Lost Connection

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.

My feet hurt. (and I’m late.)

I started walking from Thorin’s Hall a long time ago. I ended up in this valley, where I failed a quest for the first time. Even then, I couldn’t feel any serious consequences coming from my failure. I let poor Nos Grimsong die, and all I could think was that it was going to be a bloody long walk to get back to town to sell the loot in my inventory. I remain unashamed by this fact. I walked back to town and scalped some…well, scalps, or the ursine equivalent…for some funding.  After that, I walked back into the woods and vivisected several score woodland creatures, each time returning to town, each time ridding myself of a load of skins/wings/chompy-bits and earning some minor funding.

It has been two weeks. My footsore dwarf has slogged over mountains and through marshes. He strode tall (read: relatively tall) through deep valleys (read: gently sloped ditches) and across wide rivers (read: over bridges that spanned wide rivers). He has done battle against pestilence and pigs, including the variety that causes pestilence after a sort.  Only after many long walks did I find myself in Bree, and only after several long outings around the area did I find myself in The Prancing Pony discussing a matter involving some bandits with a mysterious stranger named Strider.

The first time I went out, I got the idiot NPC I was attached to killed. As he perished, run through upon the wicked blades of the Blackwold bandits, I could feel no sorrow at his death. I felt no sadness, watching his animated corpse fade into nothingness as with the strongest of the Jedi. Instead, I found my mind transported far away across diverse planes of light and shadow. I found myself warped away to replay the failing of my first escort mission and every mission since then. I watched Air Ixiom 701 and 702 burning in the sky as enemy fighters failed to falter in the face of my poorly aimed gun bursts as I played Ace Combat 04. I watched Nos Grimsong ambushed by wildcats once more two weeks ago. I found myself with a single thought in my mind as I watched my Ranger companion dying…

I hate escort missions. Never, EVER, have I enjoyed an escort mission.

I cannot relate with a game in the same way I relate to a story. I cannot access LotRO in the same way that I can associate with the written stories by Tolkien. As I play, some part of me is forced to access my memories of other games, recalling tactics for engaging multiple opponents, remembering maps, recollecting materials required for crafts. In giving me a purpose for journeying into the world, I lose part of the world. We may play the game at work, but working in the game is serious business. We quest and there are connections made, but are we playing for the story? Is the story playing us? Could it be that we do not play each other, but rather we, the story and the player, are dancing around each other and throwing punches in hopes of a solid connection, one strike to win the match? In a book, I don’t have to worry about this issue. I am a silent observer, safe in anonymity, and I can watch Strider decapitating orcs and goblins to my heart’s content. I don’t get my hands dirty, my soul is clean of the killing, but I am free to watch. The Fellowship’s failing is mine only in thought, and I am free to savor the scenery as they are ambushed yet again. They fight the good fight for my enjoyment. “It isn’t my war, man.”

~Breon Guarino

Still Waiting…

So I’ve been playing LOTRO. As a gamer who likes to try many aspects of a game before settling into one roll, I played a character throughout the introduction as different races and classes. After doing this a few times, I had one take on the game that overwhelmed all others: It simply wasn’t epic.

Part of this is probably because I am playing on a laptop with a barely adequate gaming system, so all of my sound is jumpy, graphics are lagging, and my senses are simply underwhelmed. But also, the game cannot (and understandably so) compare to book in regards to the dire feel in regards to the quest. In the book, Frodo is carrying the ONE Ring. The ULTIMATE source of Evil. The entire world will COMPLETELY PERISH should he fail.

In the game? You’re… well, I’m not quite sure yet, to be honest. As slow a read as Tolkien can be, he is more successful than this online manifestation of his work in establishing the threat that looms over. A lot of the threat I feel in the game actually comes from having read the book and knowing what’s going on elsewhere, actually. My quest has no real end; it is seemingly chores streaming together that may or may not end up with as much importance as is being hinted.

I’ll continue to play. It’s generally not a boring game, and hopefully the plot will have more draw as I advance. But for right now, I’m still waiting for that one big hook to really get me immersed and make me realize the brevity of the situation.


What’s the deal with LOTRO cutscenes?

by Theo Dentchev

LOTRO starts off with some beautiful looking graphics, and a cutscene in which Gandalf sits at a fire smoking some pipeweed, telling you a story. Good stuff right?

And then you start playing the game.

