NOTE: Apparently this didn’t post the first time, so I’m going to try again. I apologize in advance if it ends up posting twice for whatever reason; just let me know and I’ll delete one of them.
BY: Billy Bunce
Due to technical difficulties which led to a total reformatting of my hard drive, I was only able to finish the Epic Quest Prologue and not Book I; therefore this blog post will focus only on the Prologue.
I must say that, while I was pleasantly surprised with the Prologue quest’s story overall, it certainly gave off a misleading first impression. Despite its titular “epic” nature, the early portions of the quest primarily consisted of me painstakingly and unnecessarily investigating a possible goblin sighting by asking around in the Shire. Don’t get me wrong; I love the way the quest culminated (raiding the goblin encampment actually did feel epic), but to me the beginning of the Prologue really highlighted one of the flaws of storytelling intrinsic to the dynamic nature of an MMORPG.
This dilemma is that of establishing a connection with the reader/player, allowing him/her to vicariously become affected by the narrative and how it plays out. Such an experience was most definitely not found in the beginning stages of this quest. I play the Warden, a class marked by a commitment to defend the weak and to “[protect] those who cannot protect themselves” (http://www.lotro.com/gameinfo/classes). The Introduction (which comes before the Prologue) did allow me to establish a connection with my character as a sort of heroic guardian, as I bravely rushed to protect the town of Archet from the Blackwold raid. I had mentally established my character as one who would never back down from a fight and who would put his own life on the line to save the innocent.
Yet, the Prologue quest would have me believe that, upon hearing of a goblin sighting, my first instinct would be to ask around about it, rather than to go out on a limb and investigate it personally. When the game forced me to passively inquire about the goblins rather than slay them, any connection I had with my character was lost; LOTRO had decided that Shandelin the Hobbit was different from whom I thought he was. If my character has a giant spear and the skill to use it, wouldn’t he act out of a desire to protect rather than a desire to learn? Although the plot for the rest of the quest was involving and helped to reestablish this broken bond, the opening to the Prologue clearly stuck out as a negative point which almost removed all characterization from the vertically-challenged avatar running around on my screen.
Herein lies the main problem with dynamic storytelling; it is almost impossible to tailor a specific story to a very unspecific character. I’m sure that had I played a Burglar, my internal characterization of him would be much different than that of my Warden. Due to financial and time constraints, however, the developers cannot possibly hope to create a narrative which fits every possible protagonist’s profile. They are forced to construct a relatively generic tale in which the main character is involved physically but not emotionally or mentally. This stands in stark contrast to statically-told stories, where the protagonist is clearly defined and, thus, always takes logical, believable actions as they relate to his overall characterization.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, we never encounter the aforementioned flaw of LOTRO because the character of Frodo is consistent and completely laid out for us; thus, we never experience a moment in the book where we are tempted to disconnect from him. The bond between the reader and Frodo only grows stronger as the novel progresses, due to his believability. As the story is told statically rather than dynamically, we are able to experience a significantly more character-driven and involving plot. This static storytelling is not a monopoly held by books, either; movies and offline video games almost always use this approach as well. I am able to easily sympathize with Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or Cloud in Final Fantasy VII because they are clearly defined and their development is natural given their initial characterization. Even in BioWare’s sci-fi epic Mass Effect, where one’s individual character is completely unique, the player can still easily establish a connection with Commander Shepard (the generically-named, player-created main character) due to the fact that the choices made by the player actually affect the world, and one’s character is never forced to linearly proceed in a fashion which does not befit them.
The online game is a medium which, in terms of storytelling, is inconsistent at best. The developers don’t know exactly how you see your unique character, and as such it is incredibly difficult for them to tailor a believable experience to every single player. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, the game’s story differs so much from that of the book because of the inherent difference in the way the story is told – dynamically in the former, statically in the latter. Though Frodo is an exciting and interesting character to follow, my character in LOTRO doesn’t seem to have any sort of well-defined identity and it is therefore much more difficult for me to really care about what he does.