There are a couple of Retromags members on my PS3 friends list, but I'm not sure if you all knew that outside of blasting Necromorphs in Dead Space, or ruling the city streets in Saint's Row, I spent an awful lot of time in Sony's online avatar-based virtual world called PlayStation Home. If any of my readers ever ran across me on there, feel free to chime in and say hello in the comments--I was "Areala" on there, just as I am here. I know, how original, right?
Anyway, I got involved with Home in December of 2008 once the Open Beta phase began and have been visiting
off and on ever since, right up until yesterday evening, 31 March 2015. That night, if you clicked on the Home icon, the virtual world launched as normal. Today, clicking on the Home icon results in the download of the new version of the software, v1.87, a 19MB file that updates Home for the last time. Upon launch, instead of the connection screen, a simple message is displayed thanking the user for his or her interest in Home, but informing said user that unfortunately the service has gone offline for good.
This came as no surprise to me, since Sony announced they would be taking the PS Home servers offline all the way back in September, giving us months to prepare for the closing. As one of my friends that night remarked, "In November, I was like, 'Five months? That's an eternity.' Tonight, I'm like, 'WTF I been doing for the last five months?'" It's true: no matter how badly we would deny it, the future always becomes the present, the present becomes the past, and the past becomes a story we tell ourselves when we want to remember the good old days. So today, while it's still fresh in my memory, before time and life strip the feelings away, I'd like to write my farewell, my tribute to PS Home and all of the fun, the laughs, the memories, and the friends I made along the way. I connected to the US server. Users in other territories may not recognize some of the spaces and will likely have different memories, as every territory (North America, Europe, and Asia) had their own servers with their own content, with crossovers and content migration being more the exception than the rule. Pics and videos incoming, just FYI.
Speaking of videos, you probably noticed the one up at the top there. If this isn't the earliest video promo for PlayStation Home, it's at least the earliest one that I remember. Sony showed it on the giant screen on their Central Plaza area but also blasted it across the airwaves on TV stations. Eagle-eyed observers noted something strange about the graffiti on the wall: there seemed to be a 12-character alphanumeric code written there. Users who plugged the code into their PS3's
"Redeem Code" feature were rewarded with a pair of silly hats. As this video premiered only a few months after Home started its Open Beta period (which it never left over the course of six years), and the code expired a week or so after it was issued, avatars seen walking around with a bug-eyed Goldfish (male avatars) or an equally bug-eyed Shark (female avatars) on his or her head years later could easily be identified as someone who had been there for a long-ass time. Needless to say, for my last night on Home, I donned my shark hat in memory of those early days.
If you never got involved with Home, or only booted it up once to see what was up and didn't give it a chance, it's difficult to explain just what about Home was so charming. Viewed from the outside, it could be called a simple cash grab by Sony. Much like Second Life and other virtual chat spaces, Home offered a plethora of digital items for sale: clothing and hairstyles to change your avatar's appearance, personal spaces for when the default Harbour Studio suite got too small, and a whole mish-mash of furniture, decorative pieces, appliances, gizmos, gadgets, and goodies with which to decorate those personal spaces and truly make them your own. Part graphical chat application, part multi-player Sims-style experience, the early days saw a very quick divide form between the folks who were willing to drop money on new clothing vs. the new players (or noobs) who were too young or too broke to fork over a buck or two for some new duds. It wasn't uncommon for new players visiting Central Plaza for the first time to get virtually shunned by the more experienced denizens, who turned up their noses and insulted the 'clueless noobs' for daring to pollute their social clique with their blue Home logo shirts and default jean and shoe ensembles.
This wasn't helped by the people who thought to take advantage of the relative anonymity afforded by the hordes of similarly-clad new residents by actively griefing other members of the community, either through overt comments about others' gender, race, or sexuality, or the less-overt-but-no-less-irritating act of simply parking their avatar as close to yours as possible and repeatedly spamming the Quick Chat macros (simple phrases like, 'Hello', 'Goodbye', 'Yes', 'No', 'I have no
keyboard', and 'Follow me' which were meant to help players quickly communicate the basics without needing to boot up the virtual keyboard) or starting a dance routine involving a thrusting pelvis and your avatar's virtual front-side or back-side depending on which they thought you would find more irritating. Yes, there were assholes a-plenty on Home in those early days, but eventually you learned two simple ways of dealing with it: stay out of Central Plaza, or hit the Select button to mute whoever was harassing you and report them to a moderator. Early on, when Home only had a few spaces, it was far more common to see a random Mod's voice pop up in the chat box, issuing warnings from invisible avatars and kicking users who were being abusive. I remember getting a good laugh when one of these would-be griefers decided to harass a moderator by calling his sexuality into question ("<Mod> is gay!") only to get frozen in place by the Moderator's developer tools and have to endure a "time out" where he wasn't allowed to move or talk to anyone, and attempting to send a personal message to the offender was met with the response, "<Avatar Name> is in time-out and cannot respond to you." Particularly egregious offenders could (and did) find their PSN accounts banned completely from Sony's servers, preventing them from playing online at all or even accessing the PlayStation Store to buy new content. These ban times could range from a few hours all the way up to a lifetime depending on the severity of the infraction and whether or not you were a repeat offender. I'll give them credit: Sony tried to control Home when it first opened. After a year or so though, with new public spaces cropping up all the time, and an online player base that expanded into the millions worldwide, finding a Mod was like finding a unicorn: people weren't sure they existed any longer, and didn't know where to start looking anyway.
