The World Wide Web is now over thirty years old. In that time, more content has vanished from it than remains now, but some of it can still be dredged up from the shadowy archives of the Wayback Machine. This is the latest chapter in our never-ending search to find the cool gaming stuff that time forgot….
I feel sometimes like the kid from The Sixth Sense. That reference probably dates me to an extent, it’s from 1999 which feels like practically yesterday. It’s pretty recent as my references go: I know who Kojak was, and remember M*A*S*H.
I feel like that kid because when I look over the internet, sometimes I see ghosts. The shades of dead games. When something disappears from the web, it’s really gone, there is no corpse and its server leaves practically no trace of its existence. But sometimes signs can be found, like archived client uploads, broken hyperlinks, site snapshots on the Internet Archive, or still-active fansites.
One of those ghosts that flickers into my hazy vision sometimes is the original Neverwinter Nights. Not the Bioware game by that name, which really has very little to do with it. The first Neverwinter Nights was a SSI-produced MMORPG on America On-Line, that lasted from 1991 to 1997, a contemporary of Island of Kesmai, and of WorldsAway,which I’ve brought up here before.
NWN might have been a MMORPG, but it was also a MS-DOS game, and it ran on a modified version of SSI’s Gold Box engine, and (I presume) used the 2nd Edition D&D ruleset. That may have been what doomed it in the long run, for the license expired, and AOL, TSR and SSI couldn’t reach an agreement that would allow the game to continue. It is worthy of note that of those three companies, two don’t exist now, and the remaining one is nowadays nearly a ghost itself. I’m not going to say it happened because they couldn’t reach an agreement on continuing NWN, in fact it probably wasn’t, but it’s a little comforting to think it might have contributed. Two things that are equally disposable, it seems, are old MMORPGs and the hide-bound corporations that ran them.
There is a fansite devoted to the AOL Neverwinter Nights, apparently continuous in existence from the days the game was live. It hosts a fan recreation called Neverwinter Nights Offline, which is not an exact recreation of the original but recreates a large portion. Of course, without other human players inhabiting the game’s world, it’s nowhere near the same. It runs in DOS, so Dosbox might be of some use to you.
There is also ForgottenWorld (no relation to Capcom’s arcade game), a fan-made recreation of Neverwinter Nights. The note on the fansite dates to 2004, but ForgottenWorld still survives, and even has a Discord. I haven’t tried it myself yet, nor the offline version of NWN linked above. That’s because I see ghosts like these all the time, and I cannot devote the time or energy to any of them that they truly deserve. But maybe, you can.
On Neverwinter Nights Offline, there is a series of Youtube videos where aulddragon plays it for four hours. The first video in the sequence follows. Check out that Gold Box combat style!
planet clue on Youtube posted a roundup of the many recreations of Disney’s defunct MMORPG Toontown Online, which range from strict remakes to expanded projects that add a considerable number of features to the original.
Fan-made MMORPG recreations and revivals, sadly, never manage to gain even a small fraction of the users of the originals. This is for several reasons, particularly the lack of ad budget, and a desire to stay partially under the radar, necessary to avoid legal reprisals from the original publisher–which, I remind you, in this case is Disney, the 2,000 lb. gorilla-mouse of lawsuits.
These F2P MMOs are a large part of many people’s childhoods though, and it’s inevitable that there be community interest in reviving them, if just to be able to visit old virtual stomping grounds once again. The people that I shed a tear for are those who played old Compuserve and AOL-era MMOs like Island of Kesmai (which exists in two fan-run forms, LOKFreedom and Lands of Kes) and, particularly, the original AOL-based Neverwinter Nights. But more on that tomorrow….
I think it’s possible that Disney will come to realize how many people have fond memories of Toontown Online, and also Club Penguin (which also has a fan revival), and bring them back after some time. They are not insensible to bringing in yet another revenue stream, and they’ve been open to revivals of other old video game properties of theirs like Ducktales Remastered. If that happens though, will they then launch their legal-nuclear missiles at the many fan remakes of Toontown Online? It remains to be seen.
This editorial doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of this blog. However, blogs don’t have views anyway, so what would that even mean?
This is a slightly edited version of a diatribe I emitted on mefi.social. I really want people to see it and think about what it means though.
A dismaying thing is how much of current gaming culture is locked behind Discords, and/or is revealed to the world only through Youtube videos.
