Back in 2017, when I was working for Alma Mater Interactive, I became involved in a slightly bizarre affair surrounding an old game of theirs called Agri-Culture.

When it was still running, Agri-Culture was a kind of cross between Farming Simulator and Second Life - with a large communal aspect which involved virtual homesteading, hanging-out with friends, and building things - and a seasonal plant life-cycle, resource management, and a basic kind of economy. By 2017 it was already over ten years old, and the community had long since dropped down from its peak, but there were still around 1000 players logging in daily to a handful of servers.

One of the largest communities was a server called "New Coloa" which ran a highly modified version of the game. Odd as it sounds, someone at the publisher had heard rumors that a YouTuber was working on a kind of expose video about this server implying that there was some kind of illegal activity going on. At Alma Mater no one had any idea if this was true, so the operations team had tried to snoop on the server traffic. They'd found that most of traffic generated by the server was now encrypted in a way which bypassed the game's normal monitoring mechanisms. That put a bunch of people on edge.

There was another problem. The modified version of the game client on New Coloa had been so extensively changed that even the server's password and authentication system had been re-purposed into what seemed to be some kind of one-time-key access mechanism. This made it difficult even for developers at Alma Mater to access the server with their own tools. The fact was no one at Alma Mater really had any clue what was going on on that server - and hadn't for years.

The community manager for most of Alma Mater's back catalogue, Camille, had gotten in touch with me, explained the situation, and asked if I could act basically as a kind of technical consultant as they tried to work out what was going on (and if this YouTuber's theory had any legs). The plan was this - she would contact a member of New Coloa and try to arrange a kind of guided tour of the server for us to meet the community. The goal was to get the whole thing wrapped up by Christmas.

Early Winter in Montreal is cold and rainy - and this year had been no different. Camille, who was based on the west coast had scheduled the visit for 4PM her time, which was 7PM in Montreal. It meant I was left waiting in the dark, deserted office long after everyone else had gone home.

At my desk I could hear the humming of the air conditioning, and the distant chatter from another group who was working late in a meeting room on the other side of the floor. Across from me, the large paneled windows of the office looked out over the buildings of downtown Montreal. The huge, brown, art-deco Aldred Building cut vertically into the dark skyline. The accountancy firm my father had worked for most of his life had offices there. Now his health had started to deteriorate and he had retired and moved out of Montreal to Sherbrooke. Next to the Aldred Building were the towers of Notre-Dame Basilica, lit from below by blue-tinted spotlights. Unsettling dark geometric shadows spread over the spires and ramparts.

A message from Camille popped up on my screen:

<CamilleJ> Are you ready?
<CamilleJ> I've told them your account name, and our password is "harvest".
<CamilleJ> We should have access from 19:00 ET.
<DanielH> See you there :)

So this was it. I waited for the computer clock in the bottom right to tick past 19:00 and launched the game. There was "New Coloa" in the lobby. I typed "harvest" into the password box and clicked connect. The screen flashed, went black for around 20 seconds, and then suddenly the world of New Coloa appeared on my screen.

My character was in what appeared to be a European style town square of cobbled streets. In front of me was a small park, encircling a large, grey, stone fountain. Across the square were rows of multi-story town houses, constructed from a pale grey limestone in imperial, Parisian style. You could hear the sound of the wind whistling down the streets.

Vegetation covered every surface. Weeds and wild-flowers poked through the cobblestones and curbs. Vines curled up spread out over the buildings while ivy hung down the walls, fluttering in the wind like lace.

Agri-Culture had always had what was considered quite sophisticated vegetation for its time but this was at a different level. As I moved the camera I could see how the light shone through the leaves, and how the soft shadows on the floor formed an ever-changing patchwork - moving with the wind. The buildings were beautifully ornate, with a level of geometric detail that was worlds away from the user-generated boxy, simplistic content people can come to associate with Agri-Culture. It was not at all the game I remembered.

Behind me, I noticed Camille's character had joined too.

