Life in tutorial mode

Screenshot The Sims 2

Happiness abounds when you are playing an easy game and have someone to help you who knows the game much better than you do.

Watching my own melodrama about a normal human jaw infection, I am reminded of a humorous essay I read in Reader’s Digest as a child, called “There is nothing as sick as a sick man”. (Or husband, the same word is used for both in the Norwegian translation.) The gist of it was that her husband would react to the slightest physical ailment by going into full patient mode, lying down and demanding attention, nursing and special treatment.

In real life, women are far more likely to see a doctor than men, and men are more likely to die than women until around the age of 90. But of course there are ways in which women are tougher than men. As I thought to myself as I clutched my hurting jaw: “At least I’m not bleeding from my genitals.” And childbirth not only feels like you’re going to die: It still happens, although the incidence is much reduced, especially in the developed world outside the USA.

Not without reason did left-wing writer John Scalzi write that straight white male is the lowest difficulty setting there is. He was wrong about that, but not by much. Of the reasonably large categories, it is surely true. (Unless you have very specific life priorities, like being approached romantically by members of the opposite sex with no initiative needed on your side.)

But below the easiest normal difficulty setting in some video games, like “Settler mode” in Civilization, there is sometimes also a tutorial mode, for the absolute newbie who not only needs the game to be easier than the easiest setting, but also needs to be explained in detail how to go about the basic tasks of the game. And this, dear reader, is how I’ve largely lived my life. Or so it seems to me.

***

Let us first look at the difficulty level. There is white privilege, and then there is the whitest of privilege: Being ethnic Norwegian in Norway, a country routinely declared the best to live in by the United Nations. Pretty much the richest country that is not a gentlemen’s club with a flag, it is also known for all kinds of equality and small differences in income. Actually I am not rich by Norwegian standards. In fact, my income is barely working class despite now working full time. I am not unionized, so I have basically only had cost-of-living-adjustment during the almost 40 years I have been employed. I’m still pretty well off by global standards, but more importantly, a lot of things don’t cost noticeable amounts of money. Education didn’t, on the contrary I was paid for it for a while. Health care? Just a symbolic sum to keep hypochondriacs like me from circling around the clinics like moths around a lamp. Pensions savings? The state does that.

But as I say elsewhere, socialism fails because it can only redistribute money, and money is not really that big a deal except when you don’t have it. The state cannot redistribute health, intelligence, beauty, strength, endurance, wisdom, charisma… OK, I think I veered a bit into roleplaying game territory there, but you know what I mean. Not all of us are born with the same stats, and then there is the whole thing about being raised by sane adults. No, I don’t have maxed stats all across the board (strength is pretty low, and I’m not exactly attractive) but I got a large helping of intelligence just at the start of the time when that has become useful. It must have happened during my childhood, I guess, because most of my classmates clearly hadn’t gotten the memo until middle school.

In addition to general intelligence, always a good thing to have, I was also born to be hyperlexic. Autism spectrum hyperlexia is listed as disability actually, and in its most extreme forms that can be true. I got away easy though: I am nearly faceblind so I don’t recognize my coworkers if I meet them outside of work for instance, and I have a hard time meeting people’s eyes without creeping them out. Evidently there is something alien about me. But on the plus side, I could read at near adult level when I started school, and I have kept reading until now (although lately it has been less books and more Internet). I can’t speed read, but reading at a decent clip I can absorb pretty much anything just by plowing through it once, if I have the basic background knowledge to understand most of it.

My health was pretty bad in my childhood due to exercise asthma. Not only was it scary, but it set my physical development back by a couple years. I actually reached puberty quite a bit after my classmates, and was slow and weak and clumsy compared to them all the way. But after puberty this problem disappeared, and my health has been tutorial mode too for the most part. The fact that a mild jaw infection makes me start mourning myself should be proof enough of that, I guess.

Finally… I hesitate to even bring up this, but evidently my sex drive is actually lower than usual, not higher as I thought when I was young. It was actually lower then too (perhaps especially then) but I did not know, because I was generally surrounded by extra pious Christians, to whom chastity was very important. It was not a matter of whether or not to have unmarried sex, but whether you could always avoid looking at the opposite sex with the intention of desire, as Jesus admonishes us. “Extra virgin”, as they say these days. So that is how I spent my best years. By the time I was in my 20es and realized that I was not going to marry (out of consideration for the poor wife if nothing else) I already knew that I could live without sexual intimacy. (Also, how to wash my own clothes.)

***

But apart from being ridiculously easy, tutorial mode also has the benefit that some person who is not actually there – presumably the maker of the game – is teaching you step by step how to do things, from the simple to the more advanced. And true to form, the helpful Presence from Heaven (I assume that’s where it is from at least, strange as that might seem given my level of virtue) has been watching over me for decades, commenting where needed and pointing me in the right direction. I don’t actually hear voices, which may be just as well, it is more a telepathic thing, like sharing of mindspace? I guess you’ve got to have been there.

