“To answer your last point, Alfred couldn’t control a player completely. Even assuming he could, he would have to completely override the person’s mind. It would probably leave them in a permanent vegetative state when he was finished.”
“The AI who’s blatantly biased in favor of necromancy players could only jack into users’ bodies by turning them into zombies, so we should be perfectly safe.” Since the next paragraph explicitly refers to these as “zombies” I kind of think that maybe this is intentional foreshadowing, but it’s hard to tell the difference between dropping obvious hints to build dread and setting foreshadowing that’s expected to go over my head.
Chapter Sixteen brings about a revelation: Awaken Online is secretly a video game. Like, look at this:
Apparently, bags in the game functioned the same way as in many other MMOs. The game had balanced realism against pragmatism. Pragmatism had won.
The way the bags work is kind of lame, in that they work exactly like standard MMO bags. Given this is full dive, a more bag of holding kind of deal would’ve been more interesting. But hey, for once AO is acknowledging that it’s a video game and should have goals other than maximum realism. It’s too late to salvage this game’s total disregard for players’ time, but at least some of it can still be salvaged.
The administration office also offered bounties for killing local creatures and would reward players with copper and silver.
Confirmed, though: Killing things is the primary way you advance in this game. It’s not clear if the “local creatures” (or the targets of quests from friendly taverns mentioned in another passage) are meant to be sapient things like goblins or non-sapients like wolves, so jury’s out on whether or not “killed three people” is remotely significant in this MMO, but things are starting to look more grim. Not that there’s really any turning that one around, because even if this MMO features a paucity of human opponents, every other MMO is happy to have you kill bandits and enemy soldiers by the truckload, so there’s really no reason Jason should be remotely hesitant to plan around murders here in AO. Even if the full dive experience makes him hesitant to actually do the deed, he shouldn’t have any problems merely promising to do so.
Finished with his inspection of the map, he took the scroll in his hands and again thought “use.” A chat window appeared in the bottom of his vision. He focused on the window, and it centered in his field of view. He could see that the other players had been chatting continuously while he had been playing. The chat was riddled with offers to sell certain types of goods and services and with messages from people looking for groups. Jason chuckled as his chat window was flooded with advertisements from companies trying to sell in-game gold.
And look! An actual MMO chat! Again, it would’ve been neat to have this turned into some kind of telepathy through the magic of full dive, but from the low, low point AO is clinging to right now, just meaningfully interacting with its premise at all is a step up.
Jason sneaks two of his new undead pets into town under cloaks and starts shambling through the bad part of town towards the noble estates. Some of those thieves who ambushed him earlier try to jump him again and hilarity ensues.
In the meantime, the guard zombie had gone on a rampage and stabbed around himself in a whirlwind. Even with his reduced level, the gap between himself and the thieves, along with the superior reach of his weapon, were deadly.
So naturally, seeing that they are completely outmatched and being advanced AIs that actually behave according to logical motivations and don’t just blindly attack every player who breaks aggro, the thieves retreat. I’m kidding, of course, they bash their heads uselessly against Jason’s OP zombie minions until they die.
Shaking his head slightly, Jason forcefully released his mana, and his emotions came rushing back. Guilt and confusion warred in his head as he surveyed the corpses in the alley. While he was under the effects of his dark mana, he felt numb to these sensations.
What the hell was that? I probably would have attacked someone if they had happened to walk by, regardless of who they were.
I would find this way more compelling if Jason was just being affected by his experiences normally, rather than mindfucked by an insane rogue AI. Like, it makes sense that engaging in visceral, realistic violence using what feels like your actual body would affect your instincts and reflexes in a way that just punching commands into a controller wouldn’t. By relying on the Controller to be responsible for everything, it mainly just draws attention to how much special treatment the Controller is giving Jason, and for no adequately explained reason. We’re only halfway through the book, so that explanation might be forthcoming, but as I always mention when bringing that possibility up, the level of craft on display so far makes me skeptical.
