If you dumped LAX in with the highrises of downtown Los Angeles, surrounded that with two miles of California barrens, then circled that with Compton, you’d have something approximating Coronet City. I showed up close to midnight, on the home planet of Han Solo; heavily armed pimps, strippers, and Wookies barreled into one another drunkenly, their dutiful droids whirring by at polite following distances. No matter where in the city you go, Coronet sounds like the inside of a factory that makes dying refrigerators. Wandering anxiously, I occasionally glimpse up at the skyline, black and neon. The hydraulics on the next interstellar transport fire off somewhere behind me, in the punchbowl center of the starport.
Magni Jormund was supposed to be waiting.
He’s not. Instead, some horned alien with a leather jacket and facial tattoos inches towards me, holding the same icy expression and body language for several minutes. His clothes look bloody, with a mean-looking energy rifle slung out in front. I sidle away slowly, but not carefully. Before I’ve figured out how my legs work, the mysterious force called lag has me suddenly out into the dark barrens between Coronet and Coro-Compton. The gnarled rifleman might not have killed me for fun. The weird animals out here?
Magni finally sends a text. Says he’s waiting on another planet. Talus, not Corellia. Of course.
He and a few online friends just lured me onto the Sony/LucasArts game Star Wars Galaxies. It’s mid 2003, back on Earth, now midnight, and I just spent the last hour fine tuning the facial coloring for the half-man, half-fish I’d masquerade as for the next year or so. If you know Star Wars (but not Galaxies), the game was set after the destruction of the first Death Star, and before the icy battle at Hoth. Vader, Luke, Leia, they’d make appearances. Jabba and the Sarlacc? Ayup.
Back on Talus, what would soon be my home world, Magni missed the interstellar transport that comes once every ten Earth minutes. So he’s tussling with Imperial Stormtroopers, and I’ll need to find my own way. First, he text-talks me out of the barrens. Next I'll need to find the spaceport, ticket console, spaceship, then ticket collector. Then, on Talus, find the map feature, the planetary shuttle, the booking agent for a flight to the player-created city of Ba’aar.
Only, after winning the scavenger hunt, the automated ticket console politely reminds me I have no money. No problem, says Magni. Think you could work the email console? I’ll drop some credits in escrow.
Early SWG tossed new players in with naught but the clothes on their backs, so it was a good thing I had Magni. He got those credits into that escrow, and I got that ticket. With its mean-looking players, their flurry of textboxes filled with ALL-CAPS product advertisements, and gangs of lady aliens on humming hover-bikes, this world was starting to make sense. Not quite natural, yet. SWG – Coronet in particular – was notorious for lag, an experience not unlike attempting to walk mid-seizure.
Once I’d gotten the hell out of Coronet – an entire planet away, in fact – machines politely informed me it'd take another 300 credits to get to Ba’aar. Without another thought, and partly because lag was no longer at brain aneurism levels, I walked. Despite Magni insisting that he was actually pretty close this time.
A few minutes later, completely lost atop the mountains of Talus, I had my first truly magical moment in an MMO. It was Magni’s turn to ask where the hell I was. My only reply was to inquire as to how the discerning semi-aquatic gentleman might photograph what was on his screen. Having walked a sheer mountain ridge and evaded violent mountain Ewok creatures, as well as Stormtroopers, I came across a huge, peaceful, brontosaurus-like reptile. It casually defied laws of physics, strolling along a near 90-degree slope. Think David Bowie in Labyrinth, sashaying up the side of a wall. The info bubble let me know it was a vicious huf dun. I wanted to pet it. No command for that. Instead, I figured out how to take pictures, learned the technical commands necessary to smile, and captured the moment. The screenshots are still floating around on old backup disks, and I still can’t look at the things without a grin.
Not long after, Magni pulls up in his X-34 landspeeder.
“hey babe,” he says. “want a ride?”
Back in town, Magni sets me up. There were the little details: admission into his guild: Self-Righteous Paladins, joining the Rebel Alliance (requirement to join The Good Guys? Kill a few dozen Stormtroopers!). There were basic items: a jet bike, Ubese armor, a black T-21 rifle, finding the marksman trainer. Finally, the deed to a small house. With permission from the mayor of Ba’aar, I dropped my new home in view of the sea. No furniture, decor, or house pets, yet, but in this world I'd carved out a space of my own.
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