Start of the contest, 30 days remain of contest A. Saturday.
I watch as my vision comes to a point, just a little dot. I watch the dot for a second before it explodes back out like the Big Bang. Suddenly, I am standing inside of an empty, well-lit sphere. There are images of my face and various icons I don’t understand all around one single word, “configuring…”
I am standing, though standing might not be the right word. I am floating. I am a disembodied spirit and have no form and I can’t feel gravity or seemingly move. The word “configuring…” finishes. With a fade-in, I am at the Unlimited Worlds ‘world’ selection. It has three worlds to choose right now: the space one, the adult western one, and Imagine Online the fantasy one. I pick Imagine Online and with a flash I am in a brightly lit room looking at shiny plastic character models in epic armor and weapons. I really hope our character models don’t look like this in the game–these look like injection-molded plastic.
I float forward and hear a voice say, “Welcome to Imagine Online,” with a little too much pep. “Please choose a base class,” the voice continues. “Your base class sets your starting stats and skills. You can swap classes by training with the weapons of any class you prefer, and you are not limited to just one class.”
Okay, that is cool, I can be multi class if I want.
“Advanced classes will open as you level. Please select each base class for more information then complete your selection and select a player name to enter the game.”
Rousing music begins to play as I stare at a plastic-looking generic male fighter with huge shoulder armor. A pop-up appears over my vision:
Base class: Fighter (level 1)
Abilities: Smash, defend.
There is small note under the pop-up which says, “14 advanced classes available. Sub-classes available at level 50.”
I quickly change the selection to female, but this class was still not for me. I like simplicity of the fighter character sheet though, with strength at three. I glance at the mage and it has will— or willpower—at three, with two starting skills, just like the fighter. I expect that the rogue template will have dex—or dexterity—at value three along with two basic skills. After I stop in front of a plastic-looking rogue in black leather armor with a hood and a knife, the expected pop-up comes appears.
Base class: Rogue (level 1)
Abilities: Hide, slash.
I was right! Looking around, there are others I could choose from; one is some kind of crafter and another is wearing a sailor outfit. There is even another which seems to be a generic adventurer and so on. It’s amazing that each of these have advanced classes and then sub classes below those. Am I choosing right? Gazing I don’t see a stealthier-looking character than what is just in front of me. I have no other options, so it’s time for my name. I select my rogue again and a keyboard appears along with the words “By what name shall I call you?” I type in the name I decided upon last night, ‘NightFlower.’ As I press the complete button, the world turns black. Cinematic music beings to play and a soothing male voice speaks.
“In turbulent times where war has ravaged the land, heroes are born, and heroes are forged. This day, from a faraway land, a new hero has come forth.” My vision reorients down, and I see I am the star of a quick cutscene. The scene is me walking through a forest in a dark tunic with a dagger on my hip. I am wearing tight, heavy cloth pants with worn shoes, and I look like myself. I am not super-endowed, with massive jiggling breasts. I am not wearing a skimpy outfit of armor in name only. I don’t look like female characters in other games, I look like me. I look like a pauper from a Charles Dickens book, a clean pauper, but I am… me.
The cutscene viewpoint pulls back to a wide expanse of a valley with mountains in the distance. A river cuts through the valley and I can see roads traversing the land. My viewpoint flies over a bustling town, and then I settle back onto the road just outside the forest where I saw myself in the cut-scene. Gravity kicks in and I stagger settling into my new digital body. It does not feel unlike my own; I am not sure what I expected but not expect to feel like me in my regular body. This all feels so natural, as does the world around me, which–as expected–is flawless. I watch grass rustle and small insects crawling on the ground.
The narrator, having paused, continues, “After a long journey alone through the Forest of Fell, you are stood on a narrow road between this new land and whence you came. NightFlower the apprentice rogue approaches the small town of Kesmai,” the narrator says. With an ominous tone, he continues, “Night is soon to fall, and with it danger and adventure.” A crescendo in the music happens, and the narrator finishes with, “Welcome to Imagine Online.”
