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The Sublime Spaces in MMOs

I have a thing for pictures of abandoned things. I follow the /r/abandonedporn subreddit, and various tumblrs that are dedicated to the empty spaces and places that have been left behind by humanity. These pictures show wear, decay, neglect, the passing of time and the fleeting fancies of human beings (such as the abandoned driveway that will show up in this feed shortly.)

My play in Warcraft is always dominated by this feeling of space, because I have always played on low population servers. However, even though I have transferred to the busiest RP server in Warcraft, I am always alone while wandering through the early zones of Mists of Pandaria. Perhaps I do not frequent those parts of Pandaria that give level 90s a reason to revisit, but as I climb Kun-Lai Summit, I think of the depths of Vash’jir, and the loneliness of Icecrown. Icecrown and Grizzly Hills were bleak the second time I levelled through them, for all the people on my realm were already raiding Trial of the Crusader at that time. Now they must feel desolate.

And that feeling of space, that beauty of the abandoned, of the ugly things that wander and rage, forever entrapped by their AI, wandering through a landscape that is bereft of people to enjoy them? Is that the sublime? Are these empty digital lands the closest that a game can come to the truly sublime? The wolves that endlessly kill the same herd animals over and over again, enacting a cycle of simulated death for the enjoyment, the immersion of players that will never pass through again.

Is it really flight, or lack there of, that makes a world feel big? No, I don’t think so. Restricting or opening up are two sides of the same coin. What makes a world feel big is scale, and corners to be found (whether on foot or by flight), the idea that the world in it’s entirety is unknowable by a single person. That there is more to it than we can explore. Restricting us to foot makes it about what we can explore on foot, but one really need enough breadth of spaces to still make the game feel big. As for flight – the same applies. The Storm Peak are large, dark, and full of terrors masked in a coat of snow, and they felt huge when I was flapping around them on my Proto-drake. Kun-Lai summit has treacherous mountain paths and stormy weather that pushes back at us, the environment is a true presence in this zone, because it also feels (to me) bereft and bleak. It’s at a very late stage of the game, and I only see players in that rare gap between one phase and the next.

So I’m in a landscape populated by the ghostly echoes of other players, traversing a land that to everyone else was filled with people when they trod these paths. The difference between these abandoned spaces of the real world, is that the neglect, the decay, only appears at the literal hand of God – when time moves on in that zone.

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