The Memory of Place
The Nature of Remembering
It has been said that remembering is replaying what you felt about those memories the previous time you thought about them, not actually recalling the remembered event itself. Is this why false memories are difficult to avoid, why eye witness accounts are unreliable, and why bad memories are hard to forget? Because memories are simply just reiterations of opinion, a refilling of downstream ponds and lakes, and not a reflection of the source?
Nobel Prize winning research has shown that the memories of place are stored in special neurons in the hippocampus in the brain. When the directions of a place are committed to memory, the neurons responsible for storing the recollection grow and change. The neurons that store the memory of place constitute a map of the space that is remembered. Thus, in order to recall the directions of a place and orient successfully in it, we must become that place, and it must become us.
I play together with the same kinship members almost every night. We go to the six-player dungeons to beat the bosses there, chat, and have fun. If we don’t get a full group, we go anyway. We’ve done the fights so many times, know the tactics so well, we can do it with fewer people or less able or less well-geared players than the encounters are meant for. We’re flexible enough to change the strategy where that is possible to suit the group, and know where we need to follow tried and true methods.
When we’re not in the six-player dungeons, we grind trait stats together, characteristics that give our avatars minor but selectable advantages. Increasing the traits means having to kill several hundreds of a particular opponent in a specific place. It’s boring and monotonous work, and almost impossible to do if there are more than a few others doing the same in the area. But as a group we round up all the nearby mobs, then take them down in a heap. It’s substantially faster than doing it alone, and much more fun.
We also do the twelve- and twenty-four-player fights, the hardest encounters in the game, called raids in MMOs. Not only are these fights the hardest, they are also the most difficult to organize, but reward successful players with the best gear in the game, and renown for the kinship. That’s secondary to me. I want to fight the hardest bosses of the game just for the sake of it. If it had been possible to do all alone, I would have, with no reward at all. But raiding is time-consuming. It needs a balanced number of participants from each class who must be willing to learn the fights and train together. I join the kinship’s newly formed raiding group because I’m willing to train, can spare the time, and am eager to become a better player.
Once I join the raiding I love it, like a Viking. It’s crazy, chaotic, demanding. Sometimes just a single boss fight lasts for more than thirty minutes and the whole process takes hours. First, the way to the boss must be cleared of clusters of enemies, who while smaller than the boss, are much more numerous and stronger than the opponents out in the rest of the game. After an hour or two of this, we finally reach the boss, who has hundreds of thousands of hit points, is several levels higher than we are, and has scripted special attacks to unleash on us. Most raid boss encounters require us to use the architecture of the room and objects inside it to our advantage to protect us from the boss’ attacks, to separate the smaller enemies that occasionally flood the room away from the boss to be picked down one by one, or we must split up into smaller groups to attack different parts of the boss. Raiding also requires good gear, and certain supplies to be used during the fight. Once the encounter starts no one can enter or leave the area until either the boss or the raid group is dead. Usually it’s us ending up on the floor and having to respawn to another location and run back to the last door to the boss room. If we spend too much time dying at the boss, the clusters of enemies will return and we must clear the way again. Therefore, time is always short.
On any given night the first few hours are the best, when people are energetic and awake. The last hour is usually the worst, when we’re tired and hungry, and spouses and partners start demanding that we come to bed. Hence, most raids end at eleven at night and rarely go on past twelve. However, with a range of three time zones for Finns, Scandinavians, players from the Low Countries, and Brits, the time difference can sometimes be an issue.
But raiding is so much fun. The harder and busier and more complex the fight is the more fun I think it is. To many players, raiding is too repetitive and takes too much time, but I love it. Best of all is when an encounter is completely new and we move carefully into the large space with the boss without knowing what it will do, which adds will come, or whether there are any traps or doors or keys we need to use during the fight. It’s a question of reading the boss’ attacks, see what advantages the architecture gives us, being highly familiar the skills of the player classes and using them correctly, and know where to stand and what to do, when. Every fight has to be memorized, and the right equipment and supplies brought along on the avatar. The only way to learn a raid is to do it again and again and that means dying, again and again.
