Immersion in Middle-Earth

I set myself an ambitious goal.  I was all up in arms about immersion once again and, having had that blinding flash of the obvious association between immersion and enjoyment of certain titles, figures I could explore some past titles to see if that could pinpoint what makes for an immersive experience for me.

The danger here is that what is immersive can easily be confused with things I just like… and thus things that prevent or break immersion must be things I simply don’t like… and so the whole thing might just devolve into things I have praised or groused about in the past.

And “confused” probably draws too dark of a line between likes and immersion.  They are at a minimum fellow travelers.  But I know I can find cases where things I do not always enjoy and up in the mix of immersion as well.  The rather nebulous concept of “grind” fits in there.  Grinding mobs for a quest or just for xp can be bad… except when it is not.  Sometimes it is just what you need, and easy repetitive task that lets you fall into the rhythm of the game and your character.

Anyway, with all that and more in mind I thought I might take a stab at what I consider up front to be an easier title with which to pin down my immersion factors.

And the winner is Lord of the Rings Online.

Straight out of the gate the lore of the game is something I had been immersed in for nearly 30 years before it launched.  I was Book of Lost Tales and other bits and pieces published by Christopher Tolkien deep into it.  I used to knock out The Hobbit on a Sunday afternoon if I had nothing else going on and would re-read the main trilogy every two or three years.

So I was already sold on the idea… though that can be a hazard if the company doesn’t deliver.  But Turbine did deliver.  LOTRO might not be the most unique or well built MMORPG, but it looked and felt like Third Age Middle-earth to me.  The landscape, the buildings, even the stars at night are all amazing.

As well, the integration of the player into the story was done very well.  That was something I was worried about before playing the game.  One of my early posts on the blog, less than two weeks after I started, was a bit of fretting about how Turbine would handle LOTRO and lore.

But parallel path of the player through the tale, where you are handling important side tasks and occasionally crossing paths with the fellowship, is done with such care that it has never caused me much concern.

Knowing the lore and being predisposed to go along with it helped me get in the zone with the game.  There were certainly problems, especially early on.  The usual problems of running back and forth too much or perhaps spending too much time on the bear/boar/wolf circuit were pain points.  And the UI itself, with odd and sometimes indecipherable icons for skills and attacks… again, I have a post about some of that… were among my gripes.  But at least you got a lot of bag space up front, so inventory management wasn’t an immediate struggle.

Even the kind of goofy take on crafting, where you pick a vocation that gets you a basket of three trade skills plus the related harvesting was at least a slightly different take on things, though it could become something of an unpleasant grind on its own after not too long into the game.

So I found fun and interest and immersion to some degree on our first pass through, and immersion seemed to grown as I returned to LOTRO various times over the years.  I have mentioned before that having knowledge of the game when you come back to start from scratch helps things along and makes me feel more the champion of the free peoples.

To this end there are a string of zones that I enjoy running through again and again.  The starter zones not so much… I’m not really a fan of the Shire, quaint though it be… but once I am headed towards Bree I am very much engaged in the game and the story and the tale of my character.  Bree and the Old Forest and Midgewater Marshes and the Lone Lands and Evendim are my happy path, where I fall under the spell of the game, where I can feel myself get lost in the experience.

Things taper off a bit for me in the Trollshaws and in the Misty Mountains, and I have never been much on either Forochel or Angmar, the former being weighed down by so much running back and forth while the latter is just a bit too grim for my tastes.  But I still can carry on and find the zone through those and on into Moria.

And then somewhere, between Moria and Mirkwood my immersion fades and the game feels like a labor, the story doesn’t capture me and all the quests become like a weight dragging me down.

Mirkwood might explain it.  It is a dark and uninspired area into which you get thrown.  I’ve been through Moria well enough a few times now, but Mirkwood is truly an impenetrable forest in my way.

So I roll up any number of characters and get to level 40 and can be quite pleased.  I can push on and still enjoy myself.  But there is a limit beyond which there is no joy, no immersion, just grind.

It is tempting to blame Siege of Mirkwood, it being a blameworthy expansion, but even Mines of Moria, the epic underground adventure, begins to wear on me.  There is a temptation in me to revert to my “no good expansions” stance.  It is handy to reach for the idea that the initial crafted experience, the base world of any MMORPG, is a solid experience and only besmirched by trying to tack on a sequel.

I’ve played that tune any number of times, and it does have a ring of truth to it at times, especially with titles like Rift.  Changes in philosophy, new features piled on the game, attempts to be both true to the game and yet provide a new experience… to both player and developer, the latter who may chafe even more that the former at having to do the same old thing over and over again… must necessarily dilute from the original focus.

Expect, of course, I can find exceptions to the rule.  For every Storm Legion departure from the core tenets of a title there is a Ruins of Kunark that is a much needed seasoning that enhances an already delicious meal.

But as much as I might like to blame the torpor of Mirkwood and the darkness of Moria, I’ve boosted some characters past those locations.  I have tried my shot at Rohan a couple of times as well and failed, and I am told that Riders of Rohan was not a bad experience.

