Secret World Legends, One Month In

The tree house you see above embodies the essence of the secret world as we’ve come to know it: dark, mysterious, enigmatic. Moonlit. The reintroduction of The Secret World as Secret World Legends essentially turns up the gamma a few notches and subtly defogs the intentionally shrouded. If you’ve played The Park with the darkness settings at the recommended level, you can barely see anything – just enough to stumble about and eventually find your way to where you need to go. Turning the brightness up to normal levels lets you see more than you need to, rendering a fundamentally different game experience.

This is what Secret World Legends has done. I’ve reached level 50, completed all of the missions, and soloed two-thirds of the powerful champions and story mode dungeons; SWL strikes me as the reorganization of existing elements overlaid with more generous opportunities for monetization, the kind you’d find in a casino. And while the cash options and solicitations are not at first blush overly intrusive, recurring mainstays such as the glitzy daily login rewards screen and future-tech Agarthan Cache interface don’t exactly fit in with the game’s overarching “once upon a midnight dreary” motif.

So, what’s different? This is the same game that uses the same clunky engine with the same wonky physics and possesses many of the same seemingly invincible bugs that existed when I first started playing The Secret World in June of 2015. The mouse-centric action combat is slightly more mechanically tactile, the main story’s mission flow has been streamlined, many activities have been simplified (e.g. the Beaumont fight, tuning Gaia engines), active and passive abilities have been reorganized and mixed with permanent statistical gains, the old crafting system is all but gone, story mode dungeons are easy and role-agnostic, and the time/money investment gap between the average player and the most powerful players has been made absolutely staggering in a bid to attract the fattest of whales and the firehose streams of cash spewing from their blowholes.

With that said, I’d like to offer my thoughts as a moderately invested lone wolf player on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly aspects of the first thirty days of SWL’s existence.

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Hemitneter is still my spirit animal.

The Good

The story mission can be completed alone in its entirety should one so choose, as can the associated action, investigation, sabotage, and side missions. I would estimate that play sessions of two hours perhaps two to three times per week accompanied by judicious use of talisman and weapon empowerments should allow the average player to get through the entirety of the current offerings – Solomon Island, Egypt, and Transylvania – within a couple of months. This is quite worth the price of zero dollars and is recommended for anyone who has not yet experienced the dark and fascinating story of the Secret World or who got stuck somewhere along the way in TSW and wouldn’t mind having a second go at it under more forgiving circumstances.

Indeed, Funcom can truthfully refer to this part of the game as an “Action RPG”: players focus chiefly on combat, exploration, and plot building. Managing gear upgrades is a fairly straightforward secondary activity provided one concentrates on increasing their attack power. Your average solo player’s point of contact with anything resembling a trinity role would be perhaps a pair of health or healing talismans if it suits their fancy.

And it’s very important to understand that for the purpose of experiencing the game’s story, this is as it should be. If one is not specifically playing for the MMO aspects, which absolutely do exist outside the confines of the superbly written and voice-acted narrative, one’s “role” is more thematic than anything: Dirk “BladeRunner” Gently wields heavy steel in melee combat against the living dead; Mai “PurpleHair” Hasegawa slays demons using her fists and custom-made magic bullets; and Dixie “DeepSixes” Cox is a former nightlife manager who wields chaos and the elements in her personal crusade against the army of vampires that siphoned off her clientele.

Our three friends have the option of teaming up and making their way through Story Mode dungeons, breezy easy-mode smash-throughs that allow agents to focus on the mysteries and goings-on contained within. These can be soloed provided you are five (rough going) to ten (smooth sailing) levels above the recommended level, but I would really recommend doing it with a pair of people you know. If you’d like to duo the dungeons, be sure to check the “Private Team” box in the Dungeon Finder interface before queueing up.

If one goes to the trouble of completing most of the available missions, one’s level should be advanced enough to progress without considerable difficulty using the cues and clues provided. For example, Carter Unleashed now provides a visual reminder about the immunity ward in your quick access inventory after the first time you die to Carter’s mobile, baseball field-sized swirling vortex of instant death. This is an excellent addition; I completed the mission before this reminder was added and didn’t notice the ward until after my seventh death. It’s important for players to overcome such obstacles relatively quickly when first starting out, so Funcom can be forgiven to a certain extent for holding the player’s hand a little too tightly in other cases (e.g. “reach character level 12” before proceeding with the main story mission).

As you complete these missions and dungeons, you’ll find yourself ticking off boxes on the Daily Challenge checklist. Dungeons and scenarios (which at the Elite 1 level have been simplified in a way that is quite pleasant) count toward main mission completion; both defeating the final boss of a dungeon and completing local bounties (random “kill X” missions that pop up in certain areas) count toward side mission completion. Empower a handful of items and kill 50 to 100 monsters, and you’ll have your daily allotment of 10,000 Marks of Favor (12,000 for patrons) which can be used at vendors, on the Auction House, and elsewhere. This is a refreshing change from the very specific requirements of TSW’s challenge completion system. On the whole, it’s much better to reward players for doing things they like rather than carrot-sticking the most tolerable things they don’t like. Thankfully, Funcom has emphatically demonstrated that they are listening to what players like and don’t like and have implemented changes accordingly.

