Awaken Online: Penultimate

Chapter Twenty-Two

He had wallowed in his own self-pity and anger, taking his emotions out on the game world.  He had continuously channeled his dark mana to drive away the pain and then gone on to destroy a city.  Even as he ground the NPCs and players under his digital foot, he had been weak.  Jason had lashed out at the game world instead of dealing with his own issues.  He was overcome with a heavy sense of shame that nearly took his breath away.

Earlier on in the novel Jason had occasionally reflected that it’s not really a big deal to kill a bunch of NPCs or even really players (whatever psychological harm is caused by being torn apart by zombies in full dive is no worse than being torn apart by wolves – something that hopefully would’ve been caught in beta testing). That seems to be completely gone now, and we’re just supposed to accept that being amoral in video games is something you should feel guilty about. But, like, I dropped a bunch of fuel air explosives on a densely populated city yesterday (February 17th – I’m pretty far ahead of schedule right now), and I don’t even really care (I also gained karma because I happened to leave more civilian targets standing than I flattened, even though I wasn’t really aiming at all, just zooming over the city at top speed and dropping FAEs as soon as I got close to a target). So I’m not buying it.

On the other hand, it’s nice to see Jason admitting to some faults here. He spent two full days playing one video game, and given how blatantly unfairly (to the point of straining suspension of disbelief) he’d been treated at school, that’s understandable, but also not entirely healthy, so okay. On the other hand, did anyone other than Jason get this kind of treatment? It doesn’t seem like it. Some reference has been made to the Controller helping other people with their problems in the flashback sequences, but Jason is clearly getting special treatment, as I have exhaustively catalogued. There’s no way he’s even close to the most put-upon person in the game.

And, like, Alex is in the game. The Controller only seems to be encouraging his worst traits. If the Controller is trying to increase player retention by serving as a guidance counselor in order to play the long game and convince people to keep playing because it’s great for their mental health (bad plan long term, by the way: The better their real life is, the less likely they are to sink stupendous amounts of time into the game – the book can try and present the Controller as a friendly AI, but that doesn’t make any goddamn sense because its highest priority is deeply unhealthy for its users), then how come Alex is so unaffected by it? He has to be playing near-constantly to be maintaining his position as game leader in character level. Wouldn’t the Controller want to find a way to, like it did with Jason, use the indulgence of his least commendable qualities to persuade him not to let those qualities become self-destructive? That doesn’t square up with the impulsive violence that Alex gets up to at school.

 He could live without furniture and on a ramen-only diet, but he needed more bandwidth.

I have tried the ramen-only diet. I was unable to last a full week. Even if it’s just the lettuce on a hamburger, you need vegetables, kid.

He liked to think there had been some decent planning involved, but it also felt like the old man might have been not so subtly guiding his hand.

It’s weird that the book has these little moments of what seems like self awareness, but then goes on to have the game devs completely freak out about how fast he’s gaining levels while…engaging in basic stealth minion mastery. And how we’ve had the third party website Rogue-Net confirm that dark users are vanishingly rare, when “I came here for a power fantasy” should describe like 70% of an MMO’s population.

Based on the timing of Alexion’s original post, his army had probably started marching to the city already.  He estimated that he had six in-game days before they reached the Twilight Throne.  This translated to about two days in real-world time.

This game’s fervent desire to waste its players’ time continues to amaze.

Chapter Twenty-Three

This time our flashback is to Alex’s childhood, by way of the reminiscing of his father.

Rupert, the family’s terrier, lay on his side on the floor, his chest unmoving.  His side had been neatly cut open, and a flap of skin had been drawn back.  George remembered vividly the sight of the dog’s intestines and organs as blood oozed from the wound.

Alex stood over Rupert’s corpse, a knife in one hand.  Blood dripped slowly from the tip of the blade onto the floor.  Alex had turned as his father opened the door.

“Hi daddy,” he had greeted George.  His tone didn’t carry any remorse or sadness.