<orangeduck> This place looks abandoned...
<CamilleAlmaMater> It does indeed...
<orangeduck> Who are we waiting for?
<CamilleAlmaMater> They told me their in-game name is "Azalium".
<CamilleAlmaMater> I don't know where they are. I assume they're still meeting us.

After a few more minutes of waiting, I started to hear a faint rumbling sound. A few seconds later the name-tag "Azalium" appeared, rendered in grey over the top of the buildings in the square, translating slowly in the general direction towards us. Then, eventually, slowly, around the corner came a woman riding an old green tractor, dressed in a long white farmer's dress - looking like something from the American dust bowl. The woman waved and stopped the tractor next to us.

<Azalium> Welcome to New Coloa!
<CamilleAlmaMater> Hello Azalium, thanks for greeting us!
<Azalium> Get onto the tractor and I can take you to the village.
<orangeduck> Can't we teleport to the village?
<Azalium> No we can't.
<orangeduck> You're not an admin?
<Azalium> It's just the way we agree to play.
<Azalium> If anyone breaks the rules, Last-Lamb gets informed.
<orangeduck> Who is Last-Lamb?
<Azalium> I'm certain you will meet him at some point.

We mounted the tractor and slowly rolled out of the town along what seemed to be one of the main trails. As we approached the edge of town the houses became smaller, and more overgrown, until eventually we entered the woodland completely.

Along the trail there were small turn-offs, where through the trees you could see the homesteads people had built. Many were plain, wooden structures - the kind of log cabins and barn-like structures you might expect. Others were more quirky, with towers, large conservatories, balconies and overhangs, swimming pools - all deserted.

Eventually the forest ended, and the road started climbing, opening out onto a moorland. From the top you could see down to a lake - with a large village on the banks.

<Azalium> That's the village - almost there!

I was thrown back to reality when in the office I heard a banging noise. I peeled off my headphones and looked around the office. Nothing was moving. The air conditioning had switch off, and the distant chatter had also ended. Perhaps the noise had been the others finally leaving, shutting the door behind themselves heavily. I put back on my headphones.

Slowly the tractor descended down the other side of the moor until we reached the edge of the village.

The buildings of the village were boxy, covered in white render and red gable roofs. There was an old wooden fence that ran around the edge of the village, and many of the houses had small gardens attached, growing food and other plants - cabbages, lettuce, beans, sunflowers.

Next to the fence, near the entrance was a large notice board: I moved closer to take a better look. There was an advertisement from someone selling custom paintings to decorate your homestead, a message about a dance and quiz night that was going to be held the following Thursday, and an old notice dated from a couple of months back about a village meeting and rule change announcement, signed "Last-Lamb".

Past the notice board I could see a kind of small chapel, and a graveyard containing what looked like about twenty graves. I moved over to look closer. Camille and Azalium followed. Each one of the graves was inscribed with a username and small epitaph. In the corner of each grave was a small mark I couldn't really identify - like a kind of sheaf of wheat and grass wrapped up in a cloth.

<orangeduck> Who are the graves for?
<Azalium> They're for people who died.
<orangeduck> As in left the server and stopped playing?
<Azalium> No, died in real life.
<orangeduck> What is that symbol on the graves?
<Azalium> That's the symbol of New Coloa.

As we passed through the village toward the center I started to notice the symbol on more of the buildings - engraved on capstones and cornerstones. In the center of the village was a small cobbled square, where five or six characters were there to greet us, each dressed in the same traditional farmer dress as Azalium was wearing.

The characters in the center made their awkward emotes, and there was a stream of greetings in the chat. Camille started the conversation.

<CamilleAlmaMater> It seems like you guys are a close community?
<Azalium> A lot of people have been here for a very long time. 
<Azalium> We don't get a lot of new people.
<Azalium> People don't tend to leave either.
<CamilleAlmaMater> Why is that?
<Azalium> It's a dead game. Last-Lamb keeps it alive for us.
<Azalium> But most people don't want to play this any more.
<Azalium> We owe everything to him.
<CamilleAlmaMater> What does he do?
<Azalium> He started New Coloa. I wont say he built everything here. 
<Azalium> But he made it what it is.
<CamilleAlmaMater> Can we meet him?

