When old parts of the internet go dark, people become very unhappy about the loss of their culture. The Prodigy client, for example, took hundreds of thousands of user generated content with it into oblivion due to a soulless corporate decision to pull the plug. There wasn't any money in it anymore, so it went bye-bye. The loss has been so keenly felt that a number of intrepid (and, perhaps, obsessive) pseudo-archivists have taken it upon themselves to resurrect that lost content for posterity.
What happens, though, when the opposite happens? When a corporate decision is made to preserve an ancient internet culture seemingly, and potentially, forever? When a part of the internet remains in stasis as if it's still 1995?
A strange place like this exists. It's called Worlds Inc.
Worlds Inc. is a company that runs and maintains a very basic 3D chat client first introduced in 1995. The client was originally developed by a team for the Starbright World project, which was meant to allow disabled children to interact with one another in a magical online world. Steven Spielberg was involved in this project and, at the time, it was cutting edge. After a while the technologies and patents were passed over to Worlds Inc., who took it upon themselves to seek a profitable application for the material.
I first stumbled across Worlds in 2011 and was immediately captivated by the retro feel of the place. It's like an online version of LSD: Dream Emulator – something I found deliriously entertaining – and I wanted more. Virtual camera in hand, I wandered the proto-3D hallways in search of relics from days gone by. A brilliantly pretentious David Bowie-themed world? Check. Hanson posters hanging poignantly on the walls? Check. Britney Spears world in all its mid 1990s glory? Check and check.
It even has empty desks where users would line up to buy tickets to "virtual concerts". It has empty disco halls where, presumably, users would congregate and act out the Macarena.
As I wandered around I encountered, much to my surprise, regular users who had been logging in to the Worlds client for almost a decade. These people seemed pleasantly naïve and overly friendly, as you might expect (or remember) internet users being way back when. They seemed to have held on to their enthusiasm for the magic of 3D interaction and meeting people in the Worlds environment.
Slowly, however, I discovered that all was not well in the world of, er, Worlds.
At this early stage in my explorations I would ask myself how this place could possibly still exist. Surely the VIP revenues from 20 or so regular users couldn't fund the server costs? I spoke to the regulars, trying to find out if any of them had taken it upon themselves to host the client. They hadn't. Nobody had. It seemed, oddly enough, that Worlds Inc. was still running the show. But surely, I thought to myself, there's not any money in this? Surely they wouldn't be running it out of sheer altruism? It went against everything I had ever known or heard about corporate behaviour when it comes to online endeavours.
The general rule is this: when the money stops flowing, pull the plug. But this hadn't happened to Worlds. Why?
I dug around and found that there were two levels to the Worlds Inc. website. There's the public face which is all white, shiny and fairly modern looking. Then there's the older website, still inexplicably online and accessible through Google string searches, which has a darker and more 1990s look. This older site is where all of the juicy information lies. Here I found the name of the CEO, Thom Kidrin, and decided to try and contact him. Unfortunately Thom Kidrin was not overly keen to discuss Worlds with me, nor was his PR lady. I was going to have to go it alone.
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Thom Kidrin has been described by a number of media outlets as a patent troll. This is someone who uses patents they hold to sue other companies for "rights violations". In this case, Kidrin and Worlds Inc. hold some very valuable patents pertaining to 3D environments and online 3D chat clients. Kidrin has gone after a lot of companies including and not limited to Blizzard ( World of Warcraft) and Second Life who, he alleges, have infringed his patents and owe him licensing fees.
Of course, in order to demonstrate that these patent claims are valid, Mr. Kidrin and Worlds Inc. must be able to demonstrate the latter's importance. If Kidrin keeps Worlds Inc. running, he can show that he not only holds the patents, but owns a company which has been using these technologies before anyone else.
What's most interesting to me, though, is what has happened to Worlds since Kidrin made the decision to put it in stasis.
The awful truth was revealed to me over a number of years of usage. The regular users who had once seemed naïve and friendly were, in fact, wolves in sheep's clothing. Worlds has become a dark, horrifying cult – a malignant expression of the users' inner demons and mental health problems.
Behind, below and beneath the basic default worlds lie a labyrinth of terrifying corridors and chambers filled with religious heresy, satanic scrawls, pornography and insane ramblings through some kind of rudimentary 3D subconscious.
A world that takes you to the depths of hell itself? Been there. A memorial world filled with coffins, skeletons and music that makes your skin crawl? Yes, that's there too and I got out of there as fast as I could. There's a user generated world where a regular user wanders, her avatar headless and limbless, "seeking a new body". There's Nexialist (for whom there are blogs on tumblr dedicated to creating images of him), the leader of an impenetrable cult, who can hack your client and make you type things into the chat box on a whim.
If you get lucky you might be invited to the infamous Mugshots corridor, filled with naked pictures of old ladies and giant, pixelated penises. If you're even luckier, like me, you'll be taken into the "side worlds", where the inner circle can spy on other users from inside the walls themselves.
Many of these user generated worlds are half broken, filled with strange audio artefacts and disgustingly distorted graphics. A good number of them take you on journeys for which there is frankly no explanation and no description that can sum them up.
One wonders, when wandering these cursed halls, whether Mr. Kidrin is even aware of what's going on inside this convenient nest egg he keeps going. Kidrin, according to company filings, runs the entire Worlds operation from his own house. He pays himself a good $200,000 a year from the proceeds of his court actions and, it would seem, is quite happy with this arrangement.
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There's a small number of Worlds enthusiasts who theorise that Nexialist (often called the "keybearer") is Kidrin himself, wandering vainly around his own hellish creation. I personally do not subscribe to this theory – I find it far more entertaining to imagine that Kidrin is blissfully ignorant as to the goings on within his flagship property.
Whatever the truth behind these rumours, Worlds is an incredible example of "time stood still". It is a potent and, at times, poignant time capsule of the internet in 1995. It is a glorious example of faded dreams and corrupted ambitions. Just as the internet itself has become corrupted by massive global conglomerates, Worlds has been corrupted by one man's greed. What was once a "brave new world" has become a cesspit of the darker side of human nature. What was once an innocent and well-meaning project has morphed into something so inexplicable as to make you wonder who could create such a thing.
Nobody can say how long Worlds will last – it's a miracle that it's lasted as long as it has. For a 3D client to remain preserved and identical to its 1995 iteration is unprecedented. Dedicated teams of volunteers are documenting and saving the user-generated worlds as you read, fearful that the plug will be pulled and this unique culture lost.
If you fancy a wander down the dark winding path, have a look at Worlds. Go in yourself, seek out the keybearer, find the Travel hubs and get lost in the endless depths of depravity and sheer weirdness that Worlds has become before it's lost forever.
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