One of the big problems with storytelling in MMORPGs is that writers and developers tend to back themselves into a corner with the whole “You’re the Greatest Hero the World Has Ever Seen” bit too early, leaving themselves with nowhere to go. Sure, most games start you out pretty small potatoes, clawing your way up through insignificant quests, but by mid-game you’re already saving whole zones and being hailed the world over for your deeds.
I get why. I mean, that’s every fantasy story ever, and the devs assume that we want to live out that story vicariously through our characters. It’s heady to be told that we’re these wonderful saviors after we face off against world-ending bosses… the first few times, that is. But the problem here is that when you get to that point with an MMO and the game still has to keep making new content, what do you do? You can only escalate the threat so many times, go to a new zone so many times where no one recognizes your pedigree and you must earn their trust, and eventually face off against some six-story horror so many times. It becomes routine and stale, and the meaning of “hero” is eroded into a bland status quo.
I’ve said before that I don’t want to be the big hero. I don’t need that. My ego doesn’t need that. And I think that people play MMOs for many reasons, some to tell their own stories and be a very specific part of the world instead of taking center stage at the Fantasy Kingdom Oscars.
So thank goodness for LOTRO and its tendency to remind all of us that heroism isn’t punching the rock monster in its stones and having a parade thrown for our honor afterward. Sure, there have been moments of greatness, but they feel fewer and further between than normal, and earned to boot. From start to end, we’re just these people (of all sizes) who lead by example, do the best we can, and often get tossed into situations where everything is way over our head.
My son was watching me play the other day and I was explaining what was going on in Rohan, what with the army of the White Hand starting to sweep in and most of my efforts going to help people with the evacuation. He asked, “Daddy, why don’t you just go fight them all?” which I thought was amusing. In some MMOs, I’m sure I could. I’d be superman, wading through battalions like a child stomping over sandcastles. But here? I’m just one person — albeit well-funded, well-trained, and possessing the ability to not ever die. I can’t wage a war single-handedly.
So I had to tell my son that sometimes heroes help people evacuate, keep people safe, and do what good they can in whatever way they can. That’s what I love about LOTRO, I’m never the main hero. I might participate in heroism, but it’s not about me. It feels more real that way, more nuanced, and more involving.
I’m not going to get up on a soapbox and say that, hey, this is better than your game, because I enjoy a lot of different approaches. It’s just something I’ve always appreciated about LOTRO (and in a weirdly similar way, The Secret World too).
As I’ve been working back through all of the Rohan quests I skipped over, I’m taking the opportunity to enjoy these smaller moments of being a part of the life and struggles of these fictional people. It’s not mundane to me, to board up a house, or search for a lost girl, or to pluck a few weeds. Keeps me humble, even as a hero. And there’s always places to go with such stories, because there are always more people to help. I’ll leave the apocalypse-stopping to someone else for a while.