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Shawn Delahunty's picture

Game Review: World of Warcraft - The Sound of One Hand Clapping

EDIT: An important correction was made to this post near the very end. Please scroll down for the full scoop.


The subtitle of this blog-post is an adaptation of an old, fairly well-known Zen Buddhist koan (profound question): "What is the sound of one-hand clapping?" It's not a real question in the classic sense, but instead is intended as a probing statement. It's meant to stimulate thinking on the part of the listener, to get them to ponder their full state of mind, state of being. True Zen practitioners would take a great while before answering, usually with something equally cryptic.

Since I was a kid though, I have had an immediate answer for this supposedly profound question. (I say "supposedly profound", not because I'm belittling Zen Buddhism, but because I've always been way too literal-minded. The question never struck me as being 'profound' in any sense.) My answer when asked that question? "Pointless."

At first blush, my answer may seem thought-provoking; as if someone had asked me, "How much is 7 minus 3?" and I answered, "Orange." This casual listener, perhaps slightly familiar with Zen Buddhism, might suppose that I was seriously attempting to probe the deeper-meanings of myself, my being, and how I relate to my universal "one-ness". They could be excused for thinking that I was attempting to give a 'profound, meaningful, inner answer' to the 'profound question'.

I hate to disappoint anybody, but here's what actually goes on in my head:

  1. Some person asks me, "What is the sound of one-hand clapping?"
  2. I immediately get a visual picture in my head of some vaguely cartoony doofus, standing there cross-eyed, drooling slightly, and miming the clapping action with one arm. Nowadays, that old mental image of mine gets mixed in with a generous helping of South Park. Now the poor sot, thrashing one arm, yells, "TIMMAYYY! Libbelow TIMMAY!" (For those not familiar with SouthPark, you'll need to go look him up.)

My glib answer of, "Pointless." ought to make more sense now. That's what one-handed clapping is to me.

So what does this mean with regards to World of WarCraft? Well, that's actually a longer story than it might at first seem. At the urging of folks here and in my real-life, I decided to try out WoW. It's hard to argue with the "FREE" part they just introduced, so what the heck, I decided to try the thing. I figured at the very least it might be good for a laugh; I had some bandwidth to burn--good thing too, this thing was STUPIDLY huge. 10+ GIGABYTES worth of huge. (Yeah, I've got a measly 3Mbit DSL. When I hear the crushing sound of money raining down on me, I'll splurge on an upgrade.)

So I set it downloading, watched it for a minute, and went to bed. In some ways, this was fuzzy nostalgia for me. I remember the early days of the public Internet, when 14.4-Kbit modems were "State of the Art". So this very much reminded me of those heady days, when downloading "UNBELIEVABLY HUGE, 5 and 6 MEGABYTE programs" was a big deal; something you had to plan your whole day around. (This was in the era when people could never reach me by phone, since the line was always busy.)

The next morning, I noted that the download was complete, and went on with my workday. That night, I took an hour to try it out.

As I've come to expect from Blizzard, the intro cinematic was terrific. I particularly liked the quality of the voice-over narration, as it instantly swept my imagination into an intriguing setting and established a mood as thick and juicy as a 1-inch thick, New York strip steak. While I was only peripherally familiar with the WarCraft universe, I found my mind whirling a bit with questions about how the grand story might unfold.

The second thing I noticed, before I even logged into my BattleNet account, was the AMAZING music for this game. I am a sucker for movie soundtracks and instrumental works; I commonly use them while coding, writing, drawing, and so forth. I enjoy it so much, in point of fact, that I'm listening to it right now as I write this post, with the WoW launcher just idling on another screen. (In case anyone is confused by that last statement, let me clarify: I run Linux for 99% of everything. I have done so personally and professionally for 16 years now. I have no less than 12 virtual screens up, all loaded with crap)

So far, so great. Time to play a bit.

