Nothing happens. I mutter under my breath, bunching my face together. White and blue stars -- brighter than any I’ve seen before -- sparkle through the layers of pine tree branches. To my right a full moon twice as big as Earth’s sun shines its grey cooling light into the forest clearing. The fog at my feet meanders between rock and pine; whispering to my ankles and covering the ground in a faint translucence.
The fog weaves between seven crumbling stone buildings nearly reclaimed by ferns, dirt and vines. I admire the hand-hewn, moss-covered grey stones. Some of the stones lay stacked in the geometric single room shapes while others sit alone on the forest floor. No one builds with Human crafted building materials now, only the old time buildings that are too expensive to tear down have them.
I’m impressed with how realistic the forest feels, but still annoyed enough to want out of my newly purchased immersive virtual reality pod after only forty-five seconds. Nature surrounds me, a foreign concept I have not enjoyed learning about from various virtual reality programs; but a diminutive man covered in overlapping swatches of leather and steel is bouncing on his toes causing a jingling jangling sound storm. He stands to my left with hand on cocked hip and a twinkle in his eye.
“Still here.” He says with a grin. “I’m your tutorial companion. Don’t worry, you’ll warm up to me. I can be very helpful. For instance, there are ants on your sandals and if you don’t brush them off you will likely get an ant-up-the-skirt debuff. A debuff means the game will give you some sort of penalty.”
He smiles right through my meanest glare. Red carapace ants, twice as big as the ones in my apartment, march up my right leg, from sandal to knee.
Sigh. While the concept of an ant up the skirt debuff is childish and whoever developed it should be fired, it is probably better to remove the ants than endure said gaming travesty. I slaughter the interlopers with a few gentle pats to my leg, stand up and straighten my shirt. I narrow my eyes and look closely at my incorrectly labeled garment. The braided chocolate colored leather halter top snuggling my bosom covers more back than chest. Whoever wrote this game failed to hire fashion consultants. Patting my hair I discover they at least had the decency to start me off with a sensible bun.
I should have trusted my instincts and just played another shooter with David, but I just don’t want to hear it from anybody right now. Not my boss, who’s going to fire me at the end of the week. Not my Mom, who’s just going to make me feel worse about what my boss is going to do no matter what. And not David, who’s just going to tell me my ex-boyfriend isn’t worth fighting for. Screw them all, especially my boss. I’m playing some games like Dad would have.
That doesn’t mean I have to play this game in this spooky haunted insect trap and deal with this character in front of me. What’s his name anyway? Don’t these games normally display character names over their head? As I’m thinking of it, bright white lettered text appears above his head.
Rothlington the Blessed
Rothlington? Really? Ugh. Terrible name for a computer program, I will instead name him...Rick.
“Logout,” I say firmly.
“Nope, that’s not it either but this is really fun. What are you going to try next?” Rick claps his hands and stares at me in excitement. “Tell me you will click your heels. Oh, that will be fantastic.”
“Leave. Disembark. Beam me up. Wait, how do you know about the Wizard of Oz? Isn’t this a role-playing game?”
“I know about Wizard of Oz because I watched it as a kid before I took up residence in this wonderful forest.” He spreads his arms above his shoulders drawing my attention to the piercing blue starlight amid the goliath trunks. The trunks wider than my king size bed are rather impressive but I’ll be damned before I let Rick know that.
“Uh, hate to break it to you but you’re a computer - you don’t watch movies from the real world. And I have named you Rick. The forest is so-so”, I say. He squints his eyes and purses his lips.
“Pretty sure I did watch that movie, and my name is Rothlington the Blessed.” He says as he points to his puffed out chest.
“I’ll concede you watched the Wizard of Oz if you admit your name is Rick,” I say.
Rick neatly sidesteps my expectations of a dialog loop and instead of repeating a scripted line the AI character says “, Whatever helps you sleep at night Honey, are you ready for your tutorial yet?”
“Uh maybe later, how do I log out?”
“Rothlington the Blessed is aware of that information but I’m Rick sooo, Welcome to your first day in Incrementum! I’m your fabulous tutorial confidant, Rick,” he says with a wink, “and I’ll be showing you all the basic information you’ll need to make your stay here in Brighthollow forest a super one. Any questions so far?”
