Thursday, June 14, 2012

Otherland MMO

Tad Williams' 1996-2001 Otherland quadrilogy is a remarkable, under-the-radar series that absolutely blew me away when I discovered it a few years ago. The breadth of the series is epic and incredibly expansive, and is a narrative that should by all rights be mentioned in the same breath as The Lord of the Rings or Dune; it's a contemporary, technological Hero's Journey that touches on everything from how identity is informed to the role of social stratification in online interaction to the flexibility of the concept of mortality. It's an adventure story, first and foremost, and one that is relevant and recognizable to a post-millenium audience, but at heart deals with our changing construct of reality thanks to the implementation of technology in our lives, just as succinctly as The Lord of the Rings dealt with the role of technology in world war, or Dune addressed the intersection of technology and ecology.

Unlike The Lord of the Rings, Otherland is not so much metaphorical as it is reflective; unlike Dune, the technology and society presented are conceivable, identifiable extrapolations of their modern day equivalent. I say that Otherland should be mentioned alongside those two series; strangely, however, it is not, and in fact most people haven't even heard of it. Hell, I hadn't heard a thing about it until I happened to pick up the first volume of the series in a used bookstore on a whim. Now that I've read it, I'm astonished that it hasn't gained more of a foothold in people's awareness, but sadly it seems to have been relegated instead to that gigantic slush heap known as "mediocre genre fiction". Believe me when I say that there's nothing mediocre about Otherland.

The quick-and-dirty byline is this: Otherland is an epic adventure about videogames. In Otherland, the Net has become a sort of Ur-game, the ultimate Massively Multiplayer Online game that acts as a container and jumping-off hub for all other games, from medieval fantasy (think World of Warcraft) to cyberpunk (think Shadowrun, or Deus Ex) to historical adventure (think Assassin's Creed) and all points in between. There are game-worlds based on literature (Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, War of the Worlds) and on existing MMO archetypes (Middle Country, the most popular game on the Net, bears a strong resemblance to WoW). There are science-lab gameworlds and private, PSN Home-style gameworlds and illegal hacker gameworlds. The vastness of the Net is made immediately apparent, and as the story progresses, it becomes clear that with a world this large, there are naturally going to be a lot of dimly-lit corners and a gargantuan, subterranean mechanism keeping things running smoothly. It's this exploration of what's behind the walls and beneath the floorboards that makes Otherland such a fascinating tale.

At any rate, I bring all of this up not only because Otherland is a series of books about videogames and that's the sort of thing I like to talk about here, but because it was recently announced that Otherland is being developed into a real, honest-to-God MMO game, as evidenced by the trailer above. And while we're a few decades away from being able to fully immerse ourselves in a realistic gameworld, this version of Otherland takes a unique approach to the MMO mechanic by introducing a metatextual element: players can travel from gameworld to gameworld (there are three unique worlds at launch - the Mars Market, the medieval-themed Eight Squared, and the heavy sci-fi, matrix-like Lambda Mall - but I'm certain more will be added as time goes by) and there seems to be a focus not only on your standard PvP and combat gameplay but also on creating your own gameworld by collecting and using 'eDNA'. To this end, it seems like a cross between EVE Online, Everquest and Second Life.

Otherland is going to be free-to-play, and I can guarantee you that once it's released, I'll be giving it a more-than-cursory playthrough. Familiarity with the novels on which it's based doesn't seem to be a requirement, but I recommend that you read them anyway. It's a colossal, epic story, so if that's your thing, you won't be disappointed.

No comments:

Post a Comment