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My fingers trembled slightly as they hovered over the controls of a 30-ton mech, the last survivor of a four-unit lance charged with the defense of the city. The only sound was the intermittent voice of my remote operator, counseling patience while he scanned for signs of enemy movement. I had destroyed one of the two remaining invaders some minutes earlier, the result of far more luck than skill, but I was battered by the effort.

“Contact.” My operator, Alain, was calm and clipped. “Stand by.” My own readout showed nothing, but Alain was reliable and, I had to admit, better at this than I was. The seconds dragged as I waited. Then, suddenly and urgently, he spoke again. “Vector 300. Jump. Now! Now!” I hammered the jumpjet controls, launching almost vertically, up and over the tower that had shielded me from my opponent. Immediately, a flash appeared on my screen: The last enemy mech, at short range and unmoving. I panicked and launched an alpha strike while still in the air, a rookie mistake. You can’t hit anything in mid-jump.

My heat gauges went crazy, flashing red and screaming threats of automatic shutdown. I punched the override, but my jets cut out and I came down hard, damaging leg actuators. I couldn’t run from this fight now, even if I wanted to. I was desperately trying to pivot for another shot while I counted down the hard seconds until my weapons came back online when I noticed the smoldering hole where his torso used to be. Luck had dealt me one more high card – I had connected with everything, a critical hit that felled the enemy in a single, devastating blow. Alain was yelling something in my ear, and the voices of my previously-dead companions joined in, congratulating me. My hands were shaking even more, but I was elated. The hour was mine.

All these years later, that encounter remains one of the most vivid gaming experiences of my life. Few games before or since have been able to arouse such intense emotions and strangling pressure, not to mention the feeling of pure, unadulterated triumph at the moment of victory. What makes it all the more amazing is that the entire episode took place on a static screen of text: No flashy graphics, no pounding music, no voice chat, just white letters on a black screen, courtesy of the Battletech 3056 MUSE.

The original MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) was created in the late 70s, inspired by the success of Colossal Cave and its offshoots. Given the limitations of the technology of the era, the game was a considerable success, eventually growing so popular that its operation was restricted to nighttime hours because of the impact it had on the Essex University computer system, where it ran. In the mid-80s, renamed to British Legends, it ended up on CompuServe, where despite an apparent lack of interest and support on the part of company management, it had an astounding run that didn’t come to an end until December 1999.

Fairly quickly, MUD grew from a game to a genre, spawning a great number of imitators, not to mention MUSHes, MUSEs, MUCKs and various other Multi-User Acronyms along the way. Some of the new additions to the MU* family were dedicated to increased complexity in gameplay, while others focused on the social aspect of gaming, emphasizing role-playing and character interaction over conventional “treasure-and-experience” questing. Primitive, ASCII-based graphics appeared in some of the more advanced games, and a few were even able to incorporate sound.

But the heart of MUDs remained essentially unchanged over the years: Text-based worlds in which groups of gamers could share experiences and build communities, and in some cases, even have a direct impact on the direction of play as they became more experienced and involved, by adding rooms and entire new areas for others to explore. And while the evolution of the MUD has come to a virtual standstill compared to the emergence and growth of MMOGs and mainstream gaming, the genre endures. Hundreds of MUDs of all sizes and types continue to operate, many of them having been in existence for well over a decade, and what they lack in sheer numbers they make up for through the dedication of their players and supporters.

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As the progenitors of the modern MMOG, the impact of the MUD on contemporary gaming cannot be overstated. Everquest and World of Warcraft may be groundbreaking games, but in the same way that Diablo can be trace its lineage back to Rogue, so too did grinding in Azeroth and Norrath spring forth from the days of 300 bps modems and TELNET.

TELNET, you say? Oh, you kids these days. It stands for Telecommunications Network, and it’s one of the earliest network protocols developed for the internet. It also happens to be the method used by gamers to connect to MUDs back in those early days, and in fact Microsoft Windows users still have access to a TELNET client through the command prompt. (Vista owners will have to install it first, however, as Vista doesn’t include the TELNET client by default.) To see it in action, open a command prompt, type “telnet” and press enter; you’ll be greeted by a little piece of history in the form of a tiny cursor flashing against a black background. If you’re the adventurous sort, so to speak, try “telnet british-legends.com 27750” for a taste of the real thing.

Of course, it didn’t take long for people to figure out that TELNET wasn’t exactly designed with gaming in mind. As the popularity of MUDs grew along with the online population, the demand for something better led to the development of specialized clients like zMUD and MUD Master, with features ranging from color and extended ASCII character sets to customized scripting, automatic map generation and much more. MUD-specific extensions to the TELNET protocol known as MXPs were created to enhance gameplay, and some MUDs began offering pre-customized versions of popular clients or their own Java-based front-ends for players who want all the toys without any of the fuss.

It goes without saying that even the most advanced MUD clients can’t offer the graphical whiz-bang of modern MMOGs, but for fans of the genre this isn’t necessarily a weakness. Relying on rich, descriptive language to engage their audiences, MUDs can actually be a more immersive and memorable experience for players willing to embrace the concept. Nothing is more graphic than the mind’s eye, and the best MUDs take full advantage, generating unforgettable worlds with little more than a good turn of phrase.

MUDs aren’t for everyone, but they’re far more than just an anthropological curiosity; they offer a legitimate form of social gaming for people who are unready, or unable, to embrace the MMOG. Medievia, a popular and well-supported game running since 1992, is a great choice for gamers who want to get their feet wet, while those with a historical bent may be interested in trying the original MUD, which continues to operate and even supports browser-based play for people who aren’t quite sure what a command prompt is. New players need not fear; community is paramount to the success of these games, and veterans are usually friendly and helpful almost to a fault. For gamers willing to try something different, jumping into MUD might be just the antidote to the slow months of the waning summer season.

Andy Chalk was not shaking his fist and muttering about the kids on his lawn when he wrote this article.

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