In January 2000, the following article appeared in the online magazine Imaginary Realities. It concerns the online game I’ve been involved with since 1992, Armageddon MUD and it appeared under the name which I use to administer the game, Sanvean.
In 1999, one of the Armageddon MUD coders, Morgenes, put in a command that has no effect on a player at all. It doesn’t get you gold (or obsidian, in our mud’s case), doesn’t raise your skills, doesn’t open the mystic portal to the realm of Waterdeep, or anything at all like that. Yet it was a change that would end up becoming one of the most popular (and most copied) commands ever on the mud, with at least one thread on our discussion board devoted to lavish praise of it from players and staff alike.
The command was ‘think.’ Its syntax is simple. The player types think ‘Woah, hey, did I just see a coin lying in the road back there?’ and gets this back: ‘You think ‘Woah, hey, did I just see a coin lying in the road back there?’ Easy, no? And at first glance, somewhat pointless.
To explain the immense popularity of this command, one needs to understand that Armageddon MUD is more than role play intensive. It’s role play required, and players who fail to stay in character or interrupt the flow of the vast interactive story that staff and players are spinning together usually mend their ways fast. Or are asked to leave the story, usually not in a particularly polite manner. Armageddon’s had the reputation of having the rudest immortal staff on the net for a long time, and while that’s changed considerably, there are, I suspect, staff members who still cherish that attitude to a degree. Players who aren’t staying in character find out fast that it’s not appropriate, or appreciated, on Arm.
Given this, think has proven invaluable to the players whose actions might be incomprehensible to the staff. If a staff member happens to be monitoring a player, and glimpses a few thinks here and there, they know what’s going on and why, precisely, that crazed Krathi is sitting out in the desert. She’s waiting for a vision, which she might choose to supply of her own accord via think, or with which a staff member might help. Why did that elf suddenly take off running? He thought he saw a mantis, gythka staff in mandible, approaching his hiding place. Think not only helps the player solidify what it is she’s doing, but lets the staff know what’s going on as well.
Beyond that, the command’s entertaining and helps the player flesh out the character. Is he thinking ‘Did that templar just look at me?’ If so, he may scurry back into the Labyrinth to hide from the unwanted attention. Perhaps while that wily gypsy is trying to sell her a luck charm, the player’s sitting there thinking hard on how to sell the gypsy out to the dreaded Blackmoon. Personal beliefs, spiritual beliefs, reactions to other characters – all of these, and more, get played out via the think command in a way they never were before. One of my favorite moments was monitoring a conversation between a pretentious noble and the commoner they were upbraiding, who while keeping their eyes downcast was thinking of the multitude of ways that noble could be humiliated.
I’ve seen other benefits as well. At least one character has accidentally typed talk instead of think, and found themselves saying aloud what’s in their head, leading to assorted and interesting results. It slows down some of the fast typists, who otherwise tend to overwhelm other players with the multitude of their emotes and speeches. Some players use it while sleeping, to create intricate and sometimes lurid dreams. We’ve some plans to tie think into the psionic skills on the mud eventually, though that’s a far and future notion. But the benefit to the role playing of the mud has been tremendous. I’d urge other role playing muds to at least…think about putting this command in.
Almost ten years later, I’ve drawn somewhat apart from the game that I was once passionately engaged with, but it remains an endless source of observation about net and gaming behavior. And it’s a nuance like the think command that points to something that is, for me, one of the key differences between textual and graphic games.
I play World of Warcraft as well, on the evenings I want to escape. I play on a roleplaying server, even. But the roleplay there is not the unadulterated draft of storytelling juiciness I see on Armageddon. The world is constantly intruded upon by the chat channels, which feature chatter that ranges from the offensive to the inane, with rare moments of comedy or philosophy interjected.
Armageddon has no pictures, only words, but it does have plenty of conversation. In it, a player controls a character, and can describe their actions and words in fine-tuned, sometimes adjective-laden, glory. For example:
Leaning forward, eyes gleaming in the inn’s dim light, the lean, grey-eyed man says at your table, barely audible over the clink and clatter rising from surrounding drinkers, in sirihish, “What are you smuggling in next Abid?”
This is an immersion that just isn’t possible in graphic games, where emotes are primarily canned, and NPC interactions are all scripted. It’s the sort of immersion where the think command, visible only to the player (and on occasion certain psionically gifted individuals) becomes a valid part of play.
Armageddon is, weirdly enough, the cutting edge of an obsolete technology, and somehow remains pertinent even now, when more and more graphic programs flood the market. Textual space allows for a space of pure storytelling that, despite the blinding speed with which the Internet advances, remains as pertinent today as it was a decade ago.