In hindsight, it was a rather curious scene.
Sixty-three elves, dwarves, half-orcs and heaven knows what else, all standing around a misty clearing in front of a lone human. Some sat on a series of wooden couches mis-matched with the natural surroundings, others next to the edge of a precarious set of cliffs that dropped away into a bottomless abyss marking the edges of the space. As they talked amongst themselves, a beam of pure light appeared from the heavens as another figure arrived – the count now reaching sixty-four, an important number – and the figures all gathered round as the newcomer stepped forward and held out a staff.
How did we get here?
The story begins almost two years before, some months before the start of my second year in university. I had just been the victim of an episode of traumatic violence – the kind that puts a rather sudden stop on one’s life – and while my physical wounds healed quickly, the psychological ones were still very raw and deep. One thing led to another, and after a series of similar and unfortunate shocks in the weeks that followed, my mind simply couldn’t take it anymore and I entered into a period of severe and prolonged PTSD.
It’s strange, looking back on it all now and seeing how bad it was in those first days. Even though there was no rational basis for it, I was so assured that someone was going to come inside my room and kill me at any given moment that I couldn’t sleep at all, and I spent most of my days hiding under the covers of my bed, reading books. Imagine the moment you’re about to stand up and give a speech in front of a huge crowd, except the feeling is much stronger, and it doesn’t stop – not for a second, not for a minute – for at least several months.
Over time, the sensation improved to the point where I could step outside my bed and my room, but the boundaries of my comfort were still confined to my home. I had read all the books on my shelf, played the few games that I’d owned, and was quickly running out of material to get through the day. There was no social media, no streaming or online content; our home only had a single internet connection, and downloads were metered to the point where it was expensive to do anything online.
I don’t quite remember what got me on to it, but one day, I heard about an online server running one of the role-playing games I enjoyed. One originally designed for single play, but modified to create an entire persistent world that anyone could join. Most importantly, run by our ISP so that it wouldn’t be metered. There would be other people – other players – and other rules and places, and I didn’t know what to expect.
It’s name – Nordock.
One evening, half out of curiosity, I created a character and joined.
I was immediately hooked.
Unlike the standard version of the game, you couldn’t press pause or save your position, you couldn’t re-load or restart. If you opened a menu, the action kept going in the background without you whether you wanted it to or not. If you logged out in the middle of a fight to avoid a crippling blow, quite often, logging back in a day or even several days later placed you right back where you were to get immediately swamped. And if you died, you had to pay a hefty price in terms of gold and experience, and you paid it, no questions asked.
In short, the stakes were very high.
It wasn’t just the stakes, however, but the highs as well. Magic items were rare, and certain ones became coveted because encountering one was almost as rare as winning the lottery. You could go for days, months, even years without finding one of these character-defining items, and gifting them to others or finding them in the field was a real achievement.
The server had its rough edges, too. After all, it was an ad-hoc world that someone had created well before the days of the MMORPG, and the rules were, to say the least, very casually put together. Even if you encountered one of these mythical items, for example, it was still surprisingly easy to lose. For example, monsters (and sometimes other characters) could disarm you, leaving your precious weapon lying there for anyone to take, or if the server reset while they lay there, they were gone forever. Other times, some of the less well-intentioned characters might simply steal them or gang up to kill you in the wilds, and the moment you stepped outside the protective gates of the portal, you were very much on your own.
Despite the frequent horrors and the glitches, we still teamed up and braved the wilds, exploring the farthest reaches (ah, the elemental planes…) and sharing knowledge about the risks we found there (someone accidentally spawned a super dragon on the road to Tobaro; stay very, very far away). We risked our lives for each other, we raced across the world to rescue fallen comrades and retrieve their items before a reset, and most important of all, sometimes, we just talked.
Every once and again, usually in the late hours of the night, someone would begin talking. Perhaps you’d just raised them from the dead, run into them in the wilds, or finished an encounter that was just a little too close for comfort. The beginning was always the same – a slight pause, then a question about something other than the events at hand – the real world – and it would all begin.
In the end, we were all there for reasons other than just the adventures. Some of us were insecure and just wanted to find acceptance. Some of us were troubled young men and women in the real world, and this was the one place where someone was willing to sit down with them and talk, one person to another. Others again to have a good time, to set up crazy tasks and bring us all together in ways we couldn’t have imagined on our own.
We were a group.
All good things, however, must one day come to an end. When the time came to graduate from university, I accepted an offer in Japan and had to leave the country. After two years of adventures, making friends and helping one another through some difficult times, an end date was in sight and I had to leave it all behind. Word spread quickly, and one afternoon, one of the other players asked me to be online at a specific time.
In the minutes before that moment, an array of thoughts ran through my mind. Of the adventures we had run, the friends I had made along the way and the difficult times we had helped one another through. We weren’t always there for one another, and we weren’t always perfect, but we’d tried. The help and acceptance we found so hard to find outside in the real world came naturally here, and even though the lands we ran through might not be real, our memories of them were.
I logged on, and waited in the gateway to the world where we always came to meet as one player after another slowly assembled and the count reached sixty four, the maximum capacity. That rag-tag band of mismatched would-be heroes in the clearing? They were my friends. And that human was me.
As we assembled there that final time and shared what words we could, I realised I no longer feared the outside world quite as much as I once did, that their help had helped me, too. Their camaraderie, their trust, and the kindness they showed me that night gave me the strength step back out into the world and face the adventures that awaited there as well.
So when they handed me that staff, did I cry?
You bet I did.