For the rest of the chapter, Jason uses his new army of thief zombies to break into a manor and ransack the place, assassinating a bunch of guards to add to his forces as he goes along. It’s all pretty straightforward stealth gameplay, which makes me suspicious that this is yet another “put barest modicum of thought into how to use class features for profit, get hailed as the greatest player ever for it” moment. If Awaken Online were meant to be a single player game, I wouldn’t be complaining. Even if Jason’s experience were radically different from other players, that just means that the Controller has, for whatever reason, decided that retaining Jason’s interest is best served by serving up a radically different play experience. As the overseer of an MMORPG, though, the Controller isn’t just telling Jason that he’s very special, the universe at large is actually confirming that by having him outstrip other players in ability. His level is comparatively low (despite having been handed not one, but at this point two easy power leveling tricks – his zombies can rack up levels for him in a hurry and are each individually level 20+ characters perfectly capable of hunting mooks on their own), but his accomplishments are significantly higher than everyone else, and all just for engaging in some basic stealth gameplay.
Do the Arkham games not exist in this universe? I mean, we’re in 207X so probably that series has withered by now, but the basics of how video games work appears to be completely unchanged except for the recent invention of full dive which means the basic genre of stealth games should still be around, so how come only a vanishingly small percentage of players have gone Khajit on the nobles? It’s ludicrously profitable in terms of both level and gold and not very hard.
The flashback fiction in this chapter is instead present-time fiction written from the perspective of one of the NPC schmucks who’s about to get ganked by the zombie army creeping through the estate and murdering everything.
Regent Aquinas didn’t have an heir, and news of his death would have incited a war among the noble families that would have devastated the city.
To avoid this result, the nobles had banded together and had been governing the city in secret.
If the purpose of the secret is to stop a succession crisis between the noble families…
And the secret is being kept by the noble families…
Then who is the secret being kept from?
I am not fond of the plutocracy, so it’s saying something that this “nobles selling out the city to foreigners” plot line is falling flat for me. I’m predisposed to support what the book is doing, but not so strongly that I won’t notice when they completely fuck it up.
Looking at the state of south-side (which was now little more than a slum), Sir Ryalt expected that the nobles had been skimming from the city’s taxes for some time.
Medieval and Renaissance leaders own the cities they rule in their entirety. There is nothing to skim. 100% of the taxes go directly to their personal treasury, and they decide to spend some of that treasury on infrastructure or not as the whim strikes them. What exactly would the alternative be in any system ruled by aristocrats in the first place? It’s important to have the city treasury be a distinct entity from the pocketbooks of any of the people who manage it when that treasury is managed by elected representatives who run on a platform of (among other things) how they will manage that money, money which belongs to the people and is being spent on their behalf by elected representatives in accordance (in theory) to their wishes as manifested by their votes, but in an oligarchy where those in power have unlimited access to the treasury and the people explicitly have no representation, what is even the point of giving the city a separate treasury? The city nobility are being treated like old money who monopolize a democratic process, using wealth or tradition or gerrymandering or whatever to win elections with near-impunity, but there’s no sign that there’s any actual democratic process going on at all.
The pair walked stiffly, and their breath rasped in their throats. His guests continued to stare at the men unsettled. They didn’t seem too alarmed since they also recognized the guards’ attire, but their behavior was odd.
The two men approached Sir Ryalt. “My lord,” one said in a hoarse, rasping voice. “Thieves have invaded the house and are approaching this room. They have killed the other servants and guards!”
At which point Sir Ryalt immediately sicced his half-dozen living guards on them, then instructed them to hunt down the necromancer who had reanimated them. Right? Because these guys are clearly zombies. Every living person has noticed that they’re in bizarrely ill health, and since necromancy is just a thing that happens in this world, they have no reason not to come to the conclusion that these are zombies.
We all know I’m being sarcastic, and Sir Ryalt of course falls for the ruse, allowing the zombie guards to stand dead center of the room so that basically everyone is within range of Jason’s corpse detonation trick. Which, really, if the corpse explosion is that powerful, the whole ruse was completely unnecessary and only saved him a handful of corpses. Jason could’ve just had the two zombies kick the door down, rush to melee, explode, then send another pair in to do the same thing to the nobles now that their frontline of guards had been obliterated. That’s assuming it even takes two simultaneous corpse explosions each to clear out the guards and then the nobles. If the only reason for sending in two was to expand the radius of the explosions to cover the whole room, Jason could’ve just sent in one zombie to blow away the guards, then another for the lords behind them.