A notice pops up saying that my respawn point is the Kesmai neutral ground. I take a second to look at my heads-up display; the HUD shows my body with green lines under various parts. There are other icons which show info about my character’s health, mana which is magical power, and stamina. There is also what looks like a faded version of my character with a light on it. I can see more menus with sub-menus; I have so much to investigate. Looking down at my body the display fades away so as not to break my immersion. I need to mess around with my settings later and see if certain settings are adjustable. I want that promised bathroom meter visible all the time.
A notice pops up, “Continue with tutorial?” It has no options, and I have to get going to find my friends, so I yell to the sky “No?” and the pop-up window fades away.
The name Kesmai is familiar from my SAINT on massive multiplayer games. In 1982 a standalone game was released named The Dungeons of Kesmai. Following the first game, in December 1985 they released The Island of Kesmai, an online-only game. Island of Kesmai was only available on an early private network called CompuServe. CompuServe cost $6 per hour and was even more for a slightly faster connection. Even with these expensive per-hour costs gamers would play the game all day. Legends of Kesmai launched in 1996 on yet another private network of the time called AOL. Of the three, The Island of Kesmai is distinct as the first commercially successful multiplayer game. There are dungeons to beat here in Imagine Online, is that the reference? Are we on an island? I doubt that the name is a coincidence, it cannot be happenstance. There will be more references, I hope.
I walk down the road to the town of Kesmai.
Approaching the town, I pass several farmers leaving in empty wagons. The farmers, clothed as Dark-Ages peasants, greet me without stopping. Made up of wooden and stone two-story buildings, the town of Kesmai is pretty from a distance. It has no gates or guards, and the edge of the town is not well defined, mostly being a collection of livestock pens and fences. The town is bustling; I see people going in every direction carrying items. The townsfolk are easy to identify as they dress in nondescript clothing and focus on their tasks. I can spot game players like myself ahead at an intersection—they are standing in groups and are chatting with each other and keep looking around.
I’m not sure what to do, and I don’t want to run into anyone from my school yet. Briar and Kian must be around somewhere, I’ll need to find them. I duck down next to a hay wagon. The body icon in my display noticeably dims. It’s my hide-meter, and I realize I am now hidden; I look down and my body appears semi-translucent. I sneak around the side of the wagon to look into the intersection. I try to see who the players are—one has some rusted armor on—and I don’t recognize him. Another has a belt with several tools on it, and yet another has a staff and ragged robes. One player I see has a bow that looks one step above something you might buy for a child with suction cup arrows. I recognize none of these players. They all look older and they are talking about how they got to the town. One player even mentions fighting an animal in the woods. I see a notification window in my peripheral vision, and I shift to focus on it, causing a window to pop up.
NEW SKILL: Identify
You have learned a new skill.
Identify allows you to inspect creatures and players to determine rank, levels and skills. With a little practice, this skill will allow you to passively identify and categorize creatures.
Whoa, I didn’t realize I would dynamically pick up skills. Focusing on something and trying to see deeper allowed me to learn the Identify skill. This was useful, and it made me wonder how many skills like this are learnable like this? In a system like this it would seem that there are a lot of different skills I could learn just by simply doing things. If I pick up a shovel would I get a ‘Digger’ skill? I will have to experiment.
Sneaking past the group of players, I don’t break my hide-in-shadows skill. The skill gets a system notice, a little ding, to tell me it increased to level two. The notification thankfully didn’t pop into my view and block where I was looking.
As the shadows of evening get longer, moving closer to the center of town is much easier. Testing my Hide skill, I move back and forth in light and see where I would become visible. The floating body icon blinks as I enter too much light, and I find I can stay hidden with ease.
