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.

Wuxia-inspired worldbuilding

Screenshot anime A Sister is All You Need

Worldbuilding is something novelists do all the time. Taking pictures of naked friends with our smartphones “for research” is not something we actually do. Rejoice therefore!

In my previous entry, I wrote about a Chinese comic I recently came across. It gave me some ideas for a short novel draft I could write for this year’s NaNoWriMo, the (inter)National Novel Writing Month.

I am not talking about writing fan fiction here. It is true that you could probably summarize both of them in a short paragraph that was identical, if you specifically was asked to do so, but that would require cutting out some pretty central themes. You see, I take this as an opportunity to practice the two new literary interests of mine from the last couple years: Wuxia and LitRPG. And the comic has nothing to do with LitRPG, which is the genre I have read the most by far this past year.

LitRPG is basically literature set inside a role playing game, or a world following the rules of a role playing game. There are basically two branches of this, the main branch is probably the one where in the future games become so lifelike that they are experienced similar to Real Life even though they are not actually real. Another branch is where the world is assumed to be real but has the same features as a role playing game, sometimes even including a user interface where you can see your statistics! That’s going a bit far, I think.

I will go for a plot device used in a Japanese light novel series, Overlord. In it, the main character remains in the game when it shuts down, and instead of being disconnected he follows along with the game world when it disconnects from the real world into some parallel universe where the game is real and real life is not. In Overlord, the main character retains all his powers and artifacts and even the base of his guild, making him hideously overpowered. I am not going that far.

Worldbuilding 1: “Real” Life

My main character – let’s just call him Marty Stu for now – is a 68 year old retiree sometime around 2030. He has some unnamed health problems by now but is still faithfully playing his favorite MMORPG, the Wuxia-inspired Lands of Soulcraft. When the game is closed down after 12 years, he decides to stay up all night playing till the end. However, in the last seconds before the shutdown time, he becomes dizzy and loses consciousness. Some time later, he wakes up and realizes that he is somewhere in the game world, but this world is now real and he is a teenager again. Either that, or he is dreaming and can’t wake up. Or dead.

Worldbuilding 2: Lands of Soulcraft – the game

The game had a cult following, but was also infamous for design decisions that made many players either give up or ragequit.  Leveling in the game is extraordinarily slow – if you have a job and a family you can expect to spend a year gaining one Rank. There are ten of these, although only five are known in the beginning of the game. Each Rank has 5 Rungs. The Ranks are from lowest to highest: Iron – Copper – Silver – Gold – Platinum – Topaz – Emerald – Sapphire – Ruby – Diamond.

The metal Ranks exist in the Lush Lands, where the first half of the game takes place, a land where the heroes mingle with various ordinary people. To advance to the gem Ranks you must leave for the High Lands, the mysterious mountain world where immortals are said to live. Here are no farmers and only a few courageous traders in guarded camps at the bottom of the valleys. The land is populated by powerful monsters, mysterious races, and masters of swordmanship and Soulcraft (basically magic). Once you go there, your opportunities to return are severely limited, and you cannot use any powers gained there in the Lush Lands even should you be able to visit. A condition for going back is that your powers are restrained for the duration.

You gain rank by a combination of three factors: Practice, Lore and Exploration.

Practice is the simplest but the most boring. You practice with weapons and body training or meditate using various spiritual practices to improve the strength of your Soulforce. You can basically do this as a player while reading a book on the side. Obviously this get a bit different if you are trapped inside the game which has become real.

Exploration is the opposite: It is exciting but requires your full attention, and the results may vary a great deal. Quests give you rare experience that is valuable in leveling up, and you find rare weapons, armor, amulets, and ingredients for Alchemy and Inscription (enchanting).

Lore is found in the many large libraries. The game has thousands of books, hundreds of them are important for understanding the game mechanics. They are detailed, complex and interwoven so that some players claim the game actually equals university level. Understanding the game lore only superficially will hamper your progress, but once you have deeply understood, experimented with and practiced the game lore, “reincarnating” as a new character is much easier and faster than your first time. You may even catch up with and overtake your first character, because it is possible to make stupid decisions that hurt your maximum abilities forever. (Much like in Real Life.) This detail caused a great deal of ragequitting, by people who discovered after up to five years that their character was flawed beyond repair and would never become number one in this world.

