1996: John Smedley at Sony Interactive Studios America developed the main concepts for EverQuest.
1999: EverQuest launched online and quickly became more successful than anticipated, setting high standards for the developing culture of massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
2002: The fourth expansion of EverQuest, “Planes of Power,” stressed its simulated religion, offering access to the Plane of Time, but only for avatars that vanquish minions of four elemental deities.
2004: EverQuest II launched online.
2006: After a period of effective exile, the gods returned to Norrath in the original EverQuest.
2009: A special issue of the journal Game Studies was devoted to EverQuest on its tenth anniversary.
2015: EverQuest and EverQuest II were transferred from Sony to Daybreak Game Company.
2016: Plans to release a third version, EverQuest Next, were abandoned.
2018: The fifteenth expansion of EverQuest II, “Chaos Descending,” returned to the supernatural theme of “Planes of Power” and requiree avatars to restore zones representing earth, air, fire and water.
At the risk of only slight exaggeration, we can translate EverQuest (EQ) as the endless human search for transcendence, either through religion or science, that never ends because it never succeeds. Launching in 1999, it is widely recognized as the standard-setter for massively multiplayer online role-playing games, not only with its 3D graphics and huge virtual geography, but also in its complex socio-cultural structure and its constant expansion as new territory and story were added over the years. In 2004, a very different adaptation of the same concepts launched, EverQuest II (EQ-II), but the original version continued to be popular and receive updates. The setting is a world named Norrath, and its moon, so there are science fiction elements, but the fundamental lore concerns deities, supernatural forces, and their interactions with the avatars of the players.
Wikipedia suggests that the EverQuest project began in 1996 when John Smedley, an executive of Sony Interactive Studios America, was encouraged by the 1995 launch of Meridian 59, the pioneer multiplayer online game which was based on a fantasy mythos. Sony is a vast international corporation that originated in Japan and had launched the PlayStation videogame system in 1994. Designed to run on Windows personal computers rather than on PlayStation, and connecting to Internet servers that would combine data from thousands of players, EverQuest was intended to open a new market for Sony. Wikipedia reports:
To implement the design, Smedley hired programmers Brad McQuaid and Steve Clover, who had come to Smedley’s attention through their work on the single player RPG Warwizard. McQuaid soon rose through the ranks to become executive producer for the EverQuest franchise and emerged during development of EverQuest as a popular figure among the fan community through his in-game avatar, Aradune. Other key members of the development team included Bill Trost, who created the history, lore and major characters of Norrath (including EverQuest protagonist Firiona Vie), Geoffrey ‘GZ’ Zatkin, who implemented the spell system, and artist Milo D. Cooper, who did the original character modeling in the game.
By 2004, the original graphics were rather dated, and both computers and Internet could handle much quicker and more substantial information transfers, so an advanced version was launched, EverQuest II, without however terminating the original one. This required a justification within the mythos, setting EQ and EQ-II at different points in the history of Norrath and explaining how this world could change so radically. A study of religion in computer games reports:
This pair of gameworlds constituted major steps in the development of the genre and in the consolidation of a widely shared collection of traditional mythic elements, such as elves, orcs, goblins, and ogres. Norrath clearly is not our own world, but it mirrors a key concept from real history. When the Roman Empire fell, a Dark Age covered the western half of its territory, setting the basis for the medieval society that followed the Dark Age hundreds of years later. A dark age also occurred between EverQuest and EverQuest II, when the gods abandoned Norrath and parts of its physical geography were shattered (Bainbridge 2013:292).
In 2015, Sony also abandoned EverQuest, indeed selling off its division for PC-based online games, which became Daybreak Game Company, and plans to create a third version called EverQuest Next were soon abandoned. However, both EQ and EQ-II remained sufficiently popular to continue and occasionally receive upgrades. Given their socio-cultural depth and influence on ludic online media, they been studied by numerous social scientists (Bainbridge 2010; Huh and Williams 2010; Williams, Kennedy and Moore 2011; Burt 2012).