As I'd never before played the game myself, only watched others do so, my initial preference was to, "play it safe." Hence I chose to run a human, male, 'Hunter' character type. I did so for a couple of good reasons:

  1. Male - Done mostly because I've already done the female role-playing thing in the past; fairly unconvincingly I might add.
  2. Human - Since I would be exploring wholly unfamiliar game-mechanics, stat-building (yeah, right), and skill-tree testing, I wanted to start with something that is at least partially known to me--human capabilities.
  3. Hunter - I actually picked this one for 2 separate reasons.
    • -- My overriding reason for this class selection was because you get a nifty little helper/pet. I wanted to explore solo, and knew from my past CRPG experience that I have a terrific talent for getting in WAY over my head. Rapidly. A loyal-but-dumb AI "monster-chomper" seemed like a good beginner's crutch.
    • -- Secondly, I have a preference for distance-attack tactics. I also flat-out just suck at running wizards. I don't know why, but I can kill them reliably before they have a chance to gain many levels. That meant I needed something that was good with a bow and arrow. In the Diablo series, this was the "Rogue" or "Amazon/Bow-azon" character type. The rogue-type in WoW seemed to harken back more closely to the D & D class designation of "Thief", dual-wielding daggers and all.
  4. "Normal" Difficulty - As I just wanted to poke around initially, with no sudden player or enemy attacks from anywhere, this seemed best.

Round 1 - Newb On the Loose

I finished creating my very first WoW character, the game connected to whatever server it had recommended, and after a brief pause I found myself in front of a little cathedral or church. At which point I immediately did what I always do in a new RPG--ignore the 'obvious' thing you're supposed to do first. In this case, I found myself parked in front of some dude with a big, glowy, "Pay attention to me!" exclamation-point. My first instinct is to leave the poor sod standing there. I take the view, "Hey, it's my game bub. I'll play it my way." So I took off in a random, interesting-looking direction, and went exploring.

It turned out about as well as you might expect. Within minutes, I had accidentally walked up on a group of "Mangy Wolves". Within seconds I saw my pet get turned into a fur-pelt-carpet by a ravening wild wolf. Three seconds later I was laid out on the ground as a matching human-pelt-carpet. I can't say I was surprised, it happens to me a lot in new games.

What happened next though, I didn't expect at all. I clicked on the "Release Spirit" button. Suddenly, a bright flash filled the screen, and there I was, a translucent ghost, in a world turned to cool shades of black and white. I have to admit that was different; an extremely nice touch. I hadn't expected that game mechanic, but do like it very much. It's a slick, polished, well-thought out feature--just the kind of thing that Blizzard has shown themselves to excel at time after time.

I fooled about in the game as a ghost for a while, then decided to go find my body and resurrect. Popping back into full-color was an interesting experience. Still just messing about, I next cast the spell to resurrect my fuzzy wolf buddy. About 8 seconds after that event, he dies once more, and I get my ass eaten again. Hmm. Not doing so well. I figured that I might just get a clean start instead; something with a more "serious" role-playing name this time.

Round 2 - The Newb, Redux

Thus emboldened, I "re-roll" another character. (I'm using the term loosely here, as there isn't exacly much in the way of "STATS management" like a classic CRPG. WoW is very much like the old Amiga game, The Faery Tale in this regard. You just start the game with whatever stats are handed to you. Also like The Faery Tale, you raise your level/stats by whacking stuff over the head with whatever you happen to find laying around.) Done with my rebellious, punk rock attitude for the moment, I decide to "play by the rules" a little bit with this new guy.

So I re-enter game, talk to what-his-face at the church, and get the basic, "Go kill the big, mean, hairy rats/dogs/wargs/blargs/worms/whatevers" quest handed to all clueless newbs. Okey dokey, off I go. I kill low-level trash monsters, learning more about the interface as I do. I return to the fellow, click through the dialog to complete the quest, and...

He applauds.

My brain explodes.

"WHAT?!?!?"

I quite literally stared at the screen in mute, staggered, disbelief.

This NPC is... actually... applauding? (At this point, it would have been completely appropriate if a whole slew of "WTF?!?" thought-balloons had appeared over my character's head in-game.) I looked around, to see if the game was actuating an animation for someone else, one of the gaggle of other, slightly higher-level newbs running about, all busy killing little, furry, trashy, first-level, monster-y things.

Nope. This clown is definitely applauding me. Somehow, the designers felt that the very best thing the scripted in-game logic should do, is clap. I remember clearly thinking to myself, "This does not bode well."