Well, that explains why the Controller hasn’t fixed Alex and opens up the new question of why it’s letting Alex amass so much power. Letting a psychopath run rampant is a terrible way to increase player retention. Generally speaking people do not like being in the close orbit of a psychopath. It is not a fun place to be. Given the option to log out and not deal with it anymore, quite a few people will do that. Sure, some number of people are also easily seduced by psychopaths and will be victimized by them over and over again, but the Controller can retain those people anyway. Their personality doesn’t consist solely of being drawn to psychopaths. They have other traits that the Controller can use to keep them playing. Even in the case of someone so phenomenally broken that they are only interested in seeking out psychopaths to abuse them, the Controller could just use psychopathic NPCs for that rather than letting a real, actual psychopath go wild in the game and draw other players into their orbit – some of whom will quit the game. Especially since they can’t make alts to start over somewhere else. Alex was a beta player and the Controller is omnipresent within the game world, so it should know this already.

“Um, is that Grunt?”

“Why yes,” Jerry said glibly.  “He is quite fond of his new body as well.  He was strong before, but now he is simply the model of male masculinity.

As opposed to female masculinity, I guess.

Context: Rex and Jerry are now undead, Jason has called a meeting with them and Morgan to discuss how to defend the city from Team Shiny.

Rex chuckled.  “What would you suggest innkeeper?  I know!  How about the Grave Society?”

 

Jason finally spoke up, “Well, it’s decided then.  Let’s adjourn the first meeting of the Shadow Council.”

Dude, no. You had it the first time. The Shadow Council is like the single most generic name you could give yourselves. The Grave Society is way better.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Riley Jones sat astride a horse, as it ambled along a beaten and dusty road.  Her long blond hair flapped in the breeze.  Her leather armor creaked and groaned as the horse moved beneath her, and the string of her bow dug into her shoulder through the leather.

Just in case you were worried that neon sign reading “love interest” she was wearing in the first couple chapters was a red herring, yup, she’s in this story again.

Alexion finished his conversation with the aide and reined in his horse until he was even with Riley.  “Why aren’t you riding up beside me my dear?” he inquired in a courteous tone.

“I just wanted to speak with some of the other members of your army,” she said, striving to keep her voice even and polite.

“I just wanted to be as far from you as possible,” she thought bitterly.  Each time she had to maintain her pleasant facade, she could feel a little piece of herself being chipped away.  She rebelliously guarded her secret, bitter, thoughts.

So Riley’s press-ganged into the game as part of some mysterious “arrangement” with Alex that she has apparently been unable to draw upon her parents’ vast resources to combat. Standard female weapon? Check. Damsel in distress? Check. This book is burning through the goodwill it built up across chapters 20 and 21 at a prodigious speed.

I don’t know the details of their “arrangement,” but Riley is clearly an unwilling participant, which means Alex clearly has leverage on her. How? Riley is middlingly popular at Richmond, which we know means she must be incredibly wealthy. We know from earlier flashbacks that Alex’s father considers his sociopathy a huge problem, so it would be weird as Hell if he gives Alex unlimited control over the family purse-strings and, indeed, would presumably be trying to strictly limit Alex’s ability to harm and manipulate others if he can do so without drawing attention to them. So how does this not end with Riley doing what princesses do and asking her parents to make the problem go away, and then her parents leverage some of their enormous resources to make it happen, and far from interfering with that, Alex’s father would probably do it for them and then ask them to keep all the details under wraps as a favor to him? They’re both plutocrats, so they’d probably trade in the favor economy rather than just throwing gobs of money at each other, but still. Nobody with serious power wants Alex to be doing this kind of thing. Alex might be untouchable to Jason, but to Riley, he’s a missing stair. The people around her might not be taking appropriate measures to deal with him, but they are taking some measures to deal with him. They won’t fix the stair, but they don’t want her to trip over the gap, either.

Maybe it’s blackmail material and none of this matters because Riley has been prevented from going to her parents, but I’m pretty suspicious. I mean, I’m basically always suspicious, but usually when this book has defied my expectations, it’s been in a bad way. Like, I’m still way sad that this isn’t about the Controller kidnapping the playerbase on launch day, giving Jason’s actions in the game some real stakes to chew on. Instead it’s just about a petty confrontation with a school bully. Okay, sure, Alex is a sociopath and that’s a much bigger deal than standard teenage cliquishness, but what the fuck is Jason going to do about it, grief him in a video game? Also, we didn’t learn that Alex was a sociopath until chapter twenty-three, so we had a full twenty-two chapters of a super low stakes revenge on the bully plot, and that’s not okay. You’re not supposed to fix the story’s problems in later chapters. You’re supposed to fix them in editing.

