Awaken Online: The Only Three Important People In The World

As Awaken Online enters its closing chapters, the line-by-line reviewing I’ve been doing starts to break down for three reasons. First, it starts to rely more heavily on its fight scenes, which all work. You can follow the action, it isn’t over-described to the point of killing pacing, and each one involves the use of some new tactic or minion so none of them feel repetitive. The story also relies much less on “what if I used my stealth to assassinate people?” level tactics in the endgame.

Second, the Controller appears to love Alex just as much as it loves Jason, and while the primary source of his power is not his class abilities but rather the quest line that gave him control over a humongous army of NPC soldiers, it’s still bullshit-flavored bullshit where the game just bestows tons of powers onto the antagonist in order to get him to pose a serious threat to Jason. That’s terrible game design, but in terms of narrative it means that Jason is much less of a Mary Sue in the second half of the book as compared to the first. He’s still arbitrarily granted undeserved superpowers that allow him to kill boatloads of players not because he is smart or cunning, but because his numbers are fucking gigantic compared to theirs, but he is also required to be smart and cunning on top of that in order to win against Alex’s equally stupid broken nonsense.

And third, the issues that have otherwise plagued the book – the stilted dialogue, the absurd level scale, the aforementioned absurdly broken powers distributed by the Controller for passing vaguely defined personality tests, you can sing along by now – are all things I’ve beaten well and truly to death, and going line by line those are the only things that really leap out at me.

So instead let’s talk about how Jason, Alex, and Riley are the only three players in the entirety of the battle for Twilight Throne that the Controller gives a single flying fuck about. The others are treated as cannon fodder to be shorn through by Jason’s zombie bombs and eleventh hour custom-sculpted bone super minion. The only one who ever demonstrates any unique powers or poses any kind of a threat as an individual is Alex. The exact number of players as opposed to NPCs in the army isn’t clear, but it seems like it should be at least a few dozen, considering the total army is 1500 strong. And out of all of those dozens, Alex is the only one with remotely interesting powers? Why does anyone else bother playing AO, when the only thing you get to do is play second fiddle to one of the three people the author cares about? And the book does it again by granting Riley new magical superpowers as soon as the plot demands them in order to finish off Alex after he defeats Jason’s eleventh hour super minion by a hair. Suddenly she can coat her arrows in dark mana and shoot down Alex’s mooks with them. It’s not clear what level she is, but the book has made a point of how she hasn’t done basically anything her entire time in the game up until this point, so it seems unlikely that she’s particularly high-level, yet she can cut through soldiers established as being roughly level 100 (higher level than Jason, who is now supposed to have been power-leveled far past the average, and not far behind Alex, who at last report is still the highest level player in the game even amongst the beta testers) like they’re butter, in danger solely because of how badly she’s outnumbered.

Unless you’re one of these three assholes, the Controller doesn’t give a shit about you.

Continue reading “Awaken Online: The Only Three Important People In The World”

Awaken Online: Penultimate

Chapter Twenty-Two

He had wallowed in his own self-pity and anger, taking his emotions out on the game world.  He had continuously channeled his dark mana to drive away the pain and then gone on to destroy a city.  Even as he ground the NPCs and players under his digital foot, he had been weak.  Jason had lashed out at the game world instead of dealing with his own issues.  He was overcome with a heavy sense of shame that nearly took his breath away.

Earlier on in the novel Jason had occasionally reflected that it’s not really a big deal to kill a bunch of NPCs or even really players (whatever psychological harm is caused by being torn apart by zombies in full dive is no worse than being torn apart by wolves – something that hopefully would’ve been caught in beta testing). That seems to be completely gone now, and we’re just supposed to accept that being amoral in video games is something you should feel guilty about. But, like, I dropped a bunch of fuel air explosives on a densely populated city yesterday (February 17th – I’m pretty far ahead of schedule right now), and I don’t even really care (I also gained karma because I happened to leave more civilian targets standing than I flattened, even though I wasn’t really aiming at all, just zooming over the city at top speed and dropping FAEs as soon as I got close to a target). So I’m not buying it.

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Ending the Endless

Unfortunately there is no way to schedule a change in site appearance in advance. If everything has gone according to plan, by the time this post goes live the site should be properly redecorated to indicate the official departure from the (long since de facto abandoned) original plan and purpose of this blog. Honestly, it will probably look worse for a while as I figure out what kind of color scheme and layout I actually want for this stuff.

