Sunday, June 11, 2017

Anthology of Names: Gemstone III, Tale of the First Name

Gemstone III was a game released in 1996 and available through several popular online portals, including... America Online. Yeah, AOL. That brings back some memories. Within AOL's safe walls, which kept the unruly Internet at bay, there were a few online games, mostly with very pixelated graphics and simple gameplay.  Then there was Gemstone III, which had complex gameplay and... no graphics to speak of.  Here, let me show you... let's type "look" and hit return.

> look
[Town Square Central]
This is the heart of the main square of Wehnimer's Landing.  The impromptu shops of the bazaar are clustered around this central gathering place, where townsfolk, travelers, and adventurers meet to talk, conspire or raise expeditions to the far-flung reaches of Elanith.  At the north end, an old well, with moss-covered stones and a craggy roof, is shaded from the moonlight by a strong, robust tree.  The oak is tall and straight, and it is apparent that the roots run deep.  You also see some manna bread, the Eilyn disk, some ambrominas leaf, the Raissong disk, some aloeas stem, the Carene disk, a large acorn, a handful of white flower petals and some stone benches with some stuff on it.
Also here: Slavacchio, the body of Aeryell who is lying down, Bereg, Lamie, Eilyn, Suitcher who is sitting, Lord Mirlan, Idialiver, Harliquin, Lord Raissong, Grenklin who is lying down, Piriq who is sitting, Ladolets, Lady Faralai who is sitting, Oesia, Apprentice Caels, Carene, Angelique, Cancel
Obvious paths: northeast, east, southeast, southwest, west, northwest

Fully text.  A command prompt RPG, also known as a Text MUD (Multi-user Dungeon).  Perhaps the perfect game for someone who loves to read...

Quarillion, my first character, was born in the North, far from the bustling Wehnemir's Landing.  His biggest fear was slipping on the ice and cracking his skull on the trip south from Icemule Trace.  His biggest achievement was... hmm.  I don't think he accomplished that much. I think got to level 6 or 7, maybe overheard some players talking about important events once.  Ah, there was that time I screwed up his leveling process such that I threw an in-game tantrum the likes of which the world has never seen -- rolling around on the ground, sobbing, the works, all in text.  No one actually noticed, so I dusted myself off and decided to re-roll the exact same class (Ranger) for a fresh start in a new city.

Thus, Keyseth was born in the South, in Wehnemir's Landing.  His biggest fear was running out of resurrections from dying so much.  His greatest achievements were exploring places he probably shouldn't have and hanging out with folks who were likely best avoided.

Keyseth once went out of town armed with a sword and sandwich instead of a shield.  He was killed almost instantly by low level kobolds who knocked him down, stabbed him, and probably stole his lunch money. And his lunch.

Keyseth once joined a very exclusive organization, completing many quests to ascend the ranks.  He felt very accomplished, but then learned that everyone in the organization had been tricked and that the final quest basically said "Congrats, you're evil and totally damned now."

Keyseth once bummed around with a gang of player thieves.  They stole from everyone who passed by and passed the spoils out to the group. Keyseth felt a little ambivalent about this and said as much, so they stole back everything they had given him. And a tip for their trouble.

Keyseth once climbed a mountain, then rode down it.  The mountain was very tall, and at the top, there was a hole in the rock, filled with the sound of rushing water.  Players were invited to jump in. Clearly, this was suicide.

Keyseth jumped in the hole.  You only live several times, right?

The water-tunnel-slide that ensued was one of the most memorable experiences I had in Gemstone III.  It was a maze, a puzzle, a timing game where each fork and turn could mean a choice, and life or death hung on that choice.  Lean to turn. Lie low to avoid overhanging rocks ready to take your head off.  I spent hours navigating the tunnels, getting stuck in eddies, and avoiding decapitation.  Eventually I popped out into free fall -- a vast cavern spread out around me, filled with treasure on all sides, chests and ships and mountains of gold -- but I'm still falling, and there's no way to stop, and you realize halfway down that this is just there to tease you, a tantalizing vision of a goal you'll never reach.  Then, you're back in the slide and sucked down the drain, drenched and cold and rushing toward the end of the ride.