Anyway, this is not really something that should be talked about in detail, it is too intimate for that. But the point is, I usually don’t need to be in doubt. Sometimes I am, but then I often realize later that I was in doubt only because I did not want to follow the tutorial. Generally though it is incredibly carefree to have an invisible, loving older brother watching over you like that. (I actually had a loving older brother when I was a kid, the second oldest one. He’s a living saint as far as I know and there are definitely some similarities there. Maybe psychologists will decide that I created my invisible friend in that image, but I doubt I am such an awesome person that I can create someone wiser and more conscious than myself!)

And that is why what I truly fear is not death itself, but being separated from the one who has loved me and guided me all this time. If the universe is a fair and just place, I have hell to pay after a life like that. For despite playing Real Life in tutorial mode for all these years, I have accomplished nothing of value. That said, I have enjoyed my life greatly. When I play The Sims, I guide them in such a way that they can accomplish their goals that give them lifelong happiness, while at the same time they have all their needs met and have a good time along the way. And I take a sincere joy in seeing the little imaginary people go cheerfully about their worthless lives in unshakable happiness thanks to my guidance. I can only desperately hope that my own higher-dimensional guide feels the same way about my own happy but ultimately insignificant life. And, of course, that I am saved in the Cloud when the hardware eventually breaks down.

A small, late repentance

Screenshot anime Kamisama Memo

The voice in my head sometimes just… slips out. And that is the best part of me, I think. People seem to find it valuable, which I can’t say about my life as a whole.

I was thinking of buying something non-food today, and noticed myself thinking: “Nah, let’s first wait and see if I survive this week.” And that’s when I realized I should probably write a bit again.

Actually it is not statistically likely that I’ll die soon, it is just a bit less unlikely than usual. It is not like I’m diagnosed with a terminal illness or have decided to row across the North Sea. It’s just an upper jaw infection that has shaken off one antibiotic and is now barely contained by two others, while I wait for a jaw surgery on Friday. Also, when I had the same surgery on the right side, I had an adverse heart rhythm reaction. I survived that, but that was five years or so ago. So yeah, it should be interesting. A reminder of the mortality of body and soul. Spirit not so much. And I should probably say what I think about that, just in case.

***

To be honest, I think there is a fairly large risk that my soul will perish in Hell, for certain values of “soul” and “hell”. Now, this may not sound like a glowing recommendation of my doctrine, but think about this: How much of a connection is there really between self-esteem and actual performance? If you have been in the workforce for almost 40 years, as I have, you should have learned that this is a pretty shaky link. In particular, we have what is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, namely that truly ignorant people don’t even know enough to know that they are ignorant, and truly unskilled people cannot estimate the skills of others, or how much skill they lack themselves. As the joke goes: “Do you play the piano?” “I don’t know, I have never tried.”

This seems to also be the default position of the religious person. I read in passing some years ago that the average American was far more certain of his own salvation than that of Mother Theresa. (And this was before the atheist campaign to portray Mother Theresa as a terrible person who misused large amounts of money and caused untold suffering to promote her own glory.)

And I started out no differently: As a child, I have no memory of my parents teaching me about religion, let alone hear them pray or see them read the Bible. I tried to read in my grandmother’s Bible, but she got very upset and made sure that never happened again. But at one point during my childhood, I found an old Bible on a dusty shelf in a room we mostly used for storage. It was in archaic language and even the typesetting was unfamiliar, and some pages were missing. But I devoured it. I read about the prophets of God and decided to become one. (A prophet, not a God. That came later.) The appeal, in my vague memory, seems to have been the work benefits more than the final reward: Being able to call down fire from Heaven or summon bears to tear apart those who insulted me. (Elijah and Elisha respectively. I loved that part of the book.)

When I met the Christian Church of Brunstad and their message of becoming perfect according to the conscience, it seemed a great match for me. I wasn’t perfect yet, but it wasn’t that far off, I thought. I certainly had a solid lead on most other humans, surely?

And so I studied the Bible again. This time, after drinking of the spirit that was in the Church, I was able to also understand the New Testament, finally. Well, with the exception of the Apocalypse. I am really not sure why that one was included and the apocryphal Book of Wisdom was not, I would have swapped those. I was quite enamored of the Book of Wisdom and of wisdom as a whole. And so I prayed sincerely to God, as Solomon is said to have done, that God might give me the Spirit of Wisdom from Heaven. This also came to pass, or so it seems to me. In the decades since, when someone asked me or talked with me with sincerity – whether it was about the Bible, or some deep matter that is not directly covered by the Bible, or about their personal life, or even about work – the benevolent Divine Presence would reveal to me what was needed, then and there. I would be amazed at the depth of wisdom and insight, because it would often be new to me as well, or at least clearer than I had seen it before. There seemed to be no end to this, like a well that refills itself no matter how much you draw from it.

