Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Don't mess with Prime Fiction

Back before EVE-Online launched, I was part of the consumer hype surrounding the game. We cluttered the company forums with demands for more teasers, pledged our immortal souls for Beta access and speculated endlessly on just how we'd all rule each others' universe. Some wrote fan fiction. These works, regardless of their lack of quality, were embraced by CCP as free advertising, with one caveat: when writing your derivative work based on the EVE-Online universe, don't touch the "prime fiction" by which they meant any elements set forth by CCP as fictional canon. Don't put words in the Amarr emperor's mouth. Don't make your character the illegitimate son of a major Caldari C.E.O. Don't take it upon yourself to alter the fictional work upon which you, as a creator of derivative works, are a mere parasite. I should think that what holds for game fans holds for game developers and what's true of fiction based on games is true of games based on fiction. What's valid for CCP is valid for Turbine.

Unless you're Turbine itself, now a mere vestigial appendage of Warner Bros., attempting to milk middle-earth for all it's got. I've railed recently against the sort of megalomaniacal get-rich-quick schemes one falls into when working by a major corporation's moral standards. I've also outlined the oddly positive overall effect the WB takeover has had on LotRO, dredging the project out of its morass of half-baked attempts at crowd-pleasing and preventing it from going the way of City of Heroes. As CoH had lost its grip on its main selling point of campy old 50s-70s superheroism, LotRO's first couple of expansions had, gameplay issues aside, lost their grip on the view of middle-earth which set the game apart from the other myriad WoW-clones on the market. Now, in the latest couple of expansions, the game has re-acquired some sense of proportion. The visuals and audio show, overall, a bit more attention to detail as opposed to merely cheap theatrics (though this thing had no place in middle-earth) and the new zones are more carefully laid out as habitable spaces and not merely ten-by-ten rooms in which to slay goblins.

However, in one aspect the megalomaniacal tinge of identifying as part-and-parcel of Time Warner has tainted the writing team's relationship with the original work on which they base their derivative interactive adventures. Shadows of Angmar set forth with a clear intent not to put words in Tolkien's mouth. The player followed in the Fellowship's footsteps, not affecting the path of the story but merely performing the various feats hinted at in asides during Tolkien's tales: fighting the threat in Angmar, in the ruined Dunadan-cities of the old fallen kingdoms, etc. However, more and more in the past couple of years, the developers have tried to put the player into the action of the books. Under the same assumption which rules WoW-clone marketing strategies overall, the constant attempt to make the customer feel big about himself, the constant stream of undeserved endorphin boosts, LotRO's main story now repeatedly places the player in the middle of Tolkien's central events. You're there when Frodo escapes Boromir, you're Boromir himself when he dies defending the hobbits, you're there when Gandalf breaks Saruman's hold on Theoden. Galadriel personally takes the time to send you visions, more detailed than poor Frodo ever got. It's all about YOU dear reader. You're speshul.

I can still say the WB takeover has had a positive effect on LotRO, and am still perplexed at this reversal of the usual touch-of-death that takeovers tend to imply. LotRO as middle-earth, as a world, though it's still a hopeless WoW-clone slot-machine routine, feels more consistent, more grandiose and detailed at the same time. A solid bedding of megacorporate funds can do that. Edoras is much more carefully and artistically laid out than was Caras Galadhon. However, this improved visual impression of middle-earth has come at the expense of an increasing and needless attack on Tolkien's actual writing. Turbine has slowly begun to see itself as the prime fiction and not the derivative work. It's the same sort of delusion of grandeur which underscores the current stream of Hobbit adaptations with their gratuitous alterations to Tolkien's world, as opposed to the overall much more faithful representation in Jackson's LotR trilogy.

Memento mori. You are parasites, and a parasite which kills its host is a doomed parasite.

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