But what I remember most, and what kept me logging back in over the years, were the people. Whenever you gather together several million individuals into a particular area and give them creative control over their virtual lives (even if this only extends to their wardrobe and their personal spaces), you're bound to see some absolutely insane things. One of the earliest examples of this was a sort of playful cult that sprung up around a particular set of rewards one could earn from playing the Echochrome arcade machine in the bowling alley: the Homelings. Dressing themselves all in white and selecting a bald hairstyle from the default options, and presenting themselves as a sort of cross between the Borg and E.T., Homelings wandered the streets and pavilions of Home in their never-ending wait for the return of Mother (their mothership, as Homelings fashioned themselves as aliens cast adrift in the cruel digital world), and loosely organized into clans. No one, not even Sony, could have predicted the enormous swell of Homelings who would occasionally swarm into a public space and organize a chant in an attempt to summon Mother. Other Homeling groups were content to just gather in large numbers and dance the night away, to the bemusement of regular Home-goers and the terror of the newbies who didn't understand why all these similarly-clad, shaven-headed people were trying to recruit them into the Collective.
But even though there were a multitude of Homelings wandering the servers, there were far more individuals than members of the collective, and ultimately I believe what drew so many people to Home for long periods of time was the ability to define one's self as one saw fit, and alter that definition at whim. This came slowly, as most of the clothing and reward items available to wear for the first few months were exactly what you would expect: simple, basic clothing. T-shirts, pants, shorts, shoes, gloves, and hats all showed up in the weekly updates, often weighted more heavily towards the male avatars than the female ones, but it took several weeks before Sony moved beyond the idea of just providing basic clothing. The first major clothing update involved two new outfits for both boys and girls, and was meant to help settle an age-old debate: both genders received Pirate and Ninja outfits. This was a theme Sony would repeat a number of times throughout the life of Home, including such things as Zombies, Hamsters, and Turkeys. Later additions to the clothing lines included characters and items from various video game franchises such as Street Fighter, Tekken, Little Big Planet, Killzone, Uncharted, Silent Hill, Dead Space, Resident Evil, and Ratchet & Clank.
The original outfit I gathered up for myself after deciding I wanted something to make me a little more unique was slightly nerdy/hipster. I wanted to create the look of a bibliophile, someone who might work in a library or a bookstore, but was off for the day: a pair of glasses, a green beret, a denim jacket, jeans, and a pair of red sneakers. I occasionally swapped the denim jacket out for something else, a simple t-shirt or a light tank top, but that was my projection to the world, and I was fine with it.
Then it all changed. Shortly before Halloween one year, Sony opened a new shop in the Mall space, called "Costumes", and you can guess what they carried. Now, instead of dressing in normal clothes all the time, you could pick up an outfit you wouldn't be ashamed to go Trick or Treating while wearing. There were only a small variety at first: Roman toga, medieval warrior, etc. But the one which stuck out for me, which wound up defining my look for almost the rest of my years on Home, was the angel outfit.
I've always loved angels. My tattoo is of an angel. My middle name is a variation on the word 'angelic'. So when I saw there was an option for me to walk around Home dressed up as an angel, I knew I had found what I'd truly wanted. The only thing I didn't really care for was the halo: since it was an angel costume, the halo was one of those stick-mounted ones you put around your neck which suspended the little golden glittery disc over your head by a few inches. By some coincidence though, another company had designed a number of various fantastical headgears and put them up for sale, things like an arrow through the head, devil horns and whatnot. One of the items on their list was a halo which levitated above your head, unattached to anything. Voila: I had my halo, and my angelic persona was born!
I spent the next several months dressed up as an angel, though I got some funny looks and questions from people who wondered if I was aware Halloween was over, but given there were people running around dressed up like giant hamsters with fake axes imbedded in their skulls, this tapered off after a couple of weeks. Mostly, people didn't pay any attention to it beyond noting that they liked the outfit, and then we went back to talking about video games, or life, or whatever was on our minds.
