MMOGology: Roleplaying is dead

A red sun set over the ashen wastelands of Searing Gorge. Three shadows crept up a snaking path toward the encampment on Firewatch Ridge. The first shadow struck her victim hard in the back. The second pounced in cat form, lacerating and stunning her prey. The third finished off his hapless victim with a combination of quick stabs to the chest. The Twilight Idolater dropped silently to the ground. The trio continued to their next target, but this time their prey called for backup. The druid morphed into a vicious bear, drawing her enemies' attention to herself to take the brunt of the attack. The rogues tried to sap the reinforcements into submission or cut them down from behind. Despite their efforts the added numbers of the enemy overwhelmed the heroes and they fell.

"Hey Silvanna," said the cute, brunette rogue named Mystletoe. "Do you mind if I get my friend Barbi to help us. She's a 70 priest."

"Uh, OK." agreed the druid. It wasn't long before a beautiful, blonde priestess arrived. She revived her allies from the brink of death and with a few simple flicks of her supple wrist, slew the band of Twilight cultists without chipping a nail.

"Sweet, lets turn this quest in," said the rogue named Twojoints.

"So have you guys tried out the new voice chat?" asked Mystletoe. The druid began to sweat noticeably.

"Uh, no, no. I don't think mine's working quite right yet," replied Silvanna. Suddenly there was audible giggling from somewhere near the party. It was as if the air around them had come to life and was laughing at the group.

"So let's hear your beautiful voice Barbi," giggled the very feminine voice of Mystletoe.

"Hey guys," belted a baritone. Barbi was a man!

"Oh-my-God, Barbi's a dude!" laughed Mystletoe with an air of false surprise.
The druid sighed, somewhat relieved.

"That's OK Barbi," Silvanna replied. "So am I."

It's hard to suspend disbelief in a modern MMOG. No matter how much you get into the mindset of the game and of playing your character, something always comes along and pops you back into reality. A rogue named Twojoints? Sure, it's kind of funny; but not exactly "in character", right? And of course's there's Barbi, the priestess exposed by voice chat as being a guy, the modern dialogue, etc. All very amusing, but it peels back that layer of fantasy and disbelief that we get into when playing a game. Even on modern role playing servers where you're supposed to play the game "in character", it usually just doesn't happen unless you're specifically seeking role play with a person you already know. Even then, unless you're in a remote location, your scene is typically interrupted.

I think the most I've ever gotten into a game world; really felt as though I was truly a being of the world in which I was playing, was when I played Elendor MUSH. Elendor MUSH is a text-based MMORPG set in Middle Earth. There are no graphics in Elendor, much less voice chat, so you really had to use your imagination. At the time that I played this game only the truly geeky knew about it. It was set up to attract role-players and provide a way for them to experience Tolkien's world first hand. When playing in that world you lost your sense of self and really slipped into the shoes of another character.

Modern MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online are great. They're graphically beautiful, exciting, and they feature engaging gameplay. But something of the "role playing" part of the RPG seems to have gotten lost in the transition from text-based to modern gaming. Modern RPGs focus on character progression in terms of gaining levels and new abilities, often with some degree of customization of those abilities to make the character unique. But skill point allotment and stats used to be the backdrop of an RPG, rather than the focus. The focus was on the character himself; on his story in a fantastic setting. Maybe the basic mechanics of the modern MMOG make this goal impossible. If everyone is playing the same game and running the same quests, how is the story of your character any different from anyone else? And if the focus is on the mechanics of the game (slaying monsters, raiding dungeons), rather than on the interaction between players, how can role play even be possible?

It also seems like we inject ourselves, our own personal identities, into our in-game avatars much more than we used to. I never used to think twice about creating a female character. With the advent of voice technology in games, now I do. And somehow I resent that. I never used to create a character based on myself, but on how I thought the character should "be." Typically when I create a character in an MMOG, I think about what makes sense for the character I'm creating. Take my druid Silvanna, for example. When I created her I wanted to create a helpful support character that could heal her teammates, but also be a crazy, stealthy, badass chick in PvP battlegrounds. Creating this character as a female just "felt" right to me. At the same time my night-elf hunter I envisioned as a grizzled, woodsman; a survivor in touch with the animal kingdom and somewhat of a loner. Again, creating him as a male just "felt" right. I never considered my own gender when I was creating these characters. I was simply creating a character the way an author would create a character in a story. I'm already thinking about the backstory of this character and what makes that character unique. But maybe that thought process doesn't make sense in the realm of the modern MMOG.

Online role playing games are no longer the exclusive domain of the geeky ex-Dungeons and Dragons tabletop roleplayer (like myself). Elements of typical roleplay, such as a character's backstory, his story as he progresses through the gameworld, and his "in character" interactions with other players are insignificant or non-existent in most modern MMORPGs. But does anyone care? What do you think? Is it possible to role play in a modern MMORPG? Should role playing be confined to specific venues set-up for that type of interaction (such as Elendor MUSH) or should future games try to encourage role playing? Tell me I'm not the only one a little nostalgic for ye-olde text based roleplaying.
This article was originally published on Massively.