I have a sinking suspicion that the answer to that question may be that the Controller set up Alex just so Jason could find his self-confidence knocking him down, and none of the people Alex would have been able to hurt in the meantime matter so long as Mary Sue gets a happy ending.

Dark circles shadowed Jason’s eyes, and his back was hunched with fatigue.

Why? You don’t need sleep in AO and even if he’s feeling tired in real life because he’s been playing for however long, that shouldn’t change his in-game appearance.

Jason then spends the chapter equipping his army and picking up some new spells. Still only the vaguest idea of how he’s going to rumble with Team Shiny, so the jury’s out on whether it’s going to involve Mary Sue bullshit. It’s not impossible that this book will end much stronger than it started. That’s really not saying much, but it’s not nothing.

Chapter Twenty-Five

She had always wanted to try archery in the real world but never had the opportunity.  She remembered posing the idea to her parents many years ago.  They had explained that it was a silly hobby.  They insisted she should be a cheerleader or play a team sport.  What sort of girl shot a bow for fun?

What universe are we in where shooting a bow is less feminine than playing basketball?

Along with the other players, Riley had seen the system message when Lux was conquered.  When she had seen the player’s name, a strange feeling had welled up inside of her.  It couldn’t be the Jason she knew.  There were likely millions of people who shared that name.  Yet the unmistakable image of Jason’s face had flashed in her mind’s eye when she saw the notification.

Love Interest Neon Sign

With a thought, he lifted a bone from the ground and set it to hover in front of him.  He then drew in dark mana as though he was about to add connections between the bones.  However, instead of forming a pool of mana and attaching it to the bone, he imagined it forming a delicate blade in the air.  The dark mana swiftly formed into a blade. Jason visualized the magical knife cutting the edge of the bone in a smooth arc.

This is completely inconsistent with how the rest of the game’s magic system has worked, as it has otherwise relied on casting specific spells learned in advance. And why? Jason doesn’t need a magical knife, he has like twelve daggers and throwing knives already.

This is the prompt when Jason levels his skeleton crafting spell:

x2 Skill Rank Up: Custom Skeleton
Skill Level:  Beginner
Level 3 Effect:  You may raise a custom skeleton using nearby bones.  The skeleton’s level is calculated as the caster’s level + Willpower/74.

Note that the skeleton’s level is automatically somewhere between slightly and massively higher than the caster’s. And it’s not even hard to get a squad of a dozen of these. Since Jason is now staring down specific, very high level opposition rather than picking targets, from a story perspective it doesn’t matter so much that he’s able to vastly outstrip his level. From a game design perspective, though, this makes necromancers flat-out better than any class that doesn’t come equipped with similarly bonkers OP abilities – and we’ve seen some a basic set of three fire magic spells, and they’re nothing close to nasty enough to be the equal of just skeletons by themselves. Remember that Jason got set on the path for this class by passing a personality test, and actually acquired it by finding a slightly out of the way NPC and engaging in basic stealth gameplay. The only hard part of becoming a necromancer is convincing the Controller to give you an affinity for dark magic.

Chapter Twenty-Six

The flashback gives us confirmation that yes, Riley is being blackmailed, while also constantly signposting that she is going to be Jason’s girlfriend by the end of this series. Honestly, she could still go to her parents and it would probably be fine because high school seniors simply do not win against motherfucking plutocrats, but a teenager could plausibly fail to recognize that.

Could Alex really be this stupid?  Could the other players?

Members of Alex’s army were posting pictures, video clips, and detailed information regarding the army’s progress and location.  One player actually described the NPC sentries around the camp!

I don’t know why Jason is laying this at Alex’s feet. I’ve harped on the weird lack of any remotely clever player except Jason in all of AO, but it’s not like gamers are ubiquitously super geniuses or anything. Both ends of the bell curve are going to be well-represented in game with over a million players. If you gather up whoever’s willing to help you fight a war, you are going to have dumbasses who insist on streaming the whole trip and there is not much you can do to stop them. Even killing them won’t be a significant deterrent, partly because even the incredibly poorly designed death penalty in this game still isn’t that much of a threat because it’s ultimately still just a video game, but mostly because people dumb enough to do this are probably too dumb to think about consequences anyway.

