Forbidden Areas: The Hidden Archive of a Virtual World
March 24, 2012
Game and "virtual" worlds are artifacts. If you know where to look, you can search inside these "synthetic" worlds (Castronova) and the software that constructs them to find traces of their makers' abandoned plans and future projects. Access to the process of creating such a world is related perhaps to the digging of an archaeologist or spelunking of a cave-crawler. It is a process of exploring hidden spaces that reveal their earlier, incomplete or abandoned states, including areas that are not meant to be seen because they are still under construction. How might we curate the incomplete spaces and models created by human programmers, designers and artists, as well as the work of their explorers?
One idea about searching for the "hidden archive" of a virtual world would lead to materials collected for its construction, from art assets to source code. This documentation is naturally of historical interest and could be considered as materials gathered or created by the "authors" of a virtual world that are not generally accessible by other parties. They are, in a sense, the unpublished notes and drafts of the creators of software-based worlds. This take aligns with Dan Cohen's description of scholarly hidden archives as "the secondary products of scholarship: the bibliographies, notes, personal finding aids, and assessments by scholars of which items are important and unimportant in an archive" (Cohen, “Interchange”). The eerily parallel situations would make for an interesting comparison. However, I have something else in mind.
Instead of focusing on the architects, this essay is about the diggers and spelunkers who uncover hidden artifacts and archives of virtual worlds. It is also about the documentation they create and disseminate. I am interested in their efforts not just to find hidden spaces, but to reveal what they found through screenshots, machinima, and other forms of communication. The world in question is Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft (WoW), and its archeologists and cave-crawlers were a small, mysterious group known as the Nogg-aholics.
Unlike most groups in massively-multiplayer games like WoW, the Nogg-aholics were not primarily organized as an in-game guild, but rather as a "community" of WoW players called the Nogg-aholic Collaboration (NAC). During their halcyon days, from 7 Jan. 2006 to 7. Jan 2007, they gathered around an information resource, the Nogg-aholic Forum, and a collaborative machinima project, "My Burning Valentine." Led by prominent WoW explorers such as Dopefish, Malu05 and Snoman, this group of players applied their "leet skills" to "explore the unexplored," a motto affixed to many screenshots of hidden areas in the game credited to them (Figure 1).
The skills required to discover hidden areas in WoW and reveal them creatively to the player community can be divided into two main categories: exploration and documentation. The first category includes abilities that enable players to get around the virtual world and discover places that are normally difficult to reach. At the time the Nogg-aholics were active, WoW included numerous areas that were still under construction or inaccessible without the use of player tricks or knowledge of software glitches in the game. Efforts to investigate these places owed a debt to common practices in digital game culture such as glitching and Easter egg hunting. Many classic console games included hidden areas, going back to the first "Easter egg," a hidden room and message in Atari's Adventure (1979). Even without secret rewards, adventure, role-playing and many other game genres require extensive exploration, and players often documented what they found with maps and screenshots. Indeed, Dopefish's moniker paid homage to an object, the Dopefish, that was hidden (and discovered by players) in dozens of games as a tribute to its original appearance in the Commander Keen game, Secret of the Oracle (1991). While Easter eggs are created intentionally by programmers, many games also contain bugs or "glitches" that produce unanticipated game artifacts. As James Newman has pointed out, a glitch such as the "Minus World" in the original version of Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. (1985) became "a morsel to be found and savoured by the expert gamer" (Newman 113). Easter eggs, glitches and other revealed artifacts of game worlds have become part of the shared cultures of digital games.
The Nogg-aholics primarily used three techniques to reach WoW's hidden areas: exploits (understood in the broadest sense to include unorthodox, but legal player skills), private servers, and analysis of WoW data files. Their exploits included tricks such as "instance switching" and "wall-walking." Wall-walking, for example, enabled players to exploit glitches in the game physics to reach areas that were not supposed to be accessible during 2006, such as Hyjal or "Developer's Island." They returned with screenshots and videos as proof of their discoveries and thus built an archive of hidden spaces for viewing and speculative commentary by other players. Private servers emulated the official Blizzard server software. Players on a private server enjoyed unrestricted access to every feature of the game, including equipment, abilities and areas that were unavailable on Blizzard's official servers. It was hardly surprising that authoring, hosting or using the WoW client on a private server was (and is) a violation of the game's End User License Agreement (EULA). Using private servers, while not a common practice of the Nogg-aholics, nevertheless added to the maverick reputation of the group and sharpened the edge of potential disagreements with Blizzard about their activities. Finally, by early 2006 as the Nogg-aholics were launching their on-line forum, new tools such as John (Darjk) Steele’s WoW Model Viewer opened up the game’s model database to their curious gaze (Figure 2). The Model Viewer and a similar tool called the Map Viewer read files stored in Blizzard's MPQ (for "Mike O'Brien Pack" or Mo'PaQ) data format, giving players direct access to every level map, character and equipment model, particle effect, animation or other game asset, including metadata. Initially, players used the Viewer in order to view character animations or inspect items they had little chance of ever seeing as in-game loot. Before long, machinima creators realized that they could create videos by compositing models and maps, editing these elements, and even mixing them with live in-game performance to make movies. The Nogg-aholics, including several who were expert in machinima production, used these tools to reveal places and items that were not available in the current version of the game, either because they had been dropped from development or were essentially place-holders for future implementation.