In the first cutscene you encounter you’re most likely going to miss at least the first few lines of dialogue before you even realize that you’re in a cut scene. Why, you ask? Because the “cutscene” is just in game characters with text above their heads or in the text box at the bottom left of the screen. Don’t get me wrong, the in game graphics are really nice, great colors, good animations. But they’re in game graphics. Would it have been too much to ask for some cinema-like cutscenes? Or at least some sound instead of having to read dialogue. I mean, using in game graphics makes it so that at times it is difficult to notice immediately that someone else has started talking, and by the time you look to see the text above their head they’re already on to the next sentence. You could of course look at the text box in the bottom left, but then you miss whatever limited visual action might be going on. All in all this provides for a relatively poor form of storytelling.

Then again, maybe I’m just biased. I’m not quite old enough to have experienced the text based rpgs of the early days of gaming. In fact, the issue of my age is compounded by the fact that I didn’t really start playing video games (outside of pokemon on the gameboy color) until 2003 – very recently. And even then I didn’t really play rpgs as much as I did action-adventure games. So I am accustomed to playing games where the cutscenes are cinematic and the characters actually talk. I guess both styles of story telling (cinematic cutscenes and in game cutscenes) provide the same information, and you could understand the story equally well either way, but the presentation makes a huge difference. I will be better able to appreciate a story which I can enjoy and which is easy to follow.

I’m no game designer and have no idea of how difficult it must be, but would it really be that much harder to incorporate cinematic cutscenes into MMOs? Even if it is harder than doing for console games, games like LOTRO are supposed to have a strong focus on storytelling, so wouldn’t it be worth the effort to tell the story better? It would enhance the entire experience of the game, making it more immersing and engaging.

– TD

P.S I just realized that I haven’t gotten very far into the game, and it is still entirely possible there will be other cinematic cutscenes in the future. However, I still condemn the lack of such cutscenes in general, and the use of in game cutscenes instead.

Technology… You’re a Double-Edged Sword.

Matt Thumser

Hello. My name is Matt Thumser, and I am a Mac. I am not a PC, nor do I wish to become one. However, every so often I feel pressured by others to do so. I’ve been feeling it a lot lately. Worlds of Wordcraft is a brilliant class; that can’t be denied. I’ve never been in a class so forward-thinking, one that is so technologically advanced that has encompassed so many different media. In a single class period I’ve used books, movies, and computer games to make a point understandable. Obviously, the class is brilliant. It is also, however, very demanding in terms of technology. Again, I am a Mac. Lord of the Rings Online does not like this. Therefore, I was forced to become a PC as well. This in itself was no easy process (I’m looking at you, Boot Camp). It’s tough installing new drivers onto your newly installed copy of Windows when those drivers are on a disc in a bedroom hundreds of miles away. I guess you could say things are okay now; Windows has been installed, and I’m now a combination Mac and PC.

Needless to say, I haven’t fully immersed myself into the world of LOTRO. The story arc is yet to fully reveal itself; after all, I have only completed the intro. So far I’ve seen Blackwolds lay siege to the town of Archet, and nothing more. The actions I’ve witnessed bear no resemblance to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Names are familiar, however. I’ve stumbled into Bree-land, and into the Shire. I’ve traveled into Hobbiton, and visited with Bagginses. This, I can relate to, and appreciate. I almost feel proud to see these names in the game, because these are the names I’ve grown up reading. The feeling’s not that different from what I imagine it must feel like for a parent to watch their son score a touchdown in a football game, or see their daughter hit the hardest notes in a choir concert. It’s a great feeling to have.

My experience in LOTRO is just beginning. Maybe the story will change to follow the books, and maybe it won’t. Who knows? Either way, I’ve got a world to explore.

Toads are Terrifying

by: Calvin Patimeteeporn (Calvirth)

While I would love to describe th intricacies of the Epic Book 1 and Prologue, I can’t because of my horrible LOTRO skills. My inadequate skills of gaming has severely hindered my advancement to higher levels in the game and I apologize for not being able to reach these quests. However, I have a great substitute topic:

Why is this game SO. CONFUSING?

Today, I realized I have more than one sack to place my items in. I also realized that I can eat a numerous amount of food to regain health (morale? I dont know what to call it). I realized that I can, in fact, change weapons and sell items. All of this happened either today or yesterday. Did I mention I’ve been playing for a month?

Yes. A month.

