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.

Chapter Twelve

Of course!  I am going to have to sucker punch them.  Eventually, they will fall asleep, at which point I can sneak in and hope I do enough damage to kill each of them in one hit.

This is our protagonist’s brilliant plan to kill two high-level targets: Wait ’till they’re sleeping and then shank them with his crazy OP sneak attacks. Again: It should not be this easy for me to stay ahead of a protagonist who’s defining strength is supposed to be intelligence.

He decided that he needed to kill the stable master and his wife first.  Then he would ready the wagon to transport the bodies.  Given the proximity of Marian’s home to the stable, he didn’t want to risk waking them while he stumbled around in the stable with the horse and wagon.

More basic craft notes (and ongoing proof that craft doesn’t really matter that much in terms of market appeal): This whole paragraph is probably unnecessary. Maybe it’s setting up something that will be paid off later, but it seems more likely that it’s just the author having set himself up with two things that need to be accomplished, working out what order they need to be done in, and then transcribing that thought process instead of just having the character show  us what order he’s doing things in by doing them in that order.

Onyx sat there staring at Jason with an expression on his face that plainly said, “Move on idiot, time is wasting!”

Shaking his head at personifying the cat, he slipped into the cottage and located the couple’s bed.

And again! This cat is obviously some kind of magic spirit or familiar thing. For fuck’s sake, when you were giving it a name it rejected the first two of them. You’re shaking your head at personifying a creature who has already demonstrated the ability to comprehend conversations?

It felt as though ice was crystallizing behind his eyes.

I’m pretty sure the author is going for an “ice cold killer” vibe with this, but a killer’s eyes don’t feel cold, they look cold. My first thought at the feeling of ice crystallizing behind my eyes is how incredibly painful that would be.

It seemed stupid in retrospect. He remembered how long it had taken to clean Morgan’s cottage.  He didn’t have the time to remove the blood from the small house; it would be obvious that a murder had occurred.

That was going to be obvious when they both mysteriously disappeared in the middle of the night. The guard discovering that they’d been murdered is not a failure state of the quest, so you’re in the clear provided that you don’t get yourself or Morgan caught. What do you care if a mess gets left behind in their private residence? No one’s going to barge into this place uninvited to come looking for them until they’re already worried something is wrong.

Jason gains seven levels for this murder that took him about ten or fifteen minutes. Sure, there was an awful lot of planning, but that was all because he had to find a way to transport the bodies without getting caught or leading the guards back to Morgan. Someone who’s in it for the XP could plausibly commit this murder and ten others like it in one night just by finding out where all the mid-level NPCs live, going on a killing spree, and just leaving the bodies in their houses. This is a power leveling trick that could easily send someone rocketing from level 1 to well past level 20 in one night. Assassin’s Creed fans are going to wreck this game.

If it was this easy to gain experience from killing NPCs, why didn’t people just start slaughtering the townspeople?  He considered this question as he made his way to the stable and hitched a horse to the wagon.

After a moment, the answer seemed obvious, these NPCs would be impossibly difficult to kill in a straight fight.  It was only with Jason’s unique combination of skills that he was able to pull off the assassination of a higher level NPC.  He was starting to see why someone would prefer to assume the role of an assassin in this game.

However, he realized that the application was likely limited.  Yes, you could kill someone in one hit, but then you were exposed, and your damage was heavily reduced.

Why are you so stupid, Jason? For the gains that come from trivially easy killing sprees (which can be easily accomplished at very low levels), the minor inconvenience of mitigating these drawbacks barely even registers. For starters, nothing is forcing you or anyone else who tries this trick to allocate the bazillion stat points you just got to DEX. Someone could wring dozens of levels out of a spree and then spec into heavy armor and fire magic.

Second, if fighting someone at level 50 is really as insurmountable for a level 3 punk like yourself as you’re making it out to be, then using assassination to power level up ahead of the rest of the pack (amongst non-beta testers it is considered an accomplishment to be higher than level 20 right now – Jason’s halfway there after killing a total of three NPCs) should pretty quickly result in your being able to smash the majority of players you encounter in straight combat just by having an overwhelming advantage in raw numbers. It’s five HP per level plus ten HP per point of Vitality, which means if you have a 5:1 level advantage on someone, you’re on par with them healthwise even if they’re investing two points of Vitality per level (out of five) and you’re investing zero. Meanwhile you’ll have a hideous advantage in some combination of STR, DEX, and INT with which to murder their face. Since a killing spree can plausibly power level you up to level 50 (though it’s hard to say for sure how far it’ll get you before you hit the point of diminishing returns) amongst players who are otherwise mostly level 10, someone taking an assassin build can plausibly melee a knight to death on the strength of nothing else but how much faster you can level with it.

