I am going to tell you a story about an island. This island will soon cease to exist, and this will be no great loss, because no life resides on it. This island is, in fact, unimportant in every way possible. Yet since first visiting it ten years ago, it has regularly appeared in my mind, unbidden, like a recurring dream. I feel a sense of nostalgia for my time there, and I’ve never been able to explain why; I’ve never even told another soul of its existence
The island has no name. It is located off the eastern coast of a larger landmass that, itself, has no proper title; it is referred to only as the New Conglomerate Sanctuary, as it is the home base of a militaristic faction of the same name. From this base, the New Conglomerate battles the Terran Republic and the Vanu Sovereignty for control of ten continents on the planet of Auraxis. This conflict forms the backdrop of the game Planetside, which I first started playing in beta form in 2002.
Planetside was the first Massively Multiplayer Online First-Person Shooter, or MMOFPS, and I feel it has never been properly recognized for the landmark achievement it was. This was the first game to give online shootfests a real meaning. By introducing a persistent world, RPG-like character progression, and factions with opposing ideologies that were often publically adopted and espoused by their players, the battles took on a weight greater than the abstracted warfare of its peers. The game was released ahead of its time; the currently available computing and network technology was not ready for its design, and so the actual combat that formed the core of the game was mediocre at best. Planetside initially achieved brisk sales when it was released in May 2003, but by 2005 server populations had plummeted, and it has limped along in a more limited state ever since. When it’s remembered, it’s remembered for the sheer complexity and depth of its massive battles; Quinton Smith’s “Planetside: The 1%” is possibly the best of these. And while the battles were glorious, in all honesty I don’t have much of a memory of them. I remember the down time; training with new weapons, flying above quiet swaths of mountainous terrain, choosing what skills I would learn next. But none of these memories are as strong as those of my time on the island.
I don’t know when I first visited it, but I can guess. I have always loved the experience of virtual flight, but even more than that I relished the experience of take-off and landing. I can’t explain why, only that I find it calming, a sort of meditative exercise. And so I must have been flying around the sanctuary in a Mosquito, a tiny one-man fighter craft, when I spotted the island and thought it would make a good landing spot.
Maybe there was more to it than that. Maybe I was depressed, and wanted to “get away” from both the world and the big battles. Maybe I was trying to create an artificial moment of meaning, to evoke something from this mechanical landscape. I’ll never be sure. All I can know is that I landed my craft, stepped out, and wandered the short length of the island. I do not remember its exact shape or size, and am only guessing that it is even the one pictured in this post. But it does not matter; all the islands were the same, equally barren, equally useless. My island, like the others, was merely a lump in the ocean, a slight mountainous cress with some simple grass textures and nothing else.
But I do remember staying there. I stood by my aircraft and looked out to sea, even though I knew there was nothing there; the only way outside the sanctuary was through warp gates that instantly sent the traveler to other continents or to a regularly scheduled shuttle that allow a passenger to drop to a combat site in an orbital pod. The ocean merely spread into a void. There was nothing to see. But I gazed out nonetheless.
I think that’s what I found so comforting about the island, and why I kept returning to it throughout my time at Planetside. In battle I was mediocre at best, and there were always limits to my understanding that put my virtual life—and actual ego—in danger. But on the island, I knew everything there was to know and could see everything there was to see. I was also absolutely safe; enemies could not attack the sanctuary unless they controlled every other continent, a Herculean task that was never accomplished during my time playing the game. Even if an invasion did commence, the island was so far from anything of tactical value that it would be ignored. I could rule this island, and no one would care.
There was no equivalent to this virtual space in the physical world. I had a safe and mostly comfortable home growing up, but the real world has a certain messiness to even the tidiest of rooms. There is always an improvement that can be made, always something to draw my attention and keep me from being at total peace. The island was a perfect haven during my adolescent struggle for control over my life and my mind.
It’s still there; a single instance of Planetside is still running on some group of servers, though it will probably be shut down shortly after this year’s release of Planetside 2, a full-on remake of the original. I could return to the island any time I wished. But I feel no need to; the memory is enough to sustain my nostalgia, and I suspect that, were I to go back, I would be unable to recapture whatever it was I had found down during my initial visits. But the image of this place of serenity remained with me long after I stopped playing or thinking of Planetside, and I suspect it will continue to be a peculiar source of strength for many years to come.