There are many ways to begin a fantasy tale – Había una vez, Il était une fois, in geardagum, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … – but they all pretty much mean the same thing: “Once upon a time.” There are equally as many ways to close out a tale. “And they lived happily ever after” is the best known, but Russian folk tales often end with the nonsense “I was there and I drank mead and beer; it ran down my beard but missed my mouth.” Which, I suppose, is a sort of ancient version of “I didn’t inhale.”
Commonly used phrases like these are often called cliché, but a broader (and less derogatory) way to refer to them is to call them formulas. The use of the term comes from Milman Parry’s 1928 essay “The Traditional Epithet in Homer” in which he defined a formula as “an expression regularly used, under the same metrical conditions, to express an essential idea.” Repeated phrases and epithets such as “swift-footed Achilles” or “resourceful Odysseus” in the Iliad and other ancient Greek epics are examples of such formulas.
Such formulas are not limited to epic poetry and fairytales, however; in great part, MMOG quests are constructed of similar formulas, shared not only among quests within a game but among different games of different genres.
“The storytelling in games like the Halo trilogy, and many other interactive action-adventure video games that are hugely popular, has reawakened the ancient epic tradition that gave the world the Iliad and the Odyssey, and later the Aeneid,” said Roger Travis, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Connecticut, in an op-ed piece in the Hartford Courant. Travis, who has written extensively on the epic nature of videogames (including in The Escapist), is presently writing a book on the subject.
“In the days of ancient Greece, the epic emerged from a tradition of bards,” he continued. “Because every performance of an epic song was improvised, the bard’s re-telling of the story varied with the audience reaction on the one hand and the material of the epic tradition on the other.”
The oral epic poets of the time (known as Aoidos and later Rhapsodes) would have memorized thousands of lines of a story – or, more likely, many smaller stories and myths – and then incorporated them into a larger tale. Each time the story was told, it would inevitably be somehow different: the same events reworked in new ways based on the whim of the poet and the desires of his audience – As You Like It, indeed.
Despite the changes, the basic storyline would always remain the same; Troy would always fall, and Odysseus would always make it home, just like Master Chief always saves the world, and Lord British always survives for another sequel. Little bits of each tale would contain similarities in structure – formulas – which not only allowed bards to more easily memorize long stories, but likely also allowed the audience to more easily understand who and what was being referred to (consider that the Greeks had two heroes named Ajax, and the first reference to Beowulf on line 18 of his epic tale is not to the eponymous hero, but to another guy named Beowulf).
Let’s put this into a gaming context by looking at one of the most common types of MMOG quests: the collection quest. In this type of quest, the player character (PC) is asked to collect some number of items under some pretext, such as in “A Deadly Bloom,” a quest from Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO). The dialogue reads:
There is a dangerous plant spreading from the goblin cave north-west of here. The dwarves call it “Skorgrim’s Bloom” after that vile dwarf slain many years ago when Edhelion fell.
This foul weed is foreign to Ered Luin, and its spread must be contained. The plant is quite deadly, and I fear that many unknowing creatures will be poisoned if they graze upon it.
We cannot wipe it out in one blow, but we can halt its spread. The plants can be found flowering along the path leading to Mirkstone Tunnels, north-west of here. Uproot some of these plants, and you will be rewarded.
Compare this to a collection quest from World of Warcraft, “A Rare Bean“:
You are ill-equipped to face the restless elements of Nagrand. Before you can help the Earthen Ring, you must help yourself.
To the west you will find dung heaps left behind by the wildlife of Nagrand. You must search the dung for the digested remnants of the Nagrand caracoli. From this bean I am able to make a tablet that will aid you in your battle against the restless forces of nature.
Return to me when you have collected no less than two fists worth of caracoli… Ogre sized fists.
Even at first glance, the language used in these quests is very similar. Each one contains many of the same basic formulas, using slightly different wording to say the same thing:
- The object to be collected;
- The area in which the object can be found;
- Directions to find the object;
- Explicit restatement of the goal;
- The promise of a reward.
Since each formula has a self-contained purpose, the formulas can be moved around within the same body of dialogue without losing any meaning; reward might be listed first, or directions given last, for example. It’s to the credit of the authors – and a testament to the flexibility of the English language – that these examples are not perfect mirrors of one another; many MMOG quests are practically clones.
