(All screenshots by Eric Grundhauser)

Since 1996, The Realm Online has been occupying its fantasy world on the edges of the mainstream internet. It’s not clear who is running it or how, but still it persists, and even more incredibly, there are still people playing in it.

The Realm (the “Online” was added later) might well be the world’s oldest still-operating multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG). It was first released in late 1996, by then industry giant, Sierra Games. The game was a very early version of a MMORPG, featuring Dungeons-and-Dragons-style character creation, and an open world where you could meet up with other player characters and quest for loot, hunt monsters, or just chat. Today these features seem unremarkable, but in 1996, when the connectivity and community on the internet was still figuring itself out, The Realm was revolutionary.

Unfortunately, the cartoony (and frankly, quite ugly) two-dimensional art, and text-heavy interface were nearly instantly dated. Having taken influences from waning genres like graphical MUDs (text-based adventures that integrated crude images and animations), and the point-and-click adventure games Sierra was better known for (King’s Quest), The Realm’s initial novelty didn’t last too long. It was quickly eclipsed by games like the more robust Ultima Online in 1997, and Everquest in 1999, which truly kickstarted the MMORPG genre with its fully 3D environments.

Your hero in the troll-skin orange.

As the popularity of the game dwindled, Sierra unloaded it to game publisher Codemasters in the early 2000s as part of a bundle of properties. Codemasters didn’t know what to do with the quickly aging game any more than Sierra did, so they put the game up for sale. In 2003, it was purchased by its current owners, Norseman Games, a small Michigan company started by, Scott Wochholz, a longtime player of The Realm.

“It was his idea, when he heard it was up for sale, that the family make a purchase of it,” says Lynn Crow, Wochholz’s sister and former Norseman Games employee and player of The Realm. “I didn’t know a lot about it myself, but we all became convinced it would probably be a good idea.” Using a few hundred thousand dollars from a family trust, Wochholz bought the game. According to Crow, at the time of the purchase, the average number of players to be found in The Realm was around 200, down from its heyday of around 3,000. But through all of this, The Realm refused to die.

“Being introduced to different cultures and such a wide variety of people in a fantasy world was very overwhelming to me,” says Steve Murphy, who has played The Realm on and off since 1996. He is also active on the forums of The Realm Reawakened, an effort by one of the game’s original programmers to create a new (and unrelated) version of it for mobile. These forums have become one of the major gathering points for fans of The Realm. “The Realm Online was a game that, for the first time, offered me something that I never would have dreamed of in video games.” Even with unchanging gameplay and graphics, and a plummeting player count, there has always remained a core group of Realm fans who have continued to spend time in the world.

Norseman Games was aware of how dated the game seemed when they bought it, but they had every intention of improving on the game, and growing the small but devoted player base. According to Crow, many of the diehard players of The Realm stuck with the game mainly out of nostalgia, while others enjoyed the leisurely pace that allowed them to easily chat with others while questing. “There was a lot of individuals who had disabilities who enjoyed playing the game, because the controls are much easier than some of the more fancy games now,” she says.  

Don’t trust those banshees. 

For better or worse, the planned improvements to the game never materialized. Crow, who had met her husband in the game, and even had an in-game character wedding, was forced out of the company in 2004, due to both familial and business conflicts with her brothers. She and her husband were also banned from the game, and she has had little contact with anyone at the company for years. There are no interviews with the employees of Norseman Games to be found, and complaints that they are unreachable litter the forums and Facebook groups. Multiple attempts at contacting them for this article through email (no response), phone (wrong number), and Facebook (no response), were a dead end. And yet, their website still runs, and The Realm servers, which go down from time to time, only to be mysteriously repaired, are still keeping the world alive.

The Realm’s website itself looks like something straight out of 1996, all janky iframes, broken JPGs, and a banner that still advertises “Dial-Up Friendly” and “Basic System Requirements” beneath some paperback fantasy art that is a far cry from the actual game’s crooked cartoons. However, you can still enter your credit card number and create a sign-in (I do not recommend this, as I learned the hard way that once an account is created, the link to your account settings, including removing your credit card, seems to be broken). The game is $7.99 a month, which either seems high or low depending on how you look at it. But for all of the appearance of an abandoned website, a created login will actually allow you to enter The Realm.