Although F. is the guild leader, most raids are led by D., E., or P. We mostly do twelve-player raids, as we rarely have enough people online at the same time to go to the twenty-four-player fights. That’s less and less of a problem, though, because the game developers realize the twenty-four-player fights are too large and create the next raid for twelve only.
Twelve is a good number, a good size. It’s large enough for complex fight mechanics and multitasking, such as splitting the raid group, to be possible, but small enough to avoid the number of players needed being the biggest obstacle against arranging the raids, which often is the case with the twenty-four-player fights.
Even boss fights that are solved and familiar can go wrong if the raid group is imbalanced, has too many new players who don’t know the fight, or too many players with inappropriate gear or skills. But it’s not always easy to tell why things go badly.
One such time we’re slogging our way through a network of caves that has five smaller bosses and a big one, a balrog, at the end. Even though several of us have been there before, tonight we can barely get the first boss down, and even the clusters of trash mobs who stand about in the tunnels and hallways, give us challenges. We wipe at nearly every group. We die and run back, through the winding caves and tunnels to the next group of trash mobs who pummel us into virtual submission. As always happens in these situations, someone starts to question the tactics, we discuss them, try another approach, die again and run back, then reconfigure the groups, a few people leave, more join in. After a couple of more wipes, suddenly, people must go and make dinner, bathe the kids, get up early the next day. Because with every defeat, our weapons and armor incur damage that must be repaired, which costs money earned in the game.
Raiding isn’t just challenging and repetitive, it’s also costly. And as with most other things in the game, it boils down to time. In-game money can easily be earned through gathering virtual materials that can be harvested in the game world, by crafting in-game items and selling them, or by hunting animals or enemies in the game. All of this requires time, because the game’s developer and publisher want us to spend as much time in it as possible so we pay the subscription fee for one more week, one more month, one more year. But for most players game time is limited, wedged in between work and studies and kids and lovers and friends and all our other duties and hobbies. Thus, time is definitely money, even in the game. In the failing raid we die and run back, die and run back, reconvene at the last spot where things went badly to try and shave off a few more trash mobs so we can reach the boss and make up for our poor performance on the way, our wounded pride, and have a chance at the hard-earned rewards. But tonight progress is too slow, too laborious to even reach the first boss. We die too many times until the tanks’ gear breaks down, forcing them to leave the raid instance and return to the nearest camp to repair their weapons and armor. When the gear breaks down it no longer gives any protection against the mobs’ attacks and none of the numerically calculated damage. One of the tanks who runs off to repair his gear types in the raid chat window that his wife wants him to put the kids to bed, and then he leaves the raid group.
“OK, let’s continue one more hour,” D., the raid leader, types in the raid chat window, but we can all feel the group creak in the seams. At one of the most difficult pulls in that section of the caves, which throws several trolls and mages at us, we die even faster and more frequently than we have done that night. Finally, our main offensive player, which is D., no longer has any functioning weapons. Right before we all die humiliatingly and tediously one last time, backed up against a grate in the cave wall while we’re getting pummeled by three trolls and about a dozen of their best friends, D. starts fighting the mobs with his avatar’s bare hands.
However, the raids usually go much better than that and we have few problems clearing the instance. It’s great fun and we’re a good team, but little by little some of us want to leave the large kinship and join a smaller one or make our own. We try to get D. to join us, but he declines, even though he’s not entirely happy with the big kinship either. So we leave and several months pass.
The few times I see D. he’s playing together with a female avatar whose name I don’t recognize. I ding D. in text chat, but he doesn’t reply and I don’t try more than once. Several more months pass till I see D. again. When it happens I’m in Trollshaws, which resembles a Norwegian forest, full of pine and spruce and oak, rowan, aspen, and birch. Despite the area being full of trolls and angry walking trees, it still looks beautiful and inviting. Since my avatar is now many levels higher than the bears, wolves, bats, deer, undead skeletons, and giant spiders in the area, I can ride through it without having the mobs aggroing on me. I finally know the lay of this land and make my way to the place where a named cold-worm, a large, lizard-like drakeling, appears. When it dies it drops a beryl shard, an item that is needed to make stronger weapons and armor. Thus, everyone want beryl shards, and most players have one or two named mobs they search for or camp to get. I call the worm “my little friend with genuine hand-made beryl shards”.
