Dream: It’s Only A Game

State of the art, immersive neural interface. How immersive? Instead of watching a computer screen, the game used a neural link to place the player into the game. My character was controlled the same way my body was. Will. Run into a wall, my nose or knee feels bruised depending on what body part hit the wall first. Throw a spell and feel the tingle of magic in my hand. Get hit by a weapon and wince from the sensation of something hard pushing into me.

Visually and audibly, the immersion was near complete. There was enough of a tactile sensation to interact with the world. Smell and taste, however, was absent. But that was okay, this was enough.

You lamers can keep what’s left of Azeroth, with your overused sprites. The spiders in this game differed more than just size and color.

(Too bad it was only a dream.)

I had rolled a mage, and had done very well for myself. Because of my free hours, I often wound up playing solo in the game. I had learned very quickly how to survive in areas I wasn’t supposed to be leveling solo in, and how to dodge the PvP packs that often swept the area.

Many times, a guild would approach me. “We’ve been watching you questing, and acknowledge how bad ass you are, would you join our guild?” I would point out my odd playing hours. That usually made the guild rescind their offer. On occasion a guild would say the hours wouldn’t matter because they aligned with their raiding time.

As it was, this day, such a guildmaster approached me. His guild was one of the top five guilds in the server. No one applied for membership, his guild was invitation only. I’ve watched smaller feeder guilds fall apart because he came and snapped up their top players. And here he was, saying he was prepared to reschedule guild raiding hours to accommodate me, because I was that bad ass of a mage.

He eyed me warily. I could see in his shift in posture, he had something to say that I probably wasn’t going to like. “Oh, one other thing. You have to respec. We’ll pay for it, of course, but to join us as a Mage, you have to respec from Firemaster, to Airmaster. See the Mage section of the UberLeetGuide for Raiding to see what spells you need to learn.” He spoke as if my respec was a done deal. He was guildmaster after all, who was I to question his command.

I waved him off. “In that case, no thanks. Airmaster is a raid-only spec. I wouldn’t survive a random mob in Noobgarde if I spec’d Airmaster.” I turned to walk away.

He sputtered a bit at my response. “But only Airmaster mages raid. Our entire raid setup is for maximum dps. Firemasters don’t help the raid as a whole, only Airmasters.” He was reaching for a counter argument. As if he couldn’t consider why I would consider doing anything else but raiding.

I stop and turn back to him, having to look up because he is on his uber-mount, a six-legged wolfish something. “So, what am I supposed to do when I in game and there’s no raid. Only one character per account in this game. I can’t afford to switch between Firespec and Airspec on a moment’s whim. I have to choose one and stay with it. But as Airmaster, I can’t do ANY solo playing. I’ll have shitty dps, and need a priest’s heals after every battle, assuming I survive the battle.”

Again, he looks at me with disbelief. “If you’re raiding, why would you want to play solo? You can’t play the endgame dungeons solo.”

“If you want a cookiecutter spec, why ask me?” I dodged his question, as I wasn’t sure of my answer. “There are dozens of guildless Airmaster Mages running around.” As I waved my hand in dramatic flair, I pointed out six Airmasters that were hanging on the edge of hearing, waiting for their moment to jump into the conversation and offer themselves.

He looked at the mages I had pointed out, and snorted at them in derision. Four of them immediately left the area. As he spoke, he turned back to face me. “Because you have skill. They’re trying to play by a book. You have an intuitive feel for the class, otherwise, you wouldn’t have made it this far as a Firemaster.”

I face him fully as well, crossing my arms in defiance. “So, let me get this straight. You want me to join, because I show independent thought, and ability to work in an unorthodox manner. But you want me to conform to a tightly controlled, scripted position that precludes me from using the skills I have honed. Don’t you realize, until I become accustomed to the Airmaster spec, my performance will be considerably less than the dozens of guildless Airmaster Mages that have spent months practicing the Airspec? And this is assuming I stay Airmaster and don’t leave the guild.”

He was getting visibly agitated now. As guildmaster, he wasn’t used to peons daring to stand up to him, questioning his order. “Either you spec Airmaster, or you don’t raid with my guild.” I could tell this was his final word on the subject.