Norrath is geographically and culturally vast, with multiple deities relating in various ways to ethnic groups and classes of avatar. Originally, an avatar belonged from its birth to one of twelve races and one of fourteen classes, but twenty years later the original EverQuest has sixteen of both. Thus, the theology is a complex structure, quite unlike monotheism, connecting natural and supernatural phenomena in many different ways. A good introduction is to consider the three kinds of priests, as described in the part of EQ where a player creates a new avatar:
Clerics dedicate their lives to the gods of Norrath, gaining magical powers in exchange for their faith and service.” “Druids are disciples of the wilds, following the teachings of the Norrathian gods of nature.” “Shamans serve as priests to the tribal races of Norrath, able to draw upon the power of the spirits and focus it for their own purposes.
Note that there is no pretense that priests must be altruistic, but their primary role in teams of avatars is to provide healing to fellow team members of different classes, both during and immediately after battles against enemies.
Humans are one of the sixteen races, and they can be clerics or druids, but not shamans because that form of priest belongs only to primitive tribal races. Human clerics belong to the equivalent of six different denominations, each worshipping a different deity. The gods and the races are organized in a kind of trinity, labeled good, neutral or evil. However, these adjectives describe aesthetic style not morality, as good avatars are just as likely as bad ones to kill innocent simulated animals or even non-player characters to loot their resources. Information about each deity can be found at independent wikis devoted to EQ (EverQuest website n.d.), EQ-II (eq2.zam.com), and the lore of both (EverQuest Lore website n.d.). A Human priest in EQ has a choice with which of three good deities to affiliate: Good: Erolissi Marr (The Queen of Love), Mithaniel Marr (The Lightbearer or The Truthbringer) or Rodcet Nife (The Prime Healer). One neutral deity is also available: Karana (The Rainkeeper). Two evil deities a Human priest may worship are Bertoxxulous (The Plaguebringer) or Innoruuk (The Prince of Hate). Initial text from articles describing three of these deities at the EQ wiki outline the complex theological structure:
Erollisi Marr teaches her followers that love conquers all. She, along with her twin brother Mithaniel, created the Barbarians during The Age of Monuments. It is believed that the evolution of Barbarians to Humans was sparked by the divine touch of Erollisi. While love is a beautiful thing, Erollisi’s devotees are not so obtuse to believe a Norrath without war is possible. They are willing to enter battle themselves if it means defending the principles, people, and places they love.
Karana’s followers invest all of their faith in the life-giving and destructive force of storms of all types. Typical followers of Karana are farmers, Druids, and Rangers. While they respect the power of the Storm Lord, They often provide shelter to travelers, for they are mostly good-natured people who value honesty. Much like the followers of Quellious, a great deal of Karana’s devotees live a life of a nomad. The plains of western Antonica are named after Karana due to the frequent rain in the region that provides excellent farming for Qeynos. Karana is one of two nature deities, and the most accepting. As such, all Human and Halfling Druids and Rangers worship him, as well as many of the Half Elves.
Followers of Bertoxxulous believe the only truth on Norrath is that everything dies. They view the decay of flesh as a thing of ultimate beauty. The subtle purples of a fresh bruise, the almost iridescent yellow green of an infested pustule, are but a few of the things that His followers relish. It is not surprising that many of His followers pursue the dark art of Necromancy, for to them nothing is more desirable than to be surrounded by beings who, even in unlife, continue to rot and decay. Do not take this to mean that His followers are suicidal or seek a quick death. To the contrary, they wish to live long, painful lives, spreading their dark, diseased stain across all of Norrath. Most other gods, even the evil ones, regard him as an abomination, but Rodcet Nife is his most hated adversary.