But the truth is that this was not my personal, acquired wisdom. I now believe that what I had received, and what I had truly desired, was what the Norwegian Bible calls “visdoms tale” (wisdom’s speech), as in 1. Corinthians 12: “For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit.” And if you turn over to the next chapter, there is a harsh lesson on these things:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” That doesn’t mean it didn’t work or wasn’t true, but it was a gift of grace that just passed through without any merit to me, because it was not my love, only God’s.

That is how I see it now. And Christ himself is quoted as saying: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” That doesn’t mean the prophecies were false or the demons were not driven out, necessarily. But it did no good for those who did it, evidently.

So yeah. My optimism is somewhat muted. That does not mean that I don’t believe in what I said. I just don’t believe in myself. I really ended up doing very little for others, despite playing Real Life in tutorial mode. In the end, I do not know whether I did more harm or more good. I suppose if there is a reckoning for me in the hereafter, I will know for sure. I am honestly not sure what way those scales would tip. But the real problem is my sins of omission, the endless list of good things I could have done but didn’t.

***

This isn’t depression. I have no desire to kill or harm myself. I don’t want to curl up in bed all day. I don’t suddenly start crying. I don’t lack energy. (I mean, sure I am lazy, but I usually walk for half an hour or two on a nice day, and am usually busy reading, writing or playing rather than staring at moving pictures for hours on end.) It is just that the snow has melted, the white fluffy cover that made everything look so clean and smooth. And beneath is the dead grass of last year, the rotting leaves, the sticks and stones and the trash that was left by the wayside and covered by the concealing snow of grace.

And in this lies my hope, in the warm sun that melts away the fluffy illusions I love. If I were to choose to believe what is comfortable, if I were to continue thinking that I’m at least better than the publican and the sinner and the pagans and the gays and the sluts – as if I had walked even around the block in their shoes – then I believe I would be truly lost. But there is still the tiny voice inside that cries: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” and “Remember me when you come in your kingdom!”

But my soul in the sense of my personality, my habits, my accumulated choices, all those things that were called by my name, all I cherished and took pride in… I think that will all shrivel and be undone. You may call that Hell, I guess. It is not a Biblical word after all, just a loose translation of many things: Sheol and Hades, the grave and the fading memories of life. Gehenna, the continual dumpster fire where corpses of criminals and unclean things are burned. Like the pages of a worthless book that shrivel and burn, one after another, until there is only ashes left. Looking back on my life, this seems to have already begun. Page after page shriveling and turning to ashes. And that may be a good thing. Whether this week or in the middle of the century, my body shall return to the dust; but I believe that my spirit shall return to God, who gave it.

And even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
-Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah.

Others can’t self-help you

Screenshot anime Aho-girl

Even death can’t cure idiocy! Well, I am not eager to try that. But self-help books have been tried by many people and the effect is sporadic and moderate.

I sometimes say that if self-help books worked, I would be surrounded by demigods, or “weakly godlike superintelligences” as my old comrade in cerebration (and more recently, published author) Alistair Young sometimes says.

Clearly, most of us are not surrounded by that kind of amazing people. Occasionally there is an amazing person, or at least I have met some fairly amazing people. Some of them are not even relatives. One of my coworkers on my old team is fairly amazing. I suspect he is smarter than I am, as he thinks more quickly and accurately within our shared fields of expertise. That said, it is hard to compare since he is a more proactive person by nature and surrounded by experts, while I am deeply introverted and working in isolation. Still, I suspect he may be more intelligent than me. I hope so. We are not spiders, the stronger spider eating the weaker. I have nothing to lose by having smart coworkers, smart friends, and smart relatives.

It would be wonderful if the people around me could simply buy a self-help book and read it, then instantly (or at least quickly) become more intelligent. Or if not more intelligent, then better at using their abilities in their work or in their interpersonal relationships. It would be good also if they could benefit from the books about how to become healthy, or even happy. All of those things would benefit me even if that was not their purpose. When an individual improves, it benefits his or her allies, even if the alliance is remote and accidental. So I wish that all those around me would become healthy, happy, intelligent and productive.

In reality, the world is more like a hospital run by the patients alone, searching in vain for a doctor or even a nurse to help lessen their pains. Even in Norway, where most of us are rich by world standards, and where money is well distributed and there is good health care and education available, there is so much lack and want. People are lonely and insecure at heart, they crave love but often feel disappointed. And when they get more things, they crave even more, their eyes always on something ahead, like the headlights of a car always staying ahead of you no matter how fast you drive.

