Don’t Cry for Me, Elanthia: An Archaeology of Gemstone III
Once dead, your options are somewhat limited.
—Nora Melton, “Injury and Death,” Gemstone III User Guide, May, 1996
When I was twelve, I found a crystal amulet that allowed me to telepathically communicate across vast distances. A telltale glint of quartz had caught my eye as I strode the coastal cliffs of Elanthia. I scaled the rock face and discovered a glowing amulet half-buried in white sand. I looped it around my neck. Then I headed back to town, curious to learn more.
Or, at least, my character did. When I was twelve I was hopelessly obsessed with a text-based online role-playing game on America Online. It was called Gemstone III.
What follows is a reconstruction of a lost archive. As our collective memories of virtual communities age—as we move from digital pasts stretching back a few years to ones stretching back decades—they begin to acquire the patina of nostalgia that comes with generational time. The internet is old now. Our memories of it are becoming old too. And experiences online that seemed silly not so long ago are transmuting with age, becoming not just nostalgic, but suffused with a sense of cultural distance, of times lost that won’t return again.
Those digital days roaming the Elanthian sea cliffs are authentic memories: they “count” for me in the same way that childhood days on the beach do. I used to be embarrassed about this, seeing it as evidence of a squandered adolescence bathed in cathode rays. But now I see it differently. Items destined to become treasured antiques usually seem like junk in the years following their technological obsolescence—witness the vinyl records traded in for CDs, the proud galleon dry-docked to make way for the pokey steamship, the wooden gramophone, the vintage typewriter.
Gemstone III used to be an obsolete technology. Now it’s an antique.
This is the heart of the main square of Wehnimer’s Landing. The impromptu shops of the bazaar are clustered around this central gathering place, where townfolk, travellers, and adventurers meet to talk, conspire or raise expeditions to the far-flung reaches of Elanthia. At the north end of the space, an old well, with moss-covered stones and a craggy roof, is shaded by a strong, robust tree. The oak is tall and straight, and it is apparent that the roots run deep. You also see a copper lockpick, a heavy backpack, a large acorn and some stone benches.
It’s easy to forget how banal the early web was. Strip away the dancing baby gifs, the legions of Angelfire sites, the novelty webcams of pandas and weather, and Zombo.com, and you were basically just left to roam a barren landscape of pornography and placeholder sites for businesses. The web itself, in fact, wasn’t where the action was in 1996. Walled garden services like AOL and Compuserve flourished because they provided the human-friendly touch that the early world wide web lacked. They had instant messaging before anyone else did. They had chat rooms with moderators and searchable fora. They had prize giveaways. And most of all, they had games.
Gemstone III, created in Missouri by a young programmer and D&D fan named David Whatley, swiftly rose to the top ranks of AOL games upon its introduction in September of 1995. Writing in the New York Times last year, the novelist Tao Lin recalled his own first encounter with Gemstone III, which he remembers playing five to six hours a day in suburban Florida in 1996. On the surface, he writes, “I was probably most interested in the prospects of solitary exploration. But I’d like to think that I was also compelled by forces outside myself—that, on some level, I might have been dimly aware of the Internet’s role in the fulfillment of some ancient, human yearning to externalize our private imaginations into a shared space.”
That gets, I think, to the core of why people flocked to games like Gemstone in the early days of the Internet, overcoming even the inherent lameness of purely text-based gameplay. It wasn’t about the look of the game, or even about the writing. It was the scope for shared experience—for a new kind of life lived simultaneously in private and in public.
Some merchants enjoy bantering, bargaining and haggling, while others would just as soon you go away and leave them alone. You will get a feel for each shopkeeper’s way of doing business as you deal with each merchant, and they in turn will get to know you.
—Nora Melton, “The Economics of Gemstone III,” May, 1996.
One of the most thrilling aspects of Gemstone for many of its players was the rare opportunity to “alter” in-game items. On special occasions, one of the game’s developers might visit the game world in the guise of a merchant and allow the player to rewrite the description of one of their belongings. A standard-issue “small leather pouch” might, for instance, become “a leather lockpicking kit embossed with a trident,” or the like.
These user-created items were often horribly written, even to my twelve-year old eyes. Witness for instance, howlers like:
a shadowy hooded cloak embroidered with the image of a black dragon in mid-air combat with a white dragon, framed against a full yellow moon.
a gleaming black vruul-hide scabbard inscribed with the images of tortured souls.