There was a long pause, as presumably Azalium was typing a reply. Suddenly we were disconnected from the server, and booted back out into the lobby. I alt-tab'd out of the game and messaged Camille.

<orangeduck> What happened?

After a minute or two she replied.

<CamilleAlmaMater> I've no idea. Azalium isn't replying to me either.

Outside the office it had started to lightly hail, and the windows rattled with the shower of little icy crystals. I could see that Camille was typing another message. I sat back in my chair and looked out. Although we had not discovered much on the technical side, the ship of Theseus came to mind - it might be easier tell people what remained of Agri-Culture.

<CamilleAlmaMater> I'll try and arrange another visit. Thanks again for the help.

I walked to the cloak room and grabbed my coat, beginning the walk home from the office. Passing the Aldred building on my way to the metro I watched the light hail fall and crystalize into an ice shell on my coat.

The next morning I woke up to an unexpected e-mail:

Are you the technical person? If you were to come down to my place in Maine. 
I could show you whatever you needed to see.

- Last-Lamb

I forwarded the message to Camille. She was keen I take up the offer, in particular given she had not heard from Azalium. I sent off an e-mail in reply:

Thanks. I could come down on Thursday if that works. What is your address?

And, low and behold, within a few hours, I had Last-Lamb's address and a trip planned.

Thursday morning it was overcast and grey. As I walked to the car I could see a tint of yellow on the horizon that hinted at incoming snow. The temperature forecast however was firmly above zero. Most likely that meant some kind of slushy rain.

Driving out of Montreal through Brossard, the overall impression was of concrete, salt, and churned up banks of grass. Paper thin layers of yellow leaves covered the sidewalks. In the fields the dead, yellowing, stalks of corn hung down limply.

The GPS sent me on a route that passed through New Hampshire. The border post was quiet. I was the only car there. I told the guards I was on a work trip visiting a client - that was at least half true. It started raining very lightly once I got to New Hampshire, and for a brief moment as I passed over Dixville Notch it seemed like snow. Shortly after that I crossed into Maine, and not long after that turned off the highway and began weaving around the small country roads that would eventually take me Last-Lamb's place.

By the early afternoon there were just a few more kilometers left, and then before I knew it I was looking out for the house number he had given me, pulling the car off the road and down a short gravel path that was surrounded by trees.

The house itself was a simple, box shaped bungalow, with plastic outside paneling, a front porch, and a short chimney poking out of the of the slanted roof. I got out of the car, locked it, walked up to the door, and knocked.

Through the window I saw a man approaching. He was a fairly big man, with a brown beard and shaggy long hair that fell over his ears. He walked towards the door with a slight limp, and in a bit of a hunch. When he saw me he smiled, and as he opened the door, gently looking me in the eyes, sticking out his hand to shake.

"You're Daniel? Nice to meet you. I'm Michael. You might know me as Last-Lamb."

I shook his hand and he welcomed me into the house.

"Would you like anything to drink? Coffee?"

"A coffee would be great thanks," I replied.

He poured me a mug of coffee from a plastic drip coffee machine that looked like it had been used every day for the last 30 years.

The mug was warm in my hands. Inside the house it felt very quiet. I could hear the expansion and contraction of the water pipes, the trickling of the water down the drain, and the quiet cracks and pops of the structure shifting and rearranging itself in the wind.

"I don't really know what you guys want to know exactly," Michael said. "There aren't any secrets."

"Well, I suppose for myself I would be interested to know a bit more about the custom client you've built for New Coloa."

He looked pleased.


Michael beckoned me toward a staircase that lead down to a basement and we descended the stairs.

On the floor was an old brown carpet, crossed with wiring. In one corner was a stack of storage boxes, and in the other was a long desk, with several monitors, and a whole rack of yellowing computer towers lined up against the wall. The air had a metallic tang to it. In the background was the sound of clicking hard drives and computer fans spinning.

