniences. Or the pit trap.

So after you’ve heaved Tom out of the hole, then lowered him back down again so that he can retrieve the map that has flung itself from him in a bid for freedom (or maybe just to spite you) and after you’ve fought a few more groups of orcs, you finally reach the end of the corridor.

“Just on other side of this wall” pants Tom, and the rest of you wait patiently while he looks left, then right, then left again in order to find the passage that will allow you to get around to the other side, which doesn’t exist. “Well there’s no way through here” he states, you note, somewhat obviously. At which point Harry grabs the map with a “give that here will you you dummy” and looks at it with the sort of studious but disappointed look you imagine God would have worn as he pondered where to place the Galapagos Islands after realising that he hadn’t left any room for them in the Mediterranean. “Ah, I see where you went wrong, Tom” he says “you assumed that this bit here was connected, and it does look like it on the map, but clearly you’re meant to go down this corridor over here to the west, and then loop around and come at it from the north”. And it all seems so obvious when Harry explains it like that, so the rest of you pick yourselves up from where you were slumped on the floor and trudge off with Harry boldly leading the way.

And of course there are more groups of orcs to fight on the way.

Of course.

So you head back to the east and then north west, then due south, and then back on yourselves a bit so that the front of the party runs into the back of the party as they cross each other’s path, and you fight groups of orcs all along the way and have to go back at one point when you realise that you’ve lost Roger and that one of the orcs has taken his place on a dare from his mates to see how far he could get before anyone noticed. You follow the map and at every junction there is a huge discussion as to which way the map says you all should go, then the discussion becomes an argument and harsh words are spoken and someone gets a bloody nose, at which point a vote is taken and the tally of results show no votes for the right path, one for the left path, and five votes to go home and sod the whole silly business.

You get there in the end however, exhausted and sick of the sight of stone walls and moss and orcs and each other, you content yourselves with the fact that at least the map now shows that you are standing in the same spot as your objective, but as you look around the empty chamber you realise that you have been betrayed. Alan grabs the map from a bewildered looking Harry, and twists it and turns it in the vain hope that he can convince the map that it’s wrong, but the map never lies. It just chooses only to show you part of the truth. As Alan scrunches and unscrunches the map and turns both it and his head in wildly opposing directions he, at one point, holds it up to the light in order to get a better look, the light from the candelabra hanging three floors up.

Three floors up.

Roger wonders out loud if it would be possible to find something to break through the wall to the side near the entrance, where you were all standing what seems like a lifetime ago, but after several sharp suggestions about the appropriateness of his head for such a task giving its relative density, he lets it drop.

People get angry and start shouting at each other. Someone in the back starts to cry. Harry exclaims through a red face that it wasn’t his fault that the map didn’t show multiple levels to the place, and everyone else wonders out loud who they should blame then. They wonder if they should perhaps blame the map, but they do so in that tone of voice that implies that they blame Harry, with especial blame reserved for his parents for being careless enough to have given birth to him in the first place. The map lies quietly and innocently on the floor where it was thrown, though if anyone were to look closely they would see that its edges were curved in what looked suspiciously like a smile.

Then everyone goes mad. People fetch out their own maps and then run off in different directions. They decide not to worry about fighting the orcs anymore, instead they just run past and ignore them. The orcs give chase but tire of it pretty quickly and return to their camp only to see the same adventurer they were just chasing coming back down the corridor at them and followed by another adventurer who wasn’t there a moment ago. Both adventurers dash past the orcs before shooting off at right angles to one another down opposite corridors like some sort of formation aerial display team. The orcs give up at this point and decide to have a nice cup of green tea and ignore the whole silly situation until it goes away, at which point an adventurer with his face buried in a map clatters into them at speed and tumbles them all onto their backs. “Hoi, Roger, stop cavorting with those orcs will you and get to looking with the rest of us” shouts Harry as he runs past for the sixth time, “or at least ask them for directions won’t you?” But Roger is unable to offer a reply from his place on the floor, what with six orcs jumping up and down on his chest.

After ten minutes of fruitless searching and painful wounds at the hands of the orcs, Tom slumps down in defeat with his back to a chest in the corner of a room and decides to have a nap. When the others find him they wake him with a loving kick to his head so that he jumps up with a start, knocking over the chest and spilling its contents over the floor. And there in the middle of it all is the object they’ve been searching for. “Well here it is all along. Seems Tom has been having us for fools, letting us run around like that when he knew where it was all along” says someone. “Can’t believe he blamed it on his map” says another. And they all show their appreciation for what they think is a cruel joke on Tom’s part by hitting him lovingly around the chest and head with their rolled up maps.

The item of their quest found and packed carefully away in a backpack, the group beam on one another; they love one another again, they love the dungeon with its dank walls, and they love the orcs, even Roger, whose chest was never quite the same again. They look quietly around with a silent satisfaction and fatherly love for all things, and a feeling that all was right in the world.

At which point Tom asks if anyone can remember the way out.

Sometimes it goes like this:

You’re riding towards the final goal of your quest; you can see the objective on your map and it’s a clear straight line from where you are now to where you need to be. As it rapidly approaches you settle back in the saddle and enjoy the sights and sounds of the rolling forested hills as they blur past and your mind drifts to thoughts of your reward.

After a little time you begin to realise that you should have reached your destination, and when your eyes focus from out of your blissful daydream you see that your horse is scrambling against the side of a modest incline, at the top of which stands the person with whom you need to speak. It’s only a very modest slope, no more than a few feet high, but no matter how much you urge your mount on, it just cannot seem to make any headway up it. Perhaps the slope is covered in a particularly greasy moss, or perhaps you should have fitted those chunky off-road horse shoes instead of slicks, either way the message seems to be that you’re not getting up this slope. This modest gentle slope. A slope so shallow, that if you tripped and fell while half way down, you’d be equally likely to roll back up to the top as continue on down to the bottom.

You check left and right and see that the slope runs to the horizon in both directions and that it will take some time to ride around it. You check the map again and see no sign of such an obstruction. Then, given such a gentle slope, you do what any reasonable person would do in such a situation. You calmly look left and right again, assessing the situation, making sure nobody is looking. And then you go mad. You fling yourself at the slope every which way you can imagine. You take a run up, even though your horse only ever goes one speed, even from a standing start. You try jumping the horse up the slope. First one long jump with a run up, then lots of tiny little jumps as the horse hoof-spins against the base of the slope; with the little jumps you start to make some progress up the slope, but because they are erratic in nature and because the horse is hoof-spinning all the while, you slowly start to drift off to the left or right, and you windscreen wipe your way along the slope in this way for a good mile or so before your horse blows a cylinder and smoke starts to come out of its bum. You resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to have to run all the way around and you curse your map for not giving you any indication of this time wasting obstruction; your map chuckles quietly itself, holds out its hand behind its back and makes a beckoning motion, and the developer quietly drops half your subscription fee for the month in its upturned palm.

Eventually you make it all the way around and back to the top of the slope, only a few feet up from where you were struggling earlier, but nevertheless you are at the top now. The quest rewarder is standing only a few yards off, and you sit with straight back and look down on the slope that was once the master of you. With pride swelling in your chest you stand up in the stirrups and shout your triumphant victory to the audience of mountains that curve around your field of view, and in doing so surprise your horse, who takes a few startled steps forward and on to the slope, which is only too happy to expedite your three foot descent to the floor below.

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