Game Over

Roman Mars: This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars. A few months before the end of the world, Paul Monaco posted this message on YouTube.

Paul Monaco: Hello everyone, Paul Monaco here, Buddha Paul as most of you know me as. You probably all heard the news, EA-Land The Sims Online, closing down.

RM: The world that was ending was called The Sims Online. It was an online version of the most popular computer game ever made.

PM: You’ve all been wonderful. You helped me through a hard time in my life when I first got online.

RM: But ironically, the online version of The Sims was not very popular. They ended up losing tons of subscribers and changing the name to EA-Land, and then they finally pulled the plug.

PM: Thank you, and please let’s try to stay in touch. And if not, then, good luck with whatever you choose to do and move on to.

RM: As you can probably hear, EA-Land was not a normal video game. There are no monsters, no killing. And although it had some competitive elements, for many players competition wasn’t the point at all.

Robert Ashley: Unlike a lot of other games where you might be shooting people, or slaying dragons or something, this is a game about socializing.

RM: That’s Robert Ashley.

RA: I’m Robert Ashley.

RM: He produces a very popular internet radio show.

RA: I’m the creator of “A Life Well Wasted.”

RM: A life well wasted.

RA: It’s about video games and the people who love them.

RM: And EA-Land was a video game that a dedicated few absolutely loved.

RA: The crowd that attracted I think were people who just want to get together and sort of chat, meet strangers.

RM: It was a nice place.

RA: Over time, it became a kind of intimate, almost bar, like the Cheers of the video games.

RM: Where everyone knows your name. And at the moment that Paul Monaco aka Buddha Paul found EA-Land, it was exactly what he needed most.

PM: My wife had a long-term illness. She um, from a blood transfusion, she had Hepatitis C and the last 3 years or so of her life were pretty much a challenge for both of us. After she passed away, I had absolutely no function other than wake up, go to work, and go to sleep again. With her illness, I didn’t get out and socialize much. Well, you know, we weren’t able to go out to the bars and meet up with friends and have dinner. I totally desocialized myself, and this game was kind of a way for me to just kind of get back into living again. Um, it was pretty amazing.

RM: And Paul began to live for EA-Land. He would play it for hours and hours. It was the first thing he did when he got home from work.

PM: You’re treated to a big warm greeting. Everyone would say ‘hi’ and your IM’s would be beeping along, and you’d be taken with that. It makes you feel really good!

RM: It wasn’t the real world, but his friends were real friends. And virtual worlds do have an upside.

PM: Your race, your color, your religion… All that can be totally masked and you’re truly judged on who you really are and how you present yourself. There are no prejudices, no pre-conceived anything. You’re really taken at face value.

RA: People could really like break loose and be themselves and have some fun.

PM: It just feels really good.

Roman: But Paul’s utopia didn’t last, because EA-Land started hemorrhaging money. The writing was on the wall, the server was about to go dark. And this event, this virtual apocalypse, might only exist in the memory of the players if it weren’t for Dr. Henry Lowood.

RA: I just stumbled across this project by Henry Lowood.

Dr. Henry Lowood: My name is Henry Lowood.

RA: Who was this archival researcher at Stanford.

HL: And I had a project called, “How They Got Game” which is on the history of digital games and simulations.

RA: Saving video games for future generations.

HL: You know, 50, a hundred, two hundred years from now. How are we going to save that history?

RA: You know, like we’ve got to save the video games!

RM: So, Dr. Lowood and his colleagues preserve what happens inside video games. Now for a single player game like Pacman for example, this is easy. You effectively take out the Atari cartridge and put it on the shelf. But saving multiplayer online games is not so simple.

HL: Saving the software alone is kind of a barren exercise.

RM: If you save the code for EA-Land and turn it on a hundred years from now, you’d enter a world and nothing would be there. All the things Paul Monaco and his friend’s love would be impossible to find.

HL: You need to document what people are doing in these spaces. That situation is much more like what a historian or archivist would do when faced with a problem of documenting the real world.

RM: So when Dr. Lowood caught wind of EA-Land shutting down, he had the opportunity to record something a historian or archaeologist would die to witness first hand in the real world.

