Tuesday, November 24, 2020

On Repeat

A topic that bubbles up in conversation now and then, when people talk about playing mmorpgs, is the time-consuming nature of the hobby. People occasionally out themselves as addicts or make a point by quoting extraordinary /played statistics running into hundreds or thousannds of hours over a number of years. It's a given that successful, long-running games come with more curated content than most of us are likely to consume even once.

In some ways mmorpgs have more in common with other media than they do with video games, even those that come in series. Single-player games tend to have finite narative arcs that alternate paths and endings merely complement. Almost all non-competetive games have some kind of completion state, whether it's a Game Over screen or a full set of achievements.

It's as well, then, that mmorpgs hang around. When Blizzard's John Hight says of World of Warcraft "Why should it ever end?" he's doing no more than stating the obvious in the form of a rhetorical question. Why indeed? There's no reason. 

In these days of boxed sets and streaming platforms, a long-running mmorpg isn't all that different from a series of movies or a long-running TV show. Time was when you'd need to catch something like that on broadcast or release. Maybe, if you kept your eyes open, you'd get another chance on repeat or rerun or revival. 


Nowadays, it's harder to think of things you can't access at will. Even failures and flops live on in a dim half-life, uploaded to YouTube from glitchy VHS cassettes or released back into the culture by creators hoping for another shot at an aesthetic validation they never experienced the first time around. Unsuccessful online games are one of the rare cultural entities that fade and even there, like a superhero's death, you can't count on it lasting.

Jeromai was talking recently about purging games from his hard drives: "I used to just keep the game around… just in case. Well, part of deliberate unfettered gaming is to loose that fetter. UNINSTALLED. Gone from the hard disk. What’s the harm? I can always re-download it again when I get the urge to play it again. The save files are mostly all intelligently maintained or cloud saved these days".

It's true, although I suspect many of us will take a little longer to feel entirely secure in our non-ownership of things we really care not lose. But then, nothing is ever guaranteed. Files corrupt. Disks break. Tapes fade. Even books burn. It's maybe safer in the ether, after all.

The medium isn't the message, anyway. What's stopping all of us going back and doing it over isn't access to the data. It's time.

And playing mmorpgs takes for-frickin'-ever! Even with things on fast-forward, with all the short cuts and the  boosts and the skips. Look at that WoWHead chart I put up yesterday, telling you how long it takes to go from ten to fifty in different expansions. The shortest time is twelve hours. 

Twelve hours!  Twelve hours to get a single character to the old cap, experiencing just a fraction of the basic content of one expansion, from the perspective of one race, one class, one faction. At which point, in the minds of many - possibly most - the game is just about to begin.

Not that most people really are going to get through even that small portion in any twelve hours. It's going to take the average person twice that, I would bet, unless they literally skip the actual content of the content.

Twenty four hours, which is less than it took me to level my shaman, is long enough to watch all three seasons of Stranger Things, something I was doing concurrently with my recent stint in WoW.  It was the disparate experiences that sent me down this track. Also the similarities.

When I finally got around to playing WoW about five years after it arrived I was surprised to find it wasn't at all what I was expecting. I'd heard plenty about it. Plenty. It was a cultural phenomenon and I thought I had a pretty good handle on it despite never having played it.

Yeah, well, I was right and I was wrong. WoW wasn't not what I was expecting but it was much more than I was expecting. It had depth and feeling I hadn't anticipated. It also reminded me very, very strongly of other mmorpgs, some of which I liked better, and yet it didn't disgrace them. In some interesting ways it shed light on them and made me appreciate them even more. And want to play them again. 

Stranger Things is like that. It's not quite the cultural phenomenon WoW was in it's prime but it's the show that made many of us take notice of Netflix as something more than just a distribution service. It had sufficient cultural capital to penetrate the mainstream as a trope, an analogy for a genericized cultural nostalgia, similar to how WoW stood in for nerd culture in general back in that South Park episode and a score more noughties comedies.