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I’m the ghost in the back of your head.

 

The Bad

If you decide that you like the game well enough to spend at least $12.99 per month on it, patronage’s most notable benefits include increased experience gains, a daily Agarthan Cache key, and double AP/SP gains. This accelerated influx of Ability Points and Skill Points as you level up will help you unlock weapon abilities, passive effects, and permanent stat boosts fast enough to keep you interested in learning about the dynamics of your chosen primary weapon, with a moderate decrease in acquisition speed once you hit maximum level. This moderate decrease becomes substantial if you are not a patron.

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Where SWL differs from many other free-to-play games is that contributing monthly does not confer a stipend of cash shop currency (in this case, Aurum). In a game where Aurum can be used to buy so many different things from increased sprinting speed to additional AP/SP to items that increase the quality (but not rarity) of weapons and talismans, it makes sense to reward those who commit to scheduled payments with a little bit of the good stuff. Quite frankly, it doesn’t make sense not to do so given that even buy-to-play TSW rewarded subscribers with monthly Funcom points that could be used to buy the aforementioned perks, including roughly thirty inventory slots a month if one were so inclined, up to a maximum of five hundred.

And it becomes apparent that once a player begins to amass items and reward bags to any significant degree that inventory space is much less fluid than it was in TSW, a stinginess that is endemic to SWL in general. Players begin with 35 inventory slots (up from 25 originally) when starting out. After a while, things begin to pile up despite one’s best janitorial efforts – More Space is required to accommodate More Things. The first two five-slot upgrades can be purchased for nominal amounts of Marks of Favor; the second two five-slot upgrades must be purchased for 400 ($4) and 500 ($5) Aurum respectively. At current median exchange rates (140 MoF = 1 Aurum), this amounts to five and six days’ worth of challenge completions for those who do not want to inject cash into the process.

If one chooses to transcend the confines of the Secret World ARPG novel’s dust jacket and venture off into the game’s MMO offerings, sooner or later one brushes up against SW:ToR-esque restrictions designed to entice players into making their inconveniences go away with a charitable donation. Herein lies one of the poorly implemented features of SWL’s time-is-money model: a lot of these things are fabulously expensive. Sprint V is $10 (125% speed increase). Sprint VI is $15 (150% speed increase). 45 to 55 inventory slots is $9. Bypassing the need to level a second talisman to purple 30 for mythic orange fusion is $15. Increasing a talisman’s pips from two (medium strength) to three (maximum strength) is $25 (Anima Imbuer). And so forth. The impression that I get is that the MMO side of the game is unfortunately quite stingy in general, even for patrons.

There’s a reasonable fix for this, though: tiered pricing and generosity to a point. A green (superior) Anima Imbuer is $0.50, a blue (epic) Anima Imbuer is $1. A red (legendary) Anima Imbuer is $25. Players are going to be doing a lot of empowerment and fusion; when they give you cash, give them a generous helping of basic inventory space. $1 a slot? $1 gets me 72 slots in Guild Wars 2 before I have to buy another bag slot unlock. You need to be less stingy, initially.

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Indeed. I’m learning about inventory Tetris more than anything.

Personally, I think these sorts of things can be dismissed as growing pains provided Funcom continues in the vein of listening to players, looking at works and what doesn’t, and making sensible changes. What really rubs me the wrong way in the Bad category is the philosophical direction in which this transition has taken us. The above-mentioned empowerment system, which involves feeding lesser weapons to a very hungry Greater Weapon (or talisman or glyph or signet) to make it stronger, costs anima shards, a new currency which turns a notionally supernatural essence into a preternatural, discretely quantified entity.

The introduction of anima shards as concrete units of currency is as about as philosophically appealing as the insertion of midi-chlorians into the Star Wars universe: it is entirely unnecessary and erodes the mystique of the experience. This is the signature theme that has been introduced by Secret World Legends, a game whose new name unfailingly makes me think of a Candy Crush-style mobile app every single time I read it. Here and there the story’s unseen undertones have been laid bare presumably for the purpose of attracting new players with a less opaque, more vibrantly presented backstory – the image of a Dreamer’s bird holding a man’s limp body (an Orochi employee, undoubtedly) in its filthy talons has been replaced by an attractive, red-toned image of Rose White’s face framed by a vertical white line and high-rise buildings while a young woman holding a pistol in one hand and an atomic fireball in the other poses before her in miniature. (“You’re pretty good with a fireball,” an NPC once said to me while I blasted zombies with a shotgun.)

This is all part of a Modern Promethean cosmetic update that sees our new face gazing out toward the end of the update roadmap where we’ll finally stop Laying Low in the Limelight some time in Late 2017 / Early 2018. That the roadmap explicitly mentions where we got our powers is a harbinger of Kinda Dark But Not Too Dark Days to Come. Changing the title from “The Secret World” to “Secret World Legends”, turning Agartha into a social club complete with the banners of the three main factions hanging up, and straight up affirming cynical Sam Krieg’s description of our raison d’être as a “fight against evil” are broad brushstrokes that paint a picture much too bright for a game that has always been at its most seductive when it is dark as fuck. I mean, the entire world goes blank for a split second at midnight to herald the appearance of the bogeyman in Atlantic Island Park and here we are atop the roller coaster playing Connect Four with different types of shoddy pistols.