There’s no use denying it: the user-created content in Gemstone III fell somewhere along a spectrum that includes air-brushed wizards on VW vans and Trent Reznor fan art. But the quality of the item descriptions as writing wasn’t really the point. What mattered was the fact that they could be written. That you weren’t merely starting from some pre-existing building blocks created by the game designers, but were actively reshaping the world itself. It’s the same sensibility that informs Minecraft, and it was genuinely compelling for precisely the reason Tao Lin pinpoints: it externalized the imagination.
The descriptions of specific locations that undergirded the world of Gemstone rarely varied from the workmanlike, descriptive prose familiar from pulp genre fiction. But this form of writing was somehow markedly different. That’s because it wasn’t a prose narrative but a series of customizable vignettes, activated by user commands (go west, go north, go through the door, attack snow leopard), and experienced in quick succession as one “traveled” throughout this world of text. The seriality of this writing was its strength. Here’s a simulated walk through the woods around Wehnimer’s Landing as an example:
This part of the forest is damp and moss covered. The sound of running water can be heard to the south and the terrain of this area slopes down in that direction.
The shrill “cyeeak!” of an unseen bird comes as a start as you continue to walk along the path. Apparently you are too close to the nest, even though the nearest branch is clearly fifteen or more feet above the ground.
A carpet of oak and maple leaves cover the trail in this part of the forest. A stand of oak trees lies further to the north while the forest becomes mixed to the south.
Several gray squirrels bark in protest as your presence has greatly disturbed their work. Countless numbers of acorns litter the ground surrounding the many large oak trees that grow here. Obviously, these squirrels will be busy for quite some time yet.
The trail is flat and the going is easy through this part of the forest. The high branches of the hardwood trees creating a cooling canopy of leaves. The shadows prevent much of the smaller plant life from establishing themselves and you can see most of the surrounding hillsides quite clearly. You also see a cockatrice.
Other forms of in-game writing were directly activated by players. Special items, for instance, could create weather events that other characters might interact with, like snow:
>rub my pin
You rub your crystal orb pin and a tiny cascade of glittering snowflakes drifts to the ground, glinting softly before they fade away.
Aarx scrapes around and gathers up a handful of snow.
Aarx rolls a handful of snow around in his hands until it is perfectly rounded.
Aarx smooths his rounded snowball to even further perfection.
You notice Sylviaa slip out of hiding.
Aarx winds up and hurls a perfectly rounded snowball towards Sorlu. At the last moment Sorlu tries to dodge the rounded snowball but ends up sticking his face right in its path. That had to hurt!
Great writing, this is not. But it’s also something qualitatively different than bad writing, as traditionally experienced. It was a new form. Like a film created by a series of still photographs, the rapid visual processing of these scrolling descriptions created a cumulative narrative that was more than the sum of its parts. Yet unlike a film, this new form was textual. The words themselves might have been insipid or silly at times, but the new technologies of serial and interactive representation that undergirded them—when paired with a healthy dose of imagination—were evocative, innovative, and powerful. The trick to appreciating it lay in filling in the blanks.
A white owl appears overhead, circling.
The white owl descends to the ground and lands nearby.
The owl takes a look around.
The white owl swivels its head around to peer directly at you.
On any given weekday night in 1996, around 2,000 people were playing Gemstone III simultaneously. This was a huge number for the era. Indeed, even today, 2,000 simultaneous readers of any given article might evoke a swell of pride in the atrophied heart of even the most jaded Gawker Media or Buzzfeed editor. That’s a lot.
The typical reading time for a piece of writing online, as Farhad Manjoo has observed, is abysmal: few readers get past the first paragraph or two of an online article, and fewer still will finish it (thanks, readers, for sticking around so long with this one). Yet Gemstone players spent a staggering amount of time scrolling through the world of Elanthia. By the end of 1996, over two million hours of in-game playing time were being logged per month. Here was a form of writing that attracted hours, not seconds, of sustained attention. The game’s “engagement,” in contemporary web parlance, was off the charts.
