Tech

The party goes on in massive online worlds

You don't have to be so socially distant when playing Final Fantasy XIV online.

My friends and I were taking a pit stop after an aimless drive when we heard a stranger loudly invite anyone within earshot to her friends party. Our plans had ended at “go for a drive;” before that, we were loitering between some collapsed columns in a crystalline wasteland.

We debated whether to attend from inside our car. The party seemed a little raunchy—its promoter, Nina, a minuscule woman with pink blush marks painted on either side of her button nose, advertised “drinks and good company” but also “ERP,” which stands for “erotic role-play.” Thats not generally our thing. Were more stand-outside types than the types to cast a flashy glamour spell and chat up the nearest cat girl. But, hey, its Final Fantasy XIV online, and where my body sat in New York, the epicenter of Americas Covid-19 outbreak, there certainly werent any parties.

On Fridays, Saturdays, and basically any given weeknight, my Brooklyn neighborhood is alive with throbbing house music, over-earnest open mics, DJ sets, roiling apartment bashes, and cars blasting reggaeton. In this new-normal world, events as we know them no longer exist, unless you count texting your 20 closest acquaintances a DRINKS ON ZOOM!!!! invite, give or take a couple of cloying emojis. With all of this newfound time to overthink the mundane, I recognize now that social outings are dedicated units of time for self-expression, coloring-book pages onto which we and our friends draw outlines that we pour ourselves into. Social distancing has separated us from our social contexts; without them, all the color drains out.

It quickly became apparent that those of us whose social lives revolve around online videogames had a fail-safe for staying entertained indoors. Floating on my back in a virtual fountain lined with turquoise Byzantine-style tiles, I let a new gratitude wash over me for massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs. For weeks, I have been compulsively playing Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft Classic, online games in which my meticulously customized characters battle monsters and complete quests in huge, biologically diverse, digital worlds. On my Final Fantasy XIV server, 13,000 strangers, plus a couple of my real-life neighborhood friends, roam the ancient forests, the thronged cities and the cramped, rocky caves.

One of them was Cid, who lives a 20-minute walk from me in Brooklyn. On a catwalk in someones virtual basement, we had just put on an impromptu two-person fashion show. (She posed slouchy and with a pout in her reindeer onesie.) Once we we tired of that, she found me in that fountain and entered in the “/waterfloat” command nearby me. The sun shone down.

Its easy to wax poetic about how videogames let you do things that you cant in real life anymore. You can host house parties in Animal Crossing. You can play basketball with your friends in NBA 2K20. Whatever. The easy sell for MMORPGs in the time of pandemic is simply that you can exist together, even /hug. Maybe thats not entirely distinct from Zoom happy hours or Skype trivia at a time when there are plenty of digital channels for connecting. To feel like myself again, I needed to vector my personality off a new experience, and do it alongside people who know me.

Now is as good a time as any to bust out your OG armor sets in <em>WoW Classic</em>.
Enlarge / Now is as good a time as any to bust out your OG armor sets in <em>WoW Classic</em>.Blizzard

A group of us were slogging through a checklist of mundane quests in World of Warcraft Classic when our undead friend Baen Chunch—named for Martha Stewarts pony, Ben Chunch—suddenly started toward the mountains. As she sprinted, she rotated herself toward the tallest ridge we could see, a jagged, tannish peak looming over a massive desert. Over the Discord apps voice chat, we egged her on and, one by one, enthusiastically followed suit.

Because the game replicates the experience of World of Warcraft as it was in 2001, climbing isnt a straight shot up. Most craggy geometries only offer a small window for forward movement, and to find it, players rhythmically alternate between the space bar, which makes them jump, and the W key, which is “forward.” While the rest of us climbed in this frenzied zigzag, Trollthan the troll happened upon a rare smooth trail and gunned it. Meanwhile, Baen Chunch and the rest of us were missing jumps and falling downward.

One by one, we all eventually made it to the summit. It was beautiful to look out together onto the dusty desert, but not consequential, like a for-the-sake-of-it hike. It was just a thing we had all decided to do.

Transferring my social energies into MMORPGs has been surprisingly seamless. In World of Warcraft, I can /burp and /cackle. My partner, if hes feeling tolerant, might /chuckle. In Final Fantasy XIV, I can magick my high-level armor into the sort of outfit Id purchase at Urban Outfitters. Then I might beg Cid to meet me in the city and assess whether my orange leggings are too loud. Its an embarrassing thing to admit, but the social validation of others is something I desperately miss; expressing myself in a void is not so satisfying. A question I keep having, locked inside and isolated, is who I am without the connections that normally define me, aRead More – Source