The description of Erollisi Marr reports that her twin brother, Mithaniel Marr, is a co-equal deity. The description of Karana suggests some similarity with the good deity Quellious, whom the EQ-II wiki describes thus:
This peaceful child-goddess is allied with Rodcet Nife and Erollisi Marr, and an enemy to Rallos Zek and Innoruuk. Quellious rules over the Plane of Tranquility. Followers of Quellious the Tranquil seek peace. They are not strict pacifists, though, and will fight to defend themselves and their loved ones. The peace they seek is an inner one. They wish to know all there is to know about themselves and the world around them.
The EQ-II wiki explains why the peaceful child deity, Quellious, abhors the evil Rallos Zek: “The followers of Rallos Zek, the Warlord, believe in survival of the strong and death to the weak. The heart of a true follower of Zek yearns for strength, courage, but above all, victory.” So, the deities are like personalities that an avatar may adopt. They also have geographic implications; for example, the Karana description refers to how this Storm God helps the farmers of Antonica support their capital city, Qeynos.
Deity selection is also conditioned upon the race and class of the avatar, and we see that both Halflings and Half Elves may also worship Karana. Halflings, following the tradition of the earlier table-top game Dungeons and Dragons (Gygax 1979), are really J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbits, renamed to avoid copyright or trademark issues, and Half Elves are like hybrids of Humans and pure Elves. The EQ wiki’s description of Karana speaks of two nature deities, and the other one is Tunare (The Mother of All), who created the Elves. Human druids may follow either Karana or Tunare, both of which are neutral. In a different sense of the term, there are four nature deities, personifying the four natural elements: Karana (air), Brell Serilis (earth), Prexus (water), and Solusek Ro (fire). Any member of the Dwarf race who is a priest must be a cleric sworn to Brell Serilis (The Duke of Below, Duke of Underfoot), because as throughout the wider tradition including Tolkien and the Ring operas of Richard Warner, Dwarves are engineers who dig underground for metals, and in EverQuest they were created by Brell Serilis, who rules that realm. Clerics in the obscure Erudite race follow Prexus (The Oceanlord).
Among the primitive tribes, the Barbarians apparently did not get the help of Erollisi Marr to evolve into civilized Humans, and their shamans worship their own pantheon, The Tribunal (The Six Hammers). At the opposite extreme, Vah Shir shamans are agnostic, but this makes sense because they are not inhabitants of Norrath, but feline creatures native to Norrath’s moon, Luclin. Troll shamans have two choices, Innoruuk or Cazic-Thule (The Faceless, Lord of Fear). Shamans of the Iksar reptilian race connect only to Cazic-Thule who created them. Shamans of two other ethnicities also worship single deities, Rallos Zek among the Ogres and Mithaniel Marr among the Frogloks.
A standard assumption of mundane monotheism is that “God is Great and God is Good,” but both secularization and paganization raise doubts about that assumption. If gods exist in the plural, then each of them has particular desires, must be served in a way that satisfies those desires, and may not have humanity’s best interests at heart. One way researchers can study online religions is through role-playing ethnography, creating an avatar that represents a specific issue related to the topic of the research, essentially following the psychodrama methodology developed by Jacob Moreno (1944), who also was the pioneer of social networks research. One such study done inside EQ-II created an avatar named Cleora, virtually resurrecting a girl who had died at the age of one in 1870 and imagining that she might have been resentful that God stole her life (Bainbridge 2018). She was the daughter of a prominent social scientist who studied overseas Protestant missions around 1879-1882 and wrote a novel imaging Cleora had lived to become a missionary in an exotic land, then gave her life voluntarily in Christian martyrdom (Bainbridge 1883). In EQ-II, Cleora was an ambiguous half elf, resentful of how badly the gods behaved, who remained agnostic until she had advanced to level thirty, wanted to learn how to craft valuable artifacts, and realized that manufacturing was more successful if she could earn favor with Brell Serilis. Serilis is the one of the deities representing a natural element, in his case earth, who rules the Underfoot where metals can be mined. Like the physical elements themselves (earth, air, fire, water) the elemental deities are neither good nor evil, but ethically neutral.