But the world of Gemstone III could also be stifling. There was, of course, the unavoidable Renaissance Faire-ness of it all. George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones had hit bookstore shelves in the late summer of 1996, and the book’s now-familiar style was in full effect among the drunken dwarves, goth giants, and coquetish bards of Elanthia. Beneath the wince-inducing fantasy trappings, though, was a stark realization: the game was work. To get anywhere in Gemstone—which meant becoming a “lord” or “lady,” the appellation bestowed on players who reached level twenty or above—one had to devote thousands of hours to wandering textual cliffs and bogs, swinging digital blades at algorithmic trolls and cyber snow leopards. With each attack, a burst of numbers and calculations danced across the screen, swiftly scrolling upward out of view: rolls of virtual dice to calculate which vein had been severed by a rapier thrust, or the precise amount of poison damage that accrues from a basilisk bite to the toes.
It was fun to see the armature of the game’s mechanics stripped bare in this way, but also wearying. As was the constant struggle with tens of thousands of fellow Elanthians, all competing for a same spot in the hunting grounds, the same treasures. As I grew older, other forms of community tugged at me—the real-life friends getting their driver’s licenses, the worlds contained in nineteenth-century novels (which seemed strangely familiar after Gemstone—just another form of seriality), and the growing scope of the world wide web.
So one balmy August morning when I was fifteen years old, I decided to share 8,000 pieces of gold with about one hundred and twenty strangers. It was the end. We joined hands in the central town square, an act that seemed touching but was actually purely mechanical: in Elanthia, holding hands allowed the equitable distribution of wealth. I typed “>Share gold” and that was that: four years of labor converted into a transfer of bytes, then an erasure of identity. I can’t remember what command destroyed my character’s existence (“erase me”? “kill character”?) but once it happened, I never returned. In fact, I barely gave the game another thought for ten years.
[River’s Rest, Town Commons]
Fresh green grass, green as the greenest emerald, is soft underfoot and a pleasing foreground for a weathered wooden bench resting in the shade of a graceful willow tree. Chirping crickets fill the air and mingle with the voices of folk who stroll through the commons, and on occasion stop to exchange a tale or two with friends they meet along their way.
Now I am an historian. We historians love to cite Foucault on identity—namely, the lack of any sense of personhood that is continuously carried within us from moment to moment. Rather than enjoying any coherent sense of subjectivity, Foucault argued, humans are buffeted by a cavalcade of cultural impressions and societal forces, reforming and recreating their identities according to the contexts around them. As Stephen Greenblatt put it, we self-fashion.
I remember almost nothing about 1996 besides Gemstone III. I fashioned my self into my character. But my obsession with the game wasn’t an escape from reality—not quite.
In fact, my memories of the year are quite vivid and are suffused with real emotional power. I remember my father staying up late making maps of Elanthia with me using colored markers on stacks of printer paper he’d pinched from work (by 1997, my dad was even more invested in Elanthia than I was). I recall the warm dusty smell of our Macintosh Quadra 630, the intermittent hum of its fans. The computer-facing window against which, one summer day, my cat Max tossed a stunned and bloodied mouse, interrupting my character’s own sojourn killing digital rats. And of course the screech of AOL, the dorky welcome of Steve Case. This was my 1996. It feels strange to say, but these reminiscences are as halcyon to me as my father’s memories of summertime baseball games in cornfields.
It’s only with the passage of time—the movement from one era to another—that we are able to see the strangeness inherent in the everyday. That’s how those memories of a childhood lived online, in a strange kind of public sphere, look to me today.
Tao Lin again:
The shared, boundless room of the Internet seemed normal, even mundane, in the mid-1990s. I didn’t have another childhood for comparison. Only in retrospect — and increasingly, as my memory of a pre-Internet existence became tinier and more conspicuous, like something that glints — does it seem weird and mysterious, almost alien.
A few months ago, I wrote to Tao Lin to ask him about his experiences in Elanthia. He said he thought he still had some Gemstone III transcripts saved on floppy disks somewhere. And he thought my character name sounded familiar to him, too, at the remove of fifteen years. But then again, maybe not.
The indeterminacy of that textual world is what sticks with me. Did I find a magical amulet on a distant beach, or did I trigger an algorithm coded in C by a programmer in Missouri? Was I a twelve-year-old human boy or a thirty-something forest elf with “tanned skin and violet eyes”? The allure wasn’t in the substance, but the interstices between the substance. Those Elanthian words flashing by on the silent monitors of America, full of sound and fury, ultimately signified nothing. But we filled in the blanks.