These two phenomena are the result of the Myth of the Benevolent Corporation, which was largely started by early Google and their “Do No Evil” policy, which sustained the early web for a good while but itself did huge damage to online culture, and yet promises to do much much more, when they decided that profits mattered more.
When Youtube started, everyone saw it as a kind of miracle. In the early days videos were limited to 10 minutes, but even so they began attracting a huge amount of material. When they switch to just letting people upload anything for free, that exploded.
It’s not just gaming stuff that I’m talking about really, although as a popular fixation for people it’s kind of a hint of things to come. Lots of information is currently exposed to the world through Youtube videos and minidocs.
But Youtube has always been a time bomb for all this content. It’s inevitable that Youtube will someday begin deleting things. If not sooner, then later. Yet there are few entities capable of preserving all of it, or even most of it. All of this will [get destroyed] like [crying] in [a downpour].
Of course, it’s not like videos like these have any other hope as it stands. A collection of the incredible size of Youtube’s is so big that only a government could realistically do it, and most of those have their own issues when it comes to continuity of mission and funding.
But combined with Discords as a means of communication, and (bizarrely) information, a lot of online culture is currently a black box to outsiders, unless they sign up to dozens of miscellaneous Discords. And there is a limit to the number of servers you can follow, which is reputed to be 100. (It used to be that Google could get you a quick answer to a question like how many Discord servers can one user follow, but now I’m not sure.)
Social media companies, who all seem to be racing each other to make their services as crappy as possible to non-paying users, are no solution either.
Fediverse to the rescue! But no, a lot of it is transitory, sometimes intentionally so! In some circles even suggesting that Mastodon be just searchable, let alone preservable, will subject you to a storm of criticism. It’s true that being opaque to general search helps protect vulnerable users, a noble cause, but it also makes Mastodon’s discoverability very low. (One solution, which I think I mentioned here before, is an opt-in search solution called tootfinder, but it currently only goes back three months.)
And I don’t see many other people talking about this, even though the sudden decay of Twitter and Reddit has made this essential problem more visible than its been for a long time.
I feel like going onto every Discord I follow, gaming research ones in particular, and ringing alarm bells, but it’s a task just to find them out, and really what good would it do. People use Discord because it’s free and easy and they even maintain the server for you. These kinds of spaces have always relied on some patron to uphold them; the only real differences are before they were visible to search and the Wayback Machine, and now, it’s a single company that will increasingly hold access to these places obscured behind a storm of pleas to subscribe to Nitro, and someday will delete them entirely.
If you think I’m being hyperbolic, there are vast swaths of online culture that are already lost permanently: the Compuserve forums of the era immediately preceding the rise of the web. Compuserve was once the biggest online presence. And AOL, which grew to eclipse it in size, likewise holds (still? I don’t know, it’s on AOL!) a vast amount of early internet culture.
Newsgroup archives are a bit better off because of their openness, although nowadays it’s mostly seen as just a way to enable piracy.
Still, essential web services are at least preservable. The Fediverse resembles those, at least in principle, so it’s immediately better off than Discords and Youtube, for making old information findable, even if it’s currently really hard to do it (and some people are outright opposed to it).
It is time to wrap this all up. I say things like this frequently these days. Maybe someday someone will listen. The power and reach of the internet doesn’t have to rely on big companies. I also have qualms about the ability of a even a horde of individual servers to keep things going, mind you. All those dead links on all those surviving old websites, they once represented living projects too.
I think what we ultimately need is an independent organization that can keep up old sites and communities, and provide a place for new ones, maybe supported by donations, without the explicit profit motive of the bigcorps. Something that looks like the Internet Archive or Wikipedia. There’s places where you can host plain websites even today, like the Tildeverse (but its individual pieces, like Fediverse servers, always feel like they could vanish at any time), ancient-yet-still-here Angelfire (of which, like the Lycos it’s a part of, it’s amazing still survives), or the newer, enthusiast-focused Neocities (which too has no guarantee of longevity).
Companies can live longer than people, or their interest cycles. It doesn’t feel right that something like a website require someone to dedicate their life to maintaining it, but due to the dysfunctional way our economic has come to see companies (involving the hateful words fiduciary duty) are also vulnerable to the winds of change. It feels like a non-profit, or at least a durable privately-held company that isn’t pushed by rapacious groups to chase every profit lead no matter how disastrous, may be a solution. I don’t know if it really is, though. I’m just watching this, mostly from the outside. I hope someone can do something though, to overturn the cold tides of entropy. I really do.
