Kingdom of Loathing: Virtual Society of the Spectacle
Kingdom of Loathing, located at kingdomofloathing.com, is a game that began as a joke. The joke requires some historical background in order to be understood. In 2003 online games were becoming increasingly sophisticated with 3-D type graphics, complex imaginary worlds, and sophisticated character creation systems and classes. At the same time the ‘hipster’ culture typified by such websites as ‘BoingBoing’, ‘WeMakeMoneyNotArt’, and ‘GrowABrain’ were reaching new highs in site visits and overall web popularity. Here is the joke: In 2003, a couple of hipsters created a sophisticated online game with stick figure 2-D graphics, ridiculous parody worlds that ridiculed popular culture, and ironically named character classes based on hipster culture and making fun of traditional RPG categories. This resulted in character classes such as ‘accordion thief’, ‘disco bandit’, ‘pastamancer’, and ‘saucerer’. The punch line is that despite all the ridiculous pop-culture and hipster references, Kingdom of Loathing is actually a well crafted game and has attracted more than a million players so far.
One reason why Kingdom of Loathing is such a popular game is that there is a constant evolution of sarcastic references to things that are currently popular or that have been popular in the past. A detailed description of any quest yields a wealth of references to a variety of subjects that span computer games, music, literature, films, and television. One example will suffice to show the depth of thought that goes into the creation of a single adventure. The following is a look at just one quest among dozens. It is the quest that my character, Chopsui, a 10th level sauceror is currently engaged upon.
The quest is titled, “The Quest for the Holy MacGuffin”. My first thought is that the name of the quest is related to the popular breakfast sandwich at McDonalds called an Egg McMuffin. I googled MacGuffin, however, and found out that not only does it rhyme with McMuffin, but it is also a reference in itself. The famous filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term MacGuffin as something that is used in a the plot of a story that motivates the characters but is not important to the story itself (wikipedia: 2007). This is quite a funny inside joke for those who know since it means that the quest being described is the search for a holy something that doesn’t really matter but is only being used to get the characters going on the quest to get going. Not to mention, for those like me who don’t instantly recognize the reference, it seems funny to be going on a quest for a holy Egg McMuffin of some sort. Another reference in the title is the Monty Python film The Quest for the Holy Grail.
The references continue though. The quest begins when the Council of Loathing, an imaginary governing body of NPC’s that provide one quest for players per level, give the instructions for the quest. Once I had leveled up to level 10, I visited the Council of Loathing and was met with the following text:
“Ah, Chopsui, excellent timing. We’ve just received a message from the Distant Lands — it seems that your father, the renowned archaeologist, has gone missing. Apparently, his life’s work was to track down an ancient relic known only as the Holy MacGuffin. He left behind his diary, with instructions that it was to be delivered to you, but he didn’t leave any funds to pay for shipping. So, you’ll have to go pick it up yourself.”
This is quite obviously a reference to the Indiana Jones movies. Players get to laugh at recognizing the references they know and I will admit that associating this game with the excitement of the Indiana Jones movies made the quest more interesting. I’m certain that there are multiple references in this quote, but the only ones I understand are the MacGuffin and Indiana Jones. So far in this quest I have encountered references to the band Rockapella and Nirvana, the children’s game and cartoon Pokemon, Frank Herberts Dune, Bambi, Carmen San Diego, and several popular bar drinks. These are in addition to those already mentioned. The funny thing is that I know I am probably missing more than I am catching and I haven’t even completed the quest yet! The games creators have thought about a lot more than simple game mechanics in creating this game.
The game mechanics, however, are good. Character creation, for example, is a simple matter in KoL. One simply selects a character class and then enters a name. Each player of a particular character class starts out with the same stats and abilities as other players of that character class. Character classes vary in specific abilities, for instance Disco Bandits and Accordion Thieves can pick pockets in combat while Pastamancers and Saucerers can cast spells. All characters advance through increasing three key statistics: muscle, mysticality, and moxie. In addition, there are a number of additional characteristics such as strongliness and inebriety which affect character performance and success rates. While characters are represented by flat, stationary, 2-D graphics they seem to function the same way as many other MMORPG player types, using hit points (HP) to represent the life force of a character and manapoints (MP) to represent the magical force or ability. If a player uses spells, MP are spent. If a player is attacked successfully HP are spent. Players typically have a single character and interaction with other player characters does not seem to happen outside of chat or forums with the exception of the PVP function which allows players to fight for stats or loot.