I called over one of the hovering mages that hadn’t left when he denigrated them. I knew this mage in passing, we had quested together often when starting out. I felt him to be a competent mage. “Take him then, if you need a mage right now. He’s book spec, and I find him quick on his feet when the shit hits the fan. But I won’t be joining your guild. Goodbye.”

I patted the Airmaster on his back, and walked away from the bewildered mage and the infuriated guildmaster. As I left, the guildmaster yelled at me, “You’ll never raid. Ever! I’ll personally see to it you are refused entry into any other guild. You will not enter endgame dungeons until I personally allow it!”

Over my shoulder, I remarked, “Again, you act like endgame raiding is all this game has to offer.” I activated the Ignore command, and silenced his continued rantings against me. When he realized I had done so, he turned his mount and started to run off in a huff.

But not before accepting the other mage into the guild, I noted.

As the game continued, I reached such a high level, I was unable to complete quests without going into dungeons. The guildmaster was true to his threat, I found myself dropped from random groups and actively hunted down in PvP zones. Other guilds would send me invites, but I knew they were social bombs and declined each and every one.

The harassment only increased my resolve to improve my function as a Firemaster spec’d mage. I began going into dungeons solo, just far enough to get the component required for a quest. Turn in the quest, receive better gear and weapons as a reward. Find myself able to venture further and further into the endgame dungeons on my own.

The higher level my character ascended, the more I found the social strata had aligned purely to raiding. Despite the numerous solo quests the game offered, most players had dedicated themselves to the raiding treadmill. No longer were they individuals, they were part of a raiding hive. You either aligned yourself with a hive, or you were cast out into the darkness.

I found myself running into two other solo players often. The game had players from different countries, but never perfected the player to player communication neural layer. Language was often a problem.

The other two players were a barbarian warrior and a templar priest. Two classes that were considered useless for raiding, but necessary for solo playing. The barbarian delivers great damage, but is near useless for protecting a group unless he destroys the enemy before the enemy destroys the healers. The templar also does great damage, and is hard to kill because he can heal himself, but for a group, is a liability because he cannot heal others as fast as he can heal himself.

As I rested outside a dungeon, the barbarian came up to me. His character took on the stereotype appearance of “Conan the Barbarian”. He came up to me, and flexed his muscles under his fur bikini, while I just rolled my eyes at him. He tried speaking to me, but his German was too much for the neural interface to deal with. I pointed to my ears and shook my head.

He nodded, and summoned the glyph interface to appear between us. “[Fire] [Mage] [You] [?]” I nodded. He smiled.

“[Guild] [?]” I shook my head, and tapped “[No] [Guild] [Always] [.]” on the interface.

He looked at me, and nodded his head. “[You] [Epic] [.] [Guild] [Guild] [Say] [You] [Bad] [Player].” (Marking [Guild] twice indicates plural.) At the rising heat on my face, the barbarian laughs. “[Epic] [Gear] [Say] [Epic] [Player] [.]” I calm down, some. Still furious.

He flexes again. I realize his gear is of equal level to my own. I ask him a question using the glyph interface. “[Barbarian] [Warrior] [Party] [One] [?]” Is he a solo player?

“[Barbarian] [Guild] [Never] [.] [Barbarian] [Fun] [.]” Well, that answered that.

“[Barbarian] [Quest] [Here] [?]” He nods and points at me. I nod as I have a quest inside the dungeon also. “[Party] [Two] [?]” He taps on the interface.

I answer by inviting him to join a party with me.

He accepts and I set the loot to “Round Robin.” He immediately changes it to “First Come”. “[My] [Bags] [Full] [.] [You] [Loot] [.]” is his explanation.

Very well then. We enter the dungeon together. This dungeon’s difficulty is set for parties of 10 players of our level. Together, the barbarian and I make short work of the dungeon and the bosses. We never had to use the glyph interface. We were battle hardened delvers, we knew what had to be done. I covered where he was weak at, he covered where I was weak at.

