Long ago, in the era of Netscape and Internet Explorer, I would spend hours surfing the net trying to find any sort of MMO that, A) could run on my brick of a computer, and B) was free. World of Warcraft and Everquest were the biggest thing around, the novelty of online communities uniting so many around common goals. I would pore over articles on Asheron’s Call, Star Wars: Galaxies, Final Fantasy XI, Ragnarok Online… For every game out there, it had another ten beside it, veritable hydras housing universes inside of them.
Sadly, my biggest hold-up on participating was the ever-present subscription fee. I didn’t grow up in a household with the biggest budget, nor did my parents see continually paying for a game you had already bought as a wise financial decision. Regardless, I would not be stopped in my quest for the social interaction I was lacking in the real world. Thankfully, there were just as many free-to-play MMOs out there alongside the pay-to-play ones. MapleStory and RuneScape served as my bread-and-butter for weeks, years even.
Outside of those, though, I found myself perpetually drawn to games that were less mechanically-driven, and served more as digital spaces to simply hang out in. The endless grind of F2P games was not something I found particularly enticing, considering that all I wanted in the end was to just make friends. Thankfully, there were the wonderful works of developers such as Maid Marian, a website stuffed to the gills with disparate experiences that ultimately served as nothing more than glorified chatrooms. Sherwood was one title of theirs that included extremely basic RPG mechanics, but I personally found myself drawn to the low-gravity space-themed Moon Base, what with the ability to have dance parties on a miniature Earth floating in the skybox, and to blast around the surface of the moon in a lunar lander.
Returning to those spaces that once held such life and brought me such joy now rings hollow. Deserted and forgotten, these places are only good for a short nostalgia trip that ultimately ends bittersweet.
Enter DARK FOREST VIRTUAL CHATROOM from the profusely prolific Heather Flowers (@HTHRFLOWERS). Poised as a simple window into a long-lost world, DFVC presents a snippet of the melancholy I experience looking back on those games that once were escapes from the life I was at odds with. It’s an empty space, dusty and untouched, guarded by a simple bot that delivers expository or descriptive dialogue about the areas you explore. Your presence awakens it, though, and causes it to begin to realize how long it has been dormant. Its anxieties bleed through the pre-programmed responses it has to your presence in various locales.
As you uncover chunks of this abandoned microcosmic social facility, the bot laments a dissipated community. Once bustling with life, the references to regular fan fiction contests and commemorative tombstones to inactive users show the passion and reverence that this place once knew from its residents. Its creators having since long since moved on, the bot is now forced to confront the loneliness and isolation it has been left with, the same loneliness that I once felt, that I sought to overcome through spaces such as these. In this inversion, Flowers touches on the consumptive relationship we have with games and digital places, how they serve a purpose for a time but are are eventually left behind for the next zeitgeist, digital detritus floating in the net’s ether.
Sure, you still have free, primarily social environments such as Second Life bustling with energy and life, or the seemingly immortal Roblox providing an outlet for those who wish to bridge the gap of cyberspace to connect to one another. But, these places fail to capture the strangeness of community built around something specific, like the Maid Marian titles. Much like a long-running IRC channel, these places had their regulars, their personae non gratae, and their in-jokes, a miniaturized society facilitated by lunar lander bumper cars and rites of passage involving breaking the game with bugs known to frequent users. DFVC brushes against that feeling, the tinge of sadness for a time we’re unable to return to. The bot knows that this can’t last, this fleeting moment of connection, as this place is no longer for us, or it. It’s simply an artifact, left behind for the morbidly curious. Desperately, it begs you not to leave, but the server truncates itself without any way for you to stop it. Ripped from you, this bot is shunted back to the dark void it will forever reside in.
I’ll never be able to return to being a kid, face buried in screen as I hunt a feeling through the web that will never truly be what I’m looking for. I can’t get back to that simple time, where my biggest fear was whether or not my woodcutting was high enough to go on a magic tree farming trip with my friends. I – we – have moved on to much greater anxieties, clinging to the worlds we still can delve into and the communities we build within them. But, they won’t last either. Phantasy Star Online gives way to Universe to Online 2, and so on. DFVC acts as memorial to those who were in the same place I was, weird kids who wanted to be accepted and to have friends, who found solace in pockets of the net with those similar to them.
But, these things never last. Dust in the wind. The pain, the joy, the love we gain from our time spent with them stay with us until the grave. It’s what keeps us going, seeking out another grand adventure, to graze the life on the other side of the screen. We tunnel through time and space to be with one another.
DFVC will exist on the servers of itch until they go dark. Much like the bot trapped in there, we’ll wish for connection, unable to grasp it in the immediate. But, unlike that bot, we can stretch farther into the world in our search. The games we play and pour over may be many things, but for me, the most important thing they offer is that human connection. Inside or out of it, they allow us to create easy links that allow us to mingle with one another.
We don’t have to suffer this life alone. We won’t.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.