It seems absurd to have nostalgia for the 2000s. Surely it was just a heartbeat ago? Yet that is where I find myself. So much has changed in the last decade and a half - politically and personally (child, mortgage, increasing awareness of own mortality) of course, but also in games. These are times of pre-order DLC, culture wars, UHD, annual sequels and developers saying contentious things on Twitter. So much noise, so much division, so much complication, so many games, even. I know I am not alone in finding it exhausting - a friend recently picked up an original Xbox, a CRT TV and a ceiling-high stack of games for pennies, and is absolutely delighted by his return to what feels like a simpler era. It's not "the games were better then" - if anything, most were worse - but that the entirety of games and gaming seemed so much calmer.
Me? I dream of Dun Morogh, the snowy Dwarf and Gnome starting zone from World of Warcraft.
Note - please click on the images to enlarge them. Some are, I think, quite beautiful.
To this day, I can close my eyes and conjure up particular paths, creatures and caves from Dun Morogh. There were a couple of years when WoW was nigh-on the most important thing in the world to me, but even before I fell wholly out of love for its ongoing drift into a game of numbers, nothing I saw or did in it, across multiple characters, continents and even planets, could ever measure up to Dun Morogh.
Dun Morogh, in my memory, still feels like home. My first character in WoW - save for a brief dalliance with a Night Elf priest in the beta - was a Gnome Rogue, initially named Kafka but then changed to Samsa (as in awoke one morning to discover etc...) after some passing bore dobbed me into a jobsworth GM for using a name deemed to be too real-world. I made alts, sure, but Samsa, her twin daggers and her bushy green pigtails would always be My Character. Still around on a server somewhere, abandoned soon after hitting the level cap in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, waiting.
Waiting for that perfect day when something happened to bring me back. That day will never come, of course. World of Warcraft is never going to return to the game of risky exploration and dress-up it first was, because it has set and then become victim of so many stat-chasing, dungeon-repeating precedents that inform so many games to this day.
Because I can never go back to Dun Morogh. Not with Samsa, who could slaughter her way through its entire monster population in a heartbeat. Samsa was born in Dun Morogh, earned her stripes in yeti caves and snow-wolf dens, knew well the inn in Kharanos, the bridge just outside the path up to mighty Ironforge, trekked down what felt like endlessly long and lonely trails to do battle with boss-beasts or retrieve kegs of Dwarven ale. In Dun Morogh, she learned how this new world worked, she learned its geography, she climbed snowy hillsides and she gazed upon the ruins of old civilization. She made it her home. And when she moved on, to lush Loch Modan and then lands far, far beyond, she always felt like a tourist.
Dun Morogh, in memory, was a lonely place, but beautiful and serene with it. WoW had no shortage of lonely places, but others tended towards the scorched or desolate. Dun Morogh was a quiet wonderland, feeling broadly untouched by the conflict that ravaged the wider world. A place of hunters and fishers, builders and boozers. I was happy in Dun Morogh. I felt I had found The Game, the only one I would ever need. I snuck into every cave with wonder in my heart, climbed every mountain desperate to see what hints the horizon might hold.
I have long dreamed of Dun Morogh, and this year especially have wished I could somehow restore myself to that earlier, simpler time. Me in the snow, fighting wolves, fishing in frozen lakes, gazing in awe at players who had somehow already earned their mecha-ostrich mounts. So much promise, so much anticipation.
I remember finding a green leather chestpiece and being delighted that it matched my hair. I kept it in my inventory for the longest time, long after it retained any possible use, hoping that, somehow, I'd be able to use it again. But the numbers took hold of me too, eventually, and I sold it just like everything else that did not give me the maximum possible statistical boost.
Today, I went back to Dun Morogh. Not with Samsa, no. She and it have too little in common now, and besides, I would have to spend money to reactivate my subscription. My nostalgia only stretches so far, you know.
I created, instead, a new character. A new Gnome, a mutton-chopped fellow named Shortbread, and this time a Hunter. I felt that was most in keeping with what I remember Dun Morogh to be.
I readied myself for the snow, the solitude, the wolves. And I was appalled.
Many of WoW's earlier regions have been remixed across various expansion packs, and Dun Morogh is no exception. Well, partially. Where once I seem to recall I spawned in some icy field, now it was deep in Gnomeregan, the Gnome home city that was taken over by leprous gnome-zombies and rogue mechs. Gnomeregan had been primarily an instanced dungeon before, but now seems to double up as a revamped starting area.
It was so busy. NPCs everywhere, engaged in automated firefights with those zomb-gnomes, weird machines all around, commotion and bluster and this carnival of activity. A game utterly desperate that I should not feel bored for even a heartbeat. Even the music was now boisterous heroics, not the quiet strains of icy solitude I remembered.
I found/fought my way to the surface as quickly as I could. An elevator carried me from the bowels of Gnomeregan to what would surely be the Dun Morogh I knew.
But no. Outside, yes, snow, yes, but another carnival. I felt I could barely take seven steps without seeing another NPC or another visibly loop-spawning flock of dangerous-looking but in fact preposterously feeble monsters. I remembered walking for so long, before. Now everything was right there, moments away. I was a pinball, bouncing rapidly from task to task, no danger, no delay, gimme gimme gimme.
Was this really it? When I reached the quiet town of Kharanos, would that too be clamour and commotion? Would the long road up to the dwarven capital of Ironforge now be three steps with a quest-giver on each? Could I hope to see even a single frozen lake? Would I never dance with the wolves again?
I walked on and fought on, further away from the heartbreaking circus this had begun in. The road to the next area grew a little longer than those to date. And then, over the hills and far away, I finally saw something I recognised. And I wept, just a little. Ridiculous, I know. But I had seen home.
Hidden by trees, shadowed by mountains, but I only had to see a fraction of it to know what it was. The gates of Ironforge, carved into the living rock. Before it, a spread of empty snow and white-tipped pines. The eternal Winter of Dun Morogh. Still here, still lonely, at least this corner of it. Prettier than ever, too - a combination of WoW's technological improvements over the years, a better graphics card in my PC and an ultrawide monitor granting great vistas.
I rounded the corner, and sighted Kharanos. I had felt sure this would either be gone or polluted by too much activity, but remarkably little had changed. It was still a two-building town, with a little camp of traders just past the inn.
A few more NPCs around, yes, and the inn itself was overstuffed with Trainers - the dread hand of Convenience had grasped Kharanos, and I no longer had to walk far to find everything I needed. But it was still Kharanos.
I took Shortbread a little way out of town, found a rock atop a hill, and looked down upon a sweeping, fir-bounded valley, the moon held eternally between its two sides. A lone boar wandered casually along the valley floor. No people, no yellow exclamation marks, nothing but the snow, the sky and that one pig. Just to my right, an Ironforge Mountaineer held constant watch. I felt she had chosen this view too, so I stayed with her.
This was my Dun Morogh again. I had Shortbread sit down on the rock, and then I logged out again. I think, forever. Forever in Dun Morogh dreams.