Spritehood

drawing of dragon and sea

The continent, it turned out, was not ready for people. The settlers chopped down every tree and killed every animal, then started in on each other. They hoarded finite resources—furs, lumber, ore—until there weren’t any left to use. Counterfeiters discovered a way to alchemize gold, bringing about hyperinflation and economic collapse. The strong terrorized the weak, not just once but repeatedly, hounding them through one life after another. Normal people became outright thugs, enacting fantasies of domination. Dominated people had a tendency to become informal police, enacting fantasies of justice. Every so often a server crash would plunge everyone weeks into the past, to the most recent backup.

This was Britannia, the setting of Ultima Online, the first massively multiplayer online role-playing game to sport graphics instead of mere text. By the time I showed up the dark ages were over, ended by an expansion pack aptly titled RenaissanceRenaissance split the world into mirror images, one with laws and one without—a heaven and a hell. Neither were as interesting as the original anarchy, but the game was playable, maybe for the first time. The ecosystem was simplified, forced into a rough balance. Inflation continued, but at a manageable rate.

It was 2002 and I had asked for UO for my tenth birthday, having seen Renaissance previewed, advertised, and later reviewed in the alluringly glossy pages of PC Gamer magazine. What I’d read there appealed to my love of fantasy, my desire, almost need, to be someone, somewhere else. I didn’t see in UO what I see now—that it was the first concerted effort by any large number of humans to plug in completely: to conquer and settle the weird potentialities of the Internet. I entered this fantasy ignorant of its history and embarked on a confused but exhilarating vagrancy. For weeks I wandered through cobbled squares and indistinguishable stands of trees—too impatient to read the manual, too young and obnoxious to make friends.

In the wilderness one sometimes came across strange ruins, simple stone sculptures inscribed with symbols. They were only decorations—a way of filling empty space on a tight production schedule—but to my mind they were full of hidden meanings I spent hours trying to uncover. It was in one of these ruins that Fred entered my life, riding a white stallion that would, mysteriously, never be seen again. He was starting a guild, and needed one more person to meet the minimum requirements; he was willing to pay. The guild was called The Knights Who Say Ni, and although this meant nothing to me I happily followed him to the headquarters, a two-story castle on the outskirts of the coastal city Trinsic. When I signed the charter, Fred handed me a pile of gold so big it seemed mistyped, and waited for me to leave. I didn’t.

As far as Fred goes, the little I’ve remembered about him probably reveals more about my own frame of mind at the time. He had blond hair. He wore a black cape. Examination revealed him to be “as strong as a mountain, with movements like quicksilver.” He had great knowledge of the world, and though he was slow to respond to questions his answers were always true, perhaps (I see it now) Googled. He wielded a mace, and in sparring matches never lost. He often took me with him on his adventures—or allowed me to follow him—and we hunted golems, wyverns, liches, and other monsters that I never would have found alone. He kept an eye out for me, guarding my body when the spirit left it. If he resented me for tagging along, or for being reckless and incompetent, he was too polite, or lonely, to say so.

There were just a few other guild members, mostly forgotten now. I recall a Darklord, who wore all black and t4lkd l1k dis. I remember him because he took me with him to Felucca, the lawless zone, under the guise of teaching me to kill; this he accomplished in the most direct way, by killing me and then looting my corpse. There was also a strange person named Raj, who never wore clothes or turned off caps lock, and who seemed to find no game mechanic as enjoyable as the ability to get drunk on mead. Except for Mona, the rest are all but forgotten, blurry figures on the edge of a screen.

Summer came, and boredom. My dad had worked long hours and renovated another house in order to build a swimming pool in our backyard. The water sparkled invitingly through the window next to my computer and somehow became a source of immense guilt. Since my brother spent half of every week at his mom’s house, it mostly fell to me to justify the investment. The pool represented things: not just my father’s earnest sacrifice but also a whole panorama of active, boyish pleasures I kept failing to be interested in or good at, or interested in being good at. It was my chore to clean the pool’s skimmers, but Fred and I were fighting for our lives in the Painted Caves, and I kept putting it off. Turtles and shrews drowned in chlorine while I languished in the air-conditioning. Later, when I remembered, I would dump the buckets over the fence; water-logged bodies tumbled into the grass, where I hoped neither my parents nor our dogs would find them.

