A Tense Pet Peeve

I’ve posted many times now on the subject of roleplaying in modern day MMOs, and how difficult it can be in the face of not really getting much support from either the community at large or the game company running things. In the olden days before the pretty pictures we just made everything up ourselves, but now, we have the pretty pictures, but still have a just-released game like The Old Republic where 99% of the chairs and couches in the world can’t be sat down upon.

For all that, I’ll admit that earlier last year, I found our chosen server for Lord of the Rings Online was actually surprisingly RP friendly to a degree I hadn’t seen in a long time. All over Bree, random in-character conversations would play out, a phenomenon which gave a living breathing feel to the environment that no amount of NPCs blathering pre-recorded statements could equal.

But with this came a strange phenomenon that I at first thought was aberration; only to slowly and aggravatingly discover it was not only a prevalent but often preferred roleplaying method: posing in past tense.

I’ll take a moment to define what I mean there in case you’re unfamiliar. Some people call it ‘posing’, some ’emoting’, or some just ‘/me or /em’, but it basically boils down to being able to create custom actions for others to react to. Most games have emote commands for things like ‘/wave’ or even ‘/kiss’, and a “Say” function which can simulate audible localized speech. The custom posing function is a descendent of text-based games where nearly every interaction had to be scratch-built, and… you know what? Let me just provide an example of doing this with your character, Faragorn.

You type:

/em plays a song on his lute, singing lustily of orcish maidenhood.

Everyone nearby sees:

Faragorn plays a song on his lute, singing lustily of orcish maidenhood.

This is how I’ve been used to seeing things done through decades of MU* and chatroom RPs and all that rot, anywhere that characters are supposed to be interacting in real-time. What I saw on LOTRO was an epidemic of people who would instead emote:

Faragorn played a song on his lute, and sang lustily of orcish maidenhood.

And it would go on like this, and was particularly jarring when I the person I was trying to interact with remained stuck in ‘ten seconds ago’ mode.

Legolass passes Faragorn the ransom note. “Read this and weep.”

Faragorn took the note and pondered its contents. “This is awful,” he declared, as tears filled his eyes.

Somewhere along the line, the latter format had become commonplace and accepted, and for some reason it drives me fucking nuts.

Maybe it’s a holdover from the days of non-multiplayer text adventure? If you typed ‘go south’ in Zork, you got ‘You travel down the southward path’. Type ‘open door’ in Zork, you got ‘You open the door.’

Well, it being Zork you might have had the game asking you, ‘Which door? The white door, the cerulean door, the trap door, the mezzanine door, the scurvy door, the Door with No Name, the girl-I-a-door, or the have-you-lost-patience-with-this-parser-yet-door?’… but you get the gist. All your commands, and the responses to your actions, were communicated in present tense.  It gave a sense of interactive immediacy and immersion.

Or maybe it’s a Theater thing, from my Drama background. One of the most crucial elements for actors to accomplish is being ‘in the moment’. No matter how many times you’ve recited the same lines in the same situation, you are your character and to your character this is fresh and new–must be fresh and new–not Joe Thespian engaging in performance #578 on the West End. Distancing yourself from the immediacy of your environment is dramatic suicide.

So where do all the past tense proclivities come from? I see it most in fiction never meant to be interactive: short stories, novels, campfire tales; where no matter how many characters are involved, there is one single voice relating the narrative. They can get away with this because the fact is that in a novel, for example, everything is pre-ordained. Everything has already happened, even though you may not have gotten to that observational point yet. Even a first person perspective always reads like the protoganist is relating events to you after the fact.

This, then, may be the true crux of my pet peeve, because nothing gets on my nerves more than people who come into multiplayer, interactive storytelling with a novelist mindset, where they consider their character to be the protagonist in a pre-set tale of their devising where others are, at best, peripheral supporting cast. When I see someone posing in past tense, it raises my hackles that here is someone who would rather not participate in the give-and-take flow of interactive, communal RP, and instead would be much more comfortable off writing something where they have complete control of the situation. Not only that, but the very writing style makes them always one step psychologically removed from their character, relating events rather than experiencing them.

I feel like past tense has no legitimate place in real-time interactive roleplaying, but somewhere along the line (maybe due to a generation raised that’s never heard of Infocom) it took root while I wasn’t paying attention, and I find myself having to constantly deal with it.

Present tense, alas, and unto the foreseeable future.

About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense. http://cwolf.zxq.net/
This entry was posted in Home of the Bizarre Rant, Nerd Alert and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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