Incrementum

by

Countabbot

Chapter 10 - Samantha - Present

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My vision is briefly all black after Archibold’s final clubbing to my face. The black is disturbed by white lettering:

Your avatar has been expelled from Incrementum for thirty minutes while its energy is restored.

Darn. There must be a thirty minute penalty any time your health drops below zero. I call out to my apartment, “Set a timer for thirty minutes. Also, what time is it?” and my apartment’s AI says, “3 PM.”

Wait, 3 PM, that’s it? I entered the pod at 1 PM and it feels like I have already been playing the game for at least 8 hours trying to clear out all the undead from the starting ruins.

I call out, “Is time in Incrementum different than in the real world? How is this achieved?”

My AI answers the query, “The developers of Incrementum integrated the latest time perception technology. Everything in Incrementum is happening at four times the rate at which it happens in the real world. Your brain does not perceive this difference because Incrementum delivers its sensory input to the various processes in your brain responsible for temporal perception at four times the speed at which your brain receives the input in the real world. Roughly 12-25ms instead of of 50-100ms. This technological breakthrough was achieved by building on the work of renowned early 21st century neuroscientist David Eagleman. Human brains have always been capable of outputting electrical signals much faster than 25-50ms, the delay was on receiving input from the outside world.  By speeding up the input cycle, the brain is tricked into perceiving that everything is happening at normal speeds, and it can then output its electromagnetic signals with less delay waiting on input..”

This makes a strange kind of sense. My own perception of time doesn’t seem constant. There are times when I’ve been thinking about a difficult problem or struggling with some strong emotion for what seems like an hour, but checking the time proves it has only been a matter of seconds or one short minute.

What to do with my thirty minutes...I decide to check on any correspondences first. There are several messages from Helga but I ignore them completely. I’ve done everything I can with the constraints she gave me. I know I’m good at what I do, even if I am only a year out of college. Reading her messages always makes me feel terrible. There’s another queue of messages from Mom. I ignore those too, she’ll just remind me of everything I already know.

I can’t help myself and try to send a message to Robert. I get the same blocked user message I got the night he dumped me. I’m equally angry at myself for still trying to get ahold of him and him for being so mean. How can he not realize that I didn’t have a choice?  It’s not my fault my boss is doing this to me. The least he could do after the year and a half we spent together is stick by me while I’m trying to save my first job. He knows this is important for the rest of my career. Who is going to hire a solar technician who let their building run out of power? Maybe I should just go wait outside his apartment, I’m sure if he I could just talk to him he would understand...No, that’s not right, that would make me the needy stalker ex-girlfriend.  Ugh.

I feel the hot blood in my cheeks from reviewing the two worst things in my life right now. I know I need to talk to someone to try and get my emotions under control. I could chat with Mom but she would want to focus on my job and that’s not really what I need to talk about.

“Call David”, I say. David might be tired of hearing about Robert but tough luck, part of the burden of being a friend.

I see a hologram of David’s face appear a couple meters in front of my VR pod between my sitting position on top of it and the opposite wall of my apartment. His thick glasses, messy hair and bushy eyebrows are in peak form as usual.

“No, you should not do whatever you are thinking of doing to get Robert to talk to you.” He says before I can even get a word out.

“Oh come on! How’d you know I was going to want to talk about Robert?”

“It’s practically the only thing you’ve talked about for the past three weeks, multiple times per day I might add.  It’s gotten to the point where I had to tell my AI only to take one of your calls per day.  Not all of us are geniuses that breeze through colleges, I have to study most of the day Sam. So any time you want to ask me about some scheme to get back together with Robert, just picture me saying, ‘No, that’s a bad idea, you should move on. He’s a jerk.’”

I look at the ground and frown.  He’s right.  It’s not fair of me to take up so much of his time just complaining about my relationship. The Robert part he’s clearly wrong about, Robert is amazing and I need to fix our relationship, but taking up so much of David’s time isn’t fair.

“Sorry David, I’m not being a great friend right now. I’ll stop bothering you with my Robert schemes. I just really want him back, you know? I never had a boyfriend before. How am I going to find another guy, especially one that’s so handsome and tall? He’s basically a model...” I trail off as David starts making fake puking sounds and motions. “Sorry, I got distracted. Can I do some of your homework to make it up? You know that doesn’t take me any time at all...”

“For the hundredth time no! I won’t learn the material if you do my homework. I’m not going to cheat my way through my studies like Robert.” He shakes a finger at me. “Anyway, did you try Incrementum yet? Is it as awesome as the media makes it sound? I hear over a million people have signed up already. I’ve been planning on sneaking into one of my dorm’s VR pods to give it as pin but haven’t made it over yet. We should play together. It should be more fun than our normal shoot-em-ups.”