Sometimes there was no choice but to go swimming. Because he didn’t have one, my best friend Philip loved the pool. So did Alex, a new friend of Philip’s and therefore of mine, who happened to be the star of the school swim team and bizarrely muscular for an adolescent. The two of them took turns making dives, flips, and somersaults off the diving board, maneuvers I was too timid and too proud to learn. Entire days seem to have passed this way, my mother kicking the screen door open every five minutes to see if we had somehow collectively drowned, me, watching my friends from the deep end, wondering whether Fred was online.

On quiet days Fred spoke fondly of the time before the expansion, when life was raw and gamers were men, and once—in a tavern in Yew, the City of Justice—he’d watched a pickpocket steal the armor from a traveler’s back, sell it back to him, and then steal it again. He was a slow typist, but prolific in certain moods. He said he’d been in the guild that accidentally killed Elizabeth Kolbert, the New Yorker correspondent who had once upon a time logged on to research a story (“I found the game at once mildly addictive and boring,” she wrote, “like the dances I used to go to in high school.”), and he claimed to have been friends with Rainz, a player who had immortalized himself during beta testing by immolating the lead developer’s alter ego, Lord British, during a major public event. It was mostly just talk. In all the time that I knew Fred, I never knew him to visit Felucca. He had become rich—though it was never clear how—and it is not impossible that there were people there looking for him.

Our relationship only now seems strange. I was ten, as I’ve said, though I believed no one could tell; evidence suggests Fred was at least eighteen and may have been a lot older. I never asked. To me, Fred was Fred, a blond fighter with studded armor and just one facial expression. I knew how many hit points he had, which skills he’d mastered, his confusing habit of abbreviating short words and spelling out long ones. That is to say I knew both very little and kind of a lot, the way you can read someone’s journal and get a picture of them that is both intimate and false. It wasn’t just easy to avoid thinking about the person he was behind a desk somewhere, physical and flawed, ignoring his family and friends to inhabit the world of a flat bright screen—it was crucial.

Mona was kind. Having popped into existence one morning in mid-June, she set about ingratiating herself with the members of the guild. She was a seamstress by trade and generous with clothes, bandages, and compliments. I noticed that she tended to navigate in relation to Fred, though the two of them barely spoke. She wore bright robes and her hair was red. Otherwise, she was an exact replica of the other female avatars.

One afternoon we found ourselves alone, and cast about awkwardly for a topic. When talk turned to books, we stumbled across a mutual devotion to the Dragonlance universe of fantasy novels: “It’s all I ever read,” she said, and I knew I had never read a stranger or more beautiful sentence. Mona complimented my grammar. Later, she complimented my katana. She entertained my juvenile attempts at humor without once asking my age.

In school and out, my daydreams had, until recently, clustered around a small and frenetic brunette named Hannah, who monopolized our shared table with hysterical bursts of laughter. Hannah was pretty, excitable, and, most charming of all, completely uninterested in anyone but my friend Philip, who, God bless him, was interested in someone else. My eternal obsession with her had begun to decay around the time school let out for the summer, so that now, weeks later, she already seemed childish, her sense of humor arbitrary. I reflected that my passion had, after all, been merely physical, and I felt satisfaction at the idea of having outgrown her. Meanwhile, on Britannia’s cobbled streets I started seeing Mona in strangers, only partly because they looked exactly like her. In her presence I became nervous. I rarely spoke and when I did, made typos. What did it matter that she was less than an inch tall? My love was abstract, courtly, perhaps nonexistent—something like the love of one fictional character for another.