No, I didn't give up on the game, though I was sorely tempted. I kept at it, an hour or two at a time. I will say that the quest rewards got less cheesy, and I took delight in some of the loot rewards. (I'm especially pleased with the 'auto comparison' which WoW does, when you highlight a quest's "potential reward item"--it's very easy to determine whether you should even consider a given item, or if you've already earned/bought/found better swag. +10 points to Blizzard for that.) I continued playing, a couple hours each night, until my grizzled hunter character reached level 14 or so. At that point I felt I had enough material to ponder over and write this review.

Round 3 - The Findings

Ok, I've officially played World of Warcraft now. What do I think? That's complicated.

On it's face, the game impressed me. It's a very different experience from my EverQuest days. For the most part, that is a fantastically good thing. The game world feels a lot less sparse. The interfaces are leaps and bounds ahead, and as slick and polished as I've seen--which, again, is one area where Blizzard has few peers. I greatly enjoyed exploring the different towns and parts of the world very much. I got a huge thrill when I finally figured out that I could catch a ride to other parts of the continent thanks to the "Rent-a-gryhpon Yellow-Beak Taxi Service." (Yes, it took me a while to figure this out. Yes, I'm a bit slow in that regard I suppose--I didn't read anything online, and I deliberately avoided chatting much with other players.) That part was so exciting I made some screenshots of the experience.

wow_gryphonrideHoly Crap! This is wicked cool!

Unlike a great number of folks, I found I was not put off by the "cartoon-y" art style. This was a pleasant surprise, as I'd gritted my teeth a bit going in. I'm no fan of anime by any stretch; I'd rather go donate blood or see a dentist, than be forced to watch or play or read something in the anime-style. Blech. Chalk it up to this; I played games back when on-screen characters resembled 4-color blobs made of fuzzy Legos, so I can overlook a lot with regards to artwork. If the gameplay is good, I can handle just about anything. Initially at least, I found WoW to have decent enough gameplay. The animations are also quite fun and decently well done, which goes a long way towards engendering believability and immersion.

All this sounds pretty positive, and I suppose it is. One problem; by the time I quit actively playing, a genuine dissatisfaction started to creep in. I grew less and less interested in the game. The source of this feeling has been hard to pin down. I knew from the beginning that the game wasn't going to provide an immersive story, so that wasn't the problem. I also knew that there was just about ZERO chance I would get enthralled by any "classic" role-playing. I honestly tried very, very hard not to judge the game for any of this. Part of that I accomplished by not engaging with other players, part came from playing on a NON-PvP server. So I didn't suffer from "griefing" or other player-induced irritations which had ruined the EverQuest experience.

That's not to say I did not interact at all. I actually did (and still do) spend a good bit of time parked on a nearby fence, observing the various duels and other group interactions. Occasionally I would even help out a newb character who was in over their head. As I jogged past someone in trouble, I would send a couple "slowing attack" arrows into the beastie that was roughing them up. I spent almost no time chatting though. If the newb character turned, to see who had intervened, I would have my avatar give a little wave; then I would continue onward.

But still, by the time I was closing in on level 15, the game became more and more boring to "play". Sure, I could entertain myself by going exploring, but actually "playing the game", leveling up my character, learning more of my profession/secondary skills, following quests, etc., all failed to hold my interest.

For a while, the closest I could get to describing it was this; it felt like "grinding". Even when tackling tougher monsters, at levels higher than I should have attempted, it felt that way. Despite trying to give myself a real challenge in that sense, I was still bored. No amount of thinking about it seemed to clear out the logjam in my head. I'd done my best to leave my preconceived notions and previous biases out of it. Why the hell was the game not in the least bit FUN?

Round 4 - The Root Problem

The answer came to me, ironically, while I was wandering around inside the World of Warcraft. I was just wandering through some wilderness, as I'm prone to do in these games, peeking over hills, watching the various beasties walk around. I swam across a small stream, and as I climbed out on the shore, the sounds of voices and battle grew louder. Out of curiosity, I cautiously crept up the small hill, and looked around a convenient tree. (Although, honestly, when has anyone met "an inconvenient tree"?)