I’m being facetious, of course. The real Bad in this category is the UI. I have to click a small, thin blue bar to the left of my abilities to even know that my seven deaths to Carter’s impromptu volcano have resulted in “Anima Degradation” and I need to pay 100 anima shards per death to fix it. How about just fixing Anima Degradation instead? By removing it. And the little blue bar.

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Once upon a midday cheery…

 

The Ugly

Seeing other players in the world is not always a good thing. They’ll depopulate your mission NPCs in limited spawn areas (looking at you, Ghoul Tools) and one of you won’t get credit for a kill if the other tags it and isn’t in your group. If your lair run has more than ten people, sorry eleven and twelve. The ten of us are going to have enough problems as it is getting into the same lair instance and staying there. Sharding playfields into ten-person affairs is great for maintaining that feel of isolation but not so great when people band together organically to engage in group content.

Weekend warriors are left out in the cold – there’s no system for banking anything other than Agarthan Cache keys, so it’s not possible to burn through a bevy of free, banked dungeon keys in a marathon session or spend Marks of Favor obtained by completing weekday challenges.

Static NPCs that can be destroyed have a very annoying habit of keeping you in combat for long, long periods of time, even when you are not attacking anything and nothing is attacking you, e.g. blood stocks in Transylvania. Being in combat prevents you from regenerating your weapon power quickly and also keeps you from sprinting, leaving you hamstrung while you wait for the random number generator to finally decide that you are out of combat. One of the important parts of keeping your players excited about playing is making them feel fast: your combat experience should be a romp through the zones in which players zip around at their own pace rather than being beholden to the whims of a fickle combat flag or unending waves of trash mobs. In any case, there is something going on with the combat in Trash Mob Legends that makes me feel slow as molasses – maybe it’s all those Filth microparticulates in the desert air.

Crowd control effects are still way too long. This has knock-on effects in PvP, which isn’t terribly relevant at this point given that we’ve only got Shambala to work with (which people are suicide-farming for anima shards), but there is little that is more frustrating to a player than losing control of one’s actions, especially for lengthy periods of time. It strips the player of their sense of agency when used too liberally; anything longer than a couple of seconds should be tossed out the window unless it’s being used as part of the story, e.g. Cassie King’s “Wicked Witch of the South” stun.

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I married the afterlife in a shotgun wedding. I’m holding the shotgun.

Concluding Thoughts

Just as Ptahmose “lovingly” murdered his children and sealed them inside statues in the City of the Sun God where they sing a song that keeps the Black Pharaoh imprisoned, so too have our old selves been rendered impotent and sent into stasis. We have been recast into bodies with faces that sometimes scarcely resemble our old features; the many hours we spent in our previous life have been wiped away and supplanted by a new siren’s song designed to prevent darkness from overtaking the balance sheets.

As a parent of young children, I cannot forgive Ptahmose for what he did, even though I understand that what he did was presumably for the greater good. As he labors over his children’s bodies, he chants praises to Amun, the god who is not-Akhenaten, and I mutter a curse under my breath. I will not bless this reskin of a game I’ve spent hundreds of hours in even as I prepare to spend many an evening retracing my steps. Secret World Legends has turned the erstwhile secret world into the only legend of note – it is the one I think about while this plastic body of mine traverses familiar streets and fields in a slightly off version of a place that was once a shade darker, one whose gambling parlor decor and transparent mysteries must now be endured if we wish to see it persist.

Secret World Legends: Tear down the Heavens to Rebuild the Underworld

In a world of unicorns and rainbows, the second incarnation of The Secret World may aspire to reimagine its predecessor the way Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen seeks to recapitulate classic EverQuest. But there are no rainbows and unicorns in this dark and mysterious – oh, wait. There are. I was going somewhere with that.

Sometimes in order to turn your artistic vision into reality, you have to tear everything down and start over, rebuilding the foundation from existing pieces. This is what makes great art, and that’s the way I see The Secret World, primarily: as a work of art that functions as a support system for life. Exploring the dark underworld that exists within our dreams makes the tedium of the waking world more bearable. I am probably an idealist in this regard; I leave an analysis of the game studio’s marketing, public relations, and financials to more capable and invested entities, not least of which the game studio itself. Ahem.

I’m more interested in the extent to which this rework emphasizes the narrative, a shining gem in a sea of numbers ground into sawdust. Many players are already understandably upset about having their Numbers and Stuff trivialized; I sympathize with them as I wear my cheekiest innocence-is-bliss grin and sip my coffee in anticipation of journaling my dormant character’s dreary, fog-shrouded meanderings. I measure my experience bar in screenshots and short stories. My nearly maximum-capacity inventory’s lattice grid of signets serve as trinkets more than anything, reminders of the paid-monthly journey I have at times cursed and worshipped. The talismans that will only cease to protect me when the Eleventh Hour arrives remain hidden under my clothing.

