Echoes, Quests, and Neekerbreeker Nests

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” Among those quotes that send shivers trailing down my spine, few have had as lasting an impact as these words, spoken by the wizard Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. The same lines, barely altered, appear in the wildly successful film adaptation of the novel. The raw power and beauty of Gandalf’s speech seem an inseparable part of the Lord of the Rings experience, yet not all storytelling mediums are equal where emotional attachment is concerned.

In the gaming world of Lord of the Rings Online, though the creators gave a valiant attempt at staying faithful to the book, an observant player realizes quickly that some things simply cannot transfer from page to computer screen. This fact is seen clearly in the Midgewater Marshes, a key stop in both Frodo’s quest and the player’s. While the consistent presence of physical action in the game’s rendition of the marshes engages the player’s thirst for adventure, both the novel and the film provide the audience with an enduring emotional connection, stemming from a persistent atmosphere of loneliness, a setting which highlights the plight of travelers in the marshes, and the use of central characters filled with a haunting fear of the unknown. While the memories of virtual victories eventually grow faint, the passions excited by novels and films grab hold of the audience and refuse to let go, ensuring that the magic of the stories, as well as the lessons they teach, will never fade with the passage of time.

In the game, the first item that the player notices is the convenient map residing in the top right-hand corner of the computer screen. Whenever the player doubts his sense of direction in an area akin to the Midgewater Marshes, he can simply look to the map and follow an unambiguous little arrow towards his quest’s goal. If moused over, it will even reveal how far away the goal lies. The dense fog becomes all but irrelevant, for the player’s eyes watch the arrow, not the ground before his feet.

In contrast, the novel depicts Frodo and his companions slogging through the marshy waters alone and arrowless, forever wondering where and when their dangerous travels will come to an end.  How can a gamer develop a sense of Frodo’s terror when the player can never be lost? One is never truly alone, for one can always turn to the handy arrow and make off swiftly towards home. This lack of fear and loneliness prevents the player from truly appreciating how it feels to wander the spider-infested marshes alone, despite the fact that his avatar traverses those same bogs. The action is the same, yet the feeling is vastly different. The game is forever leading you gently by the hand, while the novel and its cinematic counterpart drag you blindfolded into the gloom of the unknown.

If it is clear that the game’s helpful features bar it from evoking raw emotion, how then does the novel differ? The secret lies within Tolkien’s ability to not only relay the action, as the game does, but to relay the setting, the atmosphere, and the characters’ endless interpretations of the two. As the hobbits struggle to follow Aragorn through the bug-infested marshes, Tolkien provides the reader with a glimpse of their agony by commenting that “the hobbits [are] nearly frantic” as they hear the eerie cries of the swamp beasts, the Neekerbreekers. He describes their exceedingly unpleasant night, a sleepless one thanks to these unseen, yet not unheard monsters. This fear of the unknown permeates the Midgewater section of the novel, giving the reader a taste of how it feels to be alone and hunted in such a dismal place.

Here one discovers the true difference between the player’s avatar and the hobbits of the book. In the game, you play the part of a hero, a hunter. You blaze a trail through the marshes, destroying hordes of Neekerbreekers and taking trophies from the fallen beasts. You fear nothing, and why would you? Forever helpful, the game supplies a detailed analysis of your opponents’ strengths, even color coding them based on the probable victor of a theoretical battle.

In the novel, the likelihood of success versus defeat is not so clear. There, Frodo and his companions are not the hunters, but the cornered prey. They struggle to travel through the shadows, desperate to avoid the eyes of the Black Riders and their power-hungry master. No helpful floating names identify the whereabouts of their enemies; no color coded rings attempt to gauge their power. Thus, the reader experiences the terror of the hunted in a way that the player cannot hope to comprehend, for one medium provides an intricate world of fear and uncertainty, while the other merely depicts the action, like a rough pencil sketch devoid of color.

Like its written companion, the film is also able to draw out emotions in its audience that are beyond the scope of the online universe. While briefly touching on the fear of the hobbits, the cinematic version of the marsh scene elects to focus on the guide, Aragorn, and the pain he feels for a love left behind.  As the hobbits attempt to sleep amidst the cries of nighttime animals, the ranger softly sings the tale of an elf maiden who fell in love with a mortal, letting his voice carry through the lonely darkness of the swamp. Though his young charges do not know it, the haunting song, which ends in the maiden’s death, reflects Aragorn’s own love for the elf Arwen, as well as his fear that their love will destroy her.

