Sunday, July 21, 2019

Some Journey

Naithin has a post up about The Horrible Hundred in FFXIV. As he explains, a hundred or so quests stand between the end of the original main storyline and the start of Heavensward, the first expansion: "It’s a rite of passage. A trial to be passed to earn your way into the much nicer content that follows."

Not surprisingly this prospect doesn't exactly fill Naithin with joy. I doubt it would many people. But he's trying to be a good MMORPG soldier and "love the journey" in the way we're often told we should.

Reading his piece made me stop and think. I've repeated the mantra plenty of times, not least here on this blog: "It's the journey, not the destination". I've repeated it so often, in fact, that I no longer think about what it means, if indeed I ever did. I just trot it out like a truth universally acknowledged.

Thinking about the expression, I see two problems with the way we commonly employ it in relation to MMORPGs. The first is that it's a misquotation. Its origin, widely but inaccurately attributed Emerson, is unclear. There's a revealing breakdown of possible sources on QuoteInvestigator, which points out that the whole thing has become a snowclone.

The root phrase, wherever it originated, crucially involved the word "life", which changes the meaning entirely. "Life is a journey, not a destination" self-evidently expresses a philosophical and religious approach that values an open-ended, open-minded willingness to engage.

Even Aerosmith know that! Check the penultimate verse.  Here's a link to the actual song and if linking to an Aerosmith video isn't the very definition of willingness to engage with what you find by chance along the way then I don't know what is.

The second problem, when it comes to the way the expression is employed in relation to playing MMORPGs, is extreme literalism. Having truncated the phrase to omit the word that gives it its primary meaning, we then compound the error by stripping what's left of any metaphorical nuance whatsoever. The "journey" becomes exactly that: a trip from A to B, whether that means going from city to city, creation to cap or acquisition to completion.

It's bollocks, isn't it? It only takes a moment's thought to see what utter tripe that is. As a short opinion piece on Psychology Today succinctly puts it:

"Arriving in Hawaii is much better than the plane trip there. And being in Hawaii is much better than the plane trip back. The plane trips are tolerable only by anticipating being in Hawaii or good memories of being there".

If what someone wants to do is play the content that came with Heavensward, for example, telling them to enjoy the "journey" that takes them there from the end of ARR is pretty much like asking  someone about to get on a 24 hour flight to Australia to be sure and appreciate the time they spend going through airport security.

Learning to "love the journey" in cases like this is made even more unlikely by the fact that that it's not a journey of your choosing. You haven't, as the mantra imagines, set out with no fixed destination in mind, allowing serendipity to reward you with what you find along the way. You've been given a job of work to do.

And it's not even as though it's a job you wanted. All too often it can feel like being a courier driver co-erced into working for a psychotic dispatcher. Go here, drop this package, get a signature, kill everyone in the house, steal their stuff. Back in the van, on to the next. Good luck finding the serendipity in that.

It is possible to play MMORPGs by wandering around and doing whatever. I've done it many times in many games and I'd reccommend it in the strongest possible terms. It can be entertaining, amusing, exciting, even revelatory. Most games will allow it and some even encourage it.

When I've urged people to "enjoy the journey" that's what I meant. It's a playstyle, if you like. It is very much not an encouragement to do every quest, look in ever corner, take forever to level up, let alone to have an anxiety attack if you find you missed something.

Indeed, missing out on things can be every bit as important as experiencing them. Your experiences are shaped in part by what's absent. If you went here you didn't go there. Because you went here you did this, not that.

Maybe you'll loop around and come back to "there" and do "that" later and maybe you won't. That's the joy of it. Go where the wind takes you. When it stops blowing, take a look at where you've ended up. Don't think about what you lost; think about what you found.

What Naithin is going through doesn't sound anything like that. He doesn't have a choice and I imagine he barely has freedom of action. He has a to-do list with a hundred items to be checked off before he can get to what he really wants to do.

