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Pitchfork Media: A Portrait of Wurm Online

[This is the extended Director's Cut of my feature on indie MMO Wurm Online for PC Gamer UK last year. Not to be confused with my relatively straightforward coverage of Wurm on RPS, this is a sordid tale of intrigue, humanity, murder and New Games Journalism. It's a good 'un, I think.]

I'm bleeding to death. I've got maybe six or seven minutes before I'll be too exhausted to do anything but lie down and die. I really wish I could say this was the worst of my problems, but it's not.

I'm also utterly lost in the middle of a claustrophobically thick forest crowded with starving mountain lions, I'm starving hungry myself, my belongings have been taken away from me, and Egg, my only friend in the world, is currently staring down his own (very different) death no less than a mile away. I know it's no more than a mile. I just don't know in which direction.

Wurm Online, then, is a very good game for redefining your concept of a bad day.

Slitted sunlight shines down on me from the treetops as I tear up grass, searching for plants I could try and make a bandage out of. But there's nothing here. My health bar ticks lower as blood trickles out of the wound in my arm. Probably only five minutes left in me now.

Egg's messages are still coming up in my local chat, censored by the game's language filter.

'You know I figured you guys might do this,' he says. 'But I also figured you might not be ?#%!s.'

'egg do you like karma?' asks Darkdragoon. My scrabbling hands comes up with a handful of basil. Useless.

'dark your too slick', says Cndo.

'i think and anilize the situation,' says Darkdragoon. 'i quickly see wats going on. and i dont rest til thiefs lose everything.'

Egg disappears from my local chat, and I'm not kidding myself that he managed to get away. My friend is dead.

No less than two real life hours ago I was playing a brave little yoeman with prospects, dreams and pride. Two hours ago I was working the the fields around Glitterdale, one of Wurm's starting towns where new players and the talentless peasants that they control first spawn. I was spending my days chopping trees, foraging for food, whittling tools with a carving knife and watching my skills tick up. Just how bad things went in that time is a testament to Wurm's goal- to make a fantasy MMO with an emphasis on realism. And reality, let's not forget, is a bitch.

* * *

Now, this was about an hour and a half ago.

'Okay,' my flatmate announces from the other side of our living room, gazing thoughtfully at the player made .jpeg map on his laptop. His name's Egg, short for Super Foul Egg, and he's every bit as nerdy as that reference implies. 'West of Zion, south of Emerald Coast. There's a lake for water, there's clay and it's right in the middle of a forest.'

The two of us have decided to man up; to set out into virgin wilderness, leaving Glitterdale behind to build ourselves a homestead. The chance to play pioneer is about the most exciting aspect of Wurm. Everything from herbs to trees to mineral veins to wildlife gets very thin on the ground when dozens of players are logging on every day and dragging the stuff home, but since you can build anything anywhere it makes perfect sense to disappear off and find somewhere lush before painstakingly piecing together your own shed, farm, village, inn, whatever. The hardcore version of this can be found in Wurm's high level play, where your empire is never going to extend its borders without frontier settlements, watchtowers, forts and so on. Not that there's any such thing as a proper border in Wurm. The nearest you'll get is a rough estimate of where you can walk without fear of catching an arrow with your thigh. Welcome to the Dark ages.

In our case setting up shop in a forest is advisable because my flatmate isn't yet a good enough smith to create a lock, and we're terrified of some jerk stumbling across our shack when we're logged off and making off with our pots, planks, nails, seeds and the like. We've already got two carts full of supplies and we're only going to accumulate more stuff. The carts are my proudest achievement as a carpenter. An in-game month ago I disappeared into a nearby forest with nothing but my axe, my knife, my hammer and a pocketful of nails, and came back 24 hours later dragging a wheeled wooden cart twice my size, loaded with fine lumber from the forest. The second cart we'd just found, and it was much better quality. Goddamn thing.

'Well, okay. The location looks good,' I say to Egg. 'But what are we going to do? Drag our carts over that mountain?' I reach over the sofa to thrust a finger at the grey expanse on the map.

'Yep,' Egg says. 'Man up, bitch!'

And so that's exactly what we do. We head off to drag two carts laden with everything we own, from pottery to an anvil to bowls, up a mountain.

Climbing and heights are serious business in Wurm, so much so you can find relatively untouched foraging ground if you pick your way along sheer cliff edges. Everyone's too scared to get close. The way climbing works is when you toggle the climbing button you stop sliding down slopes (with all the skinned knees and twisted ankles that implies) and start sticking to everything like glue, but your stamina starts ticking away. Run out of stamina and you lose your grip, falling however far and entering a world of hurt.