After destroying the dungeon, we went to the nearest town to claim our prize and recover. He disappeared from me for a while, but I soon caught up to him. I summoned the glyph interface between us.

“[Bags] [Empty] [?] [Your] [Loot] [Here] [.]” He looked at me, the neural interface capturing his look of surprise perfectly. He looked over the glyphs for symbols that could capture his desired answer, but there were none. Instead, he walked through the floating symbols and grasped my forearm securely. The grip of a friend.

We shared the loot, and placed each other on our friend’s list. After a few more dungeons, we were approached by the third player, a templar priest.

I spoke English, the barbarian spoke German, and the templar priest spoke Chinese. At the first “Ni hao” out of him, I summoned the glyph interface between the three of us. It took some word placement wrangling to get a basic understanding, but eventually it was clear the three of us had been blacklisted by various guilds for the crime of being ourselves. Individually, we weren’t impeded in our solo playing by the blacklisting, as we each were more concerned with enjoying our gaming, than trying to achieve some mystical level of dps as promised by the UberLeetGuide.

The three of us partied together often. Gaining higher and higher levels of gear, venturing further and further into dungeons that were supposed to take twenty of our peers to even defeat the guardian outside the doors.

As we continued, I noted that the rewards from the solo quests were often of better quality than the scraps of loot won by raiding. Where up to a hundred people would be begging, politicking, and manipulating for the chance of one piece of advanced level gear, my two outsider peers and I were gaining whole sets of legendary level armor and weapons.

Soon, the three of us had passed the server’s top guilds in advancement. Other players asked us to create our own guild, so they could join in. Often the same players that asked this of us, would follow their request with bragging of following a solo player’s guide in the UberLeetGuide. When I asked my two peers the question of “[Guild] [Together] [?]”, the response from both of them was always “[Guild] [Together] [Never] [!] [lol]”. Then we would have a good laugh and dismiss the idea entirely. Other players didn’t understand why we refused to join the guild grind.

And still, we enjoyed ourselves. Even when we took on a boss too hard for us, we enjoyed ourselves. The other players would point and laugh as we literally limped back to the nearest town, our armor in tatters, leaning on each other for support. Then they note we were laughing too, and shake their heads in confusion.

We heard the rumors about us three. That we had found bugs in the game, and were exploiting them. We had individually and collectively been investigated and followed by game developers. Watching to see how we had made our achievements. We were found innocent of all charges, and the developers made it publicly known all our gear and treasures were rightfully won in quests and battles.

But because our methods went counter to the idea of Guilds For Life, the guildmasters continued lambasting us to their captive audiences. It was obvious, they said, the three of us had some type of inside help by the gamemasters. There was no way, outside of the guild system, that we three outsiders could have achieved so much unless we had cheated. And so, their guild members doubled their efforts to catch up to us using raids, and declared solo quests to be of no use.

We three continued our advancement through the game’s offerings. We had earned such legendary gear that we were near unstoppable in PvP. We took from challenging other players, to dueling amongst ourselves. And even then, it got to the point where a duel could take hours unless a lucky strike was delivered.

So we dedicated ourselves to endgame achievements. The very dungeons that we weren’t supposed to enter, much less overcome, fell to our might, one by one. In the unofficial rankings, the guild lost their glamor, one by one, as we passed them in achievements. I understood there was much trouble, as guildmembers had been watching us and asking why they couldn’t duplicate our advancement. In the top five guilds, pogroms had started, purging the guilds of doubters and disbelievers. The disadvantage of guildmembership was quickly revealed. If expelled from a guild, all levels, gear, and monies gained while in the guild is stripped from your character. Guild for life, indeed.

But we three ignored the social conflict in the guilds, and continued forward in our solo play. We now had one final prize to claim before us. The final dungeon, with the final boss. If we cleared this, then we would have “won” the game. No one, in any of the servers, had even gained the capability to step inside the final dungeon, much less have a shot at killing the final boss. When word got out that each of us had a key into the final dungeon, the guilds, that had blacklisted us before, were now falling over each other in courting us.