The information we have so far shows us a work in progress, one which highlights improvements (more interesting combat), integration (a popular topbar mod is now part of the UI), and growing pains (a key-activated mouse cursor mode à la SMITE). The default reticle emulates a soft-targeting system which highlights whatever’s underneath it. Fantastic, minus the concentric circles in the center of the screen. (I was getting tired of spamming tab.) The Overwatch-style mouse button usage will eliminate my need for AutoHotkey: I’ll be able to smash my primary ability without having to worry about left-hand cramps. I’m hoping this will make it easier to enjoy the freneticism of five-button combat in counterpoint to my ethereal countryside strolls – executing optimal damage rotations is the sort of ledger-balancing Liling would be doing if she had chosen to take up a nice, non-lethal desk job with regular tea breaks.

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Levels are no longer hidden variables. The philosophical value in deliberately hiding this information is overshadowed by the usefulness of being able to gauge your presumed effectiveness at a glance. Each level up now bestows a chunk of base hit points, another form of shorthand which vitalizes the otherwise static dead/not-dead binary. The upshot is that when you walk into a new area such as Blue Mountain, you’ll be armed with a more accommodating skill floor as well as the information needed to reasonably size up threats. No longer should you spend warm, wine-infused hours painstakingly crafting a new build for your favorite weapons, only to be flattened by the first giant insect beast that rushes you.

Much has been written on the virtues of selecting your own difficulty – if you want your audience to stay until the end of a movie that challenges them, you need to be able to take them outside of their comfort zone without frustrating them. Later, if they decide they’re up for it, they can choose to engage more difficult subject matter on their own terms. Forcing those terms on them by default via complex systems that require extensive research and experimentation may result in alienating those who just wanted to turn the page to the next chapter of your story without having to take a quiz on the mechanics of your fantasy world.

While character levels reflect one’s progress through the story, the notion of being able to “level up” your weapons is one that engenders lasting attachment and emphasizes one’s identity, the face that one shows to others. Once you’ve acquired an appearance you like, you are then free to focus on becoming more proficient with it rather than mentally reserving room for its successor. Space also exists for those who wish to min-max: each weapon type has an associated “always-on” character-level passive which requires a certain degree of mastery to enable; this passive remains even when you switch to other weapons. This appears to be a more meaningful system of progression based on a specialization-diversification dynamic as opposed to the straight-up grind demanded by augments and AEGIS.

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Indeed, the most powerful intrapersonal and interpersonal bonds are formed in cooperative environments that support the expression of one’s identity in communion with others. My play sessions are fairly anti-social apart from my interactions with friends – I generally do not want to see other people out in the world while I am playing. When I do interact with others, however, I want us to be able to accomplish our goals without having to get up in each other’s business: I shouldn’t be able to “kill steal” or disable an interactive object. The proposed culture of softening the emphasis on competition between the factions and replacing it with a sense of belonging to one’s own faction must be accompanied by game play systems which support this. To take a phrase from elsewhere: seeing another player should always be a good thing.

Even in Secret World Legends, where playing fields are going to be capped at ten players. Even in places like Kingsmouth, which is sharded – not mega-served – to preserve the sense of isolation. Big Brother informs me that shared participation with no grouping requirements and personalized loot rewards is The Way Things Have Always Been. For once, he’s absolutely right.

I just hope that he sees fit to provide an option to turn off the swirling anima “ding” effect when you level. I don’t want to be a legend – I just want to continue the story with a minimum of fuss.

Reflections on Having Written a Fan Fiction Novel

Nearly four months after I typed out a breathy introductory chapter in December of 2016, I’ve finally finished “After This“, a fan fiction novel which continues the “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” ending of game developer Dontnod Entertainment‘s episodic, choice-driven narrative Life Is Strange. I was inspired to do so by the lingering emotional vulnerability I experienced after completing the game; the bonds I had formed with the story’s protagonist and deuteragonist, Max and Chloe; and the myriad possibilities hinted at via the determinant nature of one’s decisions throughout the game.

My novel weighs in at ten chapters and exactly 50,000 words. Varying definitions of where a novella ends and a novel begins have long served as conversation starters over a pint; the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America set the threshold at 40,000 words, so that’s what I’ve opted to use. Prolific authors such as Steven King might place it at around 80,000 – then again, Mr. King’s phone books frequently clock in at 200,000+ words. I figure I need to give people something to complain about in addition to whatever they find in the substance of my writing.

Personally, I’m satisfied with what I’ve written to the extent that it withstands repeated read-throughs; the statistics kept by Word indicate that I spent 15,607 minutes, or just over 260 hours, drafting, writing, editing, revising, and proofing. That works out to 192 words an hour, or 1,596 words a day if we assume an eight-hour writing “shift.” But we can’t, really, because like other human beings I took time off and wrote in binges. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all this, it’s that one must write regularly in order to improve and remain comfortable with the art of sculpting statues out of thin air.

