Has your game gone from serious to silly?

This post is my day 1 contribution to the 2015 Blaugust Initiative.


My first experience with silliness in an otherwise serious game was the cow level in Diablo II. It began as a rumor started by a player of the original Diablo, and snowballed into a novelty feature Blizzard included with the second game. It was a short, self-contained level that had little effect on the rest of the game. I saw it as a reward for loyal fans of the studio and franchise. The secret cow level was a brief respite from usual the hack-and-slash of more ordinary demons in D2’s other dungeons.

An adventurer prepares to fight the final boss in Diablo II's secret cow level. © 2001 Blizzard Entertainment

An adventurer prepares to fight the final boss in Diablo II’s secret cow level. © 2001 Blizzard Entertainment

After I began playing MMOs, I was always delighted when I discovered their novelty features. At first, these tended to be items or spells with a short duration and long cooldown. They might temporarily transform my character, show a flashy visual effect, or summon a cute companion for a few minutes each day. Sometimes these novelties were limited to a certain area of the game or tied to a specific seasonal event, after which they expired.

I particularly enjoyed catching Deviate Fish outside the Wailing Caverns in World of Warcraft. While eating these fish raw would produce some momentary effect, cooking them into Savory Deviate Delight would temporarily transform the diner into either a pirate or ninja. I sold vast quantities of this dish on the auction house to finance my very first mount in WoW, which cost a small fortune at the time.

My lore-master looks particularly uncouth riding this LOTRO mount.

My lore-master looks particularly uncouth riding this LOTRO mount.

The Lord of the Rings Online rewards players with a Prized Pie for helping a kindly hobbit farmer in the Shire with his chickens. Using this item allows a character to display a coveted pastry for 60 seconds. I still carry mine with me at all times, and often pull it out for celebratory occasions, or just to make other hobbits drool. A few years ago, LOTRO narrowly avoided the mistake of selling a silly Hobby Horse mount in its store for $50. It’s still available as a rare reward during the Yule Festival, but its use is supposed to be limited to certain safe areas of the game.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed what I believe is a change in direction for some MMOs that started out as serious places with serious stories. A few games I play seem to have embraced these absurdities to such an extent that their worlds really have begun to resemble the garish theme parks to which they’re so often compared.

This first came to my attention in RIFT. The game takes place in Telara, a high-fantasy world that originally had strong boundaries of style, and content defined by its own lore. Breaches called rifts would randomly open up between Telara and a few elemental planes. Beginning with 2011 holiday events, these rifts might have taken on special themes, but their rewards always had a connection to the original style of the game.

In October 2012, in coordination with an ExtraLife charity event, royal corgis of House Fluffington made an appearance in RIFT. They were intentionally cute and silly, and although a reasonable backstory was invented for them, their divergence from the usual serious goings-on in Telara brought instant widespread attention both to the event and the game itself. Corgi rifts proved to be so popular with players that they were immediately brought back the following month to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Since then, Trion has expanded rifts to intersect with increasingly implausible planes. There are invasive species rifts, with cross-promotional hellbugs entering from Trion’s game Defiance. There are even unicorns, squirrels, and budgies. Many of these coincide with cash shop promotions to purchase ridiculous mounts, pets, and outfits that are permanently on display now throughout Telara.

In fact, the more outlandish something is, the more willing players seem to be to spend real money on it. Here are just a few examples of things that have, at best, a tenuous connection to the game worlds in which they’re now found:

  • the $25 sparkle-pony Celestial Steed in World of Warcraft
  • the $68 Monocle in EVE Online that fueled monoclegate
  • the $6 PvP Cow Finisher in Guild Wars 2
  • the $5 April fools’ joke vanity pet Liger (with a scorpion tail) in City of Heroes

Studios seem to have a clear financial incentive to push the boundaries of their serious worlds to incorporate silly, attention-getting gimmicks. To me, this damages the studios’ creative integrity. I won’t pull out the immersion-breaking argument, because I honestly never get that immersed, but I can understand if it has that effect on other players.

Do you have a favorite serious game that has been overrun by silliness? Is it an aspect you enjoy, or does it annoy you? Is there a point at which it would drive you away from the game permanently? Let me know in the comments.

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7 thoughts on “Has your game gone from serious to silly?

  1. The sparkle pony actually has a basis in game lore: some titans, and some creatures created by the titans, were made out of celestial stars. The Sparkle Pony also has the dubious honour of being the first in-game item sold in WoW’s cash shop, AND provided a cross-account flying mount in a period where epic-speed flying mounts were still relatively expensive.

    I’ll also take a moment to point out that Pandaren were an actual thing in Warcraft III (and not a joke) years before they made it an April Fool’s Joke in WoW. And having played the Pandaria expansion, the culture around the Pandaren was explored quite thoroughly. Hardly a joke in game (though the Pandaren themselves didn’t take themselves too seriously generally).

    That being said, I think a lot of these silly things are ways for folks to differentiate themselves. In a world that potentially takes itself too seriously, it can be fun to step out of that and do something zany or wear something that sticks out to really set yourself apart from the setting. After all, at the end of the day you’re still playing a game, something that’s ostensibly supposed to be fun (but then you get into the argument of fun vs. satisfaction, etc.).

    For myself, for the most part silliness rarely turns me off a game, though I’ll just as often not participate in those things regardless. On the other hand, Whimseyshire in Diablo III was marvelously over the top, but the history behind that bonus level made it all the sweeter. By itself, without that history, I’m not sure Whimseyshire would’ve had the same impact on me.

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    • That’s fascinating information about the Titans! The lore surrounding them hadn’t really been explored when I stopped playing at the end of The Burning Crusade, so perhaps I was mistaken when I declared the Celestial Steed’s connection to Azeroth tenuous. I also remember finding Chen’s Empty Keg in the Barrens and desperately wanting to learn more about the mysterious Pandaren.

      I think my biggest issue with some of the silliness is that I have to suspend disbelief once already if I want to connect with the story of a game. It annoys me if I have to suspend it again when someone rides up next to me on a squirrel in RIFT or shoots rainbows in GW2. When I can’t contain it to a certain time or area, it feels like it’s constantly interrupting me. So there, I’ve basically gone and said those dirty words: it does break immersion for me.

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  2. Oh absolutely! And good article by the way. The sillyness and female bias made me resign from playing Tera, and I had a good experience with that game. They began introducing silly mounts (police cars), non lore costumes (high school, maid…). And all that fanservice for loli and female that ended doing classes and costumes only for them.

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  3. Excellent post! I’d almost forgotten about that hobby horse on Lotro.
    Silliness in Guild Wars 2 that started as April Fools jokes and later became usable items, annoys me. Using the Bobblehead machine once before a Tequatl fight made me feel like I was having a weird LCD flashback.

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  4. Great post on a very pertinent theme. You nailed it on the point of players being more inclined to pay for silliness – something I’ve always been dismayed at. I may be overreacting, but I see it as a symptom of something I find disagreeable with the MMO populace at large. And it’s all the more important that players that value immersion band together – and make it easy for like-minded players to find them.

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