I was standing in an empty bank. It was in the fictional city of Varrock on the fictional planet of Gielinor, but the experience to follow was real. A man wearing a troll mask appeared from thin air. “1000 days since I last logged in,” he began in the hopes somebody would listen. Being the only other person present, I volunteered to be that honourary somebody and stepped away from the booth to meet him. “The game has changed so much,” he finished. “That’s a stylish mask,” was the non sequitur I forced in reply. With a haha and thanks he asked where he could find the ‘achievements’ window in his interface. A few clumsy descriptions on my part later, he found it. “Ah yes!” he remembered. “I’ve done all these.”
Undoubtedly, it was a disjointed start, but that’s the way things were on this character-limited conversational medium we inhabited. I don’t quite remember how we reached this next part, but we did. You see for some reason, I mentioned, “online games are made by the people who play them. After all, what’s an experience with none to share in it?” This struck a chord with the masked stranger, so he told me of his old clan and the chat rooms he used to frequent. Friendly names in friendly chat boxes from a distant time. “I’d like to show you my house,” he said before handing me the means for teleporting straight there. “Shouldn’t you buy me dinner first?” I replied before using the teleport. Stepping inside, it was an opulent place. It had a large garden with sparkling orchards. “I used to love working on this place,” he said to me as I marvelled at the grey-bricked mansion. The furniture was immaculate, but the floor plan or lack thereof would have made the Minoan Labyrinth look like a hedge maze.
“I’d like to show you the dungeon,” he said as politely as possible, although no amount of tact can make a line like that look appealing. “I’m an avid dungeon architect myself,” I replied in jest. When downstairs, I saw it was an impressive construct. The walls were covered in skeletons and torches while Hellhounds patrolled the corridors. Ferocious demons and dragons guarded the various treasuries. “Walk with me” he said, adding to the otherworldly, cinematic feel of this experience. This mysterious he or she behind the mask was leading me through winding corridors, recounting their experiences of a better time. “Thank you for indulging my nostalgia,” he began as we made for the exit. “I’ll find something to give you for your time.” At this, I had to decline. “Nonsense,” I replied in the grim light of his macabre dungeon. “It’s rare to see someone else with appreciation for aesthetics.” Although I vainly delighted in the irony, I primarily meant the reply as opinion. The game had gone from an experience of discovery to one of cruelly indifferent efficiency over its lifespan, a thing he seemed to agree with.
Eventually, the fearsome tour came to an end and we ventured to the top floor of the home for some brighter scenery. Upstairs, there was a study, a bedroom and a nexus of portals to various locations. I went into the study and observed the arcane furniture. There were orbs, charts, books and a lone telescope was situated pointing out a window. Standing by it, he commented, “I used to love looking out that thing and chasing comets.” I stood away from the charts and paraphernalia to listen more intently. “My friends and I were part of the largest group in the game to chase them.” Having made my way through a variety of online games, I knew theirs was a story that many have echoed; good times followed by the emptier.
The masked man then delivered his final requiem, pacing about the room. Again, it didn’t seem real. I’d shared in a tour through the past of a lone stranger I’d met in an empty bank minutes before. With so many others, I’d simply run by without a word, yet with this one I decided to stay and entertain the thought of conversation. He talked to me about how the game changed after a significant update, the Evolution of Combat (EoC), had soured his experience. “I thought I could avoid it,” he told me. “I thought I could get around having to touch it just by doing quests, the thing I enjoyed most.” The way he paced was like a performance. He was clearly making sure his character mirrored his feelings. I was half concerned this whole exchange was an elaborate joke, or perhaps a live streamer playing to the audience. “When I encountered a quest that demanded the use of EoC mechanics, I just couldn’t stomach it. The game just wasn’t the same. I had to quit.” Being the manifest enemy of fun I am, I decided to play devil’s advocate. “I have come from a similar place and a similar time,” I began truthfully as a fellow veteran. “You’re right. This is not the same game that it used to be. Although if you joined now instead of in 2010, you wouldn’t have preconceived notions about what it ought to be.” To this, he replied in a manner that once again made me question whether or not I was part of some forgotten How I Met Your Mother Script, for I swear to you now he used an ellipsis in his reply. “…You’re right,” he began while parking his character face-to-face with mine. His troll mask intimately locked eyes with my ferocious bastardisation of a medieval helm; I was afraid of getting pregnant there and then. “I’ve been comparing two completely different things this whole time.” He then followed with something quite unexpected. “Thank you so much for listening to all this,” he continued. “It’s so good to just have someone listen. I’m actually tearing up a little. All this nostalgia, everything’s just coming back. I was just logging in to check my stats and then log off, but you came up and listened to me. Thank you.”
I was taken aback. Throughout this little piece I’ve joked and made light of this exchange, but I truly did enjoy listening to the numerous experiences and trials this person had gone through. The friends they’d made and lost along the way. At this point, it was humbling to know it meant so much to someone I’d only met 20 minutes ago in an online game that someone was listening. “What you said earlier,” he continued again. “About people making the game. That’s very true. Thanks.” All I could say in reply was, “It was my pleasure.” However, I could only let the moment sit for a few seconds before I couldn’t help myself. “So is this the part where we have sex?” We laughed, and then he led the way to his old portal room. It would have been seven years old or more. “I know there are all sorts of newer ways to teleport around now,” he lamented, “but these do the job.” After sharing in enough profundity for one evening, I offered to leave. “Shall I make my grand exit by dramatically stepping through one?” In reply, he said, “That would be lovely.” So, I stepped through and smiled. Seldom do I have interactions like this anymore. However, it does serve as a potent reminder of what lies behind each avatar in all these games. Every person has their story, and the people surrounding that story. This might be optimistic, but I like to think this is a lesson in how to conduct yourself with all people. It’s good to be productive and efficient. It’s good to seek profound experiences, but all of it means nothing if you’re alone in an empty bank.