Game-Soul for $400

One of the Massively writers gave a refreshingly honest review of Aion today. His main argument against the game was that it “has no soul”.

So Alex, Game-Soul for $400. “The substance, essence, and/or feature of a game that provides soul.” After 3 pages of comments, a few answers to that question have surfaced. (Questions to that answer?) The two biggest winners were lore and immersion.

What is … lore and immersion?

Players were pretty unanimous in the fact that there was simply no context for the game. Without a franchise history (like Warcraft, Warhammer and Lord of the Rings have), there is simply no inherent knowledge of the world in the minds of gamers before they step into the game. Quests could potentially be a great opportunity to spread lore in a game, but about 95% of Aion’s quests are kill x number of y quests. Here are a couple player comments:

“How then, can we feel we are in a living, breathing world, when we barely understand it?”

“I consider the “Soul” to be the immersion ability in to a world’s lore. Playing through Aion’s tutorial (1-10) does not really give you enough time to attune to the Lore.”

Lore certainly can be effectual in creating immersion, but it’s not the only thing. Despite the one player who stated they’d never felt more immersed in a world before, most complained about how the world did not feel alive. It didn’t have depth according to one player: “…beautiful at the surface, but extremely shallow. It’s linear. Leveling seems to be this long journey through a narrow path that introduces the world. But once you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it all.” There were also numerous complaints about the nonsensical ecology. The fields are full of mindless creatures who are simply there, with no point or even logic to their existence.

Alternatively, a couple players surprisingly (to me) stated that the characters were too customizable and they weren’t able to relate to them. In one’s words, “The characters look a little too defined I think, I cant project my own self onto my avatar so I feel like im controlling someone else with strings like a puppet. I never realized it but its the same thing that I didnt like about tabula, the characters look too real so I cant toss my own imagined ID on top of them. Weird huh?.”

So far, we’ve learned that games need a) either a history of lore or lore that is well-developed from the beginning, b) not just a pretty surface, but a deep world with multiple possibilities of experience, and c) a perfect balance in customization that gives enough options to individualize, but not too many. A nice start but it’s just the beginning.

Many people play these MMOs for the people who inhabit the worlds along with them. The community. Usually, this extends beyond the game into forums, fansites, fan fiction, blogspace, etc. For Aion, there may be community, but somehow the players aren’t feeling it yet. One said, “more PVP oriented games tend to suffer from this [lack of soul]. Once you joined a corp [in EVE] and there was a sense of structure and organization, it started to gain its unique soul.” So, cooperative play. I find it interesting he didn’t feel much community from the numerous grinding groups that get together as early as level 15. Maybe one needs interesting content to play with those people…

Then, there’s the big one we all secretly hope will one day actually be there.

What is… originality?

Oh, the secret ingredient. Everyone tries. Everyone fails. (at least these days) So does Aion according to these folks:

“It’s a generic and derivative MMO in every way.”

“I so desperately want an MMO that exceeds the experience and fun that WoW delivers.”

“The basic game (play) is quite traditional and doesn’t push into any new directions (except the pretty direction).”

Are we really that banal and uncreative? Have we run out of designer berry juice? Where’s the inspiration, the zing, the lightning-bolt idea at 2am that moves this genre somewhere that’s more than just glistening and beautiful? Perhaps we don’t have to find it, since another states:

“And personally, I don’t want a new-new-super-unique game. I want something that’s familiar and fun. And a lot of other people seem to want that as well.”

Or hey, who needs immersion? “I don’t want to simply live in a world, I play games to get away from living.”

Well, that might make us all feel better for a little while, but we’re still left wondering whether our game has soul and if not, why not? Do we not have enough of our own love into it? Aion didn’t seem to communicate that love to some people like this one, for example:

“When I play Guild Wars, Lord of the Rings, and even WoW (at least the vanilla WoW) you can almost FEEL the affection the developers have for the game. It is hard to describe, but it is almost as if they themselves wanted to live in the world and make you want to as well.”

For me, one of the players summed it all up. “It sounds odd, I guess, but in MMOs as in a good novel, I have to care about my character, my actions, the world, the overarching story, and the quests to some degree or else it just seems mechanical and pointless, however, polished it may be.”

You can have pretty, you can have story quests, you can have a vibrant world where wolves eat squirrels, but without the guiding presence of a visual narrative that your character (who doesn’t look too real) can experience, the game will have no soul. What is….Narrative?

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