Awaken Online: Did Someone Else Ghostwrite This Part?

Chapter Twenty

Context: Jason has just finished an experiment to see how zombies behave if he raises one that’s past his control limit. The result is that they’re feral zombies that are kind of dumb but immediately attack anything that makes noise. It’s not clear, but they’d probably also attack anything that crosses their line of sight. Jason is considering how he can use this to defeat the city guard so that he can just walk out of Lux with his zombie army instead of trying to find some way to sneak out like thirty maimed corpses or abandoning his crazy OP minions to escape alone.

If he raised the bodies in the various houses one at a time in separate rooms, he could then have his thieves sneak into the manors and open all of the doors.  As the thieves left the house, they could also rig the doors with something that would make a lot of noise when someone tried to get in.  He would basically be creating a trap inside each the noble houses!

This is actually a smart strategy. Not so smart that I wouldn’t expect a beta tester necromancer to have already figured it out (bearing in mind that beta testers tend to be amongst the most hardcore players), but smart enough that if Jason had been doing stuff like this constantly, rather than just barely getting into it now, I’d be much more willing to believe that he stands out amongst other players. Not so much that he’d draw attention from the devs for unprecedented awesomeness, but the gap between how clever he actually is and how clever the book thinks he is would be significantly smaller. This is the kind of behavior that, clear back in like chapter eight, was the sort of thing I was talking about when I said that this book could still turn things around. It is, of course, too late for that now. The devs were enamored with his brilliance before he started doing this kind of thing, which has made it clear that all the handjobs Awaken Online has been giving him just for being a regular gamer with regular gamer instincts were meant to be taken at face value. But, hey, if the book keeps this up I will at least give it less of a failing grade.

Continue reading “Awaken Online: Did Someone Else Ghostwrite This Part?”

Travelogue: Twins?

Dear brother,

Since Bernieres’ death last week, there was a vacancy at the hotel. Not much of one, as we’ve crammed as many people into each room as possible, so really all that’s available is a couch, but still people stream in from the surrounding land. As much as I’d like to believe it’s the spirit of archaeological discovery and thirst for adventure that brings them, after spending the better part of two months here I cannot pretend that such motives receive scarce recognition in this place. What, then, draws them here?

I did not know Bernieres very well. She had a pet snake, which wandered off into the wilderness when she left, had lost her hand in some incident that always seemed impolite to ask about, and fought with a shield strapped to that arm and a spear in the other. Though I did not know her well, I would have said that no one could have replaced such a unique person in our crew.

I would have said that, before meeting the new arrival who stepped off the stage coach today.

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Awaken Online: Mary Sue Verdict

Chapter Sixteen

“To answer your last point, Alfred couldn’t control a player completely.  Even assuming he could, he would have to completely override the person’s mind.  It would probably leave them in a permanent vegetative state when he was finished.”

“The AI who’s blatantly biased in favor of necromancy players could only jack into users’ bodies by turning them into zombies, so we should be perfectly safe.” Since the next paragraph explicitly refers to these as “zombies” I kind of think that maybe this is intentional foreshadowing, but it’s hard to tell the difference between dropping obvious hints to build dread and setting foreshadowing that’s expected to go over my head.

Chapter Sixteen brings about a revelation: Awaken Online is secretly a video game. Like, look at this:

Apparently, bags in the game functioned the same way as in many other MMOs.  The game had balanced realism against pragmatism.  Pragmatism had won.

The way the bags work is kind of lame, in that they work exactly like standard MMO bags. Given this is full dive, a more bag of holding kind of deal would’ve been more interesting. But hey, for once AO is acknowledging that it’s a video game and should have goals other than maximum realism. It’s too late to salvage this game’s total disregard for players’ time, but at least some of it can still be salvaged.

The administration office also offered bounties for killing local creatures and would reward players with copper and silver.

Confirmed, though: Killing things is the primary way you advance in this game. It’s not clear if the “local creatures” (or the targets of quests from friendly taverns mentioned in another passage) are meant to be sapient things like goblins or non-sapients like wolves, so jury’s out on whether or not “killed three people” is remotely significant in this MMO, but things are starting to look more grim. Not that there’s really any turning that one around, because even if this MMO features a paucity of human opponents, every other MMO is happy to have you kill bandits and enemy soldiers by the truckload, so there’s really no reason Jason should be remotely hesitant to plan around murders here in AO. Even if the full dive experience makes him hesitant to actually do the deed, he shouldn’t have any problems merely promising to do so.

