In memory of absent friends

Towards the end of the year, it’s normal for us to look back over the last 12 months and take stock. What has changed? What goals have we met? Have we made any new friends? Lost any old ones? Learned anything new? Had major life changes? Anything unexpected that we coped with well … or badly?

And looking over the raid roster, I’m struck by how many people I have raided with since the release of Wrath (call that about a year). Many of them I barely knew when that year began, if at all. We aren’t all best friends, we don’t all mix or chat socially outside raids, but I feel that I know all of them even if that just means names, personality traits, voices on voice chat and maybe a few shared jokes and experiences. We spent a fair amount of time in each other’s company — even my one raid per week is a regular 3 hour weekly slot. That’s more time than I spend with a lot of my real life friends, whose lives are so busy these days that we have to plan a few weeks ahead to meet up.

Some players  we were fond  of had to bow out during the year either for good reasons (new job! new baby! switched up to more hardcore raid guild!), less happy ones, or just plain burnout with the game. It’s very easy when you are bound up with a regular raiding schedule to feel that people in online games have short memories. If you take a couple of weeks out, you might be replaced – after all, the raids need to keep running either with or without you. And it’s easy to feel that you’d be quickly forgotten also.

But when I look over the old Naxx signups, I don’t think we’ve forgotten those names who no longer raid with us (I’m sure there are some which have a special place in raid leaders’ memories, for sure :) ). I think we’d be thrilled to see them if they ever hopped back into the game to say Hi. I don’t know whether there would be room in raids, that’s harder to organise, but I know they aren’t forgotten. Thinking even further back, I still chat to Arb about people we used to play DaoC with years ago. For most  I never knew their real names, but there was some level on which we knew them as friends with a shared hobby, who used to play games with us. Or else they were ‘those guys’ who were jerks in game and still are the subject of massive bitch fests when we can be bothered.

And it’s part of the normal cycle of gaming that people join and leave. Life happens, circumstances change, people get bored. There is a quote I read (and I don’t know the origin) that runs: We will all be the same in five years as we are now except for two things: the books we have read and the people we’ve met.

Here’s to all the people we met this year, and to the people we’ll meet in the year to come.

The Power of Memory in an MMO

graveyard in brillThere’s no place like home

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been helping to clear out my father’s flat. I have spent quiet hours sitting on trains*.  I have walked many miles to and from the train station; retracing the same path that I travelled every time I went to visit him. The same path that very soon I will never need to walk again. I find myself taking more notice of the details of the journey. The uneven pavements, pigeons crowded outside the supermarket, the roar of traffic, the cafe that replaced the other cafe that replaced the other cafe, the huddled bus stops, the noises, the sights, the smells, the feel. And already, the familiar route brings back vivid and familiar memories.

I have seen designers discuss how to bring more emotion into computer games. We see games inducing excitement, elation, disappointment and wonder if they will ever inspire the whole range of feelings that we get from good literature, films, or music. And yet, I haven’t seen many of them talk about nostalgia – the one bittersweet emotion that games reliably do conjure up. It isn’t just the nostalgia of looking at games that we played ten or twenty years ago and wondering at how much technology has changed, that’s true of anything in life. It is the nostalgia of being able to go back and play the early levels again, capture again the feeling of being so new,  and see how much you have changed (or not) and how many of your initial assumptions were right or wrong.

In a typical MMO, your character goes through some kind of starting area and then spends some time around a major city or village. For the rest of that character’s ‘life’ that starting area will carry with it a sense of home. It will carry with it the memories of the very beginning of the in-game experience. This is a very deliberate design decision, and subsequent quests and events send you back there to evoke precisely that reaction. Games that lack this layout (like WAR) feel as though something is missing to me – I never made that connection with the game world.

If I take Mrs Spinks back to Brill (the undead starting area in WoW), I feel some watered down sense of how I feel travelling to my father’s flat. I know the area, I know the NPCs, and simply walking around there brings back vivid memories of my early WoW days. I felt the same in LOTRO when walking about Michel Delving as a hobbit – however far from the Shire you roam, whenever you go back, you are going home.

Of course, the main difference in an MMO is that the NPCs and home area never change. Shops don’t close. Houses don’t get pulled down. NPCs don’t retire or win the lottery or die in tragic boating accidents. So your home is always preserved, exactly the way that you remember it.

I noticed that quite a few bloggers marked the recent Cataclysm announcement by returning to WoW, however briefly. I believe that this is all about recapturing the memories while those starting zones are still poised in their eternal time vacuum. In the same way that walking the route to my father’s house now cements the memories of all the times I have done that in the past, playing through the old zones brings memories to life for players too. If retracing our steps in the real world helps to relive memories, then it should be no surprise that virtually retracing our steps in a virtual world has the same effect.

I will not miss the old zones. I enjoyed them, but you can never really go back. Even if you rerun the quests, it isn’t the same without the other people around. Looking at them now, I keep thinking how badly they need the update and how much they will benefit from being taken out of their time bubble, at least for a little while.

And after all, we’ll always have our memories. We’ll always have Brill.

* sitting on trains … with my DS :P