Quests’ formulaic nature becomes clearer when you consider kill quests. One of the most popular targets for such quests is the wolf; World of Warcraft has its fair share, and LOTRO has at least a few, including a kill/collection quest named, unsurprisingly, “Wolf Pelts.” Here are two others for comparison:
Combe has always relied on this lumber camp for her livelihood, and now the people of Archet will be relying on us to supply the wood to rebuild their town, I expect. There’s no shortage of work, that much is certain!
We’ll need to start taking down some of the trees to the north-east, along the cliffs, but there’s a wolf-den up that way that endangers our workers!
Could you deal with those wolves for me? It’s not safe to chop down trees near there, and I’m afraid we might lose some of our best loggers. Follow the cliff wall. You’ll see the wolves, or they’ll see you.
– LOTRO, “Den of Wolves“
Sven and I have dangerous days ahead of us, what with the Necromancer to the east and all. And out here alone as we are, we have to hunt for our own food. It seems every time I’m heading back to camp with some meat on me, starving or rabid dire wolves come out of the forest wanting a bite. It goes without saying, living out here is dangerous work!
But if you can rid us of some of those wolves, we’d have an easier time of it. They mostly prowl north and east of here, near the river.
– WoW, “Wolves at Our Heels“
As with collection quests, note the common formulaic elements in these quests. Each mentions:
- The target to be killed;
- The area in which the target can be found;
- Directions to find the target;
- Explicit restatement of the goal.
Also note the common element that these two kill quests are missing: mention of a reward. The lack of explicit statement of this reward is typical (if not ubiquitous), and has been since as far back as 1980s Ultima, when you could receive tersely-worded kill quests like “Go now and kill a Gelatinous Cube. Do not return until thy quest is done!”
Since we started off comparing epic poetry to MMOG quests, it’s also interesting to view this comparison in light of some ancient epic quests. For example, in Beowulf, Hrothgar twice acts as a sort of quest giver to the hero – first to kill Grendel:
Never to any man erst I trusted,
since I could heave up hand and shield,
this noble Dane-Hall, till now to thee.
Have now and hold this house unpeered;
remember thy glory; thy might declare;
watch for the foe! No wish shall fail thee
if thou bidest the battle with bold-won life.
and then to kill Grendel’s mother:
Now is help once more
with thee alone! The land thou knowst not,
place of fear, where thou findest out
that sin-flecked being. Seek if thou dare!
I will reward thee, for waging this fight,
with ancient treasure, as erst I did,
with winding gold, if thou winnest back.
In each case, Hrothgar cleverly works in the goal, the area in which the target can be found and a promise of reward (apparently, back then people were rewarded for kill quests).
The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius also includes several examples of quest giving, all couched within the overarching quest of Jason’s journey to recover the golden fleece. Here are two examples of a use quest and a subdue quest from various points in the story:
“And the seer touched Jason as he lay wrapped in soft sheepskins and woke him at once, and thus spake: “Son of Aeson, thou must climb to this temple on rugged Dindymum and propitiate the mother of all the blessed gods on her fair throne, and the stormy blasts shall cease.”
“It is the rule that no stranger who comes to the Bebrycians should depart till he has raised his hands in battle against mine. Wherefore select your bravest warrior from the host and set him here on the spot to contend with me in boxing. But if ye pay no heed and trample my decrees under foot, assuredly to your sorrow will stern necessity come upon you.”
Note how each quest giver works in location, goal and (however vague) the reward for victory.
When an audience member sat down to listen to an oral epic poet in ancient Greece, he knew he was going to hear about Jason and Achilles and Medea and Atalanta beforehand, in the same way an MMOG player knows he’s going to get Fighters and Warriors and Clerics and Rogues. Furthermore, our ancient poetry lover also knew he would hear about “swift-footed Achilles” or “resourceful Odysseus,” in the same way our MMOG fan can expect to hear about wolves that need slaying and mushrooms that need collecting.
Such formulas – whether in epic poetry or MMOGs – are not just for the convenience of the artist; they’re ultimately for the benefit of the audience, eliminating guesswork and confusion and giving people what it is they expect – a new toy with familiar packaging. By using formulas, however unconsciously, MMOG writers are telling their audiences a story that’s been told more or less the same way, for thousands of years, ensuring the hero – whether it’s Odysseus, or Master Chief, or $PlayerName$ – will live happily ever after.
Alas, the same cannot be said for the wolves.
Michael Fiegel is a writer and game designer best known as the creator of Ninja Burger. He is a co-editor at Gamegrene, and most recently worked on Perpetual Entertainment’s late Gods & Heroes MMO. He can be contacted at aeon AT aeforge.com.