When you enter the city of Midian, you're surrounded by stories. Not just the stories suggested by the setting, and everything a dangerous metropolis of the future implies; not just the plot line written by Jade Steel, chief proprietress of the mini-MMORPG. I mean stories in the chat lines you read all around you, related by the players of Midian, who rarely break character. When I visited the popular community a few weeks ago, for instance, I first came across a blond assassin and a bounty hunter with a 12 gauge, deep in conversation against a soda machine. This is an excerpt from their actual conversation, taken directly from my chat log:
What started as a dull throb turns into a
sharp blinding pain as the Watch Dog program struggles for control. He
leans heavily on the drink machine, eyes clenched tightly shut. He
quickly reaches into his jeans pocket and pulls out a handful of pain
killers, muscle relaxers, and tranquilizers.
Then they stood there silently, and some time passed-- after all, it takes awhile to type out what's basically an impromptu pargraph in a cyberpunk short story being written on the fly-- and then Angie Albatros replied:
Angie Albatros: Angie Albatros steps back a little at this reaction, she isn't so much offended as she is surprised. She grinned to try to put him at ease. "Well, not the response I was looking for but... OK." She moves her hand up to his face tilting her head slightly. "I guess now isn't a good time huh?" She tries to look understanding.
With over 3000 members, half of whom are regular players (by Jade's estimate), Midian is one of Second Life's most popular communities. She credits that success to the community that's sprung up around Midian-- and in large part, to the stories the players tell each other, to keep it thriving: "[T]he dialog in the roleplay is very important to our growth," she tells me. "We constantly strive to keep the interaction between our citizens in depth and immersive, where a picture is painted in words, much like the text based roleplay MUD/MUCKs of old." It's not just Midian where the improvisational narrative chat is so key to the community-- offhand, it seems to be central to nearly all Second Life's roleplaying communities.
But how does it work, and what makes it possible? A day or two after Angie had her fateful chat with the hurting cowboy. As it happens, it started for her after she created a third life.
Angie joined Second Life last December, as another Resident entirely, and only discovered Midian some months ago. She created the "Angie Albatros" alt with Midian in mind. "My first roleplay experience," she says. "It's fun to play out a character, someone who has different values and history." So when you look at Angie's profile, you'll find nothing about her first life (or for that matter, her first Second Life) but an entire Midian-esque backstory that she's created in her picks: "[M]ostly polite and cheery, prone to extreme violence if threatened always carried out calmly and without mercy or remorse. Lacks most basic morals," her biography flatly notes at one point.
[All of this, says Kron Ray, is "Making things up as we go along. I recently became a high ranking member of the gang we're both in. Angie is getting ready to be cloned to get ready for a killswitch that was implanted in her years ago. And we're both trying to help out gangs' leader, who Angie has fallen in love with, with a heroin [addiction]. During all this we've had to deal with family problems, love triangle, alcoholism, and letting go of the past and moving on. Just a sample of some of the real life social issues that take place here."]
"We basically have our own characters who we define ourselves within the rules of the sim," says Angie. "The sim itself has a history which is in the notecard you get when you enter. This defines the basic world we live in. From there on it's just a case of creating a history for your character and a personality and just talking to others with that in mind and seeing what happens." That includes joining the Phoenix Rising faction, and befriending people with dark pasts like Kron Ray, in a story that they improvise together. While in play, rarely do people pause to discuss Second Life issues outside of Midian, let alone the material world outside; when that happens, the talk is designated "OOC":
"Out Of Character talk is needed sometimes to clarify an In Character issue, or sometimes we just have to have a joke about [something]... but obviously, IC is more important and it's important to keep public OOC chat to a minimum."
As Jade Steel describes it, this commitment to keep unfolding the story is the strength to Midian, not the RPG aspect of the game itself. "[W]hile we do have a basic no frills combat system," she says, "our meter is designed to be used sparingly. It is not relied upon to influence the outcome of the roleplay with any sort of leveling, nor does a citizen gain experience points by loitering in the sim." This is totally unlike most other MMORPGs, where individual improvement goals are all. Here, says Jade, "[T]he emphasis and fun is on creating an immersive environment through interaction, much like a giant ongoing novel where everyone contributes."
Among them, the suffering cowboy and Angie Albatros, both co-authors and characters in this larger shared narrative. As for who Angie was in the Second Life she left behind for Midian, she declines to say.
Update, 12/11: Added quote from Kron Ray for more context.