Lord of the Rings Online is the Best Storydriven MMO
This post abounds with spoilers
Stories in MMOs stink. It's a tall order to make everyone feel that each of their heroes is the hero of a sprawling epic while simultaneously making sure there's acknowledgement that thousands of other people (who are all heroes) are both there and not as heroic as you, the real hero. That's "tall order" for a top notch story team; the fact is that an awful lot of MMOs, maybe the majority of them, have not been top notch. They've crashed and burned, or waned quickly to life support, or been shoddily put together with MMO players putting up with them because that's just what MMO players do. Back in their glory years, from 1999-2009 or so, an awful lot of bad game design was simply tolerated because the scale of the dream MMO studios trucked in raised our tolerance of video game bullshit. Studios shot the moon, they were filled with dreamers and madmen, they dealt in hazy mirages of large scale social engineering and 1:1 recreations of entire worlds.
Given all that, stories fell by the wayside. It's hard enough to get the damned things to work at all, much less thread the impossible to find needle of "you're a unique hero" and "you need your buddies to do anything" in story terms. MMOs consistently fail at getting this just right. World of Warcraft never lets you forget that you're really in Thrall's story, or Jaina's, or the Hellscream family's. Guild Wars 2 goes the opposite route; the game inserts you into a weird military structure and leans on overwrought, constantly stated faux army language to make you feel like a badass, with everyone calling you "Commander" until the net effect is that you mostly feel condescended to.
Those games aren't bad. On the contrary, I enjoy them both immensely. But I hardly play either for the personal narrative. I play WoW for fast paced, mostly well-tuned group content with friends who are always, always subscribed. I play GW2 to take in the non-pareil world and environment design and to wander around doing pop up missions. Story is secondary, even dead last, in my considerations for playing them.
Then there's Lord of the Rings Online (or LOTRO).
It's hard to make the case that LOTRO is a good game in the sense that WoW, GW2, or a number of other MMOs are. Mechanically, it's a damned mess. The design team has been winnowed so much over the years that bugs with character abilities linger for ages. They introduced mounted combat; it sucks, it "feels" terrible on their servers due to latency issues, and will never be fixed properly. They instituted server merges to manage declining populations, only to mess up the new server hardware, causing lag spikes on most servers which Turbine can seemingly do nothing to prevent.
And then there's the story.
LOTRO's main storyline is a masterpiece of video game storytelling, much less storytelling confined to MMOs. Nestled in all the quotidian tedium of standard "kill 10 wolves" and "take this letter to town then come back" quests is a now decade long thread connecting the players to the War of the Ring, the Fellowship, and all the travails of Tolkien's late Third Age. I got in early, participating in beta, and was taken with it, but I never expected to be sitting in my chair in 2016, stunned nearly to silence at how seemingly easy it came together.
So let's go through a list of why LOTRO's story works.
- Middle-earth is big, physically and mythically, and LOTRO uses size as the story's foundation: I was speaking with my friend, Nick, about Shadows of Mordor the other day. He asked me what I thought of it, especially the big reveal that Celebrimbor, forger of the Rings of Power, is the wraith who helps your hero on his quest in Mordor. I said I didn't mind a bit; Middle-earth is huge, with some of the beauty of the setting as Tolkien wrote it being the stuff which is only hinted at. You can fill the world with heroes, real heroes, and never tell all the stories. Nick nodded and told me that was the correct answer.
This is what LOTRO does and it's ingenious about it. In the liminal spaces between the main story arc of the books is the tale of the Grey Company. The Grey Company are Dunedain Rangers, kinsmen and friends of Aragorn during his years in Eriador. During the War, they travel south, meet up with Aragorn, and accompany him on his journey through the Paths of the Dead. But the story of their journey south is never told in the books, only hinted at. We don't know why they got word, how, the dangers, nothing. They are ill-defined, purposefully, to convey the scale of both the world and the War. We cannot know because the Lord of the Rings occupies a narrative and physical space which is simply too big for us to take in. Further, if a party of nine heading south had all the troubles the Fellowship encountered, a party of thirty plus rangers and hangers-on would certainly have adventures, too.
Anyone who knows me knows that I'm borderline obsessed with stories which don't reveal everything and this is why. If this was the modern geek culture story of heroes and dragons, the world would demand that there not be any space to tell a story like this. Everything would already be filled in. We'd know every member of the Grey Company, every inch of their journey would be covered, and every orc ambush detailed. It would be a side story, a full blow NY Times bestselling attachment to the main or a graphic novel in six parts by Marvel.
But here, in LOTRO, you get to tack on as a nameless member of the Company, which is, itself, largely nameless. Their deeds become your deeds, because you're an equal of Halbarad and the other Rangers. And this is after you spend the original LOTRO release and the first expansion tromping around Angmar and Moria; those two spaces also allow for huge storytelling, because we know the Witch King leaves Angmar and that Moria is reclaimed. They're known stories but they're untold. They become yours in the telling.
- Characters recur in clever, but never overbearing, ways: Early on in the game, you encounter quest givers, just like any MMO. Forgettable, do your thing, move on. Turns out, many of the quest givers early on are members of the Grey Company. They're Rangers, a la Strider: nameless, suspicious wanderers who are secretly set against evil in Eriador. You do the quests for them and don't give it a second thought, only for them to show up when you join the Grey Company.
It's extremely cleverly done and happens again and again. By the time you get to Pelennor, all of these characters show back up to fight at your side. Others, too: minor supporting characters from your journeys through Rohan and the like. Unnamed in the books, present by implication, fleshed out by the game (empty spaces allow this, remember?), given weight by their connection to you.