***

When someone is very successful, he (or occasionally she) always seems to know the reason. But the reason seems to vary from person to person. It is rarely something obvious, like: “I had good parents who gave me smart genes and a wise upbringing.” Actually, I had that, but it makes for a very short and lousy self-help book if that is all you can think of. “I was born white in a good family and had good teachers” is also pretty poor food for self-help books. Instead, people tend to credit certain decisions they made or habits they built.

Certainly, habits contribute a great deal to the outcome of our lives. But a habit can be good for one person and bad for another. For instance, many highly successful people sleep only 4-5 hours a night. And in some cases, it is even true. Scientists have found a gene that let these people thrive with much less sleep than others. When transplanted to mice, that gene caused the mice to also need less sleep. Mice don’t read self-help books, so it is a safe bet that it was the gene. If you try to sleep less without the gene, you will lose willpower and clarity of mind, you will make more errors, your health will worsen and you may fall asleep at the wheel and kill yourself and others. So what brought success to one person brought ruin and death to another.

What I generally see is that even if a very successful person shares the secrets of their success as objectively as they can and in enough detail to fill a book, very few of the people who read the book become successful, and almost never to a high degree. Certainly many of the highly successful people learn from other greats, but usually they adopt useful practices or principles from different sources and keep those that fit, rather than copying one other person in a kind of “apostolic succession”. Even when working together in a direct mentor relationship, it is rare indeed for the disciple to become like his master.

***

I am not opposed to self-help literature in principle. It makes up some of my favorite literature, and works that made an impression on me. Arguably works like the Dhammapada, the Tao Te Ching, and the Analects can all rightly be called self-help books. Improvement of the reader is also a stated goal in much of western religious literature, included holy Scripture. Indeed, the New Testament blatantly aspires to make its followers perfect, in that exact word. Perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect. So not just “weakly godlike” even, but strongly godlike. But alas, those who are surrounded by Christians will probably agree that this has not generally been highly successful. (Although I had the pleasure of spending some of my best years with Christians who had a very positive outcome from their Bible study, which is certainly not something you can take for granted with every denomination. And it still took an almost unimaginable dedication.)

It is said that against stupidity the gods themselves fight in vain (“Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.” -Schiller) and it certainly looks that way when we look at the wider religious communities. So it is no wonder if today’s heroes of thought, from pop psychologists to billionaires, also fail spectacularly at improving the overwhelming majority of their readers.

In the first place, I think most of those who want self-help do not actually want to help themselves but rather to be helped by others. In a metaphor, they want the fish, not learning how to fish. They want the apples, not learning how to grow an apple tree. Those who achieve success usually do it not because they seek the trappings of success (wealth, fame, power) but rather they are desperately dedicated to accomplishing something greater than an ordinary life, even greater than themselves. They want to make the world a better place, or at least a sizable subset of the world. And they want it desperately, to the point that they make sacrifices for it on a regular basis, and make those sacrifices without tears and as a matter of course.

I am not like that, and most likely neither are you, or you would not waste your time on an overly verbose online journal written by some mostly unknown person who, by his own admission, is not entirely neurotypical. But perhaps you see some things more clearly when reading some of my posts. I know I do. So at least I self-help myself. ^_^

Why not February?

Screenshot anime Hyouka (OP 2)

Am I pretending nothing happened in February for five years? The screenshot is from the second opening scene to the anime Hyouka, which I wrote about back in November 2012, about living on the other side of the glass from the world where everyone else lives.

As I uploaded my previous entry, the upload tool presented me with an alphabetical list of folders. I noticed to my surprise that there was a gap from “feb13” to “feb18”. Yes, that means I had not uploaded any pictures (and therefore probably not any main journal entries) in February since five years ago. That’s quite a bit of time! I know I have uploaded other entries from time to time, so why not February?

Perhaps it is something about the season: Winter in Norway is cold and dark, and in most years February is the coldest month of the year. So far it seems that I am pretty much immune to classical depression, seasonal or otherwise. There is an increasingly widespread theory that in men, depression can take the form of a feeling of disconnect, so there is that. But truth to tell, I suspect I feel a lot less disconnected than I am in the eyes of other people, in so far as they give me any thought at all. Being single and childless and 59 years old, I certainly should qualify. But it is my brother who has struggled with depression, even though he is a great guy and has a great wife and kids. Life is not always fair, and depression, in particular, strikes me as cruel and capricious. The people who could need it are not the ones who have it.

