The Lost World of HeroMUD

This article was originally published in the Michigan indie game zine Locally Sourced. If you enjoyed reading this, consider supporting further Michigan game history research by picking up a digital or physical version of the zine.

In the early days of online video games, before games like World of Warcraft and Overwatch, there existed the MUD. Short for Multi-User Dungeon, these games combined elements of text adventure games like Zork with tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons to create a virtual world that would allow players to connect to a server through their local network or phone line and explore a world together with other players. Players would type their actions into the computer and get a response back from the server describing what happened in text. While the genre still exists today, they were mainly played from the late 70s to early 90s. Most of the servers from that time have been shut down, but the one that interests me the most is a game called HeroMUD.

HeroMUD was a MUD set in the fictional city “Metadelphia” based on Ann Arbor, Michigan[1]. The game ran on servers at the University of Michigan at the art and engineering schools. Since the MUD was not approved by the university, it would occasionally get shut down and would be offline until it could find another server to run on.

When players signed onto HeroMUD for the first time, this is what they would see[2]:

The Diag
You are standing on the Diag of Metadelphia Universitat.
A holographic clock pulses in the air above you.
A small sign reads: Orientation -- ‘press button’ for guided tour.

Obvious exits: northwest, northeast, southwest, southeast, south, west

Crity the utter frosh is standing here.

After being presented with this text, players were given the freedom to type in different commands to interact with the environment. They could examine different objects in the room, press the button for the guided tour, and talk to characters like Crity. The beginning areas were laid out just like the University of Michigan campus and heading in different directions from here would take players to parts of Metadelphia that resembled the campus.

The game itself seemed to have influences from everything that was popular in pop culture at the time. Character classes had powers inspired by Spider-Man, Wolverine, The Incredible Hulk, Green Lantern, and Jedi from Star Wars. Events in the game were also influenced by pop culture; players could walk into a movie theater playing Die Hard and join John McClane and Hans Gruber in the Nakatomi Building[3]. There was a section of the game modeled after Toontown from the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that supported actions like sticking your thumb out to have Benny the Cab pick you up. The game even had Darth Vader as one of its toughest enemies.

The game was filled with interesting mechanics not seen in other games. In most online games, a sudden disconnection leaves the player’s character standing in place for a few minutes before being removed from the game. Suddenly disconnecting from HeroMUD without logging out would turn the player into a marble statue for others to see until they reconnected[4].

Like other MUDs, HeroMUD had players complete quests for experience points to level up. A few quests in the game relied on humor. One involved having to get refused service at a convenience store by having to get No Shirt and No Shoes objects from NPCs in town, before getting the No Service quest object from the convenience store[5].

HeroMUD had its own form of moderators. Police Officers were a player type who enforced the rules of HeroMUD. If a player was given the Police Officer role, they were given access to the Police Station where they were given a locker containing equipment such as armor and weapons that were of higher quality than the gear players normally had. The Police Station also had a box of donuts that players could eat to regain hit points.

The mechanic for death in HeroMUD was unique as well. Upon dying, players would float around and observe the world, unable to interact with anything, until the timer ended and the player was resurrected. Many online games work like this and it’s nothing unique, however there was a faster way that players could be reborn. HeroMUD featured a player role known as Death that was the highest level that players could achieve as a regular character. As Death, the goal was to retrieve as many souls floating around so they could advance to the next level of power that was more advanced than death. Players with the Death role would sit in a waiting room known as “Death’s Waiting Room” where they would wait to be alerted by their scythe that a player had died and their soul was waiting to be retrieved. This often resulted in a
scramble by all the Death players to be the first to retrieve the soul. Once the soul was collected, the player character would be resurrected and could interact with the world again. The MUD started sometime during 80s and ran until 1991, when it appears to have been shut down for good. When the game was shut down, they slowly flooded rooms until there were only a few left.[6] This is the message people would see when they tried to telnet to the MUD:

Sorry, Further access from Michnet to HERO MUD will not be allowed. This situation will not change. Please do not bother Michnet with questions about HERO MUD. HERO MUD is not a public service. Connection closed by foreign host.

