PAPER VS. PIXELS
Several years ago, one of my closest friends informed me he was no longer going to be attending our weekly tabletop game. Apparently, his then-girlfriend (now wife) thought the game was stupid and didn’t approve of him playing it. However, she did and does encourage World of Warcraft, which she also plays. Although it’s entirely possible that this was just a power play on her part, I’m still going to acknowledge the hypocrisy.
With the deluge of players signing up for online games every day, it would be a safe assumption that board games and role-playing games would soon go the way of the snow leopard. This could be cyclical, as I remember when these games were circling the drain in the 90s. But the 80s and the 90s didn’t have Fortnite to contend with. When WOW took the world by storm, I’d begun to doubt the future of physical gaming.
I admit I don’t play large scale social video games but not because of some moral reason. My battles with weight (won, by the way) do indicate certain self-control issues. I’m aware addictions can take root quickly if left unchecked. When I play a game, I require it to have an ending, lest I may play it to literal exhaustion. Mass Effect was wrapped in a week after forty hours, two weeks with Dragon Age at seventy hours. I need my games to end, a finale no matter how bittersweet that closes the book and allows a moment of reflection. Even if I want the game to continue as my addiction stipulates, my sanity demands a conclusion. Most MMOs and looter-shooters never have an end, only a point of indifference. And I don’t consider the possession of a plethora of pearlescent pistols a climax. This is also why I love board games. Even if it’s a legacy game like Gloomhaven, your total emotional investment is marginal.
This brings up another issue, repetition. Online video games can be very repetitive. I stopped Borderlands when I hit the top level. The desire to find better weapons just for the sake of acquiring them never interested me. I also like experiencing in-depth stories where one character or a small group of heroes are the focus of said story, something seldom seen with online gaming. In these communities, even the greatest warriors are but one cog in a massive Fritz Lang ziggurat where accomplishments are steamrolled by players more committed. I enjoy being special, even if it’s contained in my own private universe. It’s called being an introvert.
Many years ago (oh my god, has it been sixteen years?), I refused to follow my friends into WOW and quickly became an outcast among them. I’m not sure how my weekly gaming sessions survived, but they did. I lost friends permanently to the online multiverse. In time, many came back to physical media. Digital and paper gaming has been moving side by side for decades, and I still believe they will do so for decades to come. Nobody thought that Wii Sports would kill tennis or Gran Turismo would kill car racing. Yet, some critics still professed that physical gaming is a novelty, offered by few companies each year as customers move onto more modern digital distractions. This equates paper gaming to a ball and cup. Yet I see Warhammer still towering in the miniature market despite digital alternatives.
The last trophy locked in plier-like kung-fu grip by paper gaming was the adaptive story—a game players can affect and alter, even to the extent of changing the entire world by the end of it. This is not a common practice in physical gaming and is reserved for proficient campaign masters and legacy board games. Each year, new titles like Tainted Grail, Gen13, and Stars of Akarios, attempt to tackle this growing genre.
All my reasons for disliking online role-playing games have been personal up until now, mostly rooted in my dislike for games without a defined ending and the encouragement of player cooperation versus player conflict—the latter I have never enjoyed. However, this does leave the one issue sure to garner a response…Online game worlds have no actual story.
A lot of people mistake a good setting for a good story. You can have the basic skeleton of a story mated onto an amazing setting or an amazing story paired with a routine setting (like any number of crime dramas). Fantasy and science fiction stories often feel they can tack on the most tedious and uninspired of plots if there’s a worthy setting to build upon. But settings alone don’t make a story, and many video games have settings and conflict but no real story. And Warcraft, after so many years, contains far too many fan service machinations and role-playing clichés to be considered a genuine or even a serious setting. This doesn’t even consider that most online worlds, Warcraft included, are incredibly unrealistic, even by fantasy standards. Fantasy worlds like the ones seen in the minds of great writers must measure up to internal logic. The worlds, however fantastic, must still be able to operate on realistic levels. There must be a working-class; there must be an environment relatively safe enough to produce food. Even many of the Final Fantasies fail to measure up with this simple constraint, but at least they have stories (a few are even good).
As my friends try to make an argument that WOW has a good setting, I always follow up and ask them what they did with their character this week. Eight out of ten times, they were grinding any number of dungeons on the slim chance that one monster might drop a piece of equipment that may be slightly better than the one you have, still assuming you are up on the queue to receive it. The other two out of ten times, they were killing random mobs to save up the money to grind the aforementioned instances.