I was recommended Awaken Online as a good way to get into LitRPG, an emerging book genre that relies heavily on video game concepts, especially RPG concepts, as part of its narrative. Often, including in the case of Awaken Online, this is done by having the plot take place in a full dive VR game. I’m going to share with you a couple of my notes from my first, blind readthrough of the book’s opening few pages. Book segments are quoted. My notes are copy/pasted in normal text.
“To be clear, these trials are not part of the regular Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) evaluation process.
How and why did the engineer speaking this line add in the parenthetical?
This trial is being conducted at the request of the board of directors of Cerillion Entertainment. As the board is no doubt aware,
“As you know, Bob…”
the primary goal of this project was to create a virtual reality simulation that draws players in and makes them want to keep playing.
“As a professional AI developer, I don’t see how instructing an AI that will interface directly with players’ brains to keep those players in the simulation as long as possible could possibly go wrong.”
Claire paused and blushed slightly. “I’m sorry. I’ve worked with the AI controller for so long that I have started calling him Alfred.”
Who is embarrassed by anthropomorphizing inanimate objects? Giving human names to important pieces of equipment is completely typical.
“We have also implemented safety protocols to ensure that the game does not harm the users. For example, we have created secondary directives that place limitations on Alfred’s ability to interface with the users’ cerebral cortex and the parts of the brain that control memory.
Suspiciously absent from this list: A directive to make sure the AI doesn’t outright kidnap people into the simulation by simply refusing to let them log out. MMO player counts enter into a steady decline, not ascent, soon after release, so if the Controller turns AO into a prison, it’ll be locking far more players in than it will be locking players out. It has zero incentive not to trap everyone inside at launch week. At best, if it’s isolated from data on other MMOs and doesn’t predict in advance how intense player attrition will be after the first week, it might spend a few weeks trying to increase player retention through normal means before coming to the conclusion that player counts will always dwindle, never increase, over time.
The rest of the chapter isn’t this bad, in that I never find two paragraphs where each and every sentence has something wrong with it, but I do find myself thinking that things had damn well better pick up once we get into the game. There’s a couple of cliches and I think it spends way more time than is necessary establishing that our hero isn’t very well liked at school for arbitrary reasons. Considering how rote the school bully and staff bias is, I would’ve been cool with just the mention that no one likes Jimmy Protagonist. Riley may as well have a glowing neon sign reading “love interest” bolted to her shirt (we’re specifically looking at the genki girl model that’s most commonly observed in western media). Also, the sci-fi is kinda scattershot. It’s fifty years in the future, but we’re still driving our own cars. There’s smart house technology, but apparently it doesn’t manage the home security because Jimmy Protagonist’s parents turn it off before leaving for a business trip together, taking his alarm clock with it. This book was only written in 2016 and smart houses have been prevalent in fiction for so long that the Disney Channel not only used that premise, but used it so long ago that it was a minor plot point that the people managing the Smart House giveaway competition weren’t able to contact the winners for several hours because the teenage protagonist was always on the dial-up internet. We should have figured out that smart houses manage the burglar and fire alarms by now.
Riley gave him another bemused grin,
Not what bemused means!
EDIT: This thing is scheduled to go live in an hour and a half. Let’s see how many chapters I can mock in that time while also playing Minesweeper with the musical running in the background.
The first thing I note about chapter 2 is that apparently starting with the AI perspective is going to be a trend. It is not getting any more subtle than what we started with.
Re-routing processing power and memory allocation to develop new software for analyzing the players. Re-routing processing power and memory allocation to examine existing VR hard access points to determine whether they can provide additional information regarding the players.
I wonder where this could be going!
Like, seriously, I knew from the moment I saw the title that this was going to be a “gamers trapped in cyberspace” plot, because I’ve seen SAO Abridged and I know where this is going. It would help my suspension of belief a lot if the impending problem wasn’t totally obvious to people legally liable for making sure that doesn’t happen. Cerillion Entertainment is never going to sell another game after Awaken Online kidnaps its entire population on launch day. Boycotts fueled by moral outrage don’t get anywhere, but “this product will probably kill you” sure as Hell has legs.