Enhanced by the gloom of the surrounding marshes, the mixture of heartbreak and longing exuded by Aragorn grows to fill the audience, as well, and thus the pain of a single man becomes the pain of an entire crowd. This miracle of empathy simply cannot exist in the game world, where both written and visible emotions are brushed aside by the importance of the central adventure. Amidst the endless stream of quests to be fulfilled, the player cannot waste precious time on a woeful tale of lost love, nor a quiet song in the nighttime of the marsh. Though the powerful scene fits perfectly into the fabric of the movie, filling its viewers with both love and despair, it has no place in the realm of gaming, where emotions are a frivolity distracting from a player’s ultimate goal.

Though computer games currently lack the potential for emotional investment, this by no means suggests that the Lord of the Rings game is irrelevant to Tolkien’s fantasy world. Rather, the game was simply not engineered for the same purposes as its written and filmed counterparts. Whereas these forms of storytelling reach one’s imagination by means of the heart, the game is meant to feed on a player’s desire for adventure, entrancing one’s mind with events that are visually rather than emotionally stimulating. The online universe calls to those who desire battles and balrogs, not subtlety and suspense. The very reason the game cannot compare to the novel or film is the reason why it succeeds brilliantly in fulfilling its own purpose: to entertain, engage, and challenge its players.

While one may lament for marshes drained of their mystery or beautifully written characters depicted as static NPCs, you cannot deny that the game achieves the goal for which it was created. It brings the player into Tolkien’s world and weaves him into the story, filling him with excitement, anticipation, and a thirst for what lies ahead. Where the game falls short, where plot becomes side note and battle becomes routine, the novel and film are there to pick up the slack, adding life and color to supplement the game’s limited storytelling abilities. If the game were an outline, written in dull greys and blacks, the others would be vibrant dyes; whereas the game alone would be a poor excuse for the real story, the mixture of all three creates a tale that is beautiful to behold.

In the end, though, why does any of it matter? Whether boxed, leather-bound, or projected on a screen, are they all not just different forms of entertainment? Not quite. Though games, books, and movies all have a component of pleasure, the latter two occasionally provide a more permanent benefit. Of course, the flash of swords and the cry of an angry cave troll, whether heard or imagined, will always bring excitement. Without the thrills, who would pay for the ticket or purchase the book? Yet every once in a while, a novel or film comes along, and it does not just amuse—it teaches.

Like the words of Gandalf resonating in the reader’s mind, or Aragorn’s soft voice echoing in the darkness of the theater, the story begins to take on a life of its own, entrancing the audience with joy and fear, love and hatred. Aragorn’s pain becomes the pain of all who have ever loved; Frodo’s fear belongs to any who have ever felt afraid. When Frodo laments over his bad fortune, wishing that evil had never touched his doorstep, Gandalf’s famous next words are spoken not only to him, but to us: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Suddenly, the story is real, and the battle is our own. We feel Gandalf’s words in our very bones, and they return to us, lovingly, whenever we feel despair looming near. While the crashing excitement of adventure must always fade into silence, the softer passions of the novel remain attached to the heart like a living organism, a symbiotic being that retains life while we do the same. And long after the last pages have been turned, Tolkien’s words remain, echoing like a song in the night, growing soft, but never quite fading away.

 

–The Humblebug

Faerie Land

I realize there’s no blog due today, but I just got done with a bunch of homework and I decided I needed a break. So I drew out the map of Faerie Land. Or rather, how I perceived Faerie Land when reading Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

hfioew

I realize its kind of empty, but that’s because that’s all of Faerie Land that I have read…so far. This was physically and emotionally exhausting. I have a whole new respect for Tolkien.

Bigger image here: http://img189.imageshack.us/img189/2118/faerieland.jpg

7 Gold and 9 Sapphire Shards

by Theo Dentchev

Usually when or if one boasts in an academic setting (school) it has to do with how much they’ve done and/or how well they’ve done it. If you’re going to seek praise from your professors, it’s usually by saying something insightful, or turning in some impressive, hard wrought work, or displaying your breadth of knowledge on a subject by incorporating things learned from outside of class.

Today after class I made a point of going up to my professor and informing him that I had earned 7 gold and 9 Sapphire Shards. In Lord of the Rings Online. And I was damn proud of it.

Things weren’t always like this. There was a time when I didn’t even know what Sapphire Shards were, or why they mattered. Let me take you on a journey back in time…

It’s August 27th, and I’m attending my first Worlds of Wordcraft class. I find out that we’ll be playing Lord of the Rings Online. I’m pretty excited, since I’m a Tolkien fan. Despite that it still takes me a week or two before I get around to buying and installing the game.

Fast forward. I’ve installed the game, and I’ve started playing. I’ll spend an hour or two, maybe once or twice a week. Once I get past the intro area I start playing a little more, but still at staggered intervals. I might play for a a good chunk of a Saturday, go up a few levels, and then not play again for a week or even two.