The link between exploration and machinima production leads to the tactics deployed by the Nogg-aholics to reveal the abandoned and hidden artifacts of WoW, as well those "in draft" or under construction. Machinima — moviemaking based on game environments and engines — was a key tool. Indeed, "My Burning Valentine" was the project that prompted the public roll-out of the Nogg-aholics and their on-line forum. Machinima creators do not just use digital games as a production technology. They work inside game spaces and software to scout locations, and to build or find sets, artwork, and animation, as well. These skills emphasize abilities beyond cinematography, such as exploration and finding places that are special either for their visual qualities or their meaning to an audience consisting primarily of players. By 2006, WoW movies had become an essential part of the game’s culture as it grew in popularity. Moreover, the adoption of techniques such as editing models or creating new animations for them, based on discovery through the Model Viewer, occurred just as the Nogg-aholics project took off early in 2006. For example, Deeprun Goldwin Michler's "The Man Who Can” (2006), depicted a character who joyfully escapes the limitations imposed by Blizzard's pixels with new moves animated by Michler. Machinima projects such as Tristan Pope’s “Switcher” series (2005-2006), Jason Choi’s “Edge of Remorse” (2006), and Mike Spiff Booth's "Code Monkey" (2006) all utilized model/map discovery, manipulation, and compositing. The leading edge of model editors included Dopefish and Snoman, both prominent among the Nogg-aholics, and others who were influenced by them, such as Baron Soosdon (then known as Soosisti).
We can imagine the World of Warcraft's hidden archives by considering examples of three categories of middle-state artifacts exposed or created by the Nogg-aholics, ranging from those created (and barred) by Blizzard to those made by the players: inaccessible areas, documentary machinima, and re-imagined places.
On 3 Jan. 2006, Blizzard released WoW patch 1.90, which eliminated the abilities to "walk on steep terrain" or "move slowly through some locked doors and gates." The patch was the first of several to constrain wall-walking as a means for exploration of certain areas. A few days later, #Nogg-aholic, the forum created by the Nogg-aholics, was founded. The first major WoW expansion, The Burning Crusade, was released a year later on 16 January 2007, about a week after it was "decided to close down the nogg-aholic community." During the year between these events, the Nogg-aholics operated in the settings of the "classic" World of Warcraft at the top of their game, while Blizzard worked steadily towards the release of new content in the expansion. The game world was essentially a work-in-progress. The player community was intensely curious about new locations under construction. The level of tension between the Nogg-aholics efforts to reveal and Blizzard's to conceal steadily increased. An example of a hidden region not yet released to players was Mount Hyjal, an important location in Warcraft lore eventually opened as part of the Caverns of Time in The Burning Crusade. During the year before its release, the Nogg-aholics frequently cliffwalked into Hyjal, finding construction signs (Figure 3) and taking screenshots of Archimonde's skeleton hanging from the World Tree. They released the images in a lengthy blog post in February of 2006 on the "lack of content updates" in WoW. As early as October 2005, Dopefish and Forg had released "Nogg-aholic: The Movie," which included a short passage through the area around the World Tree. Several months later, a Hyjal walkthrough featuring Nogg-aholic screenshots and other documents, such as a "pictorial guide" with screenshots, posts from forums, and videos, could be found at "Lost WoW: An Explorer's Guide." The editors of this website noted that “since it is ‘just a game,’ the world's ‘history’ is lost with each patch.” Mindful of this loss, they dedicated their work “to the exploration of the game world, especially hidden areas and secrets, as well as its historical preservation." (“Lost WoW”) Blizzard tried to restrain explorers from reaching hidden locations such as Hyjal ahead of their expansion’s completion. Caydiem, the game's community manager, wrote in a forum post that "these places were not meant to be accessed by players." Wall-walking itself was "an exploit, as it's doing something that goes against the proper game mechanics …" In a later post Caydiem complained that, "I apparently can't stress this enough: the developers never meant for you to get these areas." The official Blizzard discussion thread in which these posts appeared is no longer available on-line; the document survives only because Caydiem's response was preserved by a screenshot saved at the Nogg-aholics' website.
