9 Aug 2013

Celebrating the Wrinkles

WildStar already holds my attention as an upcoming MMO. But in among the regular feature updates and videos, there’s a special reason why I’m watching it closely.

It’s the first time in a very long time that I’ve watched a roleplaying community form, share ideas and develop their own character concepts.

The last time was about seven or eight years ago, as some friends and I started planning our characters for World of Warcraft. Of course, back then we didn’t have the benefit of preexisting communities or comprehensive wikis. All we had were some rough ideas sketched out in emails, or discussions over a pint in the local pub.

I mention it now, because WildStar invokes the same feeling. There isn’t a monstrous tome of lore to base characters from. There isn’t a sprawling franchise of games to give us heavy guidance about the world we’re planning on diving into. All we have are a series of edges and outlines on which to put our own imprint.

And that’s incredibly liberating.

It means that there aren’t many character ideas that don’t fit, or that I wouldn’t encourage. Unless it involves vampire werewolves from the planet Jellybean, who wage war against the insolent Cupcake Empire under the Banner of Polka-dot. In which case, they probably don’t need an MMO to escape from the chilling grip of reality.

What does tend to happen is that we latch on to cool concepts, or ideas that we know, or shapes that feel familiar. It’s part of who we are. Familiarity is comforting.

It also raises a counterpoint. As a species, humanity has an incredible ability to spot patterns, even when none exist. We point to a trend and cry that it’s the same concept recycled over and over, insinuating that it’s somehow inferior.

There’s also an element of pre-judgement or disdain. Encounter one annoying gnome on your travels, and soon enough all of them are like that. In the end, the entire race became a bag of tropes and cliches, no matter how distinct the individual characters were.

And hey, I played a Gnome in WoW for over seven years. I know what pre-judged disdain for your character feels like.

There is a solution to all of this. It’s about recognizing the differences that make your character unique, rather than the elements that make them all the same. Its about pushing them to the forefront, giving it a personality fingerprint that’s distinct. Instead of wearing your template like a badge, celebrate the wrinkles your character has.

A good example for this is TV sitcom The Office. The humour and entertainment didn’t come from a group of people working together for the same company in the same building. It came from recognising and celebrating their differences and individuality. It’s their uniqueness that makes them special, despite the shared situation.

There’s a concept about designing under constraints, and how limitations push creative people into interesting directions in order to make something quirky and unusual without breaking the mold. I think there’s a lot to be said for this, although there’s a counterpoint of avoiding the trap of tropes.

I think that what we’re all keen to see and interact with, is a whole smorgasbord of interesting characters that are well played and have interesting depth to them. They might seem familiar on first glance (pesky pattern recognition), but rapidly deviate in a pleasing but chaotic manner.

It doesn’t matter if you’re planning on playing a Chua mad scientist (including me), a Cassian military loyalist (including me), or an Aurin horticulturalist (including me). Show us what makes it special, fun, unique, and interesting. Show us the wrinkles.

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