Be that as it may, looking at an entry I wrote in February last year and never uploaded, it details my discovery that I was actually strikingly and obviously evil inside. For some reason, I had failed to notice this particular detail. I can’t attribute that to depression either, as it was more like pulling off the mask I had worn in the mirror for many long years. Ever since then, I removed the “good” trait on my self-sim in The Sims 3, although I did not go so far as to replace it with “evil”. Rather, I replaced it with “gatherer” (more like collector in the Norwegian version), which I for some reason had not found room for in the past even though it is a constant struggle to not fill my apartment to the rafters. Well, the current apartment is for sale so that may help a bit right now.

There is really a lot of things I could write about, both about my life and my interests, if I had continued in the way I started for the first ten years or so. But I think the time for that is long past. We have social media now, where crowds of people are eagerly photographing their food and throwing out bombastic opinions based on their emotions, and there are even people who play computer games on YouTube for everyone to see. They are topping me like the Himalayas top a small hill, in the kind of things I used to do when the Internet was new, back when it was rare to get a chance to look in through the window to a stranger’s life and heart.

Writing Grammarly

Screenshot anime Amanchu

If you struggle to express yourself and put your thoughts into words, Grammarly might be a prized companion. For me who have at times struggled to stop putting my thoughts into words, it is just a curiosity.

I love living in the future, and I particularly enjoy all the new tools and toys and combinations thereof. In the latter category is Grammarly, an app/service that promises to watch over all your online writing and then some. (There is also a Windows app that can be used to write or proofread texts that are not meant to be shared online.)

One potential problem comes to mind immediately: What if your writing falls into the wrong hands?  We are not just talking about your love letters getting the wrong audience or the manuscript for your new book suddenly appearing written by a competitor. Any app that reads your writing could, in theory, also harvest passwords, credit card numbers and such. It was, therefore, an easy decision for me to not be among the early adopters of this software. But years have gone by and there has only been one scandal, which turned out to be overblown, and it had nothing to do with passwords and such. So as of today, I have Grammarly on my writing machine.

Grammarly promises to discover both spelling and grammar errors. The built-in text editor in Vivaldi (and Chrome) also catches spelling mistakes, but not grammar mistakes. (In the previous sentence, Grammarly wants to change “catches” to “catch”, presumably because the browsers Vivaldi and Chrome are two. Unlike me and you, it cannot see past the “and” to realize that the subject of the sentence is the text editor. Artificial intelligence is still no match for natural stupidity, as the saying goes.) Luckily you can tell Grammarly to ignore such a find, much like in Microsoft Office. Actually, in my experience, Microsoft Office is even worse at parsing grammar. But if you do all your writing in Office, you may not feel motivated to convince two grammar checkers that they are wrong and you are right.

Back in the good old days when I lovingly crafted my journal by hand in Notepad or some other pure text editor, it was common for me to find spelling errors when I read through my entry one year later. (Back then I linked to the year-ago entry because I wrote virtually every day.) When I read through them two or even three years later, it was not uncommon for me to find more errors. This is a human tendency: We read what we meant to write, not what we typed.

At this point in my entry, Grammarly has found one spelling error (I misplaced an “i” in Artificial) and two grammar errors that were not. It also disagreed on my comma usage in three cases, which I gracefully conceded, albeit under doubt. So I am probably not in the target group for paying customers. If you want to try for yourself, you can go to grammarly.com or just wait for one of their innumerable ads with which they flood the Internet.

2000 words a day

Screenshot anime A Sister Is All You Need

Well, I might not be an author, but I still write 2000 words of coherent, grammatically correct fiction each day. It is just not good fiction. Yeah, that sucks, but with the years you get used to not reaching your dreams. And still keep going.

I “won” NaNoWriMo by completing the goal of writing 50 000 words in November on a single book started this month. The book, as mentioned, didn’t become very interesting. I blame the characters. ^_^

Writing 50 000 words in a month on a single project is pretty routine for me now, so I had a couple subgoals. Write just over 2000 words a day, not slavishly but preferably at least as a 3-day running average. This worked fine, and I finished on the 24th. The other goal was to not have any “plot bunnies” or obvious fillers that had nothing to do with the story, like the year when my characters spent several chapters playing my favorite games. Those are things that are legal and common during NaNoWriMo, but when you have been writing for 50 years you should probably be able to skip that.

I did not actually write only 2000 words a day, of course. Those were just on that project. I had another more personal story that I wrote just for fun that also came along nicely, if not as fast as usual. And I still write nonfiction like my journal (not so much anymore since the age of journals is pretty much over) and answering questions on Quora.

