I first played World of Warcraft in November 2005. It was getting cold, suggesting that in my efforts to woo the man who later became my husband, it would be best to take up indoor pursuits versus our long frigid walks in the predawn neighborhoods surrounding our college. My first attempt to induct him into the realms of MMOs had not gone well: FFXI had bored us both on multiple levels, and the free Guild Wars 2 disks slipped under all our doors as part of an advertising blitz hadn’t mesmerized us for long, either. Enter, then, WoW, which both of us had heard of but neither had played. Nor did we know anyone else who played. We entered with fresh eyes, each other’s only known players, and we bought it right when it looked like I was about to leave for Germany for a year. We wanted to keep in contact.
I didn’t end up making it to Germany, but we didn’t end up dropping WoW just because we still lived down the street from one another. In 2007, we stood out in a blizzard for the midnight release of the Burning Crusade expansion, and logged in 3000 miles away from each other to play Wrath of the Lich King within hours of its release in 2008 (my mother opened the box she’d purchased on my instructions, and read me over Skype the codes I needed to start my download). We played both Alliance and Horde (though retained a private penchant for the latter), as various groups of friends and relatives entered the game on one side or the other, and between us have made alts of just about every class (though I’ve yet to play a mage or, bizarrely given my preference for hybrid classes, a shaman). We joined guilds and then left them as they fell apart or became too dramatic to stomach; we vegged out and chatted while grinding or fishing (which is, let’s be honest, just another form of grinding), in wildly different timezones and resultant levels of energy. We abandoned the game twice, once in 2006 when carpal tunnel syndrome rendered my wrists useless, and again in 2010 when my return from Japan and the cramming of a two-year grad school program into a single year made the time constraints untenable. We moved on to prettier games (like LotRO) with better PVP (like ESO), and steadfastly resisted the lure of more expansions like 2012’s Mists of Pandaria and 2014’s Warlords of Draenor. But recently, faced with cooling temperatures that in our AC-less house again allows for extended periods of time in the otherwise too-hot computer room, combined with glowing recommendations from friends, we picked up WoW again with Legion.
And…it’s good to be back.
It’s good, and it’s strange. Nowhere else are we able to return to things as they were when we were once so familiar with them. Our town has been rebuilt. Our college has been restructured. The various houses we used to live in — sold, repurposed, or (in one case, long after we’d left) burnt down. The cars we drove, rusted out and sold for scrap. The professors retired, the friends far away, the places we ate and drank and read closed, closed, closed: such was the way of things in one of the recession’s worst-hit areas.
Recession or no recession, though, this is normal. I get that. “You can’t go back,” as everyone from Higuchi Ichiyo to Thomas Wolfe tells readers time after time. Towns reinventing themselves after you’ve been away from them is normal. Shops and even schools closing is normal — regrettable, but normal. Everything passing away and on, hopefully to something better but inevitably to something different, is so utterly normal. But being able to return and see the same “people” you joked at or about, over a decade ago, occupying the same deserted outpost on the plains, entertaining the same bone-headed delusions of fantastical grandeur? That’s not normal. That’s the space people dream about, but never achieve.
But that is the strange space we find ourselves in. Maybe it shouldn’t feel so different than replaying a static, non-online game years after one’s first (or second, or third, or tenth) playthrough, but it does. People still populate the world. Gen chat still overflows with individuals winsome and less so, except that the references you see there now are topical. The political jokes, the memes, the slang — those have changed. So, too, have some game mechanics, mostly for the good it’s true. But the NPCs, [or most of them, given Cataclysm] the towns, the quests…the form and shape and even largely the content is the same. Trolls still warn you about the voodoo, orcs still go on and on about their precious war machine, and the undead just want to kill everyone, and none of their living, very-much-not-undead allies seem bothered by this.
Some things are markedly different. Communication is way, way down. No one talks in groups anymore. Usually at least you’d say hi when you showed up via the group finder in whatever dungeon, but no more: we might as well be talking to walls. They don’t even read our text, barrelling blindly on into mobs without listening to our (repeated) warnings about waiting for the freaking tank to make the pull. They don’t read, they don’t talk, they don’t listen. Groupmembers are largely on autopilot, and it makes us feel old. It makes me feel old. Back in the day, such behavior would be reported on the suspicion of the player being a bot, operated by a program to run around either gaining experience (in order for the character to be sold [illegally] online) or gathering resources, again to sell. Nowadays, that’s just how people are.
But still, we keep playing. We’ve made it to Outland by now and are so close to WotLK’s Northrend and its beloved musical accompaniment that I can taste it. The people I know who are all the way to Legion content sing its praises, to be sure, but while I’m looking forward to the newness of it I’m not really in a rush to get there. I’ve never been a great fan of WoW’s endgame, with its forced chores of dailies and raids with people I neither know nor, upon coming to know them, like much. Endgame, in the past, always boiled down to mindless repetition and stats and people yelling over voice chat in raids. Whereas what interested me was the exploration, the long journeys between point A and point B, the rare spawns causing sudden delighted detours on your errands. Hilarious quests, awesome drops, landscapes that remind me of this or that place I may never visit again for years.
Maybe though, given the way levels 1-60 have gone so far, I’ll miss the abrasive voices by the time endgame rolls around. Maybe we’ll sign ourselves up for another drama-ridden cesspool of a guild again and endure late nights and flippant asides on voice chat for a chance at that rare mount drop. Maybe we’ll feel like college kids once more, even though we’re tired and have to work eight hours in the morning. And the morning after that, and the morning after that…
Or maybe, as fans of Legion keep saying, it will be different.
Either way, we’ve been able to step back into a world preserved, for the most part, in the dubiously lasting amber of the pay-to-play MMO. And that ability to return has already been worth it.