You meant a lot to me when we knew one another. I wonder if you ever really understood that, or if I even communicated it right.
I have been playing MMOs more or less continuously now for 20 years. That’s a whole lot of my life. And that means that I have met a lot of people over those decades in a lot of different games. This, in and of itself, is not all that unusual. These games are social spaces (yes, even if they are slightly less of an everything socialization box like I discussed last week) and we have seen several of them.
But that also means that my ghost haunts these games. Pieces of me. Names that exist in a server database, never deleted, but never returning. And it’s not just me; there are people who once meant quite a lot to me, friends I had, and now I still see their names, but the person on the other end is never coming back. Saying goodbye in MMOs is a weird thing.
One of the things that has always fascinated me is the way that the internet exists at a strange, impermeable now. If I went to look up my old LiveJournal account, it would show me a snapshot of a younger me, but the text would not be annotated in any way. Oh, sure, the date lets me know that if I said “I’ll post another update in a couple days” that I shouldn’t hold my breath for that update. But the website doesn’t know that.
Heck, past me doesn’t know that. Not in the literal sense that I don’t recall what my last post was on social media I no longer use, but the past version of myself did not know that would be my final post. How could he?
How could I know that the last phone call I would have with my father would be an idle one after the Thanksgiving break from college where he was annoyed that I hadn’t stopped to see him? It was a complicated relationship with a sick man who was a poor father and then in the near future it was just over, and the only reason he wasn’t surprised because he was too dead to really have any reaction to it. And that was the end of things.
But no one is coming along to carefully clean up my digital footprint. So long as the servers remain online, these time capsules are going to remain. So long as Star Wars: The Old Republic has my user data, my Jedi Knight’s living quarters will remain as they were, never dusty and containing no relics, just memoirs to a relationship that no longer exists with a partner who is equally gone. Not even words to remind anyone.
And I wonder, do you ever think of me?
It doesn’t matter what game I’m looking at because I see you there. I see your name on the list of friends. But we’re not friends, not any more. We lost touch. This isn’t about friendships or relationships that died where I can see the exact moment that everything fell apart. One day was just your last time logging in… or it was my last time logging in for a long while, and then when I came back, you weren’t there any more. And what else could I do? You were gone, and all I had was a name on a list. Not even a chance to track you down.
Or maybe you’re a friend from a game that I played but have moved on from, and you see my name there and wish you could still reach me, but… you can’t. Not any more. Maybe you miss me. Maybe you wish I was there. Maybe you can feel me just inches away… but you can’t.
Because you’re not reading this, and even if you were reading this, you wouldn’t know that this was me, and our ships passed in the night ages ago – there’s no way to restore the connection. It turns out that missing someone alone isn’t enough to rekindle the connection, and I’m not even talking about times when friendships were strong but both people became too different to retain that connection; I’m talking about people drifting apart, and now we’ve woken up and we can’t find one another.
All that’s left of me for you, all that’s left for you of me, is memories and a name. A character that is never, ever coming back. A friendship lost. A thought preserved. Somebody that you used to know and cared about, but whatever traces of their existence remain are little more than a ghost.
Our digital worlds, our shared landscapes, are haunted. Not by death, necessarily, but a thousand people who mattered so much to each and every one of us before they ceased to be a part of our lives. And if I logged on to the game again, would I even find you? Would you still be there?
Which would be worse? To learn that you were gone just as I was… or that you didn’t miss me in the first place?
There’s no way to fix this, not that I know of. It would be insane if people had to leave some contact information so that friends from an online game could track them down again. Heck, you might have had good reasons to cut off certain friends, reasons said friends may or may not have understood in the first place. This is just the nature of the internet. If you buy the right edition of The Princess Bride, it’ll still be talking about William Goldman working on the sequel to the novel.
There was no sequel. Goldman died in 2018 without completing it, having admitted for many years he was trying to make it work and never succeeded. But of course the book doesn’t know that; it’s words written on a page. There are a lot of things that start and feel like they’re going somewhere exciting, and then… they don’t. It’s just kind of a letdown.
But the internet is an odd place. MMOs are odd places. And we reach out, and we connect across incalculable gaps, and sometimes someone works their way powerfully into your heart and life until you can’t imagine life without them… and then they’re gone. And you can’t really do anything about it.
All I can do is remember you, and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to remember late-night conversations, sharing laughs and fears and warmth. I’m going to look up at the night sky in this game and carry you with me. There are people who have hurt me, and them I’ll discard… but you will stay with me. You will be a part of my heart, safe and nestled there.
Even if you never think of me.
Even if you don’t remember me.
Even if you wouldn’t give me a second thought.
It meant so much to me. Maybe more than it ever meant to you. Maybe it’s just a fantasy and I’m lying to myself, but somewhere in my heart I hope we might meet again despite everything. Until then… I’ll keep logging in, and hoping that some day you might see me once again. And we’ll laugh together under the same skies, even if they’re just pixels.