The Neomedieval(?) LOTRO

 

My colleagues have spent a good deal of time discussing the LOTRO as neomedieval, so I hope I’m not treading ground that is too familiar here. First of all, I find LOTRO a bit of a disappointment from a neomedieval perspective. While, for example, WoW tries to have fun with its source material (e.g. putting in Star Wars references), LOTRO seems to be a pretty straight-laced affair. I haven’t, though approximately 40 hours of gameplay, caught a single pop-culture reference. Why might this be? I wonder if the idea behind LOTRO is immersion, and so that limits its neomedieval purposes. People have pointed out that Tolkien himself is a bit of a neomedievalist, creating a whole fictional world surrounding his vision (languages, etc). However, it might be argued that what the makers of LOTRO are doing is a poor imitation of what Tolkien himself wanted to do. They are taking his world, and maybe trying to out-Tolkien Tolkien, but they succeed only in creating a life of mundane people doing mundane things that surround the real adventure. I don’t feel like I’m helping all that much with the actual Fellowship; in fact, I feel a bit like I’ve missed the adventure, but am tasked with cleaning up the mess that others (namely the Fellowship) made. So, I’m not tasked with helping Gandalf; I’m tasked with helping his pitiful friend Radagast. How did this game ever make money? I think the lackluster storyline here is probably a testament to how effectively LOTRO has been monetized as a “Free to play” game…just think what it could have done with a better-executed world.

On Time

 

We’ve been thinking about time lately thanks to Dinshaw, and so I thought this blog post would be oriented that way. For one thing, time has flowed differently as I returned from Virginia; I suddenly found myself shifting from an atmosphere where I had little to do but think of my next LoTRO blog post to one where I had 6 children and 3500 miles to transgress (is that the right word?). Suddenly, I haven’t had the time to play LoTRO like I did, let alone blog about it. However, I can talk about the way time passes a bit in the game.

It is difficult to say what makes time in LOTRO pass most quickly. On the one hand, exciting quests seem to fly by, while the grinds tend to make the game feel slow. However, it is pretty common to look at the clock after grinding midge flies and realize you’ve been doing it for three hours. So, it seems like one of the mechanics of the game is to manipulate time in certain ways. I wonder what the purpose of trying to keep a player playing longer than he intended might be.

One motivation is definitely financial. For every grind, you have the option to “accelerate this task” by paying real money in the LOTRO store. This seems to be an attempt to monetize time, which is an area that Dinshaw didn’t much care for. Interestingly enough, players themselves don’t seem to mind this, rather being happy to speed up a game that they are ostensibly playing for fun. Strange.

 

Gobblecide

I went out to the swamp, because I’m a video game completionist, and I wanted to do everything possible in the area of Bree before moving onto a new area. So, I had some bugs to kill. I needed to kill “neeker-breekers” (?) and flies. As I was wandering around the swamps, I encountered some Goblins. This led to my accidental discovery of the following Deed:

ScreenShot00008
“It is uncertain what Goblins think of Elves…” BUT KILL THEM ALL!

As best as I can tell, this is an ancient race war. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to participate in such a dubious enterprise, but a game is a game, and the reward was impressive (+5% damage to my bow!). I needed to kill 150 goblins. This wasn’t a big deal, because the goblins in this area were so very far below my level that they didn’t actually attack me. They just stood there and waited for me to kill them. Observe:

These Goblins don't know it, but they're already dead.
These Goblins don’t know it, but they’re already dead.

Some of these Goblins would actually start running away when I shot them with my first arrow, because they knew I was too much for them. This didn’t save them:

Not fast enough.
Not fast enough.

I’m blogging about this because it disturbed me. True, these are agents of an unspeakable evil, but it really demonstrates the pull between playing a game and acting in a moral way. It might have been more morally upright, from a chivalry standpoint, to find Golblins a bit closer to my level to fight. But slaughtering the little ones was so easy—and fast. I was able to kill 150 goblins in around 20 minutes—or one every few seconds. In games like this, time is money. There isn’t much of a chivalric code to be found in MMO’s.

Making Me Care

I actually had a moment of true emotion yesterday while playing LotRO.

