Hard Project: Otherland
There are a lot of things that I really like about Otherland, one of them being the simple fact that it followed the age-old trick of making the future seem real by only looking forward a little bit and making reasonable assumptions. The story doesn’t take place in the year 1999 on a space liner, is my point. Sure, VR technology didn’t become the focal point of computing for a lot of reasons, but the world put forth in the book feels plausible.
At a glance, it’d make a pretty cool game.
The Otherland MMO has shuffled developers and publishers more than once, but it always seemed like a really bizarre concept to me based off of reading the story’s setting far too literally. Not that it’s the fault of the programmers, who doubtlessly just wanted to adapt a vivid and interesting world to play in. At a glance, this seems like a no-brainer for a project; it’s only on closer examination that you realize the whole thing is damn-near impossible to pull off, and not terribly rewarding if you do.
A world, not a story
Let’s start with the central problem: any Otherland work is focused on the world rather than the tale told about that world. It has to be. The alternative doesn’t work. It’s the promise of the world that makes the setting so appealing, a sprawling virtual playground where so much is possible and almost anything is right around the corner.
You may, of course, recognize that what I have described there is the concept of a setting rather than an actual setting. So you want to stick with actual Otherland for this, the dark shadow of the internet equivalent used by the protagonists in the story, a photorealistic network of false worlds that take part in huge, sprawling childhood visions. All well and good, but also sort of kneecapped by the fact that again, I’m describing a setting in the broadest possible terms.
At a glance, the idea of exploring the eponymous Otherland is appealing, but in the real world it has limits. What made it so entrancing in the books was the fact that we could only see small slices of it while everything came apart at the seams, worlds fantastical and imagined in such a way that they did not need to conform to any laws of objective reality. Once you actually get into the worlds, they’re just… places, by definition spaces meant largely for people to explore without too much thought. The nature of the story implies that, theoretically, you could argue that World of Warcraft is Otherland, you’re just putting an extra layer of separation between you and the game you’re playing.
So that’s a problem, but it can easily be fixed by just playing through the story, right? Surely that would be satisfying. Except…
The story is not built for competence
Which character do you want to play in the game? The blind French woman, the assistant professor from South Africa, or the crippled boy?
The characters of the story, by and large, are heroic, admirable, and likable. They are all entirely unsuited to most of the roles of a video game protagonist, too. That’s largely by design; story events unfold with the characters being almost entirely blindsided by what’s going on, and by the time they realize what’s happening it’s too late to find someone more capable to do what needs doing. It’s a story of heroism arising from will and time, making characters who sacrifice quite a bit feel that much more human for the effort.
But they sure as hell don’t fit as game protagonists in anything shy of a point-and-click adventure. At which point you’ve already admitted that the game element is secondary to telling the narrative, so you might as well pick up a book instead. It’s a rare game that can make you feel like your fumbling inability isn’t just a result of poor programming, and it’s rare that a game can match the accomplishments of Silent Hill 2 in that department. Making it work is a highly dubious gamble.
But let’s say you discount all of that. You can make something work. The setting could be made more overtly game-y despite the fact that it doesn’t quite sync up with the world of the novels. Even when you’ve done all of that, things are still a bit dicey, just because…
The central metaphor is lost
What made Otherland potent, in part, is the mere idea of it. We’ve all experienced being completely lost in a fiction, losing ourselves completely in a game or a movie. Otherland highlights that experience, being so lost in the vividness of images and the very idea of this vast, wide place that it takes everyone a long time to realize that their path back out of the fiction is no longer available. It requires a very specific setup for the main characters in the novel to be placed in a situation where their virtual dangers involve real-world direct danger; the lion’s share of the first novel uses far more tangible and immediate consequences and fears.
I’m not saying that a game cannot approach that, but I am saying that you lose part of the metaphor when you, yourself, have the ability to find your way back out any time you want. Yes, you do in the novels, too, because you can stop reading, but the added layer of control you have in a game makes everything far more dubious. Instead of being stuck, you’re choosing to be there, and it’s quite possible that you’re going to do so with the same sort of thorough self-defense that you’d find in any good tabletop campaign.
Instead of being lost, small, and unprepared in an unmapped and unknowable vastness, you would by the very nature of the genre be prepared and aware of your point, able to locate yourself and your objectives, and moving forward from there. It’s like the old joke about why The Lord of the Rings didn’t involve eagles just flying everyone to Mordor over the course of two days – because there wouldn’t be an entertaining plot at that point.
Sorry to those of you still hoping that the MMO will in fact be a thing.