VIRTUAL WORLDS
The week of June 28, 2015
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Returning to ‘Avalon,’ the text-based dungeon game some never left

By Chris Stokel-Walker

Bridgette Leske-Heed was 25 when she first set foot in Avalon. It was 1996, and she never planned to find herself there. It was an accident, born out of anger. She’d been frustrated by her then-husband spending hours at his computer. While he cavorted through a text-based fantasy world set in the Middle Ages, she had to look after a newborn son and a 4-year-old daughter. She confronted him, and he, unrepentant, replied simply: Try it for yourself.

Soon she was hooked. “I learned how to juggle a baby on my lap and play,” says Leske-Heed, now a near-20-year veteran of the the Avalon world, living in rural Pennsylvania. “All it did was get us two dial-up phone lines and two computers, at which point I quickly bypassed him in fighting and respect and city status, and he pretty much lost interest.”

Avalon is a text-based multi-user dungeon (MUD) conjured up by Yehuda Simmons (who goes by the in-game name Genesis) in 1989. The game then was much the same as it is now: vast plains of text tumbling up a dark screen, the unfolding of an alternate universe. It began before the world came online; Simmons rented office space in central London to welcome players without home Internet connections. The office space—branded hostplay and eventually shut down in 1994—had 20 or 30 screens and stayed open 24/7.

“We had a pool table at a quid a game ($1.52 in 1993 money) and a Coke machine that was very profitable,” says Simmons. People came to play together, in real life, while peering through their screens into another world.

More than a quarter-century later, the latest and greatest video games boast about realistic physics, high-definition graphics, and full-motion video sequences. But players still journey to Avalon, where the the fanciest onscreen widgets are small icons for abilities and inventory, and your quest begins with a Shakespeare quote—Prospero’s “our little life is rounded with a sleep” speech from The Tempest—and an ASCII rendering of a hand clutching a sword.

Avalon shouldn’t be popular; it shouldn’t have an active, committed core of players.

Avalon shouldn’t be popular; it shouldn’t have an active, committed core of players—not if we believe all the received wisdom about gamers’ demands for the next new thing. A video game console generation is obsoleted in five to seven years; PC games last as long as the current cycle of video cards.

Yet Avalon arrived in 1989 and seems a neverending work, as Genesis tinkers with the mechanics and introduces more fundamental changes. (The first character you meet now mentions “the Google scrolls” when asking how you heard about the game—a concession to the present day.) Launched at the same time as the Sega Genesis, it still holds an audience today, albeit a dedicated core of around 100 players.

How can a virtual world persist for more than 25 years? How does it compete with other, newer options? And why does Avalon mean so much to this small group of people?

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Unlike today’s MMOG’s—remember, that’s “massively multiplayer online game”—Avalon never became a huge, impersonal place.

Today, the website routinely claims between 90 and 100 players online at a time. Leske-Heed likes the small player base and the chance for personal connections, too. “I’ve tried one other MUD and I find our player base is smaller than theirs,” she says, “but I find it more personal and more inviting as a whole.” The world of Avalon is small enough to feel like a genuine community.

Sam Kendall is another longtime player who feels a part of that community. At 26 and living in a small seaside town on the southwest coast of Wales, he’s barely older than the game itself. “It’s not the huge numbers of Warcraft,” he says, “or even 300 online in an Iron Realms game, but this is where the fundamental idea that one player can make a difference really comes home.” And in some cases, players find their Avalon lives intertwining with their everyday lives.

“It’s imagination, fundamentally: You don’t have to see what’s going on—you can imagine it, and it’s written in such a way that the words fly off the page.”

Back in 2009, Kendall met a game character who felt suspiciously familiar. Though she was new to the world, she clearly wasn’t new to the game. He suspected she was an in-game friend he hadn’t seen for a year. “You get to know people well enough to judge that sort of thing, and I knew straight away it was her,” he says. He told her he knew her; she admitted it. They kept talking. A year and a half ago, they started a relationship, and now they’re engaged to be married.

In the game, she’s the complete opposite of Kendall. He’s a military commander, the fighting type, and she’s a beanstacker, a merchant, always wanting to make money. “It’s interesting to see how we clash,” he says, “how we have different priorities. I’m one of a dozen or so examples of people who have met their real-life husbands and wives in the game.”

Kendall’s fiancée calls him a word nerd. He’s fine with that title: After all, Avalon is a world built of words, and many players are avid, voracious readers. “It’s written pretty much entirely in purple prose, and I love reading,” he says. Newbies are dropped in front of the great Parrian library, described as “a massive granite building, with a portico set with huge, sculpted columns […] set atop a incline [sic] clad with emerald lawn and sculpted, perfumed shrubs.”

