Monday, April 12, 2010

Why WoW Wins

This stems from something I've been considering for a while now.  I play Aion - surely one MMO is enough?  And yet I find myself reminiscing about WoW, remembering how it felt to play back in the Beta, when Azeroth was fresh, young, and full of more bugs than you could shake a dwarf at.  By comparison, the Aion Beta seemed almost bland, with minor, if any, errors and only a couple of changes since then and release.  Of course, WoW has been around for longer, and Aion has had a couple of years' grace before it made its way to Western shores, but it still got me thinking: what is it that I miss?  What's the difference between my green-haired gnome and my Atreyan goddess?

The answer, it seems, lies in the details.  My Aion character is tall, slim, beautiful in every regard, and winks at me when I stand still for too long.  By comparison, my gnome is loud, crude, and dances inappropriately whenever he's in the Auction House (since I made the macro, I may as well use it).  She's beautiful, proud, and strong.  He looks like something you'd use to mop the floor.

And yet his appeal is undeniable.  To me, at least.  He's an upstart no-good from a line of all-but-extinct inventors bent on creating their own destruction.  Add to that the fact that he's got a laugh like a yo-yo made out of a cat, and he's quite a daunting companion.  For all her beauty, my Aion character is silent, apart from the occasional cheer or sigh (or oddly-voiced cutscene).  She's also one of many (many... MANY!) to ascend since the game first opened its servers, and I guess that's part of the problem.

She has wings.  She's immortal.  She needs to make it to the Abyss to fight the evil Asmodians.  But you know what?  So does everyone else.  Everyone else in Atreya started off in Poeta, travelled through the forest, possibly stole some clothes from a 'nymph', and wound up in Sanctum, somehow, just somehow, just managing to be just as special as just about everyone else.  It really puts some of the NPC comments into perspective.  I'd get pretty cheesed off if everyone I didn't see on a day-to-day basis was a Daeva from the beforetimes, bereft of memory and destined to rise to glory once again.  It's got to put a little sting in that ol' mortality they're still carrying around.

I know that's the point of the game - everyone's an angel (even the demons).  How much fun would it be if you weren't anything special, I hear you ask?  Let me counter your question with another question: what's wrong with being normal?

Okay, so MMOs are designed for escapism.  Atreya or Azeroth, they're designed to take us away from our everyday lives.  Everyone wants to be someone, or so everyone assumes.  But here's my idea, and you don't have to agree, but hear me out:

I would like to be a mortal, living in Atreya.  I'd like to never have been to the Abyss, to have no fragmented memories awaiting my discovery, to have had a normal childhood, insofar as a childhood on a planet that's been split in two can be.  I'd like to be the guy who looks up at the Daevas and thinks, 'Maybe someday.'  And I'd like to be wrong.

If I weren't a Daeva, maybe I would own a shop.  Maybe I'd be able to farm, or mine, or craft weapons and armour.  Maybe I could make jewellery.  If I was good enough, I might even get a coveted stall on Sanctum itself, selling jewels to the Daevas I admire.  And maybe, once I'd led a full life, I'd leave the store and my craft to my sons and daughters, to carry on as they see fit, a whole new generation selling jewels to all the same Daevas.  Maybe the only inconstant in this world of immortal, shining beings would be me.

Maybe I could travel.  Not by teleporter - I'm no Daeva, after all - but maybe I could eventually buy an airship like the one that glides to the Outer Port.  Maybe I'd have to deal with Shugos, and watch out for sky pirates.  Maybe I'd have to keep an eye on the ever-changing economy, to make sure I was selling where demand was highest and buying where the market was flooded.  I'd get to see all the same places, just from afar, and not beset by monsters.  That sounds like a good deal to me.

Because, you see, even though my gnome is one of the heroes of Azeroth, and he's fighting in a never-ending war against all kinds of unspeakable foes, no one expects him to do or be anything.  He has no past to live up to.  He has a future, if he wants it.  But he'll only get there through hard work (or making powerful friends), and if he chooses to slack off and sit in Ironforge all day doing nothing but chatting and getting drunk, then so be it.  He can.  And that's the difference.