To gain any deity’s favor in EQ-II, an avatar must complete a series of difficult quests, and the first one for Brell Serilis was to enter four dangerous labyrinths deep underground, collecting a different sacred ore in each, which will be assembled to make a Foundation of Devotion. Avatars needed to have reached experience level twenty before they could complete this mission, and probably would need a team of friendly avatars to help them. At level thirty, Cleora could complete it herself, but she found the next mission more difficult:
The second quest for Brell, ‘Prospector of Lost Faith,’ first required Cleora to announce Brell’s return to seven groups of enemies across Butcherblock Mountains, which was actually quite easy at the beginning, given Cleora’s ability to sneak carefully around obstacles. But then she was required to complete a series of extremely difficult steps to retrieve the Chalice of Hope from deep within the Orc stronghold, Crushbone Keep. Supposedly, this could be accomplished at level thirty-five, but as a solo quester Cleora failed at level 45, plunging her first into hopelessness, then into disgust at Brell’s excessive demands. After gaining a degree of enlightenment from religious monks of the Ashen Order, at level sixty-five she returned to Crushbone Keep, retrieved the Chalice of Hope, and received as her prize a jewel that would have been valuable to an avatar at level 35 but was quite valueless to her at level 65. When next in New Halas, she gave the jewel back to Brell at his altar, and contemplated whether she should pray for him to give her something in return. Thinking he had treated her badly by assigning quests that were far too difficult to her, she concluded that bowing before him would be a humiliation she did not deserve” (Bainbridge 2013:61-62).
For many avatars, the gods are not only involved in an avatar’s adventures, but also in their daily life and economic trade or production. Avatars may have homes, essentially an apartment in a specific location, where furniture, works of art, and religious artifacts may be kept. Given appropriate experience level and production skills, an avatar in EQ-II may build an altar to one of the gods, place it at home, give to a friend, or even sell it through an auction system. Altars can also be purchased from non-player characters called “deity historians.” Here we see Cleora using an altar to Brell Serilis, easily identified by the digging tools depicted on it. Altars are complex devices where an avatar stores “favor” with the god by making offerings or by completing “devotion quests” that are missions in the wider world related to the character of the particular deity. This favor can be spent to obtain valuable resources, comparable to repeatable magic spells. For example, the avatar in the picture [Image at right] currently has 8,890 favor points and is contemplating investing 1,125 in Rift from Below, a spell that can be used only once an hour. The interface for using the altar describes it thus:
‘Only the dead take their footing for granted. Any true friend of the earth knows Brell’s realm can shake you to your core.’ Effects: Throws target back; Inflicts 2164-5050 crushing damage on targets in Area of Effect; Inflicts 340-794 crushing damage on targets in Area of Effect every 3 seconds; Must have completed the Quest ‘Building a Foundation of Devotion.’
That is to say, investing deity favor in this magical ability would allow the avatar to cause an earthquake as often as once an hour.
Much information about the relations between deities and their followers can be found on a special EverQuest Lore wiki (EverQuest Lore website n.d.), often explaining how worship of a particular deity can increase the avatar’s powers even without the use of an altar. For example:
The god of the sun and flames, Solusek Ro rules the Plane of Sun, and is the son of Fennin Ro, the elemental god of fire… Solusek Ro is arguably the most widely-worshipped deity among wizards and other arcane spellcasters, with a significant number of worshippers from almost every race that utilizes arcane magic, and even a few from races that don’t, traditionally. His teachings, much like the Burning Prince himself, are chaotic and based around power. His followers are taught to respect flame as both a giver and taker of life, that arcane magic is a fundamental component of the natural order, and that the acquisition of personal power is of paramount importance (with magic and knowledge being the greatest means of gaining this power).