Sometime around the start of 2010, I began to notice something odd. Whenever I was hanging out in a public space, whether it was the Central Plaza, the Gamer's Lounge, the Mall in front of the waterfall, or Sully's Bar in the Uncharted space, it wasn't long before a stranger would walk up to me and ask if I was a real angel. My response, as the question always came out of the blue, was to laugh and say, "No, of course not!" This often got a response similar to, "Oh, OK..." and the random person would walk away. I kept encountering this phenomenon though. Finally, one evening as I was sitting in the Lounge, another random person approached me and asked the question. I decided to see what would happen if I answered in the affirmative. And suddenly this person, who I had never met outside of this virtual space on PSN, began pouring out his soul, looking for justification that he was a good person, that he was not worthless, that he mattered. I read his messages as he slowly typed them using the virtual keyboard within Home to relay them, one sentence at a time. I just listened, only replying when he asked me a direct question. And afterwards, he thanked me for listening and not judging. As he walked away to join a group of people dancing on the second floor, I reflected on that and decided if anyone asked me that question again, I would always answer in the affirmative.
I met dozens of people in this way: people who had stories to tell, anxieties to share, questions to ponder. Maybe they were who they said they were, and maybe they weren't--in the virtual world it's impossible to tell if anyone is telling the truth. But their stories felt authentic: the army sergeant who, at twenty-four years of age, was feeling the burden of command after learning his unit was returning to Afghanistan for the second time; the nineteen year old who wanted to marry his girlfriend but wasn't sure their relationship could survive long-distance; the forty-something housewife who cheated on her husband over a decade ago during a moment of weakness and wanted to confess to someone; the eighteen-year old kid who was joining the Marines in an effort to prove himself to his own father even though the thought terrified him and he wanted to be part of the Coast Guard instead; a retired police officer who still hadn't gotten over the death of his partner all the way back in the 1970s, before I was even born. I heard many, many different stories during the time I walked as an angel on Home. All of them were important. All of them were personal. All of them were snapshots of the sort of lives going on all around us that we never think about because their lives are not our own.
I spent my final night in Home sitting by a fire on the sands of the virtual beach in the Southern Island Hideaway, one of my favorite public spaces to hang out. Friends, some of whom I had not seen in months or even years, popped in and out as the evening went on and the time for the servers to close loomed nearer. Sadly I had to work early the next morning so I had to go to bed before the servers went offline around 2 A.M. my time. But while I was there, surrounded by friends new and old, I reminded myself the last several years had been totally worth it. Someone asked of the group sitting around the fire if we had any last words for Home, and numerous people jumped in to say thanks for all the memories, to wish one another well, to express their love and fondness for people they met there. My final words spoken on Home were, "So this, then, was our story...and we told it the best we could." They seemed as apt as anything else that had been said thusfar. And it was true: Home wasn't just a collection of spaces, clothes, furniture, mini-games and collectibles. Home was a collection of stories, all bound together between the pages of one single, massive online world. It was our story from the very start, and always had been.
After sitting quietly for a few seconds, I stood up among the crowd of dancers and frolickers who had shown up to party down to the last fireworks display on the island and warped to my favorite Private space. Home had two kinds of spaces: Public spaces were those anyone could enter or warp to at any time. Private spaces were "owned" by an avatar, could be re-decorated to the owner's liking, and could only be entered by others via an invitation. In Home, your home literally was your castle and unless you rolled out the welcome mat, you were guaranteed privacy. My most-loved private space was the Rainy Day Apartment, a small studio apartment situated in a building with a corner-balcony, and a beautiful view of a harbour that could have been any number of different locations in the real world. Dusk had fallen, raindrops drizzled from the clouds passing overhead, and all was tranquility.
Within the Raindy Day Apartment, I had assembled a small bathroom, a kicthen/dining room area, a reading space with a comfortable chair and plenty of bookshelves, and a water-themed meditation section with a tub for relaxing in after a long day. But I didn't head to any of those areas...I simply went to my bed and laid down. While on the bed, there were a variety of poses one could choose for laying out. I chose the one which put my avatar on her side, then settled her in to sleep for one last time before I pressed the 'Quit' button.
In my mind, it was important to do this before logging off for the final time. If my avatar was asleep, she would never 'feel' the universe fade out around her as the server powered down. Whatever she dreamed in that now-endless virtual sleep would be her company through eternity, and as we all know, dreams can house an infinite number of adventures. Maybe this world is nothing more than her imagination--unlikely, but there are always possibilities as a certain green-blooded, pointy-eared Vulcan was so fond of telling his captain.
In closing, I'm reminded of a lyric by the Counting Crows: "If dreams are like movies, then memories are films about ghosts." Maybe PS Home was more like a dream than we realized, a film in which every avatar walking the virtual landscapes was director, producer, screenwriter and lead actor. And if memories truly are films about ghosts, then I hope the movie you've just finished reading, my movie, my story, has not been a boring one.