Heroes? We don’t need no stinkin’ heroes!
Inspired by a section in Wolfshead’s (second) mauling of quest-based *cough* WoW *cough* MMOs. I’m so glad there are tons of other bloggers out there who remind me of stuff I keep meaning to write about but never get round to, mainly because I have the memory of a woman twice my age and don’t usually take the precaution of writing ideas down. (And even when I do I’m an avid scrap-of-paper user, which means they’re almost instantly lost in the morass that is my desk.)
So, yes, heroes. This may well sound heretical to many players, but I’ve never quite bought the idea that characters in MMOs are ALL heroes. For one thing, can any continent really support 13,473 heroes per square mile? For another, killing 10 rats is not, no matter what the used cart salesman quest giver says, heroic. And finally, call me old-fashioned lit. student and all, but where I studied, heroes aren’t the norm. They’re different, they’re special, and even in Ancient Greece you could (carefully) swing a cat and not hit one. (Though all bets are off regarding Gods.) The whole point of heroes is that they stand out from the crowd. Except maybe in Superhero MMOs, but that’s fairly evidently a whole ‘nother kettle of fish anyway.
I’m absolutely not denying that we all — no matter how prosaic — like our dose of heroism, some more than others. I know I do — but I also know my ego doesn’t require me to be Mange the Magnificent every second of the gaming day.*
Which leads to the important distinction, to my mind: heroism is what matters, not being a 24/7 hero. I loved 24/7 hero stories when I was younger, but even then I tended to prefer — in terms of fulfilment after reading/seeing — stories where mostly normal people were driven to be heroic, because of circumstance, necessity, whatever. (Can you say “The Hobbit”?) I’m much more impressed when normal people have to make choices and act in ways that are difficult and/or costly for them than when they’re 2D cardboard cutouts of hero goodness. Heroism has a *cost* — if nothing else, it’s bloody tiring and usually quite painful. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be heroism.
I’m obviously not alone in making this distinction — even superheroes have become more and more apt to question what they do and why they do it, whether they have a right to be doing it in the first place, or to be flawed and/or unwilling and/or anti-Heroes right from the start. Some authors, like Philip K Dick, spent most of their writing career exploring how Joe Average might, willingly or (usually) not, end up doing heroic things. Some movies and books have quite happily moved beyond the 2D Hero while still being attractive to the “masses;” the Dark Knight is an obvious example, even though I’ll grant you that it had to be written (or at least inspired by) someone much more talented than your average Hollywood hack.**
And yet our fantasy games, especially our MMOs, continue to want to spoon-feed us the illusion that we can ALL be marvellous, super-super-24/7 capital-H Heroes, even if all we’re doing is carrying out Foozle-extinction. The problem with that is that a constant diet of heroism ends up stale and rather meaningless. I’d rather do the occasional heroic thing — save a prince, slay a wyrm — and feel really special for having done so; in MMO terms, I guess this would be the occasional epic quest line, and by occasional, I mean at most once or twice a month. The rest of the time, I wouldn’t at all mind being Jane Q Average who helps the local grocer out with his rat problem, and who has a strange fetish for rat tails.
I’ve heard lots of arguments in favour of all-hero-all-the-time, such as:
— Heroism is essential to appeal to younger players, who aren’t so good at understanding moral nuances. Indeed not, but if we never teach them, they’ll never know what “nuance” means either. Let’s stop patronising kids and go back to throwing them in the deep end (metaphorically!); it works.
— Constant heroism appeals to the Everyman desire to be a hero all the time. I’m going to call BS on that one. Sure, lots of people like 24/7 heroism; lots of people like soap operas too, but that doesn’t mean they’re a) the ONLY people and b) incapable of enjoying something different in their diet.
Again, I think 24/7 heroism in MMOs is a weird legacy of pen-and-paper RPGs, whose books and boxes boldly proclaimed “YOU can be the hero of all your adventures!” I remember enough of those books, boxes and adventures, however, to remember that they didn’t actually promise we’d all be 24/7 heroes — all they said was, we’d have a chance to be heroic, slay lots of monsters, maybe save some royal asses, and probably make a ton of cash we couldn’t easily carry, encumbrance rules being what they were.
Log into any MMO and spend 10 minutes in the local social hub and you’ll see exactly why and how we’re not 24/7 heroes, no matter what games try to claim. We chat, we trade, we yell at each other, we emote at each other… we do NOT stand around flexing our muscles and thinking how heroic we all are, all the time. We don’t LIVE the 24/7 hero life in our MMOs; most of us don’t want to, or wouldn’t care one way or another as long as we get to add more tails to our collection.
What would happen if games started toning down the All Hero All The Time routine and, instead, added a few things that have been sorely lacking from MMOs forever, and rather lacking in many single-player games of late too? Things like: Choices (beyond Yes/No I’ll do your quest). Consequences. Unexpected Outcomes (do everything right and STILL fail? — okay, maybe not, that would get the devs stoned, and not in a good way). Please, oh please, let’s start finding a way to make games with DECISIONS — and not just the decision of what talent point to put where, or whether the +12 MegaHero belt is better than the +16 SuperPow belt.
Once again I’m asking for the moon and, not being one of those stoned devs, I don’t even know how I’d make it happen. I do know, however, that we’re an extremely resourceful species and where there’s a will, in MMOs like anything else, there’s usually a way. Changing how we perceive MMOs and examining what we really want out of MMOs (now that we’ve been playing them for over a decade) is a first step. I may not be a developer, but I can certainly help define these things, which hopefully one day will make their jobs easier.
* Strange tangential link the route to which I shouldn’t really have to explain. Not relvant, just amusing.
** I’m not nearly as well-informed as many Batman and comic buffs, but I’ve always held that “The Dark Knight Returns” (and “Watchmen”) was seminal in re-visualising Batman — and subsequently other heroes — as much more human, fallible, and therefore truly heroic than they previously were.