Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

19 December, 2008

The unreality of our fantasy worlds
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 6:30 PM

I’ve been spending some time thinking about fantasy worlds lately, for lots of reasons. As with a lot of things, I choose to blame Richard Bartle for causing this.

First, he wrote about the now infamous torture quests in WoW. Then he mentioned The Lord of the Rings during his presentation on the Pioneer’s Panel at Living Game Worlds as being an inspiration for creating a coherent fantasy world.

So, read on for some of my thoughts about how well we’ve made coherent worlds in our online games.

One thing that Richard said in his replies to the replies to his original post really stuck out at me: “Jeez, a simple Eye of Kilrogg will find out all you want to know for you, you didn’t even need to capture the prisoner in the first place!”

I find that really interesting because I love using that spell on my Warlock, but it really has a limited use as a player. However, it would be a tremendous boon in a world where you wanted to send an expendable spy to get information; yet, it seems that even the NPCs of this world don’t think about the use of such a potent spell before they ask you to do something morally repugnant to get the information. Especially considering these are mages who should be well-versed in the ways of magic.

There are many other examples, too. For example, when I had to go get insignias off of dead pilots, I joked to my friends, “Don’t worry, I have a rez spell. We’ll get these guys back up in no time! It was just falling damage, right?”

Or, when one NPC watches me kill his underling and tells me he’ll see me in a future zone, “…if you live that long!” My character is pretty much immortal unless I delete him, so how could I possibly not “live that long”? And, why is he upset about me killing his underling given that she’ll respawn in 15 minutes, anyway?

In a world where death isn’t permanent, it seems out of place to have NPCs treat death as something so serious. Of course, there are other games that have this same problem. When we wanted to have the story in Meridian 59 involve killing the old Duke Kalior, we thought of some reason why he wouldn’t just come back from the dead. (One of my favorite mini-events to do is to have the old Duke show up in the underworld from time to time, acting like he’s confused about how to get out.)

Even beyond MMOs, you have problems with adding magic in a fantasy world. If magic were as common as it seems to be in a lot of worlds, would technology have advanced the same way? The budget way to write a fantasy novel seems to be to take a renfaire and slap in fireballs and teleportation spells. In a world with easy teleportation, you’d expect that travel would have evolved differently. As the cost of teleportation goes up, then the system of roads you see in most fantasy worlds would make sense.

The core problem here is that the writers want to use existing techniques and tropes in their stories, but don’t consider if they fit within the world as a whole. The violent war between two groups of people seems silly if neither group can truly die off. An arduous trip into the heart of the enemy’s land can be trivialized if you bring up the fact that giant eagles could have make the trip a lot shorter and easier. But, the struggles in each case are what makes the story so compelling.

What are your thoughts? Do you lose your suspension of disbelief when you encounter a situation like this? Or, is it something you ignore as you just enjoy the game?


  1. I think roads in many fantasy games with teleportation are plausible because you probably will have a lot of common folks who just can’t teleport. (Still, the amount of player-controlled teleport capable people unrealistically outnumber the peasants, merchants and common soldiers)

    For me, the most annoying inconsistency is not restricted to fantasy MMOGs, but more to any open world games. Even though the world is essentially “alive”, it never changes without player action. Say that you have to save a city that is under attack from evil forces, you can just say “You know, I’ll come back in a few weeks and save you then, all right?”. And sure enough, nothing has changed when you come back, and you can pick up the quest exactly where you left off. This can of course be translated to more action-oriented games such as shooters, where you can find a safe spot and leave the game running while your comrades die (except they are invincible until you arrive).

    Comment by Mrop — 20 December, 2008 @ 3:56 AM

  2. Suspension of disbelief works best for me if they get it all out of the way at once. Most series of books set up their world and its limitations in the first book, only introducing minor additions or changes in later books, but for the most part they are internally consistent after the initial story. I think the reason why many people, over time, wind up focusing on the mechanics and numbers in MMOs is that their stories are often so inconsistent, as with the WoW examples. At the very least, the story (even when they are aware most people don’t read quest text) needs to explain why torture is the only way, that the information they need is from where an Eye of Kilrogg can’t go. But even then, why torture? Can’t priests and people with tinkered toys use mind control? Again, more explanation is needed…

    It is lazy. It plays out like a poorly written novel, which is what it is as most games don’t seem to hire anyone to oversee all the story elements, like an editor or a novelist-type author, to keep track.

    Comment by Jason — 20 December, 2008 @ 5:56 AM

  3. If you want to get really out there, you could argue that to the NPC threatening you with death, you are simply an NPC in his instance – hence his point of view while talking to you :^) He’s also totally pissed you’ve got keyboard macros because ever since they nerfed the game and he couldn’t use them, he’s been threatening to leave “the community” for good.

