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.

At least I won’t be chasing my menus in my peripheral vision.

This is another clear improvement over SAO, where characters are depicted as having their HUD in their peripheral vision where they can’t fucking see it. But, like, the big criticisms of SAO aren’t that it has an inconvenient UI and an absurdly low player count at launch. It’s that it has a Mary Sue protagonist and boring, one-dimensional gameplay. It lacks any powerful character arc, and it fails to deliver on its premise as a full dive MMORPG with seriously high stakes by being a boring game that breaks from being a bog standard WoW-clone only when it is being oversimplified. So far, this story is leaning into the Mary Sue protagonist problem and shows no sign of offering an actually fun game to play. Now, the jury’s still out. Jimmy Protagonist is starting to stink of Sue but he can still turn that around, and while the trippy chargen process was boring (and Sue-y), the basic idea of chargen through gameplay is definitely a better idea for a book than describing a character making a selection off of four different menus, provided you can make it interesting. If you can’t make it interesting, then the menus have the advantage of being a lot faster.

Now that he had a sense of his base stats, he realized the rewards from the initiation quest had effectively granted him a free level or two.

How can you know that? You are level 1. You have never done any of the things that might plausibly be governed by these stats except the one time you smashed the NPC Ms. Abrams’ head in, and since that was part of chargen, there’s no way of knowing if your stats even affected the combat! Even if they did, you have no idea how she compares to other potential enemies and will probably never see another one like her again, so you have no way of testing how all those new stat points will affect your combat abilities. The only thing you learn from checking your stat screen now is a baseline, so that after you level up you can get a feel for how much difference a stat point here or there makes. Again: Author beaming knowledge directly into our protagonists’ brain (if we wanted to be generous, the Controller could literally be beaming this information in without Jason noticing, but again: with those first three chapters, I’m low on confidence the author might be doing something that clever).

We also see in the character screen pop-up that Jimmy has been given the Chaotic Evil alignment, which is not a good sign for how interesting a character he’ll be going forward. We’re fast approaching a point when alignment means absolutely nothing, but this book has chosen to use alignments even though it didn’t have to, so it’s not just slapping alignments on because the audience expects that (indeed, it’s super weird to have two-axis character alignments in an MMO), it’s a conscious choice on behalf of the author. When an author makes a character they describe as “Chaotic Evil,” then it’s pretty reliably true that either they’re riffing on the Joker or their character is shit. Jason sure as Hell ain’t no Joker, so at this point the only hope for his character is that his game alignment will have factional consequences (i.e. team shiny hates his guts but team spooky is probably down with him) but isn’t meant to actually be indicative of his behavior and personality.

Thinking about how the NPCs of a town called Lux react so poorly to his alignment:

Maybe the reaction of the other NPCs will be less extreme.  I expect there are also evil alignment NPCs in the city that won’t be bothered by my alignment.

In the town of Lux? Lux is the latin word for light, and also the SI unit for light. There is no reason to be confident it’s not a wholly Good-aligned town, especially since it’s a starter area (although why an Evil character was dropped in a Good-aligned town is a question that needs answering). Like, maybe there’s some Shady McThieves type who’ll pay Jason to shank an old lady, but also maybe not. Jason got into a prestigious private school based on scholarship and has had his academic performance talked up once and his general intelligence talked up again in a different context. He should be well educated enough to know what lux means (either through knowing latin prefixes or through familiarity with SI units, if not both), and he should be smart enough to figure out the implications of that name on a town’s alignment. I should not be so easily getting ahead of a protagonist whose defining strength is supposed to be intelligence.

He decided to go with honesty. “I really don’t know.  I have no idea what type of enemies I’ll be fighting, and I don’t know what role best suits me.  However, I need to have some way to defend myself.”

Unbelievably, the trainer grinned at Jason.  “That is the first smart thing I’ve heard from you tourists today!”

I’m really disappointed that something with dialogue this stilted is still clinging near rank #5,000 on the Kindle store two years after release. The trainer looks about fifty, has tons of scars, and beat up armor. Clearly a Man at Arms lookin’ guy. Not someone you’d expect to be speaking without contractions. And Jason’s line at the end, who talks like that? Here’s the same dialogue written with nearly identical content, but with some actual personality behind it:

“I don’t really know. I don’t know who I’ll be fighting, or what I’m good at. I just need some way of defending myself.”

“First smart thing I’ve heard all day.”

This removes the reference to ‘tourists,’ which gets a one-line reaction, but I doubt it’s actually going to be all that important. I’m also not satisfied with that second line, mainly because I wouldn’t expect the gruff veteran type to be so free with compliments to someone who’s said exactly one thing that isn’t dumb.

“Daggers and knives have many uses.  They can be thrown.  They can be easily hidden on your person to convince someone you’re unarmed.  Different types of blades can cause terrible bleeding, and they allow someone proficient to kill quickly and quietly.”

Actually, his idea seems decent.  I can’t really see myself wielding a sword or spear, or hauling a bow and quiver around with me all the time.

Jason was also beginning to suspect that the weight carrying system in AO would be just as realistic as the rest of this game.

I’ve highlighted a bigger chunk of text here to make a point: A trainer recommends daggers as a primary weapon with a straight face and just two paragraphs later we’re talking about how realistic AO is. Daggers have awful reach. They aren’t field weapons suited to skirmish, they aren’t sidearms suited to self-defense when caught off-guard. They are useful under two circumstances: When you’re too poor to afford anything else, and when you need a concealed weapon for assassination. These are both niche uses.

