It's now been four years since I last played Eve Online. The time since has involved three TF2 obsessions (one ongoing), time in three other MMOs, the completion of an entire Medieval II grand campaign and a full completion of Super Meat Boy, not to mention two serious relationships, graduation, starting work and moving between three houses in two cities. I no longer know much about what's going on in the game, save for those stories significant enough to be reported in the wider pc gaming press, and I'm sure Eve has changed so much in the interim I wouldn't even know how to undock my ship were I to log in again. Despite all of this I am as I write losing sleep over, and seemingly unable to stop thinking about, the gaming experience that defined two years of my life.
I blame RPS. I mean obviously I blame Eve, and even more obviously I blame myself for being so ridiculous, but this particular time I also blame RPS. A little tired and apropos of nothing a little melancholy, I decided to check my favourite PC gaming site for new stories and up pops this, containing a link to this. It's been the elephant in the corner of my browser since I started reading RPS regularly: something I know is there, know I must read at some point but don't want to think about or acknowledge most of the time, because of the overwhelming feeling of nostalgia - and nostalgia is far from an adequate word here - I know it's going to evoke. Tonight just the sight of it put a lump in my throat and I realised pretty soon that sleep would not be forthcoming until I'd made at least a little bit of the thinky thinky and the feely feely into the wordy wordy. (I also blame RPS because RPS is Jim, John and Alec formerly of PC Gamer, and it was that magazine's coverage, mainly by Jim, that got me interested in Eve in the first place.)
It's the same, give or take a broad smile or a feeling of difficult-to-explain sadness, when I happen across other coverage of Eve: this is far from a one off experience for me and I hope, although I'm far from sure, that others feel the same. While I can feel longing or nostalgia for a number of long uninstalled but memorable games - Freelancer, Morrowind, Civ 2 - it's not really the same as the emotional attachment that was built up with Eve. For a start, I can read an article about any of those games without deciding at midnight on a week night that I need to immediately drop all plans for sleep and write about them.
You see, and forgive me for resorting to cliché, Eve is definitely not just a game. Indeed, while 'place' and 'world' are both useful abstractions that capture an important facet of CCP's gem, what I'm really interested in here is that the time I spent in that place or world was an experience, not in the way that watching an action film, playing CoD or going bowling is an experience, but in the same way that going to university, doing a job for several years or living in another country for a while is an experience. By experience I mean something multi-faceted that changes and shapes you and leaves a deep impression on your personality and sense of self, a period of time that forms a small but defined and distinct era in your life that you are unlikely to be able to live again in the same way. Eve, for me, was an experience.
The web is full of stories, retrospectives and other accounts of this most narrative-generating of games, so I wont bore you with the details of my time in the galaxy of New Eden. Suffice to say, however, that I most certainly could. Right now I could easily strike up like a badly portrayed war vet in a crap film, rambling incoherently about that time we killed eight Red Alliance dreads, back when that was by far the most capital kills in a single engagement. I could tell you about our successful guerilla war against D2 or my nerve-wracking and short but vaguely successful career as a small gang fleet commander. I could tell you about the way the end of my fingers went numb with nerves and adrenaline the first time I PvPed and I could tell you with sadness about how two corps full of good friends faltered and fell apart. I could tell you about these things because they happened to me or around me and affected me as a human being as much as or more than many important events in the real world.
What troubles me is that I now have a real sense of loss and what I'd almost call grief when thinking about Eve. Here's where I think the crux lies: my position is perhaps a little unusual in that while at times I was deeply into the game to the point of knowing more about in game politics and conflicts than the news in the real world, and I was often very nearly as close to the friends I'd made in the game as I was to my 'real' mates, I now have no link back to this time*. I hadn't quite been around long enough to get to the point of (real life) corp meet ups and I rarely played other games with my in game friends, so at the point at which my second corp dissolved and the players from it scattered across various parts of the galaxy I very quickly lost contact with a great many friend and lost the desire to play the game that had previous gripped me so tightly.
Obviously it would be crass, stupid and needlessly hyperbolic to descibe missing Eve as the same as missing a lost love or dead relative: the magnitude of loss is completely and utterly different. However, there is something in the abruptness and fullness of the disconnect with something that was formerly a huge presence in my life that I do find analogous. It is partly my fault for not making more of an effort to stay in contact, at least for a while, with in game friends, but that doesn't fully cover it. What's more striking to me than the people I miss is the experience - there's that word again - of being an Eve player: the back to front knowledge of ship types and different kinds of set up, the engrossing if often childish politics, the rivalries and the stories that build up over months and years. This was a period in my life in the same way that university was. An experience in the same way that growing up in York before my family moved to the countryside was. It's something that I'd love to be able to talk about with and express properly to gaming and non-gaming friends, but stop short because I feel like I'm being melodramatic.
So this is my admission and my statement: I view playing Eve as a life changing, unique and notable experience and I miss Eve just as I miss other significant and long past parts of my life. In some respects I miss it more than that because being an Eve player was so different from anything I've done before and probably anything I'll do in the future, and I now have very little connection to that time and that world. I couldn't go back now: the game has moved on, as have I, and I could hope to recreate that experience about as much as I could hope to be ten years old again. Neither do I regret being a player: I feel I'm a better person for it and for the most part it was incredible fun! But it is a part of the past that I feel a real sense of loss for, and I think the fact that playing a game could spark an emotional reaction such as this is remarkable.
(*save for a couple of 'real life' friends who played the
game for a shorter time and, not meaning to sound arrogant, less in
depth than I did. They were much more WoW guys than Eve guys :p)
(I've deliberately ignored the recent controversy around Eve's recent development and, specifically, the Incarna update. This is mostly because it's completely irrelevant to what I'm writing about and also because others have given it much more thoughtful and in depth coverage than I could hope to here. It's of course sad to see the game falling on troubled times and while it does seem fairly serious at present, I'd also make the point that CCP have always been terrible at PR and have made major fuckups in the past (see the dev cheat scandal or the boot.ini patch) and have still come out the other side with a brilliant and unique game. Here's hoping that can be the case again.)