    Reading your Duke Kalior bit makes me think of theme park rides. You can go ride Disney’s Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Carribean multiple times and still enjoy it. Or watch a favorite movie again or reread a book.

    In a way rides (or movies or books) are really instances – and you repeat the instance knowing very well what the sequence and story will be. If well designed and the story well told, it’s enjoyable to repeat them – just like how you will revisit a theme park ride or watch a movie again.

    This is a flawed idea, but for longer term persistence and story consistency, you need some kind of instance overlay; where you are in a non-instanced space, but parts of it are actually instanced. For example once you kill a certain NPC, if you revisit the location, he’s still dead. The flaw of course is that you might be standing there staring at a corpse, while another player next to you sees him alive.

    Comment by Tim — 20 December, 2008 @ 11:23 AM

  4. Though not appropriate for all games, would it work to essentially break down the barrier between actor and audience – or in this case the fantasy world and the player’s realities? It makes for some odd stories most definitely. Reminds me of Keith Laumer’s Time Trap book if anyone remembers a bit of ’70′s Sci Fi.

    I can just imagine a world event where the NPCs union goes on strike and refuses to respawn. Players must do rep quests with the union to set world back in order.

    Comment by Tim — 20 December, 2008 @ 9:47 PM

  5. It’s a very good case for PermaDeath, otherwise death in an MMO means absolutely nothing. I wonder to myself if the designers ever really looked at how no one in an MMO can die, yet they have cemeteries outside of every town and quests to go “kill” NPCs. There are easy ways to get around this conundrum, in that 0 hit points means being incapacitated and left for dead, turning up later at an aid station or something. It’s much more plausible than dying twelve times a day and never staying dead.

    As for the torture bits, that’s a failure of designers to make their RPG an RPG. There’s just no rules in the game that penalizes you for going against what your character’s current or natural alignment is. If you torture that character, do you lose rep with your own side or god? No. But then again, it’s also a failure of designers in making their missions flexible enough to be completed in more than one way. Basically all anyone does is go follow the instructions in the wall of text they see and get their treat, instead of being given guidelines or goals and being set loose to accomplish that using their wits and creativity (or macros, if they have their wits and creativity macro’d).

    But as I heard a designer for a rather big name MMO say at a conference last year: “It’s hard.” And because of those two words, you’ll see a lot more of the fast-food MMOs than good ol’ meat and potato MMOs coming out of the kitchen. But if the customers are there- and I’m confident that they are, then you can make good money serving them what they want and need…

    Comment by Ted Southard — 22 December, 2008 @ 8:23 AM

  6. Jason wrote:
    It plays out like a poorly written novel….

    Yeah, this was my thought, too. It depends on how brilliant you believe the designers were in these cases. Some people have said that the torture (and general non-heroic nature of a lot of quests) were intended to make people feel that they’re slipping into the moral ambiguity of Arthas (before he merged with the Lich King) on his path to self-destruction. Is this the case, or did someone see an episode of 24 and decide that torture was “edgy” and should be included?

    If this were a book, people would criticize the author for sloppy research. Given that I preach about legitimacy for games, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard than we seem to currently.

    Ted Southard wrote:
    But as I heard a designer for a rather big name MMO say at a conference last year: “It’s hard.”

    What’s specifically hard is mixing these ideas with “fun”. Permadeath is a great example, where most players think this can’t possibly be fun. So, in order to add permadeath to a game, you basically have to do a PR blitz to get people to understand that a game with permadeath isn’t going to be all pain all the time.

    Wow has set certain expectations for what games should be, and that’s not necessarily always a good thing. The very phrase “penalizes you” would send some developers into a tizzy about how it’s “hating players” and being a terrible designer. A lot of games did have it so that you had to make a meaningful choice for your characters, but that does seem to be missing. In Meridian 59, you had to join a political faction to get power, and it made you choose a side and deal with people on the opposing side. But, some of the most hated changes were when we upset the system to make the old system of exploitation (everyone joins one side by default or gets killed until they quit); in other words, many people hated the changes that made that choice meaningful in terms of the game.

    So, while I don’t think “It’s hard” is really a good excuse, there’s a lot more there than it might first appear. It’s a question of what the expectations are, and how you can deal with those expectations while keeping your job (or company) and keep the rent paid.

    Comment by Psychochild — 23 December, 2008 @ 1:19 AM

  7. MMOs change over time

    [...] course, one could also argue that immersion has never been a big part of these games. There are a lot of little inconsistencies in how a game presents the world, and it’s required a [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 11 February, 2010 @ 4:40 AM

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