As I ride up the last narrow valley to the worm lair I wonder who I’ll meet there tonight. I’m not the only player camping that worm. There’s usually a line. The first player in the queue kills the regular worm that spawns every five minutes or so until the named one appears. Then the player kills it, takes the shard, and leaves, making room for the next person in line. Since the named worm only appears every ten to fifteen spawn of normal mobs, the waiting time at the worm place can be an hour or more. Most people don’t bother waiting for more than half an hour or so, time being the usual premium in the game, and leave the queue if it takes too long time. Players who don’t leave after they get the shard ask for open competition about the worms instead of the courteous line, and become unpopular with other players on the server. Hence, most people queue up, and if they want more than one shard, they go to the back of the line to wait once more for their turn. It’s an amicable arrangement I’m not sure would have happened in other MMOs, or even on other servers in this game. This server is known for its good community and friendly interaction.
Tonight, a familiar person is at the worm lair. It’s D. I select his avatar and /wave and say /hi to him. He dings me in the private chat window with a Hi! and How are you, long time no see! While we wait for the named worm we chat together for a good while. When it finally pops and D. takes the shard, I say
“So nice to meet you again, glad we could catch up.”
“Of course,” D. types back. “We don’t have anything unspoken.”
“I saw you in Evendim a while back,” I say. “I sent you a direct message, but got no reply. I thought you didn’t want to talk to me anymore.”
“Sorry, I must have been AFK,” D. says. “I didn’t see your message. Sometimes the kinnies make so many chat windows.”
I have no reason to disbelieve him, I know how easy it is to miss a message if several people are writing to you at the same time in private chat windows and the fellowship and kinship channels are busy at the same time. It gets confusing, however used to it or good at multitasking you are.
“So glad to hear that,” I say. We bid each other farewell. D. rides off down the slim, forest-clad valley while the area’s somber incidental music rattles and howls darkly.
From then on I see D. almost every night at the worm lair. We chat about the game and the kinship and our personal lives. We talk a lot and it’s just like before, except we don’t play in the same group anymore. He tells me he doesn’t play much with his kinship, just organizes the raids, leads a few in between, but mostly crafts weapons and armor so his kinship members can have better gear. That’s why he camps the named worm night after night. I do the same because the beryl shards are easy to sell and I haven’t made money before in the game. I didn’t bother to, didn’t want earning in-game money to become another treadmill. I have a job in real life and don’t feel the need to get another in what’s supposed to be a relaxing side activity.
Once, D. shows me the shard droppers in Lothlórien.
“There are so many named mobs here,” he says. “It’s raining shards.”
I’ve only explored the Golden Woods while doing the area quests and leveling up on my way to Mirkwood. Now I just rush through the landscape, or circumvent it completely by fast traveling from Caras Galadhon, Galadriel’s town. Despite that, I find Lothlórien to be one of the most beautiful places in the game. Beneath a sky of mallorn canopies, wide tree trunk after tree trunk stretches into the game’s mist-filled draw distance. The deep green grass is covered with red, brown, and yellow leaves in an autumn that never ends. Ancient remnants in the form of crumbled arches, obelisks, and standing stones, litter the underbrush and meadows. Even the wooden platforms mounted in the trees, the Elven flets, hint of a world that is slowly vanishing.
It’s oddly appropriate because it’s no longer the early days of the game. The first expansion, the Mines of Moria, was a year too late to prevent the mass migration that set in a year after the game came out, when it became clear that a new expansion wasn’t coming soon. Worse, the long awaited expansion transparently utilized tedious ways to make the players stay for as long as possible, as if the game’s publisher suddenly realized they were losing money and had to roll out any method of holding back the players. But they didn’t succeed. More than half the players that were here in the start have moved on to other games and other worlds. A few of them returned when Mines of Moria came out, fewer still when the subsequent expansion, Mirkwood, followed a year later. Thus, I expect the player numbers to diminish for every orbit of the MMO cycle completed. My own enthusiasm for the game has faded as well, yet places like Lothlórien and its claustrophobically dense, but equally beautiful dark twin, Mirkwood, still retains a pull on me and I’m not sure when I will leave.
