Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Article: Confessions Of A Level 65 Middle-Earth Addict

Last night I hit Level 65.

This is a more significant statement that it appears at first glance. It carries a lot of baggage with it that might not be easily understood by non-gamers. Even many gamers might not fully grasp the reality of this development if they spend all their time behind a pad shooting Russian terrorists and/or teenagers from Minnesota.

Really, to fully get my turbulent emotions over hitting the aforementioned Level 65, you need to be an MMO player. Any of them will do. As long as they’re traditional and have levels and grinding and all that fulfilling drip-fed reward stuff. Even ~spit~ World Of Warcraft ~spit~.

What the hell I am talking about, for those of you scratching your heads and smelling your armpits, is that last night my main character on a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game called Lord Of The Rings Online achieved Level 65. He is an avatar in a persistent online world populated by other players and filled to the brim with various game mechanics and content. Level 65, to use the vernacular, is the current 'level cap'. Meaning that while my character can still get up to all sorts of exciting shenanigans in and around the virtual Middle Earth that creators Turbine have crafted, for now his development in terms of rising through the ranks of his peers (at least in terms of the direct boost levels provide) has been halted.

Now, for many MMO players getting to level cap is only the start of their enjoyment in the hobby and is something they strive to achieve as soon as possible after creating a character. The activities specifically developed for these level capped characters are typically called the 'endgame', and it's not unusual for them to be much more complex and structured than what has come before. Indeed, for many of the hardcore endgame players any time the developers spend on pre-level cap material for newer players is seen as some kind of betrayal. After all, they are the elite. The crème de la crème of gaming nerds. The Illustrious And Holy Order Of The Knights Of Repetitive Wrist Strain Injury.

To be fair, this attitude is a lot more apparent in other MMOs than it is for Lord Of The Rings Online (hereinafter referred to as LOTRO, to conserve my energy). For whatever reason the community in LOTRO prides itself on being relatively polite and friendly, with an absolute minimum of griefing prepubescents running through the pathways of Rivendell shrieking homophobic abuse at the elves. Perhaps it's the inherent maturity in the source material, perhaps the generally older player base. Personally I have always thought that the relative lack of intricate endgame raiding (an activity whereby advanced players repeatedly play through challenging content to gain loot-based rewards to further micro-tweak their characters) within this particular MMO is a major contributor. There seems to be much more focus within the world on the journey rather than the destination.

And this is exactly why hitting the level cap isn't as much of a goal for me as it is for my endgame-focused colleagues. For me it has always been about the journey, which is probably why it has taken me a whole 3 years to get from Level 1 to the dizzying heights of 65. Many players would take a month at most to do the same. Admittedly I have been sidelined a few times – not having played for a few weeks, or spent some time advanced another character (or 'alt') which gives me the chance to re-run fun earlier scenarios or try the playing style of another class. But even without all that, I doubt I would have rushed through much faster.

Reader, please meet Ulfhelm Bardsson, Captain of Dale.

A handsome chap, I'm sure you'll agree. Ulfhelm has ranged all across Eriador, the North-West of the Middle-Earth you may be familiar with from the books and films. From early days attempting to save the villagers of Archet from a rampaging band of local brigands, he has roamed the length and breadth of the lands Turbine have uploaded to my hard drive. I have decided to limit my recollections, for the purposes of brevity and the sake of your sanity, to five examples. This is Ulfhelm's Middle-Earth Top 5.

