Monday, October 30, 2017

La gente paga, e rider vuole qua

"The world is grey, the mountains old
The forge's fire is ashen-cold
No harp is wrung, no hammer falls;
The darkness dwells in Durin's halls.

Read or listen to the Song of Durin

In order to maintain some credibility as a Tolkien adaptation when it released, The Lord of the Rings Online had to re-brand the usual D&D-inspired hit points, healing and resurrection spells. After all, in Middle-Earth, resurrection's a sort of Gandalf solo act. Turbine's (very lazy) solution was to call hit points "morale" in keeping with Tolkien's emphasis on hope, perseverance, contests of will and so forth. When your "morale" drops to 0 (and you must admit, being on the receiving end of fireballs, pikes and warg bites would certainly ruin your mood) you're knocked out until someone tells a knock-knock joke or something to raise your spirits. Which kind of invites its own immersion-breaking ridicule, because in Turbine's reinterpretation, Boromir apparently didn't die an agonizing, heroic death. He just got a little bit down. Awwww, sho shad :( Then Galadriel prescribed him some antidepressants and he was right as rain again.

Thus, the logical healer class was that tasked with cheering people up: bards, or in LotRO terms, minstrels. Naming one's minstrel obviously invites many and varied cultural references, pop or not. Me, I named mine after Marsyas, obscure enough that it wouldn't jar people out of their Middle-Earth reverie by recognition, but legitimate enough to entitle me to scoff at you for not recognizing it. So there. Philistines.

But this is not a tale of Marsyas the elven minstrel. Before even creating that character I was playing my main, Lycaion the loremaster (yes, I like ancient Greek mythology, sue me) in the game's first dungeon, the Great Barrow (while it was still one big dungeon and you had to walk to its entrance uphill both ways through the wights) along with a pick-up group. Our healer was a minstrel named Pagliacci. At one point he bit the dirt and it was up to me as all-purpose support to pipe-weed him back to consciousness. (I could not make this up: LotRO loremasters revive people by blowing pipe smoke in their faces.) So as my character ran through the huffing and puffing animation I felt some words were in order. To wit:
"Ridi, Pagliaccio!"

That was a decade ago. If you make an opera pun in an online game these days, do you expect anyone to get it?

This would've been right after I quit WoW, where to liven up our druid chat channel during raids, one of us would tell the others riddles and old fables. If memory serves, I contributed the story of the emperor's new clothes at some point and got stumped by that riddle with the starved cats. You know the one.
Or do you?

A little after that I ended up playing Warhammer Online. I believe that's where my guild had a forum thread entitled "yes we play games but we read too" inviting more discussion of our favorite books. And it worked. Does it now?

During City of Heroes' lengthy decline, I ended up staying in a dead guild with just one other person. Though unlikely to both be on at the same time we took turns decorating our supergroup base and traded jibes in the message of the day. He'd mostly use literary quotes, I'd reply with song quotes. We'd alternate trying to Nietzsche each other to death.

Yes, all these examples are old, and it's not like I've shunned WoW-clone MMOs entirely since then. I played LotRO heavily again a few years ago, when I found a group led by two old biddies who recruited other players with the slogan "we converse in English, not l33t" - and thus recruited very little. I was ashamed to find they knew more about Science Fiction than I did. When that fell apart, I ended up seeing what LotRO's current playerbase really looks like.

The second guild I joined after The Secret World's hilariously failed re-launch was started by an H.P. Lovecraft fanatic, and may the old gods bless him, he tried. He set up a site, he started two forum threads about the game's symbolism, he had a catchy MOTD about night-gaunts, he was always ready to chat about SF / Fantasy stories. Poor guy. I knew from the start it couldn't last. There's nothing to work with. This is 2017. Nobody roleplays. Nobody reads. I replied to one of his forum threads. Nobody replied to the other. Most players joined the guild then quit some days later without ever having said a word.

The first guild I'd joined before that, I ended up quitting over an argument about chat boxes. Specifically, our instance group kept wiping because the instructions I kept typing were going unheeded. Then I was told off for not using a microphone and I really, really wish I'd recorded that argument with me typing and some mealy-mouthed redneck grumbling at me over voice chat. It's not every day you hear a grown man "hooked-on-phonics" his way through a scant few lines of text as though it were encrypted.

That's the mental caliber of online gamers these days.

When LotRO came out, my joke about Boromir being prescribed antidepressants got a good solid laugh. These days, it's more likely to get a "who's Boromir?" One of the saddest moments came a couple of years ago, standing in Dol Amroth when it was the latest craze and conducting an impromptu poll in chat. Sure, I knew it wasn't realistic for the entire playerbase to consist of Silmarillon fans naming their characters after obscure mythical figures. I was even afraid I'd find out most hadn't read The Lord of the Rings and I'd end up arguing about XenArwen. But discovering that a sizeable chunk of the playerbase had never read a single word of Tolkien, barely knew he'd existed, had never even watched the movies (!) or at best had only seen those execrable Hobbit flicks and just wandered in looking for ten rats to kill... well, fuck. Why are you even there?

I expected some of this decline, but the extent of it is mind-boggling. Here I am back in 2008 on the Dark Days Are Coming forums, predicting that TSW would sell out its original audience in a bid for mass appeal like all game franchises do.

"It's not really that a negative forum environment would hurt the game. It's just that you gents, the initial pre-launch commentators, the puzzle-solving, imaginative geeks, are (ironically) not the ones kept interested by forums. You probably have enough interest in the game itself to judge it by its features, whereas people who enter the community later tend to be more and more invested in pure competition, regardless of the form it takes (whether it's tossing fireballs at each other in-game or shouting 'noob' and 'carebear' at each other on the forums.)"

But if I always knew the intelligent few will inevitably get diluted by the waves of troglodytic mass-market redneck scum, I never expected us to get washed away entirely. I did not expect we'd get to the point where you can't find nerds on the internet.

Y'know what? I don't even listen to opera. "Vesti la giubba" is one of my very few go-to opera references. When I used to babble about blue-shifting in EVE-Online, it wasn't because I'm an astrophysicist. I'm a random schmoe with no special qualifications whatsoever, but that doesn't excuse me from acquiring general knowledge. I can't write a dissertation on Hamlet, but when a succubus tries to seduce me in a D&D adaptation, I know enough to tell her "get thee to a nunnery" and yes, damnit, that counts for something. The more interlocking gears in this insane Rube Goldberg machine that is consciousness, the better.

Smart gamers were always hard to find. Back in the late '90s, most of the players in TFC or Starcraft were run-of-the-mill brainless trash, but there were enough curious, clever individuals scattered through the herd that if you went on any server and shouted "Marco" someone would answer "I prefer Erik the Red." There's something happening, not only to online gamers, but to the populace at large from which those gamers are drawn. They're not just less engaged in the activity at hand, but less interested in anything that's not being shoved down their throats by a designated authority. The more information we have the less we know. The more accessible various forms of art and science become, the less they are accessed. The more freedom we have, the more we seek to limit ourselves.

Look at yourself. Shouldn't there be more to you than a quick laugh?

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