The following story was originally published in Issue 3 of Kill Screen Magazine, which you can purchase online. Special thanks to Chris Dahlen for being a superstar editor.
It’s summer, 2000. Camp’s busy and bustling; all the boys are out playing sports or getting food or hanging with the girls. But not me. I’m sitting inside my bunk, doodling in a notebook, because the day before camp started I’d first set up my own Multi-User Dungeon—or MUD—a virtual world that I could shape at my discretion. Caught up in the creative process, I spent that entire summer outlining maps, dreaming up creatures, and writing interactive stories. I was hooked. At the time, of course, I had no idea how addictive it would be to build a world. I had no idea how deeply it would affect me, or how many relationships would be created and ruined by my simple little text-based game. All I knew was that I had a second life, and it was wonderful.
So on the last day of that long summer at camp, I hugged my parents, jumped in the car, and endured the two-hour ride home. When we got there, I barreled straight up to the computer and logged into my MUD, where I typed up my ideas and unleashed them onto the virtual world. Years later, as I grew more cynical about MUDs and their communities, I still remembered how fond that moment was—the moment where I started making something that seemed real, that other people would enjoy.
The moment where I discovered the need to create.
It started in 1999, when I was twelve years old. Back then, to me, the Internet consisted of little more than AOL chat rooms and the occasional videogame walkthrough. So when my friend Todd suggested that I check out the online game he played, I wanted to hear more.
A MUD, he explained to me, is a text-based virtual world—like Zork, but you can interact with other people online. Sometimes MUDs are based on pre-existing franchises, like Harry Potter or Dragon Ball Z. Other times, they’re entirely original creations with their own plots, characters, and extensive worlds to explore. There are MUDs for roleplaying, MUDs for hack-and-slash combat, MUDs for self-proclaimed “furries” and even MUDs designed specifically for hardcore cyber-sex, which to twelve-year-old me was both hilarious and baffling.
This MUD, Todd said, is a player-killing game not unlike Counter-Strike or Team Fortress, set in the universe of Aliens vs. Predator.
I was a huge fan of Infocom interactive fiction games like Enchanter and Planetfall, so I didn’t find a game without graphics too jarring. At the time, I didn’t know that text MUDs had already started evolving into MMORPGs like Ultima Online, or maybe, like most gamers, I would have chosen a virtual world with graphics. Maybe the last decade of my life would have turned out differently.
“Cool,” I said. “Where do I sign up?”
Todd showed me how to register and soon enough I had my first character—a marine named Shado. (Shadow was taken.) I could move him around using cardinal directions—north, south, east, west, down, up—and interact with the environment using simple commands like “look” and “take.”
I spent a few weeks on AvPMUD, and it evolved from just another timewaster into my Internet home. Whenever I was on the computer, I’d log in, talk to cyber-friends, and kill as many other players as I could.
But it wasn’t enough. Months later, once the novelty of AvPMUD had worn off, I started getting restless. As I traveled around the virtual world, I noticed little flaws in the MUD’s gameplay that I wished I could fix. Ideas for new monsters and maps would pop into my head, and soon enough I was brainstorming entire systems and worlds. Just playing the game was getting boring—I wanted to design something of my own.
So I decided to create a MUD.
Building a text-based virtual world requires two skills: writing and coding. I’d always been a writer, so penning text for my game wasn’t too tough. The programming was trickier, but I soon found hundreds of code snippets and fully-formed MUDs to hack apart and use at my discretion. I learned C++ via trial-and-error, by reading the code and figuring out how it all fit together.
Once I’d sown together the basic shell of my MUD, I had to pick a theme. Like a Hollywood executive, I figured that a pre-existing franchise would draw a larger audience, so I decided to go with something I knew. I toyed around with design schemes for a Diablo MUD, a Mega Man MUD, and even a Final Fantasy Tactics-based MUD, but nothing clicked.
My game spent some months in limbo until one idle summer day before camp, when, while digging around in my attic for a sleeping bag, I rediscovered an old RPG that I hadn’t played in a while. Called Suikoden, it was niche and wonderful, with a beautiful story and a character-collecting mechanic that was better than Pokemon’s. Best of all, it had a persistent setting: the game and its sequels all took place in a rich, vibrant world filled with recurring characters and history.
When SuikodenMUD finally opened to the public, five people showed up. It was a start.
According to Richard Bartle, co-developer of the original MUD, there are four types of online gamers: achievers (think: level grinders, Xbox achievement hunters); explorers (those who buy every DLC map-pack); socializers (the guy who won’t stop sending you pictures of his cat); and killers (that asshole camping your corpse). I fell into a fifth category: creators. My vice wasn’t loot-hunting or player-killing: it was coming up with new concepts for dungeons, creatures, quests, and combat systems. I loved the power, the control, the feeling of validation when a player enjoyed something I created. It was exhilarating.
The MUD was also my main extracurricular outlet. School was okay and all, but I was sick of regurgitating facts—I wanted to write fiction. I wanted to make people laugh. And think. I wanted them to experience the things that I’d designed, and to imagine an entire world based on my descriptions. I wanted to evoke emotions using nothing but words; with SuikodenMUD, I could do just that.
And the time that I had sunk into my game was paying off. Mere months after launch, I had a regular cadre of players. Loyal, addicted people who spent their spare time in my MUD—grinding for levels, hunting for loot, making friends and enemies. They didn’t pay me, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to be in charge.
