I cannot get enough of bizarre, surreal, and cryptic literary works. I love it when my narrator is flawed, psychotic or completely untrustworthy; all the better if the world shudders under the weight of mysteries, red herrings, and symbolism. Naturally, I was intrigued by Travis Megill's version of Dhalgren, which puts players in an unpredictable world of "twisted reflections" and shifting realities, a graphical adventure game amidst a fragmented and "circular narrative." This game constantly asks the player to reassess their identity and their understanding of the reality that surrounds them. My goal with this post is to imagine similar circumstances in the traditionally persistent world of a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game.
The Dhalgren MMO, at a basic level, is a class based experience in which individuals belonging to multiple factions accomplish quest objectives, gain experience, and level-up. However, players do not share one world, but many worlds. Each server is composed of many realities, some in different time periods, some in different environments, and yet others in different universes with alternate physics rules and character models. At any given time, a player can occupy one reality and share this reality with hundreds of players or be completely alone. These worlds are not stagnant, and at early levels, players are frequently transferred to alternate realities, sometimes becoming another person with entirely new personal histories, motivations, and quest objectives.
The avatar's deeds will effect their own world, but may also create ripples through some other realities. Players may log in to find themselves inhabiting a new reality, a palimpsest of their former home in which non-player characters recognize them for actions they did not commit. Perhaps helping another player accomplish their quest objectives will result in your hometown being destroyed, creating new objectives while removing old ones.
In keeping with Travis' adaptation of Dhalgren's symbolism, level progression in the MMO will represent how well your persona can "make sense" of the universe. As characters gain experience points, they are rewarded with new gameplay abilities that allow them to better accomplish tasks, control their movement through realities, and interact with other players. Some non-combat abilities may include expanded speech options, voluntary realm transitions, or time travel.
Rather than change an avatar's appearance with level specific gear, all players will have a home that will reflect their level progression. Starting from a foundation, characters will improve their house and will soon find it populated with remnants of the journey, including some usable objects. The house will be a powerful node for your travels, and its appearance may change depending on your circumstances. Family portraits may change, walls may crumble, room may shift position, and objects may appear or disappear.
The characters inhabiting Travis' game will occasionally switch roles, appearances, and identities. In order to maintain this aspect in the Dhalgren MMO, players will rarely be certain if another character they are interacting with is an NPC or a real life individual. NPCs will wander the world much like player characters.
When a player initiates communication, a fullscreen dialogue tree opens up. If you are lucky enough to communicate with a real person but they ignore you or leave mid-conversation, an NPC copy will be created to handle the rest of the conversation. Players can accomplish group quests, even across realms, by accomplishing individual parts of a quest line which will open up a shared realm.
Guilds can be formed relying entirely on this mode of communication, though some members of the guild will not be real at all. In line with the alternate reality elements Travis' incorporates, some guilds will be entirely populated with NPCs and one unaware player. A website and guild events will be controlled by members of the development team to further the illusion of player interaction.
Guilds will have a village or town populated by the home's of its constituency. Just like your private home, this town will grow and diminish based upon the "understanding" level of its members. Players must consistently report back to the guild, as identity changes make consistent communication difficult. This town can also be infiltrated by enemy players posing as members. Taking on a new identity to accomplish this task can have unsettling consequences however. Infiltrators may permanently lose their previous identity and become real members of their previously opposed guild or faction.
Successful endgame players become explorers of reality, managing to make lasting relationship with fellow mavericks, letting themselves find meaning by abandoning a sense of place beyond their home. You can always create a new character to explore new worlds, just don't be surprised if you bump into your old self wandering the universe.