Missing Memories Online

Missing Memories Online

Mike Grace muses on moments lost in time.

When did mum take your painting off the fridge?

Most of us had that one picture, poem or report card that was stuck to the fridge with a magnet. An encapsulated moment of you achieving something pure. It may have just been a red blob with eyes, your bronze swimming badge or a Hallmark-esque rhyme about a volcano and probably you’d be rather embarrassed if you saw it now. Doubly so if it was shown to your date on their first trip to the house. But it was something pure.

But if it went missing, what then? It’s not like you miss it, and it’s certainly not of any artistic value, but it was something that symbolized you. I mean, it may be that it just fell off, Mother needed the space for something else or the cat pawed it off, but it’s still missing and you want to know where it is.

And it’s during this frantic searching of everything you own that you find out that the school has come round and gathered all of your pictures up. They’ve left the odd one, but the ones that you treasured the most are gone. And there’s a dark plume of smoke coming up from the school. At the door, your friend asks you to put down the axe and think about it calmly for a second. “I mean, they own all the stuff, don’t they? You never really owned any of that stuff – just hired the use of their equipment. They’re perfectly within their rights to delete it.”

While an ageing record player plays The Noveltones, Left Bank Two, your childhood disappears into flames. Would we ever consider that “fair”?

People tend to overlook the fact that online games are fast becoming the transition point to adulthood. While children as young as 7 are squeaking through their first Call of Duty, it’s often not until they come into contact with an MMO/MOBA or MUD that the entire concept of Massive Multiplayer comes home.

In first person shooters, your interaction is usually limited to the guy supporting you and the other guy trying to kill you. In MMOs you might find that suddenly there’s an entire group of people with you. Two of them you quite fancy, one of them is just a clown, three of them are in this strange subgroup, and all of you have this huge world to explore. At first, the idea of actually talking to other people, of having no set goal to play towards, might be enough to make you think that MMOs are for all those other hardcore nerds. And then you have your first pure moment.

SimCityI was brought into MMOs through Everquest. A friend of mine had been playing a text based game, where we ran round typing “kill animal”, “search body” and “take all.” She asked me if I’d move on to this new game with her, and with my Windows 98 PC screaming at having to use 3D graphics, I booted up.

Suddenly, I’m looking out across the top of a forest. Slightly stunned, I pressed the up arrow and moved forward. The ground came up to meet me really fast.

My poor graphics card couldn’t even cope with 3dfx properly, so I couldn’t see any of the health bars or text, but with my microphone crackling, I was resurrected, clambered down from Faydark and the two of us fought our way to Butcher Block. Days later, my card was replaced and I saw a whole new world. Weeks later I realized I could target myself with spells. Months later, I was chatting with a Swedish Troll in the market about how the customers never respect the effort we went to.

The pure moments differ between people, but they’re often just those points where you’re encapsulated in the world. When real life has been crappy to you and your online personality succeeds (or fails) astonishingly. Sure, getting a really lucky kill in a Call of Duty is exciting, but taking down a God with friends? Even Shadow of the Colossus falls short.

But times change, servers change and people change. We went our own separate ways, and my troll disappeared from the Norrathian Bazaar. Probably still trying to sell all those damn GoD salmon chunks. Is he a work of great acting skill? Nope. Something that’s all mine? Nope. Something that touched another life? Probably not. But he was one of my pure moments on Everquest. A dullard pushed out of his home by frogs that dreamt of hobnobbing with High Elves.

Unfortunately, my poor computer died to a nasty virus and all my “paintings” of Quartz died with it. My online memories of him had all but been destroyed. This point was brought home to me recently when I tried to dig out my old Lord Of the Rings Online characters. I still had some Turbine Points, so I tried to locate my Hobbit Cook. She’d clambered the Misty Mounts to search out a terrifying boar, and wanted to make a good sauce to go with those ribs.

So I looked up my old account. And there was nothing there. After a few hours of searching, I found that there had been some sort of server movement and all characters that weren’t specifically moved were gone. Deleted. No more. She was an ex-hobbit.

December 2012 was the death of the Silver Weasel as well.

city-of-heroesCity of Heroes was always a great love of mine and I met some great people there, including one very special person. I spent a good 1400 hours in Paragon City, about as many hours as you spend in a normal school year. Imagine what you can get up to in a school year. Think back on one of your years. Now imagine it gone.

Silver Weasel was my alter ego, my id, my sixth form year of mad abandon. A white-cloaked daredevil who considered caution to be a four letter word, along with taste, decency and forward thinking. I came back in 2012, 5 years or so after I’d left, and someone still recognized me from my antics. And now he’d finally been defeated. There was nothing I could do about it – I didn’t own anything about him – and all I had left of his gallery of kookiness was a few screenshots.

Like the primary school paintings, there are a lot of memories that can come from these events. The time when five of us stormed the Oranbega Temples dressed in swimwear, the epic Rock Paper Scissors tournaments, the short-lived attempt at tanking Lusca; these will mean nothing to most people, but to me, they’re moments I still smile at.

But there’s no way I can relive them now. Even with Manic Miner, Dragon’s Lair or Asteroids, I can replicate moments in time. I can be Fry in Raiders of the Lost Arcade, firing through the shields like a madman, with my 2 liter bottle of Fanta.

Now we’ve reached a generation of dedicated servers, cloud storage and the dreaded Always Online. The sprawling metropolis in SimCity, the Minecraft architecture or even the sentient, phallic Spore monster, they’re all digital memories that we only rent.

It’s not just our data though: Will we ever see Star Wars 1313? How long before there’s nothing left to play Parappa the Rapper on? Doomdark’s Revenge? Can you still play Powerstone 2?

Perhaps the thing that scares most people away from MMOs is not the monthly fee any more – most are now free to play – but the idea that once you experience a moment that touches your soul, it could be locked behind a paywall, or deleted. I still have a picture of the Weasel but, like my sixth form year, I’m not getting the full memory back. I just wish I’d snuck out more memories before they removed my ability to make new ones.

What Weasel had cost me, a year of subscriptions, he had more than paid back for in thoughts, ideas, good times and fun. I’d like to think that somewhere, out of my control, he still exists. As the final moments tick away in Paragon City, Weasel grabs hold of his friends and says, in an excited voice, “I’ve got a plan that might just work.”

You are being forcibly disconnected from the server. Servers are shutting down.

Mike Grace from Great Britain is an aficionado of fine writing, fine games and “Fine, I’ll do it tomorrow.”