It was a surreal experience. People were dedicating hours, days, weeks of their lives to a virtual playground of my creation, and I could treat them however I liked. Any time I felt particularly sadistic, all I’d have to do was type a few letters and I could silence, ban, or fuck with anyone’s avatars in any way I chose. On the MUD, I was in complete control. I was their God.
But the thing about playing God is that it’s kind of a headache. With every new player came a torrent of problems and responsibilities. Many of them would suck up to me, expecting freebies in exchange for flattery. Some would whine about one another, begging me to take sides in their disputes. A few would harass other players and expect me to let them get away with it. Others would just straight-up cheat.
No matter how hard they pushed, I had to keep my cool. I needed to be professional, right? If they didn’t like the way I handled my MUD, they would leave. And without players, I had nothing.
So I politely dismissed the suck-ups. I mediated conflicts between the whiners. I banned the cheaters. And slowly, gradually, my real life started to suffer. Some nights I wouldn’t hang out with friends because I had to tackle a tricky coding issue or design a new map. Piles of homework would stare at me from the floor while I sat at the computer, catering to my player-base. I would fall asleep in class after late-night building sessions.
I tried to delegate jobs to other people, but it didn’t work—I kept finding flaws in everything they did. Sometimes it’d be as minor as a typo, other times it might be a game-breaking bug—no matter what the problem was, I’d have to fix it myself. It was my world; I had to shoulder the mistakes.
Unfortunately, there were some mistakes I couldn’t fix.
Jen was cute and nerdy—I liked her the second I saw her. We started dating the summer after freshman year of high school, a time of awkward pubescence and confusion. I decided to invite her to SuikodenMUD—she could share the game with me, join my second life, immerse herself in my world. She dug it. We even got cyber-married.
Like any couple, we’d send each other emails. Gushy, mawkish stuff, filled with dull descriptions of how we’d spent our days at school or how much we cared about each other. Of course, I neglected to mention to Jen that these emails stayed in our virtual inventories for good.
One day, some players decided to gang up and kill Jen’s character so they could loot her inventory. They found the emails, posted them on the MUD’s public message board, and suddenly my personal life wasn’t so personal anymore.
I logged in to see people echoing my own words at me—quotes like “hey sugarbear” or “missed you so much today, when you getting online?” Then people would harass Jen on the MUD, trying to fool her into sharing more secrets or giving away details about our lives. Some would send us dirty messages or leave sexually explicit objects around SuikodenMUD for me to find.
I was completely powerless. I tried to suspend the offenders, but there were too many of them to stop. ’
So I decided to get revenge. I hunted down personal information about everyone who had attacked me, one by one, and spewed it back in a barrage of insults. If I couldn’t dig up dirt on someone, I’d make something up. The only way I knew how to stop people was to pummel them into submission.
Not long afterward, Jen and I broke up.
None of that stopped me. Personal relationships might come and go, I figured, but worlds would remain. Wasn’t I working on something bigger than myself? At that point, my MUD hosted several hundred players a day. The combined player-base was in the high thousands. Didn’t I owe all of those people my time and commitment, no matter what I was sacrificing? Even as I punished them for mocking me, I still felt responsible for their welfare. They were my virtual children who just didn’t know any better, who had to be taught a lesson.
Wasn’t that my job?
Over the next few days, as things settled down, people started logging back into SuikodenMUD as if nothing had happened.
That’s when I got it. These people weren’t real to me. We didn’t know one another. We didn’t really care about one another. We just shared the same game. Having a common interest didn’t make us friends.
So of course we wouldn’t hold grudges—what was the point? The players went back to playing and I went back to creating, because that was just how it was supposed to work. But a little seed of cynicism had been planted in the back of my mind, and it was growing fast.
Months later—several years after I first launched SuikodenMUD—I got a message in the middle of the night. I stumbled to the keyboard, rubbing my eyes, and opened my inbox to find an urgent email from Zeiden, my second-in-command.
“The MUD crashed,” he wrote. “I think I may have caused an infinite loop or something.”
I logged into the server, killed the loop, and rebooted to an earlier version of the code. Then I opened my browser and watched as the players reentered, grumbling about the downtime.
Grumbling. About the downtime. Instead of thanking me for getting up in the middle of the night for them, they were complaining that their playtime had been interrupted for a few hours. The ungrateful little shits.
But maybe it was my fault. Maybe, by being power-hungry and obsessive, I cultivated an abusive, love-hate relationship with my players. Maybe I deserved this.
I sent a message to Todd, who had quit playing MUDs a long time ago.
“You’re addicted,” Todd said.
“So what should I do?” I asked.
He was right. What the hell was I doing worrying about the livelihoods of people I’d never met? I had already wasted countless hourscreating a world that didn’t really matter. The words, the code, the community—eventually, they would all just be memories. Why was I wasting my time?
That night, for the first time in as long as I could remember, I went to sleep without thinking of MUDs.
I still log onto the old Aliens vs. Predator MUD once in a while—not to play, just to see how it’s doing. I watch the players and feel both pity and envy, like a recovering alcoholic watching patrons at a bar. Then I immediately log off.
Sometimes I get emails from my old players asking when SuikodenMUD will be back up. Some of them even offer their services to help me get it back online.
The code is sitting in a folder on my desktop. It takes every ounce of my willpower not to boot it back up again.