Kevin (erf_) wrote,

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there will come soft muds

Tonight I'd like to talk a little about MUDs, the text-only precursor to MMOs like EverQuest and World of Warcraft.

For those of you who are not familiar with the pre-Web Internet, MUDs, or Multi-User Dungeons, were once a popular diversion for BBS users who wanted to do something more interesting than scroll through menus or troll Usenet. Part text-adventure, part chatroom, and part tabletop role-playing game, MUDs were trailblazers in establishing the more social purposes of the Internet--at first a mere diversion for users who were doing the Serious Stuff BBSes were supposedly for, like searching for porn binaries discussing philosophy or hacking phone companies distributing software, MUDs finally gave the average BBS user a reason to spend more than an hour at a time at the terminal. Long before AOL ever mailed out its first trial CD, when Ultima Online was still an idle fantasy in Richard Gariott's head, academics, science fiction authors, and local TV news stations were already leaping on this burgeoning new medium as a vision of what the Internet Age would bring. A persistent virtual world, where anyone could pretend to be be anyone and the physical limitations of the user meant nothing, where romances could blossom and wither in cyberspace, where free speech was untraceable and anonymous, where upbringing and privilege and the many curses of nature were no obstacle to becoming anyone you wanted to be.

It all seems kind of eye-rolly now, considering that all these things came to pass and they weren't half as big a deal as people thought. Possibly because the Internet itself changed when CompuServe and AOL opened the floodgates in 1995, and the meticulously crafted techno-libertarian utopia of the hackercrats suddenly found itself washed away in a deluge of grandmas and little kids. But the idea was revolutionary, even frightening, to people back then. Fox News Special Reports and NBC Nightline specials focused on the more mundane aspects of the Internet, like newsgroups and chatrooms, to herald the birth of this awful new parallel cyber-universe, this brave new world that Our Children (read: me and you) would grow up in, as if the Internet invented scribbled profanities on a bathroom wall or pretending to be twice your age over ham radio. But everything people tell me about the wow factor of the Internet from the time that came before points not at these technologies, designed to be useful and full of grave import, but at a frivolous toy program written by a bored English undergrad on a research mainframe. The dawn of the virtual world broke not with the papers that heralded its coming, or the RFCs for the technologies that made it possible, but with, "You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There are 22 other players online."

It is one thing to leave a note for someone in another time and place to read later--something we've been doing since the dawn of written language. It is another to shake your friend's hand from the other side of the continent.

The true beauty of these old games, in my opinion, is that the genre was so new at the time that no one knew what to do with them. Do we open a couple IRC-like chatrooms, for people to talk and socialize and roleplay as they wish, with a few persistent items (like a table and chairs or a bottle of wine) to create a sense of space, and let users' imaginations define the world? Do we make it into a game, like the single player Dungeons and Dragons inspired computer RPGs, and bring them one step closer to the tabletop, with players finally able to interact and roleplay within the simulation? Do we try to create as realistic a cyberspace simulation of meatspace life as possible, with housing and government and money and death, as a social experiment? Do we create a world-outside-the-world (c.f. Snow Crash and Neuromancer--as a footnote, Second Life and PS@Home are contemporary endeavors to fulfill this very vision), a place for people to socialize and do business as they would in real life, but under the veil of anonymity? Or do we drop all pretense of ambition and just go, "Wow, cool! It's like playing Zork...with other people."