The amusement ride in the mountain taught me that Gemstone III's combination of the written word with active experience had a unique power over me.  My brain was so willing, so ready to conjure images to match the prose, that the "graphics" actually felt better than most games -- completely left to the imagination. 

When I finally finished the ride down the mountain, I took a deep breath and closed the game.  I had completed this experience on a Pentium 90 sitting in my family's living room.  Around me, my mom was vacuuming.  There was a fire in the fireplace.  Life moved on, completely oblivious to the experience I had just been through, unreal and transitory thing that it was. 

I felt that I had just been somewhere very far away, and that I was only now returning.  My family had no idea what I had just experienced. To them, I had just spent several hours glued to a screen watching text scroll past. To me, I had been to a distinct place, and seen something beautiful.  It was immaterial, in more ways than one -- those riches really were just out of reach, as there is no reward for completing the ride other than making it down the mountain alive.  No gold, no experience points, no progress.

And yet, somehow, this made what I had seen even more valuable.  For once it was not the reward structure that gave me such a sense of achievement, event contentedness.  It was that moment, falling through a bizarre room in the middle of the mountain, a little flash of beauty left behind by an anonymous writer who clearly loved this game.

I doubt I'll ever know who wrote it, but I want to say it anyway: thanks for that.  You made the game for me.

Up next, moving further into my teenage years, a truly wretched hive of scum and villainy... SubSpace: Arcade Asteroids & Angst.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Life Online: An Anthology of Names

You're sitting at your computer, staring at an empty text box on the screen. The cursor is blinking gently. You need to fill the box with something: a name. 

It could be your real name, although no one recommends that you actually use that on the Internet. It could be an acronym. It could be something fantastic, a persona. It could be random. It might not mean anything – you may discard this name in less time than it took you to generate it. Or, it might mean a lot. It might come to be attached to a great deal of memories, both your own and others. It might be a name known by many people in many different places, although they will likely never know the face behind it. No pressure.
What's in a name?

In one sense, in the era of avatars and screen names, the names an individual goes by are more and more a diverse and varied group, each separating distinct communities that know you by one or another of these aliases. For me, names are also a filing system. When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time online, and I adopted various names for various communities. Some names I spent more time creating than others, but I could never predict which names would stick, which would represent a long-term commitment either because of the people I met or because of my interest in the world attached to that name.

Over the next few posts, I'd like to tell a story about each of these names. Something that happened connected to that name, in that world.  Something like an anthology of aliases.

To serve as a table of context, let me start by spilling all of the names that I remember most keenly, and the games they were attached to: 

Gemstone III (Played 1996-1998)
(Text MUD, now known as Gemstone IV)
Quarillion - Ranger
Keyseth - Ranger
Guilds: none

SubSpace (Played 1997-2004)
(Asteroids-themed multiplayer game, now Subspace Continuum)
Squads: Pride, Dark Sun, BALLISTICS

EverQuest (Played 2000-2003)
(The original 3D MMORPG. The legend never dies.)
Daec - Druid
Talroke - Shadow Knight
Medisia - Warrior
Guilds: Hero, Realm of Ages

Final Fantasy XI (Played 2003-2004)
(MMORPG with Chocobos)
Zhaki - Dark Knight - Server: Phoenix
Guilds: Shirt Ninjas

World of Warcraft (Played 2004-2007)
(You probably know this game.  Also, census data!)
Denako - Rogue - Server: Feathermoon (RP)
Dracel - Warrior - Server: Spirestone (PvP)
Rashale - Hunter - Server: Emerald Dream (RP-PvP)
Guilds: Dracel's guild that I can't remember (Spirestone), Frostwolves (ED), Misćhief (ED)

My goals with this project are threefold:

First, for myself, to put down some of the experiences attached to these names so that I can remember them better. 

Second, for the reader, to provide a window into these worlds -- some long extinct -- along with a little entertainment. 

Thirdly and lastly, for anyone who knew me by any of these names who might be reading this, to say: hello again.  We may have shared time as friends, skirmished as enemies, or just passed each other by, but I'd like to tell you that it was real -- even if the world wasn't -- and I'm happy you remember it.

