God still reads my journal

Screenshot anime

I sure am hung up on myself. You don’t need to tell me…

Not sure how many others are still reading, what with updates being such a rare event (especially in Februaries) but clearly someone up there is watching over me. I mean, how else do you explain that Kritika Online is being closed down after I review it in my previous entry? ^_^

Don’t worry, I have already moved on to Lord of the Rings Online. It is an old MMORPG with lots of contents and lots of features added over the years, and lots of deep lore. But knowing me, it should surprise no one that the feature that interests me the most at the moment is the “skirmishes”, which are… repeatable instances! At the outset there are three of them, and you can tweak them a lot like missions in City of Heroes or even more: You can have different group sizes from 1 to 12 heroes, you can choose from 3 difficulty levels, and you can pick a character level from 20 upward. So you can tailor the difficulty to your liking, especially upward. And you can repeat them over and over till you die. Or the game dies. About that…

I got my first character to the minimum Skirmish level, 20, before bedtime. The next day after work I eagerly fired up my gaming computer, and it started to load LOTRO. And stuck on the first loading screen. I went to their website, it was also down. Eventually I found their Twitter account where they said they had “extended downtime” but would be up next morning. It’s been two days now of the downtime being extended by a few hours every few hours. I feel slightly guilty since, me being such a Very Important Person, obviously this happens for my sake. ^_^

Actually, if it happened for my sake, I would presumably be a Main Character, and that’s a bit too much even for me! What I mean is that I am a  Viewpoint Character: I am in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time to see things happen. It is a term from literature, in which the viewpoint character of a scene – or a chapter, or a whole book – is the person who sees and feels and experiences the content of the book. And if written correctly, the personality of the Viewpoint Character filters everything that he or she reports and adds meaning and narrative to it. But the Viewpoint Character is not necessarily the Main Character, let alone the Creator of the story. Still, being a Viewpoint Character is a privilege, as you get to be where things happen, when they happen.

So basically, while it looks to me (as the Viewpoint Character) like a higher power is shutting down the games that take too much of my interest, a more realistic take on it is that I (as the Viewpoint Character but not the Main Character) am being subtly placed by the Author in a position to notice when they get shut down.

Obviously I am not being told “You are the Viewpoint Character for a certain event, so I need you to go there and do this or that.” As far as I perceive things, I do them mostly entirely on my own, or as a reaction to things that happen to me from outside. It is only when I witness some unlikely string of coincidences that I start to suspect that I am placed there as a Viewpoint Character, to make sure it is seen. Coincidences like one game getting shut down and another put on hold after I start writing about them. (Yes, I have been writing on a review of Lord of the Rings Online, I just haven’t uploaded it yet.)

The Author of the world is, in my belief, the “Christian God”. (This is an artifact of the English language, obviously God is not a Christian! Rather it is a shorthand for “God as imagined by Christians”.) This God is believed to take an active interest in what goes on in the created world. So in that perspective, it makes sense to draw connections between my journal and the closing of games. But does this connection exist outside of my head? Does it matter if it does, or only that it seems like it?

There are a lot more important things going on in the world than computer games. I basically write about them to appear more normal than I am, since it is something I have in common with many normal humans. A friend of mine lost her father, her pets, and almost her life in a house fire last month. Computer games shutting down is not likely to be a big thing in her life right now. I am well aware of how tiny, petty and pointless my earthly interests are. But somehow, oddly, I am still able to see connections between my petty little life and events on a larger scale. And that is the joy of being a Viewpoint Character, seeing what would otherwise have passed unnoticed. I get to feel important, even though I am not. Because my role is to observe. ^_^

I love repetitive games

Censored screenshot from Kritika Online

.Can I interest you in a repetitive game with ridiculously inflated human udders? Probably not, unless you really like helium-filled breasts or repetitive games. Luckily for Enmasse Entertainment, I am squarely in the second  category. I was instantly attracted to this game, Kritika Online,  when I heard that it required you to do the same instances over and over again. The humongous and imperfectly dressed breastesses don’t make much of an impression on me either way, me having grown up on a dairy farm after all. (Not diary farm – that would be the first decade of my journal archives.)