“Yeah! I just got out after dying for the first time. A big skeleton hit me a bunch of times in my tutorial zone.  My tutorial master ditched me for a little while for some call.  I haven’t quite figured out why he was so much harder than all my previous opponents...”

“Well what level was the big skeleton?”

“...I didn’t really check.”

“Really? Come on, you know monsters levels just like players. Remember when your Dad set us up to play Everquest X before your Mom forced us to quit and screamed at him for wasting money? The monsters that were easy for us to kill had white name tags and, really hard ones had red, and then there were shades in between, with blue and green being super easy. I bet Incrementum does the exact same thing or something slightly different.”

“Yeah, Dad was so happy to play. I remember...Look, we both know I could read and learn every detail there is to know about Incrementum, as least what has been published, but where’s the fun in that David? Besides, there’s a method to my madness. The faster I experiment in the game the more I learn. There’s only so much thinking about the game will do for you, you have to play it. Anyway, I definitely would have figured that out once the game lets me back in.”

“There’s plenty of mystery left in a brand new world after learning very basic aspects Sam. At least read up more on some other older RPGs ok? It will help and still preserve your precious mystery. I have to get back to studying but we should try to meet up in the game.  I’ll start a character today.  Where did you start?”

“Somewhere in Brighthollow forest?  I haven’t gotten very far so that’s all I know.”

“Works for me, I’ll try to end up somewhere near there when I get the chance to play.  Give me a call next time you are out of the game. Work still going terribly?”

“Yeah, it’s the most frustrating thing ever. I don’t even know what to do anymore. The whole thing is just a disaster. Helga won’t authorize any funds for replacement parts or contract labor. There’s something weird going on there but I have no clue what. All I know is I’ve been on this job for a year, and working double time for a month. Enough is enough. Helga said she’ll fire me if I don’t keep the lights on and there is no way to keep the lights on. So screw it. Screw Helga. I might as well play Incrementum for the next week before she fires me.  My Technician’s Rating is going to get hurt, I’ll be lucky to be average after this. I probably won’t be able to get a job at another proper building but I can’t do anything about it. ”

“I’m sorry, Sam. At least this job did you the favor of chasing Robert off. That guy is a jerk Sam, I’ve said it since Fluid Mechanics class and he invited you to his group project. He’s a giant leech.“

“Whatever. I did some of his homework sure, worked on some group projects, but that’s just because they’re fun for me and he likes to work with me, that’s all. He says he likes to see my big brain work, and my eyes...and legs...”

David’s face falls into his palm. He sighs and looks back up.

“Can you at least call your mom? She’s been harassing me for over a week saying you won’t take her calls. Just call her, ok?”

“Ugh, fine.”

David’s hologram disappears. He might have a point on learning at least the basics of how some older games worked. I’d been blowing Dan off when he tried to tell me more information about the game on purpose. First off, I don’t like to have all the inner workings of a game detailed out to the extent where really playing it is just a math equation I’m optimizing. I have plenty of differential equations I optimize in real life thank you very much. There’s something fun about discovering the inner workings of the game as you play it instead of learning all about it before you even get to play. Besides, if you just play a game, experiment yourself, you can often discover secrets or angles that no one has found yet, especially with a game like Incrementum. However, after that beating that Archibold put on me, I am a bit more inclined to learn about the game.

One thing, in particular, bothers me. There has to be a better way to play a warrior than just strapping on massive pieces of armor and standing there while things hit you. What had Dan called it...not “oversized charity case trash can” but...ah that’s right a ‘tank’.

“Please gather credible information on the role of the tank in role playing games for the past four most popular online role-playing games,” I tell my AI.

I see a long list of content listed before me.  I focus on them one after another and say “Open.” and then scan the content. The first several pages I scan are just essentially advertisements for various gaming groups called guilds.  The guilds, my favorite being the ‘Flaming Lambs’, created elaborate descriptions of their group’s best tank in what I think is a strategy for recruiting more players. Apparently, if your guild does not have a super powerful tank, then your guild cannot tackle the game’s hardest dungeons and “boss” monsters.  If you cannot tackle the hardest content, then you cannot get the best items.  If your guild can’t get the best items, then over-achieving top end gamers won’t join your guild because they can’t get the shiny status symbols they crave.

As I read through more of the advertisements, I notice that the guilds are all from versions of World Of Warcraft. Apparently, it has been the predominant online role-playing game for the past several centuries. I wonder if Incrementum is going to change that.