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To wit, some things I’ve learned from published, professional sculptors whom I follow on Twitter and whose writing I admire:

  1. Your first draft should be fast and shitty (Delilah S. Dawson)
  2. Writing in the second person (Alyssa Wong)
  3. At some point, characters must fuck or it’s trash (Sam Sykes)

The canon continuation of Max’s story, according to its authors, is the one that you write. My drafts were fast and shitty, my chapters alternate between first person Max and second person Chloe, and they eventually fuck in one of Max’s dreams. This canon that blossomed out of my heart and mind found its home on Archive of Our Own, a fan fiction website with a reasonably active readership and an agreeable layout. It boasts well over a thousand Life Is Strange works, a testament to the game’s popularity and its power to inspire storytelling. Readers can leave comments and “kudos”, a way of saying they liked something without having to type anything.

And so I left my story there, chapter by completed chapter, expanding on some of the darker themes that had been touched on in the narrative. I based my imaginings of Max and Chloe and Kate on what I had seen and heard while I was playing. I let them do whatever they wanted after long, thoughtful meanderings through mental landscapes on quiet, moonlight nights and, later, when I righted my sleep schedule, on sunny mornings. Sometimes scenes and chapters did completely unexpected things after I had taken the time to daydream about them. I didn’t even have a climax in mind until halfway through the novel. I wrote organically, not knowing what would happen in the next chapter. A terrible practice, from what I’ve gleaned – but I’m a novice novelist, so what do I know?

One thing that I would change if I were to do it again – and I am not inclined to write another fan fiction novel any time soon – is the manner in which I published it. I would either not release chapters serially or request the pre-publishing assistance of beta readers: people who read your polished drafts and give you feedback on all the things you’ve become blind to after your first ten thousand words. I say this not because I’m unhappy with the tone, consistency, and overall quality of my novel, but because there are some tenuous points in the first couple of chapters that I would have gone back and solidified with much more editing had I not blasted them out into the stratosphere as soon as they were done. As is, they remain milepost monuments to the evolution of my writing over the past four months.

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I’m genuinely appreciative of those who took the time to tell me they liked my story, just as I am appreciative of the people who were courteous enough to express their dislike (and educate me on how to improve) using constructive criticism. Probably the most heartening praise I received was in a DM on Twitter from an artist who is active on DeviantArt – I follow them there and have marked several of their fantastic works as “favorites.” They sent me a message telling me that they normally don’t read fan fiction because the characters are invariably written so OOC (out of character), but that they loved mine. This really made my day.

With all that said, this is what I learned from writing a fan fiction novel:

  1. Writing takes practice
  2. Writing at length takes lengthy practice
  3. Quality takes time (best aged like a fine wine)
  4. Structured drafting preserves sanity
  5. Fan fiction is a cesspool of iniquity

So, when I say that fan fiction is a cesspool of iniquity, here’s what I mean: you have to lower your standards. Like, really low. This is what I didn’t understand when I decided to start writing this novel (you can call it a novella if you like – I would agree): people are not looking to swoon over your references to Greco-Roman mythology and Hamlet and Edgar Allan Poe – they want characters to bang in the locker room, to have adventures, to engage in warm fuzzies and catfights and sleepovers. They want their favorite characters to do their favorite things, and if there’s any sort of drama or conflict, it can be tropified using quotes and catchphrases for all they care so long as their honeybuns are fucking rock stars at the end of it.

I understand this now, after having written to my heart’s content, and the lasting effect is that I probably won’t write anything else in the realm of fan fiction that goes beyond the length of a short story or maybe a novelette (7,500 – 17,500 words). I still balk when reading the author’s notes to some of Archive of Our Own’s most beloved works, however: they tell their audience how they wrote this 12,000 word chapter in a single four-hour caffeinated binge or how they cranked out their latest 10k monster while listening to the same Adele song on repeat 35 times in a row. I look at the sixty hours I spent on Chapter 8 (12,885 words) and make myself another coffee. What’s all this, then?

At the very least I’ve learned quite a bit about writing at length, even if some people would look at what I’ve done and chastise me for not having spent that time doing actual writing. I’d just reply that I did it because I enjoyed it. I’m like anyone who plays games for fun instead of learning how to play the piano or taking up martial arts – I’m not spreadsheeting my free time to find the optimal intersection of usefulness and enjoyment. I’m having fun, damn it. And it just so happens that my preferred writing milieu – those dark and mysterious midnight haunts in the realm between life and death – best manifests itself elsewhere. Lesson learned.

We Bathed in Moonlight, Drowned in Sorrow’s Embrace

They told me I had been dead for ten months when they pulled my lifeless blue body from the bottom of Lake Delavan. Why I was now staring at the dull brown ceiling of the hospital in the Salma Quarter of Divinity’s Reach instead of slumbering peacefully in the cool embrace of the Mists was not something the priests and priestesses were able explain to my satisfaction. When, after several hours, I regained the color in my face and the feeling in my fingers, I felt an anger that should have remained dormant forever.

I returned their dispassionate gazes, face up in my bed, as my cheeks flooded with uncomfortable heat. This is what the White Mantle looks like when they imbibe bloodstone, they told me. They’re dangerous. White. Mantle. For as long as adjectives and nouns continued to exist, humans would agglutinate them in endless permutations and use them as rallying cries in their idiotic wars against each other. The fact that my parents had once shared a bed in Kryta did not obligate their offspring to care about the kingdom’s politics.