As you may have guessed, when a reviewer mentions the repetitive gameplay, it is generally not meant as a compliment. Most people are easily bored. In fact, that would normally be why we play games in the first place, instead of working overtime or reading books by geniuses like Charlie Munger and Ray Dalio who generously (for a small fee) share the principles that have made them successful by the American definition of success. Objectively speaking, moving pixels around on a computer screen to simulate combat against imaginary enemies is a lot less productive, so it seems unlikely we would do it unless it just felt good. And most people don’t feel good doing the same things over and over. But I do, within reason.

***

We are not talking about the kind of repetition where you just stand there and press the same button over and over. There is some element of tactics. Each sequence of the game consists of a hub (a small village with services and where you can meet other players, it is an online game after all) with four “instances”. Each instance is a limited area, or in this case several smaller areas one after another, where enemies are waiting to fight you. The number and type of enemies do not vary. Occasionally during the fight, and always after defeating the final boss, you get dropped items like a weapon, a piece of armor, or a potion.

The first time you are sent into an instance, it is usually to perform one or more quests: Defeat [number] of [enemy type], pick up [object]. Then you return and are sent back into the exact same instance to do something similar. The same enemies are waiting in the same places and behaving the same way. So that already makes the second time easier. In addition, you may have leveled up or found better equipment, which would also help. Just in case it gets too easy, you can adjust the difficulty level. There are four of them, from easy to insane. On harder levels, the same enemies are harder to kill and do more damage, especially the end boss. But you also get more rewards.

Even if you don’t have a quest, you can still go back and do the same instance over and over again, leveling up and finding gold and new weapons and armor. You can basically do this as long as you want, I think. I have not seen a limit yet. And in fact, sometimes the only quest you have is to level up, if you’ve been “too effective” like doing several quests during the same run though an instance.

***

“No man ever steps into the same river twice,” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”

This is a classic trope in a certain type of time travel stories, where the protagonist’s mind goes back in time and is installed in his or her younger body, allowing them to live their life over again. I am sure many of us have thought of this at one time or another. I have been writing stories about this for many years, hundreds of thousands of words, but if you want to read a sure to be classic in this genre I would recommend getting The first 13 lives of Harry August by “Claire North”. I believe this is so far the best in the subgenre, but I may be wrong – be sure to shoot a comment if you have found any better.

This type of story is basically the literary equivalent of the much simpler scenario in Kritika Online (and a handful of similar games) where you are sent back into the same instance you just struggled your way through. But unlike in the game, in a more complex scenario the enemies may no longer be standing in the same place doing the same thing – your changed behavior will send ripples out from you and gradually things will change and you will find new challenges. So the game is more like the daydreams in which you think “if only I had said this instead of that, then everything would have been better”. In reality, you don’t know that, because then you would experience a different life. “All else being the same” is always a hypothetical phrase, because all else is never the same. Except in games, which is one of the more likable things about them, I think.

***

Another way to experience the same game content repeatedly is to create “alts”, alternative characters. These could be of different classes or archetypes, allowing you to experience the same content from a different angle. For instance maybe your first character was wielding a sword and fought up close with the enemies, but your second character has a bow and fights from a distance but has to run away if they get too close. That makes for a different experience, even if you know where the enemies are, because they behave differently. Unsurprisingly, I make alts in games as well. For instance, I have started Skyrim several times with a new character. Notably I had a Khajiit (cat-person) who would kill bandits and carry them all the way back to the entrance to Whiterun to lay them outside the main gate. MEOW!

