“What are you writing about this week?” my friend asked me over breakfast this morning.
I sipped my tea and smiled. “A Jane Austen MMO.”
My friend, who has a master’s degree in comparative lit and years of hardcore raiding under her belt, raised her eyebrows. Skeptically.
“No, seriously,” I said. “It’s a thing. It cleared its Kickstarter goal by almost $10,000 a few days ago. It’s got a playable prototype — well, okay, more of a proof of concept. Lots of bugs, not a lot to do. But I tried it out, and, honestly…I think it could be pretty cool.”
Indeed, there isn’t much to look at yet in Ever, Jane, but the premise has promise. Consider: An MMORPG completely free of combat, based around heavy roleplay and social strategy. Instead of Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom, and so forth, player characters level their Status, Kindness, Duty, Happiness, and Reputation. Focusing on one trait means sacrificing another — Reputation for Happiness, for example, or Kindness for Status. In order to progress, players must orchestrate social engagements, avoid scandal, and smite their enemies with gossip. Guilds are replaced by families, whose status can be influenced by individual players. (Imagine, for a moment, a game inhabited by guilds primarily concerned with the social reputation of their members.) And of course, there are all the little diversions you’d expect — mini-games, NPC quests, farm and estate management, carriage travel, tradeable gifts. It’s an MMO, no question. Just without boss fights and giant swords.
That’s the thing that makes me really happy that this project exists, regardless of how the end product turns out. I love boss fights and giant swords, but isn’t it cool to see someone doing something other than yet another World of Warcraft EverQuest Dungeons & Dragons derivative? A prim and proper Regency setting may not be for everyone, but with as popular as WoW and its ilk are, it’s easy to forget that fantasy combat isn’t universally appealing, either. I saw someone on Twitter a few days ago (forgive me, internet gods, I don’t recall who) comment, in reference to video games, on how weird it would be to walk into a bookstore and find only one type of story for sale. Granted, there are lots of games out there experimenting with storytelling and trying new things, but I think that comment is apt when applied to online roleplaying games. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear about a Jane Austen visual novel or adventure game, but an MMO? An actual MMO, with quests and stats and mini-games? That takes some guts. I’m for any effort to bring games to the previously uninterested, or to give existing players something new. Because, yeah, killing monsters is awesome, but I like wax-sealed letters and misty moors, too. Variety is always a good thing, both for players and for the industry.
I didn’t spend more than an hour or so with the prototype, but it was enough to make me think that Ever, Jane could be a huge hit with the right crowd. I was there alongside a handful of strangers, and nobody was shy when it came to RP. Using typical chat abbreviations felt wrong when there were “Curtsey” and “Deep Curtsey” buttons a click away. I can’t remember the last time I used proper capitalization and punctuation in-game, and I’ve never RP’d my way through a casual UI inquiry. The atmosphere, even in that limited setting, reminded me of my Renaissance Faire days, or of the Lord of the Rings MUSH I frequented back in high school. The folks I encountered in Ever, Jane were primed and ready for some serious, serious roleplay. As I strolled the sparse streets of my quiet village, I imagined players huddled in little gossipy circles, tipping their hats to friends, filling their inventories with gifts, joining big RP events in the middle of the road. I saw the future, and it was full of Janeites and fanfic authors in absolute joy.
The setting poses some obvious obstacles where gender and race are concerned, which neither the devs nor the backers have overlooked. It’s a tricky question: How do you design an inclusive social environment around a collection of stories in which women’s roles are seriously limited and racial diversity is non-existent? Ever, Jane’s Kickstarter page already makes it clear that there will be delineation in the options available to male and female characters (I don’t think anyone would expect differently), but it sounds like there will be more paths available to women than just get married or die in poverty. After reading through threads on both Kickstarter and the game’s official forums, I have the impression that the devs are very aware of the social challenges they need to address, and of the fact that “historical accuracy” is a lot more colorful and complex than we’re often led to think. What approach the game will take is yet to be seen, but I’m encouraged by the discussions taking place between the devs and the backers, and among the backers themselves (there are, unsurprisingly, a few history buffs in the mix). Lots of ideas are being respectfully exchanged, and I think that bodes well for where this project will end up.
Ever, Jane still has a long way to go before players can fully get their hands on it. The Kickstarter reward tiers state an estimated release of 2016, which makes sense, considering that they’ve got an entire first-person, multiplayer world to build. A lengthy wait, but I’ll be staying tuned.