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I don’t give a damn, I replied. Tell me how you brought me back, since you won’t tell me why. They offered conflicting answers: Engineers had concocted a potion that had the power to reanimate the departed; Rangers had called upon the spirits of the forest to imbue my skeletal frame with verdant life force; Mesmers had conjured up an illusion which was temporarily housing my essence; Lyssa had personally bartered with Grenth for the return of my soul until the Elder Dragons had been vanquished and the safety of the Six Gods’ human subjects had been secured.

I want to go back, I growled through clenched teeth. Tell me what I have to do.

Meet your old friend Logan Thackeray in the Upper City. He and the Queen will help you understand what needs to be done.

So I did. It was as if I had never been gone. The Pact still called me Commander, even though it was clear to me that I wasn’t commanding anything or anyone. Braham wouldn’t listen to me. Marjory wouldn’t be told what to do. Kasmeer was conspicuously absent. Anise had developed a thirst for blood, while Canach had developed an endearing brand of wit. Taimi and Rytlock were the only ones I felt I could trust – Taimi’s burgeoning genius needed an adult catalyst to ensure her transition from progeny to practitioner; and where there was a battle to be fought, as there typically was when I was around, Rytlock would be there to guard my back and tell everyone exactly what he thought of them.

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Logan was the one person who hadn’t changed. As much as we had been through, he wasn’t good for anything but commanding human forces. When he told me that General Soulkeeper had offered him the position of Marshal within the Pact, I stopped caring about the organization altogether. Call me what you will, friends. I’ll go where I need to go and do what must be done. The flow of time wraps itself around my sword and shield while Queen Jennah kills with a flick of the wrist and erects a reflective dome over the entirety of Divinity’s Reach by simply willing it to exist.

Tell me again: why do you need me?

Once we’ve slain the remaining Elder Dragons I am going to fill my lungs with as much of Lake Doric’s water as they will hold and return to Eir in the Mists. We’ll spend our eternal twilight leaving heavy footprints in the frosty snow beneath us as we make our way toward the sound of howling wolves on distant ridges.

Game Overwatch

Gather ’round while I tell you a tale of a not-so-young Karinshastha and their experience with a wonderful First Person Shooter game played primarily by people who aren’t female.

I’ve been playing Overwatch for a little over a month now and I’ve come to the conclusion that this very pretty, well-polished game is not something I am inclined to continue with, even on a casual basis. It’s worth the purchase price of $40 as far as I’m concerned. Getting a month out of it is quite all right. I don’t spend much on games in the first place. What drove me to this conclusion was the fact that at some point, I’m going to have to get better at this game in order to enjoy it, and there’s no good way to do that without investing an unpleasant amount of effort into being social with highly competitive young people who are more than happy to rage when things aren’t going the way they’d planned. Microphone required.

The maps are beautiful, the mechanics are smooth, the animations are fluid, some of the sounds are borderline ASMR, and the game play is pure adrenaline. The audio-visual-kinesthetic experience is excellent.

The problem I face, however, is that this eventually fades and I find myself craving a structured experience that casual play does not offer. Enter competitive play, in which one is constrained to a handful of character picks out of the 23 on offer in order to be maximally effective for one’s team while not being a burden.

I really enjoy playing D.va, the young Korean mech pilot with armor and infinite ammo and a low skill floor. I’d play her every game if I could. But you’re not supposed to do that in competitive Overwatch – you need to be versatile and swap heroes as the situation calls for it. If they have a Pharah raining justice from above, you’re supposed to bring Soldier 76 and shoot her out of the sky.

Okay, I can do that. Soldier is the game’s best-known all-rounder. He can sprint, heal, do good damage, and his ultimate is literally aim assist. No problem.

I can also bring Pharah. I used to play Quake extensively. I can point rockets at people’s feet and pilot her jet pack reasonably well. I know where my Q button is when I want to unleash a deadly rocket barrage. Sure, I’ll insta-die to a sniping Widowmaker, but as long as I take a few with me, it’s a good trade.

D.va’s getting a pretty big nerf next patch to the point where she’s no longer desirable. Okay, who else do I like to play? Sombra, the hacker, whose usefulness is very situational and requires a team to play around her. Tracer, the zippy track star who requires a great deal of skill to play effectively – skill I don’t have and don’t want to invest the time in training at the expense of other heroes. Mercy, the healer whose usefulness and utility is eclipsed by every other healer in the game and, like Sombra, requires a team to play around her. Ana, the sniping healer who requires an accuracy of 60% in order to be more effective than Mercy in a vacuum.

I’d train for that, I guess. The problem, though, is that competitive compositions are very limited and comprise characters that I mostly don’t enjoy playing. What happens when Ana is taken (perhaps by a more skilled Ana player) and so are the DPS roles (as they usually are)? I don’t mind Lúcio, the super-mobile wall-rider who heals by merely existing. Zarya, the Russian bodybuilder who shoots beams and bubbles is all right. I don’t care for the heavily armored meatshield known as Reinhardt whose rectangular blue shield is mandatory in every single game. I really don’t like Roadhog, a pot-bellied misfit who wears a gas mask and pulls people in with a hook for “picks.” Everyone else, apart from the abovementioned favorites, gets a resounding meh. (Except Mei, she’s super cute and I have no idea how to play her effectively.)