The Trinsic Bank was crowded as usual and loud with the hooves of horses. Sales pitches and questing proposals filled the air. Beggars whispered, some of them addressing me as “Good Sir” when they asked for change. Childish solipsism made me nervous in places like this, as though I were the subject of every conversation. Mona didn’t share my discomfort. She made a deposit, withdrew some sewing supplies, and then turned toward me. Her robe disappeared. Underneath, she wore a silk blouse and pantaloons. After one heavy moment those too were gone, without fanfare—without animation. Mona was down to her underwear now—brown, pixelated, and unremovable—the greatest possible nakedness.

Asterisks around verb phrases denoted action. Mona was fond of this convention, and I liked this fondness. But I was surprised and baffled when she *slid one hand into damp panties* and *began to sensually rub her clit.*

How had this happened? Mona had asked me to go with her into town to run some errands. I would have gone with her anywhere, but something about this idea of “errands”—chores in a game, work as play, play as life—was especially appealing. Here in the bank, it suddenly came to me that what was happening would make sense if errand-running meant something entirely different, something dirty and forbidden. How would I know? Maybe it was like “going upstairs to do laundry” for my parents, whose excitement about folding towels every other night had recently become suspect.

I felt a prickle of sweat on my forehead. My avatar betrayed nothing: just repeated the standard inactivity animation, shifting weight from foot to foot. To the right, not five feet away, a knight in full gold armor was struggling to transact with the bank teller. The teller was convincingly unhelpful. “Bank,” said the frustrated knight. “Bank, motherfucker.” The teller looked mutely at the opposite wall.

Across the room, at the dining table, my mother sighed for no apparent reason. She was faux-texturing a miniature rocking chair. My father was outside, scooping leaves out of the pool with a net. It would have been easy at this point to click the little gray X at the corner of the screen.

“Won’t you take off your robe?” Mona asked. Behind the blank mask of her face I sensed growing impatience.

I took off the robe.

“What about Fred?” I asked.

“What about him? breastplate.”

I was down to just leggings now, one step from total ignorance. Sex was where two people who liked each other got naked and then got in bed. It had to be the same bed. What else? My mom had this information, but there was no getting it out of her without raising suspicion. I panicked quietly, cycling through facial tics. It was now impossible to ignore the fact that out in the world somewhere was a real live Mona. This Mona was not made of pixels. She was not a seamstress. She was going to be disappointed. I took off my leggings and waited for whatever came next.

A long moment passed.

“Now put it in me, darling,” said Mona.

“Put what?”

“I think you know.”

I thought I did. But then again, I didn’t.

“Oh,” I said. “That.”

Shade *puts it in you.*

On the screen, my avatar yawned and stretched.

“Oh yeah,” Mona was typing. “Oh, yeah… now do it to me harder.”

Shade *does it with greater force.*

We went on like this for quite a while. The things she asked for made sense only vaguely, but each time I was able to rephrase her demands with just enough ambiguity to get by. It was like a word game. I fell into a rhythm and started to enjoy myself. Whatever sex was, it was not terribly complicated.

“Do u know how old he is?” Fred asked, back at the guild house.

As always, it was impossible to tell whether he was upset.

“Why does it matter?” Mona clearly had no idea.

“Shade, how old r u really. like, 12?”

My silence extended into a longer, more meaningful one.

“Oh no…” said Mona.

But my face was burning for Fred, not for her. Because he knew. He had seen through me, perhaps from the beginning. I suddenly saw all his patience in a new light: the way he’d shrugged off my consistent failures, the indulgence with which he would stop whatever he was doing to answer my incessant questions; his long, clear explanations, as if he were addressing himself to… well, to a child. In my eyes, he had been friend first and mentor second, but he must have felt more like an uncompensated babysitter. I’d been a responsibility, a drag. The two extra years he gave me did little to soften the blow.

In the following weeks, a gulf formed. Mona no longer spoke to me except to express everlasting apologies for what she called her “accidental pedophilia.” Telling her that I had enjoyed the experience only seemed to make her uncomfortable. I didn’t have the words to tell her how little it had touched me. Not understanding kept me from explaining how little I understood.