While avatars cannot serve as clerics, druids, or shamans for Solusek Ro, they can be his wizards, and he has a temple in the Lavastorm Mountains of EQ where many quests can be accepted from non-player characters who are situated there. To be assigned some of the best quests, an avatar must first complete others, gaining what is often called “faction” but also “faction reputation.” A trick that players often discover too late is that a weird character named Tazgar the Efreeti is roaming the temple, and hailing him will erase all the faction points that had been earned. One may infer that Tazgar the Efreeti is an Islamic demon, but that is not explicit in EQ.
An early-level mission that typically takes four hours earns the Staff of Temperate Flux, which is a valuable weapon for wizards. To obtain the staff, an avatar needs to speak to Gardern, a non-player character who stands upon a balcony in the temple, and then travel widely to obtain four components he can combine to create the staff: Heart of Fire (from Inferno Goblin Wizard in Solusek’s Eye); Heart of Frost (from Goblin Wizard in Permafrost); Rod of Bone (from Stone Skeleton by the shores of Lake Rathetear); Darkwood Staff (obtained from Romar Sunto through a side quest). A picture here [Image at right] shows an avatar visiting the Temple of Solusek Ro at its entrance, flanked by two non-player temple personnel, all three of them holding magical staves.
Given the theological and ethnic complexity of Norrath, many competing organizations and organizational principle exist. Over the years, there were many changes to the division of labor among the avatars, notably the revision of classes, from twelve to sixteen in EQ and then up to twenty-five in EQ-II. Part of that proliferation was the division of each priestly class into two sub-classes, as outlined in the EQ-II website (EverQuest2 website n.d.):
“Templars use divine power to mend the wounded and cure the suffering of the afflicted.”
“Capable of serving as the cornerstone of any adventuring party, the Inquisitor can heal wounds and purge ailments such as disease and poison.”
“Embodying the primal forces of nature, the Fury is equally capable of both defense and destruction.”
“Wardens invoke their druidic powers to mend wounds and purge disease and poison from their allies.”
“The Mystic is a shaman of spiritual preservation and enlightenment.”
“The Defiler is a shaman of corruption and spiritual enslavement.”
Within each class and ethnicity, an avatar may decide how much emphasis, if any at all, to give to conflict against avatars of competing factions. Direct violence between players is called PvP or Player-versus-Player, the chief alternative being PvE or Player-versus-Environment in which avatars perform non-violent tasks or hunt virtual animals and non-player characters. Normally, avatars are protected from being attacked by the avatar of another player, but it is possible to switch to PvP mode, becoming vulnerable to attack but also being able to attack other avatars that are also in PvP mode. At several locations in EQ stands a Priest of Discord, as shown in the picture, who when asked will give the avatar a Tome of Order and Discord, that switches PvP on. There does exist a Priest of Order who can rescind the tome, at one location that is not widely known, and many players have begged for help online when they realized how frightening PvP can be. The staff held by the Priest of Discord has a human skull on the end. [Image at right]
Conflict between players in EQ and EQ-II is primarily organized on a large social scale around the three factions represented by good, neutral, and evil gods. Collaboration is primarily on the smaller scale of voluntary guilds assembled by the players themselves, persistent groups with formal leaders but not very complex defined structure that may endure for years. Early in the history of EQ, Robert B. Marks (2003:102-04) studied them and suggested that several types had naturally developed, serving different purposes for players having somewhat different values:
Casual guilds: Groups of people who are happy playing together, who share common interests, and chiefly seek virtual friendships.
Raiding guilds: Very goal-oriented, these are teams who seek status and a sense of accomplishment by defeating hordes of monsters and completing quests together.
Role-playing guilds: These focus on character-to-character interaction instead of player-to-player, some of them even being somewhat theatrical in style.
Killer guilds: In the PvP context, players who play the roles of brigands and murderers, or more simply seek a sense of power by killing the avatars of other players.