Bear in mind, adventurers are corpse factories and in this chapter and the one before it, Jason has proven that AO is certainly not an exception, not even with his particular play style. It’s a bit of a hassle, but he can replace his zombie army at-will by finding some thieves to shank in the bad part of town and then using those thieves to shank some guards in the good part of town. He can currently command about a dozen zombies, which means the amount of damage he can spit out by turning them all into kamikazes is well over six thousand, and he can add another 1,000 HP of pain on top of that with a successful sneak attack. Which means this is, and you can all sing along at this point, yet another grossly overpowered power-leveling trick that Jason can use to absolutely stomp enemies far higher level than he is for oodles of XP.
His stats were completely unbalanced since he had put all of his stat points into Willpower, but he supposed it was for the best. He could now summon 18 zombies at once, and the max level of his summons was level 66.
This kind of broken build where just allocating your points properly gives you options that let you trivially crush massively more powerful opposition is the kind of sloppy balancing that would inspire me to make a second MinMax the Clown video were Awaken Online a real game. It is not a sign of Jason’s brilliance that “get zombies, put all points into better zombies” is an awesome build. That’s basic minmaxing, and the fact that it works is a sign of poor design.
That had worked so well in this particular fight that he was beginning to think of different ways that he could make himself appear to be a mere minion.
Perhaps my best defense is a good disguise!
This is the first genuinely clever thought that Jason has had the whole book. Bear in mind we’re 45% of the way through and have had like three or four different encounters that Jason has been able to bullrush through with strategies that are only one notch up from “hit it until it dies,” strategies so simple that they are used as primary game mechanics for entire genres of video game. And not hardcore genres, either! There are difficulty levels at which beating Arkham City becomes an accomplishment, but Normal is not one of them, yet it still requires a basic understanding of what a sneak attack is and how line of sight works, which are the only skills Jason has demonstrated up to this point.
Context: Jason gets a rare drop off of one of the NPCs he just exploded.
Jason was blown away by the quality of the sword. The item was on a different level than the type of gear that he had seen on Rogue-Net or the in-game markets. He expected that it made sense, having been dropped by an NPC that was almost level 200. Jason wasn’t certain how much the blade was worth, but he expected to make at least a few thousand dollars when he sold it.
So Jason is making most of his rent and grocery money off of one drop. The fantasy that someone is so good at video games they can make a living off of the item grey market is one I’m willing to get behind. The fantasy that they do this by selling off one drop every two or three weeks is not. Rather than have this drop singularly explain away Jason’s entire money problem, why not let him sell it for a few hundred dollars (not very much in 207X money, which I’m now confident has experienced significant inflation from 2016 dollars) and then mention elsewhere that he hits up an estate like this once or twice a day in order to keep his bills paid? That way he has to put some actual effort in, he can rack up levels consistently in the background instead of getting like twelve levels every time he kills anything, and he’d be paying his bills with actual work rather than spending four hours a month raiding estates for sweet loot using skills that like two-thirds of the player base should logically be familiar with but are instead so esoteric that only a vanishingly small portion of the playerbase employs them.
And about those levels, why are they so ludicrously high? Even games with uncapped leveling like Black Desert Online still have soft caps relatively low. BDO’s soft level cap is fifty. That game was released in 2015 (in Korea) and it was over two years later in the tail end of 2017 that someone managed to ding 63 (I presume also in Korea, although I didn’t check). So far as I can tell, 63 remains the highest level yet achieved in the game as of the writing. Tera Online’s hard level cap is currently 65, but I think it was 60 at release. Guild Wars 2 has a level cap of 80, and the original had a level cap of just 20 (although making it easy to achieve max level and explore endgame content was a specific design goal of the first Guild Wars). WoW launched with a level cap of 60, and the current cap is 110 after fourteen years of expansions. City of Heroes (God rest its soul) had a level cap of 50.
What I’m getting at here is that Awaken Online could divide its levels by five across the board without losing a goddamn thing, especially since Jason always gets them in sets of seven or eight. In fact, the Guild Wars 1 approach of a very low level cap is probably best for LitRPG, because that way each level up can bring a meaningful change in abilities by itself. It makes sense that AO wants its protagonist to become noticeably more powerful every time he allocates a bunch of new skill points, but that just means there’s no reason for having levels be so incredibly granular that he has to achieve twelve of them at a time to get that effect.
