Awaken Online: Did Someone Else Ghostwrite This Part?

Chapter Twenty

Context: Jason has just finished an experiment to see how zombies behave if he raises one that’s past his control limit. The result is that they’re feral zombies that are kind of dumb but immediately attack anything that makes noise. It’s not clear, but they’d probably also attack anything that crosses their line of sight. Jason is considering how he can use this to defeat the city guard so that he can just walk out of Lux with his zombie army instead of trying to find some way to sneak out like thirty maimed corpses or abandoning his crazy OP minions to escape alone.

If he raised the bodies in the various houses one at a time in separate rooms, he could then have his thieves sneak into the manors and open all of the doors.  As the thieves left the house, they could also rig the doors with something that would make a lot of noise when someone tried to get in.  He would basically be creating a trap inside each the noble houses!

This is actually a smart strategy. Not so smart that I wouldn’t expect a beta tester necromancer to have already figured it out (bearing in mind that beta testers tend to be amongst the most hardcore players), but smart enough that if Jason had been doing stuff like this constantly, rather than just barely getting into it now, I’d be much more willing to believe that he stands out amongst other players. Not so much that he’d draw attention from the devs for unprecedented awesomeness, but the gap between how clever he actually is and how clever the book thinks he is would be significantly smaller. This is the kind of behavior that, clear back in like chapter eight, was the sort of thing I was talking about when I said that this book could still turn things around. It is, of course, too late for that now. The devs were enamored with his brilliance before he started doing this kind of thing, which has made it clear that all the handjobs Awaken Online has been giving him just for being a regular gamer with regular gamer instincts were meant to be taken at face value. But, hey, if the book keeps this up I will at least give it less of a failing grade.

Awaken Online remembers that it is actually an MMORPG again during the fracas, and players start talking about what’s going on. Of course, since all 1,000,000+ players besides Jason are ubiquitously braindead idiots who cannot interact with the game world in any way except by hitting red dots in the face until they die, no one really stands a chance against the level 70+ feral zombies that Jason has been raising. This leads to an exchange in the game chat where a player reporting on what’s up with the zombies gets murked. This leads to Awaken Online’s most stunning assault on players’ time so far, something so egregious that I’ve decided to ignore the self-imposed ban on ranting about this subject I’ve mostly maintained since chapter nine:

Jason hadn’t yet died in the game, but he had read on the forums that players that died were subject to a mandatory lock-out period of three hours real world time.

Holy shit. I’ve been wondering how Awaken Online might punish death to encourage intelligent play, particularly since Jason is constantly wigging out about being killed. Would he lose the awesome loot he’s acquired if he got killed with it before he could leave the city, for example, or is he only at risk of losing his OP zombie army? Does equipment degrade if you get killed wearing or wielding it? Do you lose experience? Some of these are worse ideas than others, but any of them are better than “bitch, your play session’s over now, come back in three hours.” Which, for anyone with a remotely busy schedule, is the same as being told to come back tomorrow.

Almost any of the alternatives used in other MMOs (including all of the ones I listed above) would’ve been sufficient to prevent PvP inter-factional combat from going on indefinitely. Players who respawn and immediately rejoin a fight will eventually be driven too low level to contribute, have their equipment shattered, or will even just be at a significant tactical disadvantage if they respawn more than two minutes away and have to run to rejoin the combat. If BLUFOR and REDFOR have a rumble with even numbers at the start but BLUFOR is kicking REDFOR’s ass, that means far more of REDFOR’s players are busy running back to the battlefield from their respawn location, which means BLUFOR has a numerical advantage on the actual battlefield even though the number of players on either side is still the same. Not only that, getting your ass continually kicked is demoralizing, and REDFOR players’ commitment to the fight will wane faster than BLUFOR’s, which means more and more of them will break off to go do something more fruitful. As REDFOR’s numbers dwindle, players willing to fight at a slight disadvantage but not at a more significant one will also leave, because the first wave of departures has put REDFOR at a more significant disadvantage. This domino effect will continue until REDFOR’s willingness to fight peters out. This is very different from a regular medieval war and that’s great because it means the premise is actually being used instead of full dive MMOs just being used as a stealth portal fantasy.