Thanks to TinyMUD and other early proto-open source codebases, it was easy enough for local BBS operators to set up their own MUDs that all of these ideas would be explored, some of them to death, by the mid-1990s. Hundreds of MUDs, maybe thousands, came online. This was back when the Internet was still mostly a local thing, as a connection was in the most literal sense a phone call and long distance rates made dialing distant BBSes prohibitively expensive, so it wasn't like today where you have the entire world playing World of Warcraft together--there was a feeling, like you see in some of the more obscure MMOs these days, that this was our game, you know, a community where everyone knew the game's creator on a first name basis (whether they had actually met him/her or not) and greeted each other with "wb, I missed you!!" when they logged in. And while a few companies (mostly big BBS operators) did manage to make money off these games, either by the minute or by some variant of the subscription model that most MMOs today use, the sheer number of free, communally produced MUDs out there did much to encourage that pioneer-town feel. Unlike today, few MUDs of that era were released complete and polished on the day of release--they were continual works in progress, with user-made towns, dungeons, shops, and environments sometimes dwarfing the original developers' contributions in size or scale. It wasn't player-created content in the modern sense of the word, with empty niches graciously left in the ingame world for levels made in the map editor--in communal MUDs, player-contributed content WAS the game. I used to affectionately refer to Graal Online Classic as Geocities Zelda because almost every house, shop, guild, quest, weapon, and dungeon in the game was made by players, and they built their world in a cluttered, poignantly naive children's-drawing vision of how they wanted the real world to be. (Giant swimming pools with waterslides outside a clan's headquarters! Temples to early high score leaders! A McDonald's in someone's house! With a dancefloor downstairs that makes you cycle through random frames of your walk animation when you step on it!) Little did I know that even Graal wasn't really doing anything new--it was bringing The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past's gameplay to an even older tradition of getting all the nerds in the village together to hang out and play God. Not a mere treehouse, but an entire, sprawling, continents-wide world made in their own image, hidden where no one who isn't a nerd would ever find it.

Being the harbingers of a new Internet-savvy society, MUDs were also the first target of moral panic about the social ills that the Internet would bring--the first bucket of sewage in an endless slew of sensationalist trash about cyberstalkers and IRC pedophiles. In the mid-1990s, almost twenty years after MUDs first started appearing on BBSes, newspapers and cable news stations started to observe the growing problem of MMO addiction and how it was destroying our youth (read: you and me). Aside from doubtful testimonials, dramatic reenactments, and YouTube videos of said TV news reports I have been unable to find much pre-1995 information on this phenomenon, but apparently it is real enough that families of MUD addiction victims (including a girl in a fiction workshop I took at Oberlin) are still making noise about it. Though today, in an age in which WoW is popular enough to put a song from a Internet television series about it at the top of the iTunes charts and Korean dudes are occasionally found dead in an Internet cafes after playing Counter-Strike for 72 hours, we recognize that video game addiction is the result, not the cause, of the circumstances that cause people to destroy themselves, the phenomenon is a testament to the scope of and sense of ownership in these games. Can you really blame a lonely, despondent pre-dotcom teenage geek for choosing to die in his own world rather than live in ours?

Needless to say, those days are now long gone. Storytelling, puzzles, and real-world social mechanics in MMOs have become largely a thing of the past (social-only games like Second Life and all those skeezy furry MUCKs aside), as the player base has grown so large that doing anything but killing monsters gets you killed (or left in the dust, level-wise) by players who do nothing ingame but kill monsters, and the solution to any puzzle is to consult the wiki. Social interactions are generally something you do in spite of the game--if you ask someone how their day was during a WoW raid, they will either tell you to shut up and DPS or gank you as you're typing--not because of it. Recent games have attempted to make the butter-churning crafts skills and the endless genocide of NPCs more than an underpass into carpal tunnel (WoW is a great example), but that open-world, do-anything, free-form spirit is being increasingly streamlined out of the genre. We are returning to the earliest days of computer role-playing games, where the only thing to do in this vast, limitless virtual world is to watch your experience points go up and your hit points go down.

I've beta tested more graphical MMOs than I can remember, and honestly, by this point, I couldn't care less how complex your skill tree is or how many classes you let me play as. Ultimately, it all comes down to spending hours staring at the screen, doing absolutely nothing except occasionally deciding that now is the right time to use a potion, activate a skill, or return to town. And then doing that over and over for another few hours, with so much emphasis on long-term strategy that there is no room for short-term tactics. Waiting--and let's face it, this is the real reason why anyone actually plays MMOs--for the Pavlovian ding of the level-up bell, which comes easily at first, and then exponentially more distant.

