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.

Oh, also, the actual reveal of “Alexion’s” identity?

The battle had been spectacular, but what shook him was the momentary glimpse at Alexion’s face.

He looked exactly like Alex.

The name was just awful, but Jason wasn’t surprised that someone as arrogant as Alex would choose to name his character in such a ridiculous way.

This is basically just the author conceding that they have given their antagonist a stupid name, and trying to pass it off as a fault of the antagonist. That might’ve worked if everything else had been firing on all cylinders, but seven chapters into Awaken Online, I’m not buying it.

As Jason was lost in thought, the follow-up commentary to the battle had started.  A man and a young woman were conversing about the details of the fight.

“Did you see how noble he looked?  It was like something out of a fairytale!”  The woman gushed about the handsome Alex.

The man’s response was a bit more pragmatic, but still glowing, “To be expected from Alexion, who is currently the highest level player in AO at level 133.”

I can’t say for sure, but there’s a decent chance I wouldn’t even have picked up on the sexism here if the book hadn’t been all “Jason wasn’t sexist, he just thought less of women, is all” last chapter. I’m exaggerating for comedic effect, yes, but the point stands: Drawing attention to sexism earlier on was not smart.

And who exactly is the target audience for this video, that the woman gushes about how it’s “like something out of a fairy tale?” What kind of video game commentator is going to be amazed at the idea of a paladin in a fantasy game? That’s not amazing. That’s rote. Ooing and ahing over how this otherwise rote battle between a standard fantasy paladin and a bunch of enemy mooks looks so much better thanks to VR, with actual in-game footage looking just like a cinematic or an actual movie, that would be understandable. Instead, we have a video game commenter who’s like “ooh, a paladin, imagine that!”

Also, level one hundred and thirty three? Just on basis of the fact that we’re already 12% of the way into book one of three and have yet to ding 2, I am extremely confident that the intervening one hundred and thirty two levels between Jason and Alex are not going to be depicted with any more detail than a montage. If the level gap is going to be irrelevant because Jason will use his mega-brain to beat Alex at level 6 or whatever, then there’s no reason not to stick to a more standard video game level cap of 60 or 80 or something, and if Jason is going to zoom up most of the way to Alex so that he’s only a few dozen levels behind when they have their confrontation, and they’re going to get that out of the way with some kind of throwaway line about how eight hours later Jason gained fifty levels or he finds some easily exploitable trick to get a hundred levels all at once, then there’s still no reason not to stick to a more standard video game level cap.

In fact, there’s no reason not to go with the standard set by the original Guild Wars or plain old Dungeons and Dragons before it and have the level cap be twenty. Because you can plausibly fit twenty distinct levels of content into a novel! And then our book about playing a video game could actually show us the video game instead of skipping past everything between level 3 and the level cap. I’m aware that the nature of gameplay shifts significantly at the level cap of a standard MMO, and that many players view the leveling process as busywork to get out of the way before reaching endgame content, but if that’s the kind of story your novel is telling, start at the level cap! We don’t need to see the protagonist create his character and play the tutorial if we’re not actually interested in anything that happens before endgame PvP and raids.

We’re informed by Jason’s magical author fiat knowledge that one level tends to give a few stat points spread out across different stats. We also know from his character screen in the tutorial zone that the starting level for most stats is 10. That means that if a level 133 character were polite enough to wear newbie gear while having a rumble with a level 10 character, the level 133 character would still be an order of magnitude more powerful. In order for sneak attacks, striking weakspots, or exploiting elemental weaknesses to level those odds, it would necessarily have to mean that almost any character can be one-hit KO’d from surprise by anyone who knows what they’re doing, or at the very least that having the appropriate protection against an enemy’s elements and attacks that exploit their elemental weaknesses can obviate that entire order of magnitude difference in power – which also means that in a fight between same level characters, someone with an elemental advantage over their opponent is basically invulnerable to them.

Both of those scenarios in turn mean that Alex’s level 133 ass is a useless scrub who is going to get completely demolished as soon as anyone who’s playing to win comes along. Considering that beta tester populations reliably have a higher density of hardcore gamers than the general population, there’s no reason why Alex shouldn’t be totally used to people mopping the floor with him through the use of cheesy exploits, especially if those exploits are as easy to figure out as “hit weakspots,” “exploit elemental weaknesses,” or especially “just sucker punch him.” As the highest level character on the server, Alex is a prime target for being cheesed to death in exactly that manner.

Oh, and also, why is Alex the highest level character? Obviously he’s higher level than everyone who just signed up because he was in the beta test and apparently there was no server wipe before the game was released (it is mentioned that beta testers lost some amount of stat points, but why are they going halfway on resetting beta tester characters?), but why is he higher level than the other beta testers? Getting to high level is mainly just an issue of investing time, isn’t it? Is Alex one of those reclusive gamer morlocks who spend eight hours a day playing MMOs? Because those people exist and you’d expect them to be in the beta test for a new MMO. If Alex isn’t one of them, how is he out-leveling them? If this is an actual plot point where he’s being given a leg up because his father is on the board and is demanding the programmers give his kid cheat codes, then Jason should be smart and knowledgeable enough to notice that something’s weird here. Otherwise, how does this make any sense at all?

