Aetolia: A Retrospective Pt. 1
This is a two-part essay examining ways in which video games reveal things about ourselves, and how some of those things may be more unsavory than we’d care to admit. It’s also as much a confessional as it is an examination, but this story is important to me, and I think it’s a story that a lot of people that play video games, sometimes obsessively, can relate to. Part two can be found here.
When does a game become more than a game? Is there ever a point where the mutual story that the player and the developer (or other players) are creating become more real than the story of your own life? We’ve all cried or laughed at or been repulsed by films or books, and these emotions are unarguably genuine, but they’re also a process of catharsis, a suspension of disbelief. Is it possible to create a situation in a video game that mirrors life so perfectly that it transposes itself and “suspension” is no longer required, because there’s no longer any such thing as “disbelief”?
I think so. I found it at sixteen in a text-based game MMO, or MUD (Multi-User-Dungeon), called Aetolia, and for almost seven years it became my life. It was the life I always wanted and never wanted to live. I pretended to be a man I wasn’t, and, sometimes painfully, revealed the man I was. It was heartbreaking and beautiful and funny and sad and wonderful, and I met people that I fell in love with and people that I still resent today, with a deep, aching hatred reserved for the father that disowned you or the lover that abandoned you. And if it seems ridiculous that I experienced these things while playing a text-based video game, that’s rather the point.
The summer before my junior year in high school, I attended a meeting of the UGA Gamer’s Association, more out of boredom than curiosity; I was a shy and awkward kid, and in retrospect it seems amazing that I convinced myself to go at all; I could barely look people in the eye without a spike in blood pressure.
But I went. They were hosting a LAN party that night, and as I walked past the rows of computers a particular screen caught my eye. It was all text, scrolling too fast for me to read, and the guy at the chair was typing like a maniac. It seemed like programming to me; alien and arcane at the time, but fascinating. I asked him what he was doing, and without looking up he told me “It’s a text-based game. A MUD. Do yourself a favor and don’t get involved with them.”
I don’t remember doing anything else that night, but the very next time I had access to the internet, I googled “Text-based MUD”, found a site called MudConnector, and clicked the first link my mouse landed on.
It seems strange to me that I would find Aetolia in this way, this thing that would change my life so completely; serendipitous and oddly anti-climactic, considering my time in this game would define my life for the next seven years and reveal the best and worst aspects of my being.
“Oddly anti-climactic” may be a good way to describe the game itself. Aetolia, like most MUDS, differs a great deal from what we think of as traditional MMOs, e.g. World of Warcraft, in that it isn’t really a game. WoW and games like it may be addictive partly because of their social aspects, but at their heart their developers have something to show you. It’s a grind, a button-masher, a number cruncher. These are things we expect from our games. And most importantly you can play a game like WoW solo.
Aetolia has very little of any of that. It’s nominally an RPG in that there are levels, and a very deep skill system, albeit one that doesn’t fully reveal itself until matched against other players. But PvE is almost nonexistent, other than a way to gain levels and gold. In other words, the developers, in this case a company called Iron Realms Entertainment, have taken a very hands-off approach to actually “playing” the game.
Instead the things that would normally be run by A.I. behind the scenes, such as cities, guild factions and shops, are run by players. Almost every item traded, bought and sold in game is created by the players, with customizable descriptions and pricing. Cities collect taxes, provide safe havens for players, and hubs for their shops, and these cities have player-run governments. Guilds, which are classes in traditional parlance, are player-run. You literally cannot acquire the skills you need to play the game without interacting intimately with people. This is an emergent environment that WoW or even EVE can never accomplish – can you imagine playing an RPG in which, before you reach a certain point, someone can just take your class away from you if you piss them off? That’s Aetolia: a visceral take on realpolitik in game form.
The other big thing about Aetolia is that roleplay is required. “RP” has a bad reputation in games like WoW, but in Aetolia a sharp line is drawn between IC (In-Character) and OOC (Out-of-Character). Unless you’re in a private place or channel, you are to be IC at all times. And because the community is small (I’m talking maybe 400 people logged at peak hours) it’s very easy to regulate this sort of thing; players with nuanced, believable characters generally rise in the social hierarchy of Aetolia. Those who are cliché or silly (and as Aetolia had a dedicated vampire class, you can guess what kind of “silliness” I’m talking about here) are generally ignored, snubbed, or just smashed into oblivion by some high-level player that doesn’t like the way they talk.
And in Aetolia the social hierarchy is everything. In a game where every system is affected and dependent on other players, being intelligent is the minimum requirement for survival. To actually succeed requires acumen. You don’t have to play a ruthless political rung-climber – after all there were dozens of organizations run by hundreds of very different people – but schmoozing is a part of it. Aetolia is not a game in which you can have no friends, because if you don’t have friends then all you have are enemies. And that’s a terrible position in which to find ones self in Aetolia.