The PVP or player versus player function seems to have limited utility in terms of interacting with other players. While I have not engaged in PVP in other MMORPGS, it is my impression that this interaction usually is in a person to person situation. In KOL the PVP does not happen in real time when the players are able to engage in conversation, taunting, or witty banter. Instead, PVP is initially enabled when a player smashes the ‘peaceful hippystone’ in their camp. At this point, players can fight with other players. Next to the shattered hippystone icon in the campground is the ‘fight other players’ icon. When this is clicked on, a player is able to select from a variety of opponents. Level, player class, and name are displayed. One would think that it would be a simple matter to pick a fight that one can easily win, but in the about twenty fights I engaged in, I was trounced by players with much lower levels and also beat several players of higher level. I’m not sure what the specifics of the design are. The only opportunity to interact with the players being fought is to create a victory or loss message which is sent to the player. Personally, I found this aspect of the game to be tiresome and boring.
Losing to characters that I thought I would win against led me to examine the inventory I had and what effect it had on my stats and performance. I found that rather than simply acting as a sort of armor with a given rank of protection that most items have further uses and functionality. In addition, through equipping certain items in the player inventory, characters can enhance certain characteristics. Equipping a “Dead Guys Watch” will give a character five extra turns per cycle. Equipping a set of “Demon Claw Talons” will give the player extra protection against heat attacks and in turn make heat attacks from that player more effective against enemies. For a character of the class I belong to, you are able to equip a hat, pants, weapon, off hand item, and three accessories. I’m not real sure why a Sauceror does not get to wear a shirt since logic would dictate that someone who cooks sauce would want one. At the moment Chopsui is wearing Snowboarder Pants which give 100 protection from damage and +20 protection from cold attacks. He is wearing a wolf mask which gives the affect of being under complete and total delusion. I think this is a bad thing, but the protection from attack is 110. Chopsui carries a black sword which does 160 damage and only require one hand. This allows the offhand item of the Capsacian Compendium, a cookbook that makes spells of heat twice as powerful. For accessories, Chopsui wears the Demon Claw Talons, the dead guys watch, and Hobo Gloves. I’m not certain what the Hobo Gloves do, I just like them. This may be a part of the complete and total delusion I am under from the wolfskin mask.
Chat exists alongside the main game play screen. This is one of many ways to interact with other players while playing KoL. There are multiple chat channels that players inhabit. Among these are /newbie, /games, /haiku, and /clan. All players have access to /newbie but other channels require clearance to participate. For example, in order to participate in /haiku chat function, one must pass through the Haiku Dungeon and complete a series of quests before being granted access. To access /games and /chat one must get a certificate of literacy and agree to chat polices in the Seaside Town. To access /clan, one must join one of numerous clans such as ‘The Governors of Public Affairs’, at which point access is granted to one’s specific clan chat.
Clans are a way for players to band together and help one another. As an example, The Governors of Public Affairs has Clan Headquarters which contains a Clan War Room, Clan Rumpus Room, Clan Stash, and Clan Message Board. The Clan Message Board contains information from Clan leaders and allows players to request help, guidance, or specific information from other players. The Clan War Room allows Clan Leaders to engage in Clan Warfare. The Clan Rumpus Room houses items such as a calendar and bookshelf that give clan members additional turns in much the same way as the dead guys watch does for individual players. By being a member of a clan, players can maximize their game play. This is not just through getting additional turns but also through getting extra in-game currency, tips from clan members, and through utilizing the clan stash, a sort of guild bank that works as a metacurrency in KOL. In the clan HQ there is a tanning bed which allows players to bronze themselves and thus increase their Moxie, and a potted meat plant that gives players large amounts of meat each day. Meat is the currency in KoL. The Clan Stash is where players can contribute meat and items to the Clan or can take items that other players have left. When a player leaves items they gain Karma and when they take an item they spend Karma. The Clan Stash is a good place to find difficult items needed for quests or recipes. One can see through this that there are alternate currencies at play in Kingdom of Loathing. There is meat and there is karma. Karma functions as a sort of meta currency that allows clan members to engage in trade with each other on a clan level.
Combining items and cooking are two important concepts in KoL. As an example, in order to recover HP and MP, one needs to either pay (in Meat) the doctor in the Seaside Town or spend adventures (turns) in one’s Campsite. If one sleeps on the ground, it is possible to recover 5-10 HP/MP per adventure, but if one combines such items as a Barskin and Wooden Stakes, one creates a Barskin Tent which can be used at the Campsite and increases HP/MP to 20+ per adventure spent. After one buys an E-Z Bake Oven, one can ‘Cook’ items that are not usable into items that are. For example, combining flat dough, a magical bean, and spices creates a ‘Spicy Bean Burrito’ which allows a player to gain up to 10 additional adventures when consumed. Items can be bought with meat, the in game currency. There does not seem to be a way to buy ‘meat’ with dollars.
