XV – EVE is Dead

EVE is dead.

And if you’re part of the EVE community, you probably already know what I mean.  You’ve probably heard this quite a few times yourself, and for probably the entire time you’ve played the game—yes, even if you’ve played since 2003.  Simply put, people have been declaring this game dead for as long as it’s been alive.

I’ve always thought it’s a testament to how much people love EVE that they are constantly eulogizing it.  They don’t just walk away, like with other games.  They don’t just leave their communities or migrate their communities to new adventures.  They also have to heal, or perhaps seal over, the heartbreak that comes with giving up on the belief in EVE, as much as the game itself.  Indeed, people can leave the game and miss the game for all the reasons that they loved it—and I’ve done this myself, once for the better part of three years—but without losing their belief in the idea of EVE; and likewise, people can play every day with no hope for this game as a project, this community as an experiment, this universe as a unique and early singularity in our exploration of other realities.  What got me back into the game after my longest break was explaining it to a friend, with more and more energy and excitement as I remembered what the idea of EVE was all about.  I remember thinking at the end of our conversation Shit, I’m going to resub tomorrow, aren’t I? 

Because EVE is more predicated on an idea, a vision, than just about any other game, the loss of one’s belief in that idea is also uniquely painful.  Though the game has seen such drastic changes since its first eulogies shortly after launch, the idea behind it has been there from the very beginning and has, despite all odds, survived all those changes.  This is why “EVE is dead” has also survived.  It’s a unique expression of grief tied inherently to the unique joy that comes with becoming a capsuleer.

But there is one big difference between saying “EVE is dead” now and saying it 18 years ago.  Now, the game actually has a history.

This is not just chronicles of EVE’s wars written up in history books, or countless videos, battle reports, and AARs embedded in the grooves of EVE’s internet fingerprint.  EVE’s history is also an oral one, shared and archived in the community, passed over comms and kept alive as long as that community holds together.  In internet time, 18 years is an eon, and as many of our elders have left the community or moved on, EVE’s oral history has taken on a sort of generational effect, such that there are a few left from the early days, a few more from its peak years, and still more from the last half decade.  Stories are made both more apocryphal and more epic the older they are, because there are fewer and fewer voices to confirm them firsthand.  This type of generational storytelling is a microcosm of humanity, and a big part of that very “idea of EVE” that keeps us coming back. 

In Post XII, I talked about how worldbuilding always feels more real when things feel old, ancient, and we feel small, and I compared this to the challenges of releasing new content in an emergent world like EVE’s.  In essence, I argued that CCP has to walk a very fine line, releasing new playable content that, from a worldbuilding perspective, doesn’t feel new, but instead immense and atavistic.  In other words, I looked at how players interact with the constructed history of EVE—that is, the world built for us by the developer, and then fleshed out by fans.  But for many, if not most of us, the real history of EVE is that community archive, those mythologies of great battles and exploits, the firsthand accounts of veterans who “were there” for some of these moments.  Even though the constructed world of New Eden has millennia of history built into it, sometimes the 18 years of EVE Online feel even longer. 

So when we say “EVE is dead” now, we’re not just exclaiming our grief at what we believe is a unique death—we’re also closing the book on what really feels like an old culture, generations of history, layers of community.  This was not the case when the game was first pronounced dead.  The effect will only increase as EVE does continue to live, accumulate new history and generations to tell it.  And as player angst continues to rise over CCP’s direction in developing the game, and “EVE is dead” becomes a rallying cry to its own sort of subcommunity, we’re going to witness new mutations in the relationships between the game, the idea of the game, and the community that drives it.

But is it possible that the “EVE is dead” crowd actually make the game feel more alive?  That players closing the book on our community’s history also work to make that history feel realer, richer, more sacred?

I think it is.

Yes, I think “EVE is dead” is becoming a part of what makes New Eden feel alive.

In Episode 111 of “Weird Studies,” (my favorite non-EVE podcast, and an inspiration for this blog) J.F. Martel makes a point very similar to what I was discussing in Post XII, but instead of the “post-apocalyptic future” of New Eden, he’s talking about the world of Hyborea, home of Conan the Barbarian.  I think a lot of what he says both succinctly explains my point about EVE’s constructed history from Post XII, but also lets us unlock what’s going on in its player-built, oral history, and the way overlapping generations of players make this feel so old.

Martel mentions Lovecraft’s belief that “atmosphere” is critical to any sort of worldbuilding, and describes atmosphere as “the mood that one experiences when the basic mysteriousness of reality becomes a palpable aspect of the scenery.”[i]  The example in Conan is an ancient mammoth skeleton the heroes walk past on the steppes—a clear sign of a world long past, that the characters can’t touch any more than we can.  In New Eden, this might be the ancient space stations you see floating on missions, or lore about the Jove Empire that’s older than the pyramids are in real life.  Players pass by these things all the time, and often get sucked in by them.  But players have also created monuments, be it from the cemetery at Molea, which was used by players for years to ‘bury’ friends who passed away in real life, and is now a recognized site with a special monument built by CCP, or the “Titanomachy” monument in B-R5RB, a monument to the then-largest supercapital battle between players.  There are plenty of other examples as well, but these illustrate the variety of ways players are able to leave their mark on New Eden, the latter by their actions, the former by their friendships.  If worldbuilding atmosphere starts with a “mood,” then perhaps EVE’s mood is one of poignant awe at the higher power of the community.

Of course, before the CCP art team built a monument for B-R5RB, it was already a revered system.  Our oral history accounted for that.  Our videos, battle-reports, and even the ships that survived the fight attested to it.  B-R5RB isn’t an important system, but just like Asakai or the “Rage” wormhole, it was made special first by player actions taken there, then by the community’s ability to mythologize them.  CCP’s eventual monument is just that—not a creation itself, but a testament to our creations and destructions.  Being a part of this community means picking up on its history, and suddenly noticing all the hulking mammoth skeletons previous generations of players have left across New Eden.