There was a small group of four players, all attacking some "boss" monster. The bodies of the slain minion-monsters were laying around. The battle was raging along pretty well, with flashes of spell effects, the clang of steel ringing across the grotto. Eventually, the boss monster let out a groan and flopped over in a dramatic death animation. The small group of players gathered round for a minute, then all dashed off together. I started backing away, still mostly bored. Then as I saw the corpses all begin to fade out, I noticed another group of folks moving around in the distance, and slowly start inching closer.

They were waiting for the "boss re-spawn". And then the answer hit me; I knew why I was utterly bored.

Immersion. Believability. Suspension of disbelief. All of that was gone. Whatever I did in the game, no matter how cool or clever, it didn't frickin' matter. Not one little bit. This was part of my beef with EverQuest. And though not my biggest complaint at that time, I now realize that it had contributed far more to my dissatisfaction than any griefer.

The real problem I find with WoW?

It has a "Persistent Gameworld". And not in a good way.

The "Persistent Gameworld" term is often used to describe a game-world which, "Remains alive and vibrant, with even minute details like changing weather and seasons, even when you personally are logged off." (I'm borrowing various bits of marketing hyperbole here, to put together that quote.) Companies have touted it since Ultima Online was first announced; probably even before that.

I went into WoW with that notion in the back of my mind. What I found instead, was a world that was less "persistent", and more "unchanging", "unalterable", and "forever static". Nothing I did, can or will make one whit of difference. No matter how many times I clear a section of woods, the 'Mangy Wolves' will return. No matter how many times I slay the dragon, if I stand there long enough it will fade out, and then return.

Round 5 - Epilogue

This all brings me back to the subtitle for this blog-post, "The sound of one hand clapping" and my overly literal response, "Pointless." That, ultimately, is what I found to be my opinion of World of Warcraft. The game itself, feels utterly pointless to me; futile. There is no reward. There is no lasting emotional experience.


EDIT: A big apology and disclaimer.
In the interests of decency, honesty, and proper forthright citation, I've decided that I must insert a clarification here to my original post. As pointed out in the comments below, Matt Barton has previously used the "amusement park" analogy which immediately follows this corrective edit. While I don't specifically remember reading it, it is entirely possible... nay, probable, that I did in fact read what he wrote. That concept was almost certainly in the back of my head when I had my in-game "epiphany".

This improper appropriation was in no way intentional. Chalk it up to being overly tired when I finished typing up the original post. I sincerely apologize for my plagiarism of his idea.

As such, all credit for the cleverness and originality of the concept (and I really do think it's quite clever...) belongs to the good Doctor Barton. I commend him for not being snarky, rude, or irate with me, as I well deserve. (I also thank him for not smacking me upside the head with something heavy, rusty, and pointy.)


Playing World of Warcraft actually does not feel like "playing a Role-Playing game" at all. It feels instead like I'm on the, "World of Warcraft Ride", at Disneyland. That's the best description really--I feel like I'm in an amusement park; not a real, breathing, living world. Just like at Disney, the ride can be entertaining, even exciting or exhilarating--for a short time. From a technical standpoint, the whole thing is unbelievable; it's literally breathtaking in the smoothness, and polish, and cleverness, and careful attention to every feasible detail of the experience. But after you pass by, if you turn your head and look behind the car, you can see all the animatronics "resetting back to first-positions"--the next carload of tourists will be coming through at any moment after all.

That, I think, is what I meant in some earlier posts when I wrote about "Meaningfulness". WoW, and the other MMORPGs which I've tried or seen, just aren't MEANINGFUL. An RPG should matter. My characters, my behaviors, my actions, should matter. In WoW they don't. More to the point, they can't. And that's inherent in the very core design of the "game". Hence, for the foreseeable future, I will keep playing my much-beloved CRPGs.

Thanks for reading everybody. Next time, I'll be taking you on a trip into the dim, murky past; a time when, "Men were MEN", and "Computers had really big, chunky, blurry, kinda awful looking pixels. Mostly greenish ones." Sounds fun right? Well it should be! We'll look at one of my earliest CRPG experiences, thanks to the magic of emulation. (And I'll try to figure out why the heck the silly thing still holds my interest, almost 30 years on.)

Cheers to you all, and keep your "Drinking Horns of Enormous Thirst Quenching +8" at the ready!

- Shawn (no longer "The Mysterious 'S'" or "Bitsweep" or any of that other hoo-haa...)

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