Broken Horizons – Vol 1, Ch 3

Getting beaten to a pulp wasn’t supposed to hurt, at least not in Tessa’s experience.

“The beta-testers weren’t kidding when they said the tutorial needed some work I guess,” Tessa said, rubbing her temples.

On the screen in front of her, Pillowcase was waiting tucked into a small niche in a broken wall while her health ticked back up to full. At her feet, the body of the tutorial’s first regular monsters, a trio of [Radioactive Goo Rats] lay waiting for her to finish harvesting their body parts.

The typical strategy in MMO tutorials was to dial the game’s normal difficulty down so that even brand new players would be able to win the first few fights with ease. The idea was to give neophytes a chance to grasp the mechanics of moving around and fighting before any real level of mastery was required of them. Broken Horizons had taken a different approach however.  

Instead of cheating openly in the characters’ favor by presenting them with fragile, soft hitting enemies, they gave the players real, dungeon-scale foes and then placed a series of special buffs on their characters so that as they fell closer to being defeated qualities like the rate they regenerated health, and how protective their starting armor was grew to proportions that even extremely well equipped max level players would have a hard time replicating.

The net result was that the early combats felt difficult while also giving players the sense that they were snatching victory from the jaws of defeat as they rapidly learned the basics of attacking, positioning, and when to use their limited powers. It was an effective illusion unless, like Tessa, the player was already familiar with the basics of combat and had an well honed sense of how durable characters typically were.

After six years of playing Glimmerglass and watching how well everyone she played with withstood damage so that she could tell when they were in need of healing, Tessa could almost see the exact numbers behind the scaling buffs as Pillowcase was driven back by the onslaught of a trio of rats the size of small bears. That the rats were glowing green and made of what appeared to be radioactive sludge didn’t seem out of place. Fledgling characters in many games were given quests to slay rats, and the little extra added to the ones in the World Shift tutorial was only there to fit the “strange and otherworldly” aesthetic the expansion hoped to evoke.

Appearance aside though, the rats were really no different than the thousands of other vermin Tessa had exterminated over the years so the outcome of the fight was never really in doubt. She defeated them one after the other but they got their licks in too. As the battle music faded, Pillowcase was left with just a sliver of health, apparently no more than a heartbeat away from death’s door. That was all well and good for creating a tense and exciting fight, but the aftermath promised to be rather boring. Since Pillowcase was too new to have any healing potions available, Tessa assumed her only recourse was to have Pillowcase hide away until her natural healing could bring her back to full health.

In what might have been intended as a teaching moment to showcase one of the Clothwork’s inherent traits though, Tessa turned out to be wrong about the enforced downtime. As she watched, Pillowcase’s health regenerated faster than any other character she’d ever played. It was one of the reasons the beta-testers had reported that Clothwork’s made good tanks for a group, but seeing the effect in action still exceeded Tessa’s expectations in a pleasant way.

Leaning back on her chair, Tessa wished her actual body could borrow some of Pillowcase’s vitality. Sometime during the fight with the rats, Tessa had started feeling sore. Not in any one area but all over and without obvious reason.

“I am going to make myself sick if I keep going like this,” she said, trying out the idea to see if hearing it aloud would motivate her to take a different course of action.

If any responsible part of her was still hoping that she might get to bed sooner in response to her declining health it would have been sorely disappointed by the first thought which followed the declaration.

“If I’m sick, I guess I’ll just have to call into work tomorrow for a day off!”

Time off was a limited and highly supervised resource. Vacation requests were routinely refused due to “staffing needs during a busy period”. And, of course, they were always in “a busy period”. The only days someone like Tessa could take off without prior approval were her allotted sick days and she had so little of them that she never spent them unless she absolutely had to. If she was legitimately sick though? And if that just so happened to buy her more time to play? Well, one day away wouldn’t really hurt that much. She’d have twice the work to do when she got back but she’d get it done twice as fast if she wasn’t exhausted and dead inside from stress.

With the thought of not needing to wake up before the break of dawn seeming like a plausible reality, Tessa felt a surge of relief wash through her. Her hands found the keyboard and the mouse and she put the residual aches she was feeling out of her mind.

It was play time. She could do this all night if she wanted to.

[System Message: ALERT!]

[Please do not logout or otherwise exit the game!]

