Survival Quest: Scandanavian Subversives

Chapter 2

So our hero has been locked into a human race, Shaman class toon and dropped into a copper mine, apparently to spend all of his time actually mining copper. Survival Quest has at least been north of mediocre so far, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt that it’s going somewhere interesting with that, over the more obvious choice of having the imprisoned toons be gold farmers who go out and kill monsters to have the gold turned over to their taskmasters to be sold to regular players for real cash. Granted, giving the benefit of the doubt to a book has rarely worked out for me in the past, but it’s not like Vasily Mahanenko wrote those books, so I won’t judge him more harshly for their failures.

Just before I was placed in the capsule I looked up the contents of Article 78 Section 24, cited by the judge when speaking about the possibility of entering the gameworld. I somehow missed this part before, while I was preparing myself. Reading this even lifted my spirits somewhat. The text stated: “If the prisoner earns Respect with the guards at the place of confinement, he or she may be given the opportunity of being transferred to the main gameworld.”

“Somehow” meaning “because chapter one had enough exposition already.” I don’t know how much to ding Mahanenko for drawing attention to this, because maybe it’s less ham-handed in the original Russian, but whether it’s the author’s or the translator’s fault, drawing attention to the fact that this exposition is being delivered in the order that makes most narrative sense instead of the order the protagonist comes across it is not good. It’s not like anyone would’ve been shouting “but why didn’t you mention this before?!” if that “I somehow missed this part” sentence was completely omitted. We’re still in chapter 2, 6% of the way into the book. It’s fine to still be introducing new concepts right now.

Danny is apparently not under any pressure to get to work, because he stops to look at his character sheet for a while. The main stats are Stamina, Agility, Intelligence, and Strength, plus four empty slots that can be filled with one of presumably a large number of build-specific stats, which have to be unlocked through some special task. The example given is that Marksmanship can be unlocked by shooting at a training dummy  a bunch. I dunno if we’re talking, like, ten times, or doing it for an hour, so jury’s out on whether or not this is a game design failing. In any case, Barliona has the “advantage” of intentionally being a shitty freemium game. If unlocking build-specific stats is a chore, that makes perfect sense so long as you can pay to have them unlocked instantly.

Certain activities level up the stat that ends up being used the most. For example, if I shoot a mob with my bow – not only do I gain Experience for the kill, but also gain a certain percentage in my Agility progress bar. As soon as the progress bar is filled to 100, Agility value is increased by one, the bar itself is reset in order to go through the same process again. Thus the more I hit mobs with a bow, the higher is my Agility.

There’s nothing wrong with this passage, except that the translation is so 1:1 that you can tell this is not a native speaker. Since the speaker is first person narrator Irish McEnglishspeaker, that’s a problem. If this guy were actually Russian, I’d feel like I was getting a translation of his inner monologue in his native language, and it wouldn’t bother me if the translation was fairly literal, so long as it’s still comprehensible (which it is), but instead Daniel Mahan is speaking with Russian grammar. It reminds me of Half-Life 2, where the signs are all in the Cyrillic alphabet and yet not one character speaks with any kind of eastern European accent. Okay, fine, the Combine are relocating a lot of people without concern for cultural compatibility, but why is every inhabitant of City 17 from the other side of the world?

It’s not like Half-Life 2 wasn’t a great game in spite of this, though, and it’s unlikely Mahanenko is switching translators halfway through, so I’m gonna try to stop beating up on the translation so much.

I was suddenly torn away from my daydreams.

“Don’t just stand there! Get a move on!” the rough yell of the overseer returned me to ‘reality’.

Aha, so the guards do push prisoners around, they’re just not very efficient about doing so immediately upon arrival.

The governor of the mine sat behind a luxuriously crafted table in a separate office. He was a huge orc, about two meters in height, green and menacing, like all the representatives of that race.

Don’t you fucking dare go Zuula on me, Survival Quest.

