Monday, October 16, 2017

The Lost Scrolls of Gravok

Discovered in a waste-bin in the long-sealed basement of a forgotten city, these scrolls seem to tell the tale of a simple soldier's anger management issues, quest for revenge, and perpetual poverty. The scroll is awkwardly marked "GRAVOK" and is written in a dialect known to linguistic scholars as "Simpleton's Inoxian." 

The calligraphy appears to improve considerably in later reports; the writer appears to have been inexperienced with letters.

Gravok First Time Report

Tinker-man busy, so Gravok write report. Gravok write good for Inox, use big words like 'report.' This report about Rat-man, Tinker-man, and Gravok going to big water place, killing things, and taking stuff. 

First thing. In city we spend gold. Rat-man buy cloak of not-finding, Gravok buy shield. Then something happen: other (bad) rat-man try to steal all gold. Our (good) rat-man chase him and get gold back, and find even more gold, and smelly cloak. Now rat-man have TWO cloak. Tried to wear both (looks funny).

Second thing. We decide to go to broken boat on map. We go to land-water place to get not-broken boat to go there. On way, we find small dog. Rat-man say to leave, but Tinker-man say take care of dog, bring with on boat. Gravok like dog too, so we bring. Dog distract Tinker-man in fight, but make people like us more.

Third thing. Boat get to island with other big, broken boat. Very cold and windy. Gravok does not like. We fight big crab-things on beach. Rat-man fight well, make them stop while we kill them. Then we go inside cave, fight Frost Demon (hates fire, likes cold). Lots of walking, very long cave, many rocks. Then we go inside boat and fight more Frost Demon and many Living Shade. Living Shade very weak but very hard to hurt. Tinker-man and Rat-man pick up lots of gold. Gravok pick up two gold.

Last thing. We get to last room. Some Shades, lots of gold, treasure chest. Others pick up all gold. Gravok open chest and get shiny. Look weak and useless, but Tinker-man say very good. Let Gravok make things go where he wants. Gravok keep.

Gravok head tired now. We go back to not-water. Report over.

Gravok Second Time Report

Gravok write report. 

Party find Gravok in town and say, "We go fight big demon." Gravok say, "Ok."

Something happen in town. Gravok forget what. Not important.

On way to big demon, we see strange white birds. Gravok say not shoot birds, bad luck. We not shoot. Birds fly closer and we see they are not birds, they are big flying lizards. Everyone see how smart Gravok is. Also, Gravok feel we need telescope if big lizard look like small bird.

We get to demon place. Hot and cold and dark and light all at once. We can go left or right -- choose left-way. We fight every kind of demon just in first few rooms.

Then Gravok sees rat-man does not loot coins, won't touch them. Gets idea. Gravok sneaks up on coins. Loots THREE coins at once! Most ever! After, we find an empty room with treasure chest in it. Gravok is closest. Gravok loots that too. Gravok find neck thing. Very expensive looking. Cannot wear with helm. Gravok sell later. First, jangle in front of rat-man to make him angry! Can't loot! Ha ha!

Then we reach BIG demon. Bigger than Gravok thought. Gravok think rest of party die soon, but not worried. Gravok strong. Then, demon use funny table and Gravok can not hurt him, no matter how hard he swing. Have to hurt table instead. But table runs away! How? Gravok does not know.

We chase the table into the path that we did not choose, the right-way. Many demons inside right-way. Magic person say table move like clock-hand, will come to us if we go other way, so we run. Everyone but rat-man. Rat-man run towards room with many demons! Sacrifices self to make demons bunch up and slow down. Rat-man last long time, but finally have to run away. Gravok feel bad for mocking with necklace. Rat-man very brave.

Finally table comes to us. We try to hit, but table is fast! Goes right past us. We run to catch up, all very tired, about to fall down. Then Gravok hits table one last time and it breaks!

Big demon very sad, dies when table dies. All demons die. We loot many gold. Go home.

Report over.

Gravok Third Time Report

Gravok write report.

Before fight, dice man try to play with us. Gravok hate dice. We tell smelly dice man to go away. Others like us more.