That’s seven, count ’em up, seven paragraphs of ranting in response to just one snippet of text. A lot of what I’m complaining about is implied rather than outright stated, so AO can still turn almost all of it around, but I’m getting strong vibes that while the author of this book plays video games at all, he isn’t actually good at playing video games, and has decided that fantasizing about being good at video games is an acceptable substitute for actually doing research and finding out what being a top tier gamer is actually like.

Incidentally, I would be 100% down with a LitRPG novel or series of novels that’s basically just a sports anime in written form, about the local band of misfits from a high school trying to become the top-ranked PvP team in a newly released full dive MMO, or trying to be the first ones to clear the highest-tier raid, or better yet both, which isn’t entirely unrealistic but I’m willing to buy into a show where the FBI’s psychological profiling team breaks into a serial killer’s murder dungeon to save his victims and arrest the perp, and that’s way more far-fetched than one MMO guild of like nine players being competitive at both the PvP and PvE aspects of the game. Like, legit, if someone has written or writes that novel and it’s for sale electronically for $5 or less, I’ll buy it on the basis of that premise provided the author can so much as string sentences together coherently in the sample.

The other commentator replied, “Well, to explain that, we need a short history lesson.”  The man looked at the camera and smiled.  “I promise this will be short.

Who is the audience for this video?! What gamer is so uninterested in game lore that they’re unwilling to hear out what turns out to be about a thirty-second explanation that one kingdom has been raiding another’s territory in what appears to be preparation for a full scale invasion, and Alex is taking the side of the (alleged) victims? That’s a basic premise. What demographic of gamers is so allergic to the concept of lore that they have to be reassured that explaining a game’s premise won’t take long?

“Whew, that’s a lot of intrigue for a release day!”  the female commentator said with a grin.

Wow, it’s only release day, can you believe this video game already has a plot? Even if our airheaded commentator (who isn’t given so much as a hairstyle, but who is instead consistently and exclusively identified as female) is a PR face who never touches video games except when required to mash random buttons on a controller for publicity shots angled so that you can’t see the screen and see that she’s really just bouncing around the options menu at random, that still means her actual job is to read a script in such a way that she sounds like she knows what she’s talking about. And they could be setting up a thing here where it’s actually the company behind whatever Future Hologram YouTube channel is posting this video that’s sexist, and is intentionally casting their female commentator as a clueless non-gamer because they think that’ll help them appeal to their primarily male audience, but even if they are that’s not even a trend in video games right now, let alone fifty years in the future. At the time of writing OutsideXbox has 2.1 million subscribers and doesn’t feel the need to have Jane Douglas play the role of a fucking moron to be talked down to by her more competent male co-host.

She turned back to the male commentator. “But doesn’t it seem a bit odd that he was leading an NPC army?  I didn’t realize that players could do that in AO.”

“Well the information is still a bit sketchy since it’s a release day,” the man responded.  “However, it appears that players can become part of a city’s leadership and earn the right to lead NPCs in battle.”

“For example, there have been some forum posts by Alexion explaining that he managed to complete a quest involving Regent Strouse.  This has apparently allowed him to form a close relationship with Grey Keep’s lord, which is why you see him leading a group of soldiers in the video.”

Forum posts? Did something happen to Reddit in the last fifty years? I mean, I’d be thrilled if Reddit keeled over in favor of a return to forums, but it still strikes me as a failure of research, especially on the heels of a commentary that feels like the stilted XBox advertisements that GameStop ran to advertise the release of Halo 3 back in 2007. Does this book secretly take place in an alternate universe where the calendar is tied to the birth of Cleopatra, so a story claiming to take place in 207X is actually set in what our dimension knows as the mid-2000s?

Jason wasn’t surprised at the woman’s response to Alex.  Women had always seemed to flock to his good looks and charisma.

“Jason didn’t consider himself sexist, despite all that sexism he got up to.”

Even Riley, who had seemed so nice, had apparently fallen for Alex’s act.  She had even gone so far as to back his story about what happened in the cafeteria.

By the way: Still not confirmed! This information has been relayed to us only by people biased in favor of Alex, and we have no idea if Riley actually claimed that, and if she did if she was as explicit about it as was implied, and if she was whether or not she was under duress at the time.

Chapter Eight

Jason could make out the occasional giggle and thump through the ceiling, evidence that some of the guests still had some late night energy to burn off. Sometimes this game is a little too realistic.