Now, if you want your fantasy MMO assassins to dual wield daggers anyway, that’s fine. I am 100% down to read about a fantasy MMO that is basically Guild Wars: Full Dive Edition. Just shut up about how “realistic” your game is if you’ve done your homework on MMOs (likely just by incidentally playing MMOs as a hobby, but whatever, that works) and not at all on actual classical and/or medieval combat.

Another highlight from the training area: Apparently non-special players have to make hundreds of attacks on training dummies to gain some basic XP. Again: Atrocious gameplay. Of course, Jimmy Protagonist gets a super special more interesting training quest, but why doesn’t everyone get one of them?

The particular player that Rex had pointed to was holding a wooden long sword in each hand and was performing what appeared to be a series of hops followed by an over-embellished jump attack.  It looked like something you would see at a LARP’ing event, with middle-aged men pretending to be ninjas.

Get a load of this nerd, trying to have fun in a video game.

This kind of narcissistic contempt isn’t entirely out of place in a seventeen-year old, but again: You need to give me a reason to follow a stereotypically shitty seventeen-year old around when we could be following one of the non-stereotypical, more better teenagers instead. Just because shitty teenagers are common doesn’t mean that literally every teenage protagonist has to be this shitty, and “it’s realistic!” is not a good reason why I should be reading a book about it. If being more realistic is the only goal, then the obvious thing to do is to stop reading the book and go outside for maximum realism. I’m also not confident that this is actually meant to be characterizing Jason as a shithead.

Chapter Six

He checked his stamina and saw that it was roughly 70% full, in spite of the long walk to the inn.

Walking consumes stamina?!

There’s no one paragraph I can quote to demonstrate this, and I don’t want to quote full pages of text both because subjecting you, dear reader, to full pages of Awaken Online’s prose would be unnecessary cruelty to someone who’s done me no harm, and also because I don’t want to bump up against the maximum 20% of a book’s length I’m allowed to highlight before Kindle cuts me off for fear that I might be pirating the book. The opening conceit of this chapter, though, is that Jason’s 1337 perception skillz allow him to detect an ambush, so he uses some environmental objects to thwart it by blocking the alleyways from which the ambushers had planned to emerge, then runs to safety in the inn he’s headed to for his super special training quest.

This is our first indication of the “clever tactics” Jason will use to solve problems in AO, and I grade it a C. Okay, fine, it’s not as braindead as “what if we used water magic on the fire monster?” What it is is a somewhat convoluted plan relying on skills and effects Jason has never used before. If Jason had more experience manipulating the environment, such that blocking off entrances were something he could rely on being able to do, this would be a more reasonable plan. It wouldn’t be brilliant, because it’s still just “use relevant skills and conveniently placed stack of barrels to impede pursuit,” but it would be better than “take wild guess as to may ability to knock over a stack of barrels in a helpful manner, hope for the best.” Jason didn’t outwit the problem here. He got lucky. Correctly guessing an effective strategy is not the same as actually figuring out an effective strategy.

On the other hand, a C is still a passing grade. This is not as bad as I feared it might be at the end of chapter two, when Jason was talking himself up for how brilliant and tactical he was, and the AO producer was talking in the interview about how AO relied on such innovative concepts as “weak spots” and “elemental weaknesses” to make its gameplay more tactical.

Did Jerry say “she?”  A female caretaker?

Jason didn’t consider himself sexist, but this seemed unusual.

“Jason didn’t consider himself sexist, despite all the sexism he got up to.” I mean, being surprised that someone has a job outside their gender role isn’t super sexist. It’s not, like, warn your female friends not to hang out with this guy levels of sexist or anything. It is a weird thing to draw attention to, though. If you don’t want Jason to come across as sexist, just have him not be surprised, and if you want to hint that Jason is kind of a self-centered jerk (he is being thrown an Evil alignment by a mind-reading AI, after all – on the other hand, the AI’s avatar has stated that it’s because he reacted to a threat in the manner in which gamers react to threats) then don’t dwell on it, just let him have his reaction and move on.

We then learn that it has been five hours in meatspace. That’s in the neighborhood of twenty hours in-game. Jason’s accomplishments so far are:

-Completed chargen.
-Explored town a little.
-Survived one encounter.

In a standard MMO, I would expect to accomplish all of that in an hour, and that’s without time compression, and assuming that the “one encounter” was actually a string of encounters compressed down to one for narrative reasons (because it’s fun to fight slight variations on the same pack of bandits eight times in a row going from point A to point B, but in a novel you should absolutely condense that down to one fight). Awaken Online’s only two exceptional features on the MMO market right now are its inconvenient Force cave voodoo chargen (why can’t I just pick Necromancer and have my minions already?) and how much of its players’ time its willing to waste having them walk to quest objectives.

There’s no reason why the training center in Lux and the shady inn in the bad part of the same town should be more than ten minutes from each other when I regularly travel between wholly separate towns in the same amount of time in regular MMOs – and that’s with stopping to beat up mooks along the way because I’m a bloodthirsty maniac who will kill anything that doesn’t respawn faster than I can put them down. People who are actually concerned for getting from point A to point B as fast as possible make the trip even faster – and even if Jason is supposed to be just as bloodthirsty a gamer as me (which 1) isn’t very uncommon and 2) he’s not) there was only one encounter to actually contend with on the way. Awaken Online just loves wasting its players’ time for no reason at all.

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