But no, instead we have what is probably the worst death penalty of any MMORPG ever made. Even MMOs with perma-death (and I’m pretty sure there’ve been some of those) at least let you instantly roll up a new character to try again.

I’m becoming a damn fine actor, Jason thought with a mental chuckle.  They aren’t even reacting to my infamy or alignment!

Jason got several hundred infamy for each house he cleared out, and has since cleared out like twelve more. He should have infamy in the low thousands, which should be an immediate warning signal that he is deep in Team Spooky to anyone who sees him. Apparently this book doesn’t want that to be an issue once it’s served its purpose as getting Jason snubbed out of the tutorial, though, so we’re just going to have our previously socially inept protagonist suddenly be a “damn fine actor” and ignore how his infamy was previously identifiable on sight. There’s a bit of an implication here that such identification requires eye contact and Jason now has a hood, but if that’s the case, why do guards not demand to make eye contact with anyone they’re interrogating or receiving a report from?

The lieutenant drew the group of guards and players into a dense-packed “V” formation in front of the training ground facing the street.

We’re in an MMO, and we’ve seen enough of the combat system to know it’s mostly standard MMO fare. Magic superpowers are handed out like Halloween candy and the bread and butter trinity is tank, damage, and support, not infantry, archers, and cavalry. Why are we formation fighting? The only people who need to bother with formations are the tanks. Everyone else just stays behind them and does either healing or murder from range. You don’t usually benefit from volleys in an MMO, so there’s no need to have your ranged attackers fight in formation, and it wouldn’t make any sense for supports to fight in formation.

And indeed, in the ensuing battle the only thing accomplished by the formation is packing everyone together so that Jason can debuff every damn one of them at once, and also this:

Jason’s kamikaze zombies filtered through the ranks of players and guards until they were evenly dispersed.  Neither the players nor the guards seemed to give his kamikazes a second glance.

Why the fuck not? The formation is densely packed. The zombies have to shove people aside to evenly disperse themselves throughout it, and they’re all rasping undead. Players and NPCs alike are now not only aware that zombies exist in general, but are specifically attacking Lux right now. Why does nobody, out of the dozens present, notice when several of them shove their way through the formation?

The fight doesn’t last long after the zombies go boom. As with most of the fights in the book, they’re pretty much fine in execution (ha!), but that can’t carry a book the way I pretty much don’t care about a movie or game’s plot so long as the action is really good (see: Daredevil).

Friendly reminder that Jason is still dumb as bricks:

Now I’m talking to myself AND personifying the cat.

Not only is the cat still obviously a familiar of some kind, it’s also a video game NPC in a game world run by an AI. Aren’t all the NPCs basically just the Controller wearing different hats? Surely that would include an animal that shows as advanced interactivity as this one. Even if the Controller was roleplaying the cat as a non-sapient animal (which it clearly isn’t), it’s still the Controller. Or is the Controller generating sapient AIs for players to murder, West World style? Because the first one seems like the obvious thing to do.

Jason decided this couldn’t all be kickbacks.  The nobles must have been using the guards to hold the money that they had been skimming on tax collection.

Or maybe it’s just the tax money? Like, maybe the city’s treasury is distributed throughout guard posts like this one, because that is the obvious place to put the gold with which you pay guard salaries. Without the author beaming helpful knowledge directly into his brain, Jason would probably just be robbing the city blind just like the nobles he has so much vitriol for.

Jason also can’t figure out how to move this loot despite having an army of three dozen zombies that seem perfectly capable of ascending and descending ladders. Just have them shove a bunch of gold in their pockets and walk out of the city with it all. You’ve already got most of the guards fighting the zeds and have killed most of what’s left. The town gate is consistently defended by one dude. You should have no trouble at all just walking away.