I had somewhere around 110 different characters in City of Heroes before the game folded after 8 years. I have no idea how many I made in Daggerfall. But Daggerfall has a fantastic concept that I would dearly love to see in other games: You can add benefits (like more health per level, more resistances, expertise with certain weapons or against certain enemy types) at the price of leveling up more slowly. Conversely, you can add disadvantages to level up faster. So I load my characters to the gills to level up as slowly as possible (1/3 of normal speed, and I seriously wish you could go much further) and then go through quest after quest while slowly leveling up and randomly finding useful weapons, armor, magical items etc to make my character more powerful. The dungeons in Daggerfall do not always have exactly the same monsters in exactly the same place, but for the most part they do on the same level. (It changes once you level up.) Some of them vary though, adding some variation you don’t get in Kritika. Also, the dungeons are enormous, unlike the small quick instances in Kritika. But the principle is the same. And then I go back and start over again.

***

This past fall there was an anime series called Goblin Slayer, which was set in a typical fantasy world (inspired by Dungeons & Dragons with a dash of Lord of the Rings). I found this story particularly interesting because the main character seemed very clearly inspired by an “Aspie”, someone on the Autism Spectrum (until recently called Asperger Syndrome). I am not sure if the author is basing this on himself or someone he knows, but there are a lot of similarities. Goblin Slayer is a man who slays goblins. While other adventurers move on to more powerful monsters as they level up, Goblin Slayer just gets better and better at killing goblins. If it is not a goblin, he is not interested. He knows them inside and out, can predict what they will do, and has plans to counter them. If it has anything to do with goblins, he’s your man. In one memorable scene, he has a conversation with a heroine who was trapped and raped by goblins earlier in her career, and who had a phobia of them years later after she had become a famous heroine. “If you have a problem with goblins, I will kill them for you.” “Even in my dreams?” “Yes. Because I am the Goblin Slayer.”

I resonated with this character for several reasons, like how he had trouble talking with other people about other things than his special interest (but would know everything about that), how he would fail at common politeness like small talk (“Is this about goblins?” “No, but…” “Goodbye.”)  and did not meet people’s eyes (he actually wore a full helmet all the time when not asleep.) But I also realized that his approach to the fantasy world was very similar to mine. He was not interested in reaching the top level and fighting dragons and demon lords, as long as there were still new ways to fight goblins.

Although the Goblin Slayer’s reasons were different from mine, I also have the tendency to prefer the low-level part of fantasy games, doing them over and over until I feel that I have complete mastery before I move on to other things. This is not just a game thing, I guess, looking at my employment career. It doesn’t pay particularly well, but to someone like me it is still oddly satisfying.

 

 

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.)

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?

Swordsman online

Sceenshot from Swordsman Online

My first and so far only character in Swordsman Online has TWINTAILS!

I rather like this game, at least so far (level 25). It is distinctly Chinese, but professionally translated into English except for the voice acting. (Of which there is plenty, but there are textboxes with English translation.) Oh, and there are also the rare loading screen with classic-looking Chinese calligraphy, but overall load screens are rare.

Swordsman is based on the Wuxia literary genre, which occupies a similar niche as sword & sorcery fantasy, but arose independently from it centuries ago, and is set in an imaginary ancient China rather than medieval Europe. There is only one race, in every sense of the word: All characters are Han Chinese. There also are no starting classes: You choose your school at level 5-10, and even the more Chi (magic) based schools have a solid foundation of weapon gymnastics.

Another rare trait is seen already in character creation: Everyone is dressed decently (and prettily) at all time, men and women both. There are no bare-chested barbarians or bikini battle-babes. Flowing robes and ornate dresses carry the day.

A probably unique feature of this game is the built-in bot. From a fairly early level on, you can set up the skills you want your character to use and the ways you want them to heal, as well as the condition to stop botting. Then you let them lose in hostile territory to harass the local banditry while you go shopping. (It will only run for a few hours a day, but still.) I haven’t found a way to pick up loot though, so no Chinese gold farming. ^_^ On the contrary, it uses food and potions for healing. This feature is entirely optional and at least in the early game the fights are pretty easy if you just follow the main story line, so there is no need to grind levels. I have just done it for fun, watching my character do heroic fighting on her own.