I sometimes think I would be a better ghostwriter or cooperative writer. I have plenty of interesting ideas, but that is the human condition. Ideas are like cats, once you have two or three of them it won’t be long until the house is full and overflowing with cats. My plots could need work, but plot is overrated in my opinion. No, my biggest problem is that I can’t write believable characters, because I am not a believable character myself. Even my oldest brother expressed doubt, back when my journal was daily and more slice of life, whether it was fact or fiction. Of course, we have only sporadically seen each other since I was 9, so that doesn’t say so much…

Anyway, the way things are now, chances are that I will never be a good writer. It is OK for my harddisks to get wiped and my old manuscripts burned when I am dead. Actually that is probably the best outcome. But I still don’t have a time of arrival for that, so in the meantime I keep walking forward, at a speed of 2000 words a day.

Too good and not good enough

Screenshot anime Aho-Girl

I have written 36000 words, and have nothing to show. Story of my life.

I am talking about my NaNoWriMo writing, but it appears to me that this may have a wider application for myself and others.

I am ahead of the official schedule with my NaNovel: Currently at over 36000 words. This is pretty much as expected, I estimated about 2000 words a day on this project. I also write some other even more unofficial fiction. I have been blessed thus far to not have serious Repetitive Stress Injury to my wrist, as I often had in my early years. I even have had some repetitive typing work at my day job (this is the first November in quite a while that I am not having my vacation) and still can type mostly without pain, so that is good. But as expected in the dreaded Week 3, misgivings about the project rise up.

***

Problem number one is that the story is not very good. I just today read a thread on the NaNoWriMo Adventure forum, “Who is your favorite character” in your own story. And I realized that none of them were. The main character is certainly an unusual hero: The only known Player Character from when the the world was a game, he used to be one of the top non-Pay-to-Win players and has extensive lore and meta-knowledge of how the world works, which should make him quite powerful if he can survive the racism, fear and hatred as a scary-looking barbarian in a homogeneous society that sees itself as the only possible civilization.

But this fellow does not really have any passion. He is not looking to get back to the real world to his family. He is not trying to protect his true love or find some precious person who is lost somewhere in the wide world. Actually he rather likes this world, and his main concern is to stay alive. Which is somewhat harder in a world of warring states, roaming bandits, supernatural monsters, wandering swordsmen and superpowered monks. Still, a quietly worried Swede is not really the way to keep readers on the edge of their chair, I suspect. He may be relatable, but so is your neighbor and your Facebook friends.

***

So far, so bad. The other problem is that the book is not bad enough to throw caution to the winds and do the NaNoWriMo “quantity over quality” thing. And by that I mean throwing in pirates and ninjas in places where they don’t belong. Or the Traveling Spade of Death that goes from book to book, possessing people to murder named characters. Or Belinda the Chicken of Death. If all you want is the word count and a text that is recognizably English (or some other known language), then Not Taking Your Book Seriously is definitely the way to go. But by and large, at this stretch of my life, I don’t start that kind of book in the first place.

In a way, this is the story of my life, and probably many other lives. It is certainly unique, but not good enough to stand out in a good way, and not bad enough to throw caution to the winds and go hitchhiking in Caucasus with a backpack of chocolate-filled fake gold coins. And so we keep slogging through, even when we have come to 36000 out of 50 000 words and can dimly see the end in the distance, and suspect that it will be unremarkable just like the path there was unremarkable.

Age of Wushu – not for loners

Screenshot game Age of Wushu

As much as I’d like to explore in some depth a game based on the rich lore and practice of Taoism, I’m running into a couple serious problems. Not technical, but social.

I have played Age of Wushu for some days, and probably will for some more days. But I think my conclusion is pretty clear: This is not a game for me, unfortunately. The freedom and depth of this game is really amazing, but it is based entirely on cooperation with other players. Except for the tutorial, the game quickly becomes hard to play without friends.

To take the most famous example, you need to buy food from other players. The game has a hunger variable so after some days without food your health will go down the drain. But there are no shops selling food. There are shops that look like they would sell food, like a tea house or a pancake vendor. They don’t actually sell food to players. Only players sell food to players.

I worked around this by taking the Farmer and Chef life skills. You can have any and all collection skills, but only one production skill. So by choosing Chef, that character can not be a blacksmith or tailor or craftswoman or poison maker or herbalist (the latter being what I would otherwise have preferred, as the closest to alchemist which is a habitual interest for me). Well, at least I have steamed buns. Except after eating those for a couple days, I am told that my character “has no appetite for this food”. I can still eat them to keep from starving, but they will no longer take me to the higher levels of nutrition where one recovers health and strength at normal speed.

I can get round this (for now at least) by making more expensive foods, many of which also have positive side effects. However, I am told that if you send your steamed buns to another player, they will eat them with good appetite. And if they make steamed buns for you, you can also eat them. The point is, the game goes out of its way to make you depend on other players.