Guys...I know I'm not the first to say it, but that isn't fun. That is a job.

But, a secret: The old games never went away. Their players left, in droves, to the EverQuests and Ultima Onlines, and to simpler games like Blade Mistress and Well of Souls, and later the Ragnaroks and Lineages and the World of Warcraft. a new generation of gamers unwilling to commit to the scale and time commitment of those games found the browser games SQX and Urban Dead and (ironically) the MMORPG parody Kingdom of Loathing. But the old games, like so many abandoned treehouses, still sit humming in ancient Dells and suitcase-sized laptops, behind the domains of dead websites and FTP servers. (For what is a MUD but a database and a server program left open to port 3000? As long as you're paying for the domain...) Those lonely worlds, now largely bereft of players, still show up in .plan files and IRC chat logs around the Internet, their NPC acolytes forever chanting the name of a once-fifteen-year-old boy in a sad fantasy of adolescent acceptance, their leather-armored goblins frolicking unmolested in newbie zones, their busty barmaids endlessly shuttling the same tray of drinks between three empty tables. Entire towns, strewn with plaques and statues to screen names long forgotten--entire civilizations, continents, hundreds of hours of idle fantasies brought to life only to be outgrown and cast aside, like so many toys in a closet, waiting for the day their masters will return. These games are still running. And they still have something to teach us.

I found one, last month, and have been entranced ever since. It is called Darkwind, and while maybe a dozen people still play (half of whom always on), and the game is theoretically still being worked on, it's clear that much of Darkwind has not been touched in almost ten years. I first heard about it from the Swedish Chef page on Wikipedia, as itself has not been updated since 2001. The game used to be moderately popular, judging from the wide library of emotes and the mindblowing amount of content (I wasn't kidding about the continents bit--you can walk from one to another, and it takes ages), and from ingame chat I gather that it has changed hands several times. But no one seems to know who started it, or when, and almost every website about it has been dead for years. Wandering through the game as a newbie is surreal, and is a very different experience than it must have been in the game's heyday--guild NPCs tell me to talk to player leaders who have not logged on since 1999, town squares described as "bustling" are in fact deserted, and a complex system of rules regarding player killing seems laughably quaint. Occasionally ingame invasions occur, and there's a real Mines of Moria feeling to seeing one of the game's maybe five remaining top-level non-developer players go down to the Darkwind City gates and desperately try to fend off a hundred-strong army of NPCs and boss characters alone. Meeting another player in the game, presumably an experience once common to the point of being annoying, is so rare that it becomes an excuse to stop whatever you're doing and sit down and chat. And yet, somehow, NPC shops restock, the twin suns rise and set over the course of a day, the clock tower chimes on the hour, Frederya the busty barmaid still greets you with her tray of drinks, and the blimp from Darkwind City to Sovrael still comes to an empty landing dock every twenty minutes. It's oddly poignant--like wandering around the final thoughts of a dying geek.

This is new territory, by nature of being so old. Life is extremely precious--you lose one level, one point in each stat, all your gold, and all your equipment each time you die. There is no player economy. Inventory items, including armor and weapons, are transient, and disappear every time you log out (unless you keep it in a box at your guild hall, in which case it disappears once a week upon server reset), forcing you to make do with what you find. Emotes reference Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail, Evil Dead, Lethal Weapon, and a slew of other movies that came out before 1999. Quest zones are non-instanced, meaning that in the rare occasion that you visit a place to kill a boss and retrieve a McGuffin you find everyone dead and the McGuffin already taken, forcing you to go off and do something else for ten minutes while everything respawns. Player-owned inns plaintively insist, "I'll finish this place sometime, I promise!!" and minor sidequests ask you for things that were never put in the game, or increase hidden stats that don't do anything anymore.