We make progress up the rocky slope by snaking left and right and following paths of trodden grass and dirt. The dragging of the cart is an almighty pain in the ass, but it only makes the excitement in me more potent. I know that soon we'll be armpit deep in Wurm proper. We'll be clearing a space for ourselves in the forest, discovering local landmarks that'll lead us home, finding the best fishing spots. We'll be throwing up walls and planting barley for bread. And then...

'There's someone there!' Egg half shouts in the real world. There's enough tension in his voice to make him think he's talking about our flat (this is Scotland, after all), but he's referring to a tiny figure emerging from a cliffside cabin we're about to pass in Wurm. The two of us keep our heavily burdened avatars moving forwards. No sudden movements now. It pays to be careful when the single toughest animal your party can safely slay is a cat.

As we get closer the other player calls out to us and says hi. Turns out we've got nothing to worry about. From the way he types it's clear the guy's a total bumpkin who'd probably react to someone coming along and kicking in his walls with nothing worse than a private message containing an ASCII frowny face. He's just minding his own business and putting up the support beams for a house extension. The soil around his cabin has been turned and packed, and the brown, dry earth looks hungry for development.

'this is going to be my HQ', says the yokel. His name's Tiger. 'great view', he points out. The ovens and cookfires of Glitterdale smoke in the distance, and below that is Newbie lake and its delicate lining of rude player settlements. We press on, soon reaching a plateau that eventually peters off into a downward slope. We leave the sun is setting on our backs as we get our first look at our new home.

'Look at all this shit!' I tell Egg as he pulls his cart up beside mine. The virginal landscape below is packed with treetops that only occasionally break to show a lake or stony bump. Maybe we weren't being ambitious enough, I think to myself. We don't have to settle for some outhouse, we could build a farm out here, one with an archery range. Then if we got really good at skinning cats we could make leather armour, and before we knew it we'd be warriors. Warriors! Capable of defeating whole armies of cats!

Which is another interesting side of Wurm. The world really does contain warriors in dragonscale armour and evil priests who travel the world collecting gems to sacrifice in artifact location spells, but they're infinitely more impressive and fearsome because everyone starts off as a mouthbreathing yokel. It's funny reading about MMO developers claiming that their game "doesn't start with no kill-20-rats quest! It drops you straight into the action!" when Wurm is so fascinating for simply embracing the poverty of new players. The first thing anybody should do in Wurm is find some clay, cut some kindling, build a campfire and heat the clay to make a pottery bowl that you can eat out of. You sure as Hell don't mess with rats. Those bastards will chew the veins from your legs in the time it'll take you to fumble your knife from the bottom of your pack.

Egg and I scramble down the steep slope down into the forest with only a few bruises to show for it. With not long to go before nightfall we decide to ditch the heavy carts where we'll be able to find them again and check out the surrounding area quickly. What we find is Emerald Coast.

The player-drawn maps you find on the Wurm wiki are charmingly shit, and it turns out Emerald Coast is a few Age of Empire eras up from the lonely guard tower it was labelled as. With hearts full of awe we stroll out of the woods into the outskirts of an opulent and transparently unfinished village. Abandoned stone carvings of children and demons line the lifeless paved streets, streets which link huge wooden townhouses with gaping holes in their sides. The place seems proud and cold. Something turns in my stomach as I notice the local chat box (which lists all players within a mile of you) is currently listing way too many people. Worse, it contains chatter about myself and Egg. Someone called Darkdragoon is bitching that 'thouse nubs quin and egglet wont go away from this area.'

'Look man everyone is a nub once', Egg says. Something's changed in the atmosphere in the game, like the water I'm in is now too deep to stand up in. I look around but can't see a damn soul. 'mayby looking 4 a home to rob,' says Dragoon.

'we shouldnt be mean to new players', says a guy called Cndo. He then asks why we're here and whether we're thieves, though by that point me and Egg are hightailing it back to the carts.

'hold on now', says Cndo. 'we do need slave labor'.

By the time we weave our way through the trees and back to the carts it's the dead of night, which in Wurm means not being able to see a fucking thing. Trying not to not lose our sense of direction in the forest is like playing table tennis with our eyes shut. Still in our first 24 real world hours of playing Wurm, Egg and I are blessed with a faint light that saves us from having to carry lanterns or torches, but it's nowhere near enough. 'We can keep travelling on if we go to the shore', I realise. 'We go around Emerald Coast to the shore and walk along it until sunrise.' It's a brilliant plan, the best bit of thinking I've done all day, so I really shouldn't have been as surprised as I was when in true Wurm style it immediately almost got us killed.