“Shaman Mahan,” the governor’s low and calm bass travelled across the room as he was reading some document — probably my case file. The orc’s appearance reminded me of someone, but I just couldn’t remember who exactly. The governor was calm and dignified, like the Snow Queen, though in looks there was little resemblance. But who did he resemble then? “Sentenced to eight years for the crime of hacking into the city sewage network control program which led to system shut-down. “Was it your idea or did someone put you up to it?” the orc asked the question showing virtually no emotion. Such a play of intonations, or rather their total absence, did not exactly inspire you to ‘burst into song’. Songs. ‘And now I will be singing my last song…’ Akela!

That’s who the image of the orc reminded me of! Akela from Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’, the Lone Wolf, Mowgli’s mentor. A picture of the majestic wolf sitting on a rock from the ancient animated film rose before my eyes. That’s right, if the wolf could be colored green, punched in the face to squash it and have his fangs pulled outside, you’d have the spitting image of the Pryke Copper Mine governor. Although no, for a complete resemblance you’d have to color the old wolf’s eyes red.

“So, you’re playing the silent game. Well, well. That’s your choice,” said the governor, while I enthusiastically dressed him up in the wolf’s hide. Suddenly I was hit by extreme heaviness, my legs gave way and I fell on the floor, without taking my gaze off the orc.

You’ve got weird priorities, Danny. “I’m being interrogated by a two meter, glowering governor of the gulag I’ve been sentenced to eight years of hard labor in. Now seems like a perfect time to wonder about his uncanny resemblance to a cartoon wolf.”

Danny spends three hours learning the mining profession with a dwarf. This whole “extremely inconvenient game mechanics” thing is clearly gonna be a theme with Survival Quest, although, again, it does at least have the potential excuse that it is intentionally a bad game, provided that you can actually pay past it with microtransactions.

I put the sack over my shoulder and we went down into mine, where Rine showed me the site where I would be working from tomorrow.

 

As we walked across my section we passed prisoners at work, who gave me appraising looks, and I noticed with surprise that there was neither disdain nor aggression in their eyes. Strange; prisoners do not usually behave like this. Something wasn’t right here.

Maybe you’ve been sentenced to a nice prison?

As far as you’re concerned, I could be the one to teach you the basic Jewelcraft skill, but for the time being you should forget about it. I won’t do it for free and you have no money on you yet. Once you start making regular earnings from selling ore, then we can talk. By the way, I buy the ore at 10 copper coins per unit and in order for you to learn the cheapest Jewelcraft recipe you need 10 silver coins. You can do the maths. And don’t forget: In order to learn Jewelcraft, you first need to unlock it, for which you will need another 20 silver coins. And at 1 gold Jeweler’s tools aren’t cheap either.

Assuming we’re working with WoW conversion rates (I forget if this was established in chapter 1 or not), that’s 100 spare ore for a jewelcraft recipe, 200 spare ore for unlocking it, and 1,000 to get the jeweler’s tools. This is on top of the fact that he has a daily quota of 10 ore per profession level per day. Presumably his average rate of mining is keeping pace with his quota as he levels, so if the quota can reasonably be reached daily, then the leftover percentage will still grow with level as an absolute value. At which point, if he finds some precious stones, he can turn them into jewelery to give to the mine overlord in exchange for respect.

There’s potentially an exploit here: If Danny doesn’t turn in his daily quota, they don’t give him food. He’s in a video game, though. He doesn’t stay dead, so if he builds up his profession levels a bunch and he can find a way to just hang onto one day’s worth of ore, he can tank a single starvation death, then use the banked ore in addition to the next day’s mining to get double his quota. At level 10, that’s 100 spare ore, enough for the jewelcraft recipe he needs. At level 20, it’s 200 ore, enough to unlock jewelcrafting in one day. Hitting level 100 in the mining profession to get the jeweler’s tools using this trick is probably prohibitive, but apparently a guy once took four starvation deaths just out of spite before giving in, and at level 25, Danny could take four in a row to build up 1,250 ore – 250 for the fifth day’s daily quota, and 1,000 to get those jeweler’s tools.

As heroic a feat of endurance as that would be, I don’t see how you could turn it into much of a story. So either we’re in for another ten chapters of hitting rocks, or Danny’s bustin’ outta this joint, and I’m honestly not sure which.

