The world was melting into darkness and blood. Every moment saw another vestige of the light swept away, all color and vibrancy lost to a rolling Stygian emptiness. It was more or less what Tessa had expected.
The titles slammed into view, their gold rimmed letters burning away the darkness to reveal the new expansion’s splash screen for a moment before the intro cinematic began to play.
Tessa had to give the development team credit. They were working with an older engine but the animations were still on par with the best the industry had to offer. It had to have cost them some long days, but the results were evident in Broken Horizon’s still be around after fifteen years when so many of their competitors had gone under.
As Niminey, one of the game’s signature heroines, appeared on the screen, Tessa was glad to see that they’d kept the principal art team on the job for her new look. Gone were the soft brown leathers and velvety green cloak from the original box art for Broken Horizons and in their place she wore an ornate mithril chain shirt and the sigil inscribed sky blue “Cloak of the Celestials” which had been one of the ultimate rewards from the previous expansion. The new look took Tessa by surprise but it wasn’t the first time Niminey’s iconic look had been updated. As the game’s storyline had progressed so too had the stories of its principal characters, with their armor and weapons changing to reflect their expanded history (and to sell more merchandise).
In Niminey’s case there had been more changes than most. The Niminey of World Shift was no longer the neophyte who had been menaced by a trio of goblins in the original box art and drawn in millions of subscribers. In the intervening fifteen years, she had traveled to all corners of the Fallen Kingdoms and been at least a side character in every major event that occurred (that was when she wasn’t cast as one of the pivotal actors, as she appeared to have been for the first time in a while with the World Shift expansion).
Tessa watched as Niminey passed through a portal of ice and shadows to arrive in a landscape unlike any that had appeared in the game before. Gravity seemed to be a vague suggestion at best and the sky was an immeasurably dense mass of red stars against a swirling blue and vibrant purple backdrop.
The High Beyond was a new area that had been added with the expansion and, at least from the cutscene, it looked gorgeous. Freed from the need to evoke a sense of connection to any realistic historical setting, the animators had chosen a palette that evoked fantastic cosmic scenery and vista that could never be seen in Earth. Tessa knew the in-game areas wouldn’t look quite as appealing – the animation possibilities for pre-rendered cutscenes always exceeded those which a desktop computer could managed to replicate on the fly. Despite that however, she felt her pulse quickening at the thought of getting to play in an area that was so vibrant and colorful. It was beautiful, especially in light of what she’d learned to expect from the Fallen Kingdoms of six year ago.
Well, beautiful and creepy, if she was being fair.
For all that the High Beyond evoked the grandeur of a place beyond space and time, it was also intended to carry a sense of dread as well. The shadow shrouded landscape which lay beyond the neon dappled valley Niminey moved through wasn’t empty, and from the viewpoint of the camera that followed her, shapes could be scene moving just outside of her field of vision.
The attack, because in an intro scene there inevitably was going to be an attack, came when Niminey bent to investigate a single gently glowing pink flower.
The camera went into slow motion, showing the bright sparkles of light which dropped from the flower freeze in the air as time stood still.
From the shadows, moving in a blur, despite time being slowed to a crawl, two bodiless wraiths shot forward. Their forms trailed behind them like purple smoke caught in a gale and, from their nebulous hands, claws of bloodied steel emerged.
The camera cut back to Niminey as she gazed in wonder at the flower, seemingly unaware of the peril she was in.
If Tessa hadn’t played through the earlier expansions, and kept up to date on the later ones, she might have been concerned that the studio was going to kill off one of their major characters to make a splash for their 15th anniversary. From a purely economic viewpoint though Tessa knew that Egress Entertainment was unlikely to give up such a marketable figure, and within the lore of the game world it wouldn’t make sense either.
Niminey rarely saved the day on her own, that was the player’s job after all, but as the maximum level the players could reach had risen, so too had Niminey’s prowess. If she could be taken down by two simple opponents, it would signal to the players that their hard earned strength was going to be completely overshadowed in the new areas, and that was not an impression that was likely to draw in new players or convince lapsed ones to return.
In a far more economic and narratively plausible stroke therefore, the two wraiths got no closer to Niminey’s back than the length of her sword before a flash of blue light cut them in two. The camera turned from their dissolving forms to show Niminey with her blade “Clarity” drawn and scanning the terrain for other enemies.
True to form, the camera pulled back to show the shadows come alive as though a nightmare factory had belched forth an army of abominations.
The scene cut away from impending battle after showing Niminey bringing Clarity to a ready position, a small smirk appearing on her lips.