For the rest of the chapter, Jason kills a guard at the gate on his way to the cemetery, realizes he won’t be able to return the wagon to its place before daylight  and that several NPCs have probably seen him driving it, and decides to destroy it. That’s great, except that the owner of the wagon is still going to be missing it come morning and the NPCs have still seen you driving it. And this is a wagon full of hay for sale to the stable overseen by the people he just shanked. If being seen piloting the wagon where a bunch of dead bodies were found was bad, why is being seen piloting the wagon that went missing and was directly associated with the people who disappeared last night any better? Seems like at this point your plan has to be to avoid capture rather than suspicion, so it’s convenient that you’re friends with the local master of the thieves’ guild who has a secret training facility underneath his inn. Just be all “hey, bro, can I crash here” and you’ll be fine.

Jason showed her the pile of bodies he had hidden behind the bushes adjacent to the gate.

“By the gods, boy!  You killed half a town!”

He killed three people. I regularly kill ten times that many while sightseeing. Seriously, if a game is pretty, I will happily mow down thirty people on the way to a hilltop to see the view. And this grand total of three corpses further convinces Morgan that Jason’s got an affinity for spooky magic. Man, my spooky power level must be scouter bustingly massive, given I spent most of my childhood going full Chara on every game that offered finite enemies to exterminate. Speaking of Chara, Undertale’s entire thing is that it made people care at all about the NPCs they were killing, and it is one of the biggest indie successes of the decade pretty much just on the strength of that and its bitchin’ soundtrack. Racking up massive kill counts is so typical in video games that any game that convinces even some of us not to do so immediately stands out.

I am no longer fully convinced Travis Bagwell plays video games. Maybe he’s like the Methods of Rationality guy, who wrote Harry Potter fanfic without having read Harry Potter, basing his story exclusively on having read other Harry Potter fanfic. Maybe Travis’ understanding of video games comes exclusively from LitRPG, which tend to come with far smaller body counts just on the grounds that killing four dozen dudes any time you want to get anything done doesn’t make for very gripping literature. I want to be clear that I’m not specifically making that accusation, because I don’t know nearly enough about Travis Bagwell to have any idea whether or not that’s accurate. I just want to point out that merely in being plausible it serves as damning criticism. A good book about MMORPGs should demonstrate enough knowledge of them to make it feel like the author has direct experience. If the author has never touched an MMORPG, but did enough research to make it feel like they have, that works. If the author plays WoW religiously but still wrote something as out of touch with how video games work as Awaken Online, that’s a problem.

Chapter Thirteen

He had heard of Necromancers from other games but was intrigued to see how this game would develop the class.

Context: Morgan showed off her ability to raise enough zombie minions to re-enact Thriller like five minutes ago. It looks like pretty basic minion master gameplay to me, kid. Have you never played a necromancer before? I know you said that in other video games you’d usually play the hero, but have you literally never played a minion master, not even to try it out?

However, the tradeoff is that you will need corpses to summon your minions, and the strength of those minions is often relative to the power of the creature you use.”

Awaken Online isn’t alone in trying to argue that “necromancers need corpses to summon minions” is a meaningful limitation, but except in edge cases they’re always wrong. PCs are corpse factories, and the narrative has strongly suggested that AO is no different, that most players who’ve reached level 20+ did so by heading out of town to immediately slaughter as much of the local wildlife as they could manage.

“In addition, zombies and skeletons decay over time and will eventually degrade completely.  The decay can be slowed if they remain near a powerful source of dark mana.  This requires most traveling Necromancers to kill often and re-summon their minions in waves.”

Okay, so they’re specifically Guild Wars Necromancers. It’s not that incorporation existing MMO concepts is bad (it’s something I wish AO would do more of, in fact), it’s that if I were Jason, and I had been intrigued by how the necromancer class would play out, I would then be pretty disappointed if the answer was “exactly the same as in this other, better game.” This is another craft issue: The line about Jason being “intrigued” does nothing except make what would otherwise just be an inoffensive bit of exposition about game mechanics into something irritating, overhyped, and maybe even dishonest, if we’re really meant to believe that this kind of necromancer is supposed to be intriguing and not, y’know, seventy years old. They had these things back in Guild Wars 1, and I wouldn’t be surprised if earlier MMOs had them, too.

Jason uses a skill book and gets necromancer kung fu Matrix’d into his brain, and gets portal’d back into the voodoo Force cave to talk to his spooky spirit guide and become a necromancer.

“What traits do the other affinities represent?” he asked the old man.

Okay, Awaken Online, moment of truth. Can you use this bland set of mana types as the foundation for an at least moderately interesting set of personality types for people to sort themselves into?

The deity smiled.  “We are each a side of the dice that is a traveler’s mind.

