Awaken Online: Sue Territory

Chapter Three

This chapter opens with the evil AI figuring out how to access people’s memories. Is this going to end up with the AI removing their knowledge that the outside world even exists? Wouldn’t people eventually end up logging out anyway, just by fiddling around with their options menu and wondering what “log out” means? Also, at the point when the characters are stuck in a game world and can’t remember an outside world, why not just go full Order of the Stick and have a fantasy universe that just operates on MMO logic, for no better reason than most fantasy settings have magic? This would at least help with the thing where this is basically just SAO but with more western high school tropes thrown in, but changing SAO by making its premise mostly irrelevant to the story isn’t exactly an improvement.

I don’t want to harp on the tropes too much, because while it’s true that the school bully whose parents buy off the administration so he never faces consequences isn’t exactly breaking fresh new territory, but, like, that can totally happen. My main concern is: Does Alex need to appear on-page? SAO Abridged communicated that Kirito was pushed around in meatspace without having to spend two chapters establishing that.

One trope I will harp on is the extremely obvious positioning of Riley as love interest. They’re doing a bit of misdirection here in chapter three by having other characters claim that Riley is testifying against Jimmy Protagonist in the kangaroo courts typical of high school administrations, but we only have the principal’s word for it that Riley confirmed stock bully Alex’s version of events. The book is leaving itself plenty of wiggle room for Riley to have been coerced into agreeing with Alex’s claims or even having had those claims made on her behalf. Even if Riley really is taking Alex’s side, they could just be setting up a thing where they meet in AO not knowing who each other are and fall in love and then at the end when they get jacked out Riley apologizes and validates Jimmy Protagonist’s persecution complex. I mean, JP really is hella persecuted, but that is itself a sign of Mary Sue: Mary Sue lives in a world where everyone in the world really is either friendly and helpful or irrationally and personally hostile towards her. If this high school really were paid off by the local rich folk to let Alex be as much of a jackass as he wants, fair enough, but chapter three has the staff getting in on the abuse.

Why? I would expect the administration to make sympathetic cooing noises at Jimmy Protagonist while refusing to take any disciplinary action against Alex. Which, really, I always found to be more insulting than people who just directly harassed me. Teachers would basically admit that yes, it’s their job to stop this kind of thing from happening, but they can’t be fucked, so just stand up for yourself! Except not in an actually effective way, because if you do something that can be construed as intimidating or God forbid violent, you’ll be suspended. Even if the administration is completely apathetic and agitated with Jimmy Protagonist for ending up in trouble so often (for being a popular target), they’d still have a “get out of our hair” attitude rather than actually encouraging the problem. They’d be just as agitated with Alex as with Jimmy, but take out all their frustration on Jimmy because attacking Alex has a hefty pricetag attached. They still wouldn’t encourage Alex to make more messes for them to clean up.

Jason paused for a long moment.

“You can both go fuck yourselves.”

He then turned and began to leave the office.

This isn’t an unrealistic portrayal of a teenager having one of those sudden bursts of self-esteem where they just aren’t taking this shit anymore. Those moments are a part of growing up and it’s fine that a seventeen-year old is having one. My complaint is the specific line used. Really, Jimmy? That’s all you got? A generic expression of frustration? Not something like “I’m not taking shit from teachers who take orders from their students” with a thumb jerked at Alex? Like, I just came up with that off the top of my head, it’s not amazing or anything, but at least it’s directly relevant to the situation.

Remarkably, he didn’t feel any sense of vertigo at the transition between operating his biological body and his digital one.

“Remarkably.” This isn’t the first time Jimmy Protagonist has been here, because the full dive helmet had some experimental games (and, for some reason, educational content) before regulatory agencies were all “this could murder people” and all the dev studios backed off. So what’s remarkable about it? Does he usually feel vertigo?

Chapter Four

As of chapter four, we’re in the game world, so the cyberpunk worldbuilding now means bugger all to the story. And, really, that’s just another reason why those first three chapters should have been drastically reduced if not cut completely. We’re here, though. We’re in Awaken Online. We aren’t reading a cyberpunk book, we’re reading LitRPG, so whether or not AO is generally mediocre or just a good book with a really weak opening (which still should’ve been caught in editing, but whatever) is something we’ll find out here in this chapter.

I can’t highlight the little text boxes they use for game notifications, but I do want to stop and point out one legit improvement over SAO here: Jimmy Protagonist is preceded by over a million other users, and presumably those numbers will continue to rise throughout launch day (it’s barely past lunchtime in America, so game population should continue to rise for at least three or four hours), which means AO is at least dodging that “ten thousand users at launch” problem that SAO had. I question AO author Travis Bagwell’s ability for cyberpunk worldbuilding, but he does at least appear to actually play video games, which is more than SAO author Reki Kawahara can say. On the other hand, AO also severely restricts the ability to make alts (you have one character slot and can only delete and recreate the character in that slot every thirty days), which is another feature that’s aimed at an extremely narrow audience.

