Relics of a Digital Haven

During my adolesence I spent entirely too much time playing an MMO called Spiral Knights. A charming hack and slash with a delightful aesthetic, it holds a special place in my heart as many such formative virtual spaces do. Existing at the tail end of what may really have been the last vestiges of online games as social spaces, it is for many people a space in which they made lasting friendships, for some of us a space in which we first experimented with who we were. And not unlike those of us who shed facets of ourselves we found no longer fit in those digital realms — Spiral Knights like most games developed update to update — underwent similarly dramatic changes during the time I knew it.

A knight hides from a big katIn 2011 Spiral Knights introduced a horror-themed level type called Candlestick Keep, an abandoned library haunted by the game's undead enemies. Unique to this level are the Grimalkins, a special kind of foe that serve to distinguish Candlestick's tone by circumventing the rules enemies in Spiral Knights normally have to follow. They can traverse through terrain as if it wasn't there, and ignore both weapons and shields, meaning the player can only flee from them. Also unique to Candlestick is a torch mechanic, where players light up safe zones these pursuers can't venture into, thus the level develops a specific eb and flow as you retreat to and from pockets of safety while solving puzzles. The result is an experience that by drawing light inspiration from Survival Horror games, exists in stark juxtaposition to the rest of Spiral Knights—it feels uniquely tense and nerve wracking.

Or at least, it did in the year it was introduced. In 2013 Spiral Knights received one of its largest updates, a major overhaul that among many other mechanics, introduced a dash to the player's moveset. Suddenly it became possible to simply dart through a grimalkin without consequence, and with this feature alone the scary atmosphere that once defined this set of levels totally dissipated. Playing through Candlestick Keep today is a strange and disjointed experience — a relic of a time when Spiral Knights was a different game.

Spiral Knights in 2011The Arcade is an area situated at the top of Haven, Spiral Knight's social hub. In the early days of the game's lifespan it was a bustling hub of activity as it served as the gateway into the levels that comprised the meat of Spiral Knight's content — and more than that the playerbase would actively fight over the arrangement of these levels by spending resources they could acquire while adventuring. This was an illustration of how, in its early days, Spiral Knights was designed around the idea that players should have a real material influence on the game world. But over the course of 2012 a series of updates introduced an entirely separate narrative progression players advanced through by participating in preset "Missions" that were accessed directly from the game's UI. This subsequently rendered the function of the arcade inert, with the random levels mostly serving as a novelty. And then in 2013 the same update that brought the dash to the game also removed the ability for players to influence level arrangement — which brings us to today, where the entire arcade sits abandoned at the edge of Haven — a relic of a time when Spiral Knights was a different game.

Of course at this point, Spiral Knights itself is a relic. Over a decade old now, very little remains of the original development team who have since left to other studios, and the playerbase has dwindled to but a tiny fraction of what it was in its heyday. As a result, most of the game's servers are totally empty. While the Arcade was abandoned by virtue of its vestigial design, the rest of Haven has been abandoned by the passage of time.

Rolling Acres Mall

There's a unique beauty to the remnants of manmades structures worn down by the passage of time. The melancholy of seeing their purpose erode, their foundations laid bare. They are relics of a time when the world was a different place. Over the past decade urban exploration has seen a huge explosion in popularity, whether it be those of us entering these concrete skeletons ourselves, or the proliferation of content online allowing anyone to experience those sensations vicariously. It's the drive to chase that emotion that motivates us to clamber into forgotten architecture as much as I suspect it also motivates the creation of post-apocalyptic media — we are entranced by the visage of ruin.

Online spaces however, don't age in the same way that those built of brick and mortar do. So as long as you can connect to them, they remain a window into a world from years ago, unchanged in all the time that's past. The abandonment of a physical space reflects in how it appears to the world — the abandoment of a digital space has no such influence, they are moments eternally etched into time.

Candlestick Keep is according to the blog post that accompanied its introduction, "the remnants of the once prosperous Owlite Academy, now overrun by undead horrors". It is literally a constructed haunted mansion, put together by developers to make you feel scared. But that's all it ever was, a construction. A spooky video game level made to be haunted by spooky video game monsters, it was never really a place, it never actually got abandoned.

my nostalgia criesHaven however, is supposed to be a communal hub. Its a bright cheerful place players used to socialize within. But as you stand in it today — this space so obviously built for people — you are keenly aware that you stand alone. The city hasn't changed in all these years... but the people are gone. Only Haven itself remains — a relic from when Spiral Knights was a different game.