Sigh. I didn’t want it to have to come to this. I wanted to write a post today about how achievements could be leveraged into a nifty role-playing mechanism that would combine the coolness of achievement points with the aspirations system of The Sims 2 (within which I now suffer the full fledged throes of addiction,) to create a really wicked-cool story-line generator for your role-playing character; but then a group of burly men in black coats appeared; naturally I considered them Blizzard employees here to end my effortless criticism of their game designs, but no. They turned out instead to be the paid operatives of Jess. (Although I have to assume they were paid in sexual favors rather than cash, God no; with Jess’s pelf she couldn’t even pay a five year old to beat up the class nerd, let alone hire a trio of black clad thugs with clubs. By the way, they had clubs.)
So after being told in no uncertain terms that I was to stop whining on the ‘blog and bleeding on the sidewalk; instead I was to actually freaking write something about role-playing this week instead of psuedo-posts that weren’t so much about role-playing as game design. This, they politely informed me, was a World of Warcraft role-playing weblog and that the fans of this site came here for cogitative ruminations and how-tos regarding the practicum of role-playing. Now before you start wondering where Jess found such unusually well-spoken hoodlums (I know it surprised me,) I’d like to take this time to point out that this is all really her fault. See, way back in the mists of two weeks ago, when we started this ‘blog, the roles seemed to be set pretty well: She was the thoughtful commentator who examined role-playing with a critical eye but found new and interesting ways to take the form, while I played the jaded misanthrope who practiced role-playing despite saying the whole thing was a load of shit. But then she decided to spend her romance post explaining why you can’t do romance with the undead, it put me in the incredible bind of trying to now explain how it worked. This is why, while I’ve been pounding out nonsense posts about engraving, I have a few thousand words (I’m not even kidding,) saved up on the subject of how to do World of Warcraft as a romantic comedy. But you know what? To hell with all of it. It cannot be done. And so you get this instead.
Back to that lovely subject then: Love. The beautiful emotional entanglement of two people that ends in black-clad thugs beating you up. (I’m not bitter.) Let me some my opinions of romantic plots in World of Warcraft then: Don’t work, never will, stop trying. Oh, all right, a romantic subplot can work here and there, I’ll grant you, but it’s a minor tone, a barely there, hardly worth considering. What it comes down to is this: All romance, all of it, every last freaking bit of it, from romantic comedy to romantic drama to every single romantic plot ever written, comes down to not being in love; it all revolves around wanting love, or being in unrequited love, or being in love with someone you can’t have. The real emotional pull of every romantic plot is not about emotional togetherness or passionate fulfillment but about loneliness, detachment and distrust. It’s not about what you have, but what you can’t have. Here, I’ll give you some examples. Romeo wants Juliet. But Juliet is the daughter of his father’s mortal enemy, so he can’t have her. See? How about this one: Tom Hanks wants Meg Ryan (why anyone would ever want Meg Ryan is a topic for another time,) but she lives on the other side of the country, so he can’t have her. Rob Gordon wants… well, he doesn’t know what the hell he wants for most of the novel, but you can bet your sweet ass he ain’t gonna get it for most of it.
It’s basic plotting. You can’t give your protagonist everything he wants from the word go, or you don’t have a plot but a newspaper article. And herein is the rub: You can pretty much have anything you want in World of Warcraft with no freaking difficulty. What? She lives on Kalimdor but you live in the Eastern Kingdoms? There’s a handy zeppelin that leaves every fifteen minutes, just go and make a freaking day-trip of it. So much for Sleepless in Silvermoon. You need denial to make a romance plot work, and World of Warcraft is like an eager puppy dog happy to see you after you went out to pick up a coffee and a cinnamon scroll down the street, it never denies you anything.
“Aha!” say some of the more clever of you, eyes wide in the glee of having become a straw-man by a poor writer hacking away in a weblog, “But Azeroth does have an absolute wealth of death. What about romance in back-stories? The idea of a dead wife/husband is a rich mine of dramatic goodness.” This is absolutely true. But the Surgeon-General has recently advised that dead wives, husbands, children and especially parents are often infected with Mary-Sueitis, a disease they appear to be able to give retroactively to people who put them in their backstories. So let’s chuck that idea back on the scrap heap with the rest of them.
“Alright then,” I hear another of my fictional readers saying, “But what about if it’s about the symbols of romance rather than the actual thing? Have lost wedding rings, let’s say, stolen from them in the insert-conflict-here. That way you can even set up a whole raid about it; and you keep going until the ring drops.” This is actually a reasonably decent point, and it’s certainly one of the better ways to handle it. But it’s not like we’re talking about the One Ring here, for God’s sake, ever since the Blood Elves came back to Azeroth as gangsta rappers with smack addictions and bling-bling, Azeroth’s been unseasonably interested in jewelry making, just go and buy a couple more rings.
Look, it’s not impossible to do a love storyline. I admit it, if you can rope a third person into your game you can have a perfectly decent love-triangle going on, and that’s a form of denial World of Warcraft can’t take away from you. But even then; you have to invent every freaking complication yourself, and romance plots thrive on external circumstances complicating an internal relationship – It’s the classic ‘us against the world’ appeal of the thing. Warcraft, as well as pretty much every collaborative role-playing game on the planet, (as opposed to adversarial systems like tabletop pen & paper role-playing,) just doesn’t lend itself to this kind of plotting. You can certainly have two characters be in love – There’s even something crazily charming about some massive bulky warrior who can tear about demons at will but stumbles every time he tries to talk to a girl. I once played a Tauren druid who was meant to be a teenager and was reduced to as much stammering as a broken typewriter whenever he met a girl with a long swishy tail; again, that was great. But as a plotting mechanism, it doesn’t work. All may be fair in warcraft, but love is distinctly ugly to attempt in Azeroth.