Home > Immersion, Monotony, Realism > “The Artist Previously Known As Immersion” or “The MMO Kill Quest” – Part I

“The Artist Previously Known As Immersion” or “The MMO Kill Quest” – Part I

The Artist Previously Known as Immersion – MMO kill quest

I charge up my frostbolt, my fingers tingling as I manipulate the essence of winter itself, coalescing into an expanding ball of frozen shrapnel. With the flick of my wrist I lob the deadly projectile at the Blight Wolf, ripping through its hide in a cacophony of tearing flesh and splintering shards of deadly icicles. The beast howls in agony, convulses as the frostbolt proves to be more than a match for his raw strength and ferocity, and collapses on the forest floor. I take a deep breath, content in ridding the world of yet another demonic creation. I shamble over to the corpse of my adversary, weary from the battle and rummage through its remains.

The wolf is carrying a Knights’ Chest Plate, and a Fierce Dagger of Arcanum.

I am reminded once again that I am merely playing a video game, where Blight Wolves can carry 40-pound metal chest plates in mint condition on their person.

A number of my peers are discordant with the above scenario, for I am trying to find raptness and spatial logic in a game where you can fit, literally, several dozen elephant-sized mounts into your backpack, a game where lush tropical forests and frigid snow-capped mountains can co-exist mere yards apart, a world where the forces that threaten the extinction or assimilation of all sapient life forms are indefatigable, and continue to resurrect, no matter how many times you vanquish them.

However, none of that detracts from the fact that captivation, as tenuous and fragile a concept it is, does not need blatantly non-immersive elements to ruin a player’s experience. Wolves should not possess bulky chest plates in their sparse hides, every individual on the server should not have a ‘special’ key to an impenetrable fortress, and water should react to you walking in it, and not stay ripple-free (I am looking at you Dragon Age: Origins!)

Perhaps it would be prudent to delineate immersion first. Immersion is the capability of any entertainment medium to get the audience psychologically invested in the alternate world. Strictly in terms of video games, it implies building an emotional bridge between the player’s reality and the game world, engrossing the player sufficiently to build a tangible sense of belonging. If the player feels a sense of triumph for killing C’Thun, or is distraught by the seemingly inconsequential demise of Duncan, or screams out loud while rounding a corner in the UTC’s dreary hallways, the game has accomplished one of the most critical and elusive elements in contemporary gaming: an feeling of immersion and belonging in the game world.

This sense of immersion is tricky to achieve, extraordinarily difficult to sustain, and incredibly brittle, thanks to a plethora of factors that can dramatically diminish or even reverse immersion. One genre that is especially susceptible to shattering the immersion formula is Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games.

MMO’s, by design, cater to a countably infinite amount of players undertaking the same content in a cyclical manner. This is, in part, necessitated by the genre’s prerequisite for being a persistent world with a massive focus on multiplayer. But that is discussion for another day.

For now, let us observe a sample quest: A mayor of a town asks you to execute 10 bandits that have been operating in the foothills immediately surrounding the town. Let us scrutinize some of the ways in which the illusion of immersion is compromised in said quest.

  1. Why is it 10 bandits? And why are they always multiples of 5 or 10? The arbitrarily fixed nature of this number always gives the player pause, and makes him realize that the perfect cookie-cutter number is a product of a pattern-oriented quest-designer, not a randomized coincidence in the game world. This is especially exacerbated by the fact that each preceding and succeeding quest also asks you to accomplish tasks conveniently organized around the same number. Kill 10 demons. Skin 10 wolves. Retrieve 10 stones. And so on.
  2. You head to the foothills and stumble across the bandits. They aren’t hiding in the dense foliage or lying in silently and surreptitiously to pounce upon hapless, unsuspecting victims. They are simply walking around, tracing random paths across the cluttered forest floor, aimless, purposeless, insipid. They don’t converse with each other, or even attack the throngs of players and NPC’s on the main road a mere 10 yards away. In short, they are literally there to be slaughtered, so you can complete the quest. As soon as that realization sets in, it ceases to be an immersive experience and instantaneously morphs into a chore that you are required to trudge through to advance to the next indistinguishable, uninventive task.
  3. As you go about mindlessly hacking away at the first bandit, none of the other bandits come to his aid in the slightest. They continue to meander, as if in a dreamless sleep, completely oblivious to their comrade being massacred by your over-powered, over-equipped avatar. They move nay a muscle, as you finish off the first foe, relieve his body of any worldly possessions and move on. The only time any other member of this allegedly fearsome group of bandits reacts to your presence is when you get within his numerically-defined radius, or if you start attacking him. Once again, you are reminded that this is a game world, where these ‘individuals’ are lines of computer code that behave and react as fodder for the completion of your ultimately inconsequential mission.
  4. As you decimate a bloody path through the bandits, and their population begins to thin, you suddenly notice a new bandit appear, literally out of thin air, and begin to ramble in the same randomized pattern. For every bandit you dispatch, another one magically appears out of nowhere and takes his place. You realize that your quest is ultimately pointless because you aren’t making any difference in the bandit population.
  5. Ten bandits are dead. You have accomplished the mission. Your sense this being a futile endeavor is further reinforced as you see no quantifiable change in the bandit population. The tangible effect of you spending the last 30 minutes of your life trying to save the town from said bandits is exactly nothing, for no discernable change can be observed.
  6. You head back to town, and hand in the quest. The mayor lauds your efforts, though he has no way of knowing if you actually accomplished your goal. You could have taken a leisurely stroll around town and reported back to the mayor, claiming to have decapitated and disemboweled 10 bandits. And none would have been the wiser.
  7. Finally, as soon as you complete the quest, the mayor turns to another player and offers the same quest with the same rewards. And then another player, and then another player. You are reminded for the umpteenth time that your actions are of absolutely no consequence in the world and nothing you do will ever amount to anything. So thank you developers, for another shamelessly unsatisfying evening of pedestrian content and trite questing.

The bottom-line is that immersion is a very frangible concept that takes an unprecedented amount of change in the way developers imagine game worlds, and meticulous attention to detail as they attempt to build a sense of emotional attachment to the virtual environment. This continued practice of satiating the inherent need to have large numbers of players go through precisely the same content results in a self-perpetuating snowball effect, recursively building upon an already broken strategy. Unless developers are willing to drastically overhaul the conventional methodologies deemed critical to building an MMO, and challenge the norms that define parameters for player inaction with said world, it will be increasingly impossible to build any lasting sense of immersion in MMO’s for years to come.

Categories: Immersion, Monotony, Realism
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