The game is very story-driven, with interspersed story instances and whole cutscenes where your character mostly does impressive feats defeating main adversaries. These are so few though that they don’t overall break the immersion in the game except during the very first levels which are more of a tutorial. Actually, at level 25 the game still feels a bit like a tutorial, very story-driven and with a slow introduction of new features and lore. At level 25 you can learn about companions, for instance. These fulfill a similar role as “pets” in western and Korean MMORPGs.

Another feature associated with the “story-driven” part is that you can at all times let your character go to the next quest target automatically by clicking on the name of a person or area or even a class or bandit you are sent to fight. Your character will then make his or her way to the place and engage the target appropriately: Talk to a quest person, attack a bandit, or stop to let you survey an area. This saves wrist and means your real-life cartography skill is not relevant to the game. I like this. I have seen it in other Asian games too and I like it, but you can control your character’s travel yourself if you like the immersive aspect of that.

The population seems to be low, but I do see the occasional fellow player in the newbie zones, just very few. There is steady activity in the chat channel though so the game does not feel dead. Also some player actions have effects on the game world, for instance a particular quest gives you the ability to bestow a blessing on all players in an area, with your name highlighted on top of the screen. (This is for high-level players, I assume. I have only been on the receiving side so far at least.) Every area is also dominated by a guild, although I don’t know what effects this has except for the fame. I am basically soloing this far, and I like it that way when I learn a new game.

One reason why I prefer soloing now that my classmates are grandparents is that I just play less than before, and certainly less seriously. I guess I may be starting to grow up finally, but clearly I am not quite there yet!

European Truck Simulator 2

Screenshot European Truck Simulator 2 (ETS2)

Driving toward Stavanger with a borrowed Volvo FH16 truck transporting an excavator from Malmö. Oh, and this is in the game European Truck Simulator 2. Pretty realistic. Realistically pretty.

I don’t write much about games anymore. I also don’t buy much games anymore. But I think this one is pretty good. And not just good as in well made, but that it may actually put people in a good mood and feel more positive. There are many games that are addictive through negative emotions like rivalry, combat or conquest; but this game is constructive and yet fascinating. I guess it is a bit niche, but I am certainly not the kind of guy who has used to dream about being a trucker or have memorized the names of various types of trucks. I don’t even drive a personal car for many years now. And I still enjoy European Truck Simulator 2.

I can’t remember exactly how I came across this game, just that I was amused that it even existed. But my vague curiosity turned to surprise when I checked the Steam page and saw the extremely high rating by the customers. How do you get 10/10 with 77 000 reviews? Is that even possible? When you see a book review on Amazon with a pure 5 star rating, you can pretty much assume the only people who have rated it are friends and family of the poor author. But try to get 10/10 with tens of thousands of reviews.

Well, the game is niche alright. It is, as the name implies, all about trucks in Europe. But it does what it does really well. Also, and not least, it is beautiful. The scenery, the weather, the towns, the trucks. It is just so pretty. Shiny. Kind of … pure. The pure platonic love between a man and his truck, or something? Don’t ask me what it is, but I kind of feel it. At least for the first few days. ^_^

***

As the name implies, this game is about trucks in Europe. But it actually has a pretty large scope. You start as a hired driver, later you buy your own truck and pick up cargo, and finally you can buy more trucks and hire other drivers to drive for you. So it is not just a truck simulator but more of an “everything trucks” simulator. Or as their website is fittingly named: “World of Trucks.”

The game has three somewhat distinct phases if you want to play it to the fullest. In the first phase, you start up in a European city of your choice (actually the base game is mostly set in Germany and neighboring cities, but there are expansions and mods) and here you jump into a loaded truck and drive it to a neighboring town. All expenses are paid by the employer, you just drive and try to not damage the equipment too much. If successful, you are rewarded with (in-game) money and experience points. These points are used to level up. This gives you access to steadily longer trips and more types of cargo. As you level up, you also get points you can invest in specializing, such as in longer trips and rare cargo types, which give you better pay and more experience points.