[If you must leave, please set your character for “No Auto Logout” in “Settings > General” and leave the the game and your computer running or irretrievable corruption may occur.]

“What the hell?” Tessa blinked and read the message again.

As a rule, new expansions always have bugs. It wasn’t surprising – all code has bugs. No one could think of every scenario that might come up or cover every possible configuration someone might have their computer setup with. In the case of a major expansion to a game it was even less likely that all of the issues would be caught since there was no chance that a quality assurance staff of, at most, a few dozen people were going to replicate all of the odd behaviors a few million players might attempt.

That didn’t stop Tessa from being puzzled about the system message though. The thing with bugs, in her experience, was that they either fell into the category of “annoying but not game breaking”, in which case the players could be allowed to continue playing while a fix for the problem was created or the bugs were “game breaking” ones which had to patched immediately.

In the worst case, a game breaking bug might corrupt the data which defined the characters. Levels, items, and even personal information could be erased or compromised such that the only fix was “rollback” the data to an early backup. Rollbacks meant erasing all of the playtime the players had put in, including striping them of any valuable items and experience their character had gained, so development studios were exceptionally loath to let things get that far out of hand.

The problem with the system message was that, for serious bugs, one of the first tools to contain them was to bring the game servers down and force people to stop playing. That would at least prevent any damage the bug did from spreading too far. The system message was weird because Tessa had never heard of bug that required players to stay logged in.

As she brought Pillowcase into a battle with another nest of [Radioactive Goo Rats], she couldn’t help but try to piece together what might be happening in Egress Entertainment’s development wing.

If logging out was causing problems, then the issue either involved the log out code itself, or the final save routines which ran to disconnect the user from the server. If it was a server related issue though it would be reasonably simple for the EE devs to force a clean shutdown directly. There might be some data loss but better to suffer that sooner than later.

Which meant it wasn’t a server issue. The EE devs made mistakes but their were professionals and had always shown a reasonable level of competency.

“How could they screw up the client shutdown?” Tessa wondered aloud as Pillowcase looted a single [Glowing Rat Tail] from her defeated foes. Why between three rats there was only one tail was something she’d long ago learned not to question.

It was more fun to think about the programming issue EE was facing too.

As far as Tessa knew, there wasn’t a lot that happened during the shutdown sequence. The game client was closed, the memory it used was returned to the available pool, and the temporary files the game made were cleaned up. Of those none of them could have permanent or worrisome affects.

“Unless the game’s cleaning up more than just it’s temporary files?”

That shouldn’t have been possible, applications weren’t supposed to have access to other applications files, but buggy code could do all sorts of things it wasn’t supposed to and Tessa remembered she had run Broken Horizons in administrator mode to get it to work. That would have given it far greater ability to wreck things than it should otherwise have.

She tried to picture what the worst case scenario there would look like. A program running amuck could access all kinds of things, with the most legally dangerous being any personal information which was also on the computer, especially if it transmitted that information anywhere else.

Stealing personal information seemed unlikely though. If the bug was intentionally malicious code it could have stolen everything on the computer without alerting anyone. Stolen credit card numbers were a lot more useful if people didn’t know you had them so subtlety was usually the plan there.

A more likely problem would be if the shutdown caused a full drive wipe. For some people that would irreversibly disastrous. The image of hundreds of thousand users with computers that had been turned into worthless bricks drifted through Tessa’s mind. A lovely class-action suit would be sure to follow an event like that, probably on a scale sufficient to bankrupt EE if the case went poorly for them.

The odds of the problem actually being that bad were microscopic though. The most likely scenario was that someone had discovered a really unlikely sequence of events that could lead to something like a full drive wipe and the developers were being overly careful in an effort to make sure if something did happen to one or two people it wouldn’t be the game studio’s fault.

The warning was still there though, and still something she had to respect, or at least something she had a few self serving reasons for why she would choose to respect it.

“Oh no, what a shame, guess I have no choice but to keep playing then,” she said, delighted to have the decision to continue on and take the next day off reinforced a bit further.

The actual problem with the code didn’t concern her much. If she was correct and it was a scenario which could lead to an erased hard drive she wasn’t in any real danger. Aside from Broken Horizons and a copy of her company’s current project (which she wasn’t technically supposed to have on a personal machine), there wasn’t anything on Tessa’s computer that she cared about. She just hoped that whatever patch they rolled out wouldn’t eat into her day that much. It always sucked to have time off that she couldn’t do anything with.

