Tuesday 1 June 2010

A good description is a magician that can turn an ear into an eye.

At some point yesterday evening, during our weekly sojourn to the lands of Middle Earth, the thread of discussion began to wrap itself around the curious issue of the names of our skills and abilities, and subsequently tied itself in ten different kinds of knot. The naming of skills and abilities is a curious thing, some MMOs, such as WoW, take the prosaic route of explaining what the skill is: Fireball; Fireball II – The Revenge of Fireball; Fireball IV; Fireball III Sir! Whereas other MMOs, such as LotRO and Guild Wars (specifically the Ritualist class), adopt a more flowery naming convention that attempts to invoke the essence of the skill rather than the ability itself: Attuned Was Songkai; In Defence of Middle Earth; Every Sperm is Sacred.

Not entirely sure about the last one.

I’m not sure which I prefer to be honest; they’re like disparate cooking styles, with WoW and company being your traditional home-cooked meal – honest and hearty but unexciting and predictable – whereas LotRO’s chefs cook up something a little more exotic, more nouvelle cuisine, where you marvel at one another about the subtle flavours and aromas of the skill name, how clever the thing is and how delightful it is to look at, and then you all have to admit that you have no idea what the hell it’s supposed to be and have to ask the waiter to explain it. I picture the tooltip in LotRO as a slightly haughty French maître d’ who explains in exasperated tones just what the skill does, whilst heavily hinting that you can’t possibly appreciate its subtle layers, being the cultureless nincompoop that you are.

If you listed all of the Captain’s skills in LotRO by name only and asked me to explain what they do, I’m pretty sure I’d only get a few right. To save face I’d probably have a stab at guessing their meaning, sure, like some hapless Englishman in a foreign restaurant, red cheeked and stubbornly refusing to ask for help in translating the menu, and after a lengthy act of pointed deliberation that would have made the RSC proud, he confidently and loudly orders two platters of “Please do not smoke in the restaurant, thank you” for himself and his wife.

The Captain has a few iconic abilities that I know the name of: IDoME the aforementioned In Defence of Middle Earth, a legendary trait that is probably one of the best buffs in the game; Words of Courage, a single target heal, which I remember because the name evokes an image of my Captain giving a pep talk much like a boxing coach at ringside, the fellowship’s Guardian sits on a stool with a towel around their neck, and I give their shoulders a massage as they gasp chestily between sips from a water bottle “Now e’s a big fella this troll, so yarve got ter get in closer, don give im the range on yer. Keep in tight and slap im wiv yer shield an yer’ll be peachy”; and Rallying Cry because it’s the skill I use the most and the one I’m always trying to activate as often as possible. I’m sure I could stumble through a few others, but generally though the skills along my bar are placed in such a way as to make sense to the way I play, and in my mind they’re named after what they do in the most basic fashion, such that more professional players would sneer the sneer of the maître d’ who was asked for some of that cold leek soup, were they ever to hear me describe them. There’s the stabby one; the stabby one with a DoT bleed; the stabby one that heals someone; the stabby one that gets aggro; the stabby one that I can only use when an enemy has been defeated; and there’s the shouty one that lets me use the other stabby ones; the shouty one that boosts attack speed; the shouty one that stuns; and the shouty one that grabs aggro. And so on. I remember more of the gambits on my Warden, but that’s only because I have to keep looking them up every five seconds to remember how to execute the pattern of attacks required to activate them. And I don’t look up Exaltation of Battle, I look down the list for the ‘big AoE morale draining thing that’s really quite cool’, and then see the name and go “oh yeah, that’s what it’s called”, and then forget it again five seconds later.

Does it matter, this thematic naming of skills over a more practical but immediately comprehensible system? I don’t think so: I quite like the flavourful approach in the main, and although it makes returning to my alts a little more tricky after having been away for a while “Hmm, this character has a skill called Gust of Wind. What does it do? Do I need to hold my nose?” it’s not as though it presents a major hurdle to getting back up to speed with the class in fairly short order.

I did wonder how I’d choose to name skills in the Melmoth MMO, and I further wondered how I’d go about coming up with the names, but in the course of writing this post a very elegant solution came to light. It turns out that the lyrics to the chorus of the Chicken Song lend themselves perfectly to skill descriptions as I think you’ll agree:

Hold a chicken in the air

Stick a deckchair up your nose

Buy a jumbo jet

Bury all your clothes

Paint your left knee green

Form a string quartet

Pretend your name is Keith

Skin yourself alive

Learn to speak Arapahoe

Climb inside a dog

Behead an Eskimo

Eat a Renault Four with salami in your ears

Casserole your Gran

Disembowel yourself with spears

I leave the tooltip descriptions of what the skills actually do as an exercise for the reader.

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