Forgotten Spaces of Norrath: Why We Need a History of Digital Spaces

For the past few weeks, Atlas Obscura writer Eric Grundhauser has been publishing pieces entitled “Forgotten Wonders of the Digital World.” First, he took readers on a nostalgic tour throughout Azeroth — the digital world of World of Warcraft (WoW). A few weeks later, he guided readers through the odd digital space of Second Life. Grundhauser’s articles capture the beauty of digital abandonment and to explore the aesthetic appeal of the forgotten spaces of these worlds, places that were one bustling and active that now lay dormant and largely forgotten by many.

Another game with a similar, yet distinct, story is Everquest II. Eric found zones in WoW to be “abandoned” when their population was about twenty. The most populated single zone in EQ2 as of this writing is the Phantom Sea. This past Saturday night, there were 34 characters there.

Honestly, I have played a lot of Everquest and Everquest II. I picked up EQ in 2001 at the behest of my friend and future college roommate. Fast forward to 2004 and there I was, buying a very expensive laptop I couldn’t afford explicitly to play the sequel — EQ2. I was there when the digital doors opened in November 2004. Most recently, I returned in January after a three year hiatus, and this return has me thinking a lot about the power of place, nostalgia, and preservation in digital worlds.

A Map of Norrath, the Earth of Everquest and Everquest II
A Map of Norrath, the Earth of Everquest and Everquest II

The Game

The world of EQ2 is Norrath, the same as EQ. One big difference though — EQ2 is set several hundred years after EQ in a time after Norrath’s moon exploded, effectively causing an apocalypse and drastically changing the world. As you would imagine, cities that were once massive and opulent are now shrunken and ruined; sweeping plains are now pockmarked with craters; and entire races of peoples were completely wiped out.

The current state of EQ2 is, in a way, similar to the in-game story. At one point, EQ2 boasted hundreds of thousands of players. Cities and chat channels bustled with activity. But today, the world is desolate. At any given point, at least 95% of Norrath is completely empty. Much of the world is in ruin — both in terms of story and player population — and many places that were once spectacular and powerful are now decrepit, forgotten, and abandoned by former residents.[1]

In order to tell the story of abandoned Norrath, I traveled throughout the world on one Saturday evening and early night.[2] I took screenshots of the biggest cities, noting their population, and I “photographed” other locales only if they were empty, meaning I was the only visitor at the time.

The Locales

In EQ2, player gathering points shift, but one of the most populated areas in Norrath historically has been Qeynos (usually either the Harbor or North Qeynos). People gathered here by the hundred to trade, travel, or just to chat.

North Qeynos -- View of the Qeynos Claymore statue and Qeynos Castle, NPCs seen in foreground
North Qeynos — View of the Qeynos Claymore statue and Qeynos Castle, NPCs seen in foreground

Just outside of the Qeynos gates is the bridge to Antonica, a sprawling verdant countryside. Ten years ago, this would be a player’s first encounter with rural Norrath. The area is huge, easily taking fifteen minutes to traverse. This bridge is where I left one of my original characters I have since abandoned.

Qeynos bridge -- Qeynos Castle is on the left, and the beginning of Antonica on the right
Qeynos bridge — Qeynos Castle is on the left, and the beginning of Antonica on the right

Formerly across the continent, now across an ocean, lies Qeynos’s evil twin Freeport. This was once the place where the so-called “evil” races (like ogres and trolls) began their adventure. Just like Qeynos, this was once a gathering point and, just like Qeynos, Freeport sits largely empty.

Freeport at night
Freeport at night in EQ2

I went to Kelethin, the Elven city in the trees and one of four starting cities. This city has fond memories for me personally, being where I started my primary characters in both EQ and EQ2. Way back in original EQ, people would gather in Kelethin to trade by the hundred. Last time I was there in EQ2, a search resulted in seven people either in Kelethin or the surrounding forest area.

A view of Kelethin in EQ2
A view of Kelethin in EQ2

The Enchanted Lands houses an original favorite of mine, the goblin stronghold of Runnyeye. EQ2 developers brought players back to Runnyeye with a revamp about five years ago, but that too lays dormant now. See that tiny hole in the hill? That’s Runnyeye, a very small door in a big world with an even bigger adventure and story on the other side.

The entrance to the Runnyeye dungeon within the Enchanted Lands
The entrance to the Runnyeye dungeon within the Enchanted Lands

Norrath is full of other forgotten “doors.” Players might turn a corner, and suddenly there appears a door in the mountains to an undead keep, or a haunted mansion, or even a beehive full of…angry bee-people.

