For the vast majority of my youth, I wasn’t allowed to own a video game console. My parents had received a lot of bad information about its dangers, and in their desire to forge a healthy happy youngling, they made some choices that I would call misguided. I had, however, a computer, the internet, and friends who were passionately into games. The stage was set for me to become enamored with a kind of game that is now all but extinct- the Multi-User Dungeon (MUD).
MUDs did not require a capable machine, they did not require special software, and they did not require money. All they required was the internet, and the skill to operate them. To one gifted on both accounts, they would bestow a world of wonders- a land full of monsters, quests, mysteries, and as many players as cared to connect to it. They were the grandfathers of the MMO genre- dozens of players in a persistent world, leveling, playing together, and overcoming challenges. There were MUDs for every type of interest- Tolkien-esque fantasy, science fiction, modern life. You could immerse yourself in the world of Star Wars, hide from Predators and Aliens, or summon Bahamut in a recreated realm of Final Fantasy.
There was only one catch- no pictures. MUDs were entirely text- you typed what you wanted to do, and the game wrote a response. No visual design to guide you, no easy and intuitive buttons to control your character, and in all but a few cases no sounds to offer audio feedback. Some of them didn’t even have colored text to help emphasis words. They often didn’t have matching commands to control them, they had tutorials of widely varying effectiveness, and even once you knew how to play, it was so obtuse that you sometimes got killed because of a typo.
For all these cons, however, there was a world of freedom that is to this day unmatched in gaming. They were worlds where words were all that mattered, and anything you could make with words, you could do. I built my own armor and weapons- not stock blueprints, but written by me to appear as I wanted them to. I bought a house, which came with no description, and rewrote its interior to appear as a slick studio apartment of steel and cherry oak. I hacked the bank accounts of other players, I got a bounty placed on my head, I summoned monsters, and so much more.
As the years went on, MUDs began to fade from popularity. At first, this was welcome- the only people leaving were the fair-weathers, and the hardcore had the place all to themselves. There were times where I played MUDs that I knew everyone in, and everyone knew me. My name was spoken knowingly- occasionally as a curse, but more often with a laugh. We were all friends, and we reveled in what we knew that others didn’t: the understanding of these obtuse worlds, and how to make the most of them. While others played their early attempts at MMOs, worlds beyond the features in our MUDs, we were not at all jealous.
I can’t for certain say when it all collapsed, but in my memory it’s about the time that World of Warcraft hit. For the first time, there was an online game whose gameplay and features could compare to a MUD, and yet it was so pretty. After staring at ASCII for so long, the stylized graphics of WoW and other big MMOs began to draw people away. The already small community of MUDs evaporated, including myself- though I didn’t get hooked on WoW for a long time, seeing the MUDs I loved empty and playerless drove me away. I gave up on them.
They aren’t completely dead. A few of the bigger MUDs, like Materia Magica, limp on. It’s eerie enough to go back into a world like that, remembering how it used to have hundreds of people on at once, and see how few are on now. But even creepier are the vegetables- MUDs that no one plays anymore, but that nevertheless still run. A server in someone’s closet, forgotten, running a world with no people. There are a disturbing number of these abandoned worlds, unable to rest so long as their host keeps breathing.
It’s an ignoble existence for such wondrous places. Modern MMOs still have not achieved the heights of gameplay that some MUDs achieved. I’ve never seen a world as big as Materia Magica. I’ve never played PvP as intense as Alien vs. Predator MUD. I’ve never felt as proud as I did taking down a big bounty in Cowboy Bebop: Space Cowboy. They were worlds without limits… except perhaps the limits of player interest. The dangers of unintuitive design were never so apparent, or so tragic.
Here’s to all my text adventure homies. May your autoloot always be set to on.