a review of Free Realms
a videogame developed by soe san diego
and published by sony online entertainment
for personal computers and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by Toph Stuart
One of the enduring fallacies of modern society is the constant desire to treat children like children. This desire is a symptom of the larger goal, which is to keep children as children: to prevent maturity. Indeed, the project isn’t just to prevent children from growing up, but even to make grown-ups jealous of children, and to persuade them, through force or charm, to constantly yearn for childhood. The project is the infantilization of everyone. After all, a child’s wants are easy to anticipate, because they are plastic: they will be whatever you decide they will be. You can manufacture their desires to any specifications, and then handily arrive with precisely the product you’ve devised them to slobber for. Everyone with a brain knows that anything that you can sell to children you should sell to children, because children are from whence the money flows. It’s elementary to observe that even mass-market pap like Terminator: Salvation loses handily at the box office to “family friendly fare” like Night at the Museum 2. Monetarily, Nintendo’s greatest coup was not Super Mario Bros., but Pokemon. Et cetera.
At the same time, it’s no secret that the modern MMO business is built from the bottom up around player retention, rather than anything we would recognize as “mechanics” in a game-design sense. There are interviews with the masterminds behind Blizzard’s brain-deadly World of Warcraft that state in no uncertain terms that any design concepts are created in the service of eliminating “player decay,” “cycling” and the like. (I’m 30% sure I just made those words up, but the underlying ideas are easy enough to imagine.) If there is an Auction House in World of Warcraft, it’s because someone has determined not that it is fun, nor communicative of some theme, nor even merely efficient; it is because it has the effect of preventing players from not paying Blizzard $15 a month. If endgame raids get harder, it’s to prevent players from leaving. If endgame raids get easier, it’s to prevent players from leaving. And so forth. As it must be, I suppose; as purveyors of a service instead of an artifact, an aesthetic object, MMO creators are beholden to their customers to provide the service they desire at all times. The customer is always right, you see. In the contemporary vision of service, this is equivalent to obsequious genuflecting to every customer desire at all times. No substantial idea can be communicated in this fashion; only the bare satisfaction of the transaction itself remains. In exchange for my $15, I have bought the confidence that next month, my $15 will buy me the same amount of unlimited time of not having to think at all.
These pyramid schemes masquerading quite baldly as “videogames” can at least be tolerated, if not justified, by the omnipresent specter of consent. Maybe grown people are paying a monthly fee to rot their brains, but they’re adults, and that’s something they’re free to choose. Maybe they’re cancer researchers and chess grandmasters, and need some way to let their brain reset after a long day at the cancer/chess research office. Sleeping is out of the question, you see, as their brains are operating furiously on so many simultaneous frequencies that only a portion of them may be shut down at any one time. Instead, you need to fool the whole brain at once into a state of placid sloth. I don’t know the per capita ratio of cancer/chess research grandmasters to normal people in even the richest of the world’s countries, so while it’s probably something less than World of Warcraft’s twelve million subscribers, we have to at least leave open the possibility that someone is using Blizzard’s brain bulldozer to make the world a better place.
The children, though. They aren’t so lucky.
Free Realms, a stitched-together Frankenstein monster of a videogame electrified to life by Sony Online Entertainment – better known for suffocating the nascent inheritor of Ultima Online’s legacy, Star Wars Galaxies, in its cradle — is the newest, best and most efficiently cruel device marrying the “all-ages” predator psychology of the MMO with the infinitely market-exploitable capacity of children to be captivated by stupid brightly-colored stuff. It is also a tool of Satan, the Father of Lies. I say with a straight face and a true heart that Free Realms, the newest and most gilded cog in the infantilization machine, is killing the minds of children. It is the Final Solution of critical thinking, assembly-line murder of rational minds by the tens of thousands.
The essential parameters of Free Realms’ service (as opposed to its “mechanics”) are nothing new. The idea is to waive the subscription fee, in exchange for a slower, scragglier product, to lower the bar of entry and attract children and other “casuals” locked out of the facially more complex interlocking systems of World of Warcraft et al. Then, once you have hooked them with your wide variety of Pavlovian tortures, lock anything even remotely interesting behind a wall of micropayments. These are made in proprietary Station Cash, perhaps the most classlessly-named currency in history. It reeks of stale corporatism, like an airport lobby.
The devil (and Free Realms is the Devil) is in the details, of course. It’s not the basic free to play, pay for the good stuff scheme that sets Free Realms ahead of the pack (which includes not only child- and casual-targeted games, but also a seemingly endless number of usually Korean MMOs aimed at an even broader cross-section of the market that attempts to include “hardcore” gamers). It’s the fact that the little hooks it uses to drag you into the paying segment are so facially ridiculous, so scattered and incoherent, so tedious and irrational, and yet so perfectly devised to keep you clicking as your eyes gloss over and you stare at a place about three inches behind your computer screen.