Another way items are combined is through ‘Meatsmithing’. In order to Meatsmith, a player must buy a Tenderizing Hammer and a Meatsmithing Guide from the Meatsmith in the Seaside Town. Weapons and armor can be Meatsmithed. As an example a Saucerer begins with a ‘Saucepan’ as a weapon which does 10 damage. After defeating ‘Boss’ monsters, one sometimes gets items that can be meatsmithed…for instance if one gets a Jalapeño, it is possible to combine it with the saucepan using meatpaste (made from 10 meat) to create a ‘5-Alarm Saucepan’ that can later be combined with a ‘Peppercorn of power’ to create a 17-Alarm Saucepan that does 90 damage.
If we look to the earlier referenced ‘Quest for the Holy MacGuffin’ for an example we find that early in the quest the council requires that the player visit the black market to find a means of creating a fake passport in order to visit distant lands. The council sends the player to the Black Forest where the player will encounter various black creatures but not find the Black Market. One has to look at the specifics of the councils quest to find the answer. The council says that the way to reach the Black Market is to go ‘as the crow flies’. This cryptic answer is only revealed when the player notices that among the monster drops were ‘broken wings’ and ‘sunken eyes’, a reference to the Beatles song Blackbird, and crows are of course blackbirds. The next step is to combine the broken wings and sunken eyes into a reconstructed blackbird which can then be put in the player’s incubator and turned into a player familiar. Once the blackbird is turned into the players familiar, it flies (as a crow) to the black market and this area is then revealed on the players map. Now it is simply a matter of clicking on the Black Market and paying 5000 meat for a forged passport!
This raises the concept of the player’s familiars. Familiars are animal type creatures that assist the player in fulfillment of quests and in battles. The first familiar for all players in Kingdom of Loathing is a mosquito. In the initial learning quest, the players are sent to the sewer to find a mosquito larvae which they then place into the incubator and grow into a companion they can name which accompanies and helps them on quests. I have several familiars in the incubator but only one can be activated at any given time. My preferred familiar is the first one, a mosquito. I named the mosquito Fooyung. It has grown from a tiny larvae into a 25 pound monster armed with a syringe with which it is able to suck blood from my enemies and inject it into Chopsui thus taking hit points from them and giving them to my character. Other familiars have been the black bird (named Chow Mein), a blood faced volleyball (named Sumyunggai) that increased the meat drops from monsters, and a worm called Ramen that seems to do nothing at all. Familiars can be taken to the Cake Shaped Arena and used against one another in caged matches. There are a variety of competitions that they can be entered into. After winning a set number of matches familiars get property enhancing gifts awarded to them such as Fooyung’s syringe which allows her to be five pounds heavier than her maximum familiar class allows. This is similar to how armor and items affect player statistics.
As stated earlier, weapons and armor are important to advancing in the game. In the beginning of the game when you are slaughtering bunnies, you don’t need much protection or heavy damaging weapons. Later when you are fighting Evil Clowns and Snowman Ninjas it becomes essential that you are able to deflect blows with armor and cause massive damage because the monsters have much higher HP in each quest. Quests come from a variety of sources. There are quests from The Council of Loathing, The League of the Chef-Magi, and from NPC’s that are encountered along the way. Two NPC quest examples are Doc Galactic’s request for herbs and the Pretentious Artist’s request for materials. In each quest the player is asked to find specific items and upon doing so, is given rewards that help advancement such as a discount on medicine.
Game geography in Kingdom of Loathing is an interesting aspect of the game to explore. The game begins with a simple 2-D map composed of only a few locations. The first of these is ‘The Campground’. This is the players home base. The campground is where a player can spend turns to rejuvenate hit points and mana points. This can be done by sleeping on the ground or pitching a tent and then resting for a set number of turns. In Kingdom of Loathing, Ronald is the Sun and Grimace is the Moon and sometimes the bright face of Ronald or Grimace will smile upon a player that is resting and they will gain increased rejuvenation. When a player finds two golden arcs and meatsmiths them together he can create a pair of golden arches that he can erect in the campground which give out a food item each day. Food items give adventures restore (sometimes) HP and MP. The exception is the Evil McShake that takes all of your HP but restores hundreds of MP. Also in the campground players can erect white picket fences which give extra turns, fountains that provide for better rest, and of course the peaceful hippystone which can be shattered and takes forty days to repair.
