Tessa wished, more than anything, that she could just talk to Lost Alice. They were playing together in their struggle to survive the buggy Wraithwing event, but the constant maneuvering Tessa had to do with Pillowcase meant any kind of collaboration was basically impossible.
Which sucked. They had tactical options, plenty in fact, but they could only take advantage of them if they coordinated their actions and without voice chat, Tessa had no idea how to convey the plans she was coming up with to someone she’d never worked with before.
> Lost Alice said: “Think we can just outlast the event?”
Tessa couldn’t type in chat, but Alice’s player had the advantage that Alice was standing still and focusing on a single ability, which left her player free to type chat messages as much as she wanted.
Tessa wanted to answer and say “no, with a buggy event there was no telling when, or if, it would ever end.” Eventually the servers would be rebooted of course, so it couldn’t literally be endless, but one of the two of them would make a mistake long before that happened.
“Hell, I’m tired enough to fall asleep and I’m not the one who’s been running for ten minutes,” Tessa said, wishing the microphone on her headset could magically carry her words into the game.
It wasn’t an unreasonable request. Several games had built in voice chat and allowed player to auto-join team channels. Tessa grumbled at the twin fact that she and Lost Alice weren’t actually teamed up, and that Broken Horizons was an old enough that they’d never included voice chat in the game client even if she and Alice had been teamed together.
“What we need is to kill one of these damn things,” Tessa said, looking for a spot in the route she’d worked out where she could afford to square off against just one of the Wraithwings.
Even if it was only for a few seconds of attacks, just enough to do more damage than the Wraithwings could heal, if that was even possible, that would be all she’d need. A move like that which she could repeat over and over again would let her whittle down one of the Wraithwings, and with enough wittling, she and Lost Alice would be able to claim at least a partial victory from the whole mess. Not to mention that a dead Wraithwing meant a chance for loot and experience!
Tessa also guessed that, unless the rewards were as buggy as the event itself, killing a Wraithwing would result in an incredible amount of character progress. Where killing a typical level 1 monster might reward the character with one tenth of the experience needed to advance to level 2, the reward for killing a Wraithwing should be enough to shoot Pillowcase up at least into the double digit levels.
Usually the game avoided giving out rewards which were that large, but it also usually avoided putting low level characters into such ridiculously unfair encounters. Also, even with that much of a boost, Pillowcase would still have a long way to go to reach the maximum level of 99. Skipping past the lowest levels would mean getting access to new areas sooner and allow Tessa to play with a better selection of the [Soul Knights] skills and spells.
Unfortunately for her, the pack of Wraithwings she was leading around were clustered too tightly for her to do more than take a single swing at them as she rounded the one set of barrels in the town square where the Wraithwings had particular trouble following her.
Pillowcase’s swings weren’t focused on any specific Wraithwing and rarely hit any of them at all, but the swings were enough to provoke the crowd to continue following her rather than deciding to race over and drag Lost Alice off to wherever their lair was.
>Lost Alice said: “Looks like the chapel’s safe. Can you make it there?”
Tessa glanced across the town square as Pillowcase ran another lap. The chapel was unharmed by the Wraithwing’s assault. The other buildings in town were in varying stages of wreckage from the Wraithwings attack – their acid breath had dissolved a number of walls – but the chapel looked exactly as it had at the start of the battle.
In game, the lore said that [Heart Fire] chapels were protected by the mandate of the Ancient Gods who forged the Fallen Kingdoms from the blood and bones of the Primordial Titans who existed before time began.
In practical terms, the developers couldn’t allow the respawn points to be destroyed or when a character died they’d have nowhere to go and a player who was stuck with a character as bodiless ghost forever was a player who was going to unsubscribe from your game forever.
>Pillowcase said: “n”
It wasn’t much of a response to Alice’s question, but it got the general idea across. Tessa just hoped Alice could figure out the reasoning behind it on her own.
Tessa had been forced to “kite” monsters often enough with Glimmerglass when a weak Tank couldn’t hold their attention. Kiting, as the name implied, worked best when the character was able to keep the monsters away from themselves. Since the monsters moved roughly as fast as the characters did, that meant the only option was to stay constantly in motion, as Pillowcase was while she ran around and around the village square with the ever growing pack of monsters fluttering behind her like a kite.
When it was done correctly, the strategy worked great since the monsters never got close enough to unleash the attacks their coding was telling them to make, but it fell apart the moment the character who was kiting tried to stop.
Tessa knew that Pillowcase could make it to the chapel door with no problem. She kept passing it on each circuit she made around the town. The moment she stopped to open the door though, the eighteen or twenty Wraithwings behind her would catch up and all of them would unleash their attacks at once.
