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When a Video-Game World Ends

Mar 29, 2018
Kevin Watkins
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 11 min.

In English, the word “apocalypse”—ety. Greek, n. apo (un-) + kaluptein (-veil)—has three non-exclusive meanings. The first and most common is simply the end of the world, whether by divine punishment or whatever transpires in movies directed by Roland Emmerich. The second is any form of calamity, representational or real, man-made or no, that resembles the end of the world, like the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Chernobyl, or the movies directed by Roland Emmerich themselves. The third is what the Greeks intended apocalypse to mean: the revelation of knowledge through profound disruption, which is why the final book of the New Testament is called “Revelations” (composed, it is thought, to reassure Christians during their widespread persecution by the Roman emperor, Domitian). In other words, the apocalypse either is the end, looks like the end, or helps us understand the end.

Like books, movies, and the visual arts, video games are well acquainted with the apocalypse. Scores of them have been set in the final days of mankind; countless more ask the player to prevent them. Yet, as mere setting, the apocalypse can never be true to its name—when Mass Effect 3 ends and the galaxy has been saved/altered/destroyed, you can always boot up the series’s first act and play it all again. The finale is not the end. In the curious lexicon of games criticism, we often speak of “world-building,” yet rarely do we stop to think about its opposite. Anything made can be destroyed, yet destruction in games is rarely the destruction of games. What masterpiece of eschatological design could possibly convey the all-encompassing, crushing finality of a true apocalypse?

Perhaps we will never know. But, in the meantime, we have the next best thing.

Since the 1990s, when the rise of reliable home Internet access made persistent game worlds both commercially and technically viable, the game industry has developed over 300 massively multiplayer online games, some gargantuan (The Old Republic, etc.) and others slight, like the thoughtful browser-based government simulator NationStates. The majority of MMOs, of course, don’t experience the runaway success of World of Warcraft or EVE Online and eventually adopt a free-to-play model once it becomes clear that subscriptions alone can’t sustain ongoing costs. But a smaller number—44, if Wikipedia is to be believed—have shut down, and with their closure, their persistent worlds simply phase out of existence, beyond the reach of any archaeology.

Star Wars Galaxies launched in 2003 to critical and commercial acclaim. Though video games routinely spoil the player with fantasies of singular greatness (in Elder Scrolls Online, every player is, improbably, “the one”), Galaxies initially set its sights lower. Instead of saving the Star Wars universe for the umpteenth time, the player was asked merely to live in that universe, getting by doing anything from bounty hunting to stripping in dusty cantinas on the Outer Rim. That might seem hopelessly jejune in 2015, but Galaxies was a tremendous success for several years. Alas, in 2005, in response to a lack of new players, Sony Online Entertainment redesigned the game to emphasize combat, trading the game’s supreme sense of inhabitation and belonging for a sense of power (the lure of the dark side indeed!). Players revolted, and, by 2006 barely 10,000 people could be found in Galaxies on any given Friday. The death-knell came in 2011, when SOE announced, to no one’s surprise, that Galaxies would be shut down for good in December of that year (not coincidentally, the same month that BioWare launched its dreary Star Wars MMO, The Old Republic).

Call it pity, or perhaps apology, but SOE used the end of Galaxies to do something meaningful with its apocalypse: It declared a winner for each server based on the relative population of Rebels and Imperials. And in the galaxy’s final moments, before the servers took everything and everyone with them, the players who remained gathered in Mos Eisley and Corellia to wait for the end. Bittersweet celebration ruled the day: Veterans let neophytes try out their finest gear, the sky was filled with brilliant (if lag-producing) fireworks, and the spaceports clogged with groups of friends, some cultivated over thousands of hours, waiting to say goodbye. In the end, though, the final moment was a whimper. Writing in PC Gamer the next day, Chris Thursten captured the moment perfectly

timed the hyperspace jump to coincide with the final shutdown. As the seconds tick down, the hyperdrive calculation rises to 100 percent completion … The time hits zero and tiny points of light begin to streak across the windows then freeze, arrested in time. The moment hangs, the game unresponsive, one of the most iconic images in Star Wars halted before it can fully play itself out. “You cannot connect to that Galaxy at this time. Please try again later.”