Fred and I went hunting just a few more times. He was the same, but the dynamic had changed. He now seemed like yet another teacher in a world dominated by teachers. As summer came to an end, I noticed without sadness that he was playing less and less, and that he had become generous with his gold and equipment. By the time middle school started he had disappeared, and I too was losing interest.

It’s summer again, and I am living once more in my childhood home. Graduation is over, and I’m dispatching cover letters from my childhood desk; the months sail by while I hold out for that unnamable job that will not make me dream of killing myself. The swimming pool in the window has been transformed into a pleasant, algae-filled pond for koi and goldfish. The house is darker each year beneath the growing woods. My father has just bought a new house to renovate, while my mother, her faux-texturing years behind her, spends her off-hours constructing elaborate paper mobiles with tiny articulating parts. The otherwise sameness of everything is as comfortable as it is frustrating.

Two years ago, my hometown was brutalized by an EF4 tornado, making headlines the rest of the country soon forgot. I spend weeknights jogging down its treeless avenues, wishing the destruction were more complete. Occasionally I catch myself thinking about Britannia and the other, similar places that swallowed so much of my youth. I wonder if there are any dreams left that I could still buy into so completely, or with so little shame.

Most of my old hometown friends, Philip and Alex included, are still buying consoles and upgrading their computers for the latest games. Hearing them talk about the solitary and semi-solitary hours they spend playing Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V makes me sad for them, and jealous. I pull CD-ROMS and cartridges out of boxes in the superstitious hope that they will let me skip this period of my life, or at least prevent the next from occurring. The games, I find, have become both ugly and vapid. Playing them, I can no longer shake the awareness that there is a much bigger and more serious game in progress—one in which collecting every star in Super Mario 64for the third time, at the age of twenty-two, is just one of the million ways to lose.

All the same, I do return to Britannia, justifying it to myself as research. I half-expect the game itself to be gone: the servers dark, the support team disbanded. It’s still there, just barely. Origin Systems (slogan: “We Create Worlds”) disbanded in 2004, and the new owners, Electronic Arts, have been characteristically greedy and destructive with the property. UO now resembles the ruins of a once-glorious empire. Scattered loners pick through the rubble, collecting trinkets no one else values with which to fill houses that no one else will ever visit. Sometimes a handful of them meet to trade their useless findings, and maybe one of them starts a campfire, for old times’ sake. They’ll sit for a while, trading stories about the past, theories about where it all went wrong. Most agree that Renaissance was the beginning of the end. Others blame EA for the ridiculous insertion of rideable dogs and beetles, ninjas, sunglasses, and new continents that lured adventurers farther and farther away from each other, into increasing isolation and loneliness. Realists merely point to Everquest, World of Warcraft, 3D graphics.

And despite my mental preparations, the game’s ugliness does come as a shock. UO is fifteen years old now, ancient by video game standards, and for nostalgia’s sake I’ve opted out of the “enhanced client’s” upgraded visuals. Looking at the drab streets and the cartoonish little sprites that walk them, I am surprised to see just how much my memories have enhanced themselves. I start in Trinsic and look for the bank where a reader of fantasy novels seduced me on a lazy summer afternoon almost thirteen years ago. The town is ghostly: just the AI vendors minding their stores, mindlessly, while dogs and chickens wander in predictable loops.

It takes some time for me to understand that the bank has been demolished, or rather deleted: the plaza is now devoted to a meaningless statue of some made-up historical figure. I’m unprepared for changes to the city itself, and for a second I feel the anger of the dispossessed. I have to remind myself that this was just a bank, a bank in a video game—a fake place in which fake people made thousands of fake transactions. In the public chat, someone is looking to buy a giant beetle—not to ride, but to load down with stuff. No one responds.

Andrew Shade is a freelance writer and editor from North Georgia. Since writing this essay he has moved to New York, where he found a job that doesn’t make him want to kill himself.

Spritehood

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