By the book, by the numbers.

by Breon Guarino

I’ve spent a lot of time walking through the Barrow-Downs recently in Lord of the Rings Online, slowly but surely working through the quests related to that area. Naturally, I don’t feel as though I’ve done anything to provoke such hostile responses from the taint and denizens native to the region, but without any sort of provocation besides their mechanical nature, they assail me to no avail. Lo, I have journeyed from afar, that with my strong heart and my fell blade, I might be considered more than a match for such paltry foes, that I might scalp them and claim their long-hidden treasures for my own! Surely these are no match for me, surely!

I know they aren’t a match for me; minutes, if not hours, of click-based combat have proven this to me. I’ve come to find myself not disillusioned, but removed from the comfort of immersion in the game environment. The same thrill of risk isn’t there anymore. I’ve started to fall into the trap of checking how many inventory slots I have open at any given moment, started knowing what loot I can drop without regard in favor of minerals, items, or simply more valuable loot. The rewards have started to become numbers in a shopkeeper’s ledger and silver pieces in my pocket. There is repetition now as I fall into the process of grinding out more experience.

In reading Snow Crash, however, I’ve been spared this. In a sense, as the seemingly more thorough immersion of the game decreases slowly due to lack of challenge, the book remains at the same enjoyable level of performance. It is engaging to me on a different level, a level that may need a workout after an hour of grinding through Barrow-wights like I was part of the Gutbuster Brigade. As I’m watching Hiro duel with the “Nipponese” businessman in The Black Sun, as I watch him running through evaluations of tactics in his mind,  I empathize with the violence of his bloodless dismemberment of his opponent. He is victorious; he has competed with passion in his competition. In my mind, I can see the action, and though I am removed to the position of spectator, I am somehow engaged by it. After all, there is safety in the crowd of observers, because an observer has no need to react beyond their own enjoyment of a quality piece of street theater. There exists some massive difference on a level I can only begin to grasp; as I read, I am rewarded with rewarding work, but in the game, I’ve become a worker towards a reward.

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Weaving the Threads Together

So far, I have played through almost all of the Prologue, but I have not yet traveled to the Shire to begin the part of the journey that follows in Frodo’s footsteps. As an Elf, I began my experiences in LOTRO hundreds of years before the events of the Fellowship, fighting not against Orcs and Sauron, but against Dwarves. They had attacked Edhelion, the city where my character, Elyon, lived, and I was able to take part in the battle and witness the destruction of her home. Then, the story moved forward to the ‘present’ day–the time period where LotR takes place. A group of elves, including Elyon, had returned to the ruins of Edhelion, hoping to bring back to the place some of its former glory, but after finding some dwarven weapons among the goblins scurrying about the place, she was dispatched to the court of the dwarf Frerir, a friend of the Elves (but not of the Dourhands, another dwarven faction that ruled the area).  After helping the dwarves with various preparations for winter (such as cutting lumber and skinning auroch hides) and weeding out some problematic inhabitants that the Dourhands were not taking care of (mainly poisonous Skorgrim’s Bloom flowers and goblins), Elyon was able to meet up with Elrohir, a son of Elrond, who had discovered that the Dourhands were attempting to bring Skorgrim, their dead leader, back to life in exchange for allying themselves with the forces of Angmar. Elyon joined forces with Frerir’s dwarves to stop this from happening. Tolkien only knows what comes next…

Overall, I felt that the experiences my elf went through were very relatable to the world of LotR, with a few exceptions. First of all, the fact that Elyon was present at the destruction of Edhelion really made her feel like a real elf, who would have memories from hundreds of years back (as Elrond does of the first defeat of Sauron). The NPCs (non-player characters) were all concerned about the land, as elves are, and though they gave me tasks to do, the tasks (like clearing out the slugs from the pool) made sense until I ‘discovered’ the dead goblins with the dwarven axes. After the journey to Frerir’s court, however, the side quests made very little sense. If there was such urgency in finding out what the Dourhand dwarves were up to, why would I chop firewood and make auroch jerky? The dwarves would be perfectly capable of such tasks themselves, and if Elyon’s mission were really so urgent, she would not be asked to do such mundane jobs. So, that sort of broke the nice storyline I was playing out, though I did see the need for her to get experience fighting monsters and for her to level up a bit before leaving the Prologue for the ‘real world.’ The rules of the game interfered with the suspension of disbelief I was experiencing at the time. Or, not exactly the rules, but the necessary mechanics of playing a game interfered with the flow of the story and thus with my suspension of disbelief.

At first, there was almost no connection to the events of LotR, but as Elyon progressed in the storyline I began to see more and more threads connecting her journey to the one depicted in the book. At first, the only similarities were the fact that elves and dwarves had ancient grudges, and that the elves were struggling with living in Middle Earth (as evidenced by the sad attempt to rebuild Edhelion). Basically, she was living in the same world as Frodo and the Fellowship, and that was it. Then, there was Elrohir, seen only a couple of times in the book, but still a part of it, and the alliance of the Dourhand dwarves with Angmar–a province of evil, allied with Mordor and home of the Witch-King in LotR. So, as the journey went on, Elyon’s seemingly separate path began to merge with that of the Fellowship–a common desire to see the Free Peoples survive and to defeat the forces of darkness. The quest to stop the Dourhands shows the largest leap yet towards the merging of the storylines of Elyon and the Fellowship, as confronting any sort of force from Angmar would directly relate to confronting the forces of Mordor. Now, I just have to keep playing and find out what’s next on Elyon’s journey through the Third Age of Middle Earth.

Dacia