In a situation like that, it's not so much about enjoying the journey as it is making the best of a bad job. That's not nothing. Far better to take a positive attitude and make the most of something you'd rather not do but know you have to than to complain and drag your feet and make the whole thing even more frustrating and tedious than it already is.

Making the best of it could very well be seen as a key skill for anyone wanting to take up playing MMORPGs as a hobby. Every one of them is chock-full of things we have to do to get things we want but which, given a free choice, we'd skip in a heartbeat. If you want a cliche, maybe "If life gives you lemons..." would suit the situation better.

I'm not at all sure it helps to try and pretend the whole thing is some kind of 19th century romantic journey. When Byron spent years criss-crossing Europe he was following his inclinations, not some itinerary given to him by a stranger on a street corner, who'd prevailed upon him for a favor and to be sure he wouldn't forget had told him "Here, I'll write it in your Journal".

Perhaps we need to be more realistic about the parts of MMORPGs that are there for purely pragmatic reasons. Gussying them up as amazing life experiences isn't necessarily doing us or the games any favors. Sometimes you just have to get on the plane and hope you can find something to keep your mind occupied until the journey's over.

It's something to think about. I'm certainly going to be a little less glib about doling out rote advice I haven't bothered to consider carefully in future. Well, I might be. I'll at least promise to try and feel a little sheepish if I'm called on it.


  1. Interesting take. And I agree with about 90% of it, and the 10% I don't agree with I'm not sure yet I know how to argue or express what I mean. Let's see if I can work it out in writing it. ;)

    First I suppose I should better define the position. I think my last post made this pretty unclear, so apologies!

    When I wrote the original 'Learning to Love the Journey' piece it was about learning to see value in more than JUST the endgame, and raiding in particular.

    The leveling process was something I saw as nothing more than a necessary evil. And yet... And yet if I had an option to skip it entirely? Contrary to your comment in this post, I don't know that I would want the leveling process removed.

    I saw that as a way of earning a place participating in the endgame content. And I wondered whether I believed that or not, but ultimately I think it becomes very easy to lose sight of the value of things that come unearned.

    The primary parallel I was drawing to the Horrible Hundred was that sense of earning what follows. A sentiment I absolutely recognised, but didn't much relish here at this end of it. ;)

    That part might of been OK, but where the lack of clarity comes in I think in retrospect is that while this made me think of the post on learning to love the journey again because I'd dealt with both sentiments there -- I wasn't strictly tying this back to the Horrible Hundred itself.

    More that I was seeing some success in feeling free to step off what would perhaps be the most efficient path to the endgame to unlock some things and gear that wouldn't serve any purpose then but was perhaps a bit of fun now.

    Yet I couldn't claim that a total success because it was being done at least as much in service of procrastinating the Horrible Hundred as it was because I /wasn't/ still bee-lining hard toward the end!

    Otherwise I think we're on the same page, and is why, I think, I had a much easier time of actually stopping and smelling the roses (as a goal in and of itself, or as a playstyle like you say) in ESO. That game really opens itself to this playstyle and is the antithesis in this respect to FFXIV.

    FFXIV is, insofar as the MSQ is concerned at least, 100% linear. It is replicating in many respects the main story of a standard FF game. Stopping and smelling the roses is... I wouldn't say impossible but certainly a heck of a lot more difficult. In fact I'd almost say that reaching level 50 was the first real opportunity to do it. Where options that weren't simply psychotic dispatcher side quests were available.

    1. I think the nub of the problem is that there's a whole lot of oranges mixed in with the apples. Take leveling, for example. For some players it's a gameplay loop entirely of its own. We all know people whose main reason for playing MMORPGs is to make characters, level them up, then park them, make a new character and do it again. I do it a lot, albeit less than I used to. For others it's something they enjoy once or twice but don't want to keep repeating just to have different classes at cap. And then there are the players who see leveling as nothing but a roadblock to the real game. Telling all those people to "stop and smell the roses" is clearly missing the point.

