There are other Middle-Earths, other Eriadors, Rhovanions, Morias. Some of them are named as such, others have another name, another context, and belong to other games. But no other world is quite like this.
Breathless In Bree
In Bree there is so much to do and so much to see, you have barely time to stop. You run to the Prancing Pony, slam the doors open in a search for Strider, and then Gandalf, and then Strider again. They want you to do something important for them, but it feels like they’re wasting your time. You could be doing quests and gaining XP instead of being their messenger. You run around the hallways, up and down the stairs, and into and out of rooms to finish their tasks.
Later on in the game you discover that other players gather in the Prancing Pony to talk and drink and socialize, even perform together via the game’s internal music system. But you’re rarely there. You’re too busy.
Bree-land is large and pretty, half-timbered houses and sunny fields, a few ancient ruins and a swamp ridden with goblins and gnats. This area of the game is another European landscape that is familiar and therefore easy on you. Some players start in Bree-land and have other experiences, other adventures there than those you started with in Ered Luin. But you’re too busy to check this starter area out, you’re even too busy to ask other players about it. Instead you hurry on from the Prancing Pony and the important events there, which you do recall from the books, to the next stage in this virtual world. Even though you know what happens in the books, this game makes you feel like an explorer of uncharted lands. Thus, you press onwards for new landscapes, new marvels, and new adventures.
All Night In The Great Barrow
The Old Forest is dark and terrible. Not because it’s old or scary, no, the virtual version is beautiful and well made, with walls of trees as impenetrable as any dungeon. The Old Forest is horrible because there you must constantly search for the right path and that makes you motion sick. In addition, the game soundtrack here consists of howls and wails and clanks and bangs, the musical reflection of the heart hammering with fear. But to you it’s like listening to a piece of modern classical music, abstract and noisy.
When you finally slip out of the Old Forest and into the garden by Tom Bombadil’s house, it’s night in the game and night in the world. The windows of the cozy wooden house glow with the light from countless candles, and in the pond beneath the house water lilies rest on the surface. As you run past the steps of the house, someone comes bounding from behind, leaping and singing. In the sofa, in real life, you jump. Who or what was that?
The person is dressed in a lose shirt and pants, the strap of a colorful bag slung over one shoulder, a wide-brimmed hat on his head. He skips down the slope singing and rhyming. Ahh, just the local hippie, you think, relieved it wasn’t a crazed wolf, or worse, an orc. With Tom Bombadil thus introduced to you, you hand in the quest to him. But the next task is a group effort. At the stairs of Tom’s house a small cluster of players have already gathered. As you come closer, they wave and ask in the text chat window if you need the group quest too. Yes, you type, and they immediately invite you to their group, despite you being one or two levels too low for the quest. After a short while the group is full, you say “hi” to each other, and seek out Tom Bombadil to accompany him to the game’s first big group instance, The Great Barrow.
The entrance to The Great Barrow is deep inside the Barrow Downs, a moor full of standing stones, burial mounds, angry undead, and dangerous wildlife. The group quest transports you directly to the entrance. From the talk in the group you gather that one of them is a female player, married to one of the male players. They talk about another guild member who has reached level 25 and can report that the game is “awesome!” at that stage too. Three of the players in the group are from the same kinship, a player guild, the other three, including you, are strangers. You’re a pick-up group, a PUG, but a relatively well-balanced one and at the appropriate level.
Tom Bombadil gives you a few last warnings before you enter The Great Barrow. The stone tunnels are choked with burial jars, coffins, sarcophagi and cobwebs, and branch out into other corridors filled with darkness. Every ten meters or so there’s a strong skeleton or two, which you must fight. Once or twice you go too far, or are surprised by a wandering skeleton that hits you in the back, and you wipe a few times. When everyone die, you end up all the way back at Tom Bombadil’s house. But since Tom is now waiting for you at The Great Barrow, you have to run back through The Barrow Downs. And night in there is chaotic and dangerous and you don’t know the way at all, so you must keep up with the group as you fight our way back.
Thus, it takes hours to work your way down to the lower levels of The Great Barrow. This time you get as far as a basement tunnel where giant spiders add to the fight against the skeletons and corpse worms. You get another player into the group, who runs back with you to the Great Barrow. This time the more experienced players in the group remember where to go and you spend less time in the dark tunnels to find your way back to the final boss of the group quest.
The boss seems alone, so you jump him, but when you attack a multitude of skeletons appear. It’s a terrible mess, and as you’re thrown around by the boss’ attacks, more skeletons are pulled into the fight. It ends as it must, with all of you defeated back outside Tom Bombadil’s house. As you resurrect, the old hippie bounds past you, singing happily.
You try once more, wipe once more. This time one more player leaves, and you have to wait for ten minutes to get a stranger into the group. But finally you’re off again to the Great Barrow. You don’t make it this time either. You’re beaten yet again because you don’t know how the boss behaves, or you pull too many skeletons, or because now you’re only five in the group, or you have too many low level players. You don’t remember.
What you do remember, though, is that the trip through The Great Barrow lasts all night, and in the gray foredawn you stand bleary eyed and shivering in front of Tom Bombadil’s house once more. In your memory the chill of the night has turned into a fine mist that settles as glittering droplets on our clothes and hair. Tired and sleepy, as if you have been on a real adventure all night, not just a virtual one, you bid each other good night and good luck the next time you go to The Great Barrow.
You don’t meet those players again. You don’t remember when or who you finally down the boss with, only that at the time you’re several levels higher and the fight considerably easier. But in your memories, the first trip to The Great Barrow will always be the best.
Berit Ellingsen’s novel Not Dark Yet will be published by Two Dollar Radio in November 2015. Berit is the author of the short story collection Beneath the Liquid Skin (firthFORTH Books) and the novel Une Ville Vide (PublieMonde), with work in W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, SmokeLong Quarterly, Unstuck, Litro, and other places. Berit’s stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the British Science Fiction Association Award. The author divides time between Norway and Svalbard in the Arctic, and is a member of the Norwegian Authors’ Union.