And this goes on for a good month and a half. Then comes fall break, and everything changes. 4 days, 3 gold, 5 levels, and countless boars slain. Late nights spilling over into early mornings, sleeping through the afternoon. I played LOTRO pretty much every day. I didn’t mean to. At first I just intended to do as I always had, play a lot in one day, then not a play again for a while, and spend the rest of my break studying for a midterm I had on Tuesday, and writing most of an essay I had due on Wednesday. Then, I don’t know what happened, but somehow I found myself drawn to the game, unable to stop playing for hours on end. I fit the mmo gamer stereotype: no (or very limited) social contact, only taking breaks for food, sleep, and going to the bathroom. Well, maybe I didn’t go that far; I watched tv, hung out some with people in my dorm, etc. But I never did get around to my studying or essay writing. So I found myself not sleeping, late Monday night/early Monday morning, feverishly studying for the exam I was about to have in a few hours, crashing after class, and waking up in time to write a relatively poor essay in time to hand in on Wednesday.

Then later that same night I was back on LOTRO, questing, selling, neck cramping. And today I was boasting to my professor about how much gold I made and how I had hoarded some valuable crafting items (Sapphire Shards).

So, what can we learn from all this? Clearly the only logical conclusion is this: LOTRO is a highly addictive substance that ruins lives, tanks GPAs, and should be made illegal in the United States.

Or just that it can be highly engaging, simulating many aspects of real life in a fantastic world, and it provides its players a very real sense of fulfillment for completing certain tasks or reaching certain milestones. And that I need to work on my self control, or I’m going to fail my classes.

While I’m certain that I’ll be able to better regulate my LOTRO intake in the future, this experience has given me a new appreciation for the depth of the game and how engrossing it can be. I also have a new understanding of how some people can get sucked into it and, without proper self control, let it impact their lives in a negative way. I do believe however, in the correct quantity, playing LOTRO or other games can be a really enjoyable and enriching experience, and can open up a whole new world to explore with real people to meet and and interact with.

– TD

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

My Prancing Pony

“I haven’t seen him for six months!”  So says Barliman Butterbur, the bartender of the Prancing Pony.  In Fellowship the movie, Butterbur, a chubby, middle-aged Man sporting a Melancholy Motorhead* mustache seems like the only semi-decent person in the place.  After Frodo, Sam, and the crew are rocked by the disappointing news of Gandalf’s absence, they scan the crowd of mangy drunks.  One guy looks like he hasn’t had a haircut in years, another laughs with his mouth open as far as humanly possible, and a third sits quietly, stroking his white mole rat.  When I watched this scene, it was Obi Wan Kenobi’s words that first came to me (presumably from the afterlife): “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”  Sam, Frodo, Pippin and Merry sit at a table, clearly intimidated.  The Men in the bar stare suspiciously at the downtrodden Hobbits.  With eyes cast downward, they nervously ask Butterbur a question.  The Hobbits sit uncomfortably in this alien environment.

If Vanderbilt is Middle Earth, and Worlds of Wordcraft is Bree, then surely LOTRO is my Prancing Pony.  I’m a n00b, through and through.  I was late entering the game and I am only a level six.  Even though I completed the introduction, I am still relatively unfamiliar with the Graphical User Interface (GUI).   I can’t easily access my skill bar, open my five sacks, change my clothing, or look at my quest guide.   In LOTRO, I am totally out of my element.  I have never MMORPG’d before and, quite frankly, I am wondering how my XP and my HP will affect my GPA.  So, like Frodo, I ask questions.  I come in early on Tuesdays and Thursdays, fire up Windows and enter Gladden.  I usually get frustrated with some aspect of the game: Glugnar the Dwarf Guardian will get stuck on something or I’ll get lost hunting frost wolves.  Next comes the pestering.  Because of proximity, I ask Alec first.  I fire off a series of questions, distracting him from his own quests.  When I feel that his well contained annoyance is at its tipping point, I move on and ask someone else; the process continues until all the ‘early kids’ are fed up with me and, still frustrated, I quit.  I run away to the welcoming arms of Mac and Leopard.

When I think about it at my desk, I don’t think Alec is ever actually annoyed by my questions.  I mistake his bored assistance for passive aggressive annoyance.  My attitude and frustration alters, nay dictates, my perception of the classroom.  Similarly, the representations of the Prancing Pony in LOTRO and in Fellowship the movie differ significantly.  This is chiefly because the attitudes and circumstances of the characters entering the Pony are tremendously dissimilar.  If Glugnar ever enters the Pony he’ll find a warm, happy environment.  In the film, Frodo, carrying the Ring, was pursued by the Nazgul.  He found a scary, intimidating environment.  Both Tolkien and the game designers of LOTRO crafted their Prancing Ponies based on the attitudes of their characters.   If I calmed down and patiently mastered the layout and GUI of LOTRO, I would undoubtedly feel more comfortable in the virtual world.  Who knows?  Soon I may be able to slay even the mighty Breon.