Finished with his inspection of the map, he took the scroll in his hands and again thought “use.”  A chat window appeared in the bottom of his vision.  He focused on the window, and it centered in his field of view.  He could see that the other players had been chatting continuously while he had been playing.  The chat was riddled with offers to sell certain types of goods and services and with messages from people looking for groups.  Jason chuckled as his chat window was flooded with advertisements from companies trying to sell in-game gold.

And look! An actual MMO chat! Again, it would’ve been neat to have this turned into some kind of telepathy through the magic of full dive, but from the low, low point AO is clinging to right now, just meaningfully interacting with its premise at all is a step up.

Continue reading “Awaken Online: Mary Sue Verdict”

Awaken Online: You Fucked It Up

Going two chapters at a time on Awaken Online is already getting repetitive. Yes, there is still enough content in each chapter to do line-by-line criticism and yes, it is important to support the fact that my criticisms are based on actual content from the book, but I think anyone following these posts (and there actually are people following these posts, which is a bold new direction for this blog) already gets the gist re: AO loves to waste its users’ time. As such, I’m breaking away from two chapters per post and going to engage in more summarizing.

Chapter Eleven

He drew his dagger and ran his tongue slowly along the edge of the blade, his eyes partially closed in rapture.  “You can still taste it a bit.”

Rex’s face was filled with horror, and he took an inadvertent step backward, tripping on a pile of wooden weapons the players had left lying on the ground.

There’s a page break here that made my three-step highlight/copy from highlights/paste into blog process even less convenient, so I’ve left out the bit where Jason’s all “lol i troll u” about it. Anyway, the problem here is evident from just the quoted section. Rex is that heavily scarred old ex-guard veteran. He spent years, if not decades, in the town guard of the capital city of a decaying kingdom, one with a thriving criminal underbelly that tried to ambush and straight-up murder Jason just for walking into the bad part of town. This is a guy who’s presumably seen some shit. Jason, meanwhile, is roleplaying a psycho killer in a way that just barely reaches past the level of cringe-inducing. And this causes Rex to freak the fuck out? Seriously? This is another thing where the book can still turn this around if it turns out to be set up for a subversive “the game only played along with your edgy bullshit because it knew catering to your ego would get you to play more,” but after how bizarrely villainous Alex and the school administration was in the first three chapters, I’m not confident we’re going in that direction.

Pretty much the only thing accomplished in the whole chapter is that Jason talks to Rex and finds out that the guards are probably part of the secret noble conspiracy to somehow profit from being conquered by other nobles, who will…impose themselves as their lords, whereas currently the nobles are a de facto sovereign oligarchy due to the (probable) death of the regent. Like, the best case scenario for the “colluding with conquerors” thing is that nothing changes, and more likely they have to start sending a percentage of their tax income to Team Shiny. But apparently having their tax income garnished by a new overlord is tantalizing enough that they’re paying off the guards to make sure it happens.

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Awaken Online: Hope Spot

Chapter Nine

“We have determined that Alfred has now instituted a system in which each person’s ability to use magic, including different types of magic, keys off of that person’s personality.  This is embodied in a new affinity system.”

Wow, what an awful idea. Even if the Controller concludes (correctly) that I’m way into minion master builds, I still periodically wanna take a swing at blasting mooks en masse as a nuker and I at least want to be able to take a whirl as a tank or a healer or whatever just to see what it’s like.

Now, as a novel, AO could be doing something smart here by linking character class directly to your personality. Specifically, they could do the Hogwarts thing that Divergent fucked up and make something that the teenage audience (is this book aimed at teenagers? Protagonist’s in high school, to that’s my guess, but the primary demographic for people who like MMOs skews a little bit older than that) can try to categorize themselves by in an effort to figure out who they are. Teenagers who did that with Harry Potter continue to identify as a Hufflepuff or whatever into their twenties and thirties. So, like, this concept has legs, and the question of which magic superpower the Controller would’ve given you is good for a novel even if it’s bad for an actual video game.

AO doesn’t execute, though. Like most of AO’s failures, they can still turn it around by giving us a complete list of magic specializations and associated personality types somewhere before the end of this book, but they’re taking their goddamn time with it. Without a complete list, there’s nothing to sort, and the basic concept of “what kind of superpower would you have based on your personality” does not prompt discussion related to the actual book, but is instead a totally generic conversation starter. Codifying things into a list, and better yet a list that makes goddamn sense (contra Divergent, which provides a list where two of the entries have near-identical behaviors and values, but one of them is evil), is necessary to give people something to actually talk about.

