Saturday, December 6, 2014

This Mess Is an Imaginary Place

So long as Blogger breathes, or shots can screen
So long lives this to show where home has been
(sorry, Billy... but you must admit this is still better than NoFear-ing you)

Escapism is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, we're avoiding the world which for whatever reason has become simply too painful and/or boring to warrant habitation, but most of us also have some pretty good ideas for worlds we'd prefer to this one. We escape to almost as much as from. Of course noone else can ever get our own style quite right so the most memorable alternate worlds tend to be the ones which allow us some leeway in determining our surroundings. This includes indulging our nesting instinct. Little can compare, especially in a persistent multiplayer world, to walking into a little patch of that world which you've designed and decorated. Products like The Sims and Second Life have made quite a show of catering to our interior interior decorator, but they're usually either too painfully mundane or lack any sort of focus and personality. The point is to incorporate this need for den design into coherent game environments.

LotRO is by no means a real MMO. Its player housing like everything else is instanced and it contains no utility aside from a little extra inventory space. It's only marginally customizable in terms of item placement. You have a few fixed spots in which you can fit one fixed type of decoration. Two details have made it palatable for me though. First, you can set theme music for your house, from various in-game tracks. Of course that would mean more if you ever had any reason to visit your house for more than ten seconds at a time. See above-mentioned lack of functionality. Second, taxidermy! This was the first game I've played which allowed me to decorate in dead animal, complete with mammoth tusks as gateposts. Black-walled, underground rat-holes reeking of decomposition make the best hideouts, don't you think?

Also, yes, I am a Noldorin elf living in a Naugrim house - downright ecumenical of me!
However, mere sawdust-filled skins are not enough to satisfy my lycanthropic appetites. In Oblivion, since I couldn't get myself a cave or pit for my den, I made do with a bit of luxury. That's my house over there.
No, not the freshly-painted three-story mansions on the sides. No, I didn't live in the temple in the background, Hircine forfend! No, my palace is the one right dead center. As though living in a broken-down one-room shack in the bayou wasn't Vampire-Interviewey enough, my Altmer vampire self wound up decorating the place in a style inspired if anything, by Pisha's lair in VtM:Bloodlines.
Like many Elder Scrolls fans, I quickly grew addicted to collecting the game's various items, useful or not. I showed my disdain for economics by tossing gems among the refuse on my floor.

I showed my love of the written word by collecting quill pens and inkwells in addition to books.

I even hoarded farm implements, just to make sure the villagers would be short on pitchforks and torches when they stormed my door.
Mostly though, I indulged my lupine scavenger's tastes by dragging scores of bones and rotting limbs out of necromancers' lairs. After all, I could put them to so much better use. Won't you come in for supper?
Unfortunately, letting players keep hundreds of individual items scattered on the floor would be too much of a drag on a multiplayer game's resources, so this feature has been understandably absent from even the best MMOs. Ooooh, boy, did I just qualify City of Heroes as one of the "best" MMOs? What the hell am I smoking, right? But though CoH was an aimless, over-simplified, un anti-challenging grindfest, its visual artists did some amazing work both with the amazingly customizable character models and with the superhero base feature. (Its programmers, on the other hand, made the superhero base design a torturous, utterly irrational minefield of having to undo every room a dozen times when you'd find something doesn't function for random reasons #476-493.)

As a Superhero, I designed the most rational base I could for my three-man supergroup, separating all our loot into color-coded rooms with an industrial / laboratory decor conducive to crafting.
City of Heroes' visuals excelled in both level of detail and fluidity, allowing you to overlap and mix many elements and place them wherever you wanted on the floor with a Sims-level degree of freedom. For instance, after I was done with the utilitarian rooms of our base, I had some space left over, so I decided our base was going to be a technocratic outpost with one wall breaking into an archaeological excavation.
Of Course, no faux-sciencey lair would be complete without a Van de Graaff generator or some Jacob's ladders.
All praise and glory to the dark gods... of Science!
And if my group-oriented project hinted at my predilection for dank pits with the archaeology angle, over on the villain side of the game I had already given up on finding a worthwhile group of players so I ended up as a one-man band creating a villain lair for all my alts. Hail and grace unto CoH's artistic directors, designers and rank-and-file pixel-monkeys for making one of the general decor categories a sewer. Nothing pleased me more than fashioning a dirt-pit in a grime-encrusted tunnel to serve as my lair, and though the finished product was unfortunately lost when the NCSoft abandoned the game and shut it down, I still have a few pictures from early stages of construction.
I think uncle Fester had one of these
Hey, I may be a comic-book inhuman monster... but I do read, you know
No MMOs that I know of since, or indeed few or no games whatsoever except the likes of Spore, have put so much emphasis on player creativity. Despite all its heinous faults, City of Heroes will always have a place in my heart for that.
However, even CoH failed in integrating design with utility... largely because there was no utility to be had. And if CoH stayed afloat for eight years, the next game I'll be talking about vaporized in beta. Dawntide was to be the MMO dream come true, a persistent world filled with player interaction of every type, from open PvP and looting to interdependent crafting skills and a system of transporting goods requiring some involvement therefore encouraging a true player economy, to large cooperative projects like buildings. These would be more than cosmetic. Farms would produce food, a forge you built was actually the place where you hammered your steel, your house could be attacked and looted, etc. It was also made very promising by its relatively sedate, well-proportioned character models and world design.

Alas and alack for the world that never was, the archipelago where you and your guild could stake out a plot of land or even a little island of your own. The following pictures are of a little village my guild or five or so players built ourselves before the game shut down. Among other high points, those boats were fully functional and could carry cargo.
Two cottages and our keep during construction.
Wave to the nice guildies on the shore, sea-wolf
Our community had grown by this point. We each had our own house. The enclosure on the left was part of some sort of farm.
Despite LotRO's artistic charm, Oblivion's indulgence of excess or CoH's flexibility, it's Dawntide's failed promise I regret most. Variation can grow over time. Art and immersion can be improved. However, nothing makes up for a lack of player agency in games. My kingdom for a rideable horse, an openable door, a lock-picked treasure chest. What makes an imaginary house a home is not just prefabricated decor but remembering every brick you baked to add to the construction site, every herb you ground in a mortar to make the paint. It's walking out the door of your little cottage and seeing your neighbour's ducks and sheep wandering about in their enclosure.

Give me Dawntide, and we can add CoH, Elder Scrolls or Middle-Earth to it; chacun a son gout. However, before anything else, we need that reality of virtuality, that tangible place which your character molds. Give me persistence, options and impact and somehow, in some fashion, I will find a way to dig myself a rot-littered dank pit for my den. Function first, then form.

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