And here is where I risk sounding as though I am simply going to blame the failure of immersion on a feature I have complained about in the past.  Yes, I am going to lay this on legendary items.

I know, I know, the elevator speech for legendary items is pretty awesome.  I know I went in as a true believer when it came time.  You pick up a weapon that will grow with you, the potential of which you will unlock as you adventure with it.

That is truly the stuff of legends.  Arthur and Excalibur.  Aragorn and Anduril.  Even Bilbo and Sting are pairings many of us wished to emulate in our D&D campaigns or online adventures.  Strider doesn’t hand off his family sword to the nearest shop keeper the moment he finds something a bit shinier or with a slightly better stat.  No, he and the weapon are one and they fight together.

Unfortunately, Turbine screwed that idea up pretty badly and then proceeded to double down on it repeatedly… since late 2008.  Seriously, that is when Mines of Moria launched and as a feature it has just gotten worse and worse.

Let’s start with the basic problem, the immersion killed for me, which is that your legendary item is a needy baby constantly crying for attention.  At times it feels like you can’t get through half a dozen mobs before an alert pops up that it has leveled up and you have new points to apply.   And then there is the need to go back to camp to reforge it, which doesn’t happen as often, but still comes about way more frequently than it ought to.

And then, add on top of the constant nag that is your legendary, you then end up abandoning it down the road for the inevitable upgrade from a new expansion or update.  We are Aragorn abandoning Anduril every ten levels rather than every other level.

I used to think that maybe the whole thing was just a bad idea, that we shouldn’t level up weapons, that it is a flawed mechanic that should be avoided.  Then Blizzard did the legendary weapon thing with the Legion expansion and it was freaking brilliant.  And they even had a bunch of the same things I hated with LOTRO legendaries, like having to go back to town to upgrade it, but somehow made it work.  It was great.  Legion might be the last great WoW expansion.

And Blizzard had the good sense to not try to drag that on into the next expansion.  I mean, I was sad to leave Ashbringer behind and I missed the skills it enabled and the looks you could unlock with it, but it was probably for the best. (I’d seriously consider a WoW Legion Classic server I guess, just to do that again.)

So there it is.  Legendary items.

I mean sure, there are other things.  The monetization can pull me out of the game.  Having a “buy your way through this with some mithril coins!” mechanic does not jibe well with immersion.  But the mithril coin thing doesn’t show up constantly when I am out in the field questing.

I can get through escorting Sara Oakheart and running up and down the lengths of Forochel and people with crappy non-RP names and avoid a good chunk of the monetization by playing on the Legedary servers.  But even when I boosted past Mirkwood into Rohan the first thing in my face was the freaking legendary weapon and the need to do whatever.

There are literally a lot of things that people complain about when it comes to LOTRO that I can overlook like the stiff character models, the indecipherable iconography, the skirmishes, the dull housing, and how grindy crafting becomes as you move forward in levels.  But legendary items… that just kills it for me.

And I am not the only one complaining about them.  I remained amazed that first Turbine and then SSG not only kept rolling on with a system like that for more than a dozen years, but have only now conceded that maybe they ought to look into giving it a rework.

Anyway, after that reconnaissance by text of LOTRO, what are the take aways?  What makes for good immersion and what fails me on that front?

Immersion pluses

  • Familiar lore
  • Good adaptation of the lore to the game
  • Feeling of place within the game
  • Mechanics are familiar but not identical to other fantasy MMORPGs
  • Familiarity with the game
  • Well done landscape that feels like Middle-earth

Immersion minuses

  • Legendary items (primary)
  • Monetization (somewhat avoidable)
  • Poor content mid-game (Mirkwood)
  • Poor iconography
  • Lack of large monitor support (my 34″ monitor specifically)

In the end, LOTRO remains a game I have been happy enough to go back and play multiple times… at least the original content.  It is a game where I have often found immersion, traveling through the game, both as confidently as a ranger and as lost as a neophyte, depending on where I am.  (I don’t get lot in the Old Forest anymore.)

So this post was a bit of a gimme.  I already had strong feelings about what draws me to the game and what has pushed me away.  With this post I have set something of a baseline.  The question is, where do I go next?  Do I pick another fantasy title and compare immersion points, or do I try another direction and see if a very different game shares points of intersection?

7 thoughts on “Immersion in Middle-Earth

  1. potshot

    Good list. Closely mirrors my own, but I’d probably reorder some items and add a few.

    To some extent, the stiff/odd character models does create a bit of a barrier. Part of feeling immersed for me at least is the ability to closely identify with your avatar. The more fluid and “relatable” they are, the more likely I’m going to be sucked in through the monitor for stretches. Not that it didn’t happen in LOTRO, but those little points of friction can grate at times pop that soap bubble of immersion.

    Somewhat related to that would also be the “responsiveness” of the game client. Clicking an icon somehow seems just a little bit lagged or something. WoW is the winner in my book on this front, but EQ2 and others did quite a good job too– at least to the point where I didn’t find it jarring at times.

