The Dragon

The Dragon

I remember how excited I was for the launch of Reverie Moon Online. My friends and I had read about it in magazines for months, talked about it after school while trading Pokemon cards. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before — a 3D roleplaying game that let players cooperate with strangers around the world to explore detailed environments full of monsters and mystery. We consumed every detail we could find about RMO, poring over grainy screenshots and forum posts from people who’d imported the Japanese version. I don’t think we’d ever been more excited for a videogame before. Of course, all that was before we knew about ~*RYU*~.

Shortly after RMO’s release, word began to spread about a figure who sometimes appeared while playing the game online. His character was the basic, unmodified version of the default avatar for the default class, a short-haired human in a red and yellow outfit equipped with the starting weapon, a glowing green saber. The stories went that if you encountered this player, you should immediately disconnect from the server. His name was ~*RYU*~ — for whatever reason, we all styled our usernames like that back then.

~*RYU*~ was capable of many things that weren’t possible in RMO, people said. For instance, he could attack and kill other players. And despite his appearance as a stock character, he was startlingly powerful, capable of felling even a high-level player in a single blow. Death in RMO wasn’t permanent, but deceased players dropped their equipped weapon, and ~*RYU*~ was known to launch surprise attacks on a party, steal their equipment, then disappear before they realized what had happened.

Some people said that ~*RYU*~ was even able, through some kind of illicit network manipulation, to corrupt another player’s save file, rendering it unplayable. Since RMO didn’t allow players to back up their saves, as doing so would make it trivial to duplicate rare items, there was no way to safeguard against this. In addition, we soon realized that the network architecture of the game was less robust than we’d been led to believe, and random disconnections and data corruption events were relatively common. The faulty code only fed into ~*RYU*~’s mystique.

You might be wondering, why didn’t the developers simply ban him? But you have to remember, this was in the early days of online gaming. There were no community managers, no support tickets, no systematic means of reporting someone. We connected to lobbies hosted on the developer’s servers, but each player ran RMO locally on their own machine so that they could play it solo without needing an internet connection. That meant that pushing updates to fix whatever bugs ~*RYU*~ used to manipulate the game was impossible. 

Forum users speculated on ~*RYU*~’s motivations and identity. Some argued that he was just some bored kid, while others claimed that the level of know-how it took to pull off the hacks he used meant he might be a developer who had been fired and was now getting revenge. The kookiest posters believed he was some kind of spirit that had found its way into RMO’s servers and now haunted them for eternity. Most people laughed at these guys, myself included. I was in my early teens, a bookish little know-it-all, and I didn’t believe in ghosts — much less ghosts haunting video games.

But it didn’t matter what we believed. ~*RYU*~’s existence was a fact, and it seemed to warp the world of the game around it. The planet Algar had become riddled with superstition. When I went online, I saw players flickering in and out of existence, disconnecting from a party at the slightest indication of trouble.

I started to wonder just who ~*RYU*~ was. I had dreams about meeting him online and asking him why he was doing all of these things, but never received an answer before I awoke. Part of me thought that if I could just understand his motivations, I could maybe convince him to stop. 

I just couldn’t understand what would drive someone to act this way. It’s not that I was naïve — I knew people did bad things. But all of the books I’d read had convinced me that people usually hurt one another for selfish reasons. They wanted money, or power, or respect, and other people were in the way. But there was no chance of making money by hacking an online game, no respect to be gained. Was it all just someone acting out his immature little power fantasy?

On the forums, some people said they’d quit going online entirely, retreating into private, lonely versions of the ancient forests, caverns, and temples which made up the game world. Others said they just avoided bringing their best gear when they connected to the internet, knowing that they could be slain by a fellow player who might then steal their powerful blade or cannon from their corpse before they could respawn to retrieve it. The community, such as it was, began to curdle. 

There was no way of striking back at ~*RYU*~, so the players began to turn on one another. Accusations swirled around the forums and players’ names were added to lists of potential hackers, PKers, and cheaters. Beneath elaborate ASCII art banners, plaintext guides for the game warned readers of malevolent signs to watch for in the behavior of unfamiliar players: erratic movements, suspiciously low level characters or high-level weapons, defeating bosses in single blows.

And throughout it all, sightings of ~*RYU*~ continued to occur. He still PK’d, stole items, and crashed people’s games, but he started acting differently, too. Sometimes he would show up, drop a ton of rare items, and then leave. I read on the forums that picking up these items could corrupt your game, wipe out your inventory, or mark you for banning by the developer. A friend of mine happened to be in a lobby when this happened one time, and even though he knew all this, the temptation was too much for him to resist. When he saw a dozen shiny red item boxes laying on the ground, he grabbed them all without even checking their contents, then quickly jumped offline before the other players in his party had noticed.