Play something that isn’t on the above list in competitive and you open yourself up to toxicity for having committed the cardinal sin of picking an available hero who is not in the “meta” for winning games. Manageable in a game like Smite, perhaps, where you have 83 gods to choose from and much more flexibility in finding something you like. Not so much in Overwatch, where I’ve found that your often teenage (or younger) compatriots are ready to jump all over your ass at the drop of a hat. And if you’re not playing to win, like you should be, even the Game Masters will jump on your ass.

So just play casually, right?

Well, I think I’ve exhausted my enjoyment of Arcade Play. There’s only so many all-Reinhardt or all-McCree brawls I can take before bowing out. I’m not interested in 3v3 elimination matches or 1v1 mystery duels – I am happiest when operating as part of a largish team – or no limits matches where people pick three of the same hero. Mystery Hero matches are all right – you get a random hero every time you respawn – but they don’t help me git gud at any specific hero.

And then there’s Quick Play, the casual alternative to Competitive Play. In Quick Play, you can play whatever you want and learn your hero’s abilities and the maps and health pack locations and so forth. There’s no team cohesion or strategy to speak of, mostly random Team Fortress 2 with a team that’s a third of the size in a scale-appropriate fortress so you’re bound to run into the Now Spectating screen relatively quickly once you’ve hit level 25 and start getting matched with level 400 players who are warming up before or cooling off after rousing matches of high-level competitive play.

I’ve played my share of Quick Play. It doesn’t do much to help you learn how to play your hero effectively, just what the abilities actually do, so to train for Quick Play (which sounds a bit ridiculous, but whatever), I decided to set up custom games with bots. Hard difficulty Lúcios padding both teams – Lúcio uses a speed boost, moves unpredictably, and keeps you alive – are good for training tracking. Just last night I was fairly adrenalized by my increased ability to track and kill the bots on Sombra while listening to very loud music (best way to train, I’ve found). They’re always running after health packs and are a pain to kill, but I was doing it with regularity.

But did I really pay $40 for a shooting range simulator? And do I want to spend thirty minutes to an hour a day training for an unknown payout at some point in the distant future on the roster of a squad full of jocular man-children (and children) who only like you when they win?

Maybe it’s my attitude that’s the issue here. I’ve calmed my temper considerably, when I can remember to, and have even been able to type words of encouragement in the chat box. But I really don’t have any motivation to get on voice chat and start calling shots or compliment assholes on their play to stroke their egos and stop them from tilting and/or throwing.

Essentially, I’d need to find enough motivation to seek out other players, group up with them, and queue for competitive play as a team in voice chat if I really wanted to get any further enjoyment out of Overwatch. I couldn’t even be bothered to do voice chat in The Secret World, which I enjoyed very much while I was in the swing of things. I think the last time I did it was in Guild Wars 2’s sPvP years ago with my guild – people whom I had gotten to know and who knew me and so I didn’t mind so much talking to them on my tin-can audio jack microphone. Random people? Ehhhhh, no, thank you.

So, bye, Overwatch, I guess. For now? (*shrug*) It was moderately fun and somewhat painful while it lasted.

Going Home

I had Help Me by Hako Yamazaki blasting in my ears when I walked into Daimon Kiyota’s renovated “office” and told him I was done. It wasn’t until halfway through his response that I bothered to take the earbuds out and let them hang from my phone’s audio jack almost all the way down to the floor. My deadpan gaze made him stop and rewind back to the beginning, this time with a shit-eating grin in place of his usual Blackbeard smile.

To my surprise, he stopped himself before he started speaking. His suddenly blank expression masked an eerie calm.

“Everything is Jake, Liling.” That got my attention: it was the first time he had ever used my real name – or any name at all. I felt a bit taken aback, briefly. He wasn’t dealing with my usual humorless bullshit and he was no spring chicken when it came to reading people. I could tell that he was just as serious as I was.

“You’ve been on the lam for a long time. There’s nothing going down in town.” He shrugged dramatically for effect. It didn’t have any, so he put a smile back on his face. “Zip your lips, don’t double-cross me, and you can high-hat every drugstore cowboy and gold digger from here to Big Sur. Copacetic?”

“Copacetic,” I said.

I glanced to my left and right, looking for the Bong Cha treatment.

“We’ll skip that part,” he crowed. “You’re too strong, now.”

I nodded curtly and thought about bowing. To hell with it. I put my earbuds back in and walked out the door of the Dragon’s main temple in Seoul for what I hoped would be the last time.

Kingsmouth is on the other side of the country from my parents’ home in California, so there was still the business of arranging a cross-country flight. I traded in my Pax Romana for a modest sum in pounds at one of the black market vendors in London – apparently the council’s currency is worthless outside the not-so-secret circles that float it.

It was enough to take care of transportation to the West Coast and then some. I bought new clothes for the first time in ages and dumpstered the black-and-purple hoodie that had been my mainstay for the past two years. Mixed memories, more good than bad, none of them worth dwelling on.