In the second phase, you buy your own truck. I recommend waiting a bit, because at low levels many of the trucks are not unlocked yet, and the ones that are may not be the strongest of the lot. Plus you’ll go into quite a bit of debt. But once you are your own boss, the pay per kilometer goes up quite a bit. Of course now you need to pay fuel and repairs yourself. On the bright side you can go on “road trips” with your truck, picking up new cargo in the town where you delivered your previous load, and continue in the direction you want to go, earning money along the way as you explore Europe.

In the third phase, you buy garages and trucks and manage your own freight company. You can still drive your own truck, but you now need to keep an eye on your trucks and drivers as well. (I haven’t actually tried this part, and I am not sure everyone wants to.)

***

The first hours or days are likely to be spent learning to drive again. First, there is the matter of controls. You can control the truck using the WASD keys or the arrow keys or a combination of these. You can also use the mouse or a game controller. I use a cheap Thrustmaster joystick, but there actually exist USB steering wheels with pedals and shift sticks! They are rather expensive though, and I am not quite that far gone. Your finances may vary, as may your enthusiasm.

But even if you have a steering wheel and pedals, you have a learning curve ahead unless you are a trucker in Real Life. Trucks don’t handle like smaller cars, and not even all trucks handle the same way. Obviously getting through gates or around sharp bends is a whole new challenge, but an 18 ton truck also has a whole other inertia than a Morris Mini or even a SUV. For good measure, gravity also wants a word with your truck, if you are going even moderately uphill or downhill. So expect your first hours or days in the game to be a learning experience, and a pretty strongly focused one at first.

Luckily science assures us that the most effective way to learn is outside our comfort zone but not quite into our panic zone, and getting immediate feedback on our performance. Staying in the right zone is largely a matter of using the pedals (or the corresponding keys) wisely, and you don’t get much more immediate feedback than the sound of a traffic sign scraping along the side of a shiny new truck.

I started crawling along at tractor speed (I grew up on a farm after all) and it was almost 5 hours before I had my first encounter with the speed limit. After about 10 hours, I can occasionally take my eyes off the rapid back and forth between the dashboard and the road ahead of me, just for a few seconds. And that’s where the game really begins to shine.

***

For a niche game, there are quite a bit of YouTube videos dedicated to European Truck Simulator 2 (ETS2 for short). If you watch some of them, you are likely to notice phrases like “This is so pretty!” “Would you look at this!” “I have to take a picture of this!” “I hope we get some rain.” Because the landscape, the lighting and the weather effects are quite pretty and lifelike. And even though the distances in the game are compressed so you can drive an hour’s distance in five minutes, they try to put in all the landmarks and the best roadside scenery. It is quite lifelike too, I recently drove an imaginary truck from Kristiansand (where I am employed in Real Life) and westward (where I live in Real Life) and it was very recognizable, but of course I well was past home in 5 minutes.

And of course the cars are also rendered in exquisite detail. Not just your own, but also those of the brave souls who share the road with you.

Beauty is not that easy to convey in words, so I recommend you watch some of the high-resolution YouTube videos. I recommend Keralis and Squirrel, both of whom have multiple videos and both of whom are professional YouTube gamers with pleasant voices and decent one-sided communication skills. Also, the videos are high quality so you can ogle the landscape from the safety of your home cinema or home office or whatever you use. (Probably not a good idea to watch in your cubicle at work though.)

***

It is strange to consider that for kids playing this game today, this particular career will probably be gone when they are old enough to work there. Self-driving cars are coming, and few places will they make themselves valuable as fast as in truck driving. Trucks are expensive, and humans need breaks to eat and sleep, during which time the hardware just stands around rusting and accumulating interest on its loans. So wherever and whenever it is possible for the trucks to drive themselves, they are likely to do so. That said, it will probably take some time still for machines to be able to drive at the same speed as a human trucker and handle all the challenges on the road.

Truckers may be a varied crew, in some places more than others, but they are also an essential part of the world we live in today. If you look around you, probably you will find that most of the man-made objects you see have been brought to you by a truck. Trucks not only bring the food on our table but the table as well. We have much to be thankful for, and I am pleased that modern technology allowed us to get a glimpse into their world before the last sunset on the road.