Long, long ago, three full ages before Zuckerberg’s doomed Metaverse, there was Lucasarts, formerly Lucasfilm Games, and Maniac Mansion, and the SCUMM engine.
Lucasarts went on to have a long legacy of adventure games, and while it’s gone now and most of its progeny is owned by some mouse creature, it survives in a number of forms, like the upcoming Monkey Island re-revival.
Another legacy of Lucasarts and SCUMM is what is possibly the first graphical MUD, called Habitat.
What? You don’t know what a MUD is, or a MOO or a MUCK? A lot of knowledge is in danger of being lost, but we don’t have time to remind you of rudiments here.
Habitat was an early experiment in online communities, a server-based virtual world whose clients were Commodore 64s. In appearance it looks a whole lot like a multiplayer version of Maniac Mansion.
It never went public, but did eventually become a paid feature, in modified form. on the C64 online service QuantumLink under the name Club Caribe. Then, with the wane of the Commodore 64 as a viable platform, QuantumLink closed their servers and rebranded as America On-Line, a.k.a. AOL. And that is not only history at this point, but ancient history. Read more about it here.
While there was still competition in the dial-up online service space, two creators of Habitat, Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar, partnered with Fujitsu to have another go at a Habitat-style service, this time called WorldsAway. They partnered with AOL competitor CompuServe, and didn’t do badly for a while.
There’s all kinds of things to talk about here, and I have rather more knowledge than most because I was involved with this, I was volunteer staff at the flagship WorldsAway world, called Dreamscape. I was a participant in the CompuServe forum before the main service even opened, I spend an entire night on the phone as a teen, our old 486DX running Windows 3.11 downloading the client software.
WorldsAway was basically my life for a few years. It could be incredibly addicting, and spirits were high in the early days. There was a feeling of being at the forefront of something. The Internet was just starting to become really big. Who knew what it would become?
What happened to WorldsAway is a story, one that I’m probably not qualified to tell. I know there were problems with business management even from the start. The world staff was constantly said to be fighting with higher-ups, who wanted to cheapen or diminish the project. In size, certainly, the initial world Dreamscape never got anywhere as large as what we hoped for. Even compared to the size of its Commodore 64 predecessor Club Caribe, it was pretty small.
It’s said that they were a west coast operation, and many of their staffers were queer. One of the eventual spinoff worlds that WorldsAway would spawn was explicitly queer-friendly. Given the successes and continued struggles of queer-friendly media on the internet today, I feel like WA’s acceptance of alternate lifestyles should probably be better known.
I still have a couple of friends from those days. Others I’ve sadly lost touch with. A few friends from that time, notably Tiggles, Esme, and Rosaleah, have departed our physical world as well. Maybe some comfort could be had in the idea that maybe they’re users in some higher-order reality, who may have logged-off of our world, but are still out there in a more profound form. If they’re out there and somehow seeing this: please spare a thought for me. I’ll be back out there some day.
The Reno Project is a website devoted to preserving as much of those early projects, those ancient times, as possible. You could immerse yourself in the screenshots there, and dream of a past era that barely was. One of its competitors at the time, which is a bit better known today, is The Palace. One other service that still exists that competed with it is There, although good luck making an account (I tried). And Second Life of course continues to chug along. All of these things seem to me like more worthy projects than Zuckerberg’s latest progeny.
This isn’t intended to be a big meaty article, but it’s worth noting that three online services from the 80s through early 2000s, the old Commodore 64 service QuantumLink, and both its successor America On-Line and AOL’s rival Prodigy, have experiences something of a revival in recent years.
The QuantumLink experience can be had with new servers using client software available from the QuantumLink Reloaded project. It provides software that can be used to interface with their servers running on either a real Commodore 64 (with PC software acting as an intermediary) or the VICE emulator.
I must emphasize that none of these services are hosted by their original companies or any rights-holders. They are all fanwork, and because of the ridiculous extents of copyright in this era could easily be wiped off the map without even a lawsuit, with a simple Cease and Desist. But until that happens (if ever), please enjoy.
Sadly, there is no word of a similar revival for former online leader CompuServe, which was my own early online hangout. AOL bought them in the late 90s, and, bizarrely, still puppets a compuserve.com site, which it loads with generic news for people who have yet to figure out that a much wider internet exists.
In any event, none of these projects or sites can hold a candle to cyber1, which seeks to recreate the experience and the software of the old PLATO systems from the 1970s.