There was an attempt a year later to create a HeroMUD 2 but it was never completed[7]. While HeroMUD seems to be lost forever, the game has had a lasting impact on its players. Even today, people exchange stories on Twitter and elsewhere of a game they played thirty years ago. More info about the game is discovered every few months and who knows, maybe the source code to the game will be discovered somewhere.

  1. https://localwiki.org/ann-arbor/HeroMUD
  2. The Internet for Everyone. Richard W. Wiggins. 1994.
  3. https://twitter.com/timburks/status/1410454899708424196
  4. https://twitter.com/jeremymika/status/1432689215792320513
  5. https://icaruslaughing.livejournal.com/356627.html
  6. https://twitter.com/jeremymika/status/1432690652647542790
  7. https://groups.google.com/g/rec.games.mud.lp/c/DCg944vVJlo/m/65HMY9ejWCAJ

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Halloween Adventure Game Recommendations

Since it’s now the Halloween season, I thought I would do a tiny write-up on four indie point-and-click adventure games I would recommend for this time of year. I’m missing a ton of great games so I’ll try to do another one soon.

Stasis

Stasis is an isometric horror adventure by The Brotherhood released in 2015. You play as someone who wakes up from stasis on an abandoned spacecraft and need to figure out what happened to everyone. This is the only game on the list that features death scenes which I know not everyone is into, but they are kind of fun to watch since they are very over the top and the game encourages you to find them as well since they award achievements as well. I’ve seen a few people compare it to the classic game Sanitarium since they’re both isometric horror games and while they’re different kinds of horror, I do think fans of that game would enjoy this as well. HowLongToBeat lists the game at around 8 hours long which sounds right to me.

The developers of the game went on to develop Cayne, a free standalone horror game set in the same universe so if you are unsure about picking up Stasis or just don’t have the budget for it right now, consider checking that out. More recently they released a post-apocalyptic adventure game called Beautiful Desolation and are working on another Stasis game right now.

Stasis is available on Windows and Mac
https://store.steampowered.com/app/380150/STASIS/

Darkside Detective

If you’re looking for something a bit lighter, I would recommend The Darkside Detective. It’s a comedy adventure game released by Spooky Doorway in 2017. You play as Detective McQueen and investigate nine paranormal cases. The game isn’t very difficult and each case is short, making it a good game if you want something more relaxing at this time of year. 

A sequel was released last year that follows the same format of a bunch of small cases, so if you enjoy the first game then the sequel is worth playing.

Darkside Detective is available on Windows, Mac, Linux, Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S
https://store.steampowered.com/app/368390/The_Darkside_Detective/

Midnight Scenes

Technically this recommendation is a series of games, but Midnight Scenes is an anthology series by Octavi Navarro, who also worked on Thimbleweed Park. There are currently three games in the series, with each one being completely standalone. The games feature gorgeous pixel art and are only 15-20 minutes each, perfect if you’re looking for something that can be played in one sitting. Octavi also developed a few other short horror games outside of this series that I would recommend, The Supper and The Librarian. If you picked up the Bundle for Ukraine that was on Itch earlier this year, you already own the entire Midnight Scenes series.

Their games are available on Steam and Itch
https://octavinavarro.itch.io/

If On a Winter’s Night, Four Travelers

If On a Winter’s Night, Four Travelers is an isometric adventure game with horror elements about four people on board a train during a masked ball, with flashbacks that focus on each individual character. Even if it wasn’t a free game I would be impressed by the art and amount of care that went into the writing. Since the game does handle some sensitive topics, please read the content warnings at the bottom of the page to make sure it’s something you can play. 

The game is available for free on Steam and Itch, but I would encourage you to pick up the Supporter Pack to support the developers and get some cool stuff like the soundtrack and art book.
https://store.steampowered.com/app/1603980/If_On_A_Winters_Night_Four_Travelers/

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