Videogames

Questing For Answers

The pass came with mardi gras beads, too.While
in New Orleans on a book tour, I noticed a fellow with a t-shirt that read:
EverQuest Fan Faire, New Orleans 2004. Aw, I thought as the guy stepped onto
the escalator, I wonder when that was?

Kind of like seeing a show poster for a gig already passed, I presumed it’d already happened. I was bummed. I’d never played the world’s most famous MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing game), dubbed EverCrack for its addictive hold on its players, but I would have liked to check out the convention.

After wandering back to our car after the obligatory stroll around the French Quarter, I noticed the signs for it at the Hilton. It was happening now! It made sense, really, it being Halloween weekend and in one of the most wonderfully strange cities in North America, a great setting for a conference about the fantasy videogame.

The staff were kind enough to hook me up with a press pass. It appeared I’d missed panels on “EQ Lore and Expansions: Creating a Compelling Storyline” and “Character Advancement through Spells and AAs,” but the EQII Ultimate Elimination Challenge was still going on — it would actually run 24 hours and the person who had the most XP (experience points, for those of you deprived of a Dungeons & Dragons childhood) would win.

The pass came with mardi gras beads, too.I decided to come back and interview the winner. I tried to remember the classic sports questions asked of players as they lumbered off the field: “How do you feel?” But I was a little worried that the winner might be exhausted and not at their most articulate, so I decided to interview a couple of people as they played the game.

Could you describe an experience you’ve had today with the game?

PLAYER 1: Unlike EverQuest I, which is a grind at the start until you build up your character, EverQuest II seems fun from the beginning.

Can you describe something that happened during the game? A fight, or a discovery you made?

Mmm.

I’m trying to describe it to people who don’t play the game.

Mmm.

The next guy I asked was more verbose, but similarly focused. “There’s been a few changes, there is a new patch,” a player from Germany explained impassively as he had his cleric taunt someone to death. “There’s a limit to the quests. It’s pretty easy to join a group, but when it disbands it takes a lot of time to find a new group.”

On the screen, shit was exploding, staffs of power were being held aloft, mad XP were being earned and this guy was talking about the new bugfix patch. And most of the people I talked with had similar concerns. “I like the way the Quest Journal runs, where quest items disappear into a phantom bag. That’s my favourite feature. It’s a little messed up because it’s in beta right now.”

An inventory tweak was his favorite feature? Wasn’t there something new like, “Now, werewolves can fly” or “You can get a potion that gives you control over all the insects within a 10 foot radius”?

I soldiered on to another player, Zach from Gainesville, Georgia. I asked him if he’d had any good fights or found anything cool today.

“Having a fight or finding something isn’t nearly as interesting as being able to go around and explore other places. You don’t know what’s going to happen or what you’re going to find. It’s an opportunity you don’t have in everyday life, where you go down the same streets all the time. You can find something totally new that maybe no one’s ever seen before.”

That was pretty hopeful. “Have you had any experiences like that today?” I asked.

“No, I’ve played this level before.”

I gave up at that point. I wasn’t getting anything from them but shop talk, mundane details about a lavish fantasy world. At some point had they stopped seeing the forest for the trees? Or were they too self-conscious to describe a scenario that involved elves and dragons to a stranger? Either way, it struck me as one reason why videogames are marginalized: because the people who play them have a hard time relating their experiences to non-gamers.

Not that EverQuest is hurting for more players. The particular flavour
of fantasy may be too naked for some, but the online cloak of anonymity has
built up an unprecedented community of players. For a piece of journalism that
truly does credit to the societal and cultural layers of this and other online
games, see Clive Thompson’s “Game Theories” (The Walrus, June, 2004) — its
analysis of what virtual videogame currency means to capitalism is particularly
sharp.

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