If you were to ask me which video game I’ve played the most, I’d have to answer Everquest. It would be with a hint of embarrassment, like you just caught me in a devious trap. Everquest: that most reviled of video games, that most hated of subjects. You could probably find someone who claims Everquest ruined videogames, and you can definitely find people who say Everquest ruined their lives.
I loved it with a passion reserved for only my favorite games, though. It’s the game that most irrevocably shaped my gaming opinions. Its best feature was how it absolutely didn’t give a shit about you, and how that opened up possibilities: removed from the spotlight that younger sibling World of Warcraft would thrust on you, you were free to develop yourself, develop your story.
My main character over years of Everquest was a halfling druid named Corrun Furryfist. I had a soft spot for halflings born from having read The Hobbit too many times, and druids were the closest thing to a “caster” that the race possessed. When I finally lapsed out of playing Corrun had amassed over thirty days of play time; much of it was no doubt spent idling trying to find a group or shooting the shit in guild chat, but it is by far the longest I’ve spent playing any video game.
I didn’t even reach max level. In a world of World of Warcrafts playing for thirty days and not even approaching maximum level is ludicrous, but for Everquest it was the way things were. Levels took days of playtime unless you could find an excellent group, and as an asocial person playing as a relatively useless class I never got into those much. Most of the leveling time I can remember was putzing about on the shores of Velious (Everquest‘s Antarctica) running away from sea lions and blasting them with fire balls, then sitting down for ten minutes as my mana regenerated.
But I usually didn’t have the attention span for that. My best memories of Everquest were instead using the Druid’s one unique power: teleportation. I went everywhere: I explored every crack of Everquest‘s world of Norrath. I’d run around in newbie areas throwing free buffs to low levels. I’d visit dungeons filled with wimpy enemies and try to collect decent items. But mostly I was in it as a sort of virtual sightseer: I wanted to see the straight-from-Tolkien world that Everquest wrought.
Of course, all good things end. Eventually my guild moved on to Dark Age of Camelot, I’d seen pretty much everywhere I could see at my level, and I didn’t want to buy numerous expansions for a game that I’d never beat. In the end, I moved away from Everquest for other pastures, confident I’d never return.
But games have a funny way of returning to your consciousness at strange times. And when Sony Online Entertainment announced that Everquest would be going free to play in March, I decided to take up a fourteen day trial account and see what the world had been up to since my abandoning it.
It turns out you can’t go home again.
The first character I remade was old Corrun’s hypothetical ancestor, a halfling druid starting in the sunny burg of Rivervale. Everything was the same: the same city, the same people. I recognized Rivervale’s druid trainer, the farm where they lived. Changed, though, was everything else: Everquest’s classic clunky interface had been replaced by a World of Warcraft influenced monstrosity, with a dozen boxes conveying information you couldn’t possibly need at level one.
The other thing I noticed was the conspicuous emptiness. The thing I didn’t bank on was Everquest having made like the American West, the game’s zones drying up once all the gold had been farmed from them. In my three hours in the game I saw exactly one other player, a level forty-one gnome enchanter who sat for thirty minutes outside of Rivervale’s bank, motionless.
Outside, in the Misty Thicket, Rivervale’s starting zone, things were no better. It felt like the trees had grown thicker, swallowing up civilization. The halfling homes in the zone were completely overrun with bats, beetles, and bixies (some sort of bee/fairy hybrid), and it read like a scene from Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. Because these low-traffic MMO zones exist without our influence; they are there so that whenever some poor sod creates a low level character in an old zone that they have something to kill.
Surprisingly, Everquest‘s combat holds up decently when compared to World of Warcraft. No one has quite figured out the whole “auto-attack, then wait” combat system, so Everquest doesn’t seem like a painfully retro experience. No, where it shows its age is in its speed. Everquest, a game I imagined as so fluid and lifelike a decade ago, now feels glacial. Your avatar misses half his attacks, you have no real way to turn the tide of battle quickly, and after two battles you need to sit and recover for two minutes. Couple this with the fact that you need to win a dozen battles to get to level two and it’s a very different pace than that established by modern games. Everquest, with its lack of quests and long downtimes, is not intent on providing you with any positive reinforcement. In fact, it revels in the opposite: additional enemies would often attack me in the wilderness, leading to my druid being routed by the combined forces of a bixie and a fire beetle.
I can get over this, though. It’s the emptiness. The all-consuming, soul crushing emptiness. I never thought I would miss spammers in the out of character channel so much. I missed other people, because someone else slogging through the same game would give validation to my efforts: it would give me a reason to think, “Things get better.” Alone, all I could do was slaughter another bixie. When I played Everquest as a child, I resented all these people, stealing my kills and flooding the chat channels with pointless bickering, but without them Everquest is a shell of a game, a boring grind instead of a social experience.
I’m an asocial gamer, someone who hates having to group, but being forced to led to some of my favorite gaming experiences. I remember nearly every good group I ever had in Everquest, from the Orc camps in the Commonlands to the giants in the Desert of Ro to killing more giants on Kunark, the lizard-infested island of the first expansion, to finally the various snow creatures of Velious. I remember these groups, the spontaneous camaraderie that sprung up from being forced to work together. These are the things I miss in modern MMOs, where everyone can solo from first level to last, and that I missed the most when I returned to Everquest.
Everything’s just so empty. In a world with no other players, it all comes back to you. Ten years ago you could die in Everquest by getting into a fight bigger than you could chew on, but you were more likely to be slaughtered when someone ran five wolves past you. You could go to a bandit camp and set up shop but most likely another group would be there, and you’d have to find somewhere else. These sound like inconveniences, things that modern MMO consumers have removed via natural selection, but they were the thing that made Everquest feel like it did: they made it a living, breathing place instead of a gamified space. If World of Warcraft’s servers emptied out it would still feel the same: it would feel like a video game. When Everquest’s servers hit the tank, the game took on a post apocalyptic feeling, like waking up and finding out that every other human being had vanished. Everquest was a game about society, and now society has gone missing.
This is the problem with social games: you can’t go back to them. Every moment you play of them is part of the cultural zeitgeist. It’s not about the game as much as it is about the movement, about the people you’re playing the game with. That’s what I really miss about Everquest. I miss coming home from school and talking to my guildmates about the places they were seeing and the enemies they were smiting, and I miss the random element that only human beings can bring to a game.
Tom Auxier writes about games, stories and narrative from the snowy confines of Western Massachusetts. He is Features Editor at Nightmare Mode, blogs about fiction and music on his own site and can be followed on Twitter @trueaxiom.