Monday, April 26, 2021

Put It In Books

Think back to when Warhammer: Age of Reckoning was set to become the biggest mmorpg the western market had ever seen. As well as Public Quests and bears that remembered who'd killed them (or something like that) one of the many innovations the game claimed to be bringing to the genre was a virtual book that would keep a record of everything you'd done.

I'm not at all sure the Tome of Knowledge would have been the first such in-game archive. Vanguard, for example, a game which launched a year and a half before WAR, had a wonderful feature that automatically recorded significant events like the first time you entered a new area or discovered a new item. The game took a screenshot when something it considered to be significant happened and fixed it neatly in a scrapbook you could open and enjoy whenever you wanted to look back on your journey so far. 

There may very well have been others before that but even if the Tome wasn't the first I don't think there's much doubt it was the most extensive. Had WAR gone on to be the WoW Killer so many hoped and believed it would be, we'd probably see vast encyclopedias dragging load times down to a crawl in every mmorpg.


Sadly, WAR's assault on Blizzard's bastion turned out to be something of a disaster. When the last Bright Wizard had fizzled out and the final goblin gone to meet the great Squig Herder in the sky, other developers quietly appropriated those few of WAR's innovations they could see a use for and left the rest to rot. No-one picked up the Tome.

Which is a shame. I really love in-game journals and albums. I can't see why they're so often relegated to minor sub-systems where few notice them, far less appreciate their many fine qualities.

It's different in single-player games, particularly those in the adventure or visual novel genres. There, where the audience is presumed to be predisposed to reading reams of text and staring fixedly at static images, all kinds of notebooks, albums and journals are the norm. 

Or they have been. I have noticed, of late, a regrettable tendency for such games to adopt a more contemporary solution: mobile phones, laptops, tablets and the like. It makes sense when the setting is a time roughly analagous to our own, of course, and in games set in the (inevitably dystopian and/or cyberpunk) future it would be perverse to have the protagonist record their findings in longhand.

In those games, the medium is less important than the message, anyway. Whatever the carrier device, the conceit is that the player-character is making a record of their thoughts, their theories and the clues and evidence they've uncovered. The journal may look beautiful but its primary function is practical, not aesthetic. 

Warhammer's Tome of Knowledge was intended to be highly functional as well as wonderfully decorative. The quest journal, a very specific sub-type of this kind of thing and one for which almost every rpg has to make some kind of accomodation, was, in WAR, merely one of the Tome's many  chapters. 

It's a long time since I played WAR. I can't remember whether I found the Tome a marvelous compendium of wonders or a bloody nuisance. I seem to recall it might have been a bit of both. Over the past couple of weeks, though, I've stumbled across several much less ambitious efforts that I've found wholly delightful.

The Overseer systems in both EverQuest and EverQuest II include something not dissimilar to a virtual cabinet of collectible cards. I spotted the feature in EQ right at the start but it's taken me more than a year to notice the Agent Collection tab in EQII. Or, perhaps I should say, I noticed it long before that but only recently did it occur to me to click on it to see what was in there.

Inside I found nothing I hadn't seen before. Just the same pictures of the agents and the same descriptive text. The difference is purely one of magnitude: the functional icons are almost too small to make out and the tool-tip versions aren't all that much bigger but in the Agent Collection tab they're huge. And they look great.

I love illustration. I was thinking about it after I posted about Scarlet Hollow yesterday. I was wondering just why it is I enjoy games of that kind so much, even when the story might not be anything I haven't read before and the gameplay might be routine (Scarlet Hollow, I should make clear, is both well-written and fun to play). 

The answer is very simple: it's the pictures. It hadn't really struck me before but I genuinely do have a sensual reaction to line illustration that's akin to those I get from eating or drinking or listening to music. It's an almost synesthetic reaction. I can almost, in some indefinable way, feel the textures. 

Or it feels like I can feel them. I'm not a genuine synesthete. I don't see colors when I hear sounds or taste flavors when I touch surfaces. All the same, line art does something to my brain that has an effect analogous to ASMR.