My favorite place in Lórien is the fountain in the center of Caras Galadhon, the city in the area. The fountain sits beneath the giant mallorn tree that holds the flet of Galadriel and Celeborn’s house, Galadriel looking somewhat like a store mannequin with stiff arms and face, and Celeborn standing in an oddly broad-legged stance, as if his thighs are chafing or he suffers from rickets. The fountain’s wide pool is a mirror of water on which leaves of all hues are floating on the reflection of the surrounding canopies and lamps in fuzzy bloom effect. In the middle of the fountain is a statue of a swan with its wings outspread as if it just landed on the surface, with water spouting high behind it. The lawn around the pool is also covered with leaves, with a bench in ornate wrought-iron and various flowering bushes. Apart from the half snow-covered and melancholically soundtracked Vale of Thrain in Ered Luin, and the aurora-lit pine forest of Taur Orthon in Forochel, the swan fountain in Caras Galadhon is my favorite place in the whole game. This is where I go when I need to see something beautiful and don’t have anything else to do, in the game or in my real life. The sight of the leaves floating on the water, the swan, and the soft canopy-sky elicits the feeling of being in a world where magic is still present.
On the trip with D. we don’t enter Caras Galadhon. Instead, we cross back and forth in the forest and the circular ridge that surrounds the city while we search for a named bear matron, a deer buck, and a grunting boar which D. knows the locations and routes for. We spot two of them, the bear and the deer, and get one shard each.
“Have you seen the level 65 shrew?” D. says.
In the text chat I /laugh. “A level 65 shrew?” I say. “Is it named?”
“Yes,” D. says, “and it has a shard, but the shrew’s really hard to find. I’ve only seen it once or twice.”
“Where is it?” I say. “We have to be careful so it doesn’t kill us.” I find the idea of a shrew so fierce it can kill low level characters with one attack hilarious. So much so that I’m thinking of letting the shrew defeat my avatar so I can say he was once killed by it.
D. leads the way past boulders and bushes, up fern-clad hillocks and across whispering meadows to an abandoned garden with overgrown stone terraces and crumbling gazebos. In the tall grass are angry shrew and wolverines, lynx and wild boar, hawks and bats and owls. We dismount and enter, do the daily quest that requires us to find seven nuts and plant seven seeds in the old garden, while protecting them from the aggressive computer-controlled wildlife. We do the quest and chat together, collect some materials for crafting, while looking for the level 65 shrew.
“What’s the shrew called?” I say, curious to hear what a super strong rodent is named in Middle-Earth.
“Ha ha, I don’t remember,” D. says. “I’ve only seen it a few times.”
We search a little more for the shrew, then give up.
“Want me to show you where the nodes for crafting materials are?” D. says.
“No need to,” I say. “I have another place I go to for materials.”
“Down in Nud Melek in the basement of Moria. And the Redhorn Lodes.”
“Aren’t those full of goblins and worms and shit?”
“Yeah, but they’re all green and easy to beat,” I say. “And I can usually outrun them on the fast goat.” I’ve spent many nights down there and think of it as my personal hellhole where I only go when I need money and materials for raiding. Yet, I like watching the feet of my furry giant goat, the only mount allowed inside Moria, go and go while the rest of the animal floats serenely across the ancient paving. “This place is much better,” I say. “Sunnier. But don’t you get bored of waiting for the materials nodes to pop?”
“I’ve got three or four I cycle between,” D. says. “Or I just stand at one of them while chatting with kinnies, or watching TV on the side.
“You like selling and buying stuff at the auction house?” I say. Some enjoy it as a game in the game. I don’t.
“Yeah,” D. says. “Got nothing else to do in here these days. Or I craft for the kinnies, so they have potions and scrolls for the raids.”
“You’re too kind,” I say. People should grind those materials themselves, not just get it handed to them from their kinship officers. Again it’s time versus progress and how much you are willing to spend in the game on one of them to get the other. But I don’t say that to D., since he already knows what I think of players who don’t come properly prepared for the raids.
“Oh, I got money enough,” D. says. “I make a little from scrolls and potions.”