The king was already dead, the nobles had been taken care of, and the guards had now been severely weakened.  If he could finish off the guards and find a way to weaken the remaining players in the city, he would basically control Lux.

That’s not how controlling things works. You don’t become king automatically just because you killed the last dude with the job. You also need a garrison capable of maintaining order and extracting whatever resources you need from the populace. Currently you have less than one quarter as many troops as were originally in the town guard who have questionable ability to effectively patrol the place or collect taxes.

Then he thought of the south-side.  That area was probably not defended at all right now.  There were countless people there.  Jason had already witnessed the poverty in that area.  Many of those people were sick or starving.  A life as the undead was probably preferable to the one they had now; it certainly couldn’t be worse.  Maybe he would be doing them a favor.

Bands of dark mana crawled along Jason’s body like black snakes, and waves of unholy energy cascaded from him.  The ice crystallized in his brain and thudded in time with his heartbeat as a plan began to form in his mind.  He would take the power that he craved!

Chapter Twenty-One

In which Jason kills a city. But I’m not actually complaining about this one. The setup was Mary Sue as all Hell. There is no reason why Jason should be one of very few with necromancy powers. There is no reason why Jason should have power-leveled himself so hard in one night. There is no reason why Jason should be the only one who’s realized that being able to raise minions double your level is probably pretty strong.

But I’m totally fine with Jason being the first one to realize that you can create a diversion in the rich part of town to draw guard attention, instruct your minions to auto-kill people in the poor parts, raise a giant army of feral zero-level feral zombies, have your faster controlled zombie minions aggro the hordes, and then funnel them all into one place for massive carnage. That isn’t just realizing how your class features work, or even just working out a single novel use for them. It’s finding a novel use for a class feature and then spending hours of time building up a massive zombie horde and kiting them into one place. It reminds me of the time when some people in WoW lured Lord Kazzak, a monster who heals about a sixth of his health whenever he kills a player (of any level), into Stormwind, the Alliance hub city. Not only was Kazzak an (at the time) endgame boss who could make mincemeat of a high level player who wasn’t formed up into a party, Stormwind is also full of players across the entire level range, including plenty of newbies and midbies who didn’t stand a chance against him even if massive numbers. The density of players low enough level to be insta-gibbed by any of Kazzak’s attacks meant that he was basically invulnerable even against high-level players who would ordinarily be able to defeat him (mainly by managing healing and aggro to make sure that no one dies). The city didn’t become safe until a Blizzard employee was notified and used sysop powers to insta-kill Kazzak and reset him to his position out in the middle of nowhere. He was soon patched not to wander too far from his lair.

It still bugs me that Jason is being a cackling edgy tryhard about the whole thing instead of the mischievous hacker mentality that I’d expect from someone who can pull this kind of shit off. He’s brooding about “was any of this really justified?” and the answer to that is obviously yes, because it’s funny as Hell and we’re playing a video game.

Context: Voodoo Force cave old guy is talking to Jason about all the murder he’s done tonight.

“Something monstrous and beautiful.  Terrible and mesmerizing.  Destruction and creation.  Alpha and Omega.  They seem to be opposing forces, yet the concert of the two brings true power.”  The old man’s tone almost seemed wistful, as he gazed upon the vortex below.

This isn’t good dialogue, but I feel like I can’t complain too much about it, because I think Lynx is a good villain and his philosophical monologues are even less coherent than this.

Jason’s mind reeled.  Something new?  What would he create with such energy?  Looking at the vortex of raw energy below him, he knew the possibilities were almost endless.

It had better be a way of holding this city and not just, like, an undead kaiju or something.

What he wanted was something that could prevent the decay indefinitely.  He thought of what Morgan had told him about the graveyard, how a nexus of dark mana could preserve the bodies of his minions.  He looked back to the vortex and to the horde of zombies that now stood in the courtyard.  With this power, could he make the dark mana that pervaded their bodies permanent?

