I never understood why people would race towards a level cap until I played Dark Age of Camelot. Why on earth would someone sacrifice sleep to power a character to maximum level? Why the rush - we'll all get there at some point. You'll run out of things to do. You won't have people to play with.
I was missing the point. It started to sink in when I had sunk in, inadvertently becoming a part of the race myself. I hadn't meant to. I started the game without any real idea of what I was doing or where I was going. To me, everything was new. But as I grew, and the game encouraged me towards other people, I began to learn about the wider world.
Everyone knew there was a war. It was the premise of the game. It was on the box. Three kingdoms all at war with one another. Hibernia, the realm based on celtic folklore, Midgard, the realm of Norse mythology, and Albion, home of Arthurian legend. I knew, the moment I entered the world, as a cleric in Albion, who my sworn enemies were, but it would be a long time before I actually saw them. The war was a long way off. My day-to-day was a tedious grind.
An old-school grind, I'll have you know. Progress in Dark Age of Camelot wasn't based on going quest to quest as in World of Warcraft. Oh no. In Camelot, levelling meant finding a monster spawn and staying there. You didn't have private dungeons, so you had to jostle for positions, and good groups were - always are - hard to find. When you found both, you clung to them. You could be in the same spot with the same group all day. It gave everyone a lot of time to talk.
Talk did a lot in Dark Age of Camelot. It spread rumours, it spread legend, and until I'd been out to the frontline and seen it for myself, it fuelled my imagination. Had I heard about this norseman skald called Rastaf? They say he's nearly level 50 - already! He appears out of nowhere and kills anyone he comes across. God he sounds cool. And did I hear about the lurikeen enchanter Greyswandir? He hadn't slept for three days to get to level 50.
What if one day people talked about me like that? My desire to level more quickly increased. But I was a long way off. I was in my late 30s and had exhausted the barrows dungeon under Stonehenge, which I liked very much - I was fond of the gangly wights. At this rate, I'd never catch them.
Then I got my lucky break. Did I want to join a group of level 40s? They were stuck for a healer. Had I been a damage-dealing class, it wouldn't have worked. I wouldn't have been able to hurt the enemies they were fighting - I'd miss more, be resisted more and barely make a scratch when I did hit. But as a healer it could work, just about. Of course I wanted to join!
It was my bridge from the chasing pack to the frontrunners, and I found myself called up for healing duty more often and by more people. I found myself rubbing shoulders with the heroes of our realm. I revelled in it, giddy with the pace of progress and the idea I was becoming one of them. These people had been to the front. These people encouraged me to go to the front. These people took me to the front.
I'll never forget my first time beyond the border keep. I was on my own, curious, and given all I'd heard, nervous. I expected to be pounced at any moment, so I skulked through Snowdonia flinching at any sign of life. Then an arrow hit me and I shit my pants. I'm being attacked! I'm being attacked! Hardly the picture of heroism.
I turned and ran, bolted through the trees. Where are they where are they?! I spun the camera looking for them. I spun the camera around so much, in fact, I failed to notice I'd barrelled into a monster camp. While I lay on the floor, face down, dead - a good time for contemplation in Dark Age of Camelot - I looked through my combat log to see what had happened. An elf had shot me. An elf! I was thrilled... until I looked around and realised they were computer elves, there to make the zone more exciting. It hadn't been an enemy player at all. And to think: I'd even screamed in guild chat.
My first real taste of action came in Emain Macha, the Hibernian warzone, which was very green. I was very green. Emain Macha was where everyone would go for a pile-up at the end of the night. We'd fight at the mile wall not far from our portal keep and it was always utter chaos, hard to make anything out. All I really knew was there was a mass of them behind, and on, the wall, alternately Hibernian or Midgardian thems depending on who held the other side - the joy of having three kingdoms. Either noseman, trolls, kobolds and dwarves; or celts, furbolgs, lurikeens and elves. It was pandemonium. Sometimes we'd manage to charge through, sometimes they would come charging through, and all of the time, people died.
What those chaotic first impressions did were introduce the big players, the people dominating the kill feeds, the people barking orders. The legends. I even came across the notorious Rastaf for the first time, and true to legend, he appeared out of nowhere like lightning. I remember clicking on this norseman enemy, seeing the name Rastaf and squealing. Then he snared us, killed us one by one and ran off. It was like being hit by the SAS - I couldn't have been more impressed.