What’s the narrative purpose behind throwing that in there? Restarting already means losing however much progress you’ve made on that character. Just have the game offer one character slot by default with others available for purchase, and you can only reach the store from the character select lobby – a lobby the AI has to make inaccessible in order to prevent users from logging out. Bam, the only people who have more than one character slot are the ones who bought extras on day one before the AI went rogue, and since the protagonist is very specifically not rich, that doesn’t include him. He has strong incentive not to reset his character because he’ll lose however much progress he’s gained since starting and have to spend some amount of time reclaiming lost stats and gear. Plus, this allows him to experiment with alts early on (possibly before the AI even goes rogue) in order to show off some of the different classes and their gameplay. It’s a perfect opportunity to demonstrate why AO is a game you’d actually want to play.

AO is a game you’d actually want to play, right? Right?

During something vaguely implied to be some kind of extremely obtuse character creation system:

It felt like he had walked for hours.  Between the events earlier in the day and the old man’s nonsensical test, he was ready to snap.

Wow, this is a boring as Hell chargen system. There’s probably some perceived time dilation going on here, because he’s stumbling through the dark so twenty or thirty minutes can seem like hours. And thanks to the game’s automatic time compression, twenty minutes in AO comes out to just 5-8-ish minutes of meatspace time. None of that matters, though, because it still feels like hours, hours, of stumbling around in the dark. I’d log out after five minutes and check the forums to see if anyone knows how to bypass this bullshit and get to the game part of the game.

He saw a figure standing in front of him near the center of the cave, its back to Jason.  The figure was thin and willowy.  He assumed it was a woman from its stance.

From their stance. Not from their build. Are they standing with their hands on their hips in a particularly effeminate way? I mean, you can do that, and since western culture is almost completely unchanged from 2016 to 207X it’s a pretty reasonable guess that someone standing like that is in fact female. But, like, that’s a really weird way to identify a silhouette. I probably wouldn’t even be picking up on this if the game weren’t so interminably dull. If you gave me a list of classes and had Jimmy Protagonist pick one on auto-pilot, I’d be interested in how the class he picked works and what the others might do. Instead, I’m bored and wondering why the author decided “drop protagonist in dark cave for several hours” was the best way to introduce the idea that certain skills (in this case, night vision) will go up after you use them a certain amount.

A sense of dread hit Jason as he realized Ms. Abrams was standing in front of him.

Why the hell is she playing AO?!

Jason’s mind scrambled madly for an explanation, but none seemed to come to him.

How is she here?  What does she want?

By the time I reached the end of these four one-sentence paragraphs, I had figured out that the game had accessed his memories to provide either some kind of weird dreamscape chargen, or else is just offering some immediate catharsis for the shit he had to put up with in school. Jimmy Protagonist does not figure this out until after she physically transforms into a demon. I am at an advantage on Jimmy here, because I knew in advance the game was trying to figure out how to access/mess with player memories, but it’s not like I got there by decoding a secret message in the text or anything. The book just came out and told me. Dedicating pagespace to Jimmy trying to figure out why he’s talking to an NPC doesn’t make me feel smart, it’s just more boredom. It doesn’t help that it takes him a full page (depending on exactly how big your monitor is, since I’m reading on Kindle, but it’s several paragraphs is the point) to decide he’s going to smash her head in with a rock. Like, this is a video game. Engaging in some PvP is way less objectionable than swearing at them like he already did earlier in the day.

“You are nothing but a welfare case…

Ms. Abrams’ sentence was cut off as Jason launched forward.

Grammar note: Where’s the close quote on this sentence?

Pedantry aside, though, you can tell this quote was never going to be finished because it’s a completely generic insult, as contrasted to the last page of vitriol, which felt more like real insults a person might use. Not in the context of stumbling across someone in a video game, which I’d hardly expect to provoke this tirade, but this is an NPC being generated for some kind of Force cave voodoo chargen process, so whatever. If you can’t be bothered to write an actual line to cut off, then cut it off so early that we can’t tell. If the line had been “you are-” clonk then I wouldn’t have noticed. I also probably wouldn’t have noticed if this scene wasn’t so goddamn boring. Again: Full page to go from being angry at Ms. Abrams to actually hitting her with a rock. This book spent three chapters setting up how much Jimmy dislikes his school. It doesn’t need to spend another page here reminding me. I mean, the smart thing to do would be to leave in the page of build up here and cut those three chapters, but given I had to read the three chapters, this page re-explaining that Jimmy sure does dislike his school is just filler.

