Steam is a little like Disneyland: It’s designed to make sure we only see the good bits. Every so often a character’s head will roll off in a Disney-on-ice disaster or someone will get caught shagging behind the The Haunted Mansion—the equivalent of a sinister visual novel bubbling to the top of your Discovery Queue—but mostly, a mist of adequacy enshrouds the games Steam's algorithm recommends to us.
I decided to break free from those recommendations and go digging deep into Steam's fetid underplaces. Together we’ll explore what is empirically the worst MMO on Steam. By ‘together’ I mean I’ll write about it and you’ll hopefully read it; and by ‘empirically’ I mean I invented a spurious system to decide which game is pure toilet.
Finding the worst MMO on Steam: the WaNC system
Searching the MMO tag in Steam and filtering by review score brings up 27 pages of life-sucking online entertainment. Down in the reek we have the likes of Star Trek: En Territoire Alien and World of Leaders. But it’s not enough for our game to simply be dead last. I don’t want to play anything that’s been review bombed—it has to be something people hoped would be amazing. I have to feel the disappointment fizzing on my tongue like champagne. This is the first part of my system: the Want (Wa) factor.
Review scores are also crucial. They need to be as negative as possible, but a sizeable proportion of people need to have suffered. Therefore I’m limiting it to games with over 70 reviews. This gives us our Negativity (N) score.
And, finally, we have the state the game is in. Shaming games in Early Access feels like shooting eggs and calling yourself a hunter. What joy is there in killing something that never lived? Likewise, a game has to have an active server to be in contention, because I can’t hate what I didn’t play. I call this final factor Completion (C). Our WaNC score is calculated thusly:
The game I want to try most is World of Leaders, an online democracy ‘em up with a spelling error in the description and design that resembles a murder’s scrapbook. But the most recent review, back in November 2018, tells me the server is dead. This gives World of Leaders a WaNC score of zero. Reluctantly, I move on. Lost Region is in contention with its 122 Mostly Negative reviews until I realise it’s in Early Access (“Even this review has more content than this game”). And then, I discover it: Otherland. It’s an MMO with 559 Mostly Negative reviews, and it’s still online, albeit in a cadaverous, iron lung sort of way.
Best of all, it’s based on the "critically acclaimed" novels I’ve never heard of by Tad Williams. This means someone, somewhere wanted it to be good. The stench of heartbreak is baked into the code. My despair flute overfloweth.
Otherland: A wrong place
I’m in. The population on the servers is low—I’ll find out exactly how low later on—but at least there are no queues. I create my character twice because I’m unhappy with the body type, Metamorph, that he’s automatically been assigned. I’ll later realise I’m confusing this with ‘mesomorph’—a human physique marked by greater than average muscular development—and that ‘Metamorph’ actually refers to the zone in which he spawns. A fine start. Klungo, my new hero, is born. With his spongy physique and face like a drawstring sack, he resembles a Ken Doll who can smell sewage. Exploring Otherland with him will be a thrill.
My initial reaction is one of pervading, intangible wrongness. The world itself is compelling enough: a cyberpunk dystopia in which VR worlds are integrated into every element of society. And technically, everything works, but only in the same way opening a bottle of wine with a mallet ‘works’. The interface is abnormal and unresponsive. It’s a third person game, but I need to lock onto enemies to use Klungo’s abilities, and targeting them feels like Mr Miyagi catching flies with chopsticks. I have to press Ctrl to bring up the cursor if I want to navigate using the mouse. These niggles mean I’m never sure if I’m doing things correctly because the feedback is always just off. It’s like playing Guild Wars with someone else’s severed hands. While suffering from the flu.
More generally, I have no idea who anyone is, where I am, or what I’m doing. This is a little unfair, since I’m unfamiliar with Williams’ work—I’m sure WoW would be equally bewildering if you went in somehow knowing nothing about orcs or dwarves or Jaina Proudmoore. But Otherlands is terminally perplexing.
A magical ghost robot called Sellars tells me to find a conscious simuloid and speak to Sweetie Cheng. I assume, wrongly, it’ll all make sense once I’ve done so. Statues of people from different time periods bestrew every area, and I never know what’s going to attack me because mobs blend in with the set dressing. It’s a mish-mash of temporal gibberish, and unquestionably the most confusing game I’ve ever played.
In happier news, it’s at least 30 minutes before I even come close to dying. At one point I drop my pen, spend a while searching for it, and I come back to find myself being battered by enemies with apparently zero effect.
There’s a boss fight at the end of the "tutorial," in which I have to destroy obelisks to vanquish a giant winged sarcophagus called Felix. The problem here is I spend 10 minutes destroying obelisks for no reason—a lifetime spent gaming has conditioned me to be suspicious of monoliths—but apparently it only counts if Sweetie Cheng has instructed me to do so beforehand.
During all this, I honestly feel my grip on reality slip like a grandma on an icy pavement. I’m glad I took so many screenshots, if only so I can prove to myself any of this actually happened. The boss fight ends, and my team of simulant buddies warp through a portal to a new area. Success! I move to follow them, but the portal doesn’t work because area beyond won’t load. Cool. Time for a break.
And then it gets worse
The following night I start in the new area, which has miraculously decided to load. It’s now I realise what's bothering me about my character, Klungo. It’s his ass. He has a massive, succulent ass, which is exacerbated by his frightening lack of clothing.
I decide my next goal should be to find legwear at any cost. The bad news is that Klungo is immediately knocked out and imprisoned, alongside Sweetie Cheng and the rest of the Confusion Gang. The good news is my reward for breaking out is pants. I distract the guard, escape my cell, and claim my trousery reward. They make me look like a gaming chair, but at least my distracting hindquarters are hidden.
The next step is to get my weapons back. This is problematic, because I already have my weapon. I’m literally holding it. In terms of glitches, this is the worst quest so far. I can’t click on the crate that should contain my weapons but doesn’t. I can’t go back to the quest giver to check the details. I try abandoning it, but that doesn’t work either, so I log out and go back in (hooray for no queues!).
The crate eventually opens, I get back the weapon I’ve had all the time, and we fight our way to freedom in the least exciting jailbreak imaginable. I’ve been to libraries with sterner security.
Free from my ineffectual prison, I’m able to explore the Otherland and mingle with the players who inhabit this lambent carbuncle. But there’s a problem. When I hit the social tab, there isn’t another player online. Not one. Perhaps they’re all in a higher-level area, having a great time and enjoying their quest trousers. Or maybe there are no queues for Otherland because it’s truly empty.
The sense of isolation is more acute because this isn’t an abandoned game. There are quests to complete and places to explore. Apparently, they even do holiday-themed updates. It all makes we wonder who it’s all for—perhaps some eccentric billionaire is keeping the whole thing running for the sake of his Tad Williams-loving offspring.
Or perhaps I’ve imagined this whole episode and writing about it will finally end my career. The scale and density of Otherland is an unknowable mystery. It fills me with dread.
I kill some time questing in the hope that eventually someone else will arrive. I accept a mission to explore all the shops in Lambda Mall, which would be the perfect way to unwind after the jailbreak if it had been in any way exhilarating.
I go to a bar and get lost in a matted plughole of baffling portals, none of which take me back to the place I want to go. I just keep getting taken deeper into a matrix of mysterious theme bars.
I realise there’s no such thing as God when I check the map and discover it’s broken. The tooltips move with my cursor, so I have no idea where the exits are. Maybe all the simuloids here are other reviewers who got trapped? Perhaps the last thing I’ll see is another player stepping into this medieval theme pub to join me in MMO purgatory. If the Steam reviews had mentioned this, I’d have chosen something else.