Michael sat down heavily at the desk chair and swiveled it to face me. On one of his monitors was what looked like a client connected to New Coloa, and on the other was a text editor with a bunch of code, in and a stack of terminal windows.

Michael spread his arms.

"Well, this is basically it - New Coloa - I host the servers here and do most of the development. Honestly, you're probably the first person that has seen any of this. Or - at least - the first person who cares about this side of things", he said - pointing to the monitor with the code displayed. The room suddenly felt very small.

For the next few hours Michael showed me the multitude of the systems he had built for New Coloa. There was a tool for building objects which was built on top of a kind of geometry scripting system he had made. There was a tool for the procedural generation and simulation of plants, which was used throughout New Coloa for all of the plant-life. The render engine looked like it was an almost complete re-write from what had been made for Agri-Culture originally. And the whole thing was hosted on top of this custom scripting language he had developed that kind of had a Visual Basic flavor to it which allowed for all sorts of events and systems to be run in the server and developed by the other non-technical members.

Honestly, I was completely taken aback by the whole thing. I could see that Michael was also excited to share all of this with another programmer:

"I've never shown this to anyone before."

"So you effectively run the whole thing?" I asked.

"In a technical sense yes - the day-to-day community stuff is run by the council but I implement any specific rule changes they ask for which I can."

"The operations guys told me they noticed a lot of encrypted traffic from the server recently. Do you have any idea what might be causing that," I asked.

"Oh..." Michael looked a little embarrassed.

"Well... of course I added encryption to the chats and private messages. We all care about privacy in the community. But if you saw a sudden jump - well I can show you."

He turned his chair to the client, and walked his character towards a box-shaped building just off the village square. Inside was what appeared to be a small, dark cinema, complete with popcorn machine, comfy chairs, and a projector.

"We have a film night every Saturday. It streams off my own Netflix subscription. It felt natural to encrypt that traffic... I don't know why. We can stop that if you guys prefer."

"The company was just curious what it was. I'll have to talk to them about it - but don't worry it isn't a big deal," I replied.

Michael let out a sigh and looked down at the floor in thought for a several seconds. Eventually he got out of his chair without making eye contact, and picked up a small hard-drive that was resting on one of the computer towers - handing it over to me.

On it was written "New Coloa", and below that "for Daniel".

"Hey, thanks for coming down to Maine. Look - I have no expectations from you to do anything with this. Please just keep this between me and you - it isn't for Alma Mater. It's a backup of all the code I wrote for New Coloa."

I wasn't quite sure what to say. Before I could reply Michael spoke again:

"I could fall down those stairs tomorrow..."

"Thanks I replied," a little surprised.

"No pressure," said Micheal, "honestly, throw it in the bin when you get home if you like."

Michael turned back to the screen, and typed out some replies to people who had been messaging him in New Coloa.

Suddenly he stood up and turned around, making eye contact and smiling again. "Do you want something to eat?" he asked.

"Sure," I replied. I was actually really hungry.

"I'm not much of a chef," he warned me, before leading me up the stairs.

As we reached the ground floor I realized how much time had passed: outside it was pitch back. The windows were like mirrors - reflecting back the insides of the cabin. It felt like we were still underground, or in space - and the cabin seemed to almost rock back and forth in the darkness as Michael turned on the oven and pulled open the ancient fridge. He took out a couple of frozen pizzas and chips which he spread out on a tray.

"As you can see, I am not a healthy man. All the more reason to worry."

In the kitchen we talked some more about the difficulties and joys of programming video games while the food cooked, and then once the food was ready Michael put it onto plates, of which he handed one to me, and we took them into the living room.

In the living room, sitting in one of the arm chairs, framed against one of the black window panes, was an old man. His fine grey hair fell over his skinny, angular face, which was tilted downwards as if he was asleep. He was wearing a white shirt and black blazer, and across his lap was a red blanket and a book neatly shut on top. As we walked into the room he looked up, caught my eyes, and smiled.

"This is my Dad. Dad, this is Daniel who I told you about."

"Nice to meet you" the old man said, stretching out his hand and lifting himself very slightly out of the chair.

