Monday 24 January 2011

True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic.

The trouble with heroism is that it’s such a terribly fine scale on which to balance one’s character. In addition, heroic deeds are often weighed against the deeds of everyday life: if everyone in your neighbourhood charges into battle against overwhelming odds and wins through on a daily basis, what do you have to do to stand out as a hero? At the Battle of Thermopylae where the Spartans stood against the might of the Persian empire, we know of a few names of the mighty – Leonidas, Dilios, Artemis and Astinos – but there were three hundred men in all, surely each one a hero by some measure, and yet few are named. I imagine nobody has even heard of such characters as Geofficles, Normancrates and Colinstopholes, but they were there fighting to the bitter end too. Well okay, Colinstopholes wasn’t, but he had a note from his mum saying that he needed to be back home at the end of the second day for a dentist appointment.

Take my level sixty five Warden in Lord of the Rings Online, for example. If she travels to Mirkwood or Enedwaith she will find wildlife which, although no mortal threat, can keep her entertained in combat for far longer than you would think reasonable for a demihero (one assumes that the main cast are the true heroes) of Middle Earth. Take her back to Ered Luin where she first began her journey, however, and she can hit a wolf so hard that there’s a very good chance a Higgs boson particle would be detected in the subsequent imploding bloody-mist of lupine limbs. The problem as I see it is that MMOs suffer from a sort of relativity of simultaneity, and the issue stems from the fact that the player’s frame of reference for observation into the world differs from that of the player’s character. The illusion of progression from the player’s point of view is that their character gains in power through stat increases and levels. The frame of reference for the player’s character, however, is travelling with the content, and much like a person standing on a train, the player’s character is moving through one world (the overall progression of levels in the game) while their surroundings move with them (level-appropriate content appears no different to the level-appropriate content of ten levels ago).

Therefore, it’s terribly difficult to give characters a truly heroic feel in a world where the player character’s frame of reference moves with them at all times during the normal levelling progression, especially when this frame of reference is different to that of the player who observes it. It’s not that a player can’t feel heroic, but to do so they must step out of the natural flow of the game, and perform quests for NPCs in low-level zones for little to no gain on their own part. Van Hemlock reported on a recent podcast of returning to Forochel with his level sixty five Guardian and doing just that, and there was a feeling of heroism to it – single-handedly saving NPCs from invaders with little effort – but there is no recognition of it in the context of the world as a whole. One can’t help but feel, as with the wolf in Ered Luin, that it’s a bit like the thirty four year old me of today travelling back in time to punch-in the teeth of the ten year old school bullies who made so much of my life hell during those formative years: easy and deeply satisfying, yes, but it would hardly build me as a character, or give me a heroic reputation.

There are other examples in LotRO where your character is elevated to the level of so great a hero that you actually start to realise that, perhaps, being a hero of the sort sung about in the Old Songs is not really what you want either. I took my Warden through the whole of Book One of the epic storyline over the Christmas period. I hadn’t managed this on any character to date, so I gritted my teeth and prepared myself for a lot of staring at horses’ arses. The way in which Turbine allows players to solo through what was otherwise intended as group content is to provide an inspiration buff to a solo player who enters a dungeon instance, essentially it is Turbine’s ‘iddqd’. The thing is that this buff is designed to boost to heroic status those player characters who are at the correct level for the content, such that when you take a character who is twenty or thirty levels above the content already, you get something almost… monstrous. My Warden is reasonably well geared for a level capped character that has not stepped foot inside a raid instance, and as such she has six thousand five hundred hit points. A top-geared raid tank character would probably be reasonably expected to have somewhere in the region of eight thousand five hundred, perhaps higher. When I entered Helegrod, the final instance of Book Five aimed at characters of around level forty, the inspiration buff transformed my Warden into an entity with somewhere over thirty thousand hit points; I couldn’t tell you precisely, I lost count somewhere near what seemed like infinity.

Wardens are also a power hungry class, being that they need to build their gambit abilities quickly, they eschew the somewhat sluggish standard swing timer that frustrates me on so many other characters in LotRO, and are able to fire off their abilities as fast as the global cooldown will allow – which is very fast indeed. So the Warden can suck down power faster than Linda Lovelace on a nuclear fuel rod, and yet I couldn’t make a discernable dent in my blue bar for the entire time I was in the instance. It changed the experience from heroic epic to tragic comedy, where I just waltzed around looking for my quest objectives while half the instance followed me around, ineffectively shouting and shoving at me, as if I had just recently dropped my gourd. The absolute moment of realisation came when I was confronted by yet another nightmare of the undead world, which my character promptly one-shot in the nether regions sending it screaming back to the netherworld (so shouldn’t the netherworld be the place where genitals go to die?), and I noticed that it was called a Terrible Fell-spirit. “Nothing terribly terrible about that” I thought to myself, unless of course they didn’t mean in the sense of ‘exciting extreme alarm or intense fear’ and actually meant it in the sense of ‘extremely bad: as of very poor quality’. I can picture the spirit returning to the land of the dead, a spectre with a clipboard greeting its return:

Spectre: “Welcome back! How many heroes did you kill this time?”

Spirit: “Uh… none”

Spectre: “But you fought at least one hero, correct?”

Spirit: “Uhm, yes.”

Spectre: “And?”

Spirit: “She kicked me in the genitals so hard that I became destabilised from the plane of mortal existence.”

Spectre: “Ooof! Hang on… you’re a spirit, you don’t even have genitals!”

Spirit: “Yeah?! Try telling that to my poor aching genitals! If you can find them.”

Spectre: “You really are a terrible spirit, you realise that?”

Spirit: “Well duh, it even says so on my name tag.”

It didn’t make me feel heroic, however, it just made me feel sorry for them. The spirits of the instance weren’t to be feared, but pitied. I imagined a force of woolly-hatted protestors from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Apparitions) bumbling their way into the dungeon and trying to prevent me from killing more undead – the irony of which being totally lost on them – by linking arms in a circle around the poor cowering defenceless minions of the Dark Lord, and attacking my character with a particularly scathing leaflet campaign. I didn’t feel like a hero, I felt like a cheat, and as I absentmindedly punched a Nazgûl into unconsciousness while trying to avoid the more dangerous and threatening PETA protestors, I realised that being an epic hero isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

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