Friday, September 18, 2015

Letters from Tamriel, Part XI - Saviour of Nirn

I am a saviour of Nirn.

Not "the" saviour of Nirn, mind you - merely "a" saviour of Nirn. There is quite a few of us running around - you can tell by the title when you mouse over another player. I set my sights on this goal after completely finally finishing all the questing content in the game. Daggerfall, then Aldmeri, and finally Ebonheart zones have all been completed, and all that is left is to clear all the world bosses, systematically gather up all the skyshards, and wipe out the dolmens in each zone. The latter achievement is the one that awards the title of "Saviour of Nirn", and I managed to finish this by clearing all the dolmens in Cyrodiil. When I found that my avatar could solo the dolmens in heavy armour and tanking spec I incorporated dolmen hunting in my experience gathering activities, and after sixteen months my TESO avatar has finally hit the level cap.

Hatakeyama pauses outside the Fungal Grotto, attracted to the place by the weird blue mushrooms.


Well, not for long. The Imperial City DLC added another two more VR levels, so my stay at the pinnacle of levelling was embarrassingly short-lived - a total of two days at the end of August. A strange thing happened as I got closer to the level cap - I started slowing down, exploring, and taking my time. Halfway through August I was half an experience bar away from dinging to level cap, and it took me the rest of August to reach it. My second sojourn in TESO has unearthed a sea change in my playstyle. If we go by Bartle archetypes I would be classified as a "killer" first and foremost, given the type of games I play and my proclivities in-game. I still intensely dislike this label by the way, because it is more Bartle showing his play style bias rather a true reflection of the mindset of many people who play PvP. For good or ill however it is here to stay, even if it does mean that anyone in the world who plays sport or any form of competitive activity involving other people is now a "killer" in Bartle-speak.

Killer or not, I have been branching out into the other quadrants of the Bartle typology. My time in TESO can best be described as fitting the achiever or explorer archetype, which is something which has not been true in WoW for some time. I find myself poking around in nooks and crannies and running around the edges of the map and looking to see what lies inside old ruins, towers and burnt-out farm houses. Archeage was more rewarding for me in this respect, because the players were able to terra form the world to a limited degree, and it was always interesting to stumble onto an illicit player-created plantation hidden in the hills. In TESO I can only find things constructed by the developers in the initial act of creation - there is no way for players to leave their mark in the world. The only way we know other people have been in TESO is to either see their avatars, or to pass in their wake as they tear through a bunch of mobs. In Cyrodiil your hackles rise when you enter a delve and notice that there are no mobs about. This means that another player has been here quite recently, and it becomes a question of whether they are friendly or hostile and you prepare accordingly. Apart from this temporary sign, the world of TESO, much like that of WoW, does not change and remains largely immutable. The world of Archeage was so much more alive because even if I didn't see other players I would see signs of their passing, and the artefacts they left in their wake. I miss the player villages and farms, the illegal plots in the hills, the random plants and animals left all over the world, the crazy makeshift forests created by players with too much time and virtual money on their hands, and even the bloodstains left in the wake of perpetrated crimes. The closest TESO has to this is the Alliance War in Cyrodiil, in which the keeps remain in the possession of the Alliance which took them until they are taken in turn. Cyrodiil is safely walled away from the rest of Tamriel, however, and there is no integration of economy, territory and PvP as there is in Archeage and EVE. TESO is the most beautiful MMO I have played to date, but in terms of a living, breathing gaming world Archeage and EVE still far surpass it.

Riding away from a completed dolmen in Cyrodiil.

There are upsides to walling away your creation from the grubby inhabitants of your virtual world. For all my hymns to player-created content it must be noted that not all player-created content is equal. You would never find a forest fashioned in the shape of a giant penis in TESO, for example, but sooner or later someone will probably create one on one of the servers in Archeage. Nonetheless I still prefer bottom-up rather than top-down content in MMOs, because I foolishly believe that MMOs should still be about being massively multiplayer. I love top-down content, too, but I prefer to imbibe it in my single-player experiences, where the author-developer can complete the illusion and cater exclusively to me. Morrowind made me believe that I was the Nerevarine, and it did it in a manner that inspired me, moved me, and made me BELIEVE. Mass Effect did the same, as did Skyrim to a lesser extent. As MMOs go, however, TESO comes the closest to emulating the single player experience.

