For all that it is called a massively multiplayer online game, World of Warcraft is a surprisingly solitary experience. Obviously there are thousands of other people in your world with you, but to play WoW – to enjoy WoW – is to become absorbed in your avatar. You can’t touch, bump into, or otherwise interact with other players without the aid of a spell or weapon. Even public chat via the “say” command, which displays as a speech bubble from your character, leaves no lasting trace of its existence. The spoken word is as ephemeral as the players themselves, and they avoid walking through each other, spread out in group raid photos, to avoid breaking the illusion that they are actually in the world with other players.
WoW remains the most embodied and immuring game I have ever played. Every action and interaction is mediated through your avatar. The story of WoW is your story and it is reflected in every quest text and every suggested goal. You see the world through the prism of your character and while the viewpoint of above and behind gives the illusion of an objective view of Azeroth, you cannot escape the invisible ties that bind you to your character.
You also can’t make other people play better, level up quicker, or keep pace along side you. Anyone who has played for longer than a few minutes knows that all it takes is a little bit of extra time spent questing or grinding to find that your friend who was once the same level as you is now far below (or beyond) your abilities, becoming another cloud of dust on the horizon, another runner in front or behind you on the road. Any attempts to “slow down” the inexorable pull towards the level cap (and beyond, with item acquisition and stat improvement), that elusive goal of perfection and ultimate attainment, are irresistible short of outright rejection. Waiting around for someone else feels like 'wasted time' in the WoW paradigm, and so you’re back to square one. Back to a single player game and grinding alone on trolls in Stranglethorn Vale in the hope of one day reaching the peak at level
60, 70, 80.
Dominic and I tried it a couple of times, first on our original toons (both were Warlocks; I was Daverick, he was Marcos) and then later with our alternatives. By then I was onto Davethree (literally named as such) and he was a Warrior. Dominic was a Paladin. We spent a fantastic afternoon one day in the twilight days of ’07 working together on quests as per the instructions in the popular Jame’s Leveling Guide. He enjoyed collecting a number of enemies on himself while I swung a selection of large swords at them.
That afternoon we fought trolls, goblins, tigers, panthers, crocodiles and other players and enjoyed the simple pleasure of having each other’s company. We were glad not to have to travel that section of the loneliest road alone. Inevitably though, school and other commitments made him log off for a while and an abundance of time left me to plod along by myself. I rapidly out-leveled him.
We met up again, months down the track. By then I was 70, and he was still 68. Getting keyed and geared for Karazhan was my goal while he was still grinding mobs in Blade’s Edge, focusing on the inexorable accumulation of experience points. The loneliest road took us to 70 separately and resisted our best efforts and resolutions to “stick together”.
Tolkien placed these words into the mouth of Bilbo Baggins;
"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to."
World of Warcraft will do more than sweep you away. Like an overflowing river that has burst its banks, it stands ready to break apart the group of unwary travellers that attempt to cross it. The current will carry them downstream for miles one by one - how far it carries them wil be governed by how well they can swim. I was a WoW player and I was carried off by myself for 18 months. How about you?
This post was inspired by the recent discussion of World of Warcraft and the addicting nature of some videogames on the Idle Thumbs podcast – episode 25 ‘pause theme from battletoads’.