Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

The Last Concert

I was there when they set the world record. ‘The first concert to take place in the real world as well as virtual space’ - it sounds more grandiose than it actually was. Scores of us clustered about the stage jumping and chatting. Even in a sea of identikit avatars I felt old - mine was the only avatar with facial hair. A referee kept appearing on stage to gee up the audience and tell us to remain patient, the band would be there soon.

“the daaarees!” one girl yelled.

Her cries were echoed throughout the Snowhill moshpit:

“we want the dares!”

“where iz da band?”

Pixie players danced at the crowd’s edge while Chugawugs capered far from the stage. The Chugawugs were NPCs but on that day, everyone was dancing.

The Dares appeared; the chat window scrolled too fast to read. Players whooped, yelling “Yessss!” in multi-coloured text and as the band struck a chord the frame rate slowed to a stutter.

They sang the Free Realms theme tune. a pop-rock ode to following your dreams. “It’s your world!” they sang, and though the video had deteriorated into a series of static frames the audio never dropped.

I'd loved Free Realms once. I'd rambled there, finding exploration tokens hidden in hollow tree stumps, under bridges. Between the Bejewelled minigames and WoW-lite combat Free Realms’ exploration was an unexpected gem. Little compared to the thrill of finding tokens in the game’s early days, of scaling a hill or delving deep into Blackspore Swamp and knowing few players had been there before. Myself and a couple other gamers - who were strictly too old to be playing - helped each other trading the whereabouts of these tokens. Collecting a complete set earned our avatars a hat, a backpack - nothing much, but enough to keep us searching.

Snowhill had always been my favourite location in the game, a location I used to sell Free Realms to sceptical gamers. “The fighting’s just like World of Warcraft,” I told them. “Pulls, instances, aggro - the lot. The rest of the world’s like a giant theme park. Snowhill feels like Christmas.”

Greetings card cottages, snowball fights and a tinkling theme to warm the cockles of your heart; Snowhill, where gusts rise as you scale its peaks and bring upon them the wild Yule of yesteryear: wolves, clear mountain skies and snow like magic crunching beneath your feet.

Sony retooled the game soon after the concert and the world moved on. There are too many gimmicks there now - arm-flailing inflatables, pets won from trading card packets. The userbase has grown to a staggering seventeen millio, but it doesn’t feel like Free Realms anymore; it doesn’t feel like Christmas. It’s like being at a concert surrounded by squalling tweenagers, and I miss how it was.

Massively multiplayer game worlds evolve; I know that. As successful as the game’s gone on to be, sometimes I wish the concert had been it’s last song.

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