    Personally, I kind of find LOTRO to be a better “place” to be than a game to play.

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  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Potshot – Yeah, it is an okay game set in a fantastic place. It is also now an old game that isn’t going to change much.

    I suppose the reason that the wooden player models and infinite clipping issues didn’t bother me too much is that the NPCs were generally better and you spend more time looking at them. They are better because they don’t need to adapt to every gear combo in the game, they just hang around geared up as they are, never changing.

    Turbine did upgrade a bunch of the graphics over the years. The world looks better today than it did in 2007. But even the revamped player models are only marginally better than the originals overall.

    I think I just got used to the responsiveness problem, though there is always a sharp reminder of it being there every time I pick the game back up. In the end though there are a lot of friction points to get over in the game. Legendary items are just the loudest and most annoying in my book.

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  3. bhagpuss

    This is a fascinating discussion. It’s interesting to look into the detail of why sometimes we lose ourselves in a game and other times we don’t. I wonder, though, if “immersion” is really amenable to being parsed? I suspect it’s more of a transcendent state which, by definition, would occur independently and outside of limiting factors of practicality.

    Or perhaps there I’m talking about “being in the zone”, the state of mind when all other concerns drop away and your whole focus and attention is taken up with the thing you’re doing. I’m not at all convinced that’s the same as “immersion”, which seems to carry some suggestion of becoming part of the milieu as well. I can achieve the trancelike state in games that have no lore, story, setting or milieu to speak of but I don’t think I can become “immersed” in those games.

    Specifically on LotRO, I’ve always found it resistant to immersion. Although I’ve read the LotR trilogy three and a half times and the Hobbit twice, I don’t have any special affection for them or for Middle Earth. The names and places in LotRO are familiar to me but seeing them and “being there” doesn’t trigger much of a recognition factor. The scenery can be very beautiful but certainly not more so than many other mmorpgs and the character models, even the NPCs, better though they are, tend to take me out of the moment at times.

    What really makes LotRO unimmersive, though, is the diabolically bad UI. It’s hard to feel immersed when you spend so much time struggling with the interface. I would put that generic issue – unresponsive, poorly-designed UI and controls, way, way at the top of any list of immersion breakers. If you don’t get that right as a game I can’t see you can ever really come back from it.

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  4. Tremayne

    I’d be very interested to see you give EVE the same analysis – it’s obviously a game you’re attached to, but probably for very different reasons. I don’t think anyone is attracted to EVE for the lore.

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  5. Nogamara

    Unfortunately (fortunately?) I never made it far enough in LotRO to encounter the Legendary weapons, so take this comment with a shovel full of salt.

    Maybe I’m in the small minority who liked the Legion expansion but mostly hated the Artifact Weapon thing. I wasn’t playing a lot during Legion, only the first 3 months. Getting it was really nice, a cool quest line, a cool looking weapon. But then you needed to do it again for your offspec. And then the pain began. If this had been a regular-I-am-raiding expansion for me I guess I would’ve just chucked it under “chores I need to do”, but I was the poster child casual and after a while I hated the grind already. Don’t even get me started about alts, especially ones of the same class. I found it a horrible design, kinda cool if you play 1 char with 1 spec, and then it goes downhill very fast. Also IIRC there so few normal weapon drops in that expansion because players should have their Artifact weapons. Well, unless you are a max-level DPS and want a max-level tanking weapon. No chance, gotta grind up that stuff again. And by that even taking away power from your main spec.

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  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – If you go back to 2007 you can see a lot of people complaining about the UI being balky, unresponsive, and unmodifiable. Turbine even spent some time trying to improve things, but it remains a bad example of the art in the industry, the negative result that should be taught in schools of UI design and development. I mention those issues any number of times, so it probably speaks to how strong some of the other elements are to me that I somehow manage to get past it. It is still annoying, and changing to play another class is an effort in figuring out not just the mechanics but how and when you have to click to do what you want to do, but I get there.

    @Nogamara – I was very skeptical of Legion at first due to my experiences with legendary weapons, so perhaps my acceptance was as much about how much better of a job Blizz did at making them a thing in the expansion as it was about the experience overall. Still, I did seem to enjoy it on my main. And you had to buy into the artifact weapons because you had abilities in the expansion that were based on the weapon. Some random drop wouldn’t do. The pre-launch events were kind of a pain because they redid all the specs (as usual) including the skills that needed the new weapon, only you didn’t have the new weapon yet.

    And, if you hated the whole thing, Blizz did their usual routine of putting in a fast catch-up mechanic a year into the expansion so you were pretty much insta-unlocked. I ended up with five level cap characters by the time Legion ended. But if you didn’t like the artifact weapons, you would hate legendary items in LOTRO. At least Blizzard knows how to make a clear and readable UI and a somewhat intuitive process. Not the least of the sins of legendaries is how bad the interface is for dealing with them.

    @Tremayne – EVE Online is very much on my list, in part because I do play it a lot and find it immersive at times, but also because it illustrates a few things about how immersion seems to work for me. It is, in its way, the upside down example. But we’ll get to that.

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