I still think of Shani, sometimes, when I look up at the moon at night. Probably better to forget about that one, too.

When I arrived in front of the light-blue rambler my parents called home, the door opened before I had even stepped out of the taxi. As I tipped the driver my mother called out to me with such agitation in her voice that I nearly tripped over my own toothpaste-white shoes running up the sidewalk.

“Oh, Lily. Thank goodness you’re here.”

“Mother! What’s wrong?”

“I made too much for dinner and your father and I can’t eat it all up by ourselves.”

“Oh…” I laughed stupidly, as if I were a six year-old child again. And then it dawned on me that my mother had just called me by my American name for the first time I could remember since I had been born. I looked down at her brown eyes behind thick-rimmed, thick-lensed glasses that cost more than mine did. Her smile, well, you couldn’t put a price on that.

“You’re not angry, mother? After everything that’s happened?”

She pursed her lips and pinched my left cheek between her thumb and index finger. “Just forget everything and start over. Oh, and Liling…”

“Yes, mother?”

“Welcome home.”

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Late to the Afterparty: Overwatch

I’m unfashionably late to the after-afterparty where everyone’s passed out and some people are even beginning to wake up with massively overpowered headaches that will follow them throughout the day. My interest in MMOs has waned to the point where I can only be bothered to log in to The Secret World every couple of days for one to three consecutive days of play, and then only if the people on my friends list are going to be running classic Nightmare dungeons or, more recently, Kaidan Elites (AEGIS dungeons). This interest in MMOs will undoubtedly be bolstered by the return of Nostalrius in its second incarnation on December 17th, which will see me resuming play on my priest and rolling up a fresh warrior for tanking dungeons on the PvE server where I’ll be free to roam with a headcanon full of nostalgic musings on fantasies that disappear when the game client closes.

In the meantime and downtime, I’ve been looking for a gap-filler. So, on a whim, I decided to buy Overwatch after mulling it over for a week or so. It’s a multiplayer shooter with heroes and objectives and mechanics. It’s easy to pick up a specific hero’s ablities; mastering them in matches against human players may take quite some time depending on one’s FPS experience and killer instinct.

I have no killer instinct to speak of and don’t really know why I’m shooting at other players. I presume it’s because they’re shooting at me. I think I’m doing the whole Overwatch thing wrong, anyways, because I hate the popular damage-dealing heroes Genji and Hanzo and prefer to play mostly support and sometimes tank characters almost exclusively. I’ll even switch from Mercy with her single-target healing/damage beams and resurrection ultimate to Lúcio who possesses a speed boost/healing toggle (with an amplifier) that functions most effectively when he “exists” in the midst of his teammates.

Things like positioning, situational awareness, map terrain navigation, and aiming are coming back to me slowly. Twenty years ago I played shooters quite a bit – the feelings died down as I got older. One of the things I asked myself when contemplating the purchase was: why are you getting back into player combat after your experiences with Smite? Don’t you remember? It made you hate other players.

Overwatch is a bit different so far: I’m relatively low level, so people don’t seem to mind much what others are doing, which is great because if anyone were to notice my individual performance in some of these matches and I made the mistake of leaving voice chat enabled, I’d probably be called some things I’m not interested in hearing. In any case, after several rounds against the A.I., I began playing Quick Play exclusively (non-competitive matches) and have been having fun to the tune of two hours a night. Perhaps this will change as my skill improves, but for now I’m content to watch my Play of the Game once every thirty matches in which I stand with my nose in a corner and a healing beam on my team’s Winston as he kills three players in a row with his monkey rampage ultimate.

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In which my mech self-destructs behind strategically stacked crates and two enemy players die off-screen. Well done.

As in Smite, I don’t really like most of the heroes. Pharah’s rocket launcher reminds me of the Quake series which I used to play very heavily two decades ago, so I don’t mind her. Sombra, Mei, and Widowmaker are cool even though I suck at them. D.Va is the stereotypical k-pop streaming hearthob who is most effective as a tanky DPS harasser and is therefore a bit difficult for me to get used to, somewhat like some of the support gods in Smite who didn’t really seem to “do anything” until their play style clicked with me several matches in. Unsurprisingly, Mercy is my favorite healer aesthetically. Lúcio is an enormously useful healer and enjoys the advantage of being “meta.” I like rifle-toting grandma Ana, too. Unfortunately, I’m no good at sniping if the target has any amount of mobility.

And actual live opponents do. They are surprisingly aware of where I am at all times and annoyingly deadly. Sometimes I’m murdered without mercy in the space of five minutes. Unlike Smite which has Conquest matches that range from 25-45 minutes in length, a round of Overwatch is over fairly quickly and I’m free to leave in between matches without penalty. I’ve begun acquiring a collection of sprays, skins, and icons, most of which is pretty fluff to look at in the Hero Gallery when I’m done for the evening.

When it comes down to it, it’s a nice game to play when there’s nothing else I’m hot to trot for. I’ll probably never play it competitively, however; I have little tolerance for toxicity. That’s one thing that all of the multiplayer games I play have in common: they’re most fun when played with nice people. It’s no wonder a lot of us are playing single-player games these days.