I've long come to the conclusion that achievements in games mean absolutely nothing at all. I was so obsessed about chasing rating in WoW thinking that it meant something, and now I look back at it and I wonder why the hell I bothered. I still respect people who do well at games and work at it to become better - it's the same kind of accolade I give to people who are good at their chosen fields, whether that be in games, music, sports or their profession. I've ceased to try to impose my own playstyle on other folk, however - I used to align with the Gevlon/Sirlin philosophy that if you play a game you should play to win, but now I hang my hat in the "fun" camp. The power gaming philosophy made sense to me because basically what David Sirlin espouses is just a virtual variation of the old aphorism that if you're going to do something you should do it as well as you can. Unless you make money playing games, however then games are an intrinsically driven activity conducted in our free time. No one has the right to tell you what to do in your free time, and games are not a necessary adjunct of living, and may in fact be detrimental to it. So I guess if milling around uselessly around the bridge in Arathi Basin is your idea of fun, then I guess more power to you. It might not be the most efficient way of winning, but hey, maybe you don't want to win. You might be practicing your DPS rotations. You might be teaching your five year old how to play WoW.  It may even be possible that you think that this is the optimal strategy for this map, in which case you must excuse me while I headbutt my desk in disbelief.

Hatakeyama chances upon an ancient Argonian pyramid deep in the swamps.

So when it comes to achievements I guess I don't want to talk too disparagingly of them, because their ubiquity suggests that there is a fair chunk of people out there who find completing them rewarding and fun. I've talked about fun before, and how hard it is to quantify this term. Fun might just be something that is self-defining - that is, if people do it, and spend time on it, then that activity is fun. There is no why - if you spend time on it, then it is fun. Gevlon spends his time on making virtual currency and financing a war against the Goons, which means that activity is fun for him. Bhagpuss spends his time poking around the corners of the map in MMOs, which means that activity is fun for him. Izlain pushes rating on the ladder in League of Legends, which means that activity is fun for him. I cleared every dolmen in the lands of Tamriel to get the Saviour of Nirn title, which means that activity was fun for me.

Wait...what? Really? I don't recall being overwhelmingly ebullient or shouting with glee everytime a dolmen collapsed under my solo onslaught. Is that what my definition of fun shrunk to - a minute sense of satisfaction at having ticked off an inconsequential goal within a make-believe world? Being the Saviour of Nirn in TESO represents no narrative triumph, no grand unfolding of a make-believe world, and no gradual unravelling of a central mystery. It's just a tick in a checklist of things to do, as routine as clearing your mail or updating your crafting queues. Is this what I've settled for? Why do I play games? To paraphrase Hannibal Lecter - what needs do I serve by playing?

Deep within a delve Hatakeyama comes across a troll feasting on the bones of its latest victim.

Self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan) is the best answer that academia has got, and like Bartle's typology, I find it simultaneously helpful and frustratingly obtuse. It's helpful in that it gives me a common vocabulary with which to engage other people in dialogue. At the same time it is frustrating because it does nothing to illuminate the roiling, seething mass of impulses, needs, desires, hopes and fears which churn away beneath my skull. Intrinsically driven behaviour is explained in terms of competence, relatedness and autonomy. The first relates to our desire to master things and become proficient in their use; the second pertains to the human need to connect and establish meaningful relationships; and the third is linked to the human desire to be the master of our own fates. Why pursue these achievements in-game? If we integrate Bartle, Deci and Ryan, we might come up with a hypothesis that my desire for human contact leads me to play MMOs, and I pursue achievements and titles in order to advance my social standing within the in-game hierarchy. Pushing rating, optimising builds, and beating other players reinforces my sense of agency, tells me that I am in control of my destiny, and soothes that part of my brain that craves mastery. Funnily enough, the desire for competence explains the ennui we experience between games that Azuriel talks about in this post - it is deflating and disempowering to realise that all the effort expended to accumulate in-game achievements amounted to nothing in the end once the game was finished. It is a microcosm of the existential fear that the sum of all human achievements may amount to nothing in the face of a vast, indifferent, and uncaring universe.