“Yes, how do I log..” I sigh instead of finishing my sentence. Asking this virtual game character how to leave the game isn’t working...eh, I’ll just dive right into it. “Maybe later Rick, I bought this game for a distraction and a distraction I will have! Now where are some bad guys to beat up.”
I march forward, brushing Rick’s shoulder on my way towards the nearest old stone building. I hear a slight sputtering behind me but I keep walking. I’m calling the shots and the current shot is to find something to kick.
A rock rolls in front of me, shifted by a small creature holding a golden nut. The creature twitches its tattered bushy tail as I approach. I crouch down and hold my hand out to it. I’ve seen cute videos of animals running up people’s arms or eating out of their hands, maybe that happens here too.
I’m wrong, oh, am I wrong. The Undead Chipmunk embeds its teeth in my middle finger right above the last knuckle. Blood oozes passed its lips, like the chipmunk’s getting ready for a night on the town with the world’s ghastliest lipstick. I shake my hand the chipmunk off my hand and stand up. I kick at the critter’s chin, picturing a soccer ball in a simulation I played quite some time ago, Fifa 2041.
A slight pain shoots through my foot on contact. “Stupid pain thresholds...” I say. The little nut muncher flies away from me, over the fallen wall, out the back of the stone building in a satisfying arc. A small red number 2 floats above its head and fades into the night air.
My victory dance, arms above my head and a swing my hips, ends abruptly. My virtual body jerks forward and tiny feet scurry up my back before a sharp pain hits me in between my shoulder and neck.
I can’t reach the Undead Chipmunk -- no matter how much I spin and stretch. It digs its teeth into my neck muscle. I run towards a stone wall taller than me, pushing down as hard as I can off the front of my left foot and launching off the ground. I rotate in mid-air and feel a satisfying squish on my back. I look down and see the toothy furball in the pine needles below the fog. It lays on its back, not moving but I take no chances. I stomp the troublesome critter, seeing small red 1s fade into the air. Uck, I wipe my sandals on the pine needles around me, expecting sticky animal goo, but can’t feel any pine needles sticking to my foot. I look closer at the remains of the little critter and gray lettering appears above it:
Corpse of an Undead Chipmunk
A small yellow bar pops up at the bottom of my vision, overlaying the small pile of bones and fur. It is three-quarters empty. I focus on the bar and yellow lettering pops up, Level One on the left of the bar and Level Two on the right.
A clapping sound start from outside the stone room as Rick walks through the entryway with plenty of head room.
“Really well done -- I give it a five out of ten in execution but a ten out of ten in creativity. Maybe you should have held off on the victory dance sugar. Now hear me out, that could have been a lot easier. Are you sure you don’t want me to help you with a quick tutorial?”
Taking into account the fact that a tiny nut eater got a mouthful of my neck, and that it might have been a zombie that could have possibly given me tiny zombie chipmunk rabies, I reconsider.
“Fine Rick, but can we keep it moving? No one likes game tutorials.”
“Great!” He says as he claps his hands. “The first thing I’d like you to do is think about yourself, you should notice a silhouette overlay itself in the middle of your vision. If you want to change that silhouette this is your last chance so think hard about your figure.”
I frown at him slightly and roll my eyes, might as well give it a try. I think hard about my appearance in real life. A 3d representation of myself hovers in the center of my vision and the forest quiets around me.
My four foot nothing frame, bee’s nest of a hairdo and large black framed glasses brings a frown to my face. The bags under my eyes and downturned lips surprises me. I’m sure I shouldn’t look this old at nineteen. Recent developments I guess. That sends me down a familiar but unwelcome mental path and I shake my head to retreat.
Screw it, time for a change.
I think about getting taller and the ground moves farther away in my peripheral vision. I force the hair to straighten and curl slightly around my face. I broaden my shoulders and leave my chest as is. My girls are too heavy for my small body but this new six and a half frame should give them a proportional home.
Growing in height has given me a model’s willowy silhouette. Nope, not interested in that. I focus on even broader shoulders and wider hips. I picture lean corded muscles like the professional athletes on my favorite vid channel. Uh oh, too boxy, I round my hips slightly and add just a touch more muscles. Perfect, strength without the bulk and harsh angles.
