There’s a problem in the game. I can hear it from across the room, where I’m painting my toenails and eating peanuts from a can. My gryphon (who I can’t figure out how to rename but who I call “Nova”) is squawking miserably. I get back just in time to see the Fatigue bar nearly drained. Nova is pushing against an invisible barrier in the sky, unable to go any further even though really, the next island is only a three-minute flight away and there is nothing between us but sky.
Earlier, bored with quests, I attempted to kill myself by flying myself into the Raging Chasm. I don’t know, I thought it might be interesting. It didn’t work.
Though its eerie strands of white ether suggest an otherworldly nature, the bottom of the chasm is just smooth, indented dirt atop which digital mist is generated. It ended up being part of a quest I hadn’t accepted. Later, I killed the little globs of slime that I found there anyway. A similar display in Pandaria caught my attention, and a friend flew me into it. For a moment, I thought something was going to happen—but no, we just hit the bottom.
I found a whirlpool. Curious to see what was at the bottom of the whirlpool, I allowed myself to fall in. It’s an instant death. There is no other mechanic at work there, no other feature. That’s all there is. Since I started play World of Warcraft, I’ve been seeking out mystery and looking for innovation. All I’ve found, though, are barriers.
There is a structure in WoW that reads almost as a physical narrative, but that—with the exception of the Fatigue bar—is entirely unstated. Like any other world, it has a distinct topography with various geological features. It’s massive. Travel far enough and you’ll see plains, tundra, jungles, forests, deserts, cities, meadows, mountains, glaciers, farmland, sky castles—all surrounded by blue seas and underneath the same sky. The differences are striking; travel in any direction to Burning Steppes and the terrain is suddenly reddish-orange and harsh, with very little vegetation. Everything is sharp.
Burning Steppes. Image courtesy of Valyrian Stormclaw.
And directly above Burning Steppes, we have Ironforge.
Ironforge. Image courtesy of WoWWiki.
They’re two distinctly different areas, but their physical domination over the player is identical. Each area is surrounded by mountains that separate players from the other side. Of course, once you’re level 40, you can fly over the mountains. Until then, though, there is one distinct way to get to where you’re going, and that is to follow the path.
Retrieved from WoWWiki.
The path in the image above is a literal, quasi-physical path. You can see it. Your character can stick to it or deviate from it. It’s there, and if at some point you don’t see it anymore, it’s safe to say that you are not going towards your chosen destination. There are smaller roads and pathways that lead to various quests, but the path is highlighted as a quick way to guide your character where it needs to go.
There is another path in the game, though, and it’s one that you can’t really see in its entirety. The entire game is set up so that certain events are triggered at certain times. You gain the ability to run dungeons at 15, after you’ve gotten a chance to figure out how to make your character move and how to properly use the chat functions. At forty, you learn to fly, and you can fly over the mountains and get to where you want to go, seemingly bypassing smaller portions of the game’s narrative (and by that, I mean that you can make your “own” path by flying). As you level, you unlock more difficult areas. Killing things even ten levels below you can be done in one or two clicks–anything else, and you’d be wasting your time, right? If you’re level 80, you can kill level 70 creatures without a problem. The game saves you time by allowing you to do this quickly, even though the amount of damage you deal hasn’t grown that much. The higher your level, the more freedom you have. And yet there are constraints all around you. The scenery changes; the gameplay does not.
Earlier today, I tried to jump into a small pit in Pandaria. I couldn’t. I couldn’t figure out why I wouldn’t be able to do that. Being able to do so wouldn’t change the game in any way. But being able to do so wouldn’t add anything to it, either. When I come to the pit in Pandaria, I can go left, right, or back. Why? Because to the left, there are portals. To the right, there are NPCs. Behind me is Pandaria itself. Ahead of me? Just a pit.
I like to wander and explore, and I have often found little places I thought could be just mine: fun leveling spots, a funny-shaped rock I could sit on while I typed in guild chat, an NPC that sold strange breads I hadn’t seen before, a small island in the middle of a lake where I could fish. And, inevitably, people would come and perform little actions. All of the little spots I found were actually quest spots. They had purposes of which I wasn’t aware. I’ve been to all the islands, all the areas, to Orgrimmar, even, and I haven’t traveled to any place that let me decide its purpose or its message.
Of course, that’s not entirely fair. It isn’t World of Warcraft’s fault that I’ve been spoiled by procedural generation. But I’ve played other games where, if you stepped behind a certain tree, you’d find a little cave. And there was no purpose to the cave, and you could hang out there and think you were cool. There were statues you could hide behind and only your ears would stick out, and though this was terribly simple, people would fight to do it. Places where you’d take different paths and reach different outcomes–that travel itself was a puzzle you could solve. After years of playing, it was possible (and common, even) to find something that no one else had seen before.
I agree with McLuhan that the medium is the message. I also agree with Bogost, that the message is the message. The message World of Warcraft is sending is part of what makes it popular with such a large population: the idea that whoever you are–a banker in Punxsutawney or a mother of four in Ankara–you can use this world that they are giving you to explore and discover and pretend. To escape, too, I suppose. And that’s great–except for the fact that even at your most free, you are trapped in what boils down to very basic, restrictive limitations masquerading as nonexistent things.
What’s at the bottom of Raging Chasm? Nothing.
What do you get if you jump into the Stranglethorn whirlpool? Nothing.
What do you get if you try to climb a mountain? Nothing.
Fly too high? Swim too far? Too deep? Try to land on a flying chunk of land? Nothing.
Stick to the path.
You can do so much more in this world than you can do in your own, right? Except that in this world, we built planes, and when we reached our limits, we expanded them by building rocket ships. We encounter mountains and we learn to climb them. We make games out of seeing how far we can swim, and how, and whether or not we are in a giant plastic bubble while we do it.
Everything we have accomplished is based on our prior exertions and achievements. But World of Warcraft has stalled. The message it is intentionally broadcasting–come here, do anything, be anything–is very different from what the gameplay itself suggests: that like the real world, the virtual world is plagued by parameters. The difference is, of course, that in the real world, our thoughts–which find themselves in words, which are written down, which are the basis of films, which inspire games, which inspire–I don’t know, a new form of being, perhaps–are limitless. If we find a limit, we overcome it.
Whether or not that’s a good thing, I don’t know. The world might be a better place without air conditioners, fracking, high fructose corn syrup, atomic bombs, whatever. But our existence is similar to, say, procedural generation because we simply haven’t explored everything there is to explore, from the depths of the sea to our nearest neighbors in space. It’s new to us, and we–in whatever evolution comes next–will be something new, too.
World of Warcraft has lofty plans and seductive ideas about how we can use it to be who we want to be, but in playing it, we are who the creators, the designers, the programmers want us to be. We are where they want us to be, when they want us to be, how they want us to be. The messages are mixed up. One is more prevalent than the other, and it’s not necessarily the more accurate one, or the one to which we should be listening.