Martel does an excellent job at unfolding the value of this effect for a viewer—an effect I believe is only deepened by a viewer who also builds the world, like in a videogame.  About this mammoth skeleton, he explains:

“We’re touching on the antiquity, the eldritch ancientness of this world… In my favorite fantasy the characters are not of the past but in some sort of post-apocalyptic future; they’re in the future of a fallen world.  Even Tolkein does this—the characters in the Lord of the Rings are at the end of an age.  And that makes you feel the mystery of this world.  The characters that you’re following don’t have enough information to know the world they’re in.”[ii]

We can see the generational effect of EVE’s oral history at work here.  When you watch an old PVP video, you might wonder why a Rattlesnake has sentry drones out, or why everyone is in Proteuses (or maybe even, what a Proteus is.  I could give an explanation, but it would be too slow).  I could explain to you the game and meta changes I’ve witnessed that have caused those differences.  But if we go back far enough, I’d be asking someone else how they managed their modules with the old circular layout, or what lowsec was like before Black Rise existed.  And these are just mundane, mechanical changes.  It only gets more complex when we think about the history of alliances, cultures, and players.  It only gets harder to sort out the reality from the myth the more famous it is, or the further back we go.  And I don’t think there’s any reason to untangle those things anyway.

But we also can’t lose sight of the importance of what Martel calls a “post-apocalyptic future” in creating atmosphere.  This does map well onto New Eden’s lore—which includes several apocalypses, beginning with the collapse of the Eve Gate that connected this universe to Earth, and then continuing through the respective apocalypses of civilizations that rose and fell before, finally, the current age of New Eden.  As with the rise and fall of civilizations in real human history, each of these events didn’t result in the total destruction of the population, but rather enough of a reduction in population to destroy the community and much of its history, imbuing it with that mystery.  Of course, Europe’s population wasn’t completely eliminated after the fall of the Romans, and yet even today, people spend their entire lives trying to dig up bits of mundane knowledge about the cultures that existed before that sort of apocalypse.  Similarly, we might imagine the mammoth skeleton Conan walks by to have belonged once to an animal everyone knew, and we might imagine the daily habits of EVE’s Jovians not always to have been so mysterious.

If you’re familiar with the general trend of EVE’s player count, you probably already see where I’m going.  Not only have players been weeded out over time by constraints in their real lives—after all, a new parent when the game launched might be a grandparent now—but also, EVE’s population at large has decreased since peaking seven or eight years ago, perhaps by as much as half.  And with the proliferation of alt accounts and the free Alpha mode, the population of actual humans at the keyboard has likely shrunk by even more than the Peak Concurrent Users data would suggest.  With every one of those players went a bit of firsthand information and a bit of secondhand information—stories they experienced, and stories they heard from those who came even earlier.[iii]  As with every other period of the game’s life, the last seven years have been full of “EVE is dead,” and yet for much of it, these cries seemed much more coherent.

But what if we think of this population decline as an apocalypse like that of the Jovians, or the Romans?

In Martel’s terms, many current EVE players indeed “don’t have enough information to know the world they’re in.”  They might not feel or understand the full mythic significance of a site like B-R5RB, or the long history of the Dronelands as the home of the Russians.  They might also not have referential knowledge, like how modern FAX play is different than old cap-compression carriers, or practical knowledge, like how to spot a “bug zapper POS,” which still exist but once were common.  Every time someone who witnessed these things leaves, the epistemic apocalypse, that is, the shrinking of EVE’s community knowledge base, continues—and every time they pass it on, it becomes myth.

Those myths add up.  Ask any new EVE player and they’ll tell you they are humbled by the immensity of knowledge built up by the community.  I’m humbled by it myself, and I started in 2009.  And all of that is just the knowledge we still have, the stories we still share, the links we still click.  Mingled like shadows among these are bits of semi-lost knowledge, touches of rare history, prized tricks, personal anecdotes.  And beyond these lies the deeper darkness of stories lost forever, solutions to problems that no longer exist.  To navigate New Eden is to feel the ancientness of the constructed world, but to engage in EVE’s community is to immerse yourself in the humbling immensity of its player history, its generations overlapping in gradients of clarity and loss. 

I do think EVE feels more real now that it has been played for so long.  It’s entirely possible that the “EVE is dead” and the “glory days” crowd are also building in the sense Martel describes in Tolkein, of coming at the end of an age.  Maybe the game really is ending.  Maybe we’re between apocalypses.  Or maybe it is now suffused with that sense of post-apocalypse which so many writers have to work to construct. 

A fiction teacher from college, Benjamin Hale, taught me that one of the hardest things to capture in a story is the sense that the main character could die.  This isn’t to say that they have to, or even that the story has to involve great degrees of tension.  But the turn of every page should hold in it the promise that the world of this story, however strange, is real enough that even the narrator themselves could die.  In these terms, too, EVE’s pessimists are doing the world an immense service.  By reminding us that the game is already doomed, whether right or wrong, they are reminding us that it could be.  And they are certainly right about that part.  But that sense of past and possible apocalypse is also just another thing that makes EVE feel so uniquely alive.

[i] “Weird Studies” Ep. 111, 13:15

[ii] “Weird Studies” Ep. 111, 14:15

[iii] It was really neat to see so many old-timers respond to the “Horn of Goondor” last year during the siege of M2-, in which Goonswarm email blasted all the old accounts registered to their forums and got a good number of ancient veterans to, effectively, come back from the dead.  A pretty amazing concept in the context of generational storytelling and cultural memory!

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