I smooth out my skin, shape and expand my eyes, line up my ears and lengthen my eyelashes. It’s the details that count.
I grin, imagining my co-workers looking at this in our next team virtual conference.
“Laugh at my ideas now Helga.” I jump a bit at the booming and unfamiliar voice that comes out of my now massive rib cage.
“Who’s Helga?” Rick says. My newly imagined body fades, replaced with Rick and an increasingly loud barrage of chirps and squeaks - are those insects?
One would think that in a world composed entirely from human imagination someone would have realized that birds and insects are too loud. What modern cities have right is no birds, no insects and no animals.
“She’s the manager in charge of my building’s power sources, including my solar panels. As stupid as it gets and twice as mean,” I say.
My shoulders tense up as I remember our last exchange. I ignored her instructions which would have resulted in half the VR capsules in our building shutting down, leaving their residents blinking in the unwelcome air of Chicago Pod Complex 658.
“Anyways, that doesn’t matter -- wait, why didn’t I get to pick my race? What if I want pointy ears or femme beard? Games like this let you play as something other than human most the time right?”
“Sorry, no playable alternate races at this time. There are all types of interesting beasts and humanoids in this world, but just plain old humans for the likes of us. Although your imagination seems to have produced an Amazonian of impressive stature.” Rick eyes my new frame with an appreciative eye.
“Ok, so what else do I need to know before we get cracking here Rick?”
“Oh my gosh, so much! When I started playing this game I was clueless but hey, I had a job to do. Now that I’m at a high enough level to be a tutorial guide, here I am. Let’s see, what to start with...” He taps his chin with one finger and crosses his other arm across his chest.
“Wait, you’re a player?”
“Yep. What, you thought developers would program a tutorial NPC that had seen the Wizard of Oz? Nope. Dan, by the way, if you really can’t stomach Rothlington. I’m just really really excited to play this game for...right, keep it moving...we can get into that later. First, the whole hit a bunny with a sword for a few paltry experience points, standard starter zone stuff. Did you want to be a warrior or is this just a bucket list kind of thing, grow to be two and a third meters tall before you die?”
A bag appears in Dan's hands as he talks. He finishes his question with his shoulders and head inside the sack, apparently searching through many items as I hear quite a clamor from the cloth receptacle.
“I’m not sure what I want to be...”
The wriggling sack stills.
“Don’t know how you want to play the game? No problem at all bunny hips. It just so happens I signed up for the role of tutor. Ok, let's see start with the basics.”
Dan pulls his head out of the sack, walks up to one of the stone walls and then bends down to pick up a stick.
“Typically, in a fantasy role-playing game, there are very defined types of characters or ‘classes’ you can choose to role play. There are four classics: warrior, rogue, mage, and cleric.” Each of the four classics results in a loud *crack* as he smacks his stick on the stone. I can see spider webs gathering on its tip and small chips of stone fall onto the floor.
“Warriors are strong, hardy characters that are meant to trade blows with enemies up close. They typically wear heavy armor, carry heavy weapons and eschew developing any skill or trait that even remotely resembles intelligence. Warriors try to keep enemies from focusing on any of their friends, taunting them and often doing large sweeping attacks. While there are specialized forms of warriors that break this fairly simple mold, I think you get the idea.”
I raise my hand but Dan has gone into full college professor mode.
“There will be no questions from the class until the end of the lecture! Hands down. Where was I...Warrior, Big Dummy...Ah right, Rogue.”
“Rogues are fast and dexterous, meant to avoid attacks while striking at vulnerable points on the enemy to deal critical damage. They wear light armor and wield light weapons so their mobility stays high. They typically specialize in forms of stealth attacks and misdirection, often getting special abilities that let them cripple enemies. If you want to work around the edges of the fight, avoiding enemy attention while maiming them in various gruesome ways, this class could be for you.” He points his stick directly at me, then folds his arms behind him and begins pacing back and forth in front of the wall.
“Mages are master of magic, casting spells to damage the enemy and protect themselves. Depending on the type of mage or specialization, mages can also hinder their enemies or enhance their allies. While they have to spend an inordinate amount of time creating new spells and mastering the spells they already know, they do have the potential to do catastrophic amounts of damage. Mages can only wear the lightest of armor and tend to die quite easily.”
