Likewise, when I log into MMORPGs, I’m acutely aware of the environment of the game and the feel that it produces. While I can’t interact with the world through taste, smell, or touch, I can get a good sense of it through the visual and audio input and extrapolate what it might feel like past that. Each game that I’ve played has its own unique personality, art style, and soundtrack, and all of that (and more) combined makes for a memory that sets it apart from all others.
Out of all of the MMOs I’ve played over the past two decades, Lord of the Rings Online sticks out as a game that has a very distinctive and special feel that I’ve yet to encounter anywhere else. It largely contributes to why this feels like a game world rather than a game setting, and in today’s column, I want to try to put a finger on why that is.
The whole package
When I first started playing Lord of the Rings Online back at launch, this unique feel struck me hard from the get-go and drew me right into the game setting. It wasn’t any one thing, but rather a whole host of elements that worked together to create a whole package.
For starters, LOTRO is not a fast-paced, threat-around-every-corner game. It establishes itself right out of the gate as a slower experience that encourages you to take in the world details instead of frantically clearing out your quest log and attacking a dozen mobs at once.
I’m going to use the Shire as an example here, because it’s a zone that most all LOTRO players are intimately familiar with. When you come out of the tutorial, you don’t start at a quest hub that’s bustling with NPCs and sights and sounds. Instead, you are plopped down at Little Delving, a tiny burg that is pretty much a cul-de-sac you won’t visit much afterward. But instead of overloading your senses with big picture stuff, instead the quiet introduction of that town and the subsequent run to Michel Delving — across a bridge, around a waterfall, up a hill — gives time to absorb the actual environment as a key character.
Sounds good to me
Maybe you haven’t noticed, but LOTRO’s sound design is truly amazing. The ambient background track of noises have a lot to them without coming off as overwhelming. Instead, it created a pastoral soundscape that communicated very clearly that this was cultivated farmland and that the area was rather peaceful. It always reminded me of walking around during calm summer nights, and I cherish that feeling.
Then you have elements like the fantastic skybox (which varies slightly by region but not so much that it breaks continuity) and a landscape that, while not photo-realistic, skews more toward realism and relatability. It’s still a fantastic, otherworldly setting, but it’s grounded in a way that makes Middle-earth more approachable than other games.
I also think about the size of the world a lot, too. LOTRO isn’t obnoxiously big in the way that MMOs used to be, back when they’d tout that they had more virtual square miles than Maine but most all of that was empty space. But the zones are fairly big, and without a flying mount, it takes some time and know-how to traverse them. Mobs and landmarks are spread out. Some regions are difficult to navigate and requires some actual exploration. All of this combines to a world where everything has some breathing room and you can feel like you’re quite far away from civilization at times.
Even in the Shire, which is more heavily populated than most zones, still has its fair share of areas where you can get far off the beaten path and there is nary a single house in sight.
Another factor in the weave of this game’s setting is the attention given to making this feel like a lived-in place. Again, I’m not here to besmirch other games but rather to use them as points of comparison. But how many MMOs have we played where it feels like the NPCs are stage actors placed in strategic locations to keep you busy? LOTRO has those, to be sure, but far more than that it has many towns and settlements where you’ll wander around and see a place that looks and feels like someone’s home.
Wandering into taverns, I enjoy seeing characters engrossed in conversations, playing games, telling stories, or slumped over their cups. I get a kick out of watching kids run around playing games or bards singing in the public squares.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the quest text and dialogue, both of which go hand-in-hand in crafting the style of the game. I guess the devs figured that if you read the books, you’d be fine consuming huge blocks of text, because you get a lot of that here. Lots of character dialogue, lots of details, lots of period language — and all done with a font that isn’t exactly antique so much as it is refined. In fact, I’d be happy using that term for a lot of LOTRO’s UI elements. I’m not crazy about the UI and sometimes have to squint to read the text, but it definitely has that refined feel that aims for something near elegance.
The low-tech, low-magic approach to a fantasy game world also contributes to setting LOTRO apart from the brace of WoW clones that emerged post-2004. LOTRO isn’t an “anything goes” kind of game; it has strong boundaries of lore and permissions, and while the devs have pushed the envelope here or there, as a whole the MMO has a consistency that places it in its own category.
You’re in for a different experience when you play this game. It’s going to be slower. You’re going to explore more. You’re going to really get to know the world, its people, its enemies, and its quirks. The game is going to start changing your perceptions of how you interact with it and move through it. And that for me is what more than makes up for some of LOTRO’s deficiencies and difficulties. I revel in that feel because I know there’s nowhere else where I can get it.