We go into shadowy place in town because girl asked us to. Many cultists, and also hounds, bones, spirits, flame demons... and bats, and little fungus that moves, and lava golem, and two wolves (not hounds), and robot... why so many things? Gravok so confused. Which should he hit?

In last room we stop cultists doing bad thing, demons appear. Fire everywhere, but only hurts Gravok, no one else hurt. Why? Why is only Gravok hurt?

After finished, Gravok notice he has no coins. Others pick up many. Why? Why do coins hide from Gravok only?

Did Gravok use bad necklace too many times? Or maybe evil compass? Is Gravok... cursed? Doomed?

Gravok go drink now. Report over.

Gravok Last Time Report

Gravok write report.  Last report, Gravok done with quest.  Gravok not talk about quest before.  Gravok explain.

Bandits long time ago burn down Gravok's village.  Gravok want to fight them, but they run.  Wore purple stuff.  Coward purple bandits.  Gravok leave village, only one left.  Write in tree, "Gravok kill purple bandits."

Gravok go to Gloomhaven to ask where purple bandits are.  Meets tinker-man, rat-man (might be bandit, but good), scoundrel (definitely bandit, might be good), spell-maker, and others.  Gravok does work with them with shield and sword (mostly shield).  Gravok thinks, these ones like coin, they will find purple bandits.

Gravok right.  After much work, many coins found (not by Gravok), we find purple bandits in forest.  Rat-man, Tinker-man, Complicated-magic-man come with us.  We kill bandits and many other things. Kill bears and imps too.

[[Scrawled in the margin]] bears and imps live in house in woods, bandits live outside -- why?

One purple bandit have map to forest hideout.  We go there.  Many purple bandit.  Gravok angry, shouts "Kill, kill, kill!"  Friends kill very well, Gravok can almost not find bandits to hit with sword.  In last room, find magic-people tied up by bandits.  We fight with them and kill bandits.  Finally, Gravok hits last bandit over head.  Gravok lets magic-people kill last bandit.  Gravok get revenge, magic-people get revenge.

One magic-person thank Gravok.  Has big bow.  Name is too long, Gravok call him Doom-finder. 

Gravok understand now he not doomed -- Gravok is like new friend, makes doom for others.  We shake hand.  Good friend!

Gravok revenge done.  Tired of getting hit all the time, so Gravok stop doing work.  

Tinker-man stop also, done fighting.  Maybe he becomes big thing-maker, get very rich.  Maybe Gravok help make things.  Gravok cheap labor, used to low pay.

Report over.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

EverQuest: Danger, Suffering, and Freedom

Damn, that intro music...

Ok, so maybe the epic-ness of this midi track it doesn't quite shine through today.  I guess it was never really the song itself that grabbed me, it was the promise attached to it.  EverQuest promised an open 3D world bigger than you could ever conceivably explore.  It promised long term character growth and constant persistent multiplayer.  It promised so much game, and delivered so little. 

Yes, EverQuest was huge both in its scope and in its problems. Its developers were committed to creating a world where players *must* work together to achieve success.  The idea was that this would create a real sense of community, of banding together against insurmountable odds. The reality was that it made for one of the most punishing and unfun experiences a majority of the time, forcing you to focus efforts on finding said groups, balanced collections of players & classes who both played a around the same speed as you and whom you trusted fairly well.

Want to try going it solo?  Experience the sadness of dying alone over and over and over. Even with a group, the difficulty of leveling and the agonizing pace of experience gain would never abate, and the threat of death was always looming around every corner.  The game was a tremendous treadmill.  In addition, the world at times seem almost sadistically constructed -- high-level monsters were randomly placed in low-level areas, and the AI was such that they would chase the poor new players as long as it took to kill them, unless they could escape to the next "zone".  As if the death penalties of losing experience and potentially a previously gained level weren't enough, you also ran the risk of potentially losing ALL of your equipment and inventory if you don't get back to your body.  And don't get me started on the ridiculous endgame, the massive raids of hundreds of players all standing in place for hours watching their characters swing swords and/or wave wands with little damage numbers appearing in the chat bar.  These raids would make World of Warcraft's old 40 player raids seem positively exciting.  Just look at this example of EQ's pulse-pounding raid action:

Why would anyone play such a thing? Well, because it was new.  It was a world to explore, and we didn't know any better. No one had done this type of game before. No one knew how punishing it should be or what systems make the most sense for a game this big, this ambitious, designed to keep players playing indefinitely (hence the name). There was no World of Warcraft yet to copy off of. This was the first.

