In English, the word “apocalypse”—ety. Greek, n. apo (un-) + kaluptein (-veil)—has three non-exclusive meanings. The first and most common is simply the end of the world, whether by divine punishment or whatever transpires in movies directed by Roland Emmerich. The second is any form of calamity, representational or real, man-made or no, that resembles the end of the world, like the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Chernobyl, or the movies directed by Roland Emmerich themselves. The third is what the Greeks intended apocalypse to mean: the revelation of knowledge through profound disruption, which is why the final book of the New Testament is called “Revelations” (composed, it is thought, to reassure Christians during their widespread persecution by the Roman emperor, Domitian). In other words, the apocalypse either is the end, looks like the end, or helps us understand the end.
Like books, movies, and the visual arts, video games are well acquainted with the apocalypse. Scores of them have been set in the final days of mankind; countless more ask the player to prevent them. Yet, as mere setting, the apocalypse can never be true to its name—when Mass Effect 3 ends and the galaxy has been saved/altered/destroyed, you can always boot up the series’s first act and play it all again. The finale is not the end. In the curious lexicon of games criticism, we often speak of “world-building,” yet rarely do we stop to think about its opposite. Anything made can be destroyed, yet destruction in games is rarely the destruction of games. What masterpiece of eschatological design could possibly convey the all-encompassing, crushing finality of a true apocalypse?
Since the 1990s, when the rise of reliable home Internet access made persistent game worlds both commercially and technically viable, the game industry has developed over 300 massively multiplayer online games, some gargantuan (The Old Republic, etc.) and others slight, like the thoughtful browser-based government simulator NationStates. The majority of MMOs, of course, don’t experience the runaway success of World of Warcraft or EVE Online and eventually adopt a free-to-play model once it becomes clear that subscriptions alone can’t sustain ongoing costs. But a smaller number—44, if Wikipedia is to be believed—have shut down, and with their closure, their persistent worlds simply phase out of existence, beyond the reach of any archaeology.
Star Wars Galaxies launched in 2003 to critical and commercial acclaim. Though video games routinely spoil the player with fantasies of singular greatness (in Elder Scrolls Online, every player is, improbably, “the one”), Galaxies initially set its sights lower. Instead of saving the Star Wars universe for the umpteenth time, the player was asked merely to live in that universe, getting by doing anything from bounty hunting to stripping in dusty cantinas on the Outer Rim. That might seem hopelessly jejune in 2015, but Galaxies was a tremendous success for several years. Alas, in 2005, in response to a lack of new players, Sony Online Entertainment redesigned the game to emphasize combat, trading the game’s supreme sense of inhabitation and belonging for a sense of power (the lure of the dark side indeed!). Players revolted, and, by 2006 barely 10,000 people could be found in Galaxies on any given Friday. The death-knell came in 2011, when SOE announced, to no one’s surprise, that Galaxies would be shut down for good in December of that year (not coincidentally, the same month that BioWare launched its dreary Star Wars MMO, The Old Republic).
Call it pity, or perhaps apology, but SOE used the end of Galaxies to do something meaningful with its apocalypse: It declared a winner for each server based on the relative population of Rebels and Imperials. And in the galaxy’s final moments, before the servers took everything and everyone with them, the players who remained gathered in Mos Eisley and Corellia to wait for the end. Bittersweet celebration ruled the day: Veterans let neophytes try out their finest gear, the sky was filled with brilliant (if lag-producing) fireworks, and the spaceports clogged with groups of friends, some cultivated over thousands of hours, waiting to say goodbye. In the end, though, the final moment was a whimper.