Not-City-of-Heroes Fanfic writing

Screenshot from City of Heroes character generator

This picture may be created by the City of Heroes character generator, but the heroine Nordic Spring is from the totally imaginary MMORPG Paragons which never existed in our world, only in the world of the novel I am currently writing (my second NaNoWriMo novel this year, after I won the 50 000 words challenge with my first story, Artworld.) In contrast to Artworld, I am having a blast writing Paragons of Virtue, where Virtue refers to “Virtue City”, the city formally known as “Virtual City” before it became real, and totally not the Virtue server in City of Heroes, which is an intellectual property held by NCSoft Inc, whose lawyers are probably on the Internet like most people these days.

Nordic Spring is one of the characters in my story set in the defunct MMORPG Paragons that has mysteriously become real. She is a Nature / Ice Guardian, which is totally not a Nature Affinity / Ice Blast Defender from City of Heroes, seeing how CoH doesn’t exist and never has in that world. Before coming to the alternate reality of Virtue City, she was a slightly physically challenged, long-haired woman named Tove something or other, which is totally not a poorly disguised rewrite of Tuva, not that it matters since they are both imaginary and all.

The main main character of the story is Lightwielder Trainee, a Light/Light tank. The tank class is a mainstay of MMORPGs since long before CoH was made, and it is not spelled “tanker” like the corresponding archetype in CoH. Also, CoH doesn’t have Light powersets, although it has Darkness powersets, which work differently. (The MMORPG Champions does have a Light powerset, but it works slightly differently from in my imaginary world, beyond the obvious implications of the name.) Before coming to Virtue City, Lightwielder Trainee was an underpaid office worker named Markus. In the story he is mostly referred to as Markus when doing internal monologue or talking with friends, and Lightwielder Trainee when doing heroic things or being mentioned by others. Only Tove knows his former identity, and the other way around, as they used to team up together almost every day for several years, to the point where people thought they were a couple.

Of course, now that they are physically in the game world, who knows what will happen. But I am pretty sure it will be rated T for Teens, like the game itself. Or “Young Adult” as they say about books.

***

I am having a blast writing this story, it is one that practically writes itself. Which is great because I get to read a new chapter or two each day. The downside with stories that write themselves is that I have less control over them than if I crafted them from scratch. For instance, I had planned to introduce Tove early in the book and use her as an alternate viewpoint character to avoid this becoming just a translation from 1st person perspective.

One thing that bothered me about Artworld was that the heroine got way too little exposure and development because the MMC (male main character) was the narrator. An interesting character was largely kept unexplored and the romance was badly understated because the MMC did not really understand her emotions. (What guy can understand a woman’s emotions anyway?) So I decided that my next book would be 1) not a romance, although there might be pairings and triangles in it, and 2) not a first person perspective. In practice, however, I am now on the 6th chapter of what I call “translated first person”, by which I mean it reads as if it was written in first person narrative and then someone went through the text and replaced all instances of “I” with “he” (or occasionally the name), “me” with “him”, “our” with “their” and so on. Only one person has internal monologue, only one person’s feelings are clear to the reader, and the reader does not know things the main character doesn’t know.

Translated first-person perspective is very common in LitRPG novels, even in good ones like Aleron Kong’s Chaos Seed. But having recently rewatched parts of the anime Log Horizon, based on the LitRPG books by the same name, I see how useful it can be to expand the scope a bit, even if you maintain a main character. If you compare Log Horizon to Sword Art Online, another popular Japanese LitRPG which was made into an anime, you will notice that the main character of SAO has a pretty strong Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) flavor. In other words, he is too perfect and overpowered.

One of the most appealing aspects of LitRPG is that the characters are constrained by the game mechanics. You have to do your grinding and your artifact quests in order to become powerful, you cannot muddle through until toward the end of the book, when everything comes to a climax, the main character suddenly has godlike powers because of his heroism or his love or his heritage or an ancient prophecy or because Mystra said so. That is one of my major turn-offs about conventional fantasies, and conversely one of the things I love about LitRPG is that the character has to do the grinding to power up, use his creativity to find the best strategies and tactics based on understanding the rules, and gain the cooperation of other heroes or even villains to help save the day.