 

***

Speaking of non-combat skills (always one of my main interests in RPGs), these too depend on each other for all beyond the most basic products. You cannot make high-end products with only raw materials (which you can gather yourself). You also need products from other production skills, and you can only have one of these per character (and only one character per account). Some players get around this by making alts (alternate characters) on a different account and mail the goods to each other. It works, but it is kind of cumbersome. And anyway, you need other people as customers, at the very least. There isn’t really a game economy except for the players. Well, you can sell stuff but usually at a loss or at best around break-even.

***

Age of Wushu is a PvP game, Player versus Player. You can attack another player’s character at any time and fight them to the death.  It is not exclusively PvP, very few games are. You can hunt animals and fight computer-generated bandits. But you won’t get much, if any, Experience from this. Experience is the raw resource that you gradually over time turn into Cultivation points, which you can use to improve your stats and skills. Basically, your growth depends on a reasonable supply of EXP, which you can’t get on your own. As a new player, if you get into a fight with a more experienced player, you will definitely lose. You get no EXP for that, and lose some silver and take some damage to your equipment. So you can only advance fast if you have friends who stun or damage your opponents so much that you can finish him off.

An alternate way to make progress in the game is through instances, which are replayable scenarios (somewhat like raids in western games). These also require teams. This gets you Experience and useful loot. But again, not if you’re a loner who relies only on yourself. I guess this is an example of the Oriental mindset, individualism is strongly discouraged.

The game is somewhat sparsely populated these days. Certainly not deserted, but very far from crowded. Also as a game with open PvP (you can fight anyone anywhere, pretty much) it does not necessarily attract the most friendly and helpful community. That said, I am told some guilds have a pretty strong cohesion and joining guilds looks fairly easy. But it might be a good idea to try to play this game with a few friends you already know.

Age of Wushu is a very deep game with unique and interesting game mechanics (no levels, many non-combat and support abilities, you can keep improving by expanding your skill set) but it is not a good game for people who like to play alone and at their own pace. That means people such as me.

Of course, Real Life is even more so. Without other people I would not have food here either, let alone electricity and the Internet. But generally I don’t need to approach them in person about it, which is one of the wonderful things about the current version of Real Life. Instead of asking people, you can find almost anything on the Net, including reviews of games that are past their best-before date. ^_^;

Age of Wushu, first peek

Screenshot game Age of Wushu

This game is a nice break from many recent MMORPGs in that everyone is decently (and usually prettily) dressed.

In a couple days I plan to start writing a quick novel based on an imaginary Wuxia game. (Wuxia is the Chinese martial arts heroic fantasy, a genre going back over 2000 years!) So I guess I ought to have at least a passing knowledge of the premier Wuxia game in our own world, right? I have already written about a Wuxia game called Swordsman Online, but Age of Wushu is  still the gold standard in this genre from what I hear. After watching a number of YouTube videos and installing the game myself, I can see why.

Extremely complex and detailed: I won’t ask you to watch this Wedding Guide video (about in-game weddings) unless you are already bored, or the follow-up Guide to Married Life, but they are long and elaborate for good reason. You can not only get married in-game with some degree of ceremony. No, you can choose between a wide price range of wedding rituals, each with more optional accessories than the last. Then there are various activities, more of them for the more expensive weddings, which give various gifts and blessings to the happy couple and their attending friends. Notice that if you have made enemies in the game world, they may hire a ruffian or two to vandalize your wedding banquet, so it may be smart to hire a professional guard for the occasion… Apart from the cool wedding dresses and other mementos, particularly successful weddings will bestow a new cooperative combat skill on the couple, which can be leveled up with practice and make the two of them a particularly devastating duo. ^_^

And that’s just one obscure aspect of the game. (And one I am never going to experience, not there either.) The game has no levels, and I am not sure there is any limit to the number of skills you can learn, except that you can only join 1 out of the 8 schools and legally learn their combat skills beyond the basics. You can however spy on other schools and also steal scripts, if you don’t mind the risk involved. Learning a skill is not the same as mastering it, though. You have to practice it and you have to improve the stats (physical abilities like strength or speed etc) that the skill is based on. And you have to put “cultivation points” into abilities to make them grow.  And on that note…

Strengthening body and soul: In western Sword & Sorcery fantasy, the swordsman and the sorcerer are sharply divided, often being enemies (like in Conan the Barbarian and similar works, where the magic-users are generally seen as evil and treacherous) or teamed up for a common cause (like in most modern massive online games, from EverQuest to World of Warcraft). But the Eastern ideal is a man who strives for perfection of body and soul alike. The ideal of Chinese mysticism, the Immortal, is a person (originally almost always a man) who has mastered his body and soul to such a degree that that even time can not overcome him.