If the game were a bit more realistic, Lost Alice could have opened the door for her, but that level of realism would beg the question of why the Wraithwings couldn’t simply follow them through the door. Or open it themselves, since they did have hands of a sort.
Tessa was frustrated by the problem, but also thrilled at the challenge it presented, both emotions fueled by how much she was allowing herself to be absorbed into the game. History told her that failure and defeat was by far the most likely end result of PIllowcase’s somewhat silly endless jog around the town square, but that didn’t matter. That there was even the chance of success, in whatever fashion that success might take, stirred her blood just like it had when she was a kid.
She smiled. Even in the event of a total failure, she’d still have the enjoyment of grousing about a monumentally stupid encounter.
Except that she didn’t have a guild anymore, so who was she going to share her stories with? There were people at her work who’d played MMOs, but she didn’t know of anyone who played them still, and even if she did, she wasn’t sure she wanted to connect with any of them like that.
She shook off the thought as unimportant. She had what she wanted right in front of her.
> Lost Alice said: “I think we’re the last two left here. Everyone else made it inside or got hauled off.”
An arrow and a pink bolt shot past Pillowcase and slammed into two of the Wraithwings.
> Lost Alice: “I stand corrected.”
Tessa scanned her screen as she continued maneuvering Pillowcase around the town square. She couldn’t see any other player characters in the town. The trajectory on the arrow and [Mind Bolt] though meant that they had to have been launched from somewhere nearby.
> Matt Painting said: “We’re still here! We can help!”
“What the hell?” Tessa asked her monitor. To respond to the local chat, “Matt Painting” had to be close by, but there was no one beside Lost Alice and Pillowcase on the screen at all.
It was possible to turn invisible in Broken Horizons of course, but not as a level 1 character fresh out of the tutorial.
Tessa pulled the camera back and kept her eyes peeled. A moment later another [Mind Bolt] shot across the screen and burned into a Wraithwing. Tessa tracked it back to…the empty porch in front of the town’s food shop?
> Lost Alice said: “Where are you?”
> Rip Shot said: “We fell off the map. There’s a hole at the edge of the porch. We can still shoot out though.”
Tessa cackled. She couldn’t help herself.
Game glitches could take many forms. One of the simplest being that the pieces of virtual landscape weren’t always perfectly aligned with one another. All it took was for there to be a small gap between two sections – like, for example, the edge of the town square and the edge of the store’s porch – and the game would treat it like a hole in the world.
Typically dropping into a geometry glitch would result in the character falling into an undefined void until they exceeded some maximum position the game could support, at which point they’d either be marked as dead or teleported back to a safe location, depending on how kind the developers were feeling when they wrote the error handling code.
Occasionally though, the areas outside the game’s mapped terrain would have other things in it. It could be anything from a few pixels the developers forgot to delete, to objects that were being stored in a spot where the players couldn’t see them for whatever reason.
Tessa found it hysterical that the buggy encounter with the Wraithwings might be winnable thanks to the equally buggy work on the area’s 3-D modeling team. It wouldn’t be the first time competing bugs had come together to produce a feature, and given how early the bugs were showing up Tessa knew it wouldn’t be the last. She just hoped that when the next bug hit, it wouldn’t have any serious ramifications.
> Pillowcase said: “yay!”
> Pillowcase said: “fight!”
Communicating in one word sentences was difficult but surviving while typing more would have been impossible so Tessa made do as best she could, while in the back of her mind she ran an old series of calculation.
Could they pull off a full victory by exploiting the geometry bug? In regular play Tessa wouldn’t even have tried. Exploiting bugs in the game was an excellent method of getting yourself banned from play forever. In this case though the impact wasn’t likely to ruffle many feathers. The whole encounter with the Wraithwings was broken and the rewards for beating them, assuming there were any, would probably be rolled back when the, for more serious, logout bug was fixed. All they were really playing for was bragging rights, and neither Tessa’s inner 14 year old nor her outer 26 year old selves were willing to give those up.
Looking over the clutter in the town square, she picked out a new route, one which pulled the swarm of Wraithwings into a tighter circle and gave Matt and Rip Shot unrestricted access to fire on the monsters.
The tighter circle meant maintaining Pillowcase’s distance from the Wraithwings grew even more difficult though. With each pass around the circle, Tessa had to sending Pillowcase into a diving forward roll to gain a little ground and evade the more frequent attacks which the Wraithwings had opportunities to pull off as they came ever closer to finally catching her.
> Lost Alice said: “Careful, you need to keep attacking them too.”
Tessa flicked a glance over to the swarm and it growing diffuse as its members lost interest in her.
The first to go switched its course ninety degrees in an instant, making a beeline for Alice the second she popped up to the top of its threat list. Tessa had Pillowcase roll again and race after the Wraithwing. As she did though more of the monsters split away, heading towards the porch Matt and Rip Shot were hiding under.