It was strange.  He didn’t feel any remorse for hitting her – for killing her.

I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, why would he feel bad about PvPing someone who has personally abused her position of authority to harass him? On the other hand, he’s in full-dive VR and his subconscious has no idea that he didn’t just straight-up murder someone. Which, really, is another great reason why this “ultra realism” development goal is stupid.

You can probably tell that I’m nitpicking a lot, here, especially if you’ve read AO and know that I’m highlighting sentences that are mere paragraphs away from one another. I’m not even getting through a full page before finding something to roll my eyes at and blog about. This is because I’m already neck deep in story collapse, and we’re about 10% of the way in. A lot of this comes down to how weak the story’s start was. The means by which the AI would ultimately go rogue (something which hasn’t really kicked into high gear yet) was so startlingly obvious that I was yanked out of the story almost as soon as I set foot in it. Of course the AI is going to try and kidnap everyone into the game world, the obvious way to maximize player engagement is to keep them from ever logging out (whether that’s by way of a pointlessly convoluted memory-altering scheme or by doing the sensible thing and just disabling the log out function so we can have our death game premise).

I’m still willing to believe that soon enough we’ll be getting to the part of this book where it’s actually good, but these opening chapters have yanked me out of the story consistently and in a dozen different ways. First there was how obvious the potential for a rogue AI was, and yet the actual AI developer (not some short-sighted suit, but the person directly responsible for building the damn thing) expressed no concern at all. That was the point when I decided to blog about that particular sequence, but at the time I was expecting it to be like when I looked at the contradiction in the one Chris Fox book: An easy bit of content from attacking one weak part in a book that turned out to be otherwise pretty solid. Seeing as how we’re four chapters in and I’m still ripping this thing apart, you’ve probably guessed that this is not how AO went. There were the high school cliches, the bizarrely hostile school staff, and now we’re in an actual video game and all that’s happening is Jimmy Protagonist spending hours walking down a dark tunnel and then spending a full page going from “this is a video game, I don’t have to take shit from anyone here” to actually clocking the teacher NPC with a rock.

Shamus Young later elaborated on story collapse, creating a spectrum of plot holes from level 1 (nonsense, directionless, and tedious) to 6 (sub-optimal actions which are not fully explained, but easily chalked up to characterization delivered in the story). Despite the fervor with which I nitpick stories that collapse on me, anything that can manage plot holes no lower than level 3 (characters act inexplicably, but the fast pace glosses over the problem) generally doesn’t generate enough ire from me to bother taking the time to write about it. So far, AO has been slumming it in level 1 and 2, so even my relatively lax standards for plothole detection are getting tripped left and right.

“You did well, child.  Not many have the will to bear the tunnel or the strength to face their fears.

What was his alternative? Saying “fuck this” and logging out? That’s not will that’s masochism. Putting up with unpleasant circumstances is only a sign of strong will if there’s a clear connection to achieving your goals.

“You had many choices regarding how to proceed, and yet you did not hesitate to destroy that which you seemed to fear most.

How many gamers would do anything else?! Murder is your default problem solving tool in an MMORPG! Yeah, that’s pretty messed up and you could plausibly write a story set in an MMO where that isn’t true, but Jason just got here. He has no reason to believe that murdering his problems isn’t the most efficient and socially acceptable  way of handling them. In the Bartle Taxonomy of Player Types, the Killer is definitely going to respond to problems with violence because that is how the Killer do, the Achiever will very likely respond to problems with violence because that’s usually an effective solution and he likes solving problems quickly, the Explorer will probably respond to problems with violence at least on their first try for the same reason (even if they’ll probably try something weird and unintuitive just to see what happens when confronted with similar problems later, this early on even the Explorer is probably looking to establish a baseline of expectations). Only the Socializer is more likely to respond with something other than violence. It’s not like having a real world, personal grievance with the target is going to make any of these three types less likely to respond with violence. Even the Socializer might go for it under those circumstances.

I’d chalk this up to the game making Jimmy Protagonist feel special even though like 90% of all gamers do exactly this when confronted with this or similar problems, but the story’s caved in and I no longer trust the author. This is another argument for cutting those first three chapters. Without them, I’d at least be waiting to see if the book is going somewhere with this, but meatspace placed Jimmy just as much at the center of the universe, even if only to shit on him. Mary Sue’s defining characteristic is not being universally loved, just that no one is ever apathetic to her, and Jimmy here is migrating more firmly into Sue territory with every chapter.

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