So what I wanted to write was a kind of “Log Horizon meets City of Heroes” (except not really). But the writing style, as much as I love writing and reading it myself, may get in the way of making this what I wanted.

Of course, it is still early. I mean, as of Chapter 6 (16000 words) we are still in the character’s first day in Virtue City, and he is still level 4. The tentative female main character has just arrived and is level 2, having done only a street quest so far. (Notice that the quests are usually called quests or quest missions, never just “missions” because this is totally not City of Heroes. I am sure not even lawyers could misunderstand that.)

But now it is time to get back to City Park, which is totally not Atlas Park, the starting zone in City of Heroes. Just like Factory Row is not Kings Row, Steel Towers is not Steel Canyon, and so on.

Duolingo revisited

Screenshot YouTube / TEDx

Please apologize for your stupidity! The pitfalls of using machine translation on the Web. Instead, please enlist the French. There are a many thank you.

Back on February 23, 2013, I wrote about Duolingo, a website that let you learn a foreign language by translating the Web. Or that was the idea. I also mentioned that it had relatively few languages, all of which were cousins of English either on the Anglo-Saxon or the Norman side.

Things have changed a little, but Duolingo is still around, and there are now a few more languages. (You can learn Norwegian! So you can properly greet your new overlords when the longships come.) No truly alien ones such as Japanese or Mandarin, but a couple using Cyrillic alphabet, and Hebrew is in the works; there are also western languages for Arabic speakers, so the alphabet problem seems to be worked around. And there’s Turkish for English-speakers. While using a slightly modified Latin alphabet, Turkish is not an Indo-European language, meaning it is not visibly related to English and its neighbors. (Even Russian is much closer to English.)

Naturally I have started learning Turkish. Because I can. Or because I wanted to see whether I can learn a language from scratch, without even a seed of background knowledge. We had a smattering of French in school, so when I play around with French on Duolingo, I am never sure how much I am actually learning and how much comes back to me from our seemingly futile French classes, and how much I have picked up from French pop music and cultural references. None of those are particularly applicable to Turkish, because Vienna did not fall to the Ottoman army in this timeline.

***

Back when Duolingo was new, it had just the website (although it was surprisingly mobile-friendly for a site with so much interaction). Now there are apps for iOS and Android. They are similar to the website, but actually easier. In other words, I take longer completing the standard chunk of 10 XP on the website. This is partly because I downloaded the appropriate languages for my smartphone keyboard (I use SwiftKey, but this probably also works with Google keyboard). The keyboard helpfully corrects badly spelt words, and even proposes valid words if I get the first letters right or nearly right. In addition, the Android app is more likely to give me exercises of the type “tap the word pairs” or “select the words” instead of actual writing exercises.

The focus on translating the web seems to have receded a bit. The philosophy was sound enough: The server keeps track of each student’s competence level, and assigns sentences from actual texts that the company is paid to translate. If the sentence is short and contain only common words, it can be assigned to a newbie, while longer sentences with more advanced vocabulary are reserved for advanced learners. The same sentence is given to a bunch of different students, and if they agree on the translation, fine. If not, you may get to vote on which translation is correct.

The website has a tab called “Immersion” which does take you to the translation work, but you are not pushed into it early in the course at least. I still haven’t actually completed any languages yet (as if such a word even has meaning for a language). I am supposedly 25% fluent in French, although I suspect 2.5% would be a more accurate estimate. I am not entirely sure I can say “twentyfive” in French.

With translation somewhat sidetracked, it seems that the company Duolingo is currently living on investments while waiting for a buyer or IPO to go public. For now it is completely free, and this was important to the founders. But if it gets bought up, it is anybody’s guess how long it will be free. At the very least I would expect a return to focus on actually useful translations. But for now it is mostly fun and games.

***

Duolingo is highly gamified. That is, the learning is made as fun as possible. Completing exercises give you XP (experience points) and you level up by doing enough of them. When you have completed a topic group (like “food”, “clothing” or “animals”) you get “lingots” which is the currency of the game. You can use these in the “lingot store” to unlock optional features like “learn flirting”.