In WoW, you can be the best.  It will take a heck of a lot of hard work.  But you can also be the least.  You can do as I did and spend three hours jumping up and down the hills just outside Ironforge, trying to get up the slope to the airfield, because you know there has to be a way and you need to see what's there.  And you can make it to the top, and feel like you're the only one in the world, both real and imagined, who's walked there since the dawn of (server) time.  You can play as a Blood Elf and run to Shalandis Isle just to listen to the music, or sit near Lady Sylvanas just to hear her sing.  You can make a female dwarf just to hear her tell dirty jokes.  And, once you've done all of that, you can actually play the game.

And that's what makes WoW compelling.  The variety.  You can start in any one of the four starting areas for your faction, and you can go anywhere at any time.  You could be the only gnome questing around Auberdine - which, believe me, was much more of a big deal when you could only get there by running through the Wetlands at Level 10.  I vividly remember one Christmas, when my friend and I ran to Bloodhoof Village to throw snowballs at the Tauren.  We didn't know where we were going, or even where we were, but we had a tea party by the side of the road - 2 gnomes and 3 Tauren - and I suddenly had more faith in humanity.

And, for me, that's why Azeroth is more alive than Atreya.  When I played WoW, I used to go exploring for hours.  I'd find a road and follow it, and see where I wound up.  Sometimes it would get me killed.  Sometimes, like the time I fell off Thandol Span in pre-BC days and swam for 45 minutes before I found a usable shore, I found my way to Quel'Thalas.  But what happened, happened to me and no one else.  For all that I completed the same quests and went to the same dungeons as the people in my guild, that feeling of exploring, of finding the previously-hidden, still stays with me.  Even if the world was defined to begin with, even if I'm running around in the designers' sandbox, and it's all an illusion, that feeling of discovery was real.

Atreya is very clean and beautiful.  There's not a thing out of place, and there are no surprises.  I fell off the cliff near Miraju's Holy Ground, not down into the swamp slimes, but down into the nothingness.  I wandered around in the valley below the mountains, misty, surreal, and beautiful.  There was nothing to collect, no monsters to find, and chasing the elusive sound effect of a waterfall led me only to a dry pool below an equally dry rock-face.  I wandered to the edge of the world, and I found out the world is a very sterile place.

If the Aion Vision trailer is anything to go by, perhaps all of this will change soon.  There will be graphics upgrades, choose-your-own-mounts and player housing estates.  And I'll still be perfect and flawless whenever I choose to sign in.  But for all the recent changes, and for all my complaints about WoW becoming too easy (mounts at Level 20?) and ruining its own lore by listening to common demand (Blood Elf Warriors?), game mechanics aside, I still know which game holds my heart.

There are stories in Aion.  Beautiful stories.  Talk to any NPC and you'll get a tale of some kind.  Like the Daeva who ascended after his wife died, leaving his two sons on the world below because his duties called him to Sanctum, who doesn't know how he'll care for them, since most mortals aren't allowed in this city in the sky.  Or the old man, ascended on his death bed, only to outlive the rest of his family, trapped in a cripple's body.  That sense of tragedy is moving, and memorable, but not personal.  In Aion, I'm expected to do my part, to be part of great things.  In WoW I am merely expected to be.

If MMOs are escapism, I'm afraid I choose the game that allows me to shirk all responsibility, and pretend I have nothing better to do than to try to get into Silithus before Silithus, as a zone, had a name - to jump into the bottomless chasm and fall for an eternity before I have to use task manager to exit the game because I can't log out when moving, only to log back in to find myself dead, and back where I started.  And to laugh, and tell my friends, because it was a stupid thing to do, but here, in this world, stupid things don't have consequences.

I choose the game that allows me to do what I want to do, which isn't saving the world.  Let some other guy do it.  I'm here to relax.

And, for all these reasons, for these and so many more, I play Aion.  To keep me away from the allure of Azeroth, and free to live my life in the real world.  Because, when it comes down to it, that's where I should be.

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