Pop Culture Tributes in MMOs
There are a wealth of pop culture tributes in the MMORPG, World of Warcraft. You’ll find nods, homages and quotes from movies, TV, fantasy literature and more littered throughout the game and its numerous expansions. For example, in the Mage Quarter of Stormwind, the Warlock trainers can be found in the basement of a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb which is a homage to the movie An American Werewolf in London. The fish vendor Old Man Heming in Booty Bay and the fishing achievement are references to Ernest Hemingway's novel The Old Man and the Sea. And in Dread Wastes resides a faction called The Klaxxi, that provide a large amount buffs as enchants and augmentations. These buffs all have names referring to specific heavy metal songs from the likes of Slayer, Queensrÿche and Manowar. There are dozens of others such references and I can certainly see the appeal of discovering them as you play through content and explore the virtual world.
Having maintained such a tradition, it is hardly surprising that Blizzard have recently added a new NPC named Stanley to the capital city of Stormwind. This is, of course, a tribute to the late, great Stan Lee, the former writer, editor, and publisher of Marvel Comics who died in November. Stanley doesn’t do much other than take a long leisurely stroll around the keep and its surrounding grounds, but it provides fans with an opportunity to walk with the creator of Iron Man, the Hulk, and Spider-Man and reflect on the man’s work and achievements. During Stanley’s perambulations he hails passers-by with his signature greeting of “Excelsior!”. Blizzard included a similar tribute to actor Robin Williams, adding him to the game following his death in 2014. No doubt this practice will continue, and further distinguished pop culture icons will be added to the MMO in the years to come.
Star Trek Online, is similarly home to several tributes to late cast members. When news first broke of Leonard Nimoy’s death in May 2015, STO players gathered around a fountain on Vulcan to mourn. Cryptic Studios subsequently replaced the structure in the centre of the fountain with a stone statue of Spock, along with the inscription “live long and prosper”. New Romulus received a similar statue, but a different quote; “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” There is also a memorial plaque on the mezzanine at Earth Space Dock that also pays tribute to Nimoy along with Majel Barrett (Nurse Chapel), James Doohan (Scotty), DeForest Kelley (Bones), and Gene Roddenberry. Anton Yelchin (Checkov) was recently added. Players can interact with the names to read the dates of birth and death as well as a small quote from each.
Standing Stone Games, flagship MMO The Lord of the Rings Online has some interesting and somewhat esoteric references to JRR Tolkien as well as his literary colleagues. “The Bird and Baby” tavern in Michel Delving hosts a meeting of Hobbits, held in a small room at the back. This is a reference to the real-world tavern "Eagle and Child" in Oxford, England, which was frequented by the members of The Inklings literary discussion group which included J.R.R. Tolkien, and other well-known professors and authors. From 1939 to 1962, the Inklings members regularly met in a back room of the pub which is now known as the Rabbit Room. Several members of the Inklings are represented in the “The Bird and Baby” tavern. C.S. "Jack" Lewis (Jack Lewisdown), Owen Barfield (Owen Farfield), Charles Williams (Carlo Williams), and there is also a Rabbit. They refer to a fellow member of the Writing Club named Ronald Dwale, which is based upon Tolkien.
“Easter Eggs” and pop culture references on this nature have been accused of immersion breaking by some MMO gamers. But I would argue that these little conceits that the game developers add to the games, contribute greatly to the social aspect of the genre. Shared experiences and common interest are one of the central pillars of the MMORPG. As gamers often have common interests outside of the game, why not reference them and provide a talking point and a social touchstone. Also, are in-game tributes to those who are no longer with us, any less sincere than those published in more traditional mediums? I think not. Plus, a little bit of occasional frivolity can be a welcome antidote to a lot of the grind, seriousness and competitive aspects of gaming. Every now and then, I visit the cave of Caer Bannog in South Western Enedwaith while playing LOTRO, just to remind myself of this and to put a much-needed smile on my face.