      Then there's the question of the content itself. Is it actually rewarding enough, sufficiently well-written and designed, to deserve to have its roses smelled? An awful lot of leveling content gets handed to the most junior devs or gets churned out by more experienced designers at speed just to get x number of quests per hub. I've read dev interviews that say as much. Why should we treat it like it's Tolstoy when it's more like the label on the back of a sauce bottle?

      I don't play FFXIV (not meaningfully, anyway) but my suspicion is that the reason The Horrible Hundred even exists is because the devs were filling time between expansions, keeping players occupied so they wouldn't wander off. If the quests were good enough, a lot of people would be recommending doing them for the entertainment value. Is anyone doing that?

      Also, FFXIV's extreme linearity is a huge problem for the "journey". It put me off when I played at launch. That said, at launch my Lala got to the mid-30s and was on the appropriate MSQ stage for that level. My current free trial character is 31 and still in South Shroud. I have largely ignored the MSQ and played according to the "wander about and see what happens" prinicple and it works a lot better for me than folowing the MSQ ever did.

    2. Well, it works in trial, but you'll never see any zone beyond ARR and won't get any skill above level 50 without doing MSQ. Actually, AFAIR even job stones are gated behind MSQ.

    3. You can get every job to Level 35, though, and make up to eight characters, which is way more content than I'm ever likely to need.

    4. Bhagpuss -- There IS a lot of relevant story content in the 100, honestly. New characters are introduced, major things happen to your character, story-wise. If they took out all those quests and put in a 30 minute video cut-scene telling the story you experience through the quests it'd be worth watching. It's just that it's not enough story to justify all the time it takes to travel hither and yon to unveil it.

  2. I have to agree and often think this with EverQuest. People are constantly told to enjoy the journey, mainly because the destination (Level 60 and endgame, on Project 1999 anyway) is not exactly all roses.

    But there are some really unenjoyable parts of that journey, and telling someone to enjoy it more than a little condescending.

    1. EQ is an interesting one because, while I think it can readily be played almost as a sandbox, it also always has the lure of levels and AAs. I'm always torn between doing what I enjoy doing for the sake of doing it and doing things that move my xp bar. At low-mid levels that's generally well-balanced but after about level 70 xp really starts to mean everything. Hard to enjoy the journey when the journey is going to the best xp spot and staying there until it's not the best any more.

  3. As it so happens I am also in the Horrible Hundred. Square Enix needs to address it. For those not familiar, these quests were put in after ARR launched but before the first expansion arrived, in a series of patches delivered a few months apart. At the time I'm sure the players appreciated having some new story content to play through.

    But now, sheesh. I've been working through these quests for 2 weeks of real time. And since there is no longer a level cap of 50, the content quickly became trivial, and the experience you get is as well. I'm somewhere around quest #80 and it took those 80 quests to go from level 50+ to level 60.

    Then every so often you have to do group content so you have to a) wait in a queue to do that content and b) try to remember how to play your character when you're not completely over-leveled (since group content scales).

    Many of the quests are literally go there, talk to an NPC, who ends you to another NPC who sends you to another NPC, who sends you back to the first NPC, with no, or virtually no, combat involved. But even NPC has a big old chunk of dialog to spew at you.

    I guess the advised thing to do is to level a second job for this content. So you run your first job up to the end of ARR (when you're probably going to be over 50) then start a second job and run it up to level 40-45 and pick up the post ARR quests. At least then you'll be getting meaningful exp/loot for that job.

    Square Enix has mentioned that they're going to 'streamline' early game content and I hope this is the first place they start.

    If I ever decide to level another character through this I will definitely spend the $11 to purchase a 'story skip' to get past these quests. How's that for brilliant marketing? Make the story so long and convoluted that your players pay extra to NOT do the content you've created!


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