I wandered into Dereth at some point in the late 1990s via a beta test of the massively multiplayer online role playing game, Asheron’s Call. I don’t think that I knew what an MMORPG was at the time, nor had I heard the term “persistent world” to that point, a fair enough description of Asheron’s Call‘s Dereth, the aforementioned official title of that game’s world.
Indeed, I didn’t know anything about the game at all. I knew that I liked Diablo and that this game was maybe sort of like that one. Clearly, one spent time gaining levels, gathering loot, and whatnot. To what end? To develop a character, to explore a world, to help shape a world, perhaps.
As someone who had played his fair share of role playing games, though, the initial concepts of the game were not that hard to grasp. I needed to kill stuff to get my levels up, so that I could ultimately kill bigger stuff in order to get better stuff. Thus, the grind began. Killing bunnies near Rithwic and Drudges in the desert near Tufa became a necessity as I tried to acquire spells and equipment to build my apprentice sorcerer into a force to be reckoned with in this new world.
Mainly, though, I was just trying to figure stuff out. Dereth was a complex and mysterious world, in which a player could run from one end of a continent to another with no loading screens and no level restrictions, except for dungeons and certain portals that led to more dangerous areas in the world (areas that one could reach, though, on foot if so inclined). I was fascinated by wandering the landscape, discovering ruined buildings overrun by monsters or old monuments to a former civilization, along with the occasional note that recorded some of the history of the Empyrean civilization that had existed here before.
It was exploration, really, not power, that drove me to the grind in Asheron’s Call. I wanted to understand its world and its history, and the only way to do so was to get strong enough to venture into places like the Direlands, an area of Dereth populated by high level monsters. The game didn’t direct me there. There was no tutorial for Asheron’s Call initially. The world directed me there—because looking at it, moving through it, and uncovering its secrets seemed so interesting. I found others similarly interested and began playing with them, grinding and exploring, asking advice on how to get better at grinding and exploring, helping them to get better at grinding and exploring.
I played Asheron’s Call for three years before feeling like I had finally squeezed enough out of the world of Dereth to satisfy me. Barring a year or so playing City of Heroes, I have never returned to the genre for such an extended period of time. The grind, and its necessary time commitment, just wasn’t conducive to my life.
I have dabbled more recently on and off with a few MMORPGs (most of which because they were free-to-play), Age of Conan, DC Online, Scarlet Blade, and most recently Tera Online. I spent a few days with some of them, a few weeks with others, but none of them have really drawn me in.
Unlike the world of Dereth, all of these games feature tutorials, a mission system, and, of course, the grind, but tutorials and missions are integrated with the grind. They define the grind, and as a result, cause me to play a massively multiplayer game as if it is single player experience.
With no modern indicators of where to go (no glowing arrows, no waypoints marked on the map, no glowing lines to guide one to an objective), I was left to my own devices concerning how to come to understand Dereth. Indeed, I found that I had to research spells on my own, as Asheron’s Call had a complex and secretive system for constructing spells. The only thing I could depend on were my own curiosity and the curiosity and aid of others in the game. Again, the only way to know more was to get stronger, so I was driven to the grind in order to level up sufficiently well enough to begin to safely explore the world. I killed rabbits by the scores, Drudges by the hundreds because, well, that’s how you leveled up high enough to begin to enter locked dungeons or to make it across landscapes populated by much more ferocious monsters. Having friends, equally underpowered and equally curious helped in making the grind something to get through in order to progress along with them, to add to my store of knowledge and to add to theirs.
The world of Tera is a rather beautiful one, populated by interesting creatures and diverse landscapes, and it all unfolds for me, through the grind. The grind becomes a mission itself in the game, which features “quests” like “kill 10 of this” or “15 of that” all coming at a feverish pace. In Asheron’s Call, I killed 40 drudges and gained 40 xp a piece for my trouble. Here I kill 10 Terrons for 50 xp a piece as part of “the story” and then am rewarded with 500 xp once I am finished with that “mission,” the grind.
All in all, this causes level progress to become less tedious with constant scripted rewards coming my way and the game constantly shuttling me forward through a plot (that apparently concerns killing a lot of creatures of various species) and on to other NPCs that will ask more of the same of me. The result is that I always know where to go next, I never talk to anyone in game, and I have no sense of the world at all. I always no where to go next, and yet, I feel like I haven’t seen anything at all on the way there.
It’s a convenient and completely linear experience, much like that of any single player RPG of the past or many styles of games (action, stealth, etc, etc.) that require much of the same from me, to follow instructions, to move forward.
In making the world convenient, I move through it very, very quickly. I leveled up two characters to the level cap in DC Online in a single week, enjoying the stories told as the game shuttled me from mission to mission, enforcing a grind that would inevitably get me to the level where new missions and story content would open up. I never played the game again after that week. Like a single player game, I had “beaten it,” something that I could never say I had done with Asheron’s Call—a game that I still hadn’t “completed” after three years (I never did reach the level 126 cap in that game).
While it would be hard to let go of the modern convenience of waypoints and return to the inconvenience of finding dungeons to explore on your own and the like, especially now that I no longer have the time to sink into a game like that, I can see why the modern MMO has such a fleeting life span. These aren’t worlds to explore. They are games to be beaten. And I can grind through just about anything if you lead me by the hand so very, very closely.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.