So there I was, questing around Bree. Bree had up to this point been fairly annoying; after all, the Bree from the books never seemed like the sprawling rabbit-warren that is represented in the game (though little is actually said about it besides the curious fact of Men and Hobbits living together). However, I was starting to find my way, and actually enjoying questing around the Barrow-downs for L007. A distraught mother was missing her son, and wanted me to locate him. Ho-hum, I thought, standard FedEx (delivery) mission like most of the other quests I’d encountered. So, I go to find the boy. I find, instead, a corpse. I click on it a couple of times, but the boy is truly dead. This was my first moment of real emotion. I go back to the mother to tell her the news. She is distraught, but asks me to go find her other son. I go to find the other son, hopeful that he will be alive, at least, since there’s no way the designers would leave the mother so bereft. I find the boy, but he’s possessed by an evil spirit. After I fight the evil spirit, he leaves the boy’s body…and the boy is dead.

Fuck.

I literally said that out loud while I was playing. I had to go back to the mother, AGAIN, and tell her that her son is dead, AGAIN. The boys had been treasure hunters, I was told, and that was their doom. I later found the treasure they were searching for and returned it to the mother, but it didn’t make me feel any better.

This illustrates nicely the discussion of the importance of the shift from the epic to the personal story. Up to this point, I’ve not been terribly invested in the game, since it is a sweeping narrative arc where I have little effect. However, I genuinely cared about the fictional mother being represented to me. I’m sure Cantor would find all sorts of Oedipal feelings there, but for whatever reason, the game touched me in a way that I haven’t been touched in a long time (have fun with that sentence, Cantor!). Well played, Turbine.

Tolkien’s Medievalism according to Cantor According to Turbine

In Inventing the Middle Ages, Cantor makes a very specific argument concerning just what Tolkien was trying to accomplish, and what he did accomplish, with his series The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, Cantor argues that it “can be read as an argument against the mechanistic state and society that commit evil even when their intentions are good” (230). While this is true of the book, is it true of the game?

I am afraid that my answer may be that it’s too early to tell. So far, I haven’t encountered anything mechanized whatsoever. The main villain, a wily dwarf, seems to be dabbling a lot more in magic than machine, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see him animate some sort of dark contraptions somehow. However, the unintentional evil is there. During the introductory quests, there begin to be rumors of a dwarf doing something that he shouldn’t be. There is a lot of talk of “restoring the old glory” of the dwarves, which is a noble ideal, even one that Tolkien might approve of. However, ultimately this quest to restore glory leads to betrayal, with an evil spirit animating a dwarf corpse and convincing his followers that it is truly the old dwarf come back. So, the dwarf quest for glory ends with the raising of an Anti-Christ figure, just as Frederick II’s story goes in Kantorowicz’s masterpiece.

Free to Play?

Several of the articles we read recently dealt with the state of work in gaming. One of the ideas introduced in those the online store in as much depth as in other games, but it seems to be similar was that of “grinding,” or “farming;” that is, spending a lot of time killing the same monsters over and over in order to capture experience or materials. One thing I haven’t noticed so far in my Lord of the Rings Online adventure has been the necessity to grind for materials or experience. However, when all of the missions seem the same, the game itself can feel like a grind. One of the solutions that LotRO seems to offer for this self-made problem is to play new levels and adventures. Of course, these adventures are not free; rather, you need to buy them in the LotRO store.

The store is ever-present as the largest icon on your toolbar, represented (ironically?) by the One Ring, Sauron’s source of power. I haven’t explored the store in as much depth as other games, but it seems to follow the same rules. The types of things you can buy from LotRO stores include other missions, customized clothes, etc. One element that seems to be present, though, is the presence of pay-to-win, or P2W. You can buy “legacy slots” and “legacy weapons” that are more powerful, thus making your character more powerful.

Online communities often have fairly high standards when it comes to what characters should be allowed to buy. Interestingly enough, this is tied to “grinding,” as well. The general consensus is that if something can be acquired in a game by grinding or farming for it, it is acceptable to spend real money on that item instead. The advocates of the online shop will tell you it’s just part of the same equation: rather than spending my time working IN the game, I go to my real job, make money, and spend it instead. In this way, players who don’t have time to grind and farm can still have the same stuff. This works out well, in my opinion. However, when you start having things that can ONLY be accessed with real money in the store, then a game no longer deserves its “Free-to-play” title.

The un-Gothicness of Lord of the Rings Online

In some of the most brilliant 19th century prose I’ve read, The Stones of Venice, Ruskin illustrates the six key components of the Gothic (6). I’m going to focus on his first two, and illustrate that, despite using medievalism as a setting, LotRO is decidedly un-Gothic in nature:

1.Savageness.