After skipping through the next few pages which are versions of the same advertisement, I finally come to a “Treggor’s Guide to Tanking For Newbies.” It feels like I’m being handled with extra soft wool kiddy gloves, but it contains the information I’m after.  Essentially, there have been three different types of tanks in fantasy based role playing games.

The first type, mitigation tanks, must be what Dan is talking about.  These are characters which acquire items and skills strictly to reduce incoming damage and keep their aggro as high as they can. They typically are best at fighting really challenging “boss” monsters because all their mitigation prevents the boss from killing them too quickly, so their team’s healers have a chance to heal them.  

The second type, avoidance tanks, also try to keep their aggro high, but instead of focusing on mitigating damage, they try to avoid getting hit. Sounds like a smart strategy to me. The classic pitfall has been that when an avoidance tank does get hit, they get hit really hard, often times leading to them dying instantly with no time for a healer to keep them alive. For high-end gaming, that is not acceptable.

The third type, aggro tanks, might have some avoidance or some mitigation, but focus a lot more on keeping their aggro high on many monsters.  This allows other people who do a lot of damage, like wizards who throw fireballs or rogues who stab things really hard, to kill the monsters faster because they can trust the aggro tank to keep the monsters focused on them for longer.

I process this information a little bit.  These tank archetypes exist for a reason. The mechanics of these games, like World of Warcraft, force the archetypes to exist when the developers design the character skills, items, and monsters.  Since the skills of Incrementum seem to be partially under the player’s control, maybe I can break out of those archetypes now.

As I come to this conclusion, my apartment says:

“Thirty-minute timer is up.”

To call Mom or not to call Mom. Ugh, I told David I would.

“Call Mommy Dreadful.”

Her hologram appears after a brief delay, apparently she was waiting for my call.

“Samantha! It took you long enough. I have to get back to work or I’ll be late to second shift at the Hungry Pig. Have you fixed the power system? You can’t lose that job, Samantha. Your whole career will be off track and then where will all the extra time we put in studying go? Right down the drain. We can’t afford that. Now, David told me that Robert boy is finally gone, good riddance, he was just a distraction. You don’t have time for that. Focus back on your work...”

“Stop Mom, just stop! Robert was not just a distraction he was my boyfriend! He made me feel good and cared about more than just my stupid job. It’s a terrible job and my boss is setting me up to fail. I can’t salvage this job. It’s gone. There is no way I can meet Helga’s demands so I’m not even going to try. If you can’t reach me for the next week it’s because I’m playing games and enjoying my life. Leave me alone for once in my life! BYE. Apartment, end call.”

I closed my eyes. I knew she wanted a better life for me than the one she had, but sometimes it felt like that’s all I was to her, a project towards a better life. Robert was my first boyfriend, my first real anything outside of school and work. After Dad passed, all Mom did was obsess over my Personal Education scores. We didn’t watch movies together or play games -- like when Dad was around -- we studied and worked on PE lessons. We chose the fastest path towards a Solar Technician Certificate and Technician’s Rating for me. While she was at one of her two jobs, she expected me to work at learning. She was always right there, pushing me to solve just one more problem, take one more test.

I remember the last time I saw Dad, almost ten years ago. My mom and him were shouting at each other, about me. They tried to lower their voices a few times but couldn’t manage to do it for more than a few minutes.

“You’re not raising a robot Kelly, you need to let her play some games, hell, let her play some games with me. A kid’s life can’t just be studying...” Dad said before lowering his voice. I heard some more murmuring through the cracked wall of our old apartment.

“You shouldn’t even be playing games, we don’t have time for games! This whole family is in real danger of going on Welfare. You need another job and Samantha needs to focus on her studies so she doesn’t have to deal with this. I don’t want us to sit VR pods and play games, doing nothing, contributing nothing, drawing our check while everyone else supports us with government checks...” Mom said. Their voices were muffled for a few more minutes before I heard them again.

“Let her be a kid, Kelly! I’m taking her to the park this weekend and playing a game with her -- her studies can wait.” Dad said. I heard some slamming after that, either cabinets or the door, I didn’t know which. It got quiet, Mom must have put Dad on the couch again.

I wish Dad hadn’t fought Mom like that. I liked my Personal Education materials, I liked making Mom smile. I liked games too but I didn’t have to play them. I’m thankful Dad played them with me now. I still sometimes stay up for hours, not working on my education, thinking about Dad, about the old games he used to play with me, and trying not to cry.

I shake my head, rubbing at the moisture gather on my eyes. Mom’s wrong, she doesn’t know what I know about my job. There isn’t a path to salvation.

“Timer is up.” My apartment says.

I clear my thoughts, hop back in the VR pod, and sink back into Incrementum.

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Countabbot

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