After five minutes walk spent tramping down the coast and tugging stuck carts out of the sand a coastal village began to loom at us out of the moonlight. Bayview was something out of Left 4 Dead. Everything in Wurm takes damage and breaks over time, so this abandoned, cramped settlement had become a warren of rotting fences, gates, locked and unlocked doors and half-finished mines and tunnels. There are even building materials that had seemingly been dropped by the builders at precisely the location they'd become stricken by life-threatening ennui. We have to find a way through this maze to continue on our way.

There's something wonderfully organic about Wurm. Instead of bothering to create the goals or quests or NPCs you'd find in other MMOs, the developers spent all of their time creating a wealth of player actions centred around building, crafting, taming, praying and fighting, and the entire game has sprung up around that. Wurm is compelling before you even start playing because the whole world, from the settlements to the industry to the pitched battles, has been put together by players. It's like Eve, but with less spaceships and mathematics and more narrowing your eyes at passing strangers and slowly equipping your axe. Though maybe that's not fair to Wurm. Unlike Eve, even before you've found your place in Wurm you're already making your mark on it, be it as a lumberjack, hunter or miner, and existing without trace as a kind of ranger is a skill in itself.

I've taken no more than twenty steps into Bayview when I realise I'm taking ludicrous damage. I turn around to find the biggest black bear I've ever seen swiping at me with his paw. I scream out loud, and under a hail of bone-crushing swipes I hammer out the two mouse-clicks required to drop my cart and I'm off, weaving between fenceposts and across barren yards and just AWAY from the thing, before finally I go barreling off a ledge and into the sea.

After Egg's stopped laughing he goads the bear further down the shore before returning to sodden ol' me. I'm actually okay. Really, I am. My injuries mean I won't be doing any serious climbing anytime soon, but I'll live.

We're poking through the darkness for my cart when our local chat starts buzzing again. It's Cndo.

'may i help you boys', comes the message. A few seconds later he slides out from behind a dilapadated building, shortsword in each hand. It's a weapon choice that sets my nerves on edge. The man's flashy, which means he's not practical and more likely to be an idiot, which means this is more likely to come to a fight. The permanent skill loss that comes with dying in Wurm makes this scary enough, but we're in the middle of nowhere and I'd respawn back at Glitterdale. No way I'd make it back here before someone looted my body. Or my cart.

Egg senses the hostility too. 'He is looking for his cart and trying to avoid a large bear,' he types. Cndo replies with a flurry of short messages.

'hold on there.' 'those arent yours.' 'the cart.' 'and stuff in it.' 'not yours.' 'you..stole it.'

My sinking feeling gets worse as I examine Egg's cart and see what Cndo's seen. Our found cart has BAYVIEW carved onto it. Once upon a time someone living right here had made it. I look around us for my own cart and just make out Darkdragoon in the distance darkness, stock still and staring at us from the forest's edge.

'we dont take too kindly to thieves,' says Cndo. 'as you can see.' 'you are busted.' 'your first mistake was using lanterns.' He's referring to the newbie light blessing that we couldn't turn off if we wanted to.

I start thinking to myself that maybe if we're only accused of thieving that's not so bad. These guys aren't bushwhackers. Maybe with a little diplomacy we'll get out of this in one piec-

'We've seen you gimping about, guys,' types Egg. 'It's not like you're a crack squad of heroes. Seriously do you think you're Professor Layton or something. What of it is yours, exactly. What did we take. Do tell. Since you have SPIES and EYES and all that good stuff.'

'What are you DOING?' I ask Egg in real life.

'Man, it's fine' he says. 'They can't prove we've broken any laws so if they attack us now they'll be tagged as outlaws.'

'Dude that stuff came from nowhere near here,' Egg goes on ingame. 'All you are is thieves pretending to be heroic heroes. So how about you just turn about and go back home to wherever the hell your home is.'

'This is my home,' says Cndo.

'Nice bear,' I type.

'ty' says Cndo. 'He's the mascot.'

The rising sun begins to cast faint light all across Bayview. The crumbling town's less scary in the day.

Darkdragoon starts typing from his now less-shady vantage point. 'hey cndo they have all teh missing stuff in the cart. 5 gold ore 10 clay 11 flasks 10 iron lumps. small anvil. iron cauldron. small barrell. practice dummy.'