Chapter 3

There’s an “alarm clock” in the mine, a horn that magically induces a Panic debuff in anyone who’s asleep. The other prisoners have all learned to wake up in advance of it, but Danny runs around in circles like an idiot for a while until the effect wears off. One of the other prisoners helps Danny shake it. Afterwards, he notes:

And, as I noted to myself again, there was no aggression in these eyes. There was an interest, some sympathy — anything but aggression.

‘Something is wrong with the prisoners here,’ I thought to myself, ‘Maybe they’re digging up the wrong sort of ore.’

“What’s wrong with these prisoners, that they don’t want to shiv me for a cigarette?” Fair enough to be wary of potential hidden implications of an inexplicably placid prisoner population. Prisons are not generally nice places, this copper mine is clearly not an exception, so anything inexplicable should be considered potentially dangerous. Why would you assume that more compassion than normal means they’re digging up the wrong sort of ore?

Danny’s new friend (or “friend”) turns out to be eleven years into a fifteen year sentence.

You don’t get fifteen years for nothing — you would have had to try really hard to be given that.

At least the New World Order has given up on the War on Drugs.

Another new friend, whose name is “Alt” for short, so my headcanon is that he’s just slumming it here for the street cred and logs off every night while “sleeping” to go play his main, talks about trying to build up his painting skill:

And I tried to approach Rine this way and that — tried to get him to gift it to me or give me a discount, to appeal to his softer side by saying that I only have ten percent to go to level five Artist, but the dwarf is stubborn. It’s true when they say: it’s easier to bargain with a wall than a dwarf.

I guess I’ll take Alt’s word for it that they say this in Russia.

And then it finally hit me. The luxurious interiors of the administration office, the absence of hostile looks from other prisoners (creative people cannot look at others like that) and Kart’s words that “this is a unique mine, where they don’t send just anyone”: I had ended up in a mine for master craftsmen: those who were given a profession when their sentence was passed. This is why it’s so quiet here and why Kart is quite friendly with me and why Alt is readily talkative. If you’ve spent the past ten years in creative crafting work, you’ll lose your negative attitude sooner or later. So you get some sort of a zone for prisoner rehabilitation and re-education instead of a mine. What a place to land in!

So apparently white collar criminals go to some kind of Norwegian rehabilitation prison. Except it’s still got pain turned on and is part of the dystopian corporate prison labor scheme. Maybe some rogue Scandanavians are trying to reform the New World Order from within.

“Our law-enforcers played a cruel trick on Kart. His profession is even more rare than yours; he’s an Informant,” Alt replied for him. “Kart didn’t tell you, but I will. You see, the higher the level of the main profession, the more we get — how shall I put it? — pleasure, if you like. Satisfaction. This is why everyone at the mine tries to level up. Everyone except for Kart. In order to level up he has to inform on us to the camp governor. If you take into account that in ten years of imprisonment Kart’s level of Informer is still zero, you can see how often he engages in that activity.

Note to self: Arrange “accidental” death for Kart before breaking out.

“But then I’m level eighteen in Chattiness: there is such a stat, would you believe it. That’s what keeps me going. By the way, from our talking today, I increased it by 0.5 percent, and we didn’t even talk properly yet. So in the near future, you’ll find it hard to get rid of me.”

Now I got the reason for Kart’s interest in me. And I had been so naive and thought that it was all pure goodness and mutual help. Far from it — it’s all totally mercenary, give and take relations.

Okay, sure, but the game is also actively incentivizing pro-social behavior, so the outcome is basically the same either way.

While musing over the potential consequences of starving to death:

Moreover, when I was free the sensory filters were turned off and death simply meant disconnection from Barliona for a couple of hours.

How many of Awaken Online’s terrible gameplay ideas were stolen straight from Survival Quest? Except AO is supposed the best MMO ever, not a freemium scam.

‘Well, well… So I have to eat’, I thought, and gave my plate a look of hatred, as the porridge continued to bubble. I overcame my aversion and slowly started to eat, carefully watching those around me. At first I felt light tingling in my mouth, as if I was eating a fizzy sweet. Then to my surprise I discovered that the porridge had a taste and that this taste was a pleasant one.

More evidence for the “mine is run by Scandanavians covertly subverting the brutality of the NWO’s prison system from within” theory.

