Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Long Road To Harrow's End : EQ2

It's over at last. The journey that began back in Antonica all those weeks ago, when Firiona Vie, Leader of the High Elves, Chosen of Tunare and Norrath's sweetheart fell suddenly and inexplicably dead at my feet, ended today in battle with a god; Drinal, The Silver Reaper.

Okay, he's not one of the better-known gods. And my part in the fight was mostly trying not to get agro while my new partner, Oligar of the Dead, took all the hits. And anyway we only had to fight him for a short while, softening him up just a little before I stuck him with the bizarrely-named "Soul Skiver" and brought him to his senses. Still and all...a god!

The whole affair has been a farrago of nonsense from start to finish but I've thoroughly enjoyed it, not so much in spite of the fact that none of it makes any sense as because of it. This is Norrath! Our Lore never makes any sense! We wouldn't have it any other way.

Hey! Watch where you're swinging that thing!

Zubon observed recently that going back to traditional questing after playing a more modern MMO like GW2 "is like driving a car with a hand-crank starter". I've never actually started a car with a hand-crank (I wonder if Zubon has?) and I struggled a bit with the analogy but I think he meant that you have to keep re-starting the process yourself - if you don't then the narrative just sits there, going nowhere.

Coming into GW2's series of beta weekends back in the Spring of '12, I was on the verge of burnout with traditional MMO questing. I'd lost patience with lazy NPCs standing on street corners asking me to do their dirty work for them. It seemed very refreshing to have them run up to me in a panic instead, yelling blue murder about something awful that I could actually see happening right now, right there.

A year and change later and it's the frenzy of the Dynamic Event and the Living World that seem enervating. Being able to dictate the pace, to accept each task in my own time and take as long as I want about getting the job done seems positively relaxing in comparison.

But, but... I'm a pirate too!

There seems to be something of a drift back to the traditional quest-driven MMO of late, at least in the corner of the blogosphere I frequent. Kaozz and J3w3l are questing away in Rift. Wilhelm and Stargrace are back in WoW. Even SynCaine dusted off his questing hat for another run at Baldur's Gate, although of course that's not an MMO.

Ah, there's the nub of it. How much, really, does what I've been doing in EQ2 lately have to do with MMOs as we used to know them? A few weeks back, when I was goblining it up in WoW, I mentioned that the starter area felt like I was in my own private instance. All the bloggers linked above allude at various times to the solitary nature of their questing, the difficulty of synchronizing quests with others due to phasing, instancing or lack of quest-sharing mechanics and the extreme soloabilty of quest content.

My time in EQ2's Chains of Eternity expansion hasn't felt entirely isolated. There has always been a smattering of other players swooping down on their griffons and flying horses to use the bank in Cardin Ward or grab quest from a nearby NPC. A few times I've even needed to move on to another quest for a while to let someone "play through". In essence, though, completing this very lengthy quest sequence, well over 150 quests in total, has felt much more like playing a single-player RPG than an MMO.

My, Firiona, you are looking pale. Oh wait, that'll be the "dead" thing...

And I don't play single-player RPGs. Haven't for many, many years. Why, then, am I eagerly consuming the exact same kind of content here? Two reasons; Person and Place.

Person comes in the form of my characters. The overarching motivator of MMOs is probably character progression, which requires a couple of things to work: a character in which you are sufficiently invested to put in the time and some clear progress there to be made. The Chains of Eternity content ticks both those boxes with confidence.

I love my EQ2 characters. It's a strong word but it's the right one. I made them, I care about them, I feel a responsibility toward them. Every time I help one to become more powerful, more skilled, more rounded as an individual it feels satisfying.

Moreover, because the worlds they inhabit change whether or not I am there, even though my characters remain in stasis while they go unplayed, things may still have happened to them. That's something you just don't get offline.

Yesterday I patched up LotRO and logged in my Guardian; several minutes-worth of trait updates flashed solemnly across the screen, after which I chose and specified a new Trait Tree for him. I had no intention of playing him, then or probably ever again but I knew he'd change and grow if I logged him in and I knew he'd want that. Or, if you prefer less metaphysics in your gaming, I knew I wanted it for him.

Dreary? I beg to differ. I can think of worse places to spend the afterlife.

That done, I Iogged out. Although I have a few characters there for whom I retain some affection, LotRO is not one of my favorite MMOs. Unlike for many, the faithful Tolkein setting doesn't engender any particularly strong feelings of recognition or familiarity in me. I like Lord of the Rings well enough but I'm hardly a fan.

I am a fan of Norrath. Very much so. That second reason to keep plugging through the quests, absent in Middle Earth, is very much present in EQ2. A sense of Place. It might seem like laziness or parsimony to base new zones on the architecture of old ones but in my experience it almost always works. The Eidolon Jungle and Obol Plains are versions of The Feerrott and Loping plains respectively. I've spent an inordinate amount of time in both the originals and traveling through these odd, hallucinatory revisions of old, familiar haunts has been fascinating. It's nostalgia and novelty all rolled into one.

For your unhappiness, that is. Not for anything I might personally have done to you. Like, say, kill you repeatedly just to get a door open...

Better yet than familiar landmarks are familiar faces. Even though this is the metempsychotic holding pen of Norrath I was still surprised enough to say it out loud when I realized just who was that woman with the beetle pet standing by a tent on the Dreary Shore. "Whoah! It's Jenni Everling"! I killed her often enough - I should hardly be surprised to find her here among the dead...

If Jenni was a predictable surprise, what to make of Fabian? I don't believe Fabian the Bard even makes a walk-on appearance in EQ2. He must have died centuries before the Shattering. Yet here he is, sitting on a log ruing the broken strings of his lute. As in life, so in the Ethernere.

This is the kind of context you can only acquire through time. No new MMO can ever arrive freshly-minted and thrilling yet hope to score such easy hits simply by mentioning a name and playing a riff on an old quest that should have long been forgotten but somehow still sets a whole line of bells jingling merrily away. This, when we get right down to it, is why talk of a new expansion has people patching up old favorites and why it's so much easier to get excited for EQNext than WildStar.


  1. Nice article =)

    I find myself OFTEN nostalgic. I still visit my old original EQ boards (linked on my blog still, heh) and there are three or four of us who show up every few months to poke in and say hi. We played on the testserver together. Now that EQ is free, I have it on my PC and I log in randomly and see who is on. some people are still there, after all of these years. We chat, I log off. I don't actually *play* (I am so lost in the changes..) but nice to go in and see the gear I found and remember the connections made (and be amazed some of those connections still exist.)

    I enjoy this a bit smaller in WoW, where I also spent years but I haven't made connections quite the same in other MMO's - I didn't play long enough, or with the right people. So when new ones come out, I buy them, try them, and typically don't go back - the list is huge.

    I always go back to EQ. and WoW with new expansions.

    In my business, we learned that the best way to keep customers is to connect with both their HEADS and HEARTS. Seems modern day MMO's are good at the former.

    1. I'm still playing EQ on and off. I've played on so many servers and still have characters on half a dozen but I rarely see any familiar names nowadays. Plenty of people still playing, though. Mostly I just potter around, solo a little. The time commitment to do anything significant would be prohibitive. If all the other MMOs vanished tomorrow, though, I could happily go back full-time.


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