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The Beautiful Mortality of Online Video Games

Video games are often immortal things.

Endlessly replayable so long as we possess the hardware to run them, they are time capsules meant to be returned to. For the few finite experiences that are fated to pass on, their impressions are even stronger for us having lost them.

Imagine playing a game for nearly a decade only to watch it die – never to be played again.

PlanetSide was a massively multiplayer first-person shooter long before the likes of Destiny. Even by today’s standards, it’s a hugely ambitious game. For more than a decade the game’s three factions, the Terran Republic, the New Conglomerate, and the Vanu Sovereignty fought for supremacy in the game’s universe. That is, until on July 1st, 2016 when, like how all online games must do, it died.

Players gazed up as the sky cracked open and began to fall. Meteors rained down around them as the ground beneath them began to shake. A game that had been populated by so much war ironically quelled to a peaceful still as the end of days finally arrived. Players tried to avoid getting hit by meteors as they each tried to watch for as long as they could. How long could this last? An hour? A few minutes? A few seconds? Then, players suddenly found their in-game avatars had fallen to the ground. Impossible to respawn, they soon realised the inevitable. The servers had been shut down for good. PlanetSide was gone.

There was a sense of profound loss once PlanetSide was gone for good that is parallel to most who experience their favourite online game’s demise firsthand. Players build sentimental bonds with the game itself, as we do with most games. Yet without the ability to return to them, they turn from pieces of entertainment into something else entirely. Now forever in the past tense, their finality is tangible. Their loss is something we can feel. The places the game filled in our lives become voids that are difficult to replace. It can feel unfair, like something was taken.

For some, it’s hard not to fight back against this feeling of helplessness. A few PlanetSide players who became dissatisfied with the game’s sequel PlanetSide 2 began developing PlanetSide Forever – a replication of the original game running on their own servers. This form of user-led preservation can be empowering, giving agency back to those that played and supported these games in the first place. It’s not the first time players have tried to turn back time, finding workarounds as their favourite games are shut down for good.

Take Halo 2, for instance. The game was at one time Xbox Live’s most popular game, regularly topping the most-played list of Xbox Live even after the Xbox 360’s launch. As Microsoft began phasing out the original Xbox Live’s service functionality, Halo 2’s life suddenly had an expiration date. Microsoft had announced that on April 14th 2010, all original Xbox Live services would be shut down. Many returned to the game for one last hurrah before the game’s multiplayer became inaccessible forever yet as players continued playing Halo 2 anxiously awaiting prompts of their sudden disconnections from the service, those prompts never came.

For anyone on the outside, Halo 2 was gone.Yet shockingly, Microsoft decided not to pull the plug for those still playing. Allowing users to continue to play, so long as they stayed logged in, players continued playing long past the original midnight deadline. Famously known as the Noble 14, the last people to play Halo 2 online stayed vigilant in the presence of doom, refusing to let it die. Over time, players began losing connections due to power-outages, lag disconnections, or over-heating consoles until the last player standing, Apache N4SIR, was finally booted from the game.

Much like PlanetSide’s community, Halo 2’s fans have created a few home-brew workarounds for playing the game online like Project Cartographer. While there’s no substitute for the real thing, there is a shared sense of passion for these games and what they represent that fuels projects like these. It can be a bit punk-rock, in the nerdiest of ways. A sentiment of fighting back against what they can’t control, they showcase a genuine sentimentality that is often taken for granted in the games that continue to exist as originally intended.

There is of course equal meaning found in the everlasting quality of games as a medium. Our ability to catalogue them is paramount towards our historical understanding of them. The importance of outfits like the Video Game History Foundation cannot be overstated. Yet, just because there is great importance in the preservation of video games doesn’t mean that there is nothing to gain from games that are destined to be lost to time.

A mountain of a difference lies in the experiences of a game like Shadow of the Colossus, for example. While its latest rerelease is a beautiful recreation of the original that represents the mythical nature of games as they are passed down from generation to generation, it doesn’t remove the original version from existence. So long as you have a PlayStation 2 and a copy of the game, you’re able to revisit that experience as it was originally intended. Forever frozen in the moment it was released, Shadow of the Colossus remains available to all who have played it and those who have not. It is eternally present.

For so many other games, however, they transcend entertainment by becoming moments in our lives that are impossible to return to. Even in a game like Club Penguin that transitioned into its sequel Club Penguin Island, there is something lost once its final moments had passed. Players bidding farewell by spamming the in-game chat with a passionate “Waddle on!” acting as a triumphant proclamation. I was here, I experienced this, and I will not forget it.

Games like World of Warcraft that continue on in different forms also possess a sense of nostalgic sentimentality for “the good ol’ days” as fans cry out for older versions forcing Blizzard to create an official World of Warcraft Classic version. It’s a feeling that feels ingrained into every online game – their mortality is clear and present, their demise is assured. Our time with them is finite, even if they continue on, they will most surely evolve and change leaving their past selves behind.

Like old photographs, games that are long gone remind us of the places we’ve been, the people we’ve touched, and the feelings we’ve felt. Their absence can be tough, sometimes reminding us that life will often change in harsh and unexpected ways, but they give meaning to the games of today. After facing the death of one of your favourite games, it’s easier to cherish the moments spent with ones you still have.

In a way, this happens for nearly every video game. Whether it’s shutting down its servers or making the final game in the series, the finality of life pervades every aspect of it. Yet the ability to replay a game and relive those memories will always persist – except for the games that are made to die in the first place. So many of these online games create moments of magic that are meant to be lived, not re-lived. While it may break our hearts that some of them will forever be out of our reach, the mere fact that they are makes us feel all the closer towards them.