I shook his hand and sat down on the couch, putting my plate on the coffee table.

Michael put on "Jeopardy!", and we all watched together as we ate. After we had finished eating. From his pocket, Michael pulled out a spliff and lit it up:

"Do you want some?"

The smoke rose and curled around the living room. Michael was silent while his dad gave the answers to the questions on "Jeopardy!" without re-phrasing them as questions.

"You should crash here," Michael said after a little while.

Admittedly I felt like I should not drive, and there was no getting back to Montreal at this hour.

Michael gathered some blankets and prepared a bed of sorts on the couch. Eventually it got late, and Michael and his father disappeared to their respective bedrooms.

In the living room, with the lights off it was quiet - quiet and dark with the kind of intensity that I was not used to in Montreal. I slept so deeply it was a miracle I woke up again.

But I did wake - to the sound of Michael moving around the kitchen, and the coffee machine again starting to gurgle. I got dressed and headed into the kitchen.

"Thanks for letting me crash Michael, and for showing me everything. Don't worry about the encrypted traffic stuff - I'll make sure it gets sorted out."

"You're welcome."

"I better get back on the road - my wife is probably wonder where I am."

"Oh... sure."

I gathered my stuff and waited by the door.

"Ready to go?" Michael asked.

Outside it was cold and bright - still damp - the grass, even here, churned into mud. I started walking toward the car.

"Oh hold on!" shouted Michael.

Michael disappeared into the house, and reappeared holding the hard-drive from yesterday: "New Coloa / for Daniel". As I reached to get it from him it slipped through his hands and fell into the mud - lodging itself upright in the mud. A tiny metallic tombstone. I reached down and pulled it up.

"I'll keep good care of it," I said.

"Thanks," replied Michael, looking me in the eyes and smiling.

The car was very cold, so I put on the heater and started the long drive back to Montreal. Back through the same woods. Back over Dixville Notch, and back through the US-Canada border.

Joining highway 10, I suddenly had the impulsive feeling to turn right and go into Sherbrooke to see my Dad. But I knew my wife would already be waiting for me to get home and update her on this bizarre work trip.

Over the next few days I worked with Camille on the report, trying to remember everything that Michael had shown me. She was happy that I'd managed to make a genuine connection with him, and that there was a simple explanation for the encrypted traffic. Azalium had started replying again so it seemed we would have a fairly detailed report for the publishers while the next steps were planned.

Unfortunately, it wasn't going to be so easy. At some point Michael stopped replying, and Azalium shortly followed. There was a rumor that the YouTuber's video was going to drop in the next couple of days. A slight sense of panic began to grow at the publishers, and Camille floated the idea of another trip down to Maine to try and re-establish a connection.

Not wanting to arrive completely unannounced I shot off another e-mail to Michael:

Would it be okay if I come down to see you in Maine again on Friday?

By Friday I hadn't heard a response, but it was decided I was going to make the long drive down to Maine again anyway. I set off early in the morning while it was still dark. Close to Magog, I passed again the turning for Sherbrooke, where I imagined my Dad would soon be slowly working his way out of bed - putting the coffee on to brew. By the time I was getting close to the Canada-US border and the sun was starting to rise the small roads were practically deserted.

The same border guards were on duty at the border. They didn't show any signs of remembering me.

In New Hampshire and Maine I passed through a series of sleepy downs - now with a little more traffic - people running errands and driving to work.

Eventually the kilometers ticked down again, and I found myself searching again for the same house sign and pulling onto the same gravel drive.

Again I got out of the car, went to the door, and knocked.

After some moments, Michael appeared, walking towards the door again with his slight limp. He did not seem surprised to see me.

He pulled the door open and looked at me for a moment, as if weighing me up. This time there was no smile, and I was just thinking about what I should say when he spoke.

"I'm sorry I've not been reply to your e-mails," he said. "My Dad died last week."

I was genuinely shocked.

"I'm really sorry to hear that," I responded, "and I apologize for arriving like this given the circumstances. I'll leave if its not a good time."

"No, you should come in if you want. Besides, I have something else for you."

