Mutant Poetics

by tommy.rousse

With a Brief Digression On the Use of “Train” in MMO Vernacular

I frequently dabble in the study of mutant poetics.  What is the nature and extent of this idiosyncratic study, you might ask?  I hazard that it’s somewhat related to the field of neologism, the propagation of new words and the recognition thereof.  Mutant poetics, however, is not an historicism, nor does it seek to reify and codify the success stories that go on to enter what Ferdinand de Saussure, the seminal Swiss linguist, would call “le langue.”  While certain French organizations seek to maintain the purity of the language and the admittedly indispensable OED serves as a discreet authority of English, I prefer to root around in the muck of parole, speech in its concrete utterance.  If I might be permitted to hypothesize on a point difficult to empirically validate, as is my wont, I propose: we live in an age of unparalleled flourishing of that verbal fauna doomed to become terminal branches on the tree of memetic evolution.  We happy humans buzz about with meme-pollen on our fuzzy thoraxes, but not every meme propagates; the value of certain ideas stems from a combination of familiarity and context or even their very novelty, and by their nature are not long for this world or the marbled hallways of official language.

Fortunately, value is not determined by immortality—a short-lived word has the temporal preciousness of a cut flower.  MMORPGs are a particularly rich garden; their argot is shaped by the demands of lazy, concise typing and situations that are repetitive within a virtual environment but largely unique outside of it.  A few years ago, their mechanics were much more arcane and cooperation was based almost entirely on sloppy spurts of typing.  But the mechanics that give rise to many of those new words fall away as the state of the art moves on.

Last night, I encountered one such word (that I thought was on its last legs) in Realm of the Mad God: “train.”  As a concept in MMOs, train has been analyzed and introduced by T.L. Taylor.1  In the halcyon days of my newbiehood, I had many opportunities to be crushed by errant trains and even conducted a few in my day.  You see, the developers of EverQuest didn’t believe in the sort of segregated-by-level/experience/power that dominates current spatial design.  No, Verant et. al were perfectly okay with putting the MMO equivalent of a day-care playground, with tender level 1s killing rats, right down the street from a wood-chipping machine of supermonsters capable of turning high-level avatars into a fine mist.  Tragicomedy ensued.

Train wreck at Montparnasse (1895) — my grandmother had a print of this image with the caption "OH SHIT!" a common sentiment among victims of its digital homonym.

The other thing you need to realize is that every mob in EverQuest, once angered, is a relentless killing machine that will chase you over mountains, through a dungeon, a maze—anywhere, really, until one of you is dead or you reach a loading zone.  They don’t need line of sight, hearing,  plausible knowledge of the zone or where you’ve gone—they just know where you are, and they will run through their outrageously bad pathfinding until they find you.2  It’s like James Cameron turned down a Terminator MMO and Verant just reskinned everything.  If a group pulled more than they could handle,  there was no choice but for everyone to haul ass back to the zone before they got killed.  Since the difficulty of monsters increased with the distance from the zone point in most areas, this meant that any time the highest level players bit off more than they could chew, their retreat turned into a train of monsters that could cut a swathe of hurt butts & XP penalties through lower-level players in a matter of moments.

The proper Ms. Manners etiquette approach was to have a zone-wide yell script set up announcing the impending doom processional.  Popular variants included phrases like “CHOO CHOO, TRAIN’S A-COMIN’” & “HOLY FUCKING SHIT GET TO ZONE”.  Of course, the primary goal of a train conductor3  is not to get run down by the train behind him/her, so the announcements often came too late to be of much use, or not at all.  Vengeful players occasionally organized counter-trains to settle the score of particularly bad trains.  Regardless, trains were a constant source of bitter acrimony, strife, and dramatic arguments aired publicly.

Let us consider the connotative brilliance of the adoption of the term “train” to describe this behavior.  The spatial/descriptive metaphor of the locomotive is clear, but in the pornographically drenched psychic valence of the internet, the typical hardcore trope of hirsute gentlemen “running a train” on an actress resounds in the subconscious.  Indeed, it is an appropriate description of the affective state of a player who hears about a train: the grim feeling that a Conga line of orcs, skeletons, or other such nasty creatures is gleefully and ceaselessly charging across the zone filled with an insatiable desire to have vigorous and nonconsensual group sexual relations with your avatar.

Modern MMO design has done much to destroy the delightful opportunities for hatred, mutual distrust, and extreme paranoia by largely doing away with relentless pursuit.  When I played World of WarCraft, almost all monsters outside of instances would get bored chasing you after a hundred yards or so and give up.  But even without relentless pursuit, trains are still occasionally possible.

Last night I was attempting some oppositional/critical play in Realm of the Mad God, an awesome co-op bullet hell permadeath MMO.  Since the game allows you to gain from experience from any deaths that happen within a certain area, regardless of whether you participated in killing them, I decided to try some pacifist leech playthroughs, where I just followed around other people and let them do all the killing.  A good distance into this playthrough, I teleported into a group of high level players sitting around a summoning stone.  I assumed this is what the late-game looked like, and hung around leeching XP from the monsters that spawned.  During one particularly long stretch of nothing happening, I decided to investigate the red dots on my map.  I strolled out of sight and ran directly into a Slime God.  It immediately hosed me down with massive amounts of damage & I nearly died in the first second or so.  I ran away, picking up a host of additional monsters while furiously mashing the heal button.  In a blind panic, I ran back to the summoning stone, massive train in tow.

I think the idea was that the gaggle of high level players would quickly take care of the mean sons of bitches chasing me.  Instead they took one look at the train and scattered.  But I guess not everyone was at their keyboard, because a few seconds later three tombstones were sitting around the summoning stone.  I was responsible for three high level characters being permadead.  A beat passed.  I looked down at the chat screen as it began furiously scrolling:

omfg not again

I shed a quiet tear, filled with a mixture of regret (“Those wizards are dead because of me”) and nostalgia.  And then I logged off before they figured out it was me.

  1. Excerpt available here.
  2. Personally, I was a big fan of Crushbone when I played.  It had the added feature of areas where you could pick up aggro from a mob, but not actually see that you had, and the mob would take anywhere from five minutes to two hours to show up to the party, which was generally at the time most likely to either wipe your group or start a train.
  3. Unless the train is being conducted by the greatest troll to ever play the game.