I have a hobby, a perverse pastime, a secret that I feel I need to share.

I load up old games and walk around in their empty online servers.

I came upon this hobby by accident. The game was Deus Ex. Lauded for its single player experience, I had always neglected its multiplayer component, because it seemed a little … weird. Eleven years after its release, having revisited the single player several times, I decided to give the multiplayer one last chance. Browsing the sparsely populated server list, I joined the first map that piqued my interest: “DXMP_AbandonedCity, 0/16 players.”

I find it absurd that someone would load up this 11 year old game expecting to play a round or two of mediocre deathmatch.

The map is immediately reminiscent of Deus Ex‘s somber urban spaces. It’s essentially a self-contained city street occupied by a grid of rectangular buildings. Thick grey clouds loom above, and the New York City skyline illuminates the night. The server is entirely empty so, lacking anything else to do, I snoop around.

I come across a blue-lit room furnished bizarrely with two office desks at odd angles, a large electrical generator, a globe and stacks of metal barrels. Outside, an iron staircase leads to a dead-end room where an ornate Baroque dining chair faces another electrical generator. Nearby I find a missile warhead housed in a residential garage. Further along, a streetlamp in an alleyway flickers onto a giant cement crucifix. Ominous. By themselves these kinds of props would typically go some way to increase the realism of the space, but here their juxtaposition just seems ridiculous. In terms of the standards of professional level design, the map ranks pretty low. One of the buildings, an empty art gallery, is signposted with caution tape reading: “Abandoned Buliding [sic].” In one sense it’s just badly made, but treated as a mood piece, I find it utterly masterful.

As I’m snooping around it strikes me that the setting of the map – an abandoned city – forms the perfect metaphor for the silent desertion of the server itself. The figurative and the literal precisely overlap, and it’s wonderfully unsettling.
Wandering around this badly-made empty old map feels like one of the most atmospheric gaming experiences I’ve had in a very long while. Things appear more or less normal on the surface but upon closer inspection, everything seems subtly out of place and oddly malevolent.

As I’m indulging in these particularly lofty ruminations, another player logs on.

Roused into action, I do my best to defend myself from volleys of rockets as my superior (invisible) opponent dances around me, switching through the appropriate augmentations with ease. Several respawns later – perhaps noting my reluctance (or total inability) to fight back – the action eventually subsides. Positioned on opposite ends of the map, I use the lull as an opportunity to ask what’s on my mind: “Hey, how come you’re playing this old game?”

I find it absurd that someone would load up this 11 year old game expecting to play a round or two of mediocre deathmatch, especially when the single-player was the jewel inDeus Ex’s crown. Why aren’t they playing Minecraft or CoD or Hello Kitty Online.?

Why aren’t I playing Minecraft or CoD or Hello Kitty Online?

They answer: “Because it’s a good game.” And while I can’t disagree, I just find it amazing that people might still be playing this.

It saddens me that these worlds are becoming steadily forgotten, but it also makes them all the more exciting to explore.

It’s curious how the impulse to “play” the game falls away without the frantic shots of your team-mates urging you on, without the burgeoning newness of the game waiting to be discovered and without a brand new ranking system pressing you to try your best. In old abandoned spaces such as this, chance encounters with other players turn you both into wayfarers with a mutual love for the same territory. You’re more inclined to treat other players as people rather than merely as targets.

I come to realize that I rarely reminisce about gameplay specifically; recalling past frags or victories evokes very little in me. It’s the beauty of these game worlds – the wastelands of Mar Sara, the still lakes of Na Pali and the brooding back alleys of Hell’s Kitchen – that brings syrupy tears of nostalgia to my eye. I’m reminded of Tale of Tales‘ assertion that “The game structure of rules and competition stands in the way of expressiveness.” I presume that they meant this foremost as a design principle, but it’s possible to understand the truth of it when rules and competition disappear through the abandonment of these old online worlds. This mass departure of players encourages a repurposing of the game’s space towards the simpler ends of exploration and aesthetic appreciation. My experience of the Abandoned City felt more atmospheric, richer and nostalgic than it ever could have with wave after wave of NSF and UNATCO troops slaughtering their way through it. This is not just true of Deus Ex, but of so many of my old games.

When I recently loaded up Half-Life Deathmatch Classic I was shocked at what I found: 2 out of 20 servers were populated by a grand total of 7 players. Joining them is like stumbling in on some odd, ancient ritual. When you ask them why they’re playing such an old game, they often fail to see what’s so strange about it. It saddens me that these worlds are becoming steadily forgotten, but it also makes them all the more exciting to explore. It feels transgressive. I like the idea that another player like myself might log on and wonder what on earth I am doing as I slowly wander around admiring those gritty old textures.

In 2007, Vivendi shut down the master servers for Tribes, making it essentially impossible to play online. In response, the community made a patch for a substitute master server, TribesNext, bringing the game back online. While the legality of the project is questionable, no one really seems bothered, considering Vivendi made Tribes 1 and 2 free to download in 2004. I myself am overjoyed they resurrected it, not so that I can compete with the uber-hardcore (and, alas, the cheaters) who are still playing 10 years on, but so that I can jetpack around the multitude of empty servers, drinking in beautiful landscapes from my childhood all the while knowing I’m connected to the network and that my avatar is, in a sense, “out there” soaring above those hills.

I think of the sheer quantity of empty game servers that currently exist, silent and forgotten, in the network.

Despite the fact that these digital spaces don’t typically decay over time, the feeling is not totally unlike exploring a real life ghost town. They share the same promise of the unexpected. Cultural Geographer Tim Edensor describes ghost towns and how they signal “limitless possibilities for encounters with the weird, with inscrutable legends inscribed on notice boards and signs, and with peculiar things and curious spaces which allow wide scope for imaginative interpretation.”(Edensor, T. (2005) Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality. Oxford: Berg, p.128) In this sense, their beauty lies not just in the haunting effect that their desertion has on the formal qualities of the space, but in the gaps in which we might imagine the countless hours that other players spent inhabiting them and the meanings behind objects and signs. What was the map maker trying to convey with that ominous crucifix? How many people spent how many hours of their lives running, jumping, sneaking and happily blasting their way through these buildings and streets?

This highlights an important distinction: There’s a difference between playing alone online and simply playing offline, even when the experience is ostensibly the same. In the networked age, the computer and the console often present us with a paradoxical form of sociality, where we are highly connected – interacting with various people across the globe – but at the same time solitary, sitting in a room staring at a screen. Twisting this theme, these spaces allow us the rare experience of being connected to the network and yet, for once, peacefully alone within it.

As I sit here writing this, I think of the sheer quantity of empty game servers that currently exist, silent and forgotten, in the network. How long does Deckard Cain stand alone, waiting for someone to just stay a while and listen? How heavy does the dust settle in de_dust? And how much heavier will it settle in, say, ten or twenty years?

I don’t really know. I imagine there’s a lot to say about how these spaces are a symptom of a culture intent on always producing greater, newer experiences. I’m sure there’s also something rather philosophical to say about the ways in which we conceive of these digital spaces existing (or not) when they aren’t being accessed. But I almost don’t care.
What I care about is the deep sense of beauty and awe I have at the image of thousands of virtual ghost towns, forgotten and abandoned, each with their own figurative tumbleweed blowing through them.

Tom Rubira is trudging around empty MechWarrior servers admiring the scenery.

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