MMO Tourism: Haven & Hearth

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Visiting the nigh-barren fields of Haven & Hearth feels akin to traipsing through the abandoned, monochrome cities of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. There is life there, going on as it always will, but the life that shaped the land, the humans that put hand to wood and stone to make homes and mines, has left. Only fifty or sixty players remain; I’ve yet to find anyone else in my travels, outside of the three friends I’ve been working alongside. Only one of them had previous experience here, having played it in its heyday around 2008 and 2009.

It’s been four years, but H&H is still comfortably residing in alpha status. Its creators, two-man team Fredrik Tolf and Björn Johannessen, were hired by rising Swedish publisher Paradox Interactive (Crusader Kings, Mount & Blade, Sword of the Stars) to develop Salem, a spiritual successor to H&H. (Salem is currently in closed beta.) As such, it has become largely redundant. The server hasn’t been well-kept; latency issues are rampant. Much of what I’ve read indicates that the technical issues were the final nail in the coffin for H&H’s playerbase, reducing it to where it is now.

Though H&H’s aesthetic is vastly more warm and inviting than S.T.A.L.K.E.R.‘s “Zone,” the ever-present lag and swaths of empty plantations progressively chip away at any sense of friendliness. This is a dead world. Its apocalypse was not as immediate as a nuclear meltdown, but the land aches with disrepair and time-worn monuments to its former glory. It invites comparison to Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” though the signposts tend to lack that sense of virtuosity.

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H&H clearly has a solid mechanical foundation, though it’s not at all explained by the game itself. I only began to grasp it through the assistance of my veteran companion. Experience is gained through performing certain actions for the first time (cutting a tree, making a tool, etc.) or studying “curiosities,” small trinkets that can be crafted, farmed, or found in the world. This experience then allows for the purchase of skills, many of which are so necessary that it’s strange they’re not included on players by default. In order to gain enough XP to learn a few basic skills, one must pull four branches from a tree, then collect a cone from a pine tree (specifically a pine tree, other cones won’t work). They can then be combined into a “Cone Cow,” the earliest craftable curiosity. It’s worth looking up a tutorial when first playing because the systems are quite strange at the get-go. It reminds me of Minecraft before it added in-game crafting recipes.

Since the world is so largely deserted, sticking close to home and grinding curiosities to gain skills has become less feasible. Scavenging and exploration are the keys to speedy development. Much of my friend’s base is made up of resources taken from other abandoned homesteads, though they’re not the products of murder as far as I’m aware. None of us have gained enough experience to become skilled enough fighters to kill many of the wild animals that wander the wastes, much less other player characters. The scavenger lifestyle is made much more difficulty by H&H’s “claim” system. If a player has a relatively expensive skill, they can set claims on their land, which prevents other players from entering without being caught. Being caught allows the owner of the claim to track where the trespasser has moved since entering their land. These claims are represented by menacing cow skulls hanging on poles, scarecrows for nomadic thieves. None of us has dared to challenge their gaze, lest our home be found and razed to the ground. There is, of course, a skill that allows players to cross claims without being tracked, but its cost puts it out of the hands of all but the most experienced.

Profit is still easily made on the homes that are not claimed. Many people who entered the land after the exodus have claimless settlements, due to inexperience or a lack of worry. Thanks to this, our expeditions have been quite rewarding. The last trip we made resulted in the acquisition of a chestful of metal (mining being another expensive skill) and a meat grinder. Chicken sausage will fill our coffers for the next few nights. I hope it keeps.

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There are much larger settlements held secure with vast palisades and claims. We’ve yet to enter any of them, but one looms over our small home, a few minutes’ walk to the north. The wood’s in the process of rotting away, but the skulls still stare down their charges. Someday we’ll have the skills to enter that place. Maybe we could move in, revitalize that empty land. Or we could take everything and leave. We could be a raiding party, going across the land in wagons led by our steer. We could find a grander home, raise our flag over the gate, defend it from the envious. Still, that city to the north represents some hope for that future. “Destiny,” it was called. Appropriate.

Previous expeditions have shown evidence of other raiding parties making livings in H&H. A large settlement far to the east, “The Bropublic of Broklahoma,” met its end due to one. They’d taken most of its valuable resources and left a dozen corpses in their wake. A headstone marked the death of the settlement. It didn’t look like anyone had tried to do anything with the land since, except put a bunch of joke signposts everywhere. Or maybe those were there beforehand and Broklahoma died due to its own pride in its bad humor. It’s hard to tell. Maybe if we had a dedicated archaeologist we could find out.

It’s difficult to attach much of a qualitative opinion to Haven & Hearth at this point due to the immense investment it requires on the behalf of the player. There are many things I’d like to do in this world, but, as with almost any MMO, H&H requires time to make those dreams attainable. Mount & Blade comes to mind. The player begins in a state of extreme weakness and going from a mercenary to a lord is a painfully lengthy process. At least here you can cooperate to shorten that road. If the developers ever fix the server, I can see there being a resurgence of interest here, what with the quite-similar Wurm Online gathering attention again, but at the same time that’d take away some of the atmosphere this game’s attained. I enjoy the isolation and paranoia, the fear of being invaded by invisible beings in the night, those other fifty people online who may find us and take away our livelihoods. Increasing the chances of that happening removes the mystery. I can see the ruins of the old Haven & Hearth being burned away and new kingdoms being built upon the ashes of its original playerbase.

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There’s something charming and terrifying about the time capsule they’ve created here. Where worlds like Skyrim feel valuable only to their creators and their virtual residents, in Haven & Hearth this land was a bountiful resource for hundreds of actual people who came beforehand. They came, lived lives, and left it all behind. I’m just another scavenger looting their tombs, building an existence off of their great works. Perhaps this is what was felt by the first Stalkers to enter the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone or the Ptolemies who mapped and restored the creations of their Egyptian predecessors: isolation, silence, fear of the unknown, hope for what laid ahead.

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About Justin Hutchison

Despite being the youngest member of Stereogram’s staff, Jay was still old enough to cut his teeth on the last arcade in town before it closed for good. (Damned go-kart accidents.) Though he’s a bit of a late arrival to the comics scene, he’s spent most of his life steeped in anime and games of all sorts. Outside of his writing, he makes music as Fatal Labyrinth. He is not a fan of Fatal Labyrinth, the video game.