In April 2009, the online open journal Game Studies published an anthology of scholarly articles about EverQuest. Considering the normative context from an abstract perspective, Greg Lastowka (2009) identified three separate legal regimes. First, the company that created it owns the intellectual property, thus governing some kinds behavior outside the virtual world, such as commercial exploitation, and giving the company the right to establish rules for in-game behavior. Second, many rules are built into the software of the game, which the company programmed and may modify, such as a procedure governing the function of the Tome of Order and Discord. Third, the players themselves may establish norms, for example governing the behavior of members of a particular guild, who may be expelled by the leadership if they violate the norms.
In his contribution to the journal, Nick Yee (2009) explained how the design of the software was intended to encourage the building of friendships and durable teams: “So a warrior will team up with a cleric, avatars of other classes will join them, and after a few successful quests they will found a guild.”
The exact characteristics of a class of avatar may change, usually during an expansion update, having implications for social relations that may be small or large. For example, when EverQuest II launched in 2004, it contained a few druid rings, resembling Stonehenge [Image at right] but distributed at great distances apart. An avatar of the druid class could use one to travel instantly to one of the others, a significant advantage considering the social, economic, and mission critical significance of great distances. In 2010, the rules were changed to allow any other class to use druid rings as a medium of travel.
When the late Greg Lastowka titled his 2009 article about the EverQuest rule structure “Planes of Power,” he reinterpreted a classic phrase in the EQ subculture. The planes in EQ are virtual regions separate from Norrath and thus following different rules, including the Plane of Knowledge that has the equivalent of many druid rings, depicted as modest stone monuments, that provide access to other planes and the regions of Norrath and Luclin. This system was introduced in the 2002 EQ expansion titled literally “Planes of Power,” and demanded heroic player action in observance of a new set of quests and rule offered or imposed by the powerful game designers. As Wikipedia explains:
The primary goal, or end-quest, of The Planes of Power is access to the Plane of Time. Access to this plane can only be obtained through vanquishing the four elemental deities or avatars of such: Fennin Ro, The Rathe Council, Coirnav and Xegony. To gain access to all of the zones of the expansion and successfully enter the Plane of Time, the players needed to complete 28 flag events of all sorts, involving the death of planar deities and deific creatures. These encounters can only be completed with the organized effort of up to 72 players working together simultaneously.
Many other expansions emulated this revolutionary transformation, requiring coordinated efforts of large number of players, including the 2018 EverQuest II expansion, “Chaos Descending.”
The primary challenge for the EverQuest mythos has symbolically erupted as evil gods enter the world, good gods exit, and religion loses its coherence and validity. A February 21, 2006 press release from Sony promoted an expansion in words that can take on greater meaning today:
The gods have returned and the mortal realm shifts with their influence. But a new presence walks among the gods, a malevolent force released into godhood by the follies of mortals. Unbound by the laws of the pantheon, it leaves corruption in its wake and threatens to bring the entire pantheon crumbling down. The only hope for Norrath hangs on the very mortals who have unleashed this upheaval.”
But those mortals – namely Sony executives – decided like the fickle gods to abandon Norrath. They spun off EQ, EQ-II and a couple of others as Daybreak Game Company in 2015, and ever since then their survival has been quite uncertain. In an apparently vicious circle, the lack of funds to invest in EverQuest Next placed the survival burden on two now rather antiquated but vastly complex virtual worlds that attract too few new players to support a significant revival.
Image #1: An EverQuest II avatar preparing to use an altar to the god Brell Serilis, making an offering and using the god’s favor to gain a magical spell.
Image #2: An avatar visiting the Temple of Solusek Ro in the original EverQuest, flanked by two non-player temple personnel.
Image #3: A Priest of Discord in the Plane of Knowledge of EverQuest, the central location for gaining wisdom.
Image #4: An EverQuest II druid ring, in the Enchanted Lands region, used for magical long-distance travel.
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