RuneScape launched as a browser game in 2001, and changed so much over time that a version called Old School RuneScape was released in 2013 for players who prefer the MMO’s earlier years. For everyone else, the modern version is just called RuneScape, and was recently added to Steam. I’ve always had the sense that RuneScape is a bit esoteric (I’m sure I tried it back when it launched, when I was a teenager), but I didn’t realize just how weird the free-to-play MMO is until I gave it a try this week. Nearly two decades after it first released, visiting RuneScape is like entering a PC gaming pocket dimension, perhaps accessed by metaphysically passing through the infinite loop of a GeoCities webring.
Like any other MMO, RuneScape begins with character creation, and I design a bearded man with a bald-on-top monk cut. I have no name in mind for him, so I opt to let RuneScape generate a random one. I’m expecting it to hit me with something fantasy-ish, like Illhard Earling or Haglbar or Revvyn. It suggests Deathlum1934. I hit the randomize button again. 59Bork2396. Again. Dingo2429. 44slender392. 40rulecolor.
Clearly, randomized names are not RuneScape’s strength. No problem: I type in the name of German author WG Sebald. It tells me that someone has already taken the name WG Sebald. Who could possibly be running around RuneScape as German literary figure WG Sebald? I don’t know, but the game’s been around for nearly 20 years now, so I should’ve figured that no niche would be untouched. I type in Burrp Bram and the name is accepted. I am now Burrp Bram.
In the tutorial area, I learn there’s a skill called Prayer and that burying the bones of my slaughtered enemies will increase my Prayer skill. Later, those enemies include innocent tutorial bunnies that I stab to death with a dagger and make sandwiches out of, innocent tutorial cows that I pierce with arrows while they helplessly bustle about a pen, trolls who live in caves directly beneath the town, gelatinous abominations, and some skeletons, who were presumably buried at one time, and now need to be reburied. I bury all their bones, even the bones of the gelatinous abominations, which somehow have bones. I level up my Prayer skill in the process, although I don’t bother to learn what Prayer actually does. I’ve never been very patient with tutorial text.
When EverQuest launched, my favorite thing to do was explore the world with low-level characters, danger be damned. It was about the adventure, not the grinding, and I’m happy to discover that RuneScape offers the same freedom. I quickly brush aside my tutorial work, despite barely understanding the arcane, semi-automated combat system and spell rune economy (in those respects, RuneScape feels very much like a game that’s been under construction for 20 years), and just start walking.
Almost immediately, I run into Death himself, skeletal and floating. He turns out to be a nice guy—clearly hanging out as part of a Halloween event—and he informs me that at the beginning of every hour there’s a chance it’ll become a “spooky hour,” which increases XP earned. I think that could be true of life, too. Maybe you’re in a spooky hour right now.
Death also gives me my first real quest, handing me a crystal that he says will guide me to lost souls that need to be defragmented. That’s the word he uses: “defragment.” Like they’re hard drives. I think that souls these days really ought to be stored on SSDs, but run off to the Barbarian Village to the north to defragment my first one. I’m worried the identical blonde barbarians will attack me, but they just mull around with spears while I chase down a glowing soul dot and click on it to heal it. As I do, my mind is “flooded with images of axes, blood, and fists.” And then, when I’ve nearly finished defragmenting the soul, my mind is “filled with pictures of a burial, fires and a trial.” Ostensibly, this is a game for kids.
After saving the soul—but not through Prayer, interestingly—I decide to move on from Death’s task (clicking on a glowing dot is not all that fun, actually) and go further north. I arrive at the ruins of a wall, and when I try to cross it, RuneScape warns me that I’m entering the Wilderness, where other players can attack me. I have nothing to lose, so I hop right over. I admire a river of lava, and then run further north and get killed by ranged attacks from a beast I hardly get a look at. I nearly survive by devouring all of my rabbit sandwiches as I run away, but not quite.