While I am crossing an open doorway, an NPC carrying bread walks into me. With a cry, he falls, and bread scatters in all directions. I jump back two steps and retreat as I re-enter the shadows. A baker sticks his head out of the door and sees the worker looking around for what he tripped over. He yells, “What is wrong with you? I’m docking your pay for the damaged bread, urchin.” The NPC picks up the bread, mutters a curse, and continues on his way. I will need to be careful if an NPC has scripted paths they follow—I assume most of them will be scripted. Many times scripted NPC pathing can be helpful, with guards for instance, but I just messed up that guy’s day.
I follow a group of NPC kids and their dogs down an alley to what must be the main square, a large cobblestone circular area. I see markets and stalls, and there must be at least a hundred player characters here all shopping and looking at a large board with flyers all over it. This must be a quest hub for players, a dangerous place for lower-level characters, but not today. I inspect at least thirty players and there was only one level two character. My Identify skill gets a bump to level two and then a crescendo of music starts. “What the—”
In complete surround-sound, the narrator says, “Our hero enters Kesmai square.” Y, I must have set off a proximity event.
“Determined to make a name for herself in this quaint hamlet, our hero can use this square to find quests.” A large notice board in the center of the square glows for a second, and then the light fades. The narrator continues talking about and highlighting various parts of the square: church for healing, a crafting station and so on. The smooth male voice is soothing, but I hope it does not narrate all my quests step-by-step. That could be pretty irritating.
I inspect more players, and then I see Briar and Kian entering the square; they are strolling along. I stay hidden, creeping along, until I am behind them. Appearing from the depths of a shadow, I take one step and put my hands on their shoulders with a slap and shout, “HI, BOYS!”
Almost falling down, Briar says, “Whoa—damn. Dammit, Esme.” He looks a little closer and says, “Oh, NightFlower, a great name.” I inspect him, a level-one rogue named Thorn and Kian, also a level-one rogue named “Sil3nt.”
“How long have you guys been in the town?” I ask.
Kian says, “We both arrived near a river and walked in. I found Briar here on the road. How about you?”
“Just got here. Have you guys tried to use skills yet?”
“Not yet, but watch this,” Briar says and tries to jump back against a wall and activates his hide skill, I see him shimmer out and back in. “No good,” he says. “There are too many people around, I think.” He glares at a player crafter walking by with a basket of wool.
Kian moves his hands in the air and a contact request pop-up shows for “Sil3nt” and then a party invite. I approve both requests, and then I see two more body icons appear in my display with names and health bars next to them. More information displays for them. Looking in closer, I can see their online status and there is a line for effects which I can only guess at right now. There is a party voice chat, which could come in handy if we were all separated. There are quite a few greyed-out icons in the interface that I can’t get more info on. They must be for later in the game, as we level.
“Let’s go get starter quests,” Kian says. I nod at Briar and we all set off for the board.
Quests for parties our level are limited and based on party composition.
We only have two quests to choose from as a starter group. The first is “The matriarch’s fancy ring” which is a quest to find a woman and steal a ring she keeps in a lock box during the day. The next one is, “A daring break-in,” which is a night quest to get into a shop and also steal a lockbox. Both quests are level one. It’s nighttime, so we choose “A daring break-in.” The pop-up appears.
QUEST: A daring break-in
Kesmai's baker has purchased illicit goods. There is a small locked box in the back of the bakery which implicates the baker and others. Steal this box and stop all of the problems in the town.
Success: Bring the lockbox unopened back to the quest manager.
Failure: Time limit expires. You open the box.
I click on “accept” and the interface waits for both Kian and Briar to accept their pop-ups. We all need to accept the quest to do it.
Turning away from the quest board, I crash right in the chest of a large guard and fall back into Kian. I look up at the guard; he is wearing a chain-mail shirt with solid metal boots, bracers, and gloves. He has a black embroidered surcoat with what looks like an eagle’s claw in the center. I inspect him and see that his level is fifteen, far beyond any other NPC or player I have so far seen.
Sizing us up, he crisply says, “Hello, I’m Captain Lemmet. You young adventurers wouldn’t be up to no good,” he narrows his eyes, “would you?”
“Ginga!” Briar says.