In Age of Wushu, the player is constantly improving his abilities through “cultivation”. Unlike Tales of Demons and Gods, where cultivation was a separate practice undertaken while sitting down (similar to traditional meditation), in the game Age of Wushu it is something that happens continually, kind of like mindfulness I guess? You start with a fairly basic internal skill, Self Recollection, but even this increases many of your abilities day by day and increase your attack and defense. You will need to do special quests to increase the maximum level after a while, and you will later learn other internal skills that also make you stronger. Even when you are logged off, your character remains in the game, doing various useful things and improving herself, especially if you have a VIP account that is bought (indirectly) for real money. “Pay to win”, but actually it just speeds up things that would otherwise take more time. The maximum values are not moved, but they are pretty far off when you start. This game is definitely designed for the long run, although not the 10 years per character I estimated for my imaginary Wuxia game, luckily.

***

I downloaded the game from supplier, which took some hours. Unlike World of Warcraft for instance, you don’t just download a small installer which then fetches the game with the most important parts first, so you can start making your character while the download continues. That would be the sane thing to do, but no, quite the opposite. By default you download a .RAR file, a format of file compression that is mostly used in Linux and not supported by Windows without downloading a third-party archive handler like 7zip or WinRAR. The file is over 18 GB, so yeah, that took a few hours over ADSL. Even backing it up to my NAT (home server) takes hours! This file must then be unpacked to a separate folder, where you start one of the files which will then do the actual installation to yet a third place where the actual game will reside on your hard disk. So you better make sure you have plenty of disk space before you start. Oh, and you register your account at their website first, although you can log in with Google or Facebook if you want to give them that much access to your life.

This may be just me, but when I had created my first character and started on the tutorial, the keys that should turn the character sideways did not work. I could walk forward and backward, and move sideways like a crab, but not turn. I changed to the mouse controls, but could still not turn. When I exited the game, my character disappeared forever, only the game was still reserved.

I ran a repair on the game files and tried again. I still could not turn my character in any way. Changing the keys had not worked either. In a flash of inspiration (similar to the flash of inspiration when rodents claw on the wall of their cage until they hit the latch, I guess) I opened the main (Esc) menu and chose “Select character”. At this point my character was still there, and I soon returned to the scene where I had pressed the key, but now the controls worked. The interface is still clunky (the turn-button turns you 90 degrees for instance so you may have to sidestep to get in a combat position) but at least it worked.

The tutorial seems otherwise quite forgiving, showing you some basic skills and pitting you against some bloodthirsty but very weak bandits. That’s as far as I have come with the actual game myself, but from the (many) YouTube videos it seems to be a very deep and complex game. Unfortunately long-time players complain that the game is going downhill due to excessive Play To Win features. The game is free to play but as seen in the wedding videos, the more money you spend, the more benefits you get. This upsets people who want to buy things with their free time instead. I am pretty relaxed about such things. I already exchanged free time for money at work, where I can help real people (occasionally – the competition is fierce on our team). So I don’t mind. Plus I am Norwegian, very few things from other countries are expensive by our standards, due to our high salaries and high cost of living.

Well, that is more than enough for now. Oh, one thing. “Wushu” is the fonetik spelling of Wuxia, supposedly. In my mind however, Wuxia will always rhyme with fuchsia.

(This entry is backdated because I wanted to play the game a bit to make sure I did not mislead too much. So it’s been lying as a draft for a while.)

“Someone is searching”

Screenshot anime Kamisama Kazoku

Maybe they are right there, but will you find them? What if to everyone else they look like everyone else?

I recently read that every novel can be summed up as “Someone is searching for something.”

This made me think about my current candidate for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year, as I’ve mentioned in the previous entry. The main character and viewpoint character, a teenager who used to be an old man, now trapped in a world that used to be a game, is definitely searching for something. But I don’t really see him as searching for a way back home, not after the first pages at least. After all, in his own world he was ageing and with less than perfect health, no close family or friends nearby, no job and really no accomplishments to look forward to in the rest of his life. This was the world he loved, when he was not in it.

It did not take long for me to realize what he truly is searching for. Alone in a world that used to be a game, he is surrounded by Non Player Characters – people who used to be just pixels and scripts run by a computer, but who now have real lives of sorts. But they are still Non Player Characters. They know nothing about Real Life and the world from which he came. As far as they know, their origin and purpose and the meaning of their life lies entirely within this world, and everything else would be like pure madness to them. In fact, that is exactly how they will react if he tries to broach the subject.

And yet he must do so, because he is indeed searching. Not in the long run for a way back – that will come if it comes – but for others like himself. The one thing he cannot except is that he is the only one of his kind in this world, the only one for whom this world is not the ultimate reality. And it is not for him to find someone who says “OK, I believe you” even though that is hard enough. You’ve got to have been there. To share his memories before they are lost forever.

Of course, this is just a work of fiction. But it is an interesting perspective, is it not? I wonder if I could manage to write it.