Once I logged in, I was able to join a server that had 14 other people in it. I created a human thief (hello again, Baerf the Reporter) with a mustache, and headed in to explore. Other options included being an orc, an elf, or even a giant.

Look at that handsome man.

The world of The Realm is set up in a massive grid of interlocking static screens, and you travel between them by clicking on the appropriate side of the game window, or on entrances elsewhere on the screen. In essence your character travels from one pixelated tableau to the next.

You begin in the central town, which has such pixelated fantasy sights as a market fair,  weapons shops located in crude huts, and non-player characters ready to dole out quests and medieval insults. It is all very charmingly basic fantasy fare, but I was truly shocked when I quickly stumbled upon another player character. It was a sprite in green tunic wearing what looked like a variation of that mask from the movie Gladiator. The character was standing still and didn’t respond to my chat of “Are you a real person?” so, I thought it might have been a mistake. Maybe those 14 “people” who were supposedly logged in were just old, dead accounts, whose avatars would stand like statues in the game world until the powers at Norseman finally let it die.

But sure enough, a few seconds later, another actual player entered my same screen. I felt like I’d discovered some lost tribe of gamer who hadn’t been touched by the modern world since the mid-90s. The character was some kind of purple witch named Trillion. They suggested that I try to find a hunting party to take me to some cool dungeons and then left the screen. I tried to follow, but couldn’t navigate fast enough to keep up. The players were real, although I wasn’t able to find a hunting party. When I would return to the town square later, more players, each in some garish combination of high-level gear, had gathered, just standing there, saying hi before going off to different parts of the world.

That man in orange is named Jeff. 

None of the NPCs I talked to had any quests for me, save for one tavern owner who gave me the first-RPG-quest classic of clearing his basement of rats. Longtime Realm quester Murphy had suggested a few of his favorite places for me to check out including dungeons with names like Fuloran’s Abode, Festering Hate Pool, and Tulor’s Caverns. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of in-game map feature, so locating a specific location in the world was impossible, at least at my low level.

I decided to just strike out and see what else the world had to offer, and I headed due east. I found myself traveling through endearingly rendered forests, that turned into deserted scrublands or foggy swamps, or at least the 1996 pixel versions of them.

Nearly every screen was filled with enemies including banshees, zombies, bats, bounty hunters, and demons. Every character in The Realm has a two-part animation with one view straight on, and another from the side, giving even the large dragons a silly paper cutout quality. At my low level, fighting any of them was instant death, so I would flee as soon as any of them engaged me in combat, just trying to get as far out in the world as I could. Without a map, I wandered aimlessly, but it wasn’t unenjoyable. After 20 or so screens of random enemies I was able to feel truly lost, and when I was finally killed by a Lich, sending me back to the home where I’d first spawned, I wanted to just head out in another direction to see what there was to see. There didn’t seem to be any urgency to any of it.

Those dragons LOVE taking in their surroundings. 

Also, since the whole game is in many ways a trumped-up text adventure, getting to read the action narrations in the text box was also a cheesy surprise. A selection of my favorite lines that popped up on my adventure include: “Troll King leafs through a spellbook, pretending it can read.”; “Wizard of Light looks at her broken fingernail.”; and of course every time I ran from a fight, “Baerf fled like a scared dog.” The jokey, incidental descriptions may be the most ’90s aspect of the entire game.

I wasn’t able to locate any of the game’s specifically remarkable locations, but after spending a few hours in the world, I can see why people still play it 20 years on. Like no other retro-inspired game, The Realm provides an incredibly nostalgic trip back to gaming in 1996. It doesn’t feature any of the bells, whistles, or intensity of modern MMORPGs, but it also doesn’t seem to have the kind of toxic competitiveness or demanding skill curve. It’s just a big, simple fantasy world, and when you’re one of the (very, very) few people experiencing it, it seems much more uniquely yours.

Murphy described his feelings on the game by saying, “Look, we all have had our first loves in life. […] The Realm Online is the video game version of that to me.” The Realm isn’t pretty, it isn’t exciting, and you may never be able to get your credit card information back, but it continues to survive.