Revisiting the Aldmeri Dominion Hatakeyama is struck by the beauty of the locale, which was something she missed in her initial travels because of her mad rush to level.

That fear is unfounded, because it fails to take into consideration the ability of humans to impose meaning on the world around them. Just because science says we are insignificant motes of cosmic dust doesn't make us so. Meaning and purpose can be derived from anywhere - from the serenity of true self-knowledge, the laughter of your children, the warm eyes of someone you love, in the satisfaction of a job well done, and in the act of creation. Looking inward can be as fruitful as looking outward. As William Blake says:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

I'm just trying to figure out where games belong in this scheme of things. I know that I love stories, both as a passive recipient and as an active participant. I don't have bouts of existential angst when reading books or watching movies. It's only with games. I loved Mass Effect because I became wrapped up in the story, and wanted to follow the branches to their final conclusion. I loved my first Wabbajack campaign in TESO because I became part of the story - the various groups fighting in that inaugural campaign collectively told a story in which I was an active participant. I don't know what story I am telling when I putter around from dolmen to dolmen in TESO, except perhaps something that might be entitled, "How To Waste Time In Front of A Monitor For No Good Reason At All."

4 comments:

  1. Excellent post and very thought-provoking. Really interesting to see someone take a real swing at defining "fun", a term we all throw around carelessly to bolster our arguments on what games should be like but which melts away like morning mist when we try to grasp its meaning.

    For a while I tried to stop using "fun" as a qualifying term when discussing MMOs but finding alternatives is too awkward. It's too useful a generic to abandon. If I'm being more thoughtful, though, I think "relaxation" is a more accurate descriptor in many of the contexts I use "fun".

    Performing simple, repetitive acts can be relaxing in itself and when a sequence of them adds up to a definable, observable conclusion the relaxation sublimes into satisfaction. It doesn't have to be purposeful outside of its own contextual frame of reference. It just has to be complete. I think that's some of what's going on when we pursue Achievements.

    Also they are analogous to collecting. Why is collecting things "fun"? I don't know but it is. Maybe it just feels better in some way to have things than not to have them? More secure, perhaps? In the end, if something is both harmless and feels good, why not keep doing it?

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    1. I was being too narrow in my definition of fun when I thought that you had to be ebullient and shouting with glee to be having fun. Relaxation, as you point out, is a much more apt description I think. Something that seems pointless and inefficient but which helps you relax and unwind could be called fun.

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  2. You’re the storywriter in that one. My stories run in my head as I play but are not written down. Sometimes summarized in blog posts, but only obliquely.

    The fun lies in engaging with stories that spring from the minds of people that are not us. It’s a cosmic game in which consciousness is intentionally fragmented so that we can delight in the other. When all is said and done, one comes to the realization that all this hullabaloo was part of the same damn universe anyways. So what’s the point?

    Meaning is a game we play.

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    1. Very Buddhist, but I think I understand your point. I understand that as a human there are limitations to my perception. My eyesight and hearing are limited to a narrow band which precludes seeing and hearing things which I know exist (radio waves, radiation, high frequency sound, etc.) but cannot directly perceive. Similarly my mind may be similarly limited - I can't visualize dimensions higher than five but maths tells me that more are possible. So it is more than likely that I am missing a higher truth behind everything. I would like to think that is true, because the alternative is a chaotic, meaningless world in which sentient creatures try to impose meaning on random events in order to keep the darkness at bay.

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