The first players to reach maximum level and craft the first items in the game earned hundreds of gold on it. One woman I heard of had more than 1000 gold pieces, something I couldn’t imagine earning. Months later, when D. and I are playing another MMO together, he tells me he quit crafting and selling because he reached the maximum limit of money in the Middle-Earth game: 9999 gold.
In the early fall I finally give in to an impulse I’ve had since the start of the year. I contact the cat breeder where my family’s rehomed Burmese cat came from and ask if she knows about any cat who needs a new home.
“I do,” she mails back, “but it’s two cats, they’re mine and three and five years old.”
I have considered getting two felines, since Burmese cats don’t like to be alone. And, I suspect, two cats is one hundred percent more cat for only fifty percent more work when I already need to change litter, buy dry food, etc. A few weeks later I visit to meet the two cats. The cat breeder, who breeds several types of cats and dog, serves coffee and chocolate cake. Long white dog hairs stick out of the icing on the cake, like rushes on a frozen pond. The cat breeder recently lost her husband and is still mourning.
In the sofa in the living room I’m accosted by a blue Burmese cat that is clearly desperate to get petted. In the hallway a small and sickly looking lilac Burmese cat is meowing and pacing restlessly while she allows me to pet her. When she tries to enter the living room, the dogs that have been placed in a pen there rear up on their hind legs and make a strange hissing sound at her. It’s the first time I’ve heard dogs hiss. The diminutive cat in the hallway is Chloe, and Dotty, the blue Burmese in the living room, is her daughter. The two cats spend most of the time in their owner’s bedroom because they are afraid of the dogs. After seeing how the cats live there is no way I can leave them behind.
“I’ll take both cats,” I say, to my own and the breeder’s surprise.
“Don’t worry,” the cat breeder says. “If it doesn’t work out, I’d rather have them back than the alternative.”
“Of course,” I say. “I promise.”
But I know it will work out. My parents’ Burmese cat had behavior problems when she was rehomed to us. But with time and calm surroundings, she shed her nervousness and even her feline hyperesthesia almost vanished, and she became an extraordinarily loving and social cat.
In the same way as I enter a raid or a boss fight in the game, I bring the two cats home, certain of victory. The cats are very frightened, with Dotty hiding first inside a blanket in the hallway, then behind the washing machine in the bathroom, then under the sofa in the living room, for three days. When I finally manage to coax her out from under the sofa and into my lap, she falls asleep on her own face from exhaustion. From then on my love for the desperately cuddly cat only increases and Dotty quickly bonds with me, despite her initially strong fear. But the small cat, Chloe, remains in the hallway, whimpering and scratching at the door, or running maniacally along the walls of the living room, round after round, like a zoo animal in her cage. I don’t know how to calm Chloe, but remove her from the door every time she scratches on it, and take her back to the living room so she can see she is welcome to stay there. After a few days of doing this, Chloe settles in the living room with Dotty and me. But she doesn’t bond to me like Dotty does.
After a month I let the cats out on the veranda, thinking that they are now accustomed to their new home and that it’s safe to let them out. But the moment the cats are outside, they run down into the garden and into the neighbor’s yard. The day and evening passes. I’m out on the veranda calling for the cats and scanning the surrounding hedges and lawns for them. Just as I’m about to return inside and close the door for the night, I hear a meow. It’s Chloe, looking surprisingly calm and unafraid, and stained with grease and dirt from the neighbor’s open garage.
I’m delighted and relieved to have Chloe back, but where is Dotty? I’m up several times that night calling for her, hoping she will hear my voice and return like Chloe did. The next day I’m out in the morning, midday, early afternoon, late afternoon, early evening, late evening, and into the night, calling for Dotty. One day passes, another day, and another day. I’m out calling for Dotty at all times of the day and night. By now the neighbors must be really sick of me. It’s the middle of October and not freezing yet, but gale winds and icy rain hint of what’s to come. I regret bitterly that I let the cats out in the first place and wonder if Dotty is still alive. At night I think I hear a cat meowing, but every time I open the door there is nothing, no Dotty, and it must have been another feline.