Free Realms’ basic conceit is that every person is every class, whenever he wants to be. Click on a menu and your gormy, High School Musical-derived teen stuffface (or pixie, inexplicably the only other playable “race”; n.b. the pixie is exactly the same as the teen stuffface except smaller and with wings) will spin like a top and, voila, you are a Ninja or a Chef or a Kart Driver. The granularity of these Jobs is stupefying; your Destruction Derby Driver, for instance, is separate from your Kart Driver. Each one of the fifteen or so Jobs has its own gear, the typical MMO slots plus two accessory slots plus four “Shard” slots. Each class is leveled separately by its own separate experience; there is no cross-pollination at any time. Gear is achingly, depressingly acquired a piece at a time for each separate slot for each separate class, and only a bit of it comes directly from leveling. An early levelup that takes perhaps an hour to acquire, for but one of these classes, might reward you with a dark red Amateur Brawler Shirt to replace your dark grey Student Brawler Shirt. Here is the corporate ladder; now climb.
Each one of these Jobs utilizes a separate, utterly mindless Flash-esque minigame to perform its main and only function. The only difference is the combat, in which a few of the Jobs can partake, and the asinine Kart games, both of which is laden with powerups that make each attempt pathetically simple, assuming you can crank around your kart correctly in the stuttering browser engine. The combat is a hilariously button-mashy affair. Instead of the overcomplicated but slightly interesting interleaved resource-management systems that make up a WoW clone, each fighting Job has a maximum of four ability slots that you pound more or less without regard for much of anything. If your numbers are high enough, you win. More often than not, your numbers are high enough.
The game is terrifically ugly, a kind of elongated Akira Toriyama-cum-Hanna Barbera affair, full of bright colors for the sake of bright colors, a conscienceless inversion of something like Resistance’s relentless brown. The game is broken up into “areas,” each of which has a “theme” derived from some mélange of low fantasy and children’s literature: scary swamp, spooky woods, cheerful winterland, happy forest.
The first of these areas will serve as a perfect example of how this game actively stunts the development of human intelligence. It is called Snowhill, and it is exactly what it sounds like. On the periphery of Snowhill are little glowy piles of leaves, and little glowy patches of flowers. Each pile of leaves, and patch of flowers, is identical; there is nothing to distinguish one pile or patch from the next. They are scattered about in nominally “hidden” places, micrometers from established and heavily-traveled paths. They respawn regularly, enabling a sufficiently dedicated dimwit to jog around, picking up each one slavishly as it appears. Within these piles are random bits of stuff, represented only by a few words and an icon three menus deep, that count towards “collections.” Completing a collection wins you a not-insignificant piece of gear for one of your Jobs.
Here are the collections I could complete in Snowhill alone:
From the flowers:
From the leaves:
I stuff you negative, Checkered Spiders and Spotted Spiders. Each of these collections has eight members, and here’s the kicker, you can reget collectibles you already have. This is menial labor par excellence, the videogame equivalent of drawing minimum wage from the State for masturbating with steel wool three times a day.
Alongside these pathetic attempts at “parallel player advancement structures” is the absolute needlessness of your fellow “adventurers”. Because you can literally be any Job at any time, and there is never any need for more than one Job at once, there is no reason to communicate with anyone, ever. Free Realms has an oppressive name filter, presumably to shield junior from the Sir Buttseckses of the world, but it’s rendered unnecessary by the fact that the entire gamespace is socially antiseptic. I’ve never felt so alone in a game allegedly populated by hundreds or thousands of other real live human beings.
Of course, where there is no communication, there is anonymity, and where there is anonymity, there is disinterest. Compound this with a child’s natural tendency toward egocentrism and you’ve basically got a game full of douchebags. Of course, the fact that almost everything is instanced means that the opportunities for griefing are minor (while also reinforcing how utterly alone you are), but mute, passionless races for glowy piles of Snowhill leaves and their analogues are common. The winners are not even happy, not even gloating. The losers are not even dejected. It is one more random happening in the machine. There will be other leaves.
What could existence in such a machine mean to a child? Let’s examine the lessons this curriculum teaches. Because there is no value in others, alienation becomes total. Because you are alienated, you have no links with any value structure that might provide some pernicious, alien values other than the ones prescribed. Because you lack any such values (in videogame terms, you might call them player-directed goals), they are there to be dictated for you by the overwhelming and beneficent hand of Sony Online Entertainment. Access to these values requires, of course, your parent’s credit card. Because each of the Jobs is individually purposeless, “fun” and “work” melt into one flat, grey organism. Don’t look for love in your work, and don’t look for escape: any conceivable alternative is only another facet of drudgery. With nothing to create, there is nothing to imagine; with nothing to conquer, there is nothing to achieve. There are only things to do.
Free Realms is, in other words, training for insanity. Not for psychopathy — not for a disorder of manic or depressive highs or lows, not for a shattered but kaleidoscopic lens through which to see the world, no — but for the bland sociopathy that lives in the dull, sullen eyes of fully entertained and completely bored children everywhere. Games may or may not find their Citizen Kane, but I’ve found their Teletubbies. Ignore the nonsensical burbling in your ear and the abstractly-hued clumps of clay on your screen and you might make it out with a personality intact.