Since only one person in your party/raid group needs to have a key for the entire group to gain entry, they felt sacrificing one slot to an off-spec player was worth the chance to prove 99 raiders could do the job. The guilds tried their best to split us up. But our commitment to each other was greater than the damned praises they showered on us.

I was running out of time, and I knew it. There was something pressing offline, away from the game, and I would have to immediately log out if it came up, leaving them in the dungeon alone. “[Life] [>] [Game] [.]” Was the templar’s reply. The barbarian nodded.

“[Try] [?]” was my question to them. They both gave the “thumb’s up” gesture.

Fully prepared, the three of us entered the final dungeon. We fought, and cried, and cursed, and fought. The mobs in the final dungeon forced us to slow down and use strategy for each fight, but we never gave up. We pressed on, even dispatching the mid-bosses. We had close calls, but we survived. Finally, we made it to the final boss, a god-like projection. The barbarian held out his fist, thumb out to the side, the templar and I did the same. He counted to three and shifted his thumb upward. The templar and I did the same. We were in agreement, then. We prepared ourselves the best we could, then jumped onto the terrace where the god-like dungeon boss waited for us.

He roared his indignation, for us mere mortals to despoil his domain. His first strike tossed the barbarian against the far wall, destroying a full third of the warrior’s life bar in the process. The fray continued, the templar barely able to keep the warrior alive, even with my fire-to-health spells helping. (There were braziers on the terrace, where a Firemaster could tap to help heal others.) But slowly, determinedly, we were able to chip away at the boss’s health. When he dropped to 90% of full health, we cheered at the minor accomplishment.

“Fools! You think you can hurt a God?! Before, I merely endured you. But now, I shall reveal my might!” His bellowing shook us to the bones.

He looked at me. LOOKED at me. And I was polymorphed. Into a duck. A. Duck. Motherfucking Quack. It’s a good thing a Firemaster doesn’t need hands for most of my spells, unlike an Airmaster that would be completely helpless at the shift.

The god-boss brought both hands forward and pushed at the barbarian. He fell down, losing his battleaxe in the process. The god-boss stomped on the ground, causing a ground-fracturing earthquake to ripple across the terrace. The quake destroyed the barbarian, “killing” him and removing him from play.

The templar jumped into the air just as the ripple passed underneath him. He was still harmed when he fell back onto the now jagged ground, but not terribly so. Not until the god-boss roared at the templar, cursing him. The templar’s healing spells and damage spells effects were reversed. But I was unable to warn him, flying around as a duck. I quacked in vain. The templar tried to heal himself, and rent his own body into pieces.

The god-boss threw shafts of light at me, but because of my smaller body, he missed! Mostly. I lost a lot of feathers, and was wounded. I continued my fire assault, turning the braziers into great pillars of flame that attacked the surroundings and even the throne of the god-boss. I could hear over voice chat, my two companions cheering me on in their native languages, as they watched the proceedings in ghost form.

I noted the god-boss really wasn’t trying to hurt me. It was as if he just wanted to keep me in the air. Just as I realized the intent, the polymorph spell on me wore off. Back to human form I shifted. At 50 feet in the air above broken stones. I am not an Airmaster, I can’t fly as a human. Oops. My body broke on the rocks as the god-boss gloated over our demise.

A sudden fall of darkness, then a sudden embrace of light. I and my two companions have respawned outside the entrance of the dungeon. Our elite, legendary gear broken beyond repair. Our weapons nothing more than shattered slivers in our hands. We wore the marks of battle, black eyes, missing hair, ripped clothes. We looked at each other, and burst out into great peals of laughter. It will take us weeks to regain the equipment we had lost, but none of that mattered. We three had dared to go where the guilds told us we could never go. We didn’t expect to win the battle. Just knocking down the god-boss to 90% of health was a world first, worthy of bragging in itself. We high-fived each other, picked each other up, and began the limping ride back to town.

The guilds blocked our way. Physically blocking the twisting mountain lane that lead up to the temple that was the final dungeon. They had assembled to see if we would succeed, and when we didn’t, to mock us for our failure. The more derision they heaped upon us, the more we laughed at them. It was just a game. Why all the drama?