By this, Ruskin largely means flawed originality. Ruskin admonishes the reader that forcing people to copy other items, rather than allowing them to explore and create on their own. He decries clean lines and finished work, rather celebrating the flawed romantic work that lesser men are capable of. Lord of the Rings online seems an exceptionally rigid game. The variety of the quests, at least in the early part of the game, is all clean lines and finish, not allowing the player to do much at all besides finding the next quest and doing what’s told. To paraphrase Ruskin, by doing this, we make a player, but we don’t make a man.

  1. Changefulness.

On a related note, I’m having trouble continuing the gameplay of Lord of the Rings online. While many MMO’s rely heavily on the “go here, kill that, gather that” type mission, I’ve never played a game that relied EXCLUSIVELY on this type of mission. This is the sort of monotony that Ruskin decries. While I’ve been “cultivated” by many years of gaming, I can’t bring myself to wait any longer for variation to show up. I am longing for an experience that is more Gothic in practice, rather than merely in external form.

Descent into Middle-Earth Gothic

Though we’ve been discussing many aspects of medievalism lately, our talks on the discussion board have evolved specifically into a discussion of the Gothic aspect of medieval attribution. Unsurprisingly, I was very attentive during this most recent run-through of the game to the Gothic influences surrounding me. After completing a couple of quests, the tone turned darker. I soon found that I was in a fairly benevolent world (at least at first, more on this in a sec) when out in daylight, but as soon as I joined a specific instance, I was surrounded by Gothic sounds and sights. For example, I was introduced to a quest by the following poem:

Blood-red footsteps

Upon snow coloured black

Where the Dour-King Walks

To take back his throne and finish what was begun

I was then instructed to make my way down to the “Rockbelly Pit,” which was lit by dim light and contained such Gothic standbys as bats and loud, deep, tympanic music. Coming up from the Pit, I was almost relieved to hear a lighter, more festive soundtrack, but was soon thrust into the other Dark Age relic: plague. My new quest was to figure out what was making all of the dwarves sick; in order to solve the mystery, though, I had to do SCIENCE, much like Lord Woodville from “The Tapestried Chamber.” I inspected soil near the river and slew sick bears. So, though I was motivated by the appearance of a medieval plague, I used empirical research to solve the problem, illustrating the present’s intrusion on its own construction of the past.

Forays into Middle-Earth Part 1

Installing and breezing through the tutorial of the game, I tried to keep in mind the texts that I had recently been encountering (indeed, in an act of profound multitasking, I began playing LoTRO while still listening to the Glass program). One of the things that struck me almost immediately was the attempt at immersion into a “hyperreal” scenario; I wasn’t just living the books in a linear storyline, rather all races and locales were present to me. Choosing an elf character (mostly because damage-per-second characters are the easiest to solo with), I was struck by the attempt to create the illusion of an expansive world in a game that is remarkably linear. I could choose any number of types of elves to be; I chose wood-elf, but I still began the game in the House of Elrond. I could change my facial features/hair, but I still needed to look “elvish” enough. The servers were all named after sites from the Lord of the Rings books, but here was where the anachronism began: I played on the Brandywine server, though Brandywine was a well-fortified place that largely escaped the violence of the books. Violence, necessarily, is the central feature of gameplay here. Additionally, the character name I chose is that of all of my online avatars, but in this case, its decidedly un-elvish name placed anachronism into every NPC I interacted with. Finally, the global chat window vibrated with urgency as the various denizens of Middle-Earth debated the merits of the recent SCOTUS ruling. Did these anachronisms hurt the game? Actually, in a way, yes. Unlike the benevolent anachronisms at Medieval Times, where there is little expectation of true authenticity, the global chat window sought to pull me away from the immersion into the hyperreality of Middle Earth. Next time, I’m closing the chat box.

Where X = Rhetoric

What does it mean to be a scholar of x? Before I can answer this question, I suppose that I first have to solve for x. In my case, that might be easier said than done. It is easy to narrow my field, though. I have been interested in the act of public apology, but since I’m a scholar, that might need more heft, at least from an ethos standpoint. So, I suppose it would be easier to identify myself as a scholar of epideictic rhetoric. It’s interesting, because I actually got into epideictic rhetoric because of apology, but now that I’ve begun studying it, I have become more interested in epideictic more generally, even to the point where my interest in the broad field has surpassed (while still encapsulating) my interest in public apology. Over the course of this semester, I have found myself becoming more broadly versed in the various discussions being had about English studies, and believe that I have been able to fit myself in. My interest in epideictic rhetoric places me squarely into the field of rhetorical studies, but at the same time, seems to distance me from many of the Composition/Rhetoric scholars (at least those focused more on composition).

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