four years of my life have been marked by a particular game i rarely talk about. my high school years. it was an mmo called mabinogi. i’d talk about it more if it weren’t for my troubled relationship with my childhood. im going to talk about it now.
mabinogi was wonderful. it launched in the early aughts, a humble free to play game from an era where free to play was novel, the internet still felt new and videogames were allowed to be divergent. it was a game lovingly steeped in gaelic culture by a small korean studio. it is still going today, and there is certainly a reason for that.
when people were still trying to figure out what mmo’s could be, this game had a vision. this vision came long before world or warcraft or the homogeny it would spawn. this was a vision of community and co-operation.
mabinogi wasn’t conceived as a game about adventuring, looting or slaying, but as a “fantasy life”(in their words). it was from all levels a game about intimacy. there was no ambitiously sprawling world, just a small village and its outskirts. everything was intricately woven, imbued with layers of characterization to communicate that this is a place to be lived in. there was a shepherd, a wheat farm, a church, a mill, a blacksmith, a bank, a general store, a tailor, a doctor, a meadow, a forest, a warlock, a village chief and two dungeons. and that was the entire game, at least for the time being. more on that later. but these things together, this was a community and an ecosystem, and it was one built to be involved in. it wasn’t a game about fighting, it was about living in and being social in this place. there were story quests but there was no goal of conquest or epic loot. there were more skills dedicated to creating things than to killing things. and nobody could do everything, they had to rely on each other to fill everybody’s needs. you’d get as many players whose role in the world was as a cook, merchant or tailor as you’d get adventurers. there were swaths of people who played the game primarily to craft and socialize. so many layers of detail and love were imbued into this game, and its priorities are so foreign to the way games are conceived today.
the best part about this whole thing is that it worked. mabinogi was always niche by world of warcraft or everquest standards, but it evoked such a passion from those who played it. it was wildly successful in creating a place conducive to friendly and loving social behavior, which even today feels to me like a massive achievement in videogame culture. what it lacked in poppy bubblegum appeal that world of warcraft would capitalize on it made up for in being a unique game with an identity of its own. nobody really kept with the game who wasn’t bought into its core message, and that was the strength of the community it would build.
that positive social atmosphere was so important to me as a teenager. i was able to have personal, touching relationships with people that helped me explore identity and grow. it’s not uncommon to hear people recount stories of how online games cultivated important relationships, but what was special about mabinogi is that this was a casual commonplace. its social, non-masculine nature made it an incredibly welcoming environment, especially for women & marginalized people. it was a social space with a level of diversity inconceivable for the internet at the time.
mabinogi’s world structure still remains unique in the culture of videogames. alongside its “fantasy life” concept, mabinogi was pitched as a living world. it would get a big expansion every year that would break down (literal) walls and expand the world to explore new scenarios in its touchingly blatant fantasy ireland world (it was called Uladh and there were places named Emain Macha and Tir Chonaill). this never meant “growth” in the established videogames though, at least for a long time. there was no unsustainable ambition or mindless dopamine escalation, they were just new places along this countryside. some were larger and some were smaller, but the overriding connection was that they all made sense as a place, and it was all very strictly grounded.
it was a very modest game. the fighting was an elegant and compelling rock-paper-scissors type system. you’d rarely ever (choose to) engage more than a single enemy at once. dungeons were randomly generated networks of orthagonal rooms and interconnecting pathways, and the geometry was all incredibly bare and pointful. you had a tight, diablo-like inventory that doubled down on the physicality. most of the game was played by clicking and pressing a few buttons occasionally. none of it was particularly fast, it was all about contemplation and taking it slow. there was no voice acting. most interactions with characters and systems used impeccably templatized UI. everything felt more concerned with communicating the idea than with making it adhere to a particular best practices rubric, much like the culture of sega at the time.
everything was flexible and organic. characters didn’t have classes, dungeons weren’t theme park rides. you could play alone, you could play with people. you could be a blacksmith, you could be an archer, you just had to put in the work. none of these things came at exclusion to each other, and there was never any coddling fear on the creators’ behalf at you playing the game wrong. if you were playing the game, you were playing it right. even for such an intensely social thing, it didn’t force people to be. to create that positive social environment in the first place it accomplished one very important thing: it let people be as they are. people had their own relationships with the game, their involvement in the world and with others. that let it flourish like it did. there was no wrong way to play, just playing it was enough. it was animal crossing in a way animal crossing was never allowed the ambition to become.
unfortunately, the story of what it would eventually grow into is less interesting. after many years of expanding itself in vibrantly interesting ways it could not escape the totalizing influence of world of warcraft and the legion of exploitative themepark mmos. that’s alright though, mabinogi has made a permanent impression that will never go away.