They realized we were effectively naked and helpless. We realized we were in a PvP zone. In one shout, the more hostile players charged at us, determined to whip our asses and teach us a lesson. We three stood our ground, knowing we were defenseless and all but beaten.

Just before the first volleys reached us, there was a great flash of light and a ground shaking rumble. Everyone was knocked to the ground and all spells and buffs rendered useless. I recognized the light and rumble from the god-boss battle.

All assembled looked up at the light source. My two companions and I realized the importance of what we saw, but said nothing. Instead, we struggled to our knees and bowed before the Game Master.

Some of the assembled guilds followed suit, kneeling in respect to the Game Master. Some just stood there before being dragged to their knees by their fellows.

“I have heard the cries of the denizens of this land. I have watched from my throne as events unfolded before me. And I have seen enough!” The Game Master’s appearance was identical to the god-boss of the final dungeon. I wondered if the Game Master WAS the boss of the final dungeon. The luminescent man floated above all our heads, the light coming from his body so bright, the sun dimmed in comparison. It was hard to remember this was only a game, and I was only experiencing the effects of a full neural interface with my visual processing center.

“I have heard the petitions of the guild masters, that these three mortals…” We three found ourselves suddenly imprisoned, encircled by great shafts of light. “These three mortals have taken on powers not meant for the common races. That they seek to undo the very structures that underpin the Five Worlds!”

Great. The Game Master is a RPG nut. We’re screwed.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see the various guildmasters smiling in apparent triumph. Their gloating fueled my anger. We didn’t cheat. We didn’t use any exploits. We earned every achievement with determination and legitimate playing. The idea that they would finally triumph over us by Machiavellian politics made staying connected to the neural interface very hard.

I never wanted to rage-quit so much in my entire life.

I glanced at my companions. I knew they were hearing the GM’s words in their native language. The barely checked rage on their faces echoed mine. Without saying a word, I knew they had resolved to stay and see this to the end. As did I.

“I have watched as they made entry into the final temple. I have watched as they continued on to the Usurper and challenged him as he sat on his throne. And I watched as the Usurper destroyed them for their impetuousness.”

I heard a whisper, off to the side, “Enough with the dramatics, ban their asses already!”

“I too have judged them.” The Game Master’s voice was booming in my ears. “I find their spirit worthy of ascension.” Wait. What? That’s not in the game mechanics. “Let it be known through out the Five Worlds! I claim these three adventurers, as my own!” The Game Master extends a hand towards us, and the light spears that imprisoned us now wrapped around us. The light recedes as fast as it had appeared, but our appearance had been changed.

“Stand, my children. For you have risen above mere mortals.” As the three of us rise from our knees, we notice our ‘wounds’ have been healed. Our gear and weapons have been replaced. A quick check of my character sheet shows I do not even register as a player character anymore. My level is listed as “Epic”. I smell the makings of an world event.

The templar and barbarian also make note of the change. Playing along, we three brush each other off in a great farce. As if we were playing along all this time.

A private message interface appears before my face: {GM:”Do you want to remain a player character? Or become a game master? The developers all agree to invite you and your two companions to become player liaisons.”}

I look at my companions, knowing they have been offered the same status. The three of us turn our backs to the guilds, and hold our fists out, with thumbs extended. The templar counts in Chinese, to three, and in one motion, all three of us extend our thumbs downward. The barbarian whispers, “Finish”, and the templar nods in agreement.

I private message back to the GM, {“No, we want to finish the game. We want to finish what we started.”}

We turn to face the assembled guilds again. Hefting our newly forged weapons, we prepare for battle against them.

Another private message from the GM: {“You three are good at acting. World Event is about to start. Adlib your response.”}

With a combined chuckle, we three step into a battle ready position. It would appear we are about to charge the assembled guilds with the might of GM-level gear.

When, suddenly…

“NO! They are MINE!” From the final dungeon behind us, there is a roar of displeasure and anger. We three turn to see the god-boss Usurper of the final dungeon, a doppelganger of the Game Master, emerge from the shattered doors. “They will NOT ascend. They dare to confront ME, in MY DOMAIN! I lay claim to their very souls!” The god-boss’s appearance has been altered since our futile assault. He now sports a prominent scar on his face. Where one of my fire spells had successfully damaged him. “See, what they have done to me! This world is not yours! I will rend it as punishment for their defiance of my order!”

