A shortcut for long-gone mech shooter Hawken sits on my desktop. It's not the real deal, of course. Hawken went offline early last year. What I have, stitched together from salvaged code and networking wizardry, is an abomination. A corpse of a game forced back into life by players who can't let it go. It'll never be alive, but that's not going to stop us from trying.
A cassette drops in front of you, landing on your desktop. Clicking on it, you're whisked through a strange hybrid of found footage film and early 00s server browser - all running the same match of CTF on the same map. It's a jarring mix. It's also immediate punch back to the days of late nights in front of the Halo PC server list, looking for the least janky Blood Gulch to hop into.
All the classics are here: "[Mods] Free skins CTF", "[US]Best CTF Server", premium servers with no bots, official hubs. Half of them are offline, and they're all quite empty.
They won't stay that way.
I'm not really grabbed by No Players Online as a flat horror experience. A lot of it is quite familiar for avid fans of first-person spookers. Ooooh, there's a flickering figure in the periphery. Aaaaah, was that jukebox there before? The framing loses a little of its edge, too, going for the very creepypasta-esque "I found a cursed old tape" angle, rather than fully buying into being a long-dead multiplayer staple.
Spooked, maybe not. But enthralled? Absolutely.
But even as the more explicit horror fumbles, I'm enthralled by the use of the medium. Questions like "hold on, what's a 90s Quake-like doing on a VHS from 1986" quickly fade. The level geometry is familiar to folks who've dabbled in early 3D shooters - abstract and alien, even more so behind the crunch of a film strip. The game builds so much of its tension for the technical fragility of those earliest shooters. Did I forget to reload, or is the game just a bit janky? Am I losing frames, or is something taking them from me?
No Players Online feels like a much-needed kick in the face towards people like me. I won't spoil what happens in the end, but on rebooting the game to grab a cover image, I found I no longer had access to these empty servers. The game, once figuratively dead, now utterly ceased to be.
No Players Online sees me, booting up old games, looking for that sweet nostalgia kick, and suggests that maybe I let dead things stay buried.