Another game geographic location is the Seaside Town. The Seaside Town has multiple locations within it. There is the marketplace, the right side of the tracks, the wrong side of the tracks, the Council of Loathing, and Clan Headquarters. The marketplace is where you go if you want to buy anything in the game. There is a flea market set up where you can buy or sell items from of to other players. This is also where the regular market is if you want to buy items for full price. The Doctors office, Doc Galactic is here if you want to pay to restore HP or MP instead of spending turns to rest. There is the Bugbear Bakery which is only open to bugbears and the Armory and Leggery where armor and weapons can be bought. Clan headquarters is where you can initially find a clan and later where you go to visit your clan once you belong to one. The Council of Loathing, as already stated, is where players go to get the new quests for each level they attain. The right side of the tracks has a variety of places in it. Among them are Spookyraven Manor, a place where there are multiple quests, and the League of the Chef Magi where players of the Pastamancer or Sauceror class can go to learn new spells, buy items, or get assigned new quests. On the wrong side of the tracks there is a bounty hunter who will assign bounty hunts, a casino where players can gamble, a dirty alleyway, and the shack of the pretentious looking artist. There is also a suspicious looking guy who will give you goofballs but then sell them to you at ever higher prices if you go back.
Intially, there are several other locations on the map. These are the distant woods, the nearby plains, and the mountains. Each of these locations have within them a number of other locations. As players advance new locations are opened up and become available. A simple example is the Hermits Cave in the far off mountains. If a player does not have a ‘Hermit Permit’, than the cave of the Hermit will not be visible when one clicks on the mountains. To get a Hermit Permit one has to go to the Seaside Town and purchase one at the marketplace. If you are looking for a specific item from the hermit however, this is not enough. Unless you have a worthless trinket or a worthless doodad, the hermit will simply rummage through your bag and find nothing. Instead, you also have to go to the Seaside Town and buy a piece of gum on a string which you then drop through the cracks of the grate covering the sewer (also in the Seaside Town) and fish until you get a worthless whatnot. Once you have that and the permit, you can visit the hermit and he will offer to trade you something for what you have. If you are lucky, he will offer you what you are looking for.
In general, however, it seems that the people who are playing Kingdom of Loathing are just looking for a simple way to pass the time and enjoy some ironic references to things that they either have enjoyed or have made fun of other people for enjoying. Kingdom of Loathing is set up in such a way as to be the ideal game to play at school, work, or home. The interface is completely embedded within the browser so there is no software to load on to a local hard drive. The game loads quickly and appears to work equally well in Firefox, Opera, Netscape, and even Internet Explorer. Players login with username and a password and are met by a 2-D map and a summary of activities that have happened since they logged in last. Examples include: ‘There is a new message in your Clan HQ’ and ‘Henry the B attacked you and stole some of your loot’. A standard message that appears states ‘Looking for something to do? Visit the Council of Loathing.’
I believe that Kingdom of Loathing’s simplicity and ease of use is a part of the reason for its success. Like many people, I don’t carry my laptop with me everywhere I go and I find it easier to use computers in multiple locations that have multiple users. As such, saving a game on a hard drive would be a risky proposition for me. It’s one of the reasons why I have been able to play this game as much as I have.
The people who are playing KoL are diverse. Primarily, the demographics seem to be people in their twenties, thirties, and forties in professional careers. I haven’t encountered anyone who claimed to be under twenty or over fifty yet. Players encountered in chat and on message boards are helpful, witty, and enjoy the irony of the game on many levels. An alternative calendar is displayed on the chat function such as “Today is Boozevember 6”. There seems to be little or no engaging in fantasy or role play though there are many detail specific interactions such as the Haiku Chat which requires that each post be a structured haiku, celebrations of KoL culture icons, and games played in Games Chat that no one will explain beyond “Watch for a while and you might figure it out”. In chat people’s character names are their nicknames but there doesn’t seem to be a sense of total immersion. The best thing about this game is that it is a place that encourages people to look below the surface of what they are doing, even if they are only playing a cheesy computer game on their work computer when they should be doing something else.
Kingdom of Loathing is a thinking person’s computer game and it is for that reason, that I think it is appropriate to begin the end of this essay with a quote from Guy Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988)
The flow of images carries everything before it, and it is always someone else who controls this simplified digest of the perceptible world, who decides where the flow will lead, who programs the rhythm of what is shown into an endless series of arbitrary surprises that leaves no time for reflection . . . . isolating whatever is presented from its context, its past, its intentions and its consequences. . . . It is thus hardly surprising that children are now starting their education with an enthusiastic introduction to the Absolute Knowledge of computer language while becoming increasingly incapable of reading. Because reading requires making judgments at every line; and since conversation is almost dead (as will soon be most of those who knew how to converse) reading is the only remaining gateway to the vast realms of pre-spectacle human experience.
And the truth of the matter is that if you don’t read, you are not going to enjoy playing Kingdom of Loathing.
Kingdom of Loathing is a game that began as a joke. The joke requires some historical background in order to be understood. The more historical background you have, the more you will understand.