When I logged into Aetolia for the first time (using a Telnet client!), I had a WPM count of around thirty. Besides being a completely foreign design, I couldn’t even keep up with the pace of normal conversation between players. There was a “newbie” channel, which I utilized constantly. Though guilds were player-run, there was an automated system for joining them, so you didn’t have to beg entry – the first time. I found that because class was tied to guild, anyone in the same class was pushed into a sort of comradery with members of the same class. There’s a political position within each guild called Head of Novices, and its their job to acclimate each new member with the intricacies of Aetolia. Looking back, I know I bugged my first Head to death. I must have looked very much like one of those players that we all secretly agreed had no chance in hell of lasting. I was ignorant. I was slow. But I was fascinated.
Through all its strangeness and eccentricities I stuck with it, plugging away, learning the systems and the lingo and how to cut corners. These were things that every player of a new and complex game has to acclimate himself with, but between these things something else was going on, something that seems inevitable when you describe the game as I have here – I was becoming emotionally invested.
I don’t mean invested in the work I had done on my character or the time I had spent gathering gear or “loot” (very little of that exists in Aetolia, remember). I was becoming invested in my characters. When I was complimented by a higher-up, I felt a genuine sense of pride. And when someone killed my character, sometimes for no reason at all, I felt anger bordering on rage, and terribly embarrassed for having been beaten. Over time the relationships my character garnered with other characters became my relationships. Silly it probably was, but I fell in love with these characters. The nature of the game made it difficult to distinguish where my character ended and I began.
Of course this was happening to most other players as well. The official forum was often the place where In-Character tensions boiled over into Out-Of-Character hatred. Lines were constantly being drawn, erased, redrawn. If you associated with certain players out of the game, you could expect to be ostracized by certain people and organizations in game. I know people that started playing Aetolia as best friends and to this day don’t speak to each other, over something that happened in the game. In a game that requires you to spend hours essentially being another person, and where there are real consequences for failure, and where these consequences are almost always at the hands of another player, it becomes easy to insert yourself into your character’s mind.
And at this point the character’s story becomes yours. There is no “character” anymore: only you. Their triumphs are yours, as well as their failures, and the awful things they do to achieve in Aetolia; their loves and fears and hopes aren’t theirs. Neither is their shitty behavior, or general dickishness, or perhaps a proclivity to lie, or cheat, or steal, or betray. That’s all you.
It was all me. I was young, and terribly awkward face-to-face. In Aetolia, as I met people and spoke to them outside the game, I experienced something I’d never experienced before: real social interaction. In Aetolia, online, I could be whoever I wanted to be, and as I played more I began to understand how to write my persona. I could lie my way into social circles. I wasn’t some fat little nobody flunking out of high school. I was charming. I was articulate. I had a group of friends and a group of enemies, and these things were the only things that mattered. It was my world, because my own life at the time was so very dull and disappointing.
As I came out of my shell (and this had real-world parallels; I lost a ton of weight, began to run, got a girlfriend and generally started living my life as a real person), I found I also had the tendency to be an asshole. I could be manipulative, cajoling and charming when it suited me, or puling and whiny when it didn’t. I lied a great deal, and my treatment of the women in my life was less than exemplary. Actually, that’s not being honest – I was awful to women, and there is no rationalizing that. I was over-emotional and selfish, and acted very much like the late-teenager I was.
I’m not proud of these things, but they’re what my time in this game revealed about me. As much as I tried to be a character, my nasty little habits always surfaced. I was a greasy little thing, but I was so good at writing, one of the few things that differentiates you in Aetolia, that I fooled everyone. For a time.
Seven years is a long time to do anything, especially something as emotionally charged as Aetolia. It began to wear on me. The things that had happened to me (and it was fully me by this point; the line between myself and my character had been erased), the things I had done to others, sat with me. It made me despondent. I went through long periods of time where I’d be completely inconsolable; I wouldn’t answer the phone or the door. I’d barely eat. I’d get drunk and try to contact old friends, old loves, and tell them that I was sorry for the things I’d done, for how I’d acted. Though I was barely in my twenties, I felt the weight of years. I felt guilty and lonely and afraid that one day I would alienate myself from everyone.
The more I played Aetolia, the heavier it all felt. Each new indignity, every nasty little lie, fed my guilt. I fell in love with a woman and I lost her, and she’ll forever remain a scar that, though buried by time and grinning denial, I’ll carry to my grave. I had become just as shitty and lonely in real life as I was in the game; the story I was telling had become my own, and it was the saddest I’d ever heard. I tried to “quit” Aetolia. but always came back. As lonely as I was with the game, I was even more lonely without the validation of the only people I thought could understand me, even though half of them hated my guts.