Leske-Heed compares that purple-hued writing to the 7-million-players-strong World of Warcraftand finds the latter lacking. “There’s no imagination with WoW,” she says. “You see it, and it’s there. Here, you have to imagine what the person, their character, looks like; how they’re standing there in front of you; how the area around you looks. All the areas have descriptions, but even reading the descriptions, you’re not going to make the picture in your mind as the next guy.”

“I think it’s easier to become a hotel manager than to become a deity in Avalon.”

“It’s a tired cliché, but it’s true,” Kendall says. “It’s imagination, fundamentally: You don’t have to see what’s going on—you can imagine it, and it’s written in such a way that the words fly off the page.” Simmons says the game is the book compared to World of Warcraft’s blockbuster movie.

And what’s more, you’re writing the book. And you’re the main character. “It was the first game with its own history—player-written, by the things they do, not the things they invent,” he says.

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Andrew Johnson was one of those players. He loved reading, even though his books were in Braille. Blind from birth, he discovered Avalon at 13, drawn in by the language. “It was so evocative,” he says. “I felt like it really put me in there, the way you do in a good book: It’ll just—I don’t want to say escapist, but it puts you into the character in a real way, and not a forced method. It could show, rather than tell.”

When he arrived, Johnson created a persona called Agarwain, a misspelling of the Lord of the Rings character. He uses text-to-speech software to “read” the game to him; he’s fiercely competitive, and because his eyes can’t flit between the scrolling lines of text, he kept getting killed in battle. Soon enough, he cranked up his software reader from 150 words per minute to nearer to 800.

Now 25, he lives in Boston, Massachusetts, and competes for the United States Para-Rowing team. He rowed in London at the 2012 Paralympics and hopes to return next year. Avalon lets him burn off steam between races. “It gives me a different mental outlet for all the stress and energy,” he admits. “It actually helps my racing a lot.”

Apart from stress relief, the game offers him a sense of camaraderie. It’s a small community, and “all the stuff you do actually matters to people,” he says. “It’s not quite like going out for a beer with someone, but it’s close. And that feeling is there because the characters you create have fantasy names and fantastical skills, but you still have to plow fields for your food, or buy water to live. You don’t have to shoot the shit in the local taverns, but it’s encouraged.”

“It was the first game with its own history—player-written, by the things they do, not the things they invent.”

“I don’t know if it’s like other games, you know,” Johnson offers tentatively. “I don’t have a lot of experience with the World of Warcrafts and the Call of Dutys. I think there’s a sense, though, with all of those, that you keep yourself at arm’s length. You stand above the fray, almost.

“But with Avalon, I feel like you’re very much in it,” he says. The text input and freeform story offer a different kind of immersion, in a world defined only by the player’s imagination. “You would think it’d feel more real if you were looking at it, right? That’s closer to how you interact with the rest of the world. [Avalon] demands some imagination, and you have to be open to that.”

“The story is defined by the players,” Johnson adds. “You have agency over it. Why do we not get bored of living, you know?”

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“A time sink is the best word for it,” says Sam Kendall. He’s a hotel manager, seeing guests come and go. It’s a rewarding job. But, he admits: “It’s so much easier to get immersed in what I’m going to do in Avalon tonight than what I’m doing in work, which probably shouldn’t be the case. But it is, and you’ll find a lot of the players will be the same.”

I ask Kendall what’s been his biggest achievement: Getting the job as the hotel manager, or becoming an immortal in the game (players are split between mortals—the everyday rank and file—and immortals, more experienced players who have contributed significantly to the world). Initially he demurs, saying it’s a difficult question. Then he answers a different question: “I think it’s easier to become a hotel manager than to become a deity in Avalon.” He pauses for a second. “I’m more proud of becoming a deity; judge that as you will.”

Many games seek to evoke that kind of pride among their players, that kind of connection to a make-believe world. Few succeed. Bridgette Leske-Heed remembers her first days, nearly 20 years ago. She’d log on, get beaten to a pulp, log on, get beaten… rinse and repeat. But she kept coming back, day after day, because the game struck at her pride—her real-life pride.

“I can still remember the day I killed the person who killed me day after day after day,” she says, laughing. “I went running round my house like a crazy person, because I had finally accomplished something.”

It was real, that feeling—memorable even two decades later. And getting there didn’t require ragdoll physics or a 3D-rendered world. It was just words and imagination, a single line of text in an unassuming browser window.

Illustration by J. Longo