For a while there, I was part of an elite search and destroy team. We wore all black, flew without a flag. It was our job to find small villages of people, potential threats to our empire, and snuff them out before they had a chance to develop into a real problem.
We were a grim manifestation of the dark, imperialistic side of a socialist society, our existence was tolerated because we helped keep a status quo only a handful of people actually appreciated. Rumors flew about us. We were the secret police. Some sort of rogue Gestapo of bored killers, waylaying people too weak to defend themselves. We were a guild’s hit squad.
Shadowbane‘s early days were one of the grandest social experiments ever applied on a massive scale. Guilds had to form gargantuan nations in order to survive, relying on members and vassal guilds to generate income, which was used to fund the day to day upkeep of cities, which became home to hundreds of people. I was in a very large guild, one of the holdovers from beta who perfected city building two months before the game went live, who had a head start coming out of the gate, who were bent on keeping everyone else from being as rich and safe as they were.
We were proof that socialism works. We’d provide a place to hunt and level and get you all the gear you needed. All you had to do was surrender the majority of the income you made while fighting in guild territory. It was a perfect set up. The city grew rich nearly instantaneously, and its inhabitants were well provided for. Our empire was growing, our ranks salty and well-fed. While other guilds were struggling to build walls around their city to protect it from harm, we were marching 20-deep into their land, obliterating anything in our way, like a plague of flesh-eating locusts. And that’s when things fell apart.
The upper brass decided it was time to exploit the fact our enemies were licking their wounds, and began swallowing up the larger guilds as vassals, and leaving the remainder to flounder while our great society shone brightly on their world maps. And it made sense; even with our experience and efficiency, it took almost two months for our city to be finely tuned into perfection. Losing a city in Shadowbane was the equivalent of permanent death for a guild leader. Even if you could rebuild, most of your vassal guilds were loyal to your city, not to you; they’d go on to bigger, better, still standing cities, and you’d be at the bottom rung of a ladder that’s very hard to climb. Leaving your city, your status symbol, your mark on the world, to something as random as a battle was just crazy.
And so began a long time of peace across a game world whose premise was built upon total destruction. A few upstarts sprouted up, and my group was sent in to harass and demoralize them until they succumbed to the larger guild’s standard. It was peace, utopia … boredom. Guilds began dropping like flies. Players quit the game in droves, because there was nothing to do other than make new cities rich and spread like wildfire across the globe in a wave of Pax Shadowbana.
On one hand, we were witnessing some sort of online gaming world peace, where no one was without hunting grounds and opportunity abounded. On the other, we realized that world peace is really boring.
We somehow made the game more perfect than the real world, but we also managed to scare away anyone who dared oppose such a notion with the threat of a strike force capable of hammering opposing guilds cities 24/7 until they lost the will to exist. Our efficiency was our downfall; we were a perpetual motion machine that spun so fast it broke its axle.
The whole episode was a romantic duality of what can happen when players and guilds are given the keys to a universe. Shadowbane, from the very beginning, opened the door to guilds to expand their hierarchy everywhere, and even enforce it on others. Massive conglomerations of players rose to the occasion, uberguilds infamous in other games finally achieving dominance over one another. Until the dust settled, the chaos was something you could envelope yourself within. Wars popped up over insults, over out of game arguments, over anything. It was feudal Europe, but when our Renaissance came, we couldn’t even burn “heretics” because of a non-aggression pact with opposing guilds.
But it wasn’t all bad. Even amidst a crippling peace, the Machiavellian political rivalries glowed with the brightness of a thousand suns. Watching it from the sidelines made me reread The Prince half a hundred times. Seeing artists of negotiation and diplomacy work their magic more than justified the lasting peace many people had to endure.
And it mirrored much of the real world. During the Cold War, Soviet Premiere Mikhail Gorbachev would consistently position his underlings in a surprisingly cliquish manner: The ones who were in his favor would be close to him whenever in public, while the ones who angered him were on the periphery. Whenever I attended guild meetings and listened to gossip, one of the higher ups would do the same thing. Either he was an International Relations major with a penchant for obscure Russian political scheming, or obedience is rewarded in the same manner, wherever you go.