I’ll give you half a point for something vaguely in the neighborhood of a smart move, but if I were written a blank check I’d have gone for some kind for some kind of steady source of high level corpses or drastically enhanced control limit or, like, ghast lieutenants that aren’t just killbots who need very specific orders programmed in advance.

The shape of the keep bent and skewed.  Gargoyles emerged from the parapets, and heavy chains emerged from the walls, crisscrossing in the air.  Twisted spires erupted from the stone and shot into the sky.  The gate changed from brown to a black obsidian, with skulls embossed on the banded metal.  Green lights now shone from the arrow slits on the walls, and specters flew in lazy circles around the top of the keep.

Jason also noted that the marketplace and surrounding buildings had been corrupted.  Gravestones emerged from the cobblestones at random angles.  The cobblestones themselves turned black and cracked.  The buildings now seemed to be carved of dark stone and obsidian-colored wood.  Unnatural, tortured faces were carved like scrollwork along the length of the boards.  Ghostly lanterns now adorned the streets and gave off an eerie green light.

The horde standing in the courtyard was not immune to the changes.  As Jason watched, their bodies contorted.  Screams filled the air as the zombies writhed and twisted.  They underwent dramatic changes in size and shape as the dark mana molded them to fit their new home.  Some were changed into pure skeletons, while others grew into monstrous, bulbous hulks that stood eight feet tall.  The rest retained their zombie demeanor, but their eyes now shone with sanity and intelligence.  Through it all, Jason continued to cast the spell.  His mind scrambled to keep up with both the words and the changes he observed before him.

Or the Controller can just interpret “prevent the decay” as something completely different and give Jason all of the above. I guess that works, too. Would’ve been cooler if Jason actually had the foresight to do it himself, though.

The old man’s hand waved at the new city before him. “Welcome to your new home.  Welcome to the Twilight Throne.”

Twilight Cover

Funny that two different books marketed mainly to particularly self-centered teenagers should end up heavily featuring that word. Or maybe less so, given how incredibly thick on the ground books marketed to that demographic are these days. I guess this one bucks the trend by marketing itself to self-centered male teenagers.

What’s really baffling is how unnecessary all the stupid bullshit leading up to this was. There is no reason why Jason needs to be one of the only necromancers in the game. There is no reason why Jason needs to be one of the only stealth players in the game. There is no reason why Jason needs to have power-leveled himself hyper-rapidly. There is no reason why Jason’s zombie-raising power needed to allow him to control zombies massively higher than his own level. There is no reason why all of this needs to have taken the devs completely by surprise. If Jason’s play experience up until now had been depicted as mostly typical, and he got to around level 50 (or preferably a more sane mid-game number like 20 or 30) just because he has, after all, been playing for ten hours a day since launch, and the only reason he’s special now is because he’s the first one to figure out the zombie horde trick, and that let him conquer a city that already could’ve been knocked over by a stiff breeze so why the Hell not, then I would not be writing a series of rant posts about how bad this book is. This here is the moneyshot, the moment when our protagonist gets to actually rule a city and becomes a big deal in the game world, and this actual moment could be part of a much better book with no alteration (preferably with some better dialogue, but even that wouldn’t be necessary).

So why did Travis Bagwell wait until his book was 60% finished to get here? Were the first nineteen chapters an elaborate ruse to convince shitty teenagers to read his book? Or is this just a brief flash of competence and we’re about to sink back into Mary Sue bullshit? Everything in the Spooky Kingdom except Lux is now up for grabs and the Shiny Kingdom was gonna invade anyway, so the question on my mind at this point is whether Jason is going to throw down with Team Shiny using a plain old undead army – including, presumably, any players who spawn in his new sparkly vampire themed city – or if this is just a brief respite from what is otherwise a never-ending torrent of Jason having OP powers handed to him purely on the basis of his Mary Sue specialness.

“A player shouldn’t be able to do this,” Robert murmured.  “Even the participants in the trials never reached this level of power…”

Fucking Hell.

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