Monday 28 March 2011

I perceive these lords at this encounter do so much admire that they devour their reason and scarce think.

Stand at Amon Sûl is a skirmish in Lord of the Rings Online which I generally avoid. Amon Sûl isn’t a terribly lengthy skirmish, and it’s not any more difficult than the other skirmish options available to me; in fact fighting alongside the NPC Ranger Candaith makes the whole affair a walk in the park since he is – as NPCs generally are in MMOs – a hero of far greater power than my character could ever be. Probably a power of two or three greater. So now we know what N really stands for in NPC: PCPC. Thus NPC = PCPCPC or PC3.

Still, there are other NPCs in other skirmishes, and their relative power levels don’t cause me to shy away from heading in and helping them defeat the forces of Sauron on a daily basis; I only help them once per day though, because after that I don’t get the daily quest bonus. No XP, No Fighty-Fighty: the motto of MMO players the world over. In actual fact Candaith’s PC3 power does have something to do with it, but it is the combination of this with the feature mechanic of Amon Sûl that makes for a rather disheartening experience.

The skirmish follows one of the standard templates of events, in this case three stages consisting of multiple waves of enemies each, culminating in a fight with the Big Bad Boss at the end of the third stage. The events take place at the top of Weathertop (Weathertoptop? Weather(top2)?), where the forces of darkness are attacking your camp at the centre of the stone circle at the summit. The mechanic unique to this skirmish is a one hundred percent ‘darkness’ damage debuff to yourself and your allies (Candaith, skirmish soldier) when fighting on Weathertop. To counter this, Candaith has lit a large fire in the centre of the stone circle, and fighting near to this will grant you a fifty percent ‘light’ buff to your damage. In addition to this there is a circle of five smaller bonfires around the outside edge of the stone circle which can be lit by grabbing a torch from next to the central fire and running it over to them. However, the torch quickly runs out and the smaller bonfires are spaced far enough apart that it takes two runs to successfully light them all. The smaller bonfires themselves will eventually go out, and will need to be relit, which is required roughly twice per stage. These smaller bonfires each provide a twenty five percent ‘light’ buff to damage, and also a two and half percent boost to attacks and inductions.

I picture the player turning up to help Candaith defend Weathertop, and he explains that it would be best if the darkness was driven back using the bonfires and that someone needs to light them, and he gives you a significant look. You glance over your shoulder to see who he’s talking to, because clearly it can’t be you, hero of the ages that you are. Your skirmish soldier is the only person standing behind you, but they seem to be intently admiring some invisible piece of architecture above their head whilst whistling to themselves. Looking back to Candaith you point a finger at your chest and mouth ‘me’, making it a question through the exaggerated use of arched-in-astonishment eyebrows. He nods solemnly, and then brushes past you and clasps hands with your skirmish soldier, offers them a puff on his pipe (not a euphemism, although they are indeed terribly friendly), and I imagine one or the other of them directs a firm kick at your behind as you run past to grab a torch and start lighting fires.

And thus the fight goes. Essentially, at the entry level and with all the fires lit, Candaith and your skirmish soldier can happily defeat all the enemy waves without you and – with a bit of luck on critical hits and their choosing to focus on the Big Bad Boss first – the final fight too. The most important role you play in the entire skirmish is to play errand boy (or girl; thanks Stan). It’s a curiously demoralising effect the first time you realise this, as you run off to light fires and watch as a wave of enemies approaches and is summarily slaughtered by the two NPCs. They seem to be having fun, at least.

It’s not a big issue, of course, but one worth contemplating. Making players run mundane tasks is a given in MMOs; I mean, where would we be without the Delivery quest, the Click Ten Widgets quest, the Speak to Five NPCs quest or Harness Seven Critters quest?

Having fun exploring and adventuring like heroes I imagine, ah ha ha ha haaaa… sigh.

But it’s probably quite important that if you’re going to make players perform mundane chores in the name of Entertainment, then you probably shouldn’t have them do this while in the company of a crowd of NPCs who are having fun performing exciting adventurous feats of daring-do. Stand at Amon Sûl is just one minor example that tweaked my nipple of negativity recently, I’ve encountered many quests in many MMOs where I dash around like a subservient butler as an NPC smites the enemy; I fully expect one day to encounter a quest where my character’s job is to literally lick the NPC’s armour clean, then run out and collect rose petals so that they can be thrown at the NPC’s feet as they march into battle. Perhaps the next evolution would be a quest where your character has to crouch on all fours and act as a footstool for some NPC lounging on their throne, with a quest mechanic requiring you to press a key to hold your character’s breath when you see their hair begin to ruffle, otherwise they take the brunt of the NPC’s flatulence full on the nose and have to spend the next five minutes in a quest to clean all of their vomit from the throne room floor or be executed. With suitable improvements in voice recognition, it probably won’t be long before the PC is required to just lie on the floor and allow the NPCs to wipe their feet on them, whereupon it falls to the player to voice their gratitude in an obsequious enough tone that the NPC is appeased, and thus they allow the PC to progress to the next quest, where they attend the secondary ‘royal throne’, and get to wipe the NPC’s bum for XP, and possibly some gold in hand, depending on how thick the toilet paper is.

I think what makes me sad is that in all my adventuring, in all of my smiting of great evils, of all the vanquishings and sunderings and overcomings in the various MMOs I’ve played over the years, I have never had an NPC come up to me and say “Y’know what, you’re a bit of a hero in these lands, and you’ve saved us innumerable times from evil. How about I go out and rummage through that ox dung to find fifteen seeds to give to Farmer Bemybiatch? You put your feet up by the fire and have a rest. Here’s a pint and my eldest daughter, have fun. By golly you’ve earnt it”.

Good Ford! Perhaps we are the children of the Bokanovsky process in these brave new worlds which we inhabit; Alpha Plus developers and Alpha NPCs encourage the Epsilon players that ‘ending is better than mending’ with their infinite supply of experience, gold and goods. Levels and progression keep the players on a soma-like trip, a recursive inculcated belief that fun is to be found in the repetition of doing. It is the conditioning system where players are encouraged to avoid playing alone; where each class is a caste of perfectly uniform equality and led to believe it is more worthwhile than any other class; where the indoctrination teaches players that predictability, homogeneity, and consumption are this gaming generation’s greatest goals. What do those outside our society think as they stare in at us? Do they marvel in half-wonder half-horror when observing the mechanics of our low society, as we toil mundanely at the behest of the leaders of our worlds, our nobles, our heroes: the NPCs?

“My dear young friend,” said Mustapha Mond, “civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended —- there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren’t any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do.”

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