Heroes? We don’t need no stinkin’ heroes!

badgesInspired 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.

13 thoughts on “Heroes? We don’t need no stinkin’ heroes!

  1. To be honest, I dont feel that any quest seems that ‘heroic’, probably becuse they are so linear and generic. Reading the quest text though in WAR, when you start in T1 the NPC quest givers are quite hostile towards you, especially the dark elves! some of them made me smile when the text mentions that your name around the camp has become “*name* the slighted, the feeble” or some such.

  2. Indeed they’re not, but the general tone of quests (and MMOs) sort of purports to be, if that makes sense. Again, the first commenter points out to me how vague and ill-defined my posts are! 😉

    … it’s part of my charm! (That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.)

  3. @wiqd – aye, I read it. 😉

    It seems to bother some bloggers (mostly not here) that we all tend to deal with the same types of subjects in waves or ripples, but to me that’s perfectly natural. Besides, each of us covers these in slightly different ways, which lead discussions in slightly different directions, and as far as I’m concerned it’s all to the good of the game at some point.

    And if nothing else, it’s fun discussion. I’m not in-touch enough with my male side to think that ALL discussion should lead to practical applications. /grin /ducks

  4. LOL. Doesn’t bother me a bit if others have the same ideas. In fact, it reassures me that I’m not insane and the only one having thoughts about that stuff 😛

    It’s good when people come to the same conclusions without any forced effort.

    My comment wasn’t meant to say “OMG you stole my topic” but moreso “Dude that’s kewl because I had the same thoughts the other day :P”

    Hope you didn’t take it the former way 😀

  5. “It’s good when people come to the same conclusions without any forced effort. ”

    What he said. To my scientific mind, that shows that there’s something to the assertions, when the same data prompts the same sort of musings. Perhaps not enough to *change the world*, but certainly enough to tease general trends out of, and direct future development.

    1. I’m not advocating plagiarism, as Anatole France did: “When a thing has been said and well said, have no scruple; take it and copy it.” Rather, it’s reassuring and I think helpful to the community if, when someone has their own take on a subject, they post about it. Even if their conclusions are similar to what others have said, the discussion has its own context and content, and after all, as Marshall McLuhan tells us, “The medium is the message.”

      Or, rather, what Wiqd and Tesh said. 😛

  6. I think part of the problem (and it is a problem, I agree) is with the folklore models being used. Beowulf and St. George didn’t really ~do~ much except kill monsters, after all. We need more games that focus adventures like those of Heracles and Jason, with focus on long, involved quests that generally have many steps, and little combat.

    I think the essential task here is to shift focus from combat as a means of resolving all problems, to a more diplomacy- and puzzle-heavy model. Even better would be increased emphasis on politics between PCs and PCs, and between PCs and NPCs; this gives heroes other avenues to explore when they aren’t out, err, heroing; or rather, it opens more options for how to become and act like a Hero.

  7. I posted on my site about play style which echos some of your sentiments. I’ve noticed that when I play the square-jawed hero type, I get bored fairly quickly. But give me an odd-ball that really isn’t supposed to be heroic but does heroic things, then I’m interested. It’s interesting that you mention the Hobbit as a non-heroic hero – it was meant as a story for children. (I agree with you: kids aren’t as dumb as most adults want to pretend they are.)

    I’ll also second what foolsage said above. I don’t mind combat in games (I like playing a knight that slays dragons) but other options would be cool as well like sneaking past the dragon to get its treasure or tricking the dragon or talking to the dragon and finding out it’s not the bad guy, the people that sent me are. The consequence of that choice would lead to more choices and consequences.

  8. Heroism does not require us to be Heroes. We should not forget that a Hero needs to do something heroic, not having heroic powers like Superman by default. Chesley Sullenberger is not Superman, but he is a real hero.

    My chars obviously are not heroes, as they have to do daily quests and bring rat tails to questgivers to foster relations to their faction! 🙂

  9. “[…]that stuff :P”
    “[…]other day :P”
    “[…]former way :D”

    I am happy to see another use more than one or two emoticons per wall of text! When I play my MMOs I practically end every sentence with one… sometimes it makes me feel a little strange 😛 It’s so reflexive though… maybe it’s worth throwing up a “just for kicks” blog post about 😉

    ——-The Real Reply——-
    “Consequences. Unexpected Outcomes” This might be a bit of a stretch, but I think a lot of the lack of choice comes from the min/maxing ideal. If I wanted to I wouldn’t be able to play D&D anymore because most of the people I know that would play it are in the min/maxing craze that’s swept the MMO worlds. People like to be able to calculate the direct result of their actions. Do I want to help the woman or not? I don’t know, is she evil? Will it hurt my pristine reputation? If so, how much? Is it worth it? All of these questions beg for more and more information- and one of the things I loved about EverQuest was that the game left you in the dark about so many things. My weapon has a delay of 19 and a damage of 4. What does that mean? It means it’s faster than 20 and slower than 18, and it does more damage than 3 and less than 5. when it worked like that I didn’t feel so bad about picking a 30delay/10dmg weapon over a 20delay/7damage one, even if there might’ve been a real difference- because if there is a difference I certainly don’t know about it, and thee ratios look about the same to me, maybe 30/10 is a bit better.

    It’s late, that was a rambling tangent (we’ll see if I can coin the phrase “rangent” out of this), I basically just wanted to say that until the expectation of min/maxing your character is gone we might not be able to escape systems that make min/maxing easier, like yes/no questing and choiceless grinding. Giving choices requires that players be more concerned with the playing and less concerned with the gaming- if that makes any sense.

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