When he checked their contents, he found that they contained some of the most sought-after items in the game, weapons and accessories that only dropped from difficult bosses at exceedingly low rates. His game still worked fine, and he was able to continue to play online without any problem. But a couple of weeks after his encounter when I asked him to log on and help me complete a quest, he told me that he’d lost interest in RMO. Having gotten everything he’d wanted in the game without any effort on his part, it had become boring.

Time passed and new games came out. The console RMO was made for was discontinued, and everyone started looking forward to new things. I would still log in now and then, checking out the trickle of content that was added before the developer moved on to other projects. Eventually, I moved on too. I put the console, RMO, and my other games into a box in my parents’ attic and hooked up a newer machine to my TV.

I was away at college years later when I stumbled onto a post on a retro gaming subreddit about RMO. People were sharing their memories of the game — for many, it was their first experience playing an online RPG. The discussion jostled my memory of ~*RYU*~ and I asked if anyone else remembered him, but nobody did.

The next weekend, I went home to see my parents and took my console and copy of RMO down from the attic. I hooked it up to the little TV still in my bedroom, gripping the old, slightly grimy plastic of the controller, and when the title screen music started up, all melancholic piano notes and alien howls, I felt like I was a kid again, playing games in the evening after I’d finished my homework.  My character was just as I’d left him, and I ran through the first area as I’d done dozens of times before, defeating the huge dragon boss and returning to the futuristic ship lobby. I was about to turn the console off when I had a thought. 

I knew RMO’s online mode had been shut down years ago, but something compelled me to try logging in anyway. The connection process stalled, fruitlessly attempting to contact servers that no longer existed. Then the screen went dark. I thought for a moment the game had reset, but then my character appeared standing in the ship lobby. And there was another character present, too. Was it a bug? I approached the stranger: a default, unmodified version of the default class. His name appeared in a window at the bottom of the screen.

It sounds absurd, but ~RYU~ was there, wandering around the ship. And I wasn’t frightened of him — what was there to lose at this point? I used the game’s rudimentary communication system to ask him a question: “Who are you?”

No response came for some time, then a speech bubble appeared above his head.

“I’m DEFEATED!” It said, one of the stock messages the game could translate to other players. I didn’t get it. I was trying to think up a response when another speech bubble appeared.

“EVERYONE log off.”

And another: “Did I WIN?”

And another still: “Did I SAVE them?”

It seemed like he was spitting out random messages. Maybe ~*RYU*~ hadn’t been a real person at all, just a bug in RMO’s code. I was at a loss. Whatever it was, it was clearly waiting for an answer.

“YES,” I replied, for lack of a better idea. ~*RYU*~ was silent, then spoke for the last time.

“OK. Goodbye,” he said, and then I was kicked to the menu screen. I tried logging back in, but received a message telling me that the connection couldn’t be made. 

I didn’t understand what any of this meant, and I wouldn’t have believed it if it hadn’t happened to me. But I realized, as I packed the console back up, that the most out-there people on the forums back in the day had been right, and ~*RYU*~ really was a ghost. That’s what he meant by “defeated” — the game’s language filters wouldn’t let you say “dead.” Anyway, how else could I have connected to him?

As for what he wanted — his unfinished business, if you like — I figured he wanted people to stop playing RMO. First, he tried making the experience of playing online miserable by attacking other players and corrupting their data. Then he used another tactic, giving people like my friend everything they wanted in-game so they would get bored and quit.

But none of this answered the question I’d had back when I’d first heard of ~*RYU*~. Why try to push people away from the game? My best guess at the time was that it had ruined his life and he’d wanted to save other people from the same fate. 

In the years since, though, I’ve become convinced that that wasn’t the whole story. Whoever he was, I think ~*RYU*~ saw the future in RMO. He saw how the promise of connection through the internet contained the seeds of its own dissolution into addiction, greed, and isolation. 

I mean, looking back, the game was quaint by today’s standards — there weren’t many updates, there were no incentives to log in everyday, and there were no in-game purchases on offer. The sheer number of ways not just games, but all kinds of services and products now have to trap us, to channel our desires to connect and explore into mindless, repetitive actions is staggering. People spend thousands of dollars on mobile games to get a rare pull that’s nothing more than a JPEG of an anime character. Apps bait us with meaningless “achievements.” Social media is a mire of political conspiracies, self-aggrandizement, and insignificant clout chasing.

None of this existed back then. So when RMO shut down, ~*RYU*~ must have thought that he’d stopped the future he’d seen from coming into being. He’d asked me if he’d won, if he’d “saved” us, and I’d told him he had, not knowing what he meant at the time. Wherever he is now, maybe it’s better that he can rest believing that he did, rather than learn the truth — that he couldn’t possibly have imagined how bad things would get.

One response to “The Dragon”

  1. Mike V. Avatar
    Mike V.

    I heard ~*Ryu*~ was concerned that gaming was going to be too woke in the future and he didn’t want to be forced to sit through award-winning, inspiring narratives where people of color and other marginalized individuals may or may not be central characters. True horror shit. Thank you, ~*Ryu*~

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