For the time being though, the game was still up and she was definitely awake enough to continue.

Pillowcase returned with the [3 Glowing Rat Tail] to the quest giver who’d asked for them and waited for an animation to play out wherein “Mister Pendant”, a Skeletal Mage in a top hat and coat tails, added them into a bubbling cauldron to produce a [Vial of Soul Ink].

He was the end of the initial chain of quests she’d been given at the start of the game.

After the opening cinematic had played, showing Pillowcase’s reanimation, the game had given Tessa control of her character and set her to a few simple tasks. Move around, talk to some people, and fight a training dummy were typical basics any tutorial would run new players though since it was impossible to play at all unless you knew how to do them. In case of the World Shift tutorial these tasks came with introduction of a friendly character named Mogwin.

Mogwin was a crow, or rather Mogwin had been a crow. His translucent body and the gently pulsing aura of purple light which highlighted his edges marked him as having moved beyond his mortal form.

“Looks like you’re here now?” Mogwin had said when Pillowcase woke up. “Or almost here I guess,” as Pillowcase took her first faltering steps. “Well, you’re moving around and that’s what counts. Looking a bit run down though and that ain’t gonna help either of us. We should see about getting you back in fighting shape, cause we both know there’s going to be a lot of fighting to do, and probably a lot sooner than you’d expect.”

The intro area had seemed like an odd place for a battle to break out. Pillowcase rose where she’d fallen, on the lowest plains of the High Beyond. All around her were the remains of other warriors who’d fallen in service of the Consortium of Pain, her former masters.

Her former masters who’d betrayed and abandoned her.

The Consortium had held back the support their battleships could have contributed to the fight with the Fallen Kingdoms’ signature heroes because the raid Pillowcase had been a part of was merely an expeditionary thrust. She hadn’t been created to win, or even to survive. All that was expected of her was to force the defenders of the Fallen Kingdoms to reveal the sort of abilities they possessed.

The Consortium had reclaimed what minions they could and had allowed the rest to lay where they fell, having no use for creations which couldn’t materially advance their aims.

Pillowcase and Mogwin had been alone on the empty and silent field, which had given Tessa time to refamiliarize herself with Broken Horizon’s control scheme. She’d been worried that after six year away from the game she would feel clumsy trying to manipulate her character with a new mouse and a new keyboard. If anything though it was like the six year gap had never occurred. From the moment she took control of Pillowcase, all of her old reflexes came right back.  When it came time to square off against the stationary husk of a fallen Metal Mechanoid, Tessa had felt like she could dance Pillowcase around the goliath with more grace than she’d ever managed with Glimmerglass.

Some of that was probably due to the various improvements in animation handling and overall control which the developers had added to the game over the years, but Tessa was tempted to take part of the credit too. There was no reason to believe her reflexes were better than they had been, but it was nice to imagine anyways.

Once Tessa had proven that she had control of Pillowcase’s basic motor functions, and that she understood other characters in the world could be communicated with, Mogwin had sent her to scavenge a basic weapon and some starter armor from the fallen warriors around her.

With a [Rusty Sword] and [Cracked Shield] in hand, Pillowcase had ventured towards a nearby village which she could just make out in perpetual gloom of the High Beyond’s lowest level. The wondrous sky of alien stars and swirling light from the main cinematic was visible overhead but the rest of the environment was shrouded in an inky blackness which seemed to flow like water over shapes in the distance.

Before Pillowcase had reached the village she’d run into her first scripted battles. The minion of the Consortium had existed for no other reason than to showcase the [Stealth Kill] option available if you could sneak up on certain enemy types. As a Soul Knight, Pillowcase’s sneaking capability would be abysmal once she was properly geared up in heavy armor, but the more lightly armored classes could make good use of it when the situation allowed.

From the minion, Pillowcase had retrieved a pouch of Astral Coins, the new currency in the High Beyond, invented so that existing players with billions of gold pieces couldn’t rush in on the first day and buy every interesting thing that was for sale at once.