Life had been terrible for Jason since starting at Richmond. If his parents had been at home for more than a few days at a time, they would have noticed that Jason had become increasingly depressed and angry.
He was in the fall of his senior year of school. He had roughly a year left before he could leave Richmond. Between the constant abuse and the realization that he still had a long way to go to graduate, he had searched for an outlet for his growing anger and frustration.
These first two paragraphs of chapter two carry fully 100% of the weight of chapter one. Riley (the love interest) and Alex (the bully) are introduced with such cliche that you could get the same effect by simply introducing them as “the girl Jimmy Protagonist likes” and “the guy who’s a total jerk” at the point when they first become actually relevant to the plot, and I’m pretty confident that neither of the two teachers introduced are going to be at all relevant except when haphazardly establishing that yes, Jimmy Protagonist has a terrible high school.
MMORPGs typically rewarded players for careful planning of both their character and strategy. Jason had come to realize that he was exceptional at both. His fondest memories involved coming up with clever strategies to defeat raid bosses and dungeons. He also wasn’t above exploiting game mechanics to his advantage.
Your worldbuilding has been a trainwreck so far, Awaken Online. You had damn well better be able to make good on this promise once we actually get inside the video game. Side note: Why are we not already there? Is anything in this “a day in the life of a glum seventeen-year old” stuff going to be plot critical later on? I’m getting strong vibes that both of these two intro chapters could be completely cut with no damage to the narrative.
He had pre-ordered a copy of AO nearly twelve months ago. He had to spend most of the savings he had accumulated working each summer. A copy of AO cost nearly $700 and that didn’t include the hefty $250 per month subscription fee. The price was steep, but it might be worth it.
Is this an attempt at recognizing fifty years of inflation, or is that price actually supposed to be as steep in 207X dollars as it is today? Ignoring inflation to keep prices intuitive to readers is a reasonable decision, but this is a terrible price point if this is supposed to be in 2016 dollars. At that price, only a tiny handful of people can afford the game, but you aren’t actually charging them nearly enough to sustain the game on their own. You either want to charge an order of magnitude less than that in order to get several orders of magnitude more customers, or else you want to make an experience exclusive to the 0.1%, who are only one order of magnitude less common than the kinds of people who can afford to pay $2500 a year on one video game but can easily afford to pay multiple orders of magnitude more than that without even noticing the loss. This bit in between is just the guaranteed bankruptcy price point.
Also, where the Hell is this kid going to school that paying thousands of dollars a year for one video game, along with $700 up front, makes him the welfare student? Like, yeah, people wealthy enough to afford an education so jaw-droppingly expensive that people spending $3,000+ annually on luxuries for just their teenage son still can’t afford it, but two hundred of those people don’t all live within driving distance of the same building. If this school is so awesome that the 0.1% send their kids here from all over the nation or world, then it will obviously have to be a boarding school, but rich jerk Alex commutes here in his shiny red sports car.
So that leaves the inflation thing. If we assume that the inflation rate from 2018 to 207X is the same as from 1968 to 2018, then $700 of 207X money is equal to only about $100 of 2018 money, and that subscription fee is only $35 billed monthly. Which much better fits the description of “steep, but buyable” to a middle class kid. The rest of this book so far has ignored so many tech innovations, though – no carbots, the school just so happens to still use whiteboards (with no mention of what a less antiquated school would’ve upgraded to by now), and with the exception of the full dive tech just released, video game technology and genres appear to be in the exact same place they are now, smart watches are barely more capable than the Apple Watch was at release in 2015. Not that this stops the author from feeling the need to explain to us how they work and rename them something else – did he not do the research to figure out that smart watches were just already a thing and we call them smart watches and ten years from now we will probably just call them ‘watches,’ just like you assume someone’s phone is a smart phone by default here in 2018, a decade after the release of the iPhone? I don’t have enough confidence in the worldbuilding to be certain that the absurd price point is due to inflation, even though the numbers check out, because this society is otherwise about what I’d expect 2025 or maybe 2030 to look like.