Inside the Tower of the Draftling
Inside the Tower of the Draftling

Stormhold was one of the first dungeons many people encountered. Rather unassuming.

The entrance to Stormhold
The entrance to Stormhold

A bit later, people would encounter this grand stronghold in the far reaches of Zek. This is Deathfist Citadel, another dungeon long forgotten. Also, Deathfist Citadel appeared in one of the first promotional videos for EQ2 way back in 2004.

Deathfist Citadel
Deathfist Citadel

Much later in the game, people would encounter this door in the far reaches of Everfrost. This door would lead you to Permafrost, a forgotten and rather hidden dungeon housing frost giants and the ghost of an ice dragon.

The door to Permafrost
The door to Permafrost
Permafrost Keep
Permafrost Keep

What does it mean?

“It’s not the end of the world at all, it’s only the end for us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”

This quote is from On the Beach by Nevil Shute. In it, Shute’s characters live with an intense sense of foreboding — the know they are going to die. A nuclear war annihilated the rest of life on Earth, and fallout clouds slowly drift toward the protagonists. Some cling to the slim hope of finding safety, some hope to escape, and some look for salvation; but most simply move forward and try to understand how to live in a world that hasn’t got long to live itself.

But Earth and Norrath have one big difference — Norrath will not “get along all right without us.” If we go, then Norrath will cease to exist as well. In a digital world, there is no hope for preservation, only nostalgia and memory. There’s no renovating an old house or peeling back layers of wallpaper to reveal the past; what’s lost is lost and only recoverable through other media. The player is constrained by rules set by the rule-masters, the creators, owners, and effective gods of the world.

The destruction and permanent changes to old locales have a negative effect on players. When I made Kiranos in November 2004, I began on the Isle of Refuge tutorial zone before taking a boat to my character’s first home — the Willow Wood within the city of Qeynos. Today though, Willow Wood does not exist. Further, the door to the zone is locked behind a guard.

The door to Willow Wood
The door to Willow Wood

While it may seem dramatic, seeing the doors to Willow Wood shuttered is an oddly painful moment. Every now and then, I just want to go to the place where I started this silly game. The urge is to unbarracade the doors and set about to recovering the past. But that’s just not possible.

What the hell? Where’s the Public History?

So what does all of this mean in terms of public history? Like I said in my last post, public historians need to consider the importance of digital worlds to “real life” individuals.

I also think public historians could work for these companies by helping document their past. Some game companies —  like Blizzard and Daybreak —  should start considering publicly the importance of preservation. These games are old enough now that legitimate company histories could be written. For example, Everquest is entering its sixteenth year and third different developer. As far as I know, nobody is collecting player stories, company history, or anything else related to the game (beyond wikis about quests and loot). Also, some of Everquest’s most popular efforts are, in a way, public history projects (in the form of progression servers). The player base is very much so in tune with the past, why not try to tap into that even more?

Why couldn’t Daybreak Entertainment publish, market, and sell with the help of public historians, for example:

  • reissues of Laura Karpman’s original EQ2 soundtrack;
  • an book of concept and in-game art selected by a curator;
  • reprints of different maps throughout the life of EQ and EQ2;
  • oral histories of various players, including certain celebrities who play(ed) if there’s an interest;
  • insider corporate history, similar to stories included in The Everquest Companion;
  • or perhaps even an in-game tour of the live game or of a curated “exploration-only” servers.

For video game players, MMO fans, and anyone else interested in digital space —  slow down a little bit. Take in your surroundings more often. Travel back to forgotten lands and empty spaces. These empty digital lands still have a story to tell, even if they are behind a locked door.

The (in-game) abandoned city of New Tunaria
The (in-game) abandoned city of New Tunaria

[1] There are many technical reasons other than population to explain why nobody goes to most places in Norrath anymore. The game has changed. Players can trade with one another from anywhere in the world, so there are no centralized gathering locations. Global channels remove the need for congregating for grouping. Mercenaries remove the necessity of grouping with friends. And guild halls segregate friend groups away from one another.

[2] I was on my character Kiranos on the Unrest server. I played from about 8pm to about midnight CST.

2 thoughts on “Forgotten Spaces of Norrath: Why We Need a History of Digital Spaces

  1. […] on his blog about public history and digital spaces, like his latest post on the lost world of Norra...
  2. […] about the function of video games in encouraging empathetic engagement with the past. He has writte...

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