And yet, despite being so dated, the game is hardly primitive--there's a richness to the gameplay that astonishes me even today. For one, there's no real grind--you can make it from level 10 to level 11 in three fights if you want to. Assuming you survive those battles, of course--the NPCs you would have to fight to achieve this, at your level, would put you in very real danger of death, and as I have mentioned before, death in this game hurts. But you're probably not going to be spending all your time running around looking for ever stronger monsters to kill, as you would in most contemporary MMOs. Instead, the game offers a vast variety of environments, drawing from a tradition of text adventure games that was mature even then, in which you will constantly be stumbling across hidden caves and abandoned farmhouses and portals to alternate dimensions, and figuring out and retrieving all sorts of quest items (some of which are also useful in combat) to help you solve puzzles, complete quests, gain access to unique items, or proceed to hidden new areas to explore. You can fight monsters along the way to get gain experience points and pick up stronger equipment, but if you just want to explore the world and solve puzzles you can do it with a minimum of fighting. Alternately, if you want to play the game like a modern MMO and repeatedly kill stuff, you can do that too--but you will miss out on a lot of powerful equipment and valuable items if you don't use your head. (I was ecstatic the first time I found a secret entrance in a bandit camp which I had just been using to farm XP, and found an entire mini-quest. Not telling where. It's a secret!) Lots of climbing trees, searching walls, examining holes, and putting X in Y--it's like Zork at hundreds of times the scale, and I'm not even exaggerating.

Being a collaborative project, the writing in Darkwind is extremely hit or miss. It ranges from sublime (the newbie quest) to awful (one area is described solely with the words, "You are in awe of the beauty of your surroundings. There are exits to the west and southwest, and the path continues to the east."). Being a free, anonymous, communal game, however, it also allowed the designers to take liberties they would never get away with in a professionally developed game--like the inn whose description is, "Something is out of place. You knew it was a mistake to come in here. Suddenly, something comes out of the dark and kills you! ** You are dead **" And there's a food item called "Link's Nightmare," sold in another player-owned store, which when eaten displays the flashing red text "Link was PKed by Saloman[some clan]!" The player Link hasn't logged on in five years, nor has Saloman, and yet, their ancient and hilarious enmity is preserved in each bite of this meal.

The downside to all this creativity is that there's no standardization--some longswords are categorized as Large weapons and others are categorized as Medium, and there are three different items called "A pair of leather boots," all of which have different descriptions and provide a slightly different level of protection. On the flip side, this anarchic policy allows the existence of items like "A sexy pair of red women's undergarments" and "A turtle (worn as shield)."

All of this, I remind you, was written many years ago by someone who is probably now much older and wishes the their contributions to the game would just disappear. Welcome to the secret clubhouse of their youth. :)

Information scarcity makes the game an interesting experience as well. Due to its obscurity, there is no GameFAQs, no wiki, no forum or set of websites to help you out here. You get a detailed ingame instruction manual at the beginning of the game, and a help feature for some of the more common ingame commands, but that's it. If you want to know the best place to go at any given level is, what items you should be hunting for, or how to solve a certain quest, you're pretty much on your own. Even the other players are of limited help, as most of them are usually on idle, and there's a strict rule against sharing information on how to solve quests anyway. This is the first time in over a decade I have had to go into a game with very little idea of what to expect, and after two weeks it is still full of surprises.

I used to have dreams, every night, of wandering through an enormous abandoned post-apocalyptic city--dinner plates still on tables, posters yellowing on walls. Now, I get to.

If you would like to play, go to your command line (or Run... in the start menu) and type "telnet 3000". Or, you could just download Portal (not to be confused with the 2007 puzzle platformer about untrue baked confectionery) and choose Darkwind from the list when you create a new profile.

I am Aleax, the level 16 fighter, if you wish to come wander with me.
Tags: computers, essays, games, history, internet, internet people, reviews
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