I have a friend who loves RPGs but hates MMORPGs. According to him, he’d rather be the all-conquering hero, the singular badass who takes on the world – with possible help from NPC party members – rather than just one of a million players gathered in a quest hub all doing the same thing.
Recently, I’ve been giving more credence to his viewpoint. It especially dawned upon me just how silly the whole thing is when I was playing The Lord of the Rings Online a couple years ago. If you recall, Elrond sent a small party of nine on the Quest of Mount Doom, saying “The number must be few, since your hope is in speed and secrecy.”
So, when the paths south of Rivendell were first opened, what did I find? A few hundred Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits following in the path of the Fellowship, tramping through Eregion, Moria, and points beyond. If that doesn’t alert Sauron and Saruman that something’s up, nothing will.
I don’t blame Turbine for this questionable attack on the lore; it was simply how it had to be in an MMO. But it’s gotten to the point that when an NPC tells me that “I’m the only one” that can save them or “If you and your friends don’t stop the Big Evil,” they’ll all be doomed, I just shrug my shoulders and go, “Yeah, whatever.”
These days, fighting something large and dangerous in an MMO doesn’t register to me as especially heroic. It might be challenging and fun, but I know that, when I go back to the NPC, I’ll get some text – which I may or may not read – some bit of treasure, and then I’ll do it all again a few days later.
I think it’s that MMOs have been leading us on for over a decade and we’re just now starting to see through their deceptions. It’s equally possible that I’m just thinking about all this too much, but if so, that’s only because it’s seemingly been more obvious as the years roll on.
The “Hero Approach” makes sense in a single-player RPG, where you really are the lone hero, out to save the world. But does it make as much sense in an MMO, where there are thousands or millions of other potential heroes? Should an NPC really care so much that you – yes, you – are seeing to their needs, rather than the other 289 people milling about within five feet of him?
Consider the alternative, “realistic” situation. If there really were a fantasy world with a few thousand uber-powerful knights, wizards, assassins, etc., for hire, you’d be just another face in the crowd, a talented but unremarkable wanna-be hero.
Would that suit player’s needs? Such an approach would seem to be incompatible with the “personal story” trend in games these days and with the notion of players wanting to feel important in general. But it would also be more keeping in line with what MMOs actually are. You’re not the big hero, no matter how much the game might try to convince you that you are.
Some MMOs, like EVE Online, do eschew storylines, for the most part. And upcoming games like PlanetSide 2 seem to be even less interested with you being any kind of “big hero” – you’re just another grunt, another cog in the grand war machine. You might rise up to a position of power in EVE or be considered a great soldier in PS2, but neither game tries to tell you that you’re the greatest. Other players might, if you’re impressive enough, but the game doesn’t.
Maybe more MMORPGs should take that approach and realize they can’t really deliver that thrill of being unique and amazing like a single-player RPG can. Which feels more heroic: beating a raid boss for the umpteenth time and having an NPC tell you how great you are (again) or doing something unique and impressive even if there’s no one there to congratulate you for it?
Is it better for MMOs to continue to make you think you’re unique or should they just give up on that pretense and acknowledge that you’re just one of many heroes – better than some and worse than others, but not truly unique or different?
Because, at the end of the day, you really aren’t. But do we want to admit that?