As the server population dwindled, the cliques grew tighter and more frenzied, the massive hierarchy crystallizing in a super saturated state; there was just too much drama for a community this small. It was only a matter of time before the unstable solution fell apart, and a couple of friends and I set out to be the ones to destroy Shadowbane‘s Perestroika.
It wasn’t just because we were bored; sure, we were, and so was everyone else. But if it was just boredom, we’d have quit. No, we wanted to undermine our guild because we were tired of being the bad guys. Their bad guys. When you’re charged with identifying and prioritizing which guilds to destroy, you inevitably wind up playing a cat and mouse game with their defenders. Our Gestapo was a team of stealthy characters, relying on being able to infiltrate cities unseen. When we’d actually come across someone able to not only find us, but kill us repeatedly, we made the mistake of fraternizing with them. A friendly tell quickly turned into conversations, and before we knew it, we started liking the “enemy” more than we liked our “friends.”
It started simply. When our guild set its sights on a group of people we liked, we frantically sent messages to them, warning them of their impending doom. We led groups of warriors into well defended areas. We wouldn’t attack our friends, and we’d take a dive against their low level members.
We did nearly anything to give the “good guys” a chance, while our imperialist horde tried yet again to justify their existence by snuffing out someone else. Sure, we were traitors to the guild that raised us, but we also knew we were doing something no one else could do: giving the server a chance. It grew beyond guilds; this was injecting a little anarchy into a perfect status quo. And damn it, it felt right. Honorable. Give the enemy a chance to face you on equal footing. What’s more, it was working.
A guild a continent away suddenly looked a lot like us. Their city had walls, fully stocked vendors, and high level raiding parties attacking our established cities on that side of the world. My cadre tittered over IMs. Finally, a challenge, a fair fight, something to do. But then someone posed the big question I hadn’t yet begun to entertain: Who do we fight for?
We’d been trying to inject some life into the world, and managed to plant seeds of friendship everywhere. We were about to get into a knockdown, drag out fight that we helped brew, but we lost any sense of allegiance to anyone but each other. Our only binding was a terrible secret, and it only served to corner us into having to choose between friends on either side of a war. Out ourselves for what we were, or completely obliterate the opposition and return the server to the boring utopia it was before the revolution we helped support started. We were some weird inversion of victorious revolutionaries; we devolved happy equilibrium in favor of happy violent bloodletting, and we tasted remorse for the first time. We may have been the first small group of players ever to actually change an entire server in an MMOG, and we learned what type of gravity that can have, first hand. Gods of a universe, unable to control the monster they created.
The argument raged for a few days. The fight was just beginning to develop, the new guild not quite organized enough for a run at one of our major outposts. Some of us reeled in their anarchism, while others understood we were the only hope the new guild had. I was going with majority, caught up in the situation, blown away by what we were able to accomplish. Did the developers plan this? Was this part of their vision? A handful of guys with too much time on their hands tipping delicate scales and shattering guilds? It didn’t matter which side we chose, because we already won. This was our war. The rest of the server was just a group of pawns to the game our mutual boredom created.
And that’s when it hit me. It was time to go. Like some chaotic notion that vanishes in the wind, I logged out with no intention of returning. We’d never be able to do what we did twice, and actually engaging in the climactic battle means our beautiful creation would die, and we’d be part of what killed it. I couldn’t bear losing the war – not in the traditional sense, but in the way that a victor meant the fun was over. I was abandoning the monster I engineered, sure, but it was still alive, frozen on a server whose outcome has yet to be decided, at least by me. In a way, I’d reverted to the same mentality of the people governing the server. Losing everything I worked for was akin to erasing myself from existence, and I never wanted to understand how the people who brought about the boredom felt. So I took myself out of the race, and left them to their great war.
Joe Blancato is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist Magazine, in addition to being the Founder of waterthread.org.