How can a sound emit a feeling and produce a memory?
I’m 28 years old as I write this. I’ve had my share of games since I was a child. Most kids my age have had a childhood not so different from my own.
Over all those years and over all those games, one stands alone, apart, and different.
It’s all things unique.
It doesn’t have incredible graphics. It doesn’t have a particular, specific theme. It is, by almost every metric, average. At least, from the outset.
I know what it is before I see it. If I hear it, I instantly recognize it. When the sound enters the tunnel of my ears, the pictures flash in my mind as the smile begins to automatically form across my face.
Noise is an inevitable medium we interact with and exist in. It traces the air, hums its way into our ears, and our minds recognize that transmission. When that noise has a specific tone, it renders a new form. It has the ability to transform us, to mold us, and to propel us. We are connected and drawn to it, much like a magnet.
That inevitable medium was RuneScape. My introduction to this game was through a middle school friend, who, against my will, created an account for me and gave me the information to it.
“You will not be Anthony anymore, you will be Antman.”
I remember it so clearly, even though it was 17 years ago. It’s almost impossible to believe so much time has passed.
An invisible nostalgia is shared among all who played in those days. Everybody I know today, from investment bankers to programmers to those who graduated from the very best colleges have played. The game knew no bounds. You ask about RuneScape, and you’re guaranteed to hear about the wanderings in Lumbridge, the walk to Varrock, and the first interaction with quests. The game spans an infinite set of tasks, from leveling skills that reach exponential difficulties, to obtaining extremely rare items. Sometimes accomplishments were sourced in grueling tasks that might take months or even a year. Other times, accomplishments require killing a certain monster — or, even a set of them. You could even hunt other players in the wilderness, should you so choose. If you were subscribed with a membership, then you got access to another set of infinite possibilities in the vastness of the RuneScape universe.
That’s what it was, in essence: A universe.
You were no longer yourself, you were transported. You were placed and replaced and reinvented and transformed. Along the way, you learned about the inner-workings of a virtual economy, and the way that money is gained and depleted throughout your adventure. You learned how to interact with other players to profit. You even learned about the original mechanisms of a stock market.
You had the ability to start fresh. Everybody began in the game with absolutely nothing. You work your ass off every single day just to make a name for yourself on the game’s leaderboards. People would play for thousands of hours just to get to the very top.
This all happened around age 11 and 12.
When you first enter the RuneScape universe, you are transported to a place called Lumbridge after you finish the tutorial. Your gifts are song such as Harmony, that is played in the Lumbridge Castle:
Or, songs like Medieval, which is played as soon as you enter Varrock:
The sound is the link between you and the game. It is the invisible background and the wallpaper to everything you are doing. When you enter an area that is peaceful, you begin to hear the lyre, and soothing sounds. A dangerous place gives you eery tones that something awful is about to take place. It is the synthesis and succinctness of everything that is urgent and necessary. You are a part of this place. You have a meaning on which you can adapt and maneuver and create as you wish. The destiny of the character is at your discretion.
The sounds emanate exactly that. And, yet, when we were kids, we didn’t care for it. We would keep the sounds on but stored them in the background, invisible and unretained and unimportant. It went into the deep recesses of the mind, where it remained, stored, and remembered.
And here I am, almost 17 years later, nostalgic about adventure in something as unappealing as RuneScape. Graphically, it is probably the most underwhelming and ugly video game known to humanity. In its poorly crafted digitization, it existed as a browser game. By and large, almost two decades later, it has stayed the same. In fact, when the game makers attempted to make a new version of the game, the community rebeled and quit entirely. It was not until they relaunched the shitty version of the game did those players come back.
At any given minute, almost 150,000 players still play the game. This is the worse version of the game. By comparison, around 20–40,000 people Evolution of Combat, the updated version that the game makers assumed everyone was going to adopt.
The graph above is a testament to the power of nostalgia. It doesn’t matter how crappy the game is visually, people will flock to wherever reminds them of their start.
I’m connected not to the game, but to the feeling. The game left, but the joy and the journey remained. The quest, the sense of adventure, the absolute individuality. All the lessons and hardships. The highs and the lows. Those vicissitudes are something I share with everyone who played the game throughout those years. The kids who are hooked today understand that passion. Those 150,000 people still playing confirm that. It doesn’t disappear. That nostalgia and those feelings are now hunger for a new adventure, outside of the game.
I’m grateful for what RuneScape has taught me. It was a safe place for me to learn away from school. I was taught economics, mathematics, gambling, negotiation, and general planning at hyperspeed through the artificial challenges and pressure that the game generated for me. I would think about playing the game’s stock market, and I started learning the motivations and the early underpinnings for what I would later know to be Calculus.
It’s nostalgia because of the things it taught me that I never expected it to. In my mind, it was just a game. As I’ve aged, it morphed in my mind as I had transformed when I was still playing the game. It has helped me understand things related to work, life, and every day redundancy in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Everywhere I go, I am in search of that sound. Of that gift that was given to me so long ago. Of all the teachings and all the lessons. In friendships and misunderstandings and triumph.
It’s a connection beyond reality. Immutable by sound. Free by design.
If we are lucky enough to have had warm memories, we treasure them and let them grow us. Mine began in an artificial world, cascaded by castles and dragons and people, all, like me, searching for something.
And it was enveloped in sound. The notes, of which, I still hear and yearn for today.