All of this propelled me to level faster. I had to get there, I had to join them. Levels made all the difference. While Rastaf was levels ahead, I could never hope to challenge him. Levels made you strong, made you famous. I doubled down and spent entire days killing forests-worth of evil trees in Lyonesse. It was agonisingly slow. But eventually I got there. From being a clueless nobody not bothered about my place in the world, I had become a level 50 somebody obsessed with it.
I was the third cleric on the Percival server to reach level 50. It's an embarrassing claim now but it was a proud one at the time. It earned me some respect among my peers and, I hoped, some trepidation among my enemies. I meant I could hold my own on the fields of Emain Macha and get my name in the kill feed.
I imagined people looking at me while I was idling on the portal to the enemy lands, thinking what I once thought about the people I had looked up to. Cor, look at him. I imagined people seeing me running around, smiting and wanting to be like me, or looking to me for guidance or protection during busy keep sieges or battles.
What I loved more than anything, though, was going it alone. Logging on at a time when everyone else was asleep (being a Euro on a US server had its upsides) and roving the snowy tracks of Odin's Gate, or the grassy hills of Emain Macha, looking for ragtag groups to tussle with. Away from the din of the battlefield, other stories could emerge. Stories of personal rivalries and close-fought one on ones. Stories, even, of friendship. We couldn't understand each other - a masterstroke of Dark Age of Camelot was how it garbled enemy talk - but we could point and bow and laugh, we could communicate through gestures.
That's how I came to know the people I fought with, learn their names, build a rapport. And I became fascinated by them. I'd see them during sieges and single them out, pointing and waving, or see them on the busy battlefields, waving as I charged by. One friendship in particular stood out.
It started one night as I sacrificed myself on an enemy keep - it was the quickest way home. As I got within range, enemies came charging out to take me down. All but one, that is. One elf sat on the hill, not budging, and as I was pummeled, she stood up and waved. I was taken aback. I'd never seen anyone forego a chance to kill before, never seen anyone do anything like that. It stuck in my mind, that moment, evidently forever, and I made a point of waving to her every time our paths crossed after.
At the same time, I discovered a forum where people from all of the realms talked and, through it, an IRC chat channel where they hung out. They were all in there, all the people I'd been fighting for weeks and gesturing to - even the elf on the hill. We all became friends. We even went on a sojourn to a new server to make a guild there and play together like we hadn't been able to on Percival. It was a lot of fun - I have some wonderful memories - but it didn't last.
Slowly, the game changed. The scrappy era of ragtag groups came to an end and organised groups took their place. Disciplined, eight-person gank groups, as they were known, moving at speed and decimating anything but equally disciplined groups in their paths. I drifted away.
I often wonder whether anyone remembers me now, nearly two decades later, or whether each subsequent era paints over the last with legends of their own. Deciding to force the issue a bit, I posted in the Percival Facebook group about a hazy memory of mine. I wasn't sure what I'd get back, I hadn't heard a peep from the group in years. Was it just me clinging onto old memories of a game, or did people care as I did?
I shouldn't have worried. Within moments, replies came. Yes, they remembered and much more besides. Old friends and enemies came out of the woodwork to share the memories they had clung onto. The memories of a community making a game more than the sum of its parts.
Take the Alarm Clock Raid, for instance. The raid the Midgardians had meticulously planned. They had groups of stealthers whittle down the doors of our frontier keeps to breaking point, so when the horde awoke in the middle of the night, at the planned time of 3AM, hence the alarm clocks, they would steam through in the space of minutes. And they did. Five minutes it took them to get to our relic keep, and before we could wipe the sleep from our eyes, they'd made off with the Scabbard of Excalibur. It was a chef kiss of an operation, a perfectly executed sweep, and it fuelled our war effort for weeks.
It's in remembering times like these I remember why Dark Age of Camelot was so special. We made the game special, the people who played it. It was memorable because of the wars we created for everyone to join in on, or the rivalries we cooperated in establishing. It wasn't because there was a new tier of armour added, or a new monster. That was just fluff around the core. It's why I think World of Warcraft, however much it may have been better in other ways, lacked the same spark. The magic.
And those golden times in Dark Age of Camelot, they were - they were magic.