Rift: Social Observation or Close to Home?

Note: This is a cross-post from our new Rift blog, Rift Watchers. Find the original here.

As I’ve followed the game, one of the most compelling aspects I’ve found actually has nothing to do with gameplay: it’s the factions. At first glance, it seems like your standard two-sided battle. You have the good guys in the Guardians and the bad guys in the Defiant. I mean, their names really categorize them before you’ve read a word of background. The Guardians. Images of plate-clad paladins come to mind, calling on the Light, smiting down their foes with big, square hammers, and reciting from gilded books. The Defiant. There’s a name for a Dark Elf if I’ve ever heard one. Who are they defying… does it matter? They’re the Defiant! They defy everything! Even their parents! On Sunday!

But the comely names belie a deeper connection to the modern day. In many ways, these two factions are more like you and I, the division between the East and West, conservative and progressive. Looking beyond the fantasy trappings, you begin to see a relationship much more resonant with adult gamers: there is grey area here and certainly a question of who is really good and evil.

Factions, as we’ve known them

Though the names are appropriate — more appropriate than even the Horde and Alliance, an example we’re ALL familiar with – the first impression is polarizing. When there’s so much more behind it, I have to wonder, why hide those shades of grey?

The answer, I think, is that Trion is trying to touch on our comfort zones. Nearly every major battle throughout history is recalled in terms of right and wrong, winners and losers. In gaming, we can trace back modern day factioning to the alignment systems of early Dungeons and Dragons. In those days, characters would choose a guardian deity and take on the alignment to match, anywhere from lawful good to chaotic evil. As the genre has progressed, those decisions have been simplified and re-envisioned as faction warfare.

The truth for Rift is that most of their playerbase will have come from World of Warcraft as their first MMO. To these players, entering character creation with distinct factions is an expectation. Many are also of the “forget the story, hit the objective” playstyle wherein the above is simply all they need. A system of “Us vs. Them,” “name red, soon dead” more than justifies their role in the game world.

Yet, for those interested in extra depth within their game worlds, Trion has provided in kind.

Compelling Through Grey

I find it very compelling just how different the factions are from other modern day MMOs. Put succinctly, there is something distinctly human about them. One need look no further than the evening news to see parallels to each in our own world.

Take, for example, the Guardians. They are, by all rights, the conservatives of Telara. They are firm believers in the Vigil (the council of gods) and believe that the path to salvation is through faith. Echoes of the Inquisition ring out in their core philosophies.

“Telara must first by saved – by deed, by example, or by the sword. Its people must be redeemed, its corrupters cleansed. Only then will the Guardians be imbued with the divine and ascend to a higher level.”

“Their inquisitions purge the secretive cults of Akylios, and their agents search for sinister signs.” – Taken from the Guardian Section of the Official Site

That’s not only a more serious tone than commonly found in MMORPGs, but it’s also so close to our own history that one might be forgiven for attributing to them other characteristics of the zealot.

That may be too specific, however. It also echoes of the current Middle East conflict and the clash of cultures between Islam and the West. It can even be applied to the political landscape of most all democratic nations. At its core, it is conservatism rooted in religious belief.

On the other hand, the Defiant play the role of the progressives; they are the self-sufficient, “save ourselves or don’t be saved at all” pragmatists.

“The Defiant do not care whether the gods abandoned the world or not”

“So while the Guardians run around Telara building temples, sticking their noses in everyone’s business, and desperately praying for a miracle, the Defiant plan on actually delivering one”

Through their love of Eth technology, we can see the great religion vs. science debate resurface again.

“Mixing technology with magic offers amazing opportunities for innovation, personal power and cultural progress” – All Quotes Taken From the Defiant Section of the Official Site

The Guardians are opposed to the advanced, sacrilegious technologies the Defiant would choose to embrace. It’s reminiscent of evolution versus intelligent design. The Defiant cast faith to the side for practical technology; the Guardians see it as a fool’s path, Regulos’s path, and one that will ultimately lead the world to doom.

Yet, they both fight for the same noble goal: to save the innocent of Telara. Each has their own way of approaching the task, which divides and fills each side with loathing, but as outside observers we can see that unity is their easiest path to salvation. They hate and mistrust each other for how they seek to achieve peace. So, who is right: the Guardians who fight for what they cannot see, or the Defiant who fight with the tools in front of them? It’s completely and utterly grey, open to your interpretation. That, my friends, is one of the defining characteristics of much great fiction. Just ask George R.R. Martin.

Returning to the point, this divide between the factions is so distinctly human that it should come as no surprise we’ve seen them echoed in other post-apocalyptic media for the last twenty years or more. Two factions, survival on the line, death on the horizon. People, under the duress of war, polarize to their ultimate safety. They cling to what it is that can save them and grow to what cannot. The Defiant are blasphemers and heretics to the Guardians; yet, the Defiant label them zealots and fools, To their followers, they are the bravest of heroes.

It’s so interesting, this “enemies of fellow man” theme the game has embraced. It’s a setting flush with drama and intrigue. With the knowledge of the outside observer, we can watch, rapt, for new developments, twists, and turns in the saga of the Telaran people.

Final Thoughts

This inaugural editorial is perhaps a bit long but I find this topic too interesting to gloss over. It’s subtle enough where many people may not even notice it. Yet, when you approach the game for the social commentary the writers are so evidently attempting to make, it takes on a whole different flavor from any other MMO on the market.

This setup excites me on more than just a conceptual level, though, let me be clear. On some level, I feel like I can identify more with these characters. There’s a piece of us in them. If you read quests, like me, this is a situation rife with possibility for exciting storylines. Identification and resonance, coupled with good, old fashioned fun, is the recipe for a game that keeps you coming back for more.

That’s a good thing to have in an MMO.

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