A punishing, massive, and at times cryptically designed group based RPG – much closer to Dungeons and Dragons perhaps than many more recent MMOs in the same vein, which end up playing more like action games.  The only thing missing from the DND comparison would be any sense of role-playing or storytelling. In EverQuest, you didn't need to use your imagination – the world was built for you, for better or worse.

That's not the whole story of why I played so long, though. There were two big reasons top keep me playing EverQuest for over 3 years. The first is that many of the friends that I made in SubSpace decided to start playing EverQuest, and I tagged along because why not try something new with friends?  Thus was born the guild "Hero", a group with a joyful and also sad history of adventure and absorption into the mega-guild Realm of Ages, which tackled the game's super high level endgame content in those aforementioned 100+ player raids. 

To be fair, as boring as raiding was, the folks in Hero and RoA made the game much more fun than it would have been otherwise. I'm really thankful that I was able to play with them for so long.  Even though I never became a raiding master or a high-level contributor, I felt like I got to see a lot of things in the game that would be very difficult to see without a tremendous amount of help. And I got a lot of very good equipment that Talroke the Puny Shadow Knight had no business having.

The second reason I stuck with EQ was much more personal. My Dad and I both played games. EverQuest was a game that only one of us could play at a time (the lack of household awareness of things like "routers" and "broadband" at the time made sure of that). Still, even with this restriction, my Dad and I were quickly addcited to the game. We created characters on different servers, and took turns playing. I have many memories of sitting behind him, watching him actually contribute to some amazing raid (he attained a much higher level than I ever achieved) or fight some creature I never encountered, or him sitting behind me, observing and offering suggestions. We started characters on other ends of the world – he started a barbarian shaman in the glacial ice region, while I started a wood elf in the forested region, a continent away. So it was also a way to see different areas of the game earlier than I would have been able to otherwise.

Again, this world was BIG, and traveling across it was NOT easy.  Nothing captures the feeling of vastness this game would give you then traveling between continents for the first time. At one of the major cities, you would get on a boat at a dock, and the boat would leave for a 30 minute or so journey across the ocean. Sometimes on these voyages you would see strange things – islands roamed by cyclops, stirrings in the water of dangerous sea life, etc. The voyages gave a sense of scale to the world that would've been impossible with something like a teleportation spell – although those existed as well for higher level players.

In addition, the starting areas of EverQuest had character.  Take the barbarian hometown of Halas.  Here is a place that does not like visitors – the only way to get there from civilization is to travel through a pitch black maze of caves, which was a murder hole for newer players trying to escape the zone into the nearby capital city of Qeynos.  Unless you were a race with dark vision -- i.e. not a Barbarian -- you'd better hope you were able to figure out the game's clunky lighting system.  Fire beetle eye, anyone?

If that's not punishing enough for you, try my own personal starting city, Kelethin.  The wood elf starting zone sits entirely among the treetops – with zero safety railings. Yes, the forest floor was littered with the corpses of fresh young wood elves, especially a certain patch very near to the new character spawn point. That's one way to fertilize your crops, I guess?

In all, from the very beginning, EverQuest was designed to teach you to respect the world and avoid danger. Death was everywhere, and death meant a loss of progress, sometimes quite a lot of progress.  This, combined with the reliance on having a regular group of people to progress at later levels, created a very stressful game, and often quite an isolating one.  I never actually achieved a very high level in the game, despite having many friends to play with. I just could not grind as hard as they could, and they would out level and outpace me, making it difficult to play with them. The game just could not keep my attention quite as tightly as with them in its traditional form.  Instead of power-leveling one character to the maximum, I constantly created new characters to experience different classes and environments -- hampering my progress toward any level cap significantly.

This brings me to a less traditional and very short lived aspect of the game, one that gripped me entirely, but that you've likely never heard of: Play as a Monster.  This experimental feature allowed you to spawn on one of the PvP servers as a low-level monster.  No progress, no items, no experience points -- just a single spawn as a fire beetle or a kobold or some other wimpy creature.  Die, and that spawn was over. 