My sister comes over and we search the neighboring yards and garages. In one garden we find a shed filled with musty furniture and pillows. I think we may be in the right place, but we see no eyes shining between the cushions, no trembling whiskers. I hang up posters of Dotty on streetlights and in the grocery stores in the neighborhood with a promise of monetary reward for getting her back. But while Dotty is missing, Chloe starts bonding to me like Dotty has.
After a few days I place a bowl of cat food right outside the door to tempt any cat roaming the neighborhood to come and eat, so I can at least see if the feline I hear meowing each night is Dotty or not. Two nights later I hear the bowl being pushed against the door from someone eating. I run outside. A gray, medium-sized cat is staring up at the veranda, clearly having fled from it. I run after the cat, but she flees into the darkness. It’s Dotty.
“How am I ever going to get Dotty inside?” I ask D. He’s a cat owner too, and has shared stories of his large and formerly feral tomcat who now rules the house. “She runs off when I try to catch her. Even if I place the food in the hallway and that lures her inside, how will I get past her to close the door?”
“Tie a string around the door handle,” D. says. “That way you can pull the door shut behind her when she comes inside to eat.”
The next night I do as advised, loop a thick string around the door handle, roll the length out, and hunch behind the sofa, lights off. I’m in my winter jacket and gloves and shoes, because even with the door just ajar, October is blustering into the living room. After a long and cold wait, late in the evening a familiar shadow slinks through the door and heads for the bowl of food placed well inside. I pull the string and hold it tight so the door doesn’t bounce open. Dotty jumps nearly a meter into the air and heads for the door, but it’s now pushed close behind her. I rush up and shut and lock the door. Dotty runs and hides under a table in the living room. But as soon as she has sniffed my hand, she comes out from hiding and jumps up into my lap. No longer blinded by panic, she’s finally accessing her memory map of this place, her home, and lets me pet her while she purrs loudly.
“Without you I might never have gotten Dotty back,” I tell D. the next night. Dotty is safely in my lap and has drunk plenty of water and eaten well, and shows surprisingly few signs of having spent several days outside. From then on Dotty only goes out for short trips on the veranda and hardly leaves my side. With calm surroundings and time she and Chloe become highly social and loving cats.
Although I quit the game, I stay in touch with D. I write a book and he wants to read it, so I send him a signed copy. In the early summer we play another MMO together while he’s refurbishing the house of his brother who got a job abroad. As it turns out there’s a lot more to do than expected, the work is slow, and his mother’s health has deteriorated.
In the fall D. says he has to dedicate all his time to the house, and that he’s all but quit the game. I don’t hear from him after that, despite sending several mails and postcards. A year later I log into the game to see if he’s still there or if D.’s kinship leader or fellow officers have heard from him. After a few weeks the leader finally logs on and I ask him if he’s spoken with D., but no one has heard from him for over a year. I’m the person who played with him last. Maybe D.’s mother died and he moved to his siblings? Or he sold the house and found new work in another city? I consider getting someone to track D. down to give him a letter, but decide against it. Perhaps he doesn’t want to be in touch? Maybe he’s started a new life and doesn’t want to be pulled back in the game? That is a possibility and I must accept it. I still don’t know what happened to D.
What can I say about this place? Only that it took years of my life. More time than the days and weeks and months I actually spent there. Years of effort, years of energy. When I finally knew my way around the maps, the tunnels, treasuries, mines, caves, could spell the name Anazârmekhem without hesitating, and fight through the Foundations of Stone without getting lost, even to the remains of the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm, I had spent far too much time there, longer than the rest of the game combined. I cannot speak of it much. Like its tunnels, Moria is too serpentine, too dense, too dark. I have nothing good to say about that place.
Gone for Good
I return to the game several times, with varying success and length. Even when all I do is ride back and forth between the places I remember and want to see again, preserved forever in the non-decaying but increasingly lonely state of an abandoned virtual world, the period I stay becomes shorter and shorter and the interval between each return wider and wider, until I no longer feel like logging into the game, not even to look for the last few friends I know are still playing.
And that’s when I know I have quit the game for good. Its landscapes and players, the many impressions they left in me, have been replaced by other, more recent and more relevant-seeming yearnings. I have finally become another place.