I’m writing to let you know that there was a dream of the internet that we let go. It’s called PlayOnline. It’s little more than a wrapper, really. A pocket client to act as the gateway for Final Fantasy XI. But at the same time, it’s everything.
There are chat rooms here, the ability to send and receive files, make profiles and customize them with bits of yourself and your interests. And of course there’s the electronic mail client that I’m using to write to you now.
While I’m doing that, there’s a gentle, sprightly piano music playing in the background, a Miyazakian idyll. It’s layered over diaphanous sunlight through tree leaves and the occasional chirrups of birds. And it’s because of this that I’ve realized how empty and soundless our internet is these days. How unfeeling the applications we use to access it really are.
PlayOnline shows us a better internet is possible. One of light and sound and delicate joy. But also one that feels more physical, intimate.
The portal-based web was a smaller space and because of that it had an imagined physicality to it. Or maybe it wasn’t so imagined. Born out of early BBSes, the portal-driven cyberspace feels more communal, less random. We are sharing a space.
In the BBS days, we’d all dial into some dude named Dan’s computer, in a garage, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Dan was bored, and he had spare cash, and he set up a space people could hang out, and do shit like play D&D, drink a beer (or a Coke), and play out petty grievances and share fun times (or a joint). In a lot of ways it was no different than actually physically going to Dan’s garage to play D&D and drink his dad’s beers and share a joint. Of course that was a soundless experience too. Cyberspace was young then, computers too new to reproduce reliably even radio-quality sound.
PlayOnline began its life on January 28, 2000. Yep, right out of the gate for the Y2K. And it was originally intended to be a gateway launcher for Square (now Square Enix) to host their online games. The only one that’s left is Final Fantasy XI, but during its heyday in Japan everything from Front Mission Online to Dirge of Cerberus routed through this charming portal of delicate blues and pleasingly rounded but still “future” fonts.
If there was a flaw with PlayOnline, it’s that it was too much like a BBS. Insular. A walled-garden, of sorts. What happened in Dan’s garage stayed in Dan’s garage. I’m writing this in the email client, but I can’t send it to you, or anyone. Not unless you joined PlayOnline. You’d have to be my friend here first. And there are no friends in the address book of my new PlayOnline account, and if it still existed, I’ve long since forgotten my original account.
PlayOnline was its own little world, but even two decades later, I still find myself wanting to AFK here in the empty chat rooms more than I want to doomscroll Twitter or thumb through the hundreds of barely disambiguated aesthetic blogs on Tumblr, or see which people I know enough to follow on Instagram but not well enough to really care about have gotten new succulents/an eating disorder during the pandemic.
The first night I logged back on to PlayOnline after years and years away, there was someone in the chat room, idling. It was the Town_Square chat room (called Zones) and their handle for the chat was “guythere.” I said “Hi!” and “Do you like to play Video Games” followed immediately by “I like to play video games.” A normal enough greeting. They were surprised to see another person in the chatroom, they came here to AFK from time to time. So we shared the strange, disjointed, and unexpected passing of two strangers, both waiting out the ticking of time in a small window that is out of step with the present.
It’s a good place to wait, because alongside the soft but spacey aesthetics is a 24 track jukebox of selectable tunes that are perfect for being held while time passes around you. Composed entirely by the jazzy Noriko Matsueda (of Front Mission and Bahamut Lagoon fame) the option to have BGM from a cyberspace portal is undeniably brilliant. Especially given how adept the Square stable of composers is historically at engendering a sense of place within space and communicating emotion with a laser-guided accuracy.
There isn’t a bad song in the bunch. I like to keep it basic with “Space,” which is the ultimate Y2K waiting room music. It’s like being suspended in a hydrogel on an orbital platform.
But you might prefer something gentle yet bright, like the piano and guitar number “Peace of Mind,” which could be the kind of JRPG town theme where nothing bad ever happens and everyone is safe long after the game is over, or maybe just the end credits theme for a slice of life anime about a bear and his roommates.
Or maybe you want to go back to the login screen music. That one’s called “Dolphin” and it drops like rainfall in summer. A few drops at first, just a sprinkling. Then more and more as the jazz keys and a whistling synth blow in a pulsatile dance beat. I keep that one in rotation too; it’s how PlayOnline welcomes me. A warm summer rain on cool blue backgrounds. It’s the friendliest and slickest the Y2K aesthetic could look without being overtly sinister, child-like, or hyper kitsch.
If you think about it, our web is silent. Or too loud. There’s no soundtrack, no unifying songs to our browsing, nothing purpose-built for the experience. We either curate our own playlists, entrust ourselves to the algorithm of Spotify, or fall prey to the dreadful auto-play din of Twitter, Facebook, pop-up ads on websites, etc. Ours is a soundless web and cacophony at once.
There’s an earnestness to PlayOnline that’s missing from the web now. And I guess maybe that’s because it’s missing the “web.” It doesn’t exist here. This is a cyberspace portal that never concerned itself with what was beyond. It had games, email, and chat. What more did you need? No, it was less cyberspace and more cyberplace. This was a haven in a vast agglutination of internet services. And who knows, maybe it could still be. I keep finding myself drawn back to being here, when the night is dark and everyone’s gone to bed. AFKing to Matsueda’s chill piano jazz and wondering if maybe someone will show up this time.
PlayOnline will always be a home to me. It will be the unfulfilled promise of the Y2K internet. Something we’re not innocent enough to reclaim, and something we were never really innocent enough to have. Not for very long, at any rate. It is hope, it is wish, it is also palatable commercialized packaging. It is tricky like that. But it’s also physical in a way that the internet is not now. Where we exist in ephemera and flux, and a coursing rush of always-on-tap content, PlayOnline is content to just sit and AFK for a while, listening to tunes, and writing an email. Patient for anyone who wants to show up and have a feeling of what cyberspace was, and what maybe it could be again someday. PlayOnline is there to show us that we can (and perhaps desperately need) a web that has places of physicality, communal spaces with presence, the skillful touch of a curator’s hand, not the cold arrangement of algorithms.
Anyway, I hope this finds you well. And I hope someday, you’ll consider coming to visit me in this strange little garden called PlayOnline, before anyone comes to take it away.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.