We’re about halfway through the book now. By the time we get to 75% of the way through, it’ll be too late for major reveals, so if Awaken Online is going to reveal that Jason’s not all that special, has just been having his ego stroked by the game, and got thrown an artifact sword basically for free simply as a means to covertly get wealthier players to subsidize his subscription fee and thus maximize player retention, it’s probably going to happen somewhere in the next couple of chapters.
“Sir, you asked me to monitor statistics regarding the beginning players to look for anything irregular.” He hesitated before continuing, “Well, I don’t quite understand some of these statistics we are receiving regarding a first-time user.” The tech frowned.
“The system is reporting that the player jumped from level 12 to level 30 in less than an hour of in-game time. Even taking into account the power leveling some of the beta players have done for new players, this is extreme. I’m not even certain how this is possible.”
There is no God.
Jason is attacking another estate because fuck the plutocracy, and…we have to watch him do it, for some reason? I mean, if this ends up going somewhere then fair enough, but if this is just Jason causing some general mayhem then we really don’t need to see more than his decision to do so and then a cut to later on when we can see the total extent of the damage, maybe from some Future Hologram YouTube commentary show about big trouble in little Lux or something.
By the time his thieves reported back, Jason had created something that vaguely resembled a crown and set it on his fake leader’s head. The effect was comical. His “leader” zombie looked like he was attending an anime convention in his homemade “king of darkness” costume.
This book is so eager to attack nerds for having fun, like it’s the novelization of Big Bang Theory or something. Nerds slapping together king of darkness cosplays for anime conventions are your target audience. Why the Hell are you shitting on them?
Jason attacks the manor’s lord. It’s a fire wizard, he ganks him with corpse explosion and some assassin zombies. It’s not a terrible fight. It’s got a new foe with new capabilities. It’s still a fight against an enemy triple Jason’s level that he solves just by using his class features in an intuitive and obvious way (one exception: the reasonably clever trick of disguising one of his zombies as the leader soaks an attack for him, but it’s not even clear if that attack would’ve been enough to drop Jason if he’d been more clearly the one in charge), but laying aside how badly the book wants me to believe Jason is a genius for pulling it off, the fight fundamentally works. I’m not certain there’s an actual reason to have had it, but I’m also not averse to a book having a fight scene for no better reason than that it is fun to watch a zombie explode a wizard into giblets.
He turned to Jason with an expression that said, “Again? Look at this mess!”
I’ve been ignoring these kinds of lines about Jason’s cat familiar Onyx, but I bring it up now because they happen with such incredible frequency that it’s clearly just a way of giving the cat dialogue. The “expression that says ‘[specific phrase'” device is fine for when you want to communicate a specific reaction shot without having to spend a paragraph describing it (thus killing the pacing), but at the point where it’s a character’s primary means of interacting with other people, you either need to put in some effort to describe how the character’s face manages to express all this or else just give the character the ability to actually speak. Onyx is clearly a magic familiar of some sort and everyone but Jason has figured that out, so it really wouldn’t hurt to clue Jason in on that.
The downside was that his infamy had increased by another 200 due to murdering another house full of NPCs.
How is this a downside? Like, I can see plenty of reasons why it might be. Maybe if your infamy score gets high enough, guards start to attack on sight. The story doesn’t actually say, though. Also, how is he racking up infamy at all? No one knows he’s responsible, and this game clearly has mechanics for avoiding having crimes pinned on you, because the quest to assassinate the stablemaster and his wife a few chapters back revolved around doing exactly that.
Then we get a glossed over reference to how Jason ransacks pretty much the entire nobles’ district that night. He did get a fire mage zombie out of the assault on the fire mage manor, so that’s probably not a completely wasted scene.
At this point, Awaken Online has burned most of its bridges. We’ve seen Jason not just speculate about how awesome he is or be informed by Controller-run NPCs how rare and special his basic gamer instincts are. His specialness has been confirmed both by the reaction of devs to the rate he’s now leveling and the market reality that his looting has given him a month’s worth of living expenses in one night, when normally the only people who can make money at all are high-level beta-testers selling spare loot to the influx of new players. Almost all of this success has been predicated on choosing a stealth build. He’s done exactly one clever thing, and that came at the end of what would’ve been a meteoric ascent even without it. There’s no more wriggling out of this: Jason is Mary Sue as all Hell.