The Soapbox: Nobody's hero

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|03.23.12

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The Soapbox: Nobody's hero
Heroes (which would make an awful MMO, btw)
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

We're not heroes, at least in the ubiquitous Hollywood sense. We're teachers and janitors and businessmen, and we may occasionally be heroic in the eyes of our kids or our colleagues, but rarely are we celebrated beyond a tiny circle of family and friends.

Games can meet this emotional need, at least temporarily, and that's a major reason they've become such a booming business over the last couple of decades. We get to be Kratos for a couple of hours, or fem-Shepard or a thousand other pixelized pariahs -- until we set foot in an MMORPG, that is.

Software companies sell pre-packaged heroism in ways that book publishers and filmmakers can only dream of, and it doesn't really matter that it's fake heroism or impersonal heroism crafted on an assembly line and shipped out to millions of consumers. Shouldn't it matter, though, when it comes to MMORPGs?

Pay no attention to the dev behind the curtain
MMOs would seem to be the answer to the larger game industry's mass-produced hero problem (I say "problem" here in the obnoxiously comfortable middle-class American sense). They're worlds, for one thing, and some of them allow for failure -- and thus, the emergence of true player "heroes" -- in a way that is increasingly unthinkable in the current everybody-gets-a-trophy social climate.

This isn't particularly fun for mass market casuals, though, which is why MMOs have shifted away from group dynamics and sprawling feature sets toward solo-friendliness and simplistic storytelling. These changes are ostensibly to make MMOs feel more inviting and more like heroic flights of fancy, but really all they've done is exposed the man behind the curtain.

An MMORPG player is literally one among millions, and therefore MMORPGs, moreso than any other type of video game, are quite a bit like real life. They're repetitive. They're full of drudgery that supposedly leads to something better. There's even a caste system of sorts, and we've imported real-world terminology like "welfare epics" to codify and comprehend certain behaviors and mechanical conventions.

Obviously all video game heroism is fake across the board. Millions of people have walked in Nathan Drake's shoes, but the great thing about single-player games like Uncharted is that they offer the illusion of personal experience. This illusion is quite convincing, and it's something that massively multiplayer titles simply can't do, which is why this whole movement toward dev-driven personal narrative is a horribly unfunny joke.

This is heroic, because you don't see 10 other people doing it after you're done
MMO story has existed since the very first MMO, but each story was unique (and therefore meaningful) because each one was told, acted out, and experienced differently by different players. This isn't possible when your straight-jacket narrative is produced by the dev team. Despite noble intentions, sooner or later the budget runs out and the repetition runs in, and the carefully constructed facade at the core of gaming (you mean I'm not the center of the universe!?) is shoved in your face.

See that girl over there? She's wearing the Boots of Ass-kicking (+2) that you've been killing the same orcs over and over again for the past three months in the hopes of obtaining. And you see that guy over there? He's wearing the gold variant of those boots that you can buy for 1300 Chump Change. I don't know about you, but both of those acquisition options make me feel pretty damn heroic!

Some of us will acquire the boots quicker than others, of course, and the left-brained types will no doubt suss out the optimal boot-grinding build. But that's not heroic, it's mathematics. Similarly problematic is the fact that when I skewer a dragon in Skyrim, he generally stays dead. When I manage to slay one in EverQuest II, he pops up and dusts himself off, then prepares to go through his meaningless song and dance with the next faux savior of Norrath. Put simply, other people are a problem when it comes to MMO heroism, which makes me wonder why heroism is focused on with relentless abandon by devs and marketers.

Why not play to the genre's emergent strengths? Wait, wait. Don't tell me: Because MMOs are only about the loot.

These are obviously large-scale issues with MMO design, ones not easily conquered on a budget. What amazes me, though, is that we seem to be moving toward exposing these flaws even more via story-centric MMOs. Shouldn't developers be figuring out ways to hide the fact that we're all rats in the same progression maze? Instead, they're sticking these conventions in our face and saying, hey guys, we know that you know that all this hero stuff is a sham, but enjoy another talking-head cutscene and we'll keep enabling your denial.

You're one of the stormtroopers, you're not Han Solo
Nancy McIntyre famously supposed that no one wants to be Uncle Owen. If you're not a Star Wars nut, the reference might be lost on you, but what she meant was that LucasArts and Sony Online Entertainment were betting that its audience wanted to be Luke Skywalker clones rather than nondescript Tatooine moisture farmers. Ultimately SOE and LucasArts lost that bet (and sandbox players lost even more), but the MMO industry seems keen on ignoring that particular lesson.

And I know, "heroic" progression grinders move more digital download units, and therefore they warm the hearts of the microtransaction men who lord over the game industry. There's only so much heroic fakery I can stomach, though, and I can't help but wonder when (or if) consumers will demand a more authentic experience.

Modern MMOs and the marketing machine that surrounds them have managed to do the impossible: They've made the epic into the everyday and the heroic into the mind-numbingly ordinary. The word "epic" is itself horribly misused in online gaming discourse, to the point of being both cliche and the key ingredient of a thousand different memes.

When everyone is heroic, no one is.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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