What's most mindblowing about the recurring characters is that they clearly had a firm storyline for LOTRO a decade ago and never really deviated from it. This is partly a byproduct of being in Middle-earth; there's no need or desire to reinvent the game each expansion release, and certainly no need to have each major release be a self-contained story like other MMOs. But mostly it feels like actual long-term narrative planning of the sort you just don't get in this space.
- Just like in the Fellowship, you're all equals: The Fellowship of the Ring, at least at the outset, is ostensibly made up on equals. We know that's not how it turns out; Aragorn and Frodo become the focal points of the narrative through their particular, especially weighty arcs. But when the group forms, you're looking at mostly equal heroes. Legolas is the son of Thranduil and a mighty (for the Third Age) Noldor prince. Gimli is the son of one of the dwarves from the Hobbit and is a famous dwarven warrior. Boromir is the favored scion of the Steward of Gondor's family. Aragorn/Strider is obvious, as is Gandalf. The hobbits' valor and acclaim are less obvious, but you think back to the stuff about Tookish blood, Frodo's relation to Bilbo, and the repetitions that hobbits are brave, if unnoticed, and it's clear the four are worthies of their people. So at the outset of the journey, there's something very even about the members' standing.
This is roughly how things play out in LOTRO. You join the Grey Company and are an equal, even when the others get screen time. There's never a moment like at the end of Wrath of the Lich King, where you kill Arthas and NPCs arrive to claim the glory. If you do something for the Grey Company or with them, the victory is yours and theirs, but the spotlight never leaves you. And, when your story crosses paths with the Fellowship, it's in ways which make your victories feel as or nearly as important as theirs.
- No long cutscenes: MMOs don't need cutscenes, ever. They de-center the action from your character and/or your group. They almost always place developer favorite characters in prime position over your accomplishments because there's simply no real way to have "you" as embodied by an avatar--a very personal thing--act out a scripted cutscene. They should never be used or should be incredibly short.
LOTRO opts for the latter, and it may very well be that its run by a skeleton crew, precluding the ability to make long, elaborate cutscenes. Here's what you get: if you're witness to a major scene in the books, it's short, fast, and you're a witness to it. You get a loading screen catch up on story matters at the end of each chapter of the game's main storyline, recapping what's been happening; these take maybe 20-30 seconds. That's it. The rest of the time, the action never changes focus from you.
- It turns into a war story: The Battle of Pelennor Fields is the biggest scene in the books, functionally the final battle between good and evil (I know, the fight before the Black Gate, but it simply doesn't have the same emotional or cultural heft). In order to make the extended scene work in LOTRO, your heroism has to be shed. Remember: equals. That means equal before the sword, the muck, and the ruin of battle. LOTRO does this. You're suddenly stripped of the heroism of the early chapters, the heroism of killing dragons and clearing dungeons, in favor of the heroism of the battlefield. You're a hero by surviving.
This is the way to do it. You are, again, an equal of your peers in the Grey Company. And they die. In droves. Those who don't die are changed.
This is the part which stunned me. You look at how war is portrayed, particularly in a fantasy/medieval setting, and it so often leans on jumping heroes, fireballs, acrobatics, and a host of other types of nonsense. You get lip service to how awful war is, but never any heft to the declarations. Not so in LOTRO. Here, war really does change you and change your fellows.
The example which struck me is after the battle, when you're charged with speaking with some of the recurring characters who have been with you on your journey. You speak with Horn, a Rohirrim warrior whose initial story is that he's uncomfortable with what it means to be a Rohirrim. He falls in love with a Dunlending woman, an absolute taboo in Tolkien's racially stratified world, only to have them split off-screen when she asks him to leave Rohan behind in favor of fighting the darkness to come alone, with her, and their someday child.
Horn picks Rohan, and he picks Pelennor, by extension. By the time this little snippet of text happens, you've been through probably a good two game hours of fighting in the fields of Pelennor. Warriors you've known for years, if you've been with the game for a long time, have died. And Horn says (paraphrasing only lightly), "If this is what being a man is, if it's killing and watching other men be killed, I don't want it and I should've stayed away".
That's a powerful sentiment, and it's grappling not just with the effects of war but with what it means to be a man in a world in which to be a man is to kill. What's the cost of that? Horn doesn't know. You don't, really, but the way Pelennor is presented in-game, you can have a guess.
- It's heavy without being forced: Going back to Horn, above, nothing about it is forced. It doesn't make you read the text. There's no cutscene. There's no commercial, no articles about the game as the artistic breakthrough of the year. It just is. You don't even have to read the damned thing if you don't want to. Hell, if you played through it, you probably didn't; nobody reads MMO text.
We're in a really strange moment in video games, where they're growing up, but they're also extremely self-conscious about growing up. The functional effect of that is that an awful lot of games, big, small, and in-between, want to make absolutely certain they're seen as being serious. Think of the next Deus Ex's heavy-handed marketing attempts of racial commentary; I'm not going to weigh in on that, both because it's been done and because it's a sideshow to this article, but the self-affected seriousness of it, the way games think "well, we're grown up so now let's try really hard to bear that mantle" is self-defeating. Most of the best art comes from not trying so damned hard to be art; you want a quiet confidence to the best parts of games, not the digital equivalent of goth poetry.
This isn't to say that LOTRO's story ascends to the realm of literature; it's a game, and games aren't literature or painting or opera. But it is to say I'll take things like Horn's moment of existential crisis on the battlefield, the sort of thing which litters LOTRO if you look, over a thousand Bioshock Infinites.