“Just in case our simulation of actual pain and interminably long travel times don’t narrow the audience of our massive budget full dive VR MMO to the point where it bankrupts us, let’s also shoot for an AO rating.”

A political update from rando the NPC:

“I keep my ear to the ground. The rumblings that I’ve been hearing are that the leadership in Meria has gotten wind that Lusade has fallen on hard times. They have actually been itching to acquire additional real estate for years.”

I didn’t get into details earlier, but this is exactly the opposite of what the commentators claimed earlier on Future Hologram YouTube, which will come as a huge shock to everyone who was too zoned out to be paying any attention at all when the mysterious hooded figure from the voodoo Force cave chargen talked about how evil is really subjective and the real bad guys aren’t always who the world thinks they are and etc. etc. It’s “reveals” like this, and the fact that I’m usually so far ahead of the main character in guessing them, that makes me doubt that any of the implications I’ve mocked so far are going to be acknowledged and subverted later on. If this is a book that thinks it’s clever when it says “what if the shiny faction being led by a total asshole was secretly the bad guys?” then I really doubt that it’s capable of any subtlety at all, which means that when they say “our game features such incredible tactical features as ‘aimed attacks'” I’m pretty sure that using basic gameplay features like that instead of just bashing your head against enemies until their numbers go down is actually going to be the super strategy that Jason comes up with using his mega-brain.

Jason replied, “How could the people be unaware that the regent is dead?”

Jerry shrugged. “I don’t know.  They’re only rumors.  However, I for one wouldn’t be surprised if the noble families are plotting with Meria.  There would certainly be plenty of money to be made!”

Money to be made from being conquered?

The combination of his Night Vision and his Perception made him feel reasonably confident that he wasn’t going to have a knife inserted between his ribs anytime soon.

More evidence in the “Travis Bagwell sucks at video games” column: The prompts that appeared when Jason leveled these abilities inform him that he has 10% better vision in the darkness and is 6% likely to detect hidden things. Those are abysmal numbers. A 10% increase can give you the edge over someone operating at the baseline, and a 6% chance to detect hidden people or objects is better than nothing, but he’ll still fall prey to nearly twenty times as many ambushes as he detects.

Now, sometimes devs either fail to do the math properly or write intentionally misleading prompts to compensate for humans being bad at intuiting statistics which means most players will react to all percentages as though they were about 20% higher than they actually are. That’s actually a pretty reliable number. Players tend to view anything 80% or higher as basically a guarantee, treat near-even match-ups like 55% in their favor as though they have a decisive advantage in the neighborhood of 75%, and will sometimes gamble with 40% odds and be angry when they lose twice in a row anyway. So maybe this is actually a 30% increase and the 10% increase is a lie because that’s what a 30% increase intuitively feels like. Given he’s in an advanced calculus class, though, I’d expect our hero to be able to figure out that a 10% increase shouldn’t be making as big a difference as it is.

Sometimes I get the sense that the game AI might be mocking me…

Someone has to.

There was little light, and he would have had difficulty seeing the gate if not for his Night Vision.

After a double-level up in the skill, Jason’s night vision is now giving him a whole twelve percent increase to seeing in the dark. That’s right, these skills go up by one percentage point at a time. Jason will periodically reference how he wouldn’t be able to see this or that without the benefit of his night vision skill, and damn, everything in this town must be at a very specific amount of lighting that a 12% increase in seeing in the dark reveals so much that would otherwise be hidden.

We then have a short sequence where Jason sneaks around a graveyard, finds two grave robbers getting ready to snuff the caretaker, shanks one of them, and then the caretaker turns out to be a necromancer who uses her mad necromancy skillz to obliterate the other one with some of the worst abuse of adverbs I’ve ever seen. Like, seriously, I’m gonna have to stop giving people shit for making so much noise about adverbs. It turns out they really are a plague. I mean, look at this:

Jason looked on in shock. He noted that the man’s skin actually appeared to decay rapidly and slough off his bones in waves.  The effect made it appear that the man was being melted alive.

We aren’t to the adverbs yet, but “noted?” “The effect made it appear?” How about “the man’s skin was decaying to a sickening ooze, sloughing off his bones in waves. He was being melted alive.” As with all these rants, that was off the top of my head and coming from someone who believes that line-by-line craft is basically a total waste of time once you reach basic competence (corroborating evidence: This book is nearly in the top 5,000 best selling books for the entire Amazon store even two years after release – agents and editors care about line-by-line craft, readers do not give a fuck).

Soon, little more was left of the grave robber than a pile of bones and debris partially embedded in the ground.

Holy shit.

Jason still lay on the ground, stunned by the display of force he had just witnessed.  Strangely, he didn’t feel scared.  His mind was simply clouded with amazement at the spell the woman had cast.

The italics are in the original, but bolding is mine. Everything bolded can just be flat out removed and the passage would only be improved.

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