“Finally, clerics channel religious zeal to buff and heal teammates while cursing enemies. They can wear heavy armor and have been known to stand in the front lines with their warrior counterparts. You can think of them as a smart warrior really. They leave the beating and savagery to their less gifted kin. The true noble’s path you might say.”
From the way Dan is preening, I start to get a suspicion.
“What class did you pick Dan? Cleric?”
“Pick? Class? Who said anything about picking a class? There are no classes in Incrementum. These are just typical archetypes that help when considering how you want to play the game. In Incrementum, you get better at skills as you practice them. If you don’t even know about rouges and sneaking around, how would you practice the skills to become one? Now hands down until the end of the lecture.”
“The Cleric archetype is the best one, and I, Rothling...Dan, I, Dan, aspire to heal my friends and curse my enemies but that is neither here nor there. What you need to decide, is how do you want to play this game? Do you want to leave most of the thinking to others and just go bash on enemies with big swords? Sneak around in the shadows and stab enemies in the back? Read musty tomes and invoke mighty displays of power? Or channel the will of this world’s gods to the betterment of all?”
He pauses in his diatribe and stares at me.
I mull over each of the options.
Mage sounds least attractive to me. I have to spend every working day going over technical details and thinking my way through problems. If my hobby is spent researching and memorizing I’m not sure it will really feel like a hobby. That leaves Warrior, Rogue, and Cleric. Of those three, Cleric is the least desirable. I work as a Solar power technician, helping everyone else keep their lives together by supplying the power they take for granted. I think that’s enough support work for me. Between Warrior and Rogue, the choice seems obvious. I’m sick of sneaky devious people in real life and certainly don’t want to spend the energy to become one in this virtual life. Warrior it is.
“So is now the time for questions?” I say.
“Ok, do I have to role play as a dummy if I decide to hit things with big weapons or is that just your perception of warriors?”
He sniffs and waves one hand in concession, “I guess a warrior could be smart but I’ll believe it when I see it. I’ve never played one myself but I imagine there is quite a bit of nuance to the role. Incrementum does seem to provide bonuses when you innovate and embrace your role, but I don’t think there are any rewards for playing a stereotype.”
Dan resumes pacing and I decide to continue to pepper him with questions now that he has decided I can.
“When you said NPC earlier, did you mean non-player character? I played a few games like this a long time ago with my Dad but not recently. Does experience work the same as it used to? Get points for doing things, go up levels?”
“Yes and Yes! NPC is a non-player character. These are characters in the game that are managed by the game’s artificial intelligence (AI). Some of the more robust characters might be AIs themselves that the main game world AI no longer controls. Experience points in Incrementum work like they do in most role playing games, your character starts at level 1 and moves up levels from there. Typically your character has a meter that shows how close you are to the next level. You should have seen your experience bar briefly appear in the bottom of your vision after killing that chipmunk.”
“To move from level one to level two, you will need two hundred experience points. Level two to level three requires three hundred and seventy five. Level three to four is sixteen hundred, you get the idea... Once you go up a level, you get more points you can allocate into various attributes and boons. Independent of attributes and boons, you can progress in various skills just by practicing them or attempting more complex variations. And before you ask, attributes, boons and skills are complicated and are the core to understanding how this game works. Do you want the extremely long and boring erudite version or the watered down warrior version?”
“I’ll take the warrior version for now, and I want to go on the record that I resent your implication that warriors are dumb. I will become a warrior and I am most certainly not a dummy.”
“Great! I need a nice big meat shield to play with!” he claps. “Your attributes control basic statistics about your character. They are Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma and Luck. I recommend you read up on them on your own time. Suffice it to say, as a warrior, you probably only care about Strength and Constitution, with some Dexterity mixed in to whatever extent you decide. The rest of your attributes start at a human baseline, and while they do provide benefits, those benefits probably aren’t great for you. You can inspect your own attributes just by thinking about it, think to yourself ‘attributes’.”
I think, ‘attributes’.
A semi-transparent interface pops up in front of me with the following listed:
Samantha (Level 1) Attributes
Strength: 1Constitution: 1
Available Points: 10
Faith Points: 1
“See that interface? Ok, now just focus on each individual attribute and think about inspecting it if you want more information. I recommend not spending any attribute points until you understand more about the game.”