Making goddamn sense is even mostly optional, because while no one’s going to talk about which Hunger Games District they would be from into their twenties, they totally did talk about it when they were fifteen and those books were still relevant at all.

AO’s not even stumbling that far, though. With no full list, indeed with only two types of magic established as existing at all (necromancy and paladinomancy) and no strong indications for what kind of personality type is associated with either of them (does Alex have paladin magic specifically because he’s a jerk, or just because he likes playing the hero, or…?), it’s impossible to have a discussion about which one you would or wouldn’t have.

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Awaken Online: Being Conquered Is Profitable, Apparently

Chapter Seven

So in this chapter, our hero jacks out of AO after spending five hours in simulation and goes to scavenge some dinner from his understocked kitchen and spends his time outside of AO watching tons of videos about AO. That’s not a complaint, because I’ve totally done that before. If I really like a video game and have all day to play it, in practice I’ll usually start to fatigue on the actual game after a few hours, but still be so excited for the game that I’ll then spend an hour or two reading articles about that game or looking up Wiki walkthroughs for the next area and plan out a route to complete as many quests as possible with as little backtracking as possible and so on. I don’t fully understand how I can be fatigued of a video game to the point where I want to stop playing but still excited enough about it to spend time reading articles and watching videos about it, but apparently it’s a thing.

So while Jason is eating dinner and watching a bunch of game footage on Future Hologram YouTube, and I’m not going to quote the entire battle because it goes on for a while, but some beta tester paladin who’s level a billion is leading NPCs to fight a war against some other NPCs and totally kicks all their asses with his paladin buff powers and some insanely overpowered AoE fire attack that kills like thirty enemies at once. His name is Alexion and we must all pretend to be surprised when it turns out the school bully Alex is actually Alexion. I was always pretty confident that Alex would show up in the game at some point (I’m betting Riley will, too), but this book has managed to take me by surprise in one regard: I didn’t expect the plot was going to be so petty as to build up Alex as a primary antagonist. Usually how this goes is that the bully is established as being able to harass the protagonist with impunity early on, and then the protagonist goes and becomes a hero, and upon returning to their mundane life they are able to completely reverse the power dynamic and completely dominate the bully – often to the point where the protagonist just makes a quick show of force to get the bully to fuck off because the stakes are now way higher and they have much, much better things to do than to settle up with this asshole. It helps highlight how far the protagonist has come since the start of the story and also how much more dire the life-threatening situation they’re in now is as compared to back when someone harassing them on a daily basis was the biggest issue they had to deal with.

So, yeah, I’m surprised that AO is instead building up Alex to be potentially the primary antagonist of the first arc, maybe the first whole book, maybe the entire series, but not in a good way. The Controller is definitely far more fertile ground for a villain, since it can ratchet up the stakes way higher to the point where people’s lives can plausibly be at stake. Even if it’s not going to microwave anyone’s brain like in SAO (and there’s no sign or reason it would try something like that), it can still seriously alter people’s memories, maybe also personalities, and, of course, it is at some point hopefully going to be kidnapping people into cyberspace to forcibly prevent player attrition. Like, I rolled my eyes at how obvious the setup for that plot was, but I would much rather have a good premise that was sign posted way too heavily than a stupid, petty premise about getting back at the school bully. I really hope that Alex as the main antagonist falls away relatively quickly, and it’s really just giving Jason a more personal motivation to advance rapidly through the early game.

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Awaken Online: Murder Lessons

Chapter Five

Once his head stopped spinning, he noticed that he was standing in the sort of medieval starting town he had come to expect from every fantasy MMORPG.

Oh, thank God. Are we getting to the part where we play a video game yet?

This must be a starting point for players entering the game.  The other players certainly don’t look traumatized, so I doubt that they went through the same type of initiation as I did.

How exactly do you expect traumatized people to look? If it weren’t for the first three chapters, I might assume this was just our seventeen-year old protagonist being a narcissistic teenager (although, note: Not all teenagers are narcissistic, and if you want me to follow the guy around for three books you are off to a terrible start by making him insufferable). Given the first three chapters, though, I assume this is the author beaming helpful information about how special he is directly into his brain.

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