Danny discovers there are rats in the mine and a reward for killing them. Apparently this is ordinarily super hard because they don’t like to fight, but if Danny uses his shaman starter skill to heal one of them, it aggros them for some reason. He abuses this to kill a couple of them, and also rapidly levels his mining skill, which causes him to feel a rush of extreme pleasure. So apparently playing with the full sensory experience not only causes you to feel pain, but also gets you addicted to VR cocaine.

As I said before, I am prepared to buy the surplus ore at 10 coppers a piece; you have 12 pieces, which comes to: 2 silver and 20 copper coins. Here you go,” Rine put the money on the table.

Wait, what?

Ah, yes. I forgot to explain about the ratio between the Copper, Silver and Gold coins. In Barliona it was 1:50, that is, 50 Copper coins made up 1 Silver, and 50 Silver made up 1 Gold

Why wasn’t this brought up earlier, when this dwarf guy was talking about prices? Did Mahanenko just literally forget to explain this, then dropped it in stream-of-consciousness when it came up? Why didn’t he edit it into the earlier part of the draft?

Danny’s offered five coins for rat pelts. Then someone asks him to pay fifteen, and Danny claims he was offered twenty by the dwarf. That guy offers twenty-five, Danny agrees to the trade, and…

“What happened here?” one of them asked in a low bass.

“Dear law enforcement officer! This unworthy man,” Bat pointed at me, “took advantage of my foolish naivety and swindled me out of 2 silver coins.”

I mean, technically that’s true. Batman here just out-swindled Danny.

Ultimately, the guard forces Danny to give Batman his money back, but Batman gets to keep the pelts anyway. Danny talks to Kart about the incident.

“Well, my friend, you sure gave me a good laugh! Best I’ve had in a while. What can I say… ? Congratulations: you’ve encountered the second peculiarity of our mine, usually newcomers don’t get it from the start. If I understand correctly, you still haven’t grasped what’s really going on here, right?” Seeing that I shook my head, Kart continued: “I will give you a couple of clues. First: today you probably levelled up in the Mining profession and got to feel what happens when you do that. Right? Right. Think about that. Second: there are myriads of stats that a character can have. Of these a fair number are non-standard, but you can pick only 4. As you know, I have the little-known stat of Chattiness — I get experience from telling everyone about everything. Get it now?”

I felt that either I was stupid or Kart and I were speaking a different language: I simply failed to see where he was going with it. What did Chattiness, free stats, and pleasure from levelling up in a profession have to do with anything?

It means that Batman has some kind of con artistry stat, and he played you in order to get another hit of cyber-crack. God, Danny, you’re as thick as an anime protagonist.

Almost everyone in the mine walks around smiling at each other and everyone seems so nice for one simple reason – the Amiability stat. At the starter levels it gets levelled by you simply walking around and smiling at everyone, but from level 6 you actually have to believe that you like the person in front of you, that you like talking to him and smiling and so on; you shouldn’t feel any falseness. That’s the only way to continue gaining experience. I remember one guy who got his Amiability as far as level 32. After all, this is not one of the main stats and you can get it up as high as one hundred.”

Kart was silent for a moment, catching his breath, and then went on:

“As far as what happened this evening is concerned… A person finds it easiest to level up in what he practiced in real world. So what comes out on top here is… It’s the skill of Meanness. In our mine most are levelling up in Amiability and Meanness at the same time. So that’s why everyone tries to play some low and dirty trick on someone else: you can’t strike directly, but arranging something that could lead to injury is quite doable. This is why people get very inventive in thinking up newer and more effective methods for doing this.

Jesus, that’s some pretty thorough mind-reading required to be able to tell not just if someone is smiling at someone else, but also whether or not they really mean it. And yet, apparently it’s not thorough enough to figure out that people who are leveling amiability and meanness at the same time are probably not actually all that amiable.

1 thought on “Survival Quest: Scandanavian Subversives”

  1. > Why would you assume that more compassion than normal means they’re digging up the wrong sort of ore?

    That’s because this is a reference to Russian Winnie-the-Pooh cartoon, where Winnie says “These must be abnormal bees. And they must be making abnormal honey.”, when the bees don’t fall for his paper-thin disguise. Basically Mahan’s just saying that something’s up.

    Like

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