The Nogg-aholics thus specialized in an activity that can be described as a combination of spelunking, exploration, excavation and archiving in terms appropriate for a digital environment: searching out and documenting unfinished or generally inaccessible locations in World of Warcraft. As explorers, the guild members ventured into spaces that Blizzard as developer of the game was not ready to release to its players, such as the upcoming expansion areas for The Burning Crusade. Machinima videos created by members such as Dopefish documented what they found, seeking to provide information to the player community about these spaces. As one commentator later put it, these and other WoW explorers tried to “document everything that was suddenly new and uncertain” about the game world (Howgego “Exploration”). A good example of the care with which the Nogg-aholics documented changes to the game world, as well as their own capacity to explore it, is given by Dopefish's documentary machinima piece, "Last Wallwalk: The Movie" (April 2006). Dopefish archived the movie, with a collection of screenshots and an image of Caydiem's comments about wall-walking (see above), at the Warcraft Movies website (warcraftmovies.com). They document "the Last Wallwalk event that was held 02/01/2006," the day before the WoW patch that "nerfed" (disabled) wall walking. The inclusion of Caydiem's negative comments underscored the adversarial relationship between the Nogg-aholic's role as explorers and historians of the world and Blizzard's control of the game. Screenshots showed the efforts of Game Managers (GMs) to prevent the excursion and revealed the suspension of a participant’s account for "extreme violation of terrain and disruption of roleplay" (Figure 4). The machinima video tracked dozens of players blitzing through several areas of the game world—often by wall walking—and the futile efforts of GMs to control them along the way, until at last they are all disconnected from the game server and their accounts suspended. Many of the more than 400 comments on the Warcraft Movies website about the movie nostalgically recalled not just places and practices shown in “The Last Wallwalk,” but memories of watching Dopefish's machinima documentary, their window into otherwise inaccessible content.
Dopefish is probably best remembered for two machinima documentaries he completed in 2005, "Exploration: The Movie" and its aforementioned sequel, "Nogg-aholic: The Movie." The latter is no longer available via the Warcraft Movies website, "due to a Blizzard request. It violates their Unreleased Content policy" (“Exploration: The Movie”). These machinima projects were both products of Nogg-aholic efforts to document inaccessible spaces and undocumented locations found by able explorers. As we have seen, disagreements with Blizzard about their practices, legal tangles around the WoW’s user licenses, and the developer's updates to the game code combined by 2007 to erode the Nogg-aholics' ability to document and preserve evidence of hidden locations of the world. The impact of their projects continued in the form of new machinima practices that evolved out of access to game artifacts such as models and maps in ways pioneered by the explorers. After the closing of the Nogg-aholics forum, works such as Snoman’s “Wandering Dreamscape” and Baron Soosdon’s “I’m So Sick,” both issued later in 2007, exploited access to these game assets as a new technique for making WoW-based videos. Indeed, Snoman made “Wandering Dreamscape,” the first in a series of Dreamscape pieces, as a “tribute to the Nogg-aholic community” and its primary video creator, Tobias “Dopefish” Lundmark.
Snoman’s tribute to the Nogg-aholic community leveraged intimate knowledge of game assets and how to manipulate and modify them to construct an “alternate Warcraft.” He made an explicit point of using machinima to show “what is possible when you have the tools and proper knowledge of the WoW data” (Snoman 2007). “Wandering Dreamscape,” for example, deployed over a dozen model changes to transform landscapes into alternate virtual realities. These changes were made possible by expert use of the Model Viewer, FRAPS-based video capture, composited elements from other areas in the game world, and Baron Soosdon’s landscape model editing. The end result was a complete re-imaging and re-imagining of the WoW region known as The Barrens. Snoman's fictional reworking of this virtual game world as the “Barrens Biohazard" (Figure 5) documented something else, as well: How exploring, revealing hidden elements of a game world, documentation, and game data could be controlled by the player, not the game.
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 The name was derived from an elixir that when imbibed causes a game character to undergo one of several random changes or effects.