Tessa knew she being sucked in as much by the rising orchestral music as anything else, but the scene brought her back to her childhood nonetheless. That moment. That little smile. That was what she wanted.
She remembered moments like that. Encounters when things could have gone terribly awry but she’d been the one to hold things to together. It had been wonderful to feel like she was defying not only the expectations of the other players but even fate itself when she refused to let her party members fall and had instead seen them through to a hard fought victory.
Defying fate had felt so right then, but somehow she’d never had the chance to do the same in her real life. Fights there carried too high a cost, and winning together was a foreign concept for too many people.
The cinematic wasn’t done when it departed from Niminey. Her involvement spoke to the existing characters discovering new foes and challenges to face in the new areas. For the fresh characters who were natives to the High Beyond, a signature character of their own was introduced.
Tessa had seen concept art and the final designs for Silken Black, the assassin who served as the player stand-in for the promotional images that preceded World Shift’s launch. For as much as the fourteen year old Tessa had wanted to be the Elven Niminey, the twenty six year old Tessa had to admit the idea of having a job which allowed her to stab people was terribly appealing. Being a vampire would be a plus too, but primarily because it would mean she could stay up all night and sleep all day.
Silken was revealed in close-up at first, the camera focusing on her glowing red eyes and fangs before she pulled up the mask which covered her mouth and nose. When the camera moved, it swung around showing the tableau she was a part of.
In the distance, Niminey’s battle against the shadow horde raged on, but Silken made no move to either aid or attack Niminey. Instead, she began to climb a tall spire of rock covered in strange, alien reliefs.
Near the top, a pair of giant iron statues moved to block Silken’s entrance through a door which led into a twisted structure that soared up through the clouds.
Rather than showing the fight, the animation jumped forward in time, showing a slightly scuffed Silken standing before an altar with a basin in the center of it. In the background, the steaming remains of the two iron statues were just barely visible.
Using a chalice that waited on the altar, Silken scooped up some of the boiling black liquid from the basin and drank it down in a single gulp. The camera pulled away as her body began to stretch and change, showing first her shadow twisting far outside its natural proportions and then an exterior shot of the temple with her screams reaching even the camera’s distant position.
The cinematic concluded with Niminey returning back through the portal, glowing pink flower in hand, and looking only somewhat battle damaged. Waiting on the other side of the portal, a small crowd congratulated her on her safe return while a Dwarven herbalist took the flower and quickly brewed a potion to give to a child in a bed just behind the crowd.
The child was facing away from the camera, but as they turned to take hold of the potion their face was revealed to be half human skin and half tough green scales. They drank the potion down and then smiled in wonder as their scaled half morphed back to being fully human.
Neminey’s mission was a success, but outside the room a shot of the city showed many other people suffering from similar or worse conditions, as generic adventurers set off on similar quests to aid them.
The camera trailed over several of them, showing off a few of the new expansions different armor sets before it focused on a figure in the background as they moved through the crowd. The woman looked like a non-descript, black haired extra until the camera pushed in on her and her eyes flashed red for just a moment.
Tessa wondered if people would get that the “normal peasant woman with the red eyes” was Silken’s new form, or if they would see the significance in the signature character for the new faction’s actions.
Tessa knew she was cheating a little in that regard, given that she’d read developer interviews and kept up with the beta-test commentary but she still thought the opening cinematic did a good job explaining that the new characters could be part of a whole new faction, unallied with any of the ones previously in the game, and that while they weren’t in league with the High Beyond’s bad guys, their goals and motivations didn’t line up with the existing character factions either.
The bit Tessa found important though was that it not only looked like she’d be able to have Pillowcase travel to the original areas (as Silken had done) but that she could obtain a disguise to move around there unhindered by the bad reputation the World Shift native characters should possess with all of the rest of the factors. Disguises meant new looks, and Tessa was willing to bet the cash shop would have more than a few options for what those disguise potions might allow you to look like.
Granted the transformation looked like it was meant to be agonizing but the nice thing about being on the other side of the keyboard from her character was that Pillowcase could suffer all sorts of abuse and the only damage Tessa would take was the fatigue from staying up far too late.
Glancing over at the clock, she saw she was only about a half hour past her normal bedtime. A wave of lightheadedness which swept over her as the game finally connected and began loading her into a play zone, which seemed a little odd. It was true that she hadn’t been getting decent sleep lately, but a half hour shouldn’t have been enough to take that much out of her.