There are small chunks of exercises that normally only take a few minutes, and they are a mix of different types. In the case of French, I translate phrases and sentences from French to English, and from English to French. The French phrases are spoken as well as written. There are also exercises where I listen to a French phrase and write it down in French, and others where I listen and try to repeat a phrase. Sometimes I get to pick a translation of a slightly harder sentence from 3 alternatives in French. Sometimes I get 6 different words, 3 in each language, and get to sort them into pairs.

In the original version, you started with 3 “hearts” which would break if you made a mistake. If you lost all three hearts and made a fourth mistake, you had to redo that batch. But evidently that made people lose heart for real, so this has quietly been dispensed with. Now instead, if you make mistakes, you don’t make progress, or may even be set back a little, but nobody scolds you in any way. It just takes longer to gain your 20 XP (two batches of exercises) for the day.

There is currently a bug where, if you study two languages, Duolingo will count progress on one of them as progress on them both. OK, I am not 100% sure if this is a bug or a feature, but I am almost sure it is a bug, because it does track progress on both of them when I look at the daily reminder mail. But in the app and on the website, I have to keep track myself.

***

Duolingo is probably the most efficient way to get started on a foreign language today. (Science backs this up: A study showed that 34 hours of Duolingo was equal to a semester of beginner Spanish in college.) It may over-estimate your progress (it certainly does with mine), but you can’t avoid noticing when you don’t know something, so it is kind of self-correcting if it pushes you too far ahead too fast. And it is just plain fun to use. Not super fun like actual computer games, but I certainly wish my workday was like this! So more fun than reading the newspaper. (Just kidding, boss! ^_^)

So go get it while it’s free. Remember, being bilingual delays Alzheimer’s. We want to delay Alzheimer’s until someone has found a cure for it, OK? So here you go, now:

Duolingo – learn a language for free!

City of Heroes remembered

Screenshot

This was my home…
All this pain and devastation
how it tortures me inside;
all the innocent who suffer
from your stubbornness and pride…

3 years ago this day, City of Heroes closed down. It was the first, best and at the time still the largest online superhero game, and had features that were not available elsewhere, such as extensive player-created content. But more than anything else, it had a community of people who found it natural to roleplay heroes. A game where it was natural to reach out and help your fellow players, teach them the ropes, guide and protect them, answer questions that had already been answered a hundred times. It was not just the best of its kind, it was also the “goodest” in the sense of the good people it drew together.

Out of the blue, publisher NCSoft announced the closure of the game and fired the developers, Paragon Studios, who had been working on the next expansion up till that day, unaware of the troubles ahead. Needless to say, this caused a lot of negative reactions against NCSoft. I doubt many of us are ever going to touch one of their games again, let alone buy anything from them. The reaction not only from current players but from the MMORPG community at large was so strong that it lowered NCSoft’s share value for some time. I stopped following it so I don’t know if that was permanent; one can only hope.

So that is why, when I watched this video on YouTube, and saw the fiery destruction of the familiar landmarks, I vividly remember a similar scene from the animated movie Prince of Egypt where Moses sadly watches fire and ice hail down on Egypt, singing the lyrics I have quoted above. Stubbornness and pride indeed. Curse the darkness!

Fortunately, it did not take long before the former players started making a “spiritual successor” to City of Heroes. Unfortunately, they started making 3 different “spiritual successors”, neither of which is playable at this time. (Although Valiance Online was playable in pre-beta for a while, and looked quite promising and reasonably familiar. Here’s hoping it will come back one day.) (Of course, I would prefer if City of Heroes came back, but, stubbornness and pride, so probably not.)

On another reasonably bright side, I have more time for studying now. I never found another game that could fill the same place in my life, or forge the same online community. But I still sometimes stop by YouTube and watch movies that verify that yes, this thing of beauty once existed. This place that thousands of imaginary heroes once called home, and still would, if they could find a way back.