Come to think of it, perhaps it is ASMR. It's easy to forget that phenomenon extends to visual as well as auditory stimuli. Regular ASMR videos and recordings do work on me but not as strongly as they reportedly do on others. 

The sensations I get from line art are milder but unmistakable. Wikipedia describes it as ""the subjective experience of "low-grade euphoria" characterized by "a combination of positive feelings and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin"". I don't often get the tingling just from looking at line art but it has happened. The low-grade euphoria, though, that I get often.

By no means all in-game albums produce those kind of effects. It's a bonus if they do. I don't need a quasi-synaesthetic reaction to enjoy them. I almost always enjoy them.

Dragon Nest Origins uses an album to record the way NPCs feel about the player-character. It's a faction list. It could just be a column of names and numbers, the way it is in so many other games with reputation systems. But it isn't.

Someone took the trouble not just to frame a little portrait of every character you can bribe or flatter into liking you but to work up a whole lot of personal details about each of them. Not the kind of details you might expect to find in a game, like their stats or skills. Nothing so mundane.

I think these will turn to color when you reach a certain percentage of favor.


Or, perhaps I ought to say, something much more mundane. Deliciously so. Their age, star sign, weight, height and, most bizarrely of all, blood type. Has any other mmorpg ever made a point of revealing an NPC's blood type? I very much doubt it.

As well as the basic facts of life there are entries for Likes and Dislikes that wouldn't look out of place in a 1970s teen magazine. Lady Kayleen likes "The color red, tangy fragrances" and dislikes "Clerics, dragon followers, annoyances". Don't you feel like you know her, now?


It seems to me these kind of albums and journals could easily be spun up into something a lot more central, even integral. to gameplay. I'd be far more likely to devote time and effort to the countless collections and achievements that most mmorpgs pump out as a cheap form of content if I could browse my the results in a heavily-illustrated catalog, preferably with extensive curatorial notes.

And how about pets and mounts? Couldn't they all come with breeding histories and certificates and, of course, portraits? There's a long, rich history of animal portraiture, after all. We already get lists of all these things, sometimes with thumbnails. All it would take is some thought to turn them into virtual keepsakes or even minor works of art.

I wonder if this is the sort of thing Raph Koster has in mind when he talks of "Supporting a range of ways to play." If so, I wish he'd get on and make a game. Unfortunately, I doubt a plethora of gorgeously designed and lavishly illustrated virtual scrapbooks is what he has in mind.

It's what I'd like, though. I just don't expect to get it.


  1. "No-one picked up the Tome."

    And rightly so, if only because they took the whole idea about three steps too far. Rather than having a clear focus it felt like they tried to shove all possible info they could into it, including things that would have been best served in their own, smaller windows. WAR was at war with features having their own UI, so everything had to adapt to the shape and format of the tome.

    Achievements, done correctly, can be something of a journal. But achievements, like the tome of knowledge, generally spin out of control pretty quickly and the meaningful ends up getting swamped by the trivial.

    And so some of us blog.

    1. I added the "...or a bloody nuisance" line in the edit because it started to come back to me that I didn't really like the Tome all that much. I was impressed by it but that's not the same thing. I also didn't like either of the two big cities (just as well they never finished the other four) and for the same reason: way too sprawling and convoluted. The whole game was like that, really.

  2. I agree that the Tome of Knowledge clunky overall. However, I thought some of the prose in it was excellent. The high quality of the writing, in whatever entries I'm remembering, was especially noticeable to me at the time because much of the quest text in WAR was terrible. It all read like a first draft from someone that doesn't write fiction for a living, with the exception of the Greenskin quests.

    1. I don't remember the quality of the quest text being particularly good or bad but I played Greenskins almost exclusively so it's likely I never saw the really bad stuff. I'm tempted to roll a different race/faction on the emulator now, just to see how bad the writing is.

  3. I just want the power to make one of those sprawling conspiracy corkboard things that all the cool detectives in TV and movies have.

    1. I'm honestly surprised no-one's done that yet... or maybe they have. I've never seen it, though.


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