You’re off to a bad start here.

Desire, Confidence, Passion, Acceptance, Happiness, and Peace.

Nope, you fucked it up.

The lines between us are often blurry, but those lines can be drawn nonetheless.”

Too late, AO, you fucked it up. Passion and Desire are the same thing, Acceptance and Peace are also so similar that anyone who qualifies for one will qualify almost exactly as much for the other. “Happiness” is just a goal that any of the other five (or really, three) could plausibly achieve. Your mana flavors are Slaanesh, Nurgle, and Chad, then two that are redundant and one that’s incoherent.

After becoming a necromancer, Jason gets a vision:

He stood on the parapet of a castle.  Overhead, the sky was covered in rolling black clouds and flashes of lightning intermittently struck the ground.  Below him stood an army that stretched on endlessly.  A legion of zombies, skeletons, and monstrous bone golems roared up at him with demonic fury.  However, one roar resounded louder than the others and Jason looked up.

A mammoth dragon made of bone soared toward him and landed with a crash on a nearby spire of the castle.  Its titanic body caused the stone of the spire to crumble and crack as it landed.  Tremors reverberated through the castle.  The dragon’s head turned to Jason and the two dark glowing orbs of energy that were its eyes bored into him.

So his vision of the future is that his pet is going to ruin his house.

So obviously Jason is going to realize at least some of this power in the course of gameplay. But this is an MMO, which means either everyone who gets far enough in the game gets a giant army (or equivalent power) or else Jason is being handed Mary Sue super powers by the Controller, strong enough to obviate the need for a party, because God forbid our protagonist make any friends at all in a book about a massively multiplayer game.

Chapter Fourteen

Our opening flashback to the beta trials makes it extremely obvious that the Controller is an insane rogue AI that’s completely overridden what frail security features it had to begin with, and I give like 60% odds that the stammering female engineer who’s been our viewpoint character for most of these flashback scenes is getting fridged before those flashbacks catch up to the start of the plot proper. Not quite fridged, I guess, since she’s probably not going to be killed to motivate a male character, but killed off to establish how sinister the bad guy is.

After some thought, Jason decided Dexterity was best.  Damage mitigation in this game seemed to depend more on armor than it did on raw health.  If he went the heavy armor route, he would also have to invest in Vitality since he would be getting hit and Strength in order to carry the armor.  That meant he had to either invest in Dexterity or in both Strength and Vitality.  He decided Dexterity would probably result in better overall damage mitigation for fewer stat points.

If we are meant to assume that Jason’s assessment is more or less accurate, then this is basically just the book admitting to us that the game is poorly balanced in favor of our protagonist’s Mary Sue powers. I would expect that the balance here be that Strength is a heavy factor in melee damage, to the point where even crit-seeking assassin builds need a lot of it to get their spike damage to work properly. In that case, an assassin could spring for STR and DEX while a heavily armored fellow could go for STR and VIT and that would be balanced, but if that were the case, then Jason would be, y’know, actually doing that, because he’s got an assassin build. He is not doing that. He is doing a different thing. So apparently his build just gets to have its defenses online for fewer stat points invested.

Chapter Fifteen

I haven’t bothered with chapter titles because I barely notice them, but I wanted to note that this chapter is titled “nomadic” even though it is about our hero going from one permanent residence to another permanent residence. He’s not planning on continuing to bounce around different locations or anything. He got kicked out of his parents’ apartment for refusing to go back to his high school even if his parents got him re-admitted, and then went to go live with his aunt, and is now scheming to pay for his rent and groceries by getting in-game items and selling them.

There’s not really anything objectionable in this chapter. The dialogue is still stilted and unbelievable, but I’m okay with the idea of a story positing that a high school senior can move out on his own and use his 1337 MMO skillz to pay the rent. That’s obviously pandering to a certain demographic, but I don’t object to the idea that the protagonist gets to do awesome things, just at how relentlessly the world centers around him and treats his perfectly typical qualities as super unique and special. Jason, specifically, is going to be one of the few people to profit off of a video game solely because apparently no one else thought to roll up a rogue type and steal things (has Travis Bagwell not heard of Skyrim?), and that is bonkers nonsense, but if the protagonist found some actually interesting means of getting ahead of the gear curve and selling off his loot on the grey market, that’d be cool. Jason’s been playing for like ten hours a day and is allegedly super smart. I’d buy it if he did something like used the sneak attacks to power level ahead of the player average, then used his massive stack of numbers to raid mid-game dungeons and sell off any drops he gets that aren’t suited for his build, specifically. I’m betting that what Jason’s get rich quick scheme actually boils down to will be another instance of “straightforwardly apply assassin abilities and barest modicum of forethought to problem until solved.” We’ll see in chapter sixteen.

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