Within that month I’ve discovered the wide variety of objects that can harm or kill me. Bears, wolves, man-eating spiders, and toads. YES. TOADS. How something so small can withstand 20 blows from an ax completely astounds me but I guess Shire toads are extremely resilient. I’ve also been called “n00b” in this game, or even better, completely ignored by other gamers who approach me and then quickly run away when I say, “Hi”. This world confuses me so. A frog can hold up a fight against me but when I fall from a manageable height I am left limping. Or how other gamers interrupt my fight with beasts to land the final blow. Or how it is only when I have very little health left do I fall off a cliff and into a wolf den where I am basically ripped to shreds by “Snarling Wolf” and “Wolf Leader”.

Besides my own frustration with the game, the virtual world of LOTRO that I actually HAVE experienced is amazing. The feeling that I have the entirety of Middle Earth to explore is real and the game designers attention to detail is amazing. It gave me great pleasure to walk around the Farthings and visit famous pubs, or even recognizing characters from the first book.

However, I am fully determined to reach the appropriate levels to enter these quest. Otherwise I would let down my avatar, and Calvirth will not stand for this.

Hear this Toads of The Shire! YOU WILL FALL BEFORE MY AX! I SWEAR TO IT!

Prologue Quests = Boring

My first experiences with Lord of the Rings Online have been rather boring. I have not yet gotten to the Epic Book 1 quests but I did complete the Prologue Quests.  Just like any other game, LOTRO uses the prologue quests to get the player acclimated to the game. For some people this is certainly helpful but for others it is just boring and tedious. I have very little experience with MMO’s, but even I found myself paying very little attention to what I was doing during the Prologue Quests. The quests themselves did not provide all that much action or excitement. I found myself leading my character around to various people and talking to them about things I didn’t care about. I was bored most of the time with the tedious and repetitive tasks I was presented with. Even when I strayed from the quests to go kill some wolves, the game could only keep me entertained for so long. I want instant gratification and excitement from a game and the Prologue Quests did not provide this for me.

                The quests were clearly designed to introduce the story behind the game as well as the controls and various aspects to the game. As a player, I had read the LOTR book and watched the movie. I had a pretty good idea of where I was and what was going on. Also, my experience with gaming made it very easy to figure out how to play the game with very minimal help from the game itself. I found myself being forced to do various activities with my character that I didn’t want to do. I understood the concepts of learning skills, using skills, attacking enemies, talking to characters and so on and so forth. Undoubtedly the prologue serves a role of great importance to new and inexperienced games, but for me it just proved to be tedious. I wanted to complete the prologue quests and get them out of the way. Granted they did not take any more than an hour, but still they left me with a bad first impression of the game.

                As for the quests and their relation to Tolkien’s world, I think there are many similarities. The most obvious of these similarities are the races, the characters, and the landscape in which you play. All these are taken directly from Tolkien because after all the game is based on Tolkien’s work.  A further similarity can be drawn to the Hobbit Prologue Quests.  Here the player begins in the shire just as Tolkien’s story begins with Bilbo Baggins in the shire. The game play itself begins to shift away from Tolkien’s world as the action begins. Tolkien must begin his writing by describing all the various aspects of the new world he is depicting.  In the game however, the character is instantly immersed into the landscape and everything can be seen through the gamers’ eyes. There is no need for words or descriptions as a constant visual is provided. The player is instantly in control and can do as he or she chooses. The player is not being influenced and directed by Tolkien’s words, but now rather the player is in control and making a story for himself.

                Another interesting comparison between Tolkien’s world and LOTRO is the way in which both initially develop. Tolkien describes the world he has created with his words. Any reader would be totally unfamiliar with Middle Earth and its inhabitants, so Tolkien must devote many words to describing these things. In a similar way, the designers of LOTRO assume that a new gamer has no idea what he or she is doing. So the designers put the Prologue Quests in to familiarize a new player with what the game has in store for them.  Both “introductions”, although very different, are also similar in that they both try to create comfort and familiarity with something that may be new or unusual.

                Perhaps it is because I just don’t like MMO’s in general, but I did not enjoy my first experiences with LOTRO. While doing the Prologue Quests I just wanted to be fully immersed in the game. I wanted instant satisfaction and a chance to win but with LOTRO this is not possible. It is a long, winding road to the top and I do not think this is a road I want to travel. I enjoy games that I can become good  at and win at quickly. I do not like having to put extensive time and effort into games to become good at them. I especially do not like this when it comes to games like LOTRO where time and effort are more important than skill. Judging by the Prologue Quests and my prior knowledge of  what MMO’s are I know it will take a lot of time and game play to improve my character.  This is not my type of game and it is not something I can see myself playing much beyond  what is needed for class.

-Matt Almeida