Yesterday I read a book called The Ox-Cart Man to my daughter. It is a simple story (there is also a version in verse) about a man driving his ox-cart laden with produce to market, and then returning home, coins in pocket. As I read, I suddenly teared up.
It’s a poignant book, especially the point where the man sells his ox, kisses him goodbye, and leaves for home, alone. But that is not what moved me. I realized that I had read the book many years before, and was struck by the memory of how I’d once felt upon reading this passage.
Books are like this — you can return to them a half-lifetime later and have an experience that touches on both who you were at the time you first encountered the work and who you are now. Music, movies, (off-air) television series, most games too — you can return, a changed person, to an unchanged world. On occasion I will roll up a an instance of one of my favorite childhood games on the Internet Archive and spend a few moments reminiscing. This is nostalgia — it is a certainty provided by most media.
With online worlds, this certainty crumbles.
Most online games are unchanging enough to produce an illusion of stability. ‘Dynamic’ worlds are often advertised by MMO developers, but rarely delivered. Usually, going through a zone today is similar to visiting the zone two years ago, and we expect the experience will be nearly identical two years in the future.
But this is just an illusion, one we are reminded of when an MMO suddenly shuts down, or when a storyline shakes up the geography of our favorite worlds.
I’ve just watched the latest Warbringers: Sylvanas animated short about the burning of Teldrassil. I don’t know enough (okay, I know practically nothing) about Azeroth lore, so I can’t comment on whether this is consistent characterization of Sylvanas or whether it should be possible to burn a World Tree just by chucking a few fireballs at it, or anything like that. I don’t care about the lore, and never will.
But after my real-world apartment burned, as soon as I could set my computer up, I logged in to stroll the comforting glades of Teldrassil. When life is unstable or stressful, online games can be a respite. An event like yesterday’s Battle for Azeroth pre-patch has the disconcerting effect of reminding players that their retreats are unstable, that business concerns or the whims of developers can undermine the landscape of their refuge.
Luckily, Blizzard has no intention of making Teldrassil inaccessible to low-level characters, so we can still level up in the zone as before. It’s not Cataclysm-level disruption.
The other criticism of the prepatch — this time more from the Horde perspective — is how it constrains players. Games are appealing, in part, because they abstract away a lot of the complexity of the real world and allow players to make decisions based off of a consistent set of rules. But the Horde side of the Teldrassil burning scenario forces players into taking a series of actions that may be inconsistent with the character they’ve developed or with their understanding of the rules of this gameworld.
The storyline strips players of agency. It’s not a good feeling, especially since many players log in seeking mastery and greater sense of control than we can find in the real world. MMOs, at their best, empower their players.
To be sure, the power of an online world may come in part from it’s tenuousness. It is fragile, so a bit more precious. But right now, I’m feeling a bit fragile, too, and could use a break.
So, I’ll be staying away from the Battle for Azeroth.
Instead, let me share a couple of screenshots and continue to revel in the unspoiled beauty of pre-patch Teldrassil.
I’m participating in Blaugust Reborn — a month of community and lots of blogging, organized by Belghast from Tales of the Aggronaut. The event runs throughout until the end of the month, and it’s not too late to join in. There are more than 80(!) participants, check out the current listing here.