I thought I had ST pegged; eighties' nostalgia filtered through a post-nineties' ironic lens. A mash-up of all those Spielberg-influenced, D&D-quoting, kid-friendly movies that themselves referenced a Saturday Morning Pictures culture long forgotten even then. All thrown into a blender with monster-of-the-week hits sequenced all the way from the Outer Limits to the X-Files.

And then I watched it and, like WoW, it turned out to be everything I thought it would be and something entirely different at the same time. Just as WoW, back when I first played it in 2009, was both easy and hard, so Stranger Things is both light and dark. In both cases I went in expecting a frothy, sugar-sweet rush that wouldn't last and came out feeling strangely changed; satisfied yet unsettled; fulfilled yet wanting more.

Good art bounces. Playing World of Warcraft always makes me think of playing EverQuest. It makes me consider what that game did first and did right. It makes me consider what came after and how at least a part of the culture changed because of it and is still changing now.


As I was watching Stranger Things I couldn't but help compare it with its preternatural progenitor, Buffy. As in mmorpgs of a certain stripe everything comes back to EQ, so in television shows like this, everything comes back to Buffy but in the case of Stranger Things there are tighter correlations than just that. I could start my dissertation on the touchstones right now. I imagine someone already has. 

What it really makes me want to do, though, is re-watch Buffy from start to end. And I could. I could do that. It would take me six days. If I did nothing else but eat and sleep. Taken at a more realistic pace, five or six episodes a day, I could be through it in a month. 

Which is still a hell of a long time. One day I'll do it but time is growing short. As life passes, things pile up. It's hard enough to keep pace with everything new that's added without revisting and re-evaluating.

Except you have to. You really do. Nothing worth doing is worth doing only once, at least not when it comes to art and culture. It all needs to be looked at again and again, set in context with itself and everything else. The cheese does not stand alone.

One of the more curious effects of this peculiar year for me has been the recovery of my re-reading habit. For many years I re-read as a matter of course. I would often irritate people in pubs with my theory that it's the third time that counts. The first read is all about discovery, the second about comparison. The third is the first clean read. I can elaborate, trust me, but I won't.


Working in a bookshop for twenty years broke me of the habit, not intentionally but through the sheer, unceasing torrent of free, new books. I never had time to re-read anything because I had to keep winnowing that pile. This year, for the first time in a long time, at home, surrounded by thousands of books, I started to re-read. And it was good.

Only my rule of three didn't apply so much. I could barely remember having read most of the books in the first place. It was more like reading them for the first time, again. You really need to re-read in real time to keep the doors of perception propped open. Same with movies, TV, music...

And, I guess, mmorpgs? Maybe? I'm not sure. Because we for damn sure aren't likely to start again from scratch and do the whole thing over, are we? I mean, many of us come around a few times. We go back to older games and give them another spin. But it seems to me that's more like playing a few tracks from an old album than reading a whole novel or even sitting through a full movie.

With Shadowlands launching today a whole new layer gets added to the cake. And, trust John Hight, they'll keep adding. Because why in the hell should they ever stop?

But we will. We will stop. Which is why we have to make choices, like Jeromai. What to keep. What to lose. And, for me, what to pick up again, and when, and how many times. How many more times?

I am so going to re-watch Buffy. Maybe I could use the time I'm not using not playing Shadowlands...


  1. "Nothing worth doing is worth doing only once, at least not when it comes to art and culture. It all needs to be looked at again and again, set in context with itself and everything else. The cheese does not stand alone."

    Wow, you found the perfect words to describe what I've always felt yet could never articulate.

    I've been asked so often why I rewatch and reread things, and I never knew what to say other than "because already knowing that I like it only adds to the enjoyment", which was good enough for me but never satisfied the other person.

    So, thanks! ;-)

    1. You're welcome! In my experience, people generally fall into three camps: they agree and they already do it, they agree that they ought to do it but they claim they don't have time or, biggest group by far, they just think it's a completely ridiculous concept. Not sure how likely anyone is to change their mind no matter how well you express the argument.

    2. I like to reread book series just before a new entry in the series comes out. It's astonishing how much you forget in a year or two :)

      Also i have watched Buffy at least three times now and i always find something i missed before.


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