Michael turned and I followed him into the house. He went directly to the coffee machine.

"Coffee again?"

Then, as before, he signaled to me to follow him down into the basement.

Nothing had changed. On one of his monitors was loaded New Coloa, and on the other were more pages of code.

He sat down heavily in his computer chair, and walked his character towards the village town square.

In the middle of the square was a large stone fountain and on the top was an metal sculpture. It took me a second to remember where I had seen something like that before. It was a large version of the same symbol I'd seen on the graves - what Azalium had called the symbol of New Coloa.

"They built this for my Dad, as a tribute."

I noticed on the desk were several coins. One of them appeared to have the same symbol of New Coloa on it. I leaned in a bit closer to get a better look.

Michael picked up the coin and showed it to me. It had "1 Dong" written on it above the symbol.

"My Dad brought a bunch of these back from Vietnam. He was interested when I was setting up the server, and I guess he just thought it looked cool and kind of agricultural."

Michael handed me the coin.

"You can keep it - I've got plenty."

I thanked him and put it in my pocket.

"So what can I help you with?" He asked.

I told Michael the full story, including the rumor about the YouTuber from the publisher and the real reason we wanted to find out what was happening on New Coloa. Once I was done he leaned back and looked up at the ceiling, rubbing his hands together.

"I think that means I have work to do... between you and me, but I've been trying to disconnected New Coloa from Alma Mater and move it over onto its own servers now for a while. I don't think the community will be affected too much, but at this point the more privacy we have the better."

Michael looked around the room at the yellowing computer towers and different electrical parts scattered on top. He spoke again:

"Let me know whatever you want I can try to help - I'll reply to your e-mails. Give me some time though."

Michael tore out a piece of paper from a notebook on the desk and wrote down on it "".

"This is the address of the server that connects New Coloa to the Alma Mater servers. If this goes down it means one of two things: either I've managed to migrate New Coloa entirely onto my own setup, or all the pizza has caught up with me, and my sister has inherited this place and disconnected all the computers."

Michael turned back to face the monitors, tapping his fingers on desk in thought. From behind he suddenly looked very old, and hunched, and tired.

"Of course. I'll do what I can," I said.

I felt like it was probably time to leave.

"I should probably get going - I should try to make it back today. And again, I'm really sorry about your Dad."

Michael turned back to face me and stood up, and put his hand out to shake hands.

"You're welcome - it was really nice meeting you Daniel."

He showed me to the door and I got back into the car. The sun was starting to set and it was cold in the car. It was going to be a long drive back.

Before I reached the turn off to Sherbrooke I stopped and got a coffee from the Tim Hortons in Magog. The building was empty except for the cashier. As I got my money out to pay I pulled out the little scrap of paper which Michael had written "" onto, and the "1 Dong" coin.

After four hours of driving, and back in Quebec, they felt so unfamiliar - like artifacts from centuries ago. Across the road was a church - built in the same pale Parisian limestone of the town in New Coloa, or Notre-Dame Basilica, with silver trims, and a green patina roof. Unlike the towers of Notre-Dame Basilica this one was un-lit, and the light from the street lamps cast long shadows onto the adjacent houses. I phoned my Dad to see if he was going to be home that evening.

Once I got back I finished writing the report with Camille and presented it to the publishers and some of the executives at Alma Mater... and that pretty much ended by adventure my New Coloa. Somewhat anti-climatically, the YouTuber's video never seemed to materialize, and for many years I didn't give things another thought. Then about a month ago when cleaning out some old computer stuff I came across the hard-drive, the piece of paper with the IP address on, and the 1 dong coin.

For the first time in many years I pinged the IP address...

$ ping

Pinging with 32 bytes of data:
Request timed out.
Request timed out.
Request timed out.
Request timed out.

Ping statistics for
    Packets: Sent = 4, Received = 0, Lost = 4 (100% loss),

I don't know what that means for Last-Lamb, but I hope he does not mind me telling all of you this story. For me, it is a reminder: people like Last-Lamb don't deserve to be forgotten.

new coloa