Next time, Story #1: Gemstone III, The Tale of the First Name

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What I'm Playing: Fight Clubs

Dark Souls has this thing, it's called a fight club.

It's technically not an official part of the game. It's an outgrowing of the organic multiplayer they have built-in, where it's primarily the players who decide how or even whether they encounter each other in the course of play.  Other players are generally meant to be antagonists – they "invade", appearing randomly in your game with the goal of killing you and setting your progress back for a reward.

However, other players can also be intentionally summoned in certain circumstances, to help or to hinder. One custom that developed was for a "host" player to summon many invading spirits at once, and sometimes, if the conditions are right, rather than the invading spirits piling on and killing the host, for a variety of reasons, the invaders might just decide to fight each other.

For the host's amusement, for sport, for fun, or to practice, these transitory groups – which completely lack any means of communication other than vague gestures such as pointing or waving – end up being some of the most interesting online interactions that I've ever had.  I had not known about fight clubs when starting out with Dark Souls 2, and yet I instinctually understood what was happening when I was first summoned as an invader and saw a pack of players all grouped around two combatants, watching them duke it out.

Enter the ring and face the possibility of losing, and being sent back to your world.  It's refinement through failure, repetition.  It's the mantra of "git gud" (get good), as Dark Souls slang phrases it.  But more than that, it's a way to develop an identity, and status.  Apart from streaming, fight clubs are one of the only ways to actually have your normally solitary player-vs-player conflicts observed by other players.  In addition, somehow the lack of text or voice communication options actually elevates this process, forcing you to interpret for yourself what others think of your skills and your style based only off of their movements and the gestures they perform.

Dark Souls has a lot to offer – it's basically a punishing Zelda game wrapped in the gothic aesthetic of Diablo 1 & 2.  Yet, despite the massive, beautiful, and dangerous world, what keeps me coming back to the game is the potential of these fleeting and strange encounters with other players -- players who will likely never meet me or each other again, who will never know each others' names, and who yet develop their own customs and etiquette and tricks based on this world and its rules.

Other than Dark Souls 2 & more recently Dark Souls 3, I've also been playing some games in a similar vein.  One of the major entries is For Honor, which I posted about previously.  I'm also eagerly anticipating a game called Absolver (beta starting soon), which seems to share a lot more with Dark Souls in terms of encouraging emergent player customs and interaction.

What these games have in common is that they rely heavily on precise timing and have a strong emphasis on physical momentum and melee combat.  They also leave a lot of room for bluffing, counter-moves, and reading opponents in player-vs-player combat.  They are great to play with a gamepad, and offer an extremely deep combat experience with a lot to learn and master. And, most importantly, they give you a lot of room to develop your own style, to express your personal way of playing, and to participate in an identity exchange, of sorts, with the players you meet.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Fictional Interlude: Ambassador


The baby's white bony wings unfold, mucus-shining, lined with the tines of naked feathers. Ridiculously small. She is otherwise human.

"What should we call her?" the mother asks.

The father is silent.

"She must have a name," she continues. "Let her be Sarah, after my mother."

The father nods slowly. "She takes after you."

She meets his eyes, then looks back at the baby. "She is beautiful.” She strokes the child's face, and the delicate wings. “A bridge between us.”

“Let us hope it is enough," he says.

She nods absently. She begins to sing to the child, a soft lullaby.

The sailor plucks a tune

A gull calls in the bay

Her harp is marked with runes

A zephyr starts to play

Sarah's footsteps echo across the steel deck. The sea wind puts goosebumps on her arms, which she hopes will stop her stomach from turning. 

"Ambassador Cygnus," calls a voice, casting out over the deck of the ship. "Ambassador Cygnus, to the bridge."

She listens to the feedback dissipate, the click of the microphone cutting out.  Then she turns and makes her way towards the bridge. Her back aches, she's seasick, and she dreads what she is about to be asked to do. Yet she remembers her mother's words: you will never perform under ideal circumstances.

The sailor listens closely

The sea is filled with sound

The strings are calling softly

Though no one is around

She ascends the steps to the bridge carefully, gripping the railing. The wings would be a wonderful help to balance, she thinks, but she is under orders. They are not to be displayed outside the bridge.

