In the very early 1990s, Sierra owned a chat room… online gambling… games service… thing called ImagiNation Network. I have no idea what any of the games on ImagiNation Network were called, but one of them was a multiplayer RPG that made me aware for the first time of the possibility of worlds inhabited by other real people. I didn’t actually play one of those multiplayer games until the The Realm, an awesome 1996 multi-user dungeon my brothers and I could only ever play using the free trial, so we were forever creating our characters anew when the trial expired every 30 days.
In the 2000s it might not surprise you that my obsession was World of WarCraft — just like everyone else in the civilized world got caught up in at some point or another. Eventually I moved on to Lord of the Rings Online, which shamelessly copied the WoW formula except made it better in every way. LotRO remained my MMO of choice until I just plain didn’t have the time to sink into these kinds of games anymore, and since around 2013 I’ve essentially been retired from the MMO scene, sad to say.
In that 20 or so year journey, Asheron’s Call represents the middle point. One of my brothers had gotten himself into the closed beta as a tester, and when the game was officially released, he transitioned into the role of some sort of low-level GM — and was able to play the game for free. Being the sort of kid I was, needing to eat up every new videogame experience I could get my hands on, I of course convinced him to let me have a character on his account.
What I remember most clearly about Asheron’s Call is the feeling of being completely in over my head — utter confusion about where to go or what to do, which eventually transitioned into sheer wonder at the scale of the world, and then into the unparalleled pleasure of discovery and learning.
I think I was still too young to play Asheron’s Call as intended, or at least the way most others played it, which was to join up with other players and go adventuring together, to complete quests and level up, to join AC‘s equivalent of a guild. I must have talked to other players at some point, but I have zero memory of it. I was content to wander the island of Dereth, alone and adrift in a world I couldn’t even comprehend the size of. My fondest memories are of venturing up into the mountains I was so under-leveled for I’d die in a single hit from anything up there; walking down to the river at the edge of my home town and following the shoreline for hours, just to see where it would take me; accidentally stepping into a portal that took me out to a desert from which I was never able to find my way back.
I got so lost at various points that I deleted my character and created a new one just to return to civilization. And it didn’t matter that I lost my equipment or my experience points, because the joy I got from wandering aimlessly outweighed all of that. I’ve always appreciated a game where you make your own fun, which is why I’ve gravitated toward open-world games so much in recent years. For me, Asheron’s Call was baby’s first open-world game.
My only regret is that after 17 years online, the Asheron’s Call servers went down earlier this year, just in time for me to miss my chance at revisiting the game for this retrospective. An era has ended.