As the personalized cutscene began to play, she considered whether turning in really would be the best idea. The initial rush of rebellion had faded, and she could already feel how miserable she’d be in the morning. The responsible voice in her mind promised she would feel better if she got what sleep she could, and noted that the game would still be there the next night, or even on the weekend.
Weekend’s could fill up with work too though, and given the deadlines that were looming at her work it seemed as likely that she’d lose as big a chunk of the coming weekend as she had the previous one. Add to that all the basic chores that got put off because of how busy her weekdays were and it felt like she was doomed to have no time that could be dedicated to anything she’d want to call a life.
On the screen, the next cinematic finished loading and captured her attention. Where the first had introduced the new expansion, this one was tailored just for the new characters. The cutscene showed Pillowcase being stitched together with magical thread. She was a Clothwork, so her construction was the obvious starting point for her story.
As a construct though, she’d been built for a purpose, and that purpose was war. From the assembly line where Pillowcase was built she was marched away and fitted with a suit of impractically bulky black armor before being given a sword that looked like it’s crafter was morally opposed to straight lines and simple curves.
Watching the intro video required less energy than figuring out how to stop it, and so that won out, with Tessa promising herself she’d stop before it got too late. Worst case, she decided, she could try to sneak a fifteen minute nap in the restroom during her lunch break. It wasn’t a practical idea, but it didn’t need to be practical to sound like a valid excuse to stay up under the circumstances.
On the screen, Tessa watched Pillowcase being marshalled with an army of other Soul Knights. They were dispatched from a vast flying castle which was shaped like a starfish and covered in glowing violet nodules. The invaders from the High Beyond had come to the Fallen Kingdoms and Pillowcase was one of their shock troopers.
The Soul Knight army landed on the Plain of the Rolling Winds, a familiar spot to any Broken Horizons player because it was one of the low level areas they all passed through from the original release. The Soul Knight assault left it unrecognizable though. Their assault burned buildings that had stood for fifteen years of real time and killed characters who’d been repeating the same dialog for just as long. Throughout the fighting the camera switched between scenes of the overall chaos and close ups of Pillowcase’s hollow eyed helmet as she pushed through the generic defenders of the Fallen Kingdoms.
Tessa wondered if the expansion was going to permanently rework all of the base game’s starter zones, perhaps changing them into areas controlled by the forces of the High Beyond, until the scene shifted to show the signature characters of the Fallen Kingdoms arrive with fresh armies to reinforce the low level defenders of the Rolling Winds.
With the recognizable heroes and characters meant to represent the high level existing players joining the fray, the battle quickly turned against the Soul Knight army. Tessa watched as the High Beyond’s forces suffered loss after loss until they were in full retreat. When the camera focused on Pillowcase again she was staggering back through one of the hundreds of portals that had opened to the High Beyond, her armor shattered and her ridiculous sword abandoned on the battlefield.
Pillowcase was the last to make it through the portal she used before it sputtered closed, but her strength failed a few steps later as she sank to the ground, the spark of magic in the mystical threads that animated her fading away.
A wind blew over the battlefield, its passing a stand in for the passage of weeks or maybe months. As it blew, dust covered Pillowcase’s inert form and in its wake the world (and the background music) went silent.
The camera shifted to the sky which had grown dark and empty. Sitting in her lightless apartment, Tessa didn’t notice that everything had gone silent around her as well.
The text appeared as a voiceless subtitle while a drop pattern of thin lines began to glow on the screen in sky above. In Tessa’s headphone’s, faint notes of a new song began to play.
[This age is not yours.]
The lines connected to form a circle with a triangle in its center and an ever-increasingly complex set of geometric shapes around its circumference. The song grew louder, picking up horns to go with its drums.
[This world is not yours.]
The shape in the sky began to pulse with a slow but accelerating heartbeat of light. Each beat shifted the color of the light through the various hues of the rainbow. Stringed instruments joined the song as it gained momentum.
[But it needs you.]
The pulsing light sped up until it was a solid glare of white. Voices joined the song in a chorus that spoke with no need for language, their tones simply another marvelous instrument blending into the whole.
[Will you answer it’s plea?]
[Will you forge a new tomorrow?]
[Will you RISE.]
“Yes,” Tessa whispered, swept up the moment and not caring because there was no one to hear the fourteen year old in her come out for a moment.
A single drop of light fell from portal and landed with gentle hesitation on the fallen form of Pillowcase, as the music paused for a single heartbeat.
Where the Clothworks eyes should have been, two fresh sparks surged to life, bringing the song rushing back in with them.