We three glance at each other, wondering what to do, how to respond, when the Game Master yells back, “These three are mine, they are my champions!” Oh, yea. It’s on now.

With a battle cry, the three of us charge the god-boss with our GM-level gear. We knew full well that we wouldn’t be able to lay a finger on the Usurper. We knew the event’s outcome had already been scripted, and we were the only players on the stage that didn’t know the ending. Once within spell range, the templar and I join our spells in a assault of holy fire. The barbarian continues forward, swinging his axe as if he would fell a mighty tree.

Behind us, the assembled players realized this was a world event, and charged forward in the chance to participate. But the script was not written to include them.

The god-boss roared, an audio assault that blew us back. He worked a spell of darkness and in the blink of an eye, my level was reduced from GM to a new cap that was 10 levels higher than the previous. The level of my gear was also reduced from GM to a new level, that was also higher than any previous player attainable gear. I knew my two companions also suffered the same “downgrading” fate.

“So much for your champions! They are mere mortals, what can they do to me? Behold, I have my own champions!” Now standing before the god-boss Usurper were three doppelgangers of myself and my companions. The NPCs had our faces, and wore the GM-level gear we had worn before. But their eyes were the blank white of puppets.

The Usurper shakes his fist at the Game Master. “I said their souls belong to me. You can keep the worthless husks, what can they do to me now? Their very essence now guards ME. You will not unseat me as God of the Five Worlds. Not now, not ever!”

The Usurper now addresses the other players. “You would to enter here? Come then. If you succeed in surviving to my chamber, my warrior waits for you!” The white-eyed NPC hefts his axe menacingly. “If you survive him, my priest waits for you. Perhaps he will bless you with a quick death.” The white-eyed NPC priest calls forth an menacing aura around him. “If you survive him, my magistrix will incinerate you with her scorn.” My white-eyed NPC double, spits on the ground, a fire whirl erupts from it.

“If you survive her, well, let’s make it interesting. You will then have to face ALL THREE! I survived their assault. Can you?” Chuckling, the god-boss Usurper enters the final dungeon. The three new NPC mini-bosses make threatening gestures at us, then follows the god-boss inside.

The Game Master decries the loss of his champions, then addresses us again as part of the world event. “He claims to have your souls, he has but the shadows of them. Behold, I have restored your armor and weapons. These shall never break nor tarnish. To defeat the usurper, you must now defeat yourselves. Think you capable, or shall I find new champions?”

In our native tongues, we three bend the knee to the Game Master, and declare ourselves capable.

The Game Master points to the guilds still assembled behind us. “There are those that would say you are not. If they prove themselves, they shall replace you. Still you think yourselves capable?”

In one voice, I and my two companions declare ourselves the Game Master’s champions. The cry from the assembly behind us is near deafening.

One last private message from the Game Master: {“To give the guildmasters time to cool off, I suggest you three log out of the game for a while. You three are still player characters, and if the guilds work hard enough, they can earn the gear I’ve given you. I look forward to watching you assault the Usurper again.”}

It is here, after all was said and done, that I realize I am dreaming and achieve lucidity. I can feel the passage of time in my bones, and know that my alarm is going to go off soon.

The Game Master disappears. Leaving us three on the narrow ledge, and the assembled players below. I tell the barbarian, “[Time] [Done] [Offline] [2] [Day] [.]”. The barbarian waves goodbye. The templar glyphs “[Where] [Mage] [Go] [?]”. The barbarian answers, [Offline]. The templar asks [Later] [?], and is answered by [Later] [.]. We wave our farewells to each other, and logout of the game. When I logged out, I woke up in my bed.

~~~

I had tweeted a bit about the dream this morning when I got up. I really didn’t think it of much importance, of any importance. But the more I turned over “the game’s” events, the more I saw a very clear lesson staring me in the face. As such, it is written up.

Make of it, what you may.