When we engage in the collective fantasy of playing MMORPGs, we accept certain structures and tropes that have been in place since the early days of pen-and-paper RPGs. There are elements of MMOs — such as hit points, gear that somehow makes us smarter or stronger, and world-destroying bosses that are prefectly content to stay in their lairs — that we don’t even think about because they’ve been around for so long.
It works and I understand why developers go down these well-traveled design roads, because if you deviate too much you risk alienating players who won’t be patient enough to understand a radically different template. That doesn’t mean that MMORPGs make sense when you really think about them, and when I’ve turned my eagle-eye attention on what we are doing and how everything functions, I can’t help but think that sometimes these games are straight messed-up in the head.
Today let’s stop mindlessly accepting MMO tropes and call them to task!
1. We need the barest of reason to go on a murder spree
Part of the problem of most MMOs is that they are completely combat-centric. This isn’t to say that fighting in games isn’t fun — it is — but that by making it the be-all, end-all of the experience, we miss out on a lot of other potentially fun activities and hone our characters into serial killers.
It gets downright bizarre when each game constantly has to come up with yet another reason why we’re going out into the wild and killing dozens of animals, beasts, or sentient creatures. I see MMOs bend and creak under the weight of flimsy excuses, but the truly weird thing is that we are totally fine with that. It’s the way things are done. It’s the way they always have been done. Need 10 pigs dead, stat? I’m off to slit some throats, whee!
2. Many quest givers are psychopaths
The other day I laughed when an NPC called players “sociopathic vagrants,” because really, that’s pretty on-the-nose. But it’s also somewhat hypocritical for game characters to be criticizing us, as quest givers can be incredibly disturbed.
I’m not just speaking of the obviously “nutty” characters who pop up from time to time, but the supposedly noble and stand-up NPCs as well. What do they need with 16 boar eyes? Why is that Druid telling me to “cull the herd” while showing no sympathy whatsoever for the soon to be orphaned critters? Why are we completely OK being the instruments of petty revenge without even questioning the NPC’s motive or the validity of the claim? Why are so many quest givers obsessed with stealing goods, eliminating tribes of people, and resorting to slaughter instead of diplomacy as a first response?
3. Drug use is prevalent — and side effects are (almost) never discussed
I’ve seen some people impressed that World of Warcraft is demonstrating some of the unsavory aspects of drug addiction with the Nightfallen in Legion. Players have no right feeling superior to these Elf junkies because we’re probably the biggest drug users in any of these fantasy worlds.
We chug “potions” like they’re shots of espresso, trusting that red will heal us, blue will give us power, and all of the other vials will be beneficial in some way without any downsides. And even though MMOs don’t usually deliver side effects (which they should) or demonstrate dependence, we kind of are hooked on these drugs (even though we say we can quit any time). Also, where are the accidental overdoses from amateur crafters whipping up drug cocktails in their basements? That got dark, but if you think about it, would you really trust an unsupervised student to make medicine for you to ingest?
4. We have no idea whether our characters are in pain
As we immerse ourselves in fantasy worlds where combat is 90% of everyone’s daily activity, there is no doubt that each one of our characters takes a tremendous beating on a regular basis. We’re bitten with poison, smashed with maces, chewed on by dragons, perforated by archers, set on fire, electrocuted by magic, infested with parasites that make the Aliens movies seem tame, and so on. There’s no doubt that our characters get hurt — but what nobody thinks about is if they’re in pain.
I think they are, and it’s a hellish situation in which they are forever being tormented by combat, only to be quickly healed and thrust back into the grinder once more. It’s probably a mercy that developers don’t enable realistic screams and sobs begging for relief as our characters run once again into mortal danger.
5. Enemies have no lives
If you consider the life of an enemy mob, I think you would be profoundly moved to pity rather than a desire to kill it and see what shines pop out of its corpse. When they’re not fighting us, what do mobs do? They stand around or perhaps are so fortunate as to patrol the same small patch of earth on an endless loop.
It kind of bothers me that we don’t usually see mobs going about a life of sorts: hunting, playing, crafting, searching, talking, playing games, etc. Maybe that would humanize them too much and make it a lot harder to kill them. On the other hand, we’re pretty desentitized by now, so I can’t see that being a problem. I just want them to enjoy what life they do have before we brutally end it.
6. Nighttime isn’t dark enough for the wildlife
With rare exception, MMORPGs do not feature dark nights. Instead, they swap the bright day filter for a slightly muted blue one that still allows characters to see to the horizon, read books, and get tans. This is, of course, flat-out ridiculous, especially if you’ve been camping in real life and seen how non-illuminated a forest night can be. I can’t help but wonder how the lack of a real night in these fantasy worlds have about driven nocturnal creatures insane or prevented their existence at all.
7. Bosses are desperate to talk to someone, even you
Let us imagine that you get into a life-or-death struggle with a home invader or back-alley mugger. Chances are that the only noises coming out of that fight would be a lot of grunting, shrieks of pain, and one or two well-timed epithets. When two parties are fighting for their lives, there’s not a lot of verbal conversation going on, is what I’m saying.
Of course, that’s not the case if you’ve ever been in a boss fight in an MMO. Even low-level mobs are too chatty for my liking (“You no take candle!”), but when you get to bosses, it’s like they’re absolutely starved for companionship and want to talk your ear off. Long speeches, mid-fight monologues, and even deathbed speeches are par for the course. Hey, you would talk a lot too if you were sentenced to solitary confinement in a dank tomb and your only visitor after a month was your executioner.
8. The world has at least 15 apocalypses going on simultaneously
MMO designers like to up the stakes for our ongoing quests and journeys, and there is no higher stake than the END OF ALL LIFE AS WE KNOW IT. This is quite impactful the first time that you face such a danger. It’s… less so after a dozen or so encounters with apocalyptic threats. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer started making fun of itself for how many times those kids saved the world, and you’ve lapped their efforts several times.
Plus, it’s kind of weird all of this is going on at the same time. It’s like if today there were six nuclear missile launches, one unstoppable plague spreading by human contact, a widespread cult of death clowns, and an asteroid plummeting through the atmosphere while the earth was falling into the sun. There’s only so much one Bruce Willis-type character can do, you know?
9. There are no children
Where are the kids? Is this a Children of Men-type world? Do we have no hope of procreation? Is sex forbidden — or unknown? Considering some of the outfits, I can’t imagine that to be the case. Maybe everyone’s afraid of stretch marks and a lack of trustworthy babysitting services when 100% of your population are cold-blooded killers. Maybe mountain trolls steal off with babies to raise as their own.
I don’t know. I want to know. Maybe I shouldn’t know.
10. Our mounts are constantly banished to prison dimensions
My kids are super into Pokémon these days, but for all they know about the evolutionary cycle of made-up creatures, they can never tell me (a) how one fits inside a pokéball and (b) why being trapped inside such a ball isn’t cruel and unusual punishment. Without looking it up on my own, I have to imagine that it’s some sort of dimensional nirvana.
Well, I can’t believe that MMOs treat our horses and flying dragons quite as well when we tuck them away after a grueling 14-second journey between quest destinations. Either there’s a way for folding up and storing horses that I’m currently unaware of, or we use dark magic to banish these noble creatures to prisons for the crime of being momentarily useless and in our way.
It doesn’t speak well of us in any case.