We can smell the advent of participatory content on the changing winds of our increasingly open-source world. In a recent article in The Escapist, Chris Dahlen wrote about a future where moviegoers contribute to cinematic franchises and worlds. Our participation may someday determine the direction of a sequel; rather than speculate and fantasize on forums about our beloved characters’ futures, we may someday be able to helm those destinies ourselves.

Someday. But what if it’s already happening?

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In a nearly forgotten niche of the internet, in AOL’s once-booming member chat rooms, open-source gaming has been going on for years. Users have taken the plotlines of popular media and become those characters, inserted their own, invented sequels and visualized new geography. They’re not intrepid designers; they’re more like novelists. They call themselves roleplayers, but they’ve got no avatar, no pen and paper, and hardly any rules. It’s the domain now of an enclave of the few, though it was once a bustling pastime. Now, like mad Nero in a burnt-out Rome, they remain behind, overlooking the city they built and helped destroy.

Its heyday was the late ’90s – 1997, to be exact. Square-Enix was still Squaresoft, and they’d just released Final Fantasy VII. That game is famous, or perhaps infamous, today for bringing a new army of gamers to the table. Starry-eyed and energized, this new generation of RPG-lovers would demand Japanese CGI, lengthy full-motion video and stormy, emotional storylines forever after. The love for FFVII was in some circles so great that the game itself could not contain it. The most devoted spilled into these corners of AOL’s chat software, which was enjoying its peak popularity at the time.

It wasn’t enough to talk about it, these new Final Fantasy fans wanted to continue to live in the world. It wasn’t enough to love the characters; they wanted to become them.

Thus, Final Fantasy VII roleplay on AOL – usually referred to simply as “FFRP” – was born. It started innocuously enough as an extension on somewhat common chat behavior: the interspersion of action-based descriptors with chat text. It’s still not unusual to personify the dialog onscreen with small human movements, often written bracketed with some sort of punctuation mark to differentiate it from spoken text – like ::nod:: or *yawns*.

The FFRPers saw potential here. They had Cloud, Aeris and Sephiroth screen names, and they could make those names behave as they wished. Chat users began a gradual evolution away from themselves and into the FFVII world. The member profiles, once tidy fields of personal facts like age and occupation, became more like character dossiers. With the advent of HTML, users could ignore AOL’s provided fields entirely and create an elaborate back story or their own prosaic description of the game’s events.

Then, a funny thing began to happen: As their personifications of beloved characters became more absolute, they rarely spoke out-of-character at all. Those one- or two-word action descriptors became increasingly elaborate. They described the environs, their character’s entrance into the room, what they were wearing. The subtlest shift of glance and tone was laid out alongside the language. In real life, they were mostly teenagers and young adults, up all night on their PCs. But online, in a chat room called Seventh Heaven Bar, they were Tifa, Cloud and Barrett, together again.

The descriptors became so verbose they strained the limits of AOL’s chat field. One line became several, and novellas became the norm. In a room of 20 users, sometimes each waited in turn for the other to finish. More often than not, though, entrances and actions overlapped. Like a guild raid in World of Warcraft, it looks chaotic to an outsider, but familiar to regulars. They became expert in keeping it in order.

Still, conflict began to bubble up as the group chafed against the bonds of canon. In a room of three Rufus ShinRas, which one do the Turks obey? Isn’t Aeris supposed to die? And can we have Super Saiyans in FFVII?

It gets a little more complicated when you add in the fact that they’d invented a battle system. Based on a simple dice-rolling macro, no one could quite agree on the rules of use. Hundred-strong guilds formed to govern such issues. At any given time, there were multiple ShinRa Electric Power Companies; one run like a Communist military stronghold, another like a frat house of rogue degenerates. In the battle for individual recognition in the noise, things got interesting.

It was a free-for-all, a constant struggle to see whose ideas were the most interesting, whose characters were the most original. The genetically-cloned son of Sephiroth and Aeris? Done. Tseng? Resurrected, five times over. It was beautiful chaos, and soon nobody cared about Meteor, Materia or the Planet. It was their world; FFVII was only living in its fringes.

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There were marathons, there were all-night wars and there was lovemaking, as Zack sneaked off to a private chat room with the SOLDIER commander’s Chocobo-racing daughter. The city of Midgar was destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again. New cities flourished, each with an elaborate role in the amorphous political climate. Fan art was requisitioned, scanned, uploaded and catalogued on guild sites. During those times, users often spent anywhere from five to 15 straight hours online.

When the son of Sephiroth broke up with his redheaded barmaid girlfriend, the real-life girl tracked down the other player’s telephone number and phoned him at night, weeping. They ended up moving in together – in the real world. A young man who played the indisputable leader of a prominent ShinRa faction was arrested for some disciplinary trouble in school, and in his one quintessential jailhouse phone call, he telephoned not his parents, but his roleplaying lieutenant. “What will happen to the ShinRa?” he cried in a panic. FFRPers loved their own characters even more than the canonical creations that beckoned them to this world.

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The years went by, and Square released Final Fantasy VIII, then IX, then X, and still they played on. A new console generation arrived, and they were unfazed. A proper Final Fantasy MMOG, Final Fantasy XI, arrived and precious few of them were even interested. It wasn’t real enough; it wasn’t their world. Even the 2006 release of a true canonical sequel to FFVII, the Advent Children film, made few contributions to the world. The players didn’t need Advent Children to tell them what happened after the end of the game; they were light years ahead already.

But being so far ahead didn’t spare them from entropy and burnout. Sprawl and disorder began to corrode their paradise. It became easier simply to chat among themselves than to roleplay. After all, all of these users embodied these characters and inhabited this world seeking somewhere to belong, and many of them began to realize they needn’t try so hard or type so much to do so. The FFRP world’s hardcore base retaliated in a backlash. They reorganized, they firmed the rules, they created ranks, and the veterans began to dictate to the newbies.

Chaos always seeks order – and in anarchy, an authority figure will always emerge. In FFRP, several did, but these few, once sampling a taste of power, only began to spread the locus of control, arbitrating what sorts of actions were permissible. They allowed actions congruent to their vision but censored conflicting impulses. An assassin character crept up behind a politico, aimed a gun at his head and pulled the trigger – and all play rumbled to a screeching halt and devolved into furious argument, as the politico’s authoritarian roleplayer argued that such an absolute gesture could not be permitted and must be stricken from the record.

Characters stormed out. Whereas before, the only hiatus in play for many was when their parents suspended their computer privileges, people replaced their elaborate character profiles with ranting screeds. “Goodbye forever,” they harshly declared, though they lingered on the periphery, watching and hoping for the return of the good old days. Factions shattered, and the shards mostly dissolved.

By 2007 – nearly a decade after the release of the game that started it all – things had fallen into ruin, leaving behind a world that no longer resembled the one from whence it came by any measure. There are still FFVII roleplay chat rooms on AOL, silent bastions where a few of the ancient veterans quietly lurk, keeping the faith. There are SOLDIERs with no general, a crumbling dictatorship with no revolutionaries to fight. And in scarce corners of the web, ancient guild websites still declare their supremacy over the others, as the winds of digital ghosts blow through the world they built and destroyed.

Leigh Alexander is Editor of WorldsInMotion.biz and writes for Destructoid, Gamasutra, and her blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com

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