Excerpt from NPC (#2)
A continuation of last week’s excerpt.
The landslides were just the beginning.
Kurt spent more time riding Noodles around the Dragon Tamer realm helping other NPCs save trapped players and their avatars in the recent week than he ever had in the months that the game had been open to the public. From avalanches in the frozen tundra in the northwest to quicksand and sticky swamps in the southeast, the NPCs had their virtual hands full. Kurt rarely saw Animus. When he did get a chance to see the moderator, it was she who found him just to ask for a brief update on the troubles that had been happening around the game. Kurt didn’t think too much of it. Rather, he was busy with his own duties.
Such as responding to a call with other NPCs from avatars stranded in the middle of the sea with too-small dragon partners to help them get back to shore.
“What happened?” Leslie was the first NPC to call down to the players clinging to a slowly sinking ship. It seemed to be a party with about half a dozen players, some with full-grown element dragons but most with Spirit dragons getting ready to evolve.
The player – username Nitrogue – with the largest dragon, an Earth dragon with the name Goliath, spoke up from the ship’s bow. “We hit some of the squid monsters. Our dragons fought ’em off, but not before they cracked a hole in the boat. We’re too far from shore to swim without drowning and some of our dragons aren’t big enough to carry even one person let alone two.”
“Where did you think you were going with such young dragons in the first place?” Leslie snapped. Kurt brought Noodles around to the front of the ship, allowing a couple of the avatars to cling to his dragon rather than the floating debris. Another Water dragon master NPC, Simon, did the same.
“We wanted to explore the other islands on the other side of the sea,” Nitrogue said, pointing to the pixilated landmasses that were off in the distance.
“You didn’t happen to think you were too inexperienced?” Leslie asked. She climbed up as close to the head of her large Earth dragon so two of the avatars with Spirit dragons could sit on Rosie’s back. “If your dragons are Spirits around here in the neutral zone, what makes you think you won’t end up getting your butt kicked and respawning back here?”
Nitrogue huffed as he perched atop of his own dragon after being sure that the rest of the players were secure on their dragons or hitching a ride with an NPC and his or her dragon. “Look, it was supposed to be a challenge. We’re