Not every apocalypse is so poetic. Sega’s ill-fated MMO The Matrix Online ran from 2005 to July 2009, when it was brought down with little warning by none other than SOE, which had purchased the property from Sega some years before. Like they would later do for Galaxies, SOE organized a final event for The Matrix Online. But unlike Galaxies, it wasn’t so much a celebration as a genocide fitting of an apocalypse. On PvE servers, SOE flooded common areas with high-level monsters that slaughtered every player in sight; on PvP servers, players discovered that their weapons had been augmented to kill other players with a single shot. A bloodbath ensued; anyone whose character died found that death, suddenly, was permanent. In both cases, survivors were cut down by an unexplained electrical phenomenon (a glitch in the matrix, so to speak). In one Youtube video, perhaps two dozen players obliviously wait for the end. Someone in the server-wide chat yells, “I’m smoking weed and crying”; someone replies, “Please don’t cry.” Seconds later, a bolt of ochre lightning tears through the crowd, killing everyone. The contortions are horrific; the screams are worse. After, the only sound is an irregular beep, like an old modem. Someone asks “Is it over?” A pop window answers: “Failed to reconnect to the margin server. Shutting down.” The machines win after all.

The last moments of Star Wars Galaxies and The Matrix Online stand out among MMO apocalypses as a conscious attempt to script a proper “end” to their universes, whether celebratory or catastrophic. Most titles, though, take a simpler route: passing out free high-level gear or experience boosts to offer players a sense of closure, however insufficient. In its final months, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean Online offered players double gold, double XP, and unlocked all the game’s content for all its players. But in the end, the small population of remaining players watched the world go dark from the beaches of Port Royale. Another Disney Property, Toontown Online, ran for over a decade before being shuttered in 2013. With two weeks to go, Toontown Online arranged for its holiday events to take place two months early and flooded Toontown with the game’s most iconic foe, The Big Cheeses (“Watch out! I can be a real Muenster at times”), a parody of corporate greed, which, in retrospect, is an oddly apropos metaphor for a beloved children’s game whittled into extinction by the budget hawks at Disney Interactive.

Even when a developer doesn’t plan a final hurrah, players often take it upon themselves to commemorate their world’s imminent end (Cormac McCarthy, in The Road: “When one has nothing left, make ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them”). In Hellgate: London, which lasted barely 18 months thanks to gross mismanagement by its developer, Flagship Studios, the small band of players that held out to the end took it upon themselves to don their most visually outrageous gear and fight the game’s final boss, who had long since ceased to be a challenge. How ironic that a game set in the apocalypse succumbed to another apocalypse. The final moment, when it came, arrived without warning: A friend of mine who played Hellgate from beta to the end told me that he was cut off mid-conversation by a final, mass disconnection. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven …

Faced with annihilation, other communities resist: When Bungie announced in 2010 that it would soon take Halo 2’s long-running servers offline, several dozen Halo 2 fanatics vowed to leave their consoles on in order to host further matches. One by one, whether by overheating consoles or the loss of power, the number of dwindled to a handful of hosts. The last holdout was disconnected by Bungie nearly six weeks after the “official” end of Halo 2.

Those MMOs that are resurrected by carrion-picking studios are often flattened unrecognizably to prepare them for the designs of free-to-play, as was the ultimate fate of Hellgate: London. User-made revivals are equally fraught: In 2014, a group of modders revived Galaxies as SWG: Reborn after (dubiously) acquiring the source code to the game, but infighting among developers and a litany of game-breaking bugs quickly doomed the project. Today, persistent fans can still access a handful of private servers, but must contend with constant technical glitches and corrupt administrators. Players can celebrate, or they can resist, but in the end, they cannot stop the inevitable.

Whether it’s the final horror of The Matrix Online or the somber last acts in ToonTown Online, it isn’t hard to see how the end of an MMO constitutes an apocalypse of the first and second kind (i.e. “the end” and that which resembles the end). From the perspective of the characters who inhabit a doomed MMO’s diegesis, it is truly the end of everything, their world, as the poet Philip Larkin put it, “ to be lost in always, not to be here, not to be anywhere.” For players, the apocalypse is, of course, not real, but nevertheless imparts a real experience of what the apocalypse might be like, to see a world they have come to care about lose its ability to be. But what about the third form of the apocalypse, that which helps us understand the end? How do MMOs help us come to terms with the causes and effects of an apocalypse on any scale?

