2009 in anime: #11 If you’re planning to make a MMORPG, read this.

by Grungi

(Second post in the “12 days in anime” 2009 project led by Mega Megane Moé. Other participating blogs include Shameful Otaku Secret!, Continuing World, Fighting for Nippon!, We love maids., Bokutachi no BLOG, Anime Profiling, Desu ex Machina, Blogging about Anime, I Will Show You Terror in a Handful of Flans, Pontifus, Open Your Mind, ∑Xce7ion, Ganbatte Forever!, Mikotoism, wat u say, Memories of Eternity, Simplicity, Gabrielino Anime Club, UNMEI KAIHEN, Nigorimasen!, Mainichi Anime Yume and We Remember Love)

What makes you watch anime ?

Makes you read books ?

Watch movies ?

These questions share a lot of potential answers, yet if I had to make an educated guess, I’d say that most of them would be something akin to “to experience something else“. What this else consists of is up in the air though, as is the reason behind one’s urge to experience this “something else”. But amidst all the possibilities, I’m sure most of you experienced this one time when the movie/book/anime you’re enjoying aligns exactly with something you’d really want to see become real.

This eleventh moment in anime 2009 goes to that thrilling sensation, which was something .hack//SIGN made me feel.

I know, Monster, then .hack//SIGN ? … not really the newest animes, right ? Shows that many people urged me to watch to no end, and that I only got around to pick up this year. But oh well, what can I say, I’m always a bit late on everything. That said, I’m somewhat familiar to the .hack franchise, having played some of the games, and having seen .hack//Dusk, .hack//Liminality and parts of .hack//ROOTS. But above all, I was enraptured by the .hack//SIGN soundtracks since I first heard them. They’re still two of my most beloved soundtracks, and all in all the “.hack” period is for me the true peak of Yuki Kajiura’s talent. I’ve yet to hear something as good coming from her, nowadays it seems like she just rehashes her trademark gimmicks. But I digress, this post is not about Kajiura, nor is it about .hack//SIGN’s soundtracks.

It’s about how .hack//SIGN matches one of my deep wishes.

One of the main selling points of the whole .hack offering was The World. This fictionnal MMORPG is where most of the action takes place, and good grief does it sound like a great concept. True, at heart it is a “grinding” MMORPG, where your only goal is to go to a field full of monsters, kill those, then go into a dungeon with more monsters, at the end of which a treasure awaits you.

Not very exciting, is it ? And clearly not a game you could possibly think about using as the setting of several animes, games, mangas and whatnot. But take this barebone game canvas and make things go wrong. Then you’ve got yourself something much more interesting. A game when, more than achievements to unlock, or fierce beasts to slay, there are mysteries to unravel. Truths to be looked for. A game running on curiosity more than competition. And that, my friends, is one of my wildest dreams.

Time and again, I’ll try a MMORPG, but my reaction is pretty much always the same, and I usually can’t continue to play for more than a week or so. MMORPGs tend to be technical games, where the most incertainty you can get is the one brought by player versus player combat. Everything else is known, indexed in a list, analyzed… All in all, the only goal is to become more powerful, and that’s it.

What ? Fair enough, there is the social side of things, but still, in the end of the day it’s about banding together to defeat this ultra-hard boss, get these ultra-rare items and/or gain a lot of “fame” by doing so. And that kind of goals just don’t do it for me. I want a game to engage me. It either has to be an intellectual challenge, or provoke thought with its plot, or appeal to me aesthetically. If the “best way” to play is to replicate known sequences, it’s not much fun…

Now, let me entertain (or bore ?) you with what would be my kind of The World-like MMORGP…

First, it would be distributed. As in, not running on a central server, but with anyone being able to start their own server, and have it accessible through others. Each server would be centered around an entry point, be it a town, a stronghold, or whatever. From there, players would be able to access this server’s locations using something akin to .hack’s Chaos Gates. There would be a mechanism to generate pseudo-random locations, while others would be specifically crafted for different purposes.

To create such zones, server admins would have access to specific tools that would let them insert content into the game. It could be new NPCs, new items, new locations, or what have you. In addition, they would be capable of taking over any NPC and play them like a standard character. People would be able to take any role in the game, so that a pre-scripted NPC selling stuff would be a-priori indistinguishable from a real player or admin doing the same.

The main idea behind this would be to have admins and maybe other players with a special status capable of creating original storylines. Unexpected storylines. Possibilities would include everything from server-wide special events right down to throwing a particular group of players into a thrilling scenario crafted for them. What a thrill it would be to constantly be asking oneself “Is this normal ? Does everyone get this when they come here ? Am I the first one to behold this ?”

Well, of course it would pose a lot of very significant practical problems, but I’m fairly confident something close to this could be pulled off. I regularly toy with the idea of trying to start such a project myself, but the task is so daunting…

Well, anyway, enough rambling, I guess it’s pretty clear now how much .hack//SIGN resonated with this desire of mine. Even though the show is really slow-paced, it’s awesome combination of setting, art style (the design of the root town that lies on floating islands in the sky is just awesome) and mystery kept me going all the way through.

And the music of course didn’t hurt. Being so familiar with a score before seeing the show it’s meant to accompany is a weird feeling. You’ve already associated so many memories with the songs than when they’re used in a totally different context, you find yourself hearing it with new ears completely.

Plus, the plot itself isn’t bad either. It’s may not be the “deepest” anime around (do such a thing even exist ?) but it touches some topics that are very interesting, like identity and the lack thereof on the net or the escapism inherent to many online experiences.

And you, what is the best example of anime-meets-wish you’ve ever experienced ?