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The Soapbox: You can't go back again


Returning to an old MMO love is a tradition for us vets, isn't it? I see people doing it a lot, and I'm certainly not immune to giving in to these whims. It usually starts out mild: hearing a friend talk about the game, remembering a good time you had in it, or seeing a big chunk of shiny new content come down the pike. Suddenly you've signed up again and logging in like you never left. It feels so familiar.

It feels so alien.

And that's when you realize: You really can't go back again.

It's a dreadful realization, one that makes you lunge for the clock and attempt to turn back time with a sheer force of will. Stages of grief set in: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Sometimes you work in "snack food binge" in there as well. Why, you wonder, can't this be just like last time? It's a game, so why can't you recapture the same magic?

The Soapbox You can't go back again
Ten days in heaven and hell

What got me thinking about all of this was an email from Blizzard tempting me back to World of Warcraft with 10 days of free game time (including the new expansion). The email came at a time when I was feeling particularly mushy toward the game. Hearthstone's announcement and my semi-recent adventures through The Burning Crusade's soundtrack both put WoW back on the brain -- and I couldn't stop thinking about it. I missed it, and according to the email, the money-counters at Blizzard apparently missed me.

So I loaded it back up, figuring that it couldn't hurt to check. Secretly I was hoping that the old magic was still there, that I would be sucked back in against my will, weeping in public but secretly rejoicing. After all, who doesn't like being wooed by a game?

The initial login was a rush of nostalgia meeting the present. There were all of my favorite characters, still sitting there as if I logged in yesterday. I logged in and discovered that even after more than two years away, I was still in my old guild. Some of the members even remembered me, and it felt like a welcome homecoming.

But it didn't take long for the rush to subside and reality return. WoW feels vastly different now; I left after the second expansion and now it was in its fourth. The world, the UI, even my characters' settings were changed. Part of the game still looked as I remembered, but part of it showed visible signs of having moved on without my express permission. I was unsettled.

I rolled a fresh character and gave it the ol' college try, but something was missing. Even with all of the new features, it felt... old. I dutifully went through the motions, figured out all of the changes, gave pet battles a try. Nothing stuck. My first session was a mere 30 minutes, and subsequent ones were shorter than that. Then I just sighed and uninstalled.

The Soapbox You can't go back again
It's not you; it's me

Here's the thing: There's nothing overtly wrong with World of Warcraft. It's an older game at this point, true, but for all that it's changed in my absence, what changed the most was me. Going back to a game years after the fact is a much different experience than going back a couple of months after quitting. You don't realize just how much you've changed until you see yourself reflected in the eyes of a long-lost friend.

I had changed and grown since my adventures in WoW. I'd had adventures in plenty of other games since, gotten used to more advanced features, and become OK with dating many MMOs instead of being wedded to just one.

In a way, it was like returning to high school or college a decade or more after having attended. It's a jarring, unnerving sensation as what you remember clashes with what is right now. Memories and nostalgia are rooted and preserved in specific moments in time, and they don't take well to being challenged with the ever-changing nature of the world. These places may still exist, and some of the people you remember may still be there, but it's all different. You've moved on and it's moved on. It's a little sad, but it's also life.

The Soapbox You can't go back again
A return trajectory

The thesis of this soapbox is simple: You can't go back again. It's not a terribly deep statement, just one that I feel is particularly true. Yes, barring a game's shutdown, you can always log back in. You can even enjoy it and forge new experiences and discover a newfound appreciation that you previously lacked. But you can't go back to how it was.

You can't turn back the clock to a specific moment in a game's history after it's moved on. Even classic servers and emulators can't change our memories and perfectly recreate all of the factors that went into making it what it was. Yes, time moves on, and MMOs are designed to change and grow and move on as well. Raging against that fact and struggling to erect a facade so that you can pretend otherwise does you a disservice.

I won't lie; I was a little sad that my return to WoW was a tepid anti-event. It's probably for the best -- I don't need that addiction monkey on my back again -- but that doesn't mean I couldn't be let down by reentering those halls and knowing that I wasn't a good fit for it anymore (and vice-versa). Still, it made me realize just how MMOs follow the trajectory of life itself: birth, change, death. I can't be in every MMO for every era, so the ones I choose are even more special because of what I will be ignoring.

You can't go back again. Deal with that however is most healthy for you, and then embrace the excitement of the present and future. Be happy for the memories you did make but also be looking forward to the new ones to come. Sometimes games grow with us and sometimes we outgrow them, but either way those MMOs have been a part of our gaming careers and given us some fun, knowledge, and experiences that we wouldn't have had otherwise.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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