Once upon a time, There was Ultima Online. There was no Second Age, there was no Renaissance, and no Third Dawn. There were no “safe lands” and there were no shortcuts to the GrandMastery of any skill. A grandmaster was exactly what the term indicates: someone who devoted themselves to a specific skill and becoming one of the best in that skill. It was the equivalent of leveling 50 on EverQuest: something people looked at with empty hopes, striving for that goal that always seemed impossible, improbable, and a million miles away. Ultima Online was a harsh, cold, and dangerous world full of adversity and relentless toil. Becoming a GrandMaster scribe was laughable – very few players had the bankroll to even attempt such status.
I read Fear’s lament and it reminded me of that first year of Ultima Online. The bank of Britain was a marketplace of players trying to sell items to one another, and if you needed something, you’d stand a good chance of finding it. One of the things I most often needed in those days were mark scrolls and recall scrolls. Why? Well because you see, raising magery was next to impossible. Scrolls were the way to fly in those days. Every friday I’d head to the mage tower in Britain and there they would be, the Scribes. It was always the same five or six, and I can almost hear the scribbling sounds as they drifted from my speakers. For about ten gold apiece I’d buy my weekly stock of recalls. It always took a few minutes for my order to be ready so I’d stand around and listen to the bantering. The scribes all had their own spots staked out, always standing in their usual places, and always it was the same group of five or six. Friendships and bonds developed as players honed their skills and once in a while, gained .1 in the skill. Communities are not formed by sign-up sheets, and they are not formed by searching google.com for “Ultima Guild Chesapeake.” They aren’t formed because you are in the same faction, and they aren’t born because you both have houses next to one another. What makes a community? Adversity. Yes, Adversity. Shared adversity binds people together against a common ail, and creates bonds that last lifetimes.
Yesterday something occurred to me for the first time. It had always been there, but I had never taken note. There was a non-descript “something” going on in Ultima Online that I felt inside, but never could identify; or rather, it was something not going on. I identified it for the first time last night as I was rushing past the mage tower of Britain.
It was the silence.
Void of all players, and quiet as a gravesite was the mage tower of Britain. But much more than that, the community that I saw and often envied had packed up and moved away. No more was the playful banter back and forth, and the rare but festive celebration when somebody actually managed to raise a skill by one tenth of a point. No more was the chirping of quills on parchment as they scribbled out an endless string of scrolls. I can’t even remember what I was doing that day; I only remember the sudden feeling of loss, and something inside that was as empty as that once crowded streetcorner in Britain.
They say you can never go back home again, and largely that is true. The house where my father grew up was torn down decades ago and a factory was planted. We’ve become a society without our touchstones, without anchors that hold us firmly in place and give us a feeling of belonging – of community. Perhaps that’s what has troubled me about Ultima Online the past year; not that there haven’t been grand improvements badly needed, but some of the changes have come at a price. It is great to be able to log in and raise a skill from 89.9 to 92.2 in one hour, but that has come at the cost of our familiarity with one another, our bonding together against the overwhelming adversity of GrandMastery. It has come at the cost of our community.
So as I sit here tonight pondering my upcoming review for Ultima Online: Third Dawn*, I’m excited about many of the new features, dissapointed in a few of them, and all the while, I’m just missing that community it once represented to me. In the words of Frank Sinatra, as he took the stage for his final concert, “I guess I just miss my boys.” Dean was gone, Sammy too. He was the last surviving member of the Rat Pack, and I suppose I know how he felt. Sometimes, being the last survivor isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be.
I miss Dunston, Ed, Kyrren, and the others. Alot.
Hope you’re doing okay, guys. Email me sometime.
*it looks like I might not be able to come through with that for those of you who have been waiting, and the reasons will become clear with the passing of time. Trust me.