In the musical Brigadoon, the people of a Scottish highland town seal themselves off from society after a preacher entreats God not to let the modern world corrupt the good thing they have going. The town resurfaces through the mists once every 100 years, and, this being a fairy tale, there are rules. No one can leave. No one can move in unless they truly love a member of the town (and not just Brigadoon itself). And that one day every 100 years is all you get. If you leave Brigadoon after falling in love—as the musical’s protagonist does—you’re dooming yourself to a life of drunken evenings, a never-ending bender intent on phantasms.
In her book Communities Of Play, an examination of what happens to the cultures that build up around online games after they go dark, author Celia Pearce focuses on those who were forced to leave the game Uru: Ages Beyond Myst when it shut down. Pearce names this movement the “Uru diaspora,” and it’s not hard to see the diaspora, futilely trying to recreate their favorite game space in other games that don’t quite match up, as something akin to that Brigadoon protagonist. They’re waiting for the mists to clear, for a server to boot up, so they might step back into their memories.
When an online world shuts down, it’s not just the end of a game. It’s the end of a community, and it sets in motion a race against time to preserve that which will never be again.
Glitch, a utopian browser-based online game produced by the independent outfit Tiny Speck, headed up by Flickr mogul Stewart Butterfield, closed on Dec. 9. It’s silly for me to be as heartbroken as I am. All told, I’ve spent three months or so playing Glitch on a daily-to-weekly basis, and most of those sessions were short. My wife played more extensively, building up a massive bank account within the game and making a number of friends, but she, too, let her interest in the game slide.
It’s tough to describe the rules and goals of Glitch, because there was so little of them—at least in the traditional sense. A typical Glitch session usually began with the player hanging out in his or her house, feeding pigs, tending to a garden, and watering trees. From there, the session would usually lead out to the larger world of Ur, for exploring the depths of the world’s ocean or bounding through its treetops in search of cash, energy, and experience. The game also had some very light puzzle-solving—usually basic color-matching games—and you could build your character’s abilities, though players didn’t need to invest any actual effort to learn particular skills. Simply clicking on “animal husbandry” or “meditation” would then add that skill (and whatever abilities came with it) to the queue—then it was a matter of waiting. Your character could “learn” even when you weren’t playing Glitch; it’s how I learned almost everything on the knowledge tree earlier this year despite rarely signing into the game.
Glitch was doomed to be a beautiful dream shared by a passionate cult, not the mainstream success it would have needed to be to keep funding its development. The game became too big, too fast—the team at Tiny Speck was large for a startup. I could come up with dozens of reasons, both for why we drifted from the game and for why it probably failed. Butterfield, for his part, contributed about a dozen of his own in a recent interview with Gamasutra, noting most crucially that the game had been programmed using Adobe Flash, which kept it from being ported to mobile devices. The game launched and unlaunched and didn’t market itself and eventually confused so many players that there was probably no way it could ever have succeeded, particularly when it was such a cult-y thing to begin with. And yet the news that Glitch is going away guts me.
In a 1996 paper, researcher Richard Bartle boiled the players of MUDs (the early text-based predecessors to the online multiplayer games of today) down to the following four categories: killers, achievers, socializers, and explorers. Anyone who’s played an online role-playing game will recognize all four categories among the people they’ve met. What made Glitch different was that it wanted to heavily weight its world toward players in the latter two categories. It was impossible to kill anyone, and if you wanted to climb the leaderboards, you’d likely wind up in a place where there wasn’t much left to do. (This, ultimately, contributed to my wife leaving the game.) In the Gamasutra interview, Butterfield said that it was hard to get many players to grasp that the point of the game was making your own fun. Too many people quit when they finished the tutorial and wondered what the hell they were supposed to do next.
The beauty of Glitch, however, wasn’t in its “hardcore” appeal. It was in the idea that if you gave people the right tools and got out of their way, they would naturally build a world based on kindness. The term “emergent” got thrown around a lot in discussions of Glitch—meaning play that emerged from the players’ experimentation rather than by the specific intentions of the designers. The game was weird and whimsical, prompting players to milk butterflies and grind spices to make salt, ideas that might have seemed counterintuitive to new players who just wanted to go to the grocery store and buy some goddamn salt.
That weird whimsy extended to the game’s backstory, which involved 11 dreaming giants who were imagining the universe—called Ur—and required the players’ help to expand it. It was all meant to be an invitation to take the tools Tiny Speck had made and see what could be done with them. For those who were able to get into that mindset, the game was immense fun, allowing players to all but invent the game they wanted to play. Achievers could race up the leaderboard. Explorers could race all over a constantly expanding world, filled with gorgeous art and even better music.