Jake Karlsruher AKA Kar-El

* http://yourdailychum.files.wordpress.com/2008/08/facial_hair_types.png

Creative License Done Well

The quests in the Prologue and Epic Book 1 were a pretty novel idea.  I’ve never played an MMO that followed any sort of storyline.  Oh, well I guess there was Guild Wars.  Not my favorite MMO by far.  That game forced you to follow the story line throughout its progression and all the areas where you would kill monsters et. al. were completely instanced.  The only place you actually got to play with everyone were in the cities.  And there’s never anything going on there.  All that, and the fact that your character seemed rooted to the ground (there wasn’t any jump function at all!) and the paths throughout the game were very set in stone, made for a relatively unenjoyable MMO experience.

But LOTRO does very well to remedy that.  In LOTRO, there is much less of the feeling that you are constantly following a set storyline.  Ultimately, if you want to get anywhere, you do have to follow the storyline, but it’s added into the game as an element that feels somewhat like a choice.  This, combined with the fact that you do get to jump and go almost anywhere you like, makes for a good experience.

The Prologue and Epic Book 1 quests are an interesting and creative addition to Tolkien’s original story.  The major problem that the game developers faced when creating this game was the application of an MMO gamespace onto a “single-player” storyline.  They had to mesh the choices and customization of an MMO and the storyline of Tolkien’s works.  They had to realize that no one could be Frodo, Gandalf, Strider, etc. because everyone creates their own personal character, their own personal identity.  So they decided to add the player’s character as someone who works in the background of the Fellowship and main story, so, at least for the first time playing, it doesn’t feel as though the player is following a set story that everyone already knows.  This also gives the developers some creative license, as well as protection from the hard-core fans that would rip the developers for the smallest lack of similarity if they were to follow the main story.  And while the developers do pretty well recreating the story from the original work, their strength lies in the creation of the world in which the alternate story takes place.  It may be somewhat simplified from the novel to facilitate player comprehension, but almost anywhere that you can think of from the LOTR series, or any of Tolkien’s other works for that matter, you can go to in the game.  Which in my opinion is pretty darn cool.

Tyler Gilcrest

It’s the Fellow-WHAT?-ship of the Ring

By: Billy Bunce

Although I can think of countless novels that take place in an Arthurian fantasy realm, very few films with such a setting come to mind. The most recent traditional fantasy film I’ve seen other than Lord of the Rings would have to be (surprise, surprise) The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Looking back on both movies, I’d have to say that the most striking similarity between the two films was the almost entirely archetypal structures of their plots.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m perfectly aware that each movie is based on a decades-old instant-classic novel, but the reality is that the narratives present in these films are quite standard fantasy fare by modern standards, and neither really does anything too unique with its plot. In Fellowship of the Ring, we find clearly-defined good (the Fellowship) on a quest to defeat a painfully obvious evil (Sauron), and not much else thrown into the mix. Saruman’s betrayal of Gandalf actually could have felt unique had we met him before his corruption by Sauron, but unfortunately the whole scene comes across as awkwardly as the director loudly yelling, “Look! That wizard’s a good guy! Just kidding; he’s breeding an army of Orcs.” Instead, the plot of the movie contains little to no twists (aside from two character deaths, one of which is relatively minor) and acts merely to prolong the inevitable final battle between the forces of good and evil, where said good forces will unquestionably triumph.

Similarly, the first Narnia movie also makes its intentions nerve-rackingly obvious from the start. However, because The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was written as a children’s book, the clarity is even sharper. The main villain is named “The White Witch”, and the main hero is a morally infallible lion (an animal naturally associated with power and protection). Aside from the Biblically allegorical death of Aslan, not too much really happens in the plot of this film either, other than, again, the inevitability of a final victorious conflict. The allegorical nature of the film makes it somewhat unique, but all of its actual plot events are more or less just copied from the Bible.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy these movies. On the contrary, actually, they both drew me in with their enriching worlds and excellent ambience.  However, I find that these movies provide only that: a world and an overall “epic” feel. In terms of the narrative proper, not very much occurs that couldn’t be predicted immediately by anyone who has so much has picked up another fantasy novel. In this sense, the movies are both quite similar. They don’t have too complex of a narrative, but then again it doesn’t seem that either movie actually tried to have an intricate plot. From the beginning, it is apparent that both movies try to absorb rather than surprise. They find more value in crafting an incredibly believable  fantasy realm than in creating narrative twists. In this manner, I feel that both movies definitely accomplished what they set out to do, even if the plots themselves were a little too dry for my liking.