This essentially allowed you to go into the world in camouflage, becoming part of the environment -- very similar to the world-invasion style multiplayer that Dark Souls would popularize years later.  While this feature was available, I was completely addicted to it. Every time I clicked the "monster" button, the game would find a monster somewhere randomly across it's massive game world, and give you control of it.  This sounds like it could be a bit boring -- and sometimes it was.  But, consider the moments where you appear somewhere familiar -- say, the forest surrounding Kelethin -- and recognized that you had spawned as something that, though low level, was nevertheless about 5 levels higher than the average player in that area.  Yes, you could wreak some real havoc. Eventually, of course, people figured it out. My rampage as a level 9 Crushbone Orc in the Wood Elf starting zone was probably my bloodiest spree as a monster, but eventually a band of newbies formed to hunt me down and end my reign of terror.

That's just scratching the surface of being a monster, though.  More subtle interactions were possible as well.  Imagine you are a low-level player in a low-level group, and you are tasked with the duty of "pulling" monsters to the group to be killed. This was a very common assignment in EverQuest, as groups would usually pick a safe spot out of the path of rampaging high-level monsters or fields of random spawns, and make camp there to kill things and take their stuff safely.  So, you run out to the fields with your bow and arrow, and you spot a lion of about the right level, and you shoot it with an arrow. This should provoke an immediate reaction as the lion AI locks on to you, ready to chase you until the ends of the earth (or in this case, to a very quick end at the hand of many low-level daggers).

Instead of chasing you, however, the lion sits down.

You cannot believe your eyes. What programmed behavior is this? Have you tamed the lion?  Is it a quest giving lion, some kind of rare spawn?  Or has the lion developed consciousness? Is it submitting to death, tired of the endless line of players jogging past it, ignoring it entirely, or of being lead to lion-murdering teams over and over?

Being uncertain of an entity's status as AI or player-controlled is one of those strange states in gaming where you start to question what signifies sentience.  Going back to Dark Souls, I'll never forget the first invasion I experienced in Dark Souls 2 -- a player named Armorer Dennis.  He was the first invader I ever encountered, a bright red specter of death and aggression. I was terrified of him. I ran from him, and he chased me through the level, firing all kinds of high-level spells.  Finally, after dying to him twice, I hid from him in an attic up a ladder for 10 minutes, thinking I would ambush him as he came around the corner.  My heart was thumping. I was ready to fight, to go down swinging. I watched that door for a long time.

But Dennis never came. He couldn't climb the ladder. He was actually an AI invader masquerading as a player, and his pathing didn't extend that far into the level. When I realized this, after laughing at myself, I was suddenly no longer afraid of him. I went back and found a way to grab all the stuff he was guarding without fighting him and run off to a new area. That hint of intelligence can give an experience life, and make you always question -- does that thing really see me?  Or is it programmed?

Beyond the PvP aspect, there is one last element to monster life that I found while roaming the world as a lowly bug, something I never did find as a player: freedom. Sometimes you would spawn in an area with zero activity. No players running around making things happen, just the monsters wandering on their patrols, just the environment being itself. A lone monster with intelligence crawling across a vast wilderness. Something about the experience of exploring the area as one of its "enemies" – as a cog in the machine so to speak – gave them an entirely new context.  You could go anywhere you wanted, and you were unlikely to be attacked. You could go into the places the players never went because they were too dangerous or too maze-like, or because there was simply no reason to look inside that room. You could see things that likely very few players had ever seen, simply because they didn't see the purpose in claiming that particular hill in the middle of nowhere.

This was the one thing that EverQuest achieved that no other game I had played before it was able to do – through all of its hardship and danger and challenge, it made me respect the world to the degree that the freedom to explore that world was a miraculous gift. Thus, a lowly orc shaman crossed a desert filled with cyclops, a kobold explored Minotaur labyrinths, and an ice gnoll wandered the crags outside Halas.  In a way, this was the true fulfillment of what EverQuest promised to me in its intro screen -- not a power fantasy, not a platform for social interaction and competition, but simply a place to explore different enough from our own and convincingly realized.  A place where you could, at times, tell your own story entirely without words.

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?"