Saturday, 6 November 2010
One of the issues which crop up in the design of virtual worlds is the degree of associated realism. Some early RPGs included the requirement to buy and consume "food" on a regular basis, otherwise characters would rapidly lose abilities and wither away. That was just about acceptable if a bit tedious, but imagine a RPG in which characters in the wild had to track down, kill, skin and roast animals on a daily basis just to keep going - it would be virtually unplayable (unless, of course, it happened to be specifically a survival simulation). Similarly, everyone is aware of, and ignores, the fact that severe injuries can take weeks to heal, that even a superficial wound can get infected and cause death in a matter of days, and that nobody ever wore plate mail on the march, let alone carried two or three spare sets in a backpack.
Which brings me to the latest (and very welcome) LOTRO update. The new chapters of the epic quest involve riding south into the new region of Enedwaith with the Dunedain with a view to eventually linking up with Aragorn. It's a nicely designed addition to the story of the One Ring, but very early on players find out that, disappointingly, they won't actually get the chance to ride stirrup by stirrup with the rangers; instead, they are invited to make their own way to the next staging point. Granted that soon enough the unfolding plot will require them to ride off at all sort of tangents on associated quests, an actual gallop, in company, over hill and dale for at least a few of the early stages would have been great fun. As it is, what will almost certainly happen is that players will mutter "sod it!" and port to the next convenient location.
The standard response to this and associated grumbles (for example, that fact that many instances can now be entered with the click off the keyboard) is "well, if you'd rather walk, go right ahead" - but the point is, if an alternative method of travel is available, even hardened RPGers will sooner or later give in and make use of it. The rest of us will do so without a second's thought, though we might feel vaguely dissatisfied about doing so.
The issue of scale in games like LOTRO is indeed a tricky one. Even scaled-down massively, game equivalents of the journey times suggested in Tolkien's narrative would be difficult (and certainly unpopular) to implement. On the other hand, I tend to agree with those who feel that the epic quality of the game's geography is compromised by the over-abundance of instant travel options. It's hard not to feel just a little uncomfortable when two or three jumps will take you from the far end of Forochel to the southernmost tip of Enedwaith. The designers had got the balance more or less right in Shadows of Angmar, which really did offer a sense of vastness, with some journeys (notably the perilous initial overland foray to the Rift of Nurz Gashu) being truly memorable. I can't help feeling that the game has now swung too far in the direction of instant gratification, most of all perhaps where travel is concerned.