The media scholar Richard Grusin attributes the popularity of end-of-the-world scenarios in popular media to a phenomenon he calls “premediation,” the representation of cataclysm to build the public’s expectations for a real cataclysm. The plausibility of these scenarios matters little; the point of premediation, Grusin holds, isn’t “prediction” but “practice”—we steel ourselves for any number of possible futures so that we might overcome whatever trauma awaits us, like swallowing a pill to prevent the heartburn we know is coming. Because we know, deep down, that apocalypse awaits us on every scale. Premediation helps us rehearse our reaction so that, in the event of real chaos, we might behave in a manner more rational and productive.

It’s easy to see how games like Fallout 4 (2015), Mass Effect 3 (2012), and Mad Max (2015) constitute a kind of premediation, rehearsing our collective anxieties over nuclear war, AI takeover, and ecological devastation, respectively. Yet premediation isn’t quite sufficient to describe the end of an MMO—SOE likely didn’t imagine or at least didn’t intend for Galaxies to suffer its gradual blackout. Premediation, like its prefix implies, is rooted in what comes before; by the time an MMO shuts down, it’s already too late. In this respect, all-but-forgotten Hellgate: London is an object lesson in this distinction, a game about an apocalypse that eventually fell victim to its own. But if not because of premediation, why should we care about the end of MMOs at all? What knowledge is there that isn’t present elsewhere?

An apocalypse can help bridge the gap between what we experience and why we experience it.

If there can be said to be any good in an apocalypse, it’s that it almost always reveals something about what went wrong. As The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in an op-ed just days after Hurricane Katrina transformed economic marginalization into mass death, apocalyptic disasters “wash away the surface of society … expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities.” In the days after Haiti’s horrific 2010 earthquake, it became clear that the landslides that killed so many were tied to decades of strip-logging in the forests nearby. (This phenomenon was itself tied to the nation’s sovereign debt, which replaced colonial occupation as a means of imperialist domination, in a chain of injustices stretching back to the European encounter, depicted at the end in Mel Gibson’s historical epic named, not coincidentally, Apocalypto.) There are no such thing as natural disasters, just fantasies we entertain to excuse our inaction.

In other words, an apocalypse can help bridge the gap between what we experience and why we experience it, to negotiate between our lives as individuals and the systems that establish the limits of our experience. In an article in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost argues that what games offer, above all else, is an “operable argument … that shows us something about the world outside ourselves, something incomplete and grotesque, but something we ought to see.” Through simulation, we transcend the need for personal identification and focus instead on systems we are embedded in. On this count, Bogost surely has a point. But it’s only half the story. Life might occur within systems, but it is not itself a system. Identity or system, narrative or simulation, representation is always a failed project—if a game could represent everything, it wouldn’t be a game at all, but (and just) a perfect simulacrum of the real. What’s unique and valuable about the end of an MMO is that it can be read as a kind of representation, but it’s also a kind of “real” event that destroys representation, the destruction of an imagined world. With that duality comes the ability to wander between personal identification and reflection on the institutions that give rise to identification.

Looking back at Galaxies, Hellgate, ToonTown, and everything else that occupies the immaterial junkyard of discarded universes, the signs of their impending doom are all too obvious. In Galaxies, the attempt to simplify combat galled old players; the subsequent reversal of these changes alienated new ones. In Hellgate: London, the lack of new content for players to experience in-game signaled that something was deeply wrong outside of the game; Flagship Studios filed for bankruptcy in July 2008 and all of its intellectual property was seized as assets, halting the creation of new material.

And closure doesn’t have to be about failing revenues; it can be about building new ones. Contrary to conventional wisdom, ToonTown didn’t shut down on account of dwindling subscriptions. Rather, as Disney Interactive wrote in the press release announcing its end, “we are shifting our development focus towards other online and mobile play experiences, such as a growing selection of Disney Mobile apps.” The simplicity of ToonTown’s mechanics lent itself to the uncomplicated interfaces of mobile devices, the preferred platform for the game’s target demographic, children age 7 to 12. In every case, built into the experience of play is something larger about the architects of the machines in which we play. And when those machines shut down, even (and especially) when their indifference doesn’t match our own investment, we should know that the heraldry of the end times were there all along. There’s always truth in a ruin.

An apocalypse cares for nothing but its own being, bought at the expense of everyone else’s. Only a hopeless optimist would think that games can save us from whatever fates await us, as individuals or more. But whether at most or at least, the end of a world, even a virtual one, can help us understand both our own experiences and how “made” those experiences are, no matter how natural and private they feel to us. Before it can be changed, it must be understood. Eventually, there will be nothing to save but ourselves.

Will Partin/The Atlantic

Kevin Watkins
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