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Gaming Ghost Towns

Tom Rubira | 28 Jul 2011 10:00
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I have a hobby, a perverse pastime, a secret that I feel I need to share.

I load up old games and walk around in their empty online servers.

I came upon this hobby by accident. The game was Deus Ex. Lauded for its single player experience, I had always neglected its multiplayer component, because it seemed a little ... weird. Eleven years after its release, having revisited the single player several times, I decided to give the multiplayer one last chance. Browsing the sparsely populated server list, I joined the first map that piqued my interest: "DXMP_AbandonedCity, 0/16 players."

I find it absurd that someone would load up this 11 year old game expecting to play a round or two of mediocre deathmatch.

The map is immediately reminiscent of Deus Ex's somber urban spaces. It's essentially a self-contained city street occupied by a grid of rectangular buildings. Thick grey clouds loom above, and the New York City skyline illuminates the night. The server is entirely empty so, lacking anything else to do, I snoop around.

I come across a blue-lit room furnished bizarrely with two office desks at odd angles, a large electrical generator, a globe and stacks of metal barrels. Outside, an iron staircase leads to a dead-end room where an ornate Baroque dining chair faces another electrical generator. Nearby I find a missile warhead housed in a residential garage. Further along, a streetlamp in an alleyway flickers onto a giant cement crucifix. Ominous. By themselves these kinds of props would typically go some way to increase the realism of the space, but here their juxtaposition just seems ridiculous. In terms of the standards of professional level design, the map ranks pretty low. One of the buildings, an empty art gallery, is signposted with caution tape reading: "Abandoned Buliding [sic]." In one sense it's just badly made, but treated as a mood piece, I find it utterly masterful.

As I'm snooping around it strikes me that the setting of the map - an abandoned city - forms the perfect metaphor for the silent desertion of the server itself. The figurative and the literal precisely overlap, and it's wonderfully unsettling.
Wandering around this badly-made empty old map feels like one of the most atmospheric gaming experiences I've had in a very long while. Things appear more or less normal on the surface but upon closer inspection, everything seems subtly out of place and oddly malevolent.

As I'm indulging in these particularly lofty ruminations, another player logs on.

Roused into action, I do my best to defend myself from volleys of rockets as my superior (invisible) opponent dances around me, switching through the appropriate augmentations with ease. Several respawns later - perhaps noting my reluctance (or total inability) to fight back - the action eventually subsides. Positioned on opposite ends of the map, I use the lull as an opportunity to ask what's on my mind: "Hey, how come you're playing this old game?"

I find it absurd that someone would load up this 11 year old game expecting to play a round or two of mediocre deathmatch, especially when the single-player was the jewel inDeus Ex's crown. Why aren't they playing Minecraft or CoD or Hello Kitty Online.?

Why aren't I playing Minecraft or CoD or Hello Kitty Online?

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