'figures', says Cndo.

Egg's still holding his cart. They can't have looked in it. Unless they're not looking in Egg's. Cart.

'You STOLE MY CART?' I first shout it, then type it. They must have dragged it away during the bear attack. I start to feel angry, then queasy. I don't know which way is up anymore. The stuff really isn't ours. We found most of it all in an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere that was so old the fence around it had crumpled, and that makes it fair game, legally speaking. But I'm pretty sure Dragoon is using Cndo, and working the other man's zeal for justice to get his hands on our loot.

This is one more reason why Wurm distinguishes itself from other Fantasy games. Any true sense of good and evil in Wurm is rarer than dragon eggs. There is no right and wrong here. There's just humans.

In the events ticker I notice Darkdragoon is, apparently, now being mauled by a Scrawny Mountain Lion. This is my chance. I run off from Cndo's bullshit altercation and through the town towards the copse of trees where Dragoon was. If I can recover my cart while Dragoon's under attack, Egg and I can walk out of here and there's nothing these two jerks can do about it. Unless I've misjudged them and they really do have what it takes to stick blades in our backs.

I get turned around once, then twice as I lurch around the forest. I'm just realising finding the cart is going to be a nightmare when I come face to face with my very own scrawny lion. I got lucky with the bear, but not this thing. Two claw swipes on the same arm turn a medium wound into a severe wound, and it's all I can do to turn off autofight and keep running until my aggro on the insane creature goes away. It's only when I stop that I notice how badly I'm bleeding, and that I have no idea where I am or which way I'm facing. How did everything go so wrong? I remember Tiger, and the packed brown earth all around his home. If this had all just happened a week later, and we'd built that archery target, maybe we could have put up a fight.

I look over at Egg's screen and notice he's now looking at a second cart. My cart. Darkdragoon must have dragged it back to Bayview, but he's nowhere to be seen. And Egg can't pull two carts at once.

Cndo's still talking. 'admit you stole and you can keep stuff.'

'Here is our deal,' Egg barks out. 'You keep the cart you actually stole from us, and you just plain $@!% off and go back to your paranoid ways.' I watch as another mountain lion leaps out and starts tearing chunks out of him.

'Oh, God' I say out loud. I get it now. Darkdragoon was being attack by lions because he was deliberately aggroing them and then dragging them into the area. And as long as Egg's dragging his own cart, he can't run.

'You know I figured you guys might do this,' Egg types, slowly dragging himself and his cart away as the lion chews on his kneecaps. He has seconds to live. 'But I also figured you might not be ?%?!s.'

And then he dies.

Far off in the forest I find lovage, and combine that with some rosemary, moss and mud to create a poultice. It stops the bleeding. I'm going to live. I look over at Egg, the real Egg, in our front room.

'I'm going to kill them,' he says. I look at him and have absolutely no idea how serious he is. 'I'll build a fucking catapult,' he goes on. 'I'll create cave-ins when they're mining. I'll come back with fire and friends and burn their town to the ground.'

I have none of his anger inside me. I just feel hollow.

Back in the forest, Cndo is sending me private messages.

'meet me somewhere. i have your cart. dragoon has gone crazy.' I wonder if he's noticed it's not their stuff or if this is just another trap. I tell him to ?%?! off all the same.

Cndo's final messages arrives as I take my best guess which way Glitterdale is and start hiking. 'tell egg to be careful.' 'if he comes back.' 'dragoon is unpredictable.'

* * *

It's a week later now. Egg and I have moved into an abandoned place next to Tiger's home called Cliffside Cottage. We're renovating it with the help of a couple of other friends. I'm the group's carpenter and lumberjack. It's good here. I thoughtlessly cut down some of the young oak trees Tiger had planted around his house yesterday, but he was good enough to accept my apology. I'm borrowing his scythe today. The fields of wheat and rye I planted in our garden are only tiny, but they're a start.

We don't talk about what happened on the other side of the mountain. There's no way Egg's forgotten about it, but he might have at least let it go. I really hope so. The world of Wurm is big enough and dangerous enough without petty squabbles and hatred.

Egg's the group's blacksmith. You see him working his forge all through the night, churning out butchering knives, iron files, nails. He fixed that forge up himself, dragging shards of rock down from the cliff with his bare hands. One day he'll be able to make weapons and armour, and he's already talking about making our group chainmail. He says he wants it as a uniform of sorts.

It's something I try not to think about. I notice my cotton plants need weeding. I take my rake and smile as I sink myself into the soil.

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