  1. Investigating the Old Forest on the boundary of The Shire for the first time. Upon entering, all the textures shift and the music takes an ominous tone. Everything suddenly becomes darker and more threatening, and performing pie-delivery quests for hobbits seems very, very far away.
  1. In the far North of Eriador is a frozen ice bay called Forochel. Near the far North of this ice bay is a town crafted from packed ice called Sûri-kylä. The local people, modelled on an idealised ancient Finnish culture, have arranged multicoloured lights around their dwellings. The sky is already seething with Aurora Borealis and the effect, upon rounding a corner in the snowy approach to the town, is breathtaking. I do not mean that as hyperbole. The first time I saw it I left Ulfhelm standing in place for a good couple of minutes to enjoy the view.
  1. On one of many trips across the harsh stone wasteland of Angmar, Ulfhelm happens to catch sight of a couple of lower level players being cut to ribbons by a group of vicious orc soldiers. Having established that they need help rather badly, he runs towards the ridge by which they are desperately fighting for their lives before leaping over their heads at the orcs and yelling a fierce battle cry. With Ulfhelm's help the servants of The Enemy are dispatched and the travellers are free to go on their way. Before they do, one of them turns to Ulfhelm and types something through the local chat channel. "Dude!" they say. "That was well Boromir!"
  1. The first major expansion for LOTRO was the well-received Mines Of Moria, which added in the notoriously claustrophic mines along with many more developments. Ulfhelm has spent a fair bit of time there, much of it lost in the winding tunnels. There are many spectacular sights to be had, but none of them quite match the experience of roaming across the windswept peak of Zirakzigil. The expansiveness of a sudden open white sky is striking enough, but to walk down to the bottom of a smoking pit and finding the cracked and battered remains of the Balrog that Gandalf fought from the base to the very top of the mountain was pure nerd joy. Even in death, Ulfhelm could not approach the creature without suffering from fear effects that cause him to lose the LOTRO equivalent of 'health'.
  1. If I had to pick my favourite ever in-game discovery, this would be it. Ulfhelm has been wandering the land of Eregion for some time, which the more geeky of you may know as the lands around the gates to Moria. While traipsing around some fairly nondescript grassy hills (which generally litter every MMO), I notice a quest indicator nearby on my map. Upon reaching the location, there is Bill The Pony. Surrounded by Wargs and generally not a very happy little horse. He has obviously been cornered by them after leaving the Fellowship, and now needs my help to escape them. This, right here, is what LOTRO does best. It takes a decades-old lore and builds around it with reverence and with ingenuity. It slots you not just into Middle-Earth but into the story of the War Of The Ring in a way that does not take much of a suspension of disbelief. And I have never felt as good about anything I have done in a game – anything – as I did rescuing Bill The Pony and escorting him to safety.
Other enthusiasts of LOTRO will rage about me leaving out the first viewing of Rivendell from the Gates Of Imladris, or the pastoral beauty of The Shire, or the chilling near-monochrome of the Barrow Downs, or even meeting Aragorn, Gandalf, Frodo and the others. But while all those things are awesome in their own way, for me it is the little things.

Finding a camp the Fellowship left behind. Interacting with the side characters from the books who now have to deal with the steadily worsening situations the Ringbearer has left them in his passing. And while I have hit the cap, there is still plenty for me to see and do (and experience all over again). Hell, about an hour before posting this I hopped online to take some screenshots for this article and ended up finding an encampment of travellers from Dale being protected by some elves in Lothlorien. For the terminally short-of-attention, Ulfhelm is from Dale – and these are the first people I have encountered from his homeland in 3 years.

That might seem like a big so-what. After all, this is an MMO not a Bioware RPG. I can’t really interact with these people beyond getting given quests by them and selling stuff to them. Time for a torturously extended metaphor. Games such as the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series are like whirlwind romances. They throw interesting, hopefully complex characters at you and rattle you around in a box with them for about 30 hours. By the end, it has been so intense and driven that you end up attached to them. Would you get to the same degree of intensity on another playthrough though? Doubtful.

By contrast, an MMO is like an arranged marriage. There isn’t the same initial spark because the characterisation isn’t there to hang on to. But by the end, so much has been invested and so much has been gained from a gentle dripfeed of enjoyment that you can’t help but develop a deeper affection. That’s not me recommending arranged marriages, by the way. Not unless the wedding involves slaying goblins.

The world of Tolkien is perhaps more suited to this kind of world than other MMOs – precisely because it is a World. There is so much depth there and so much atmosphere that effectively the main character of both LOTR and LOTRO is Middle-Earth itself. Frankly, characterisation can get to fuck when I can watch the sun set from Weathertop. Not to mention the rich social interaction possible with the actually real people I play with week in, week out.

But in a way the journey is over. There will doubtless be further expansions and level caps that I can set off to enjoy, but this one part of Ulfhelm’s story – the one I started three years ago in Archet at laughable Level 1 – that is finished. It's a bittersweet experience, because I have achieved something (in a very limited sense of 'achieved') that it took more joy to work towards than it did to complete. That is in no sense a complaint. Indeed, that is exactly the way it should be.

The road goes ever on, but the miles I have left behind me will never be quite the same again.

1 comment:

  1. This was a joy to read, seriously. I haven't had a minute to play LOTRO in the past few weeks and this is making me want to drop everything to get on there now. Send it to the devs as encouragement!