Every time this book talks about tech, it gets something horribly wrong. For example, in the mid-chapter info-dump about the history of AO’s tech (I put high odds that this is all totally irrelevant, and all we need to know is that AO is the first full dive MMORPG) claims that the full dive headset used in this setting interfaces wirelessly with the human brain. It then goes on to talk about how people are concerned about how this might be unsafe because it could cause brain damage. You know who’s going to have figured out those kinks years before this hits the civilian market? The military. DARPA will know this tech backwards and forwards and the CIA will be using it to mind control people way before anyone uses it to make a video game, especially if a regulatory body is keeping it off the market for safety reasons. These days it’s common knowledge on the dark web that LEO was figuring out ways to hack the internet for funsies clear back in the late 80s before there was an actual world wide web to be worth hacking. Around 2010 the Feds decided they should probably start caring at all about Anonymous and immediately crushed them. This is around the same time that private cyber security companies couldn’t figure out that Anons were fucking with them when they said that Guy Fawkes was their leader. If this tech has obvious military applications – and with a wireless brain connection it very much does – then Cerillion Entertainment will not be leading development.
“Hey, are you in there buddy?” Frank shook Jason slightly.
“Yeah, sorry,” Jason replied quietly.
“I thought I had lost you for a moment,” Frank said with a chuckle.
“Sorry, I was busy internally monologuing about the implausible history of our full dive VR tech.”
Later, in an interview with the game’s producer posted to Future Hologram YouTube:
“By the same token, players will feel pain when they are struck in the game, in a dull and limited fashion of course. Players will also have the option to adjust the pain level to meet their personal tolerance, but they will not be able to remove it completely.
“We’re creating a massive MMORPG, one of the most infamously deadly game genres in history, and our tech is so expensive that we need a price point that’s somewhere between unusually steep and ludicrously expensive to make our money back. We desperately need as broad a market appeal as we can possibly have on this, so let’s also make it the Dark Souls of full dive MMOs and limit our audience to people who want a hardcore experience.” If it’s really critical to the narrative or emotional arc of the story for the game wounds to be painful, just have it be something the evil AI does after kidnapping them into the game.
The AI controller has reliably passed many Turing Tests designed by experts in the field of neuroscience and software engineering. We have developed something we believe to be close to true artificial intelligence.
“We didn’t feel the need to doublecheck its priorities to see if it would immediately go rogue, though. What even is this Skynet thing everyone keeps bringing up?”
“That depends on what you mean by those terms. Is a player classified as “casual” or “hardcore” based on the amount of time spent playing? If that is what you mean, then I expect to see “casual” players crush many “hardcore” players. This is a game about skill and tactics. Raw grinding and time investment are not guaranteed roads to success.”
So this is going to be a thing where our protagonist just crushes everyone he meets through his magic mega-brain, right? That’s what you’re setting up here, a world where raw talent counts for orders of magnitude more than time invested and dedication. It’s not exactly rare to hear people bring up how, amongst the highest ranked people who do [thing] professionally, the ranking correlates very strongly to amount of time invested. People who practice more get better than people who don’t, full stop. Now, this doesn’t tell us whether or not people with relatively little talent can compete at that level at all, and the answer to that question appears to be no. If you lack enough talent, you’ll be removed from the running long before you get to the upper echelons these studies examine.
However Jimmy Protagonist is, I can pretty much guarantee, going to be operating in those upper echelons where time spent practicing the game (not just existing in it, but actually practicing it) will be almost exclusively responsible for how much better he is than other players. Which means if this is setting up a thing where he gets to be better than top tier players, not just randos who happen to cross his path, then it’s Mary Sue bullshit. Also, this book is now resting fully one hundred percent of its ability to retain my interest on being able to deliver on Jimmy Protagonist actually outwitting his opponents. This had damn well better not end up with Jimmy Protagonist being the only one in the entire game who figures out that maybe elemental weaknesses are a thing.
“AO tries to reinvent the genre’s combat mechanics. We felt that a player should be rewarded by actively hitting a vital point, by using a certain magical element to fight a certain type of creature, and by utilizing tactics and terrain.