A few days ago I held my breath, squared my shoulders and stepped through a magic portal. It sucked me forward through space and time, turned winter to summer and day to night. It also beeped because I’d forgotten to take my keys out of my pocket.
And now, having had three dinners in a row, and then three breakfasts in a row, I’m in Australia. Ten thousand and five miles across the globe from London; as far as it’s possible to be from base and still get a decent coffee. There should be jet-lag and there should be culture-shock (if only on the basis of how goddam cheery everyone is), but there isn’t. Instead there’s this: I just came home.
Not physically, virtually. After a happy holiday with another guild on another server, I recently put in a character transfer request so I could go back and join my original guild in their assault on Northrend. Fifteen quid for Blizzard to copy a heap of shamefully low stats (level 69 still, somehow, no raid gear, basic mount) from one World of Warcraft server to another. From one identical copy of the world to another.
Logging back in for the first time shouldn’t have been anything other than an administrative process – check my items are intact, rejoin the guild, repopulate my friends list – but instead it brought a rush of elation and relief. Home! The pools where I first tried out my swimming form! The druid trainer who has known me since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, who taught me my first Moonfire!
It’s completely irrational. It’s one thing to be glad to be back because it means I can play with all my old friends. It’s quite another to pretend that this particular facsimile of a fictional world means more than any other. But I’d never felt like a local on my new server, and being back – even if the NPCs I was so glad to see were completely oblivious to my absence, and indeed to my return – was a wonderful feeling.
Warcraft‘s success has always been substantially due to the extraordinary physicality of Azeroth, to the real sense of land transversed, of caves discovered, and of secrets shared. Players old and new bemoan the endless trudging that low-level travel requires, but it’s crucial for binding you to the world.
Your knowledge of Azeroth is earned, the sense of scale engrained into you by long commutes. It’s what provides the sense of power and pride when you jump on a high-level mount, or flick into flying form. Before you even get to the social reality of WoW – of friendships made, anecdotes shared, and gifts given and received – there is a spatial reality. The bit of my brain which knows every flight path connection out of Orgrimmar is the same bit of my brain that knows every night bus out of Trafalgar Square. The feeling of security and familiarity that I get from accessing one is every bit as real as from accessing the other.
And this sense of home, however irrational, however virtual, matters. Since arriving in Australia I’ve talked about the idea of home a lot, since almost everyone here seems to be either a past immigrant or a potential émigré. The world has changed fast. For people south of 40 – and a fair few people north of it, too – home isn’t now, or hasn’t ever been, four particular walls and a door. For many, it’s not even a particular town or a even particular country.
Home isn’t a building, a community, or even a language in the way it often was for our parents. It has to be constructed in a sequence of rented apartments, unpacked from a series of suitcases. In the years since I joined Warcraft I’ve lived in two cities and four houses. There is a continuity I can find within the game that simply isn’t replicated in the rest of my life.
It sounds bleak, but it isn’t. It means I have homes wherever I go. I’m at home in this bare conference hall, where I’ve snuck in after dark to leech some wifi and check my auctions. I’m at home behind a pot plant in a transit lounge, when I open my DS to the explosion of balloons and fireworks that welcome my return to Truce Village, years after my first excursions into Chrono Trigger. It’s nice that they remember me. And it means, despite never having been a very convincing beach bum, that I’m at home on South Australia’s preposterously perfect sands. Why? Because it reminds me of hanging out with the trolls and the nagas down on Wild Shore. Next time you’re in Azeroth you should check it out.
In a week it will be time to go through the portal again. Summer will turn to winter and night will turn to day. And I’ll be glad to be home. Because now, for me, home is the place where I can be where I belong: Pigeon Street and Pacific City, Rabanastre and Ragol.
[Margaret Robertson is the former editor of Edge magazine and now videogame consultant. One More Go is her regular Offworld column in which she explores the attractions of the games she just can't stop going back to.]
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