After I respawn, I figure I’m wasting my time and I ought to just go back to the first town and play the game properly, focusing on leveling. But the big unexplored map calls to me, so I start traveling east and eventually I do discover something: A little girl sitting outside of a portal. When I talk to her, she bolts through the magic gateway.
The ground on the other side of the portal is covered with untouched snow. A forest of evergreens goes on forever. Violet, the kid, starts rolling Indiana Jones-style balls of snow down a hill at me. I have to run up the slope while avoiding the enormous snowballs, which is difficult because movement is done by clicking on a destination, and my character likes to complete movement one axis at a time rather than taking diagonal paths. After several attempts, I make it to the top and Violet runs away. I’m curious, now. I’d assumed that only high-level players could survive a mysterious portal adventure, so I’d expected to die near instantly at the hands of a yeti or some other monster.
It turns out there are two yetis in the snow world, but they don’t want to kill me. Not at all: A few minutes later, I’m standing in their house talking with them about what’s best for their adopted human daughter, who’s now in her room sulking about a yeti festival she’s not allowed to attend. Violet’s parents are worried the other yeti kids at the festival will make fun of her because she’s a human. For some reason, yeti dad will only let her attend if I go with them. Of course I agree. From here on, I feel like I’m undergoing some kind of psychological evaluation.
Our first obstacle is a dark stretch of trees that Violet refuses to traverse due to the possibility it contains monsters. We can’t move forward until I find a way to create some light for her. I shake a bush and a firefly emerges. I click on the firefly to catch it in my hands, and then I give it to Violet. She immediately eats it.
According to Violet, fireflies taste like “popping candy” and provide a “warm feeling” in her tummy, and I’m assured that any further fireflies I hand to her will be instantly eaten. She is simply unable to square her desire for light with her desire to eat fireflies, so I have to come up with a new solution. It’s pretty simple: Just make a spigot, stick it into a maple tree, collect maple syrup in a bucket, spread the syrup on trees along the path, ask Violet’s dad for an empty bottle (this took me forever to figure out, but I wonder if a kid would instinctually ask the adult for help?), fill the bottle with fireflies, and then give the bottle to Violet so that she can let the fireflies out as we walk. The theory is that the fireflies will not be eaten by Violet because they are in a bottle, but they will be attracted to the maple syrup on the trees rather than flying away, providing a steady source of light.
After that, we encounter a group of ice elementals, and I think, here we go, a combat encounter that’ll surely kill me because I haven’t leveled at all, but no, that’s not the case. I have to build snowman heads that match Violet’s facial expressions and then help her throw them onto the elementals, because they have no heads of their own, and she refuses to leave them headless.
Strange old world
As I continue helping Violet and her yeti dad, who cracks dad jokes along the way, I can see Runescape’s charm. It turns out Violet’s quest was added as part of the 2018 Christmas event. These things are just left behind for new players to discover—not like Destiny 2 and World of Warcraft and other modern games, which are culled and streamlined. My chance meeting with Death? It turns out his full name is Harold Death, Esq, and he doesn’t just show up on the week of Halloween. He lives in a mansion where he frequently kills servants accidentally, due to his touch of death. I said that Runescape’s combat systems feel like they’ve been under construction for 20 years—well, so does the rest of RuneScape. (Except maybe the graphics. Those look about like you’d expect.)
In some ways, RuneScape feels like a precursor to Fortnite—they’ve both built up a patchwork of lore over time, and being “for kids” hasn’t stopped them from being weird, complex, and sometimes unsettling (that poor barbarian soul). But Fortnite will be carefully manicured in the way live service games are these days, and I doubt it’ll ever be allowed to grow gnarled, tangled fingernails quite like RuneScape, which you’ll recall involves performing religious burials of the bones of the dead creatures you’ve slaughtered. The idea of holding funerals for fallen enemies in Fortnite was a ClickHole joke. Two decades after it launched, RuneScape is still ahead of its time.