RA: To see what it would be like when an online world came to an end.

HL: What happens when a virtual world closes?

RM: The end of a culture.

HL: What is it like to be there in the last minute and when it shuts down?

RM: So, the tape is rolling and the last few hours of EA-Land are being recorded and the most dedicated die-hard users are there exchanging virtual hugs, reminiscing. The players are typing messages which appear like a comic book word bubbles. You hear all these avatars crying and you also hear the coos and moans, and the gibberish language of the game called “Simlish.”

RA: And you know, they sound like they’re going to be bummed and everything, but it’s not like a big pity party. But then, toward the end of the night, there’s this radio station that you could listen to in the game called Charmed Radio. And they had this DJ there named Spike. He is sort of the only voice that you end up hearing at the end of the world.

RM: And as soon as he starts talking, you understand what is being lost.

Spike: Hey guys. This is the last time that you’re going to hear me speak. Well, the last time before TSI goes down. I just want to thank you all. It’s been an amazing experience, it really has. I told myself that I won’t make myself cry but I can’t stress enough how much you guys have meant to me over the past how many years it’s been. It has really been awesome and [cries] some people don’t get attached to things, but now when you make friends with the people loving this game, it’s actually really hard.
So, I’m going to play the last song. It’s Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli, Time To Say Goodbye. Hopefully, you guys will keep in touch, my Yahoo ID is [beeps]. Good luck in life everybody and best wishes. I love you all and it has been great knowing you.
Take care guys, and I just also want to have a little drink, let’s propose a toast. To Parizad who’s been absolutely amazing. Parizad, we couldn’t have done this without you. Thank you.

PM: You get this feeling like being on the deck of the Titanic.

HL: Anyone who actually stayed till the end was very much invested in the game at an emotional level.

RM: When they pulled the plug on the server, bits and pieces of the world started disappearing. The environment began to disintegrate. The texture on the trees flickered and all the people froze and blinked out of existence.

Henry: The actual ending was not with a bang, but with a whimper.

RA: And the last thing that they saw was basically just an error message, a server disconnect message.

RM: And then, the world ended.

Comments (15)

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  1. J

    Does anyone know where I can find the “No surprises” chiptunes remix that’s playing around 4:20? Thanks.

    1. Tim V

      Same thought, I’m not normally into chiptunes, but this one is great.

  2. DaveDisaster

    I would like to third this request for info on the tune. Came to the site hoping to find out…

  3. Walpurgisnacht

    This actually made me cry. I never played TSO but I am part of a community which is in a certain amount of danger due to nearly continuous attacks against our servers, and so i think it really hit home. Maslow’s comment in particular was spot on, as a large part of the aforesaid community is on minecraft.
    This was a really good, well made episode about the end of a community. Thank you, 99PI.

  4. James Tiago

    I don’t keep up with video games and never saw the appeal of virtual communities, but listening to this gave me chills. Thanks for imparting some empathy!

  5. Geroge Z

    I legitimately cried listening to the radio person signing off for the last time. It sounded like how I imagine a lot of people would sound at the end of the actual world.
    Also that choice of song hit me right in the feels.

  6. Larry

    That kid at the end worried about Minecraft shutting down? That’s not actually as safe as you assume it is. Online servers are all privately run, and most depend entirely on donations. Many servers get shut down either because the owner can’t maintain it anymore or can’t afford to. A small tight-nit Minecraft server being taken offline is even more depressing than this story about The Sims Online. These are not just chat communities. These are communities that have built structures and developed together in virtual spaces. Entire towns and villages built by several people. You can keep in contact with the people, but what you built together is gone.

  7. Alex

    I’m working my way backwards in time and listening to all 99% Invisble episodes until I hit episode 1. Game Over is hands down the best episode I’ve heard yet. The way you and your team open with a seemingly innocuous event then build up its emotional significance until the end is brilliant. The editing, music, and script lead to an amazing crescendo at the end… design at it’s best.
    This episode really captures the toll that getting rid of an “obsolete” design can have on those who are closest to it. It humanizes what was otherwise a foot note in history. Kudos.

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