There’s also some stuff about how Jason’s aunt also plays video games, and they play some console games together, but we can’t say which consoles because it’s 207X and even the old consoles Angie is playing are from 206X and the author can’t be bothered to name things. Naming things is hard and I don’t like doing it, but really that’s just all the more reason why this book should’ve been set in, like, 2025 or 2030. If Angie’s consoles are a decade out of date, she could have a PS4 or something. Having current-gen tech be referred to as outdated wouldn’t be super original or anything, but it still works, and it would’ve avoided the problem this chapter had where Angie conspicuously avoids referring to consoles by name and thus implies that consoles as a concept are outdated. We know that’s not true, because there is exactly one full dive VR game on the market right now and it’s only been out for like three days, but that’s what she sounds like, because she can’t refer to specific outdated consoles, so she can only refer to the fact that she has consoles which are outdated, which comes off like consoles as a concept are outdated.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

It was clear to her that Alexion had bought into the explanation that Jason had conquered Lux through an event quest.  She thought that seemed unlikely.  From what she had seen so far, AO didn’t offer much hand-holding.  Riley felt that Jason shouldn’t be underestimated, and Alexion was a fool for not listening to his men.

He was too cavalier with the lives of the NPCs and was quickly losing their respect.  They didn’t respawn.  It may just be a game to him, but for them, it was their lives at risk.  How he had managed to secure command of this army, she had no idea.  She wasn’t a tactical genius, but what the NPC commanders had said made sense. 

For someone who’s only even playing this game under duress, Riley sure does seem to know an awful lot about it. It appears that she, too, is now receiving information directly from the author.

Also, Jason did conquer Lux through an event quest. It wasn’t purely down to being at the right place at the right time, but the only reason he was ever in a position to wreck Lux is because he was handed super powers no one else had access to. It’s also not clear if the questline he followed to get there was available to anyone else but him. Certainly the hook was available (rumors about the regent of Lusade’s death could be overheard in the market by anyone) but a lot of the early steps of that quest came down to Rex and Jerry deciding they liked Jason. In Rex’s case, this is apparently because Jason is the only person who asked him for advice as to which weapon he should pick (really? Nobody, of the dozens/hundreds/thousands of players that preceded Jason thought to ask Rex what the actual benefits and tradeoffs of the weapons were?), and in Jerry’s case it seems like it’s just because Jason was vaguely associated with Rex.

Jason attacks the army at night with guerilla tactics. It’s easy to forget since Jason is badly outmatched in general, but the foundation of his success is that the necromancer class is blatantly overpowered with just a little bit of powergaming. No player who couldn’t summon minions of some kind would be able to cause a diversion on one end of the camp, then light the other on fire, and also lay an ambush on another side of the camp for reinforcements, and no player who couldn’t summon minions significantly higher level than themselves would be able to actually pull this off, and I’m going to reiterate this every time AO tries to make me forget it, the reason Jason got those higher-level minions is because he’s the only one in all of AO who’s ever played a stealth game and figured out that stealth gameplay punches way above its weight.

Their goal was as much to scare the players as it was to kill them.  If they couldn’t kill a player, the Night Children tried to inflict crippling or maiming blows.  A player likely wouldn’t die from a severed hand, but the dull pain they felt and the trauma of losing a limb accomplished something more important.

Jason wanted to crush their spirit.

By giving them cool new enemies to fight? Anyone who’s not down with feeling pain and getting limbs hacked off in full dive isn’t playing AO, because there is no option to turn those “features” off. Throwing a bunch of jump scares at players isn’t going to make them less interested in attacking Twilight Throne (and God I cannot type that name without cringing) anymore than it makes them less interested in a job at Freddy Fazbear’s. I rag on FNaF, and I rag on it because it’s mediocre and lazy, but the series is still super popular. And does he even need to frighten players? If he flat-out kills them, and he does plenty of that, then they’re going to respawn God knows where and be totally unable to rejoin the army because of this game’s never-ending war on convenience.

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