Sunday, July 19, 2015

LotRO's Cowbells Are the Stuff of Worlds

If you've wandered around Lord of the Rings Online through the Shire and in many of the northern lands of men at night you may stop at some point in confusion and question why the soft, measured, faeric night-time music track has begun to give way to a particular noise, to an equally soft, repetitive, multiple clinking and clanging. You likely will not recognize it. Very few of LotRO's customers, online gamers, will have led the double life necessary to become acquainted with the sound of cowbells.

Even fewer will have encountered cowbells in the setting LotRO's attempting to bring to life with such a reference. You see, old European peasant villages don't feed their animals at home and it's inefficient for each family to send someone out with three or four livestock of varying sizes and appetites. Cows, sheep and goats are often brought out at dawn and handed over to herders who take them up out of the tired dusty village street to rich, grassy hillside pastures for the day. At dusk, they descend once more and must be reclaimed by each household. Even left alone the animals will amble toward their barn more or less haphazardly, by virtue of habit. Just to make sure though, it's often the village children, little ten-year-old scamps who can barely reach a cow's neck, who are sent out by their busy parents to gently lead the beasts back home.

"Til the cows come home" does not signify only an unbearably long time, the end of time as it were in the eternal workday of village life. It's also the Friday to the week's worth of daily backbreaking physical labor of peasant life, when the heat and the dust and mud and toil and danger of maiming by farm implements finally relent in favor of gathering around the homestead for a family meal. It's one of the few moments when an exhausted peasant can wipe the sweat out of his miserable sunburned face to see a peaceful future stretching out before him in the figures of growing children leading fattened, healthy animals back home.

That sound of cowbells among the hills of the Shire conveys more peace and hope and context for your adventures than a dozen overblown varieties of cheaply re-skinned giant spiders. These sorts of artistic details like the gossips in Dragon Age or an NPC humming to herself in Morrowind are vital to such escapist fantasies. They create the world itself in which various "kill ten rats" nonsense can play out. They make us swallow the indignities and incompetence of various gameplay mechanics and they are too often ignored. LotRO's later content was churned out more and more without a thought to background or atmosphere or context. Games can be an artistic medium but the difference between good and bad content is as great as between a stick figure and The Old Guitarist.

Immersion matters. A joke here, a sound there, a pretty house or a scrap of flavor text appended to everything the player touches, it all adds up to a new reality. The best games, the ones we remember, invest in detail and become worlds. For all of LotRO's disgusting slot-machine idiocy, teleporting back to the few well-designed spots in the game world for a view or a sound that truly captures Middle-earth has kept me coming back to this piece of trash for year after year. That cowbell track is a greater selling point than any of the worthless "kill ten rats" quest packs I've actually paid them for.

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