“I’ll do it later and just take your advice to save my points for now. The clock is ticking Dan, let’s do something!”
“Fine, just remember I told you so, there are still boons and skills to go over but someone is Miss Impatient soo...”
“A warrior then!” Dan dunks his head back into the giant Santa Claus’ sack and rummages around. “Lucky for you I’m authorized to issue two pieces of starter gear for everyone I accept in my tutorial program and I have just the pieces for you!”
His body snaps back to vertical as the sack drops. In his right hand, Dan holds a giant rectangular piece of wood, a shield if I remember correctly from the games I used to play with Dad. He grips a sword as long as my arm with his left arm.
“Yeah, no. I’m not going to be using those, what else do you have?”
“What do you mean no? This is standard starting warrior gear, nice quality too!” He says as he knocks the two useless implements together in front of his chest.
“I mean I’m not going to walk around in a forest hiding behind a big piece of wood and poking things with a metal stick. What are my options here?”
“Wow, no one has ever rejected their starter items before. Ok, I guess I’ll just lay out the other options.”
Dan begins placing other various ancient weapons on the the dead leaves and dirt below us. I pick up a few different swords, axes, maces and hammers. I heft each one, unimpressed with their weight. One weapon, two pieces of wood attached with a string, confuses me. How are you supposed to hurt anything with that? As I near the end of the pile my eyes light up.
“I’ll take this one,” I say. I reach down and grab the long piece of smooth yellow wood that is as tall as I am and about three fingers thick. A thin strip of leather wraps around the staff, ending equidistant from the middle of the staff and both ends in a perfect place for my hand to rest if I brace one end on the ground. The smooth wrap feels good against my dinner plate sized hand.
“You want to be a staff warrior?” Dan queries, an all too critical look on his face.
“Look, Dan, all these weapons are just pieces of wood and metal. At least with this one, I can use it to push branches out of my way or brace myself as I walk. It’s also lighter because there is no metal. It’s the most practical option you have here. I mean really, sticks connected with a string? What are you supposed to do, ask an enemy to put the string around their neck pretty please? I could definitely see me slapping around some baddies with this.”
Dan scratches his head as he thinks about it. “So not Martial arts buff either eh? Those sticks connected by a string are a traditional Japanese weapon called ‘Nunchaku’ or ‘nunchuks’ and you use them...eh forget about it. Staff it is! Now just look at the staff and think about it to get a prompt about its details.”
I see a window appear in my vision.
Novice’s Oak Staff
A standard oak staff, suitable for beginners.
Damage: 5-8 (5-8 with current Strength and Dexterity modifiers)
Not very exciting. Durability must mean that items in this game can break, and if the durability gets low I should try to find someone to fix it, or just throw it away. Dan cuts into my thoughts.
“But that’s only one item. You can get one more item. Can I suggest a piece of armor? Perhaps a leather breastplate? It will help you take less damage in your initial fights.”
“That sounds extremely uncomfortable, who wants plates strapped to their breasts? What do you have in the way of shoes? Hold the woman in a shoe store jokes, thanks.”
Dan gathers all his sticks and shiny metal contraptions and puts them in his bag. He then extracts various shoes and boots. After a few minutes and tens of pairs, I select a nice brown pair of knee high boots with a solid leather sole. They must be a size fifteen, mens.
“Ok -- can we go do something now? And what’s the story with these ruins?”
“Your guess is as good as mine on that score. I know we are in my general tutorial area, Brighthollow forest, but I was brought to this location when the game said a player needed my tender loving care. From what I’ve seen, the developers start these tutorials in mini-zones, where the new player has to fight or think their way out of a situation to make it into the game at large. I bet if you turned around and made a break for the forest you’d end up on your behind.”
“Challenge accepted,” I say, as I pivot and run over the fallen wall and into the forest as fast as I can. Woah, long legs really do run faster -- the pine needles fly up and hit the back of my legs as my new body shape pushes me faster than I’ve ever moved before. The transparent barrier slaps the smile right off my face when I careen into it at full speed and land on my butt.
Dan’s annoying laughter rankles more than what surely will be a bruise on my face.