“Gotta hope the geometry glitch only let’s players get through it,” Tessa said as she clicked to have Pillowcase slash at the Wraithwing that was homing in on Alice.
Her blow went wide – she hadn’t quite caught up to the Wraithwing – but it passed close enough that compulsion her attacks possessed was able to reach out and snare the monster’s attention. It turned and spewed an acid breath attack on her, but thanks to the attacks slow animation time, Pillowcase was already on the other side of the Wraithwing and sprinting away before the acid could land on her.
“Safe!” Tessa yelled in triumph.
> Pillowcase has been defeated by Wraithwing.
By the time Tessa saw the animation of the two other Wraithwings who’d managed to flank her, Pillowcase’s health had already been reduced to zero and she was tumbling towards the ground.
She watched as the swarm dispersed, heading towards Alice and the two under the porch, and sighed. They hadn’t even taken out one of the Wraithwings. And it was her fault.
She felt sick.
And her hand was glowing.
Tessa blinked. That wasn’t right.
It is time…
Staring at her fingers, she watched tiny motes of chromatic light rising from each of them as her hand turned slowly transparent. Her breath had stopped. The cold grew even more intense.
Mogwin landed on her shoulder.
Not Pillowcase’s shoulder in the game.
Tessa’s real shoulder. In real life. Her shoulder that was connected to an arm which had become nothing more than a luminous outline of the limb it once was, and even that was fading as Tessa watched.
The dialog in her headphones felt like she’d cranked the volume knob to 11. She could hear the words so clearly, but she had no idea what they meant.
The Gate Is Open…
Tessa felt her heart slam blood through her veins like a freight train. She was dissolving and the light was going…somewhere. It wasn’t possible. It wasn’t sane. But it was what was happening.
Follow Your Soul…
Tessa heard bells, clear, bright bells ringing. There were hundreds of them. Or thousands. But only one called to her. She closed her eyes, trying to push away the impossible sights before her, but in the darkness she saw stars shooting up all around her.
Find Your True Self…
Tessa opened her eyes to find the world around her fading into shadows. Something was coming for her. Something that knew her. Something that wanted, that needed, to destroy her.
Something she had to stand against.
The world didn’t go away.
But Tessa did.
Lots of things to talk about in this chapter.
The ending is really the beginning of the story proper. We’ve got two new characters showing up, and our main character messed up.
Of those, the last was in some senses the hardest to write. It’s oh so tempting to have Tessa make the right moves because she’s meant to be smart and meant to be well intentioned.
In this case though it felt a lot more correct for her to make the mistake she did – namely changing her strategy to try to work in Matt and Rip’s effects without thinking through all the ramifications. Hopefully the text illustrated what the problem with that was clearly enough?
(In short, she changed the path she was leading them on such that she didn’t have time to continue provoking them with the occasional attack. Once the provoke effect wore off, the mobs started heading towards the next person on their Hate list and she had to scrambled to reclaim them, which in turn opened her up to the dread “two attacks at once” instant failure scenario.)
It’s the kind of mistake that a veteran player wouldn’t make, or rather wouldn’t make again because they’d have the experience to know what they needed to do to keep a pack of mobs on them and survive at the same time.
With being six years out of practice, and never having played a Tank seriously even when she was into the game more hardcore, It seemed more plausible that Tessa wouldn’t come up with all the right answers while tired and under a constant and new form of pressure.
Not making characters perfect is an important part of allowing them room to grow, but having them mess up simply for the sake of messing up doesn’t work. Their failures need to make sense in the context of their abilities and personality, so I’ll need to look for more moments like that going forward, without of course turning the story into a cavalcade of screwups.
Game Mechanics Note:
In MMOs a lot of my focus tends to be on understanding the game mechanics of the world, which means I can’t help but think about the ones which govern the fictional worlds I write too. There’s a
real limit on how much of that can fit within a narrative though, and sometimes when the narrative needs to bend the mechanics rather than the mechanics guiding the narrative.
In this case. one slightly out there mechanical element is that Pillowcase’s attacks are generating agrro even when they miss.
There’s some precedent for that in a few games, and definitely precedent for attacks which might only target one mobs but generate aggro on a whole group of them, but the more typical MMO design calls for either only special abilities
Provoking a mob (aka forcing them to attack a specific target), or the tanks having a higher aggro multiplier on their attacks so that it appears to the mob like they’re being hit much harder by the tank than anyone else, but usually the Tank does at least need to hit them in the first place for it to count. Broken Horizons apparently has a very forgiving Aggro generation system for Tank…which suggests that the aggro that other classes can pull and/or the amount of mobs a Tank is expected to control is usually a bit more extreme than in other games.