Alex Handy is the founder and director of the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment, also known as Oakland's Videogame Museum. It's his job to collect and preserve the history of a medium that many regard as disposable beyond the lifetime of a single console generation. Late last year, while preparing a retrospective of Lucasfilm Games, he wondered if anyone had even a few lines of code for the company's groundbreaking role-playing game Habitat. To his surprise, game co-creator Chip Morningstar had all of it, and happily gave it to him.

"I was stunned," Handy said. "It's not easy to get source code out of people. Most don't even have it anymore, and when they do, they don't usually just hand it over."

Handy found suddenly found himself holding source code to one of the first graphical massively multiplayer online role playing games. Habitat is predated by text-based online communities—multi-user dungeons (MUDs), for example—but when the game first launched in 1986, it was the first attempt at a commercial, graphical online world.

It was truly groundbreaking. Players logged into a 2.5-D virtual world in which they could customize an avatar, communicate with other players via on-screen text, and interact with objects in the environment. There wasn't much in the way of gameplay, making Habitat more like a crude Second Life than a proto-World of Warcraft. But that didn't stop it from laying the foundation upon which many aspects of modern MMO behavior were built. Things we now take for granted as gamers, like "Don't anger your player base" and fervent avatar customization, grew from Habitat. The game also featured experimental game mechanics, like murder with permadeath and a disease that could propagate naturally. They were the type of things you might try if you had no idea what did and didn't work in an MMO.

Yet for all the precedents it set and its significance in gaming history, Habitat is largely unknown beyond hardcore fans. And among those who know about it, few have played it. Handy wanted to change that.

"Videogame history is nothing if not preserved in a playable form," he said. "Without being able to play a game, one cannot appreciate it fully. Imagine walking through an art gallery with the lights turned off."

Handy wanted to turn the lights on.

They Said It Couldn't Be Done

Source code in-hand, Handy's next thought was the only logical reaction: "What do we need to do to relaunch this?

Most people told him it was impossible. Handy had resurrected old games before—the museum has run a classic Team Fortress Quake server for some time—but this was something else entirely. Nothing at all about it would be easy. Habitat was played on the Commodore 64 and accessible only via Quantum Link, an early Internet provider that would become America Online. Worse, its servers ran on a Stratus Nimbus—a relic of a machine all but forgotten to time.

Stratus is still around, but these days used almost exclusively in business environments like banks, stock exchanges, and telecommunication network management. It long ago split off off the mainstream internet ecosystem, so familiarity with the systems is limited beyond the company. Handy decided to start there anyway. He contacted Stratus, and by sheer luck reached Paul Green, who'd spent more than 30 years at the company. Green happened to have a Nimbus in his basement. Green rebuilt it using spare parts, then shipped it to Handy with four boxes of documentation, assorted hardware and other equipment needed to get Habitat up and running.

"Paul Green is the hero of the project, getting us that Stratus box," Handy said. "That was absolutely amazing."

With the 300-pound server secured, Handy knew he had to resurrect Habitat. He also knew he'd need help, and lots of it. So he called people from Commodore. He called people from AOL. He called people from Q-Link. Even game co-creators Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar joined the fun.

"This is an incredibly complex project," Handy wrote in a blog post. "The hope is to gather all of these giant, pulsating brains into one room…in the hopes of getting the game's server running online, and accessible via the Internet using a Commodore 64 emulator."

The giant was ready. The only thing left to do was pick a date to wake it.

The Missing Pieces

On Sunday, the videogame museum hosted a 12-hour hackathon. Programmers, developers, server architects, and videogame historians descended on Oakland to bring Habitat back online.

In one corner, Green and his small server team huddled around the Nimbus to ensure it was up and running. The archaic machine hummed quietly, its noise largely drowned out by the whirring box fan keeping the old beast's innards cool. Across the room, Morningstar, Farmer, and three others were seated at a table, pecking away at laptops in an effort to assemble the puzzle's last piece.

"We have the source code for the server and the client disc. What we're missing is the pieces of the server that come from Q-Link," Handy said, sipping a bottle of Nimbus Brewing Company beer. "We have probably 85 percent of the sources we need. All the work they've been doing today is to replace that other 15 percent."

The server was running. The Habitat client was in hand. The only thing missing was the Q-Link service they use to communicate. Handy ran point, making calls to former Q-Link employees in the hope they could dig up old bits of the source code itself. Without that source code, the only thing to do is reverse engineer a Q-Link replacement from Habitat itself, a task exacerbated since Q-Link uses an archaic code called PL/I, short for "Programming Language One."

"There aren't quite as many volunteers that know PL/I as there are for, say, Javascript," Farmer said.

That was not the problem it might seem. Although PL/I was in its day a very large, sophisticated and complex language, it is by today's standards pretty low-level stuff. Even so, there is a learning curve for a volunteer who's never used it. Yes, Q-Link could be replaced with something newer, something widely available. But Handy said that would defeat the purpose.

"There's no replacing," he said, about six hours into the hackathon. "It's like a castle—could you rip out a parapet and put up a different tower? Yeah, you could, but it would be a completely different castle. The Q-Link stuff is pretty essential. If you rip it out and replace it, that's fine—we're here to preserve Habitat, not necessarily Q-Link—but if we can keep the Q-Link stuff in and preserve it at the same time, that would be great. We did this project for Habitat, but as it turns out, preserving the Stratus stuff seems to be just as important from a computing history standpoint, because no one else is doing that."

By the end of the day, Habitat wasn't back online, but without the Q-Link code, they weren't expecting it to be. What they did have was a single region active, with a single person in it. The person doesn't have a head, and the region has no decorations, but it was still a great triumph. Getting to that point meant Farmer had written an entire Habitat server from scratch in Node.js, reverse engineering the Q-Link protocol enough to be able to send a few packets from the server to the Commodore 64 client. There's still a lot of work to be done, but with the Stratus hardware online, it's all coding that can be done remotely.

When everything is running, players will download the Habitat disc images, run them on a Commodore 64 emulator—Handy recommends VICE—and connect to the rebuilt Stratus Nimbus via the reverse-engineered "Q-Link Reloaded" or Q-Link itself, if the full source code can be found. And a milestone in gaming history, one thought lost to time, will return.

"There's a lot of efforts out there to preserve videogame history, but not as many efforts to preserve games that were online." Handy said. "Obviously this is going to be a longer term project. We're not giving up."

And so the work continues.