They ache. They long for movement, curled and imprisoned in the jacket of her uniform.

Through the door to the bridge, the dim light of digital readouts illuminate many faces, many eyes.  They are all on her. The expressions are hard to read.  Some hope, some fear.

Mostly fear, she thinks.

The captain approaches her, nods deferentially. "Are you ready?"

She nods. "As ready as I'm going to be."

He smiles awkwardly, watching her. "Are you sure you're feeling alright? We could put this off another few hours..."

"No. There's no point."

He nods, looking worried, and steps aside.

"I feel fine," she lies. "I'll be fine." She walks past him before he can reply, to the front of the bridge.

She sees the microphone, sitting, waiting for her.

Her heart thumps once as she walks toward it.  She forgets the lights, the faces, where she is. She knows what needs to happen, dreads it. She moves automatically. She undoes the buttons on her jacket. She is vaguely aware of people shifting away from her, giving room.

The last button undone, she lets the jacket drop, and the wings begin to spread slowly, unwinding like coiled springs.

The gull speaks to the sailor

The sailor hears the storm

The harp speaks to the jailer

That sleeps beyond the shore

The sound of the wings unfurling is almost deafening in the silence. A scraping, resonant, metallic sound. The sound of sandpaper on steel, of a bow being drawn, of an orchestra tuning.

The strings, so many strings, are drawn out of her back slowly, each pulled taut by one of the naked spikes lining her wings. The feeling is unpleasant, the vibration too deep, as if she is pulling herself inside out. It takes a moment, and the sound draws out, feeding the nausea in her stomach. She leans tips forward slightly, and quickly stops herself, one hand on the panel gripping too tightly.

She waits. Finally, wings fully extended, the sound of the drawing dissipates in a chromatic hum.  She takes a deep breath, then turns her head carefully. She meets the captain's eyes.

Looking more worried than before, he nods.

She turns back to the microphone. She is careful with her movements, is afraid of bumping into something, of falling over. She wonders if she could get back up. Wings aren't meant for rooms, she thinks.

She lifts the microphone slowly, licks her lips. She remembers her training. Set stance, mouth ajar.


Then she begins to sing.

The sea speaks up in laughter

The sailor asks for grace

The storm is chasing after

And each star hides its face

She finishes the last line of music, letting the sound stretch out. Ecstasy and exhaustion. She is bone tired, can still feel her insides shaking, her head throbbing from the hum. She wonders what it sounded like to anyone listening.

Eventually she remembers where she is, the people around her. On reflex, her wings fold gently back, soundlessly now. Once they are folded, she picks up her jacket and turns around. The eyes in the room avert quickly. She catches one set briefly, one of the soldiers, before he looks away.

Now it's their turn to forget she exists, absorbed in the monitors. Her work is done. She moves toward the hatch slowly, stumbling once.

The jailer now is woken

A hand pulls at the seam

The shroud of night is broken

The dark fades like a dream

"Thank you," the captain says quietly as she passes, without looking at her. She glances at him, sees a kind of reverie in his face. She keeps walking. There will be time for emotion, later, but now she has to get outside.

She stops outside the hatch at the top of steps, and the wind blows cold on her face. She's looking down at the water. She can't help but look anywhere else.  There are no stars, no sun, no moon to see, in any case.

The water is dark, rolling slowly far below the ship. She waits, and her heart beats faster. How long? They shouldn't need the monitors. They should be able to hear it.

There. A sound, low and distant, sonorous. Sarah feels her knees shake, begin to buckle, but holds herself up on the railing. The water is shimmering, then dappled as the sound peaks, as if rain were falling. The surface of the sea shines in one brief instant, reflecting the lights of the ship.

Finally, the sound fades. The speaker immediately clicks on. A voice, unable to fully mute its excitement, says: "Susurrus effect confirmed. Return to your stations."

Sarah watches the water for a long time, and listens to the waves pound the hull of the ship. Finally, she looks up at the sky. There are no clouds, no stars.  Just a black abyss.  It disorients her; she feels the world is tipping, but she does not look away.

"Was it enough?" she whispers. "Will you give them back?"