August 6, 2019
“What’s your name, traveler?”
Shen opened his eyes and found himself on a narrow two-seater rowboat. He was facing an old man who was rowing towards land. Ahead, he could make out a pier with docks and small fishing vessels.
“My name?” Shen said.
“That’s right. I don’t know where you’re from, but you’ll need a name to do well in Thule,” the old man said with a hint of humor in his luminous grey eyes.
Shen thought about it. This appeared to be the way the game determined character names.
“My name is Chryses,” he told the old man after some thought, though he did not make a fist with his left hand and raise it.
“Chryses. Interesting name. Am I pronouncing it correctly?” the old man said, his row stroke never faltering as he spoke.
“Yes, you’ve got it.”
“What brings you to Thule? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“No, not at all,” Shen said. “I’m here to find someone.”
“Oh, how intriguing,” the old man said with a voice tinged with sudden curiosity. “A lover? Or perhaps a nemesis of distant past?”
“A friend,” Shen said, smiling. “He came here about a year ago.”
“All this way just find a friend? Thule is a large continent.”
“He is a close friend. I’ve known him for many years, and… well… It’s kind of a long story, but we’re not the only ones that have lost each other. I need his help find the rest of our… uh group.”
“Mmmm,” the old man said as if digesting the words. “A noble quest. I wish you luck, Chryses.”
“Thanks. I have a feeling I’m going to need it.”
“Have you traveled many distant lands before?”
Shen scratched his chin. Not because there was an itch—it was a DR world after all—but it was a subconscious gesture he made when he had to think for a moment. Was the NPC asking him about his character’s past to set up its backstory, or was he using ‘distant lands’ as a code word for other DR games and asking Shen if he was an experienced DRMMO player? Something about the old mans’ demeanor made Shen think it was the latter.
“I’ve just traveled one place before… I heard it’s similar to Thule, but I don’t know since I haven’t seen Thule yet. I was there for a long time, though, nearly ten years.”
“My, ten years. A long time indeed. What made you leave?”
“Well, the servers got shu—ahem… uh…I mean to say the world was err… destroyed by some um… evil gods.” Shen hoped he was making sense. Either way, he wasn’t about to break the role-playing element of the game with an NPC. “A lot of my uh… people fled and some came here, I think, including my good friend.”
The old man nodded. “Then I hope our lands will be more hospitable and our gods more benevolent.”
He found it interesting that the NPC was making casual conversation. He knew it was an NPC because the government’s Gaming Commission required all games to differentiate between NPCs and live players. Generally, this was a little green marker that permanently appeared above a player’s head. The old man had a grey marker above his.
But the interaction felt significant to Shen because NPCs rarely “made conversation.” They stuck to scripts and predetermined dialogue trees as that were easier for the game’s AI cores to manage. Running active conversations that could flow in any direction depending on where the player took it required significant resources. It was easy enough for a Gamemaster AI to do—Chryses had spoken with the personification of Constellation’s Gamemaster on two occasions. But it was entirely impractical to do on a massive scale with hundreds of thousands of NPCs and millions of players. But if open conversations were limited to just a few NPCs in the game, Shen supposed it wouldn’t be too taxing on the AI’s resources…
He had a thought.
“Hey, um, you wouldn’t happen to know a man by the name of Armont, would you?” Shen said.
This caught the old man by surprise. He nearly stopped rowing. After a moment, he returned to his smooth, strong strokes against the water and said, “No, I’m afraid I do not. I’d tell you if I did.”
Shen nodded and shrugged. “Thanks for trying anyway.”
“Trying?” The old man said, looking perplexed. “I only consulted my memory.”
“Yes, well… some memories run longer than other’s,” Shen said.
The old man stared at Shen, then began to chuckle.
The boat arrived at the docks, and Shen stepped off, while the old man stayed unmovingly in his seat. A translucent game menu popped before Shen, showing him his avatar, experience points, and character level. He noted that he didn’t get a chance to change his appearance. He guessed this would have to be done at a later time.
“Now that you have arrived at Thule, you’ll find that you can improve your body with levels and attributes,” the old man said.
Shen widened the attribute screen with his hands and noticed that there were several attributes he could add points to. They were the standard ones found in most games—Strength, Agility, Endurance, and Constitution.
“Choose wisely which attributes you emphasize, they will determine your strengths and weaknesses in Thule,” the old man said. Then he pointed up the road. “This is the village of Piscapago. The great city of Meridiam is just a few miles north. There are multiple guides and trading posts there and along the way where you can learn more about Thule. If you have companions to meet, I recommend the village circle. That is all. Now I must bid you farewell, traveler.”
“Thanks for all your help,” Shen said and turned to leave.
“One moment, don’t forget your belongings!” The old man threw Shen a rucksack tied to a sheathed short sword.
He caught it with an “oof” and said, “Oh yeah, I nearly forgot. Thanks again!”
The old man nodded and began to row away. Shen looked out at the ocean and saw no other lands in the distant. He wondered where the old man was going. Beside him, he noticed other players appearing on the docks. He did not see any other rowboats, but Shen knew they must have arrived the same way.
He had thought that the conversation on the rowboat proved the old man’s identity—he was the AI’s Gamemaster, the conscious decision-making artificial intelligence that ran the entire game. The kind that he and Laaysa would have to spend 300,000 credits a month to get one of their own. But now he was certain of it. The chance to speak to the GameMaster had passed, and he would not meet the old man again.
But Shen was okay with that. He had asked the question he wanted to know most. The GameMaster did not know of Armont, and so Shen’s mission would continue.