To make things worse, the lore in the Lush Lands is hideously incomplete, something you will only learn in the last half of the game. Basically the greatest heroes of the Lush Lands are just milling around in ignorance, making do with what looks to them like a complete, deep and rich lore but is actually grade school compared to the deeper understanding available in the High Lands. Among the discoveries is that some characters that had seemed to be irreparably flawed were actually in a pretty good position to advance if they had continued long enough. Cue more ragequit.

The game was destroyed when it was sold to a large gaming company that made it free to play but sold Rank promotions and other goodies for real money. The High Lands were overrun by rich noobs who had the most powerful characters in the game world but no idea how to play. This caused the regular players to quit, and the noobs to quit as well, and the game closed down two years after the acquisition.

Worldbuilding 3: Lands of Soulcraft – the world

Once Marty wakes up in the game world, he notices that it seems completely real. He can not only see and hear, but also touch and smell. He gets hungry and needs to eat and drink. The people he meets seem way too intelligent and realistic to be Non Player Characters, but none of them have heard about any other world that is more real than this one. More disturbingly, nobody comes back from the dead. What has happened? Where is he?

Is he comatose in a hospital, dreaming that he is trapped inside the game? Or did the psychic energy of the many dedicated players actually create the game world in some alternate reality? Or did it already exist and the original designer of the game was some kind of psychic? Is Marty dead and some kind of deity or karma has shunted him to this world? Or is his body dead but his brain frozen down and later thawed up to be wired into a computer recreation of the game? And most importantly: Are there others from his world there? And if not, what is his relationship with the people of this mysterious world? And what is his destiny there?

Wuxia-inspired reading

Screenshot manhua Tales of Demons and gods

Definitely on the fantastical side of things, and I’m not even talking about the body and dress of their teacher, just the excessive use of colorful magic.

It is little more than a week left before NaNoWriMo, the (inter)National Novel Writing Month. I can’t remember being so meh about it, so uninterested, since I first heard of it. I am not even taking November off from work this year, as I have done for the last decade or so. Admittedly this is because of some small sense of loyalty to my job, where I am not really useful in July, so this year I took it off. Well, only people with a lot of privilege get to choose to take November off from work anyway, so that is not exactly the big deal. The big deal is that I almost forgot the whole thing, until I read the manga called Tales of demons and gods.

Tales of demons and gods is a Chinese manhua (same as Japanese manga, basically oriental comics). This story is heavily inspired by the Chinese Wuxia literature, which has been going on for some centuries but has blossomed and spread in recent years. Westerners may have seen the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but there is much more where it comes from, and some of it is more fantastical and mythical. Some has called it the Oriental version of the Sword & Sorcery fantasy genre, but it has actually been around for centuries so it is more like the other way around.

Tales of demons and gods  is on the more fantastical end of the spectrum, with more magic-like effects and less focus on weapon use, although this happens too. The main character is ridiculously overpowered, but there is a reason for this, and it is not the usual “child of prophecy” or “unknown heir to the throne” or anything like that. Rather, the main character Nie Li was actually killed at the height of a long and distinguished career as a hero and adventurer, traveling the entire continent, learning everything he could and honing his skill. Even this was not enough against the overwhelming odds he met on his last day. But rather than moving on, his spirit went back in time to when he was 13 years old, taking with it all his knowledge from his long life.

This is not an entirely unique plot device, but it is pretty rare. When I came up with it for the first time, I was unaware that anyone else had thought of it. I have actually written a lot of stories based on this concept, but none of them were usable. It is still a very interesting notion, but one that invites to wish fulfillment fantasies. That also kind of happens here, but the creativity of the author (whose name is usually translated as Mad Snail) helps carry the story despite the extreme advantages given to the main character.

It helps that Nie Li has a pretty poor starting point: His soul strength is very low, barely noticeable: 5 points when the lowest rank starts at 100. However, because of his knowledge from a long life, he know how to train to expand this and become the strongest hero. He quickly picks a fight with one of the three ruling families of the city and continues dissing and humiliating their members, causing more and more severe reactions until they actively try to get him killed. So that keeps the reader on his toes. There is also a love triangle, with tendencies toward love pyramid as the story progresses.

Well, I don’t really imagine this will interest any of my readers directly. But since it is likely to have a noticeable influence on my NaNoWriMo project this year, I thought I would give credit.