It was the socializers who got the most out of Glitch, though. The game rewarded kindness. My first night playing, someone gave me 10,000 currants (the Glitch currency), because that’s just what was done around Ur. It wasn’t uncommon for players to hand over valuable items to less skilled players or host massive parties in their Ur homes. Particularly as the game neared its end, Glitch became seemingly all about socializing. Flocks of players would race through the trees, collecting this and that, because everyone surrounding the person who collected the item received an offshoot of that item—a kindness bonus.
Glitch had its roots in a previous project its core team had worked on, called Game Neverending, a game that lasted about three months before ending. Neverending was fabled for its community and conversations, and Tiny Speck was intent on recreating that aspect in Glitch, almost as if trying to will its own Brigadoon back to life. Glitch was the first game I ever played where altruism was the best way to win.
In its last days, Ur became a giant garbage dump. Players left behind whatever inventory they had, the better to let the lower-level players check out the best toys. Tiny Speck itself planted ultra-rare items—like a “Glitchmas Yeti,” only available in the Christmastime beta from 2010—so those of us who never got to see them can take a look. The company’s cheeky sense of humor also re-emerged, as horse prophets of doom—Forehorsemen—appeared to portend the looming shutdown.
My wife and I returned for the final weekend, to get a better sense of the place and figure out why we’re so sad to have it vanish. By all accounts, Tiny Speck, which is offering full refunds to players who are upset at the game closing down, is handling the closure of the game as well as such a thing can be handled. (There are even Indiegogo projects that will preserve the game’s art and music—both fully funded.)
Yet last weekend, the diaspora was already forming. On the game’s forums, players were trying to find another game that will give them the blend of whimsy and kindness that Glitch nailed. They kept coming up short. In Ur, more and more of those who had drifted away, like my wife and me, returned to find each other and reminisce. And all over, the notes. Tiny Speck community manager Kevin Collins has collected a small number of notes that littered the world of Ur at the end, but he’s unable to capture the full sense of apocalyptic terror and yearning for an improbable savior that many of the notes had.
Glitch was popular with couples, particularly those in long-distance relationships. When I asked on the forums for players to e-mail me their stories, most revolved around the people met in-game, or around real-life relationships bolstered by a fun, quiet space in which people could hang out and go on weird little quests. (I occasionally used Glitch to occasionally spend time with a friend from Malaysia I’ve never met.) And many talked about how they hoped the world will go on, even though the giants were awakening.
Before the end, my wife, who had been my tour guide, got booted off and couldn’t get back in. I ended up standing in an out-of-the-way corner of the map with a stranger. We exchanged goodbyes, the final song began, and I went home one last time. The world ended not in fire or ice, but in a server reset.
At the end of Brigadoon, love conquers all. The guy goes back to where the village was, even though it’s months later, and there’s the preacher, waiting to bring him back to the girl. What happened at the end of Glitch is nothing like that. The posters on the forum stand where they saw the village, but all they get are vague assurances that Tiny Speck will go on. Game Neverending resurfaced for one day in 2008. It’s unlikely that Glitch will ever have even that brief moment of rebirth.
When I reviewed Glitch for The A.V. Club, I offhandedly said that its mythology was “stupid.” If there’s any part of that review I wish I could take back, it’s that. At the time, it seemed like the mythos was just an excuse for weirdness, but as Glitch evolved and developed, it became evident that this mythos was a link into the game’s soul. The older it got, the more Glitch exemplified a kind of nostalgia for a world that had never been. It was a game suffused with melancholy and startling beauty, and even its lighthearted moments came tinged with sadness. There were quests dedicated to the act of remembering, to simply looking back at a perfect autumn’s day or remembering a time when one tiny believer reunited the giants. Glitch didn’t want to provide players with cheap thrills. It wanted to give players emotional wholeness, the ability to look at that which they didn’t like about themselves and realize it was vital to who they were.
The more you wandered Ur and chatted with people, the more they, under cover of their Muppet-like avatars, opened up about themselves. Some were hurting, physically or mentally. Some hated their jobs. Some had never been able to find a place where they belonged. They’d all found a world in Glitch that didn’t judge—a kind of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood for adults, where off-color jokes were the norm, but so was forgiveness. By not being yourself, you could be yourself.
The world—and the internet, while I’m thinking about it—is cruel and random and cynical. Maybe Glitch grew more nostalgic and melancholic as it got older because Tiny Speck understood it could never last as it was. This second childhood was going to end eventually. What remains is a dream shared among thousands: an uncertain hope for a kinder, loving world.