For Pillowcase the coins served as her ticket into the shop of Mister Pendant, the primary quest giver for starting Soul Knights. His white top hat and tails gave him an air that was slightly off kilter with dark and shadowy pallet the rest of the starter area was painted in, but it had the upside of making him very easy to find for people who might otherwise be lost as to where to go or who to talk to.

And he was definitely someone new players wanted to talk to thanks to his offerings of a variety of starter items like low level potions and the all-important [Basic Adventuring Bag].

The game walked Pillowcase through acquiring the bag as the first item she purchased in order to introduce Tessa to the idea that she had a magical inventory with oddly limited space constraints. A thousand arrows would count as one item, but a pair of rings would count as two. Tessa understood the programmatic limitations which made a bag like that seem reasonable but she’d always been bugged that the game lore never offered an in game suggestion as to how and why adventuring packs worked like they did. In the end, it was a ubiquitous enough system across different games that everyone pretty much just accepted it and moved on.

Once she’d spent the last of the coins she’d received on the bag, and a healing potion, Mister Pendant revealed his true purpose.

“It looks like you used to be something other than you are now,” he said. “Soul Knight. Yeah, you could be one of those. But you’ve got no [Soul Mark], no way to call on the powers you’re supposed to have. Well, we’re just going to have to fix that right up then, aren’t we?”

From there, Pillowcase had been sent on a number of fetch quests – errands to procure the various components Mister Pendant needed for the [vial of Soul Ink]. The quests had introduced Tessa to Sky’s Edge village, the starting city for all of the characters created as part of the High Beyond.

Or at least her own personal version of it. Until she completed the basic elements of the tutorial, the game kept Pillowcase in her own private instance of the town so that Tessa wouldn’t be distracted by other players while she was learning how to play. The enforced isolation usually made Tessa skip the tutorial when she made a new character but with her current mood a little “alone time” to start things off hadn’t seemed so bad, even if she didn’t really need to learn anything that the game was trying to teach her.

She’d visited the Blacksmith shop where she was told how her weapons and armor could be repaired, upgraded or deconstructed when they broke, grew too weak, or were replaced by a better item. She’d stopped by the Night’s Over tavern where she received a free meal for being new and was introduced to the idea that food increased your attributes, including ones like “chance to critically hit” which wouldn’t seem to be something you could influence by the meal you chose.

In short order she’d visited half a dozen places and developed a sense of the layout of the small village in the process of collecting the ingredients Mister Pendant needed to craft the [Vial of Soul Ink].

“This’ll start you off,” he said as he drew a complex design where Pillowcase’s heart would have been had she been human. “This ink will never come off and it’s never gonna fade, but your [Soul Mark] is going to stay small and weak unless you feed it. Gotta have soul to be a [Soul Knight]. That’s all on you though. It’s nothing I or anyone else can do for you. Just remember this, because it’s important, you’re not an empty doll. Your bosses? Maybe they used you up and tossed you away, but that’s not who your are. You are who you chose to be. So choose well.”

For a moment, Tessa felt a weird swirl of vertigo pass through her. Mister Pendant’s dialog was clearly referencing Pillowcase’s origin video but “empty doll used up by her bosses” hit disturbingly close to home for Tessa too, and, with how the shot of Mister Pendant was framed, it looked like the glowing blue orbs in his skeletal eye sockets were staring right out of the screen at her.

1 thought on “Broken Horizons – Vol 1, Ch 3

  1. dreamfarer Post author

    Author’s Notes:
    I gave myself a little extra time with this chapter…and so naturally it wound up at 3,500 words rather than my usual 2,000.

    I don’t view the extra 1,500 words as making it a better chapter necessarily – I know that digressions and exposition are dangerous indulgences which can bog a story down – but in this case the extra length came, in part, from coming back a day after I originally wrote the chapter to do a solid editing pass on it.

    It’s typical for an edit to trim down a chapter for a lot of writers, but for me I tend to find that I need to add more in with a goal of connecting the ideas better and making the flow from one to another more graceful. There’s probably a lot which could be trimmed too, but that would be part of a deeper, structural edit where I can see a broader section of the story and choose what fits and what doesn’t.

    Lore Corner: The “Metal Mechanoid” that was mentioned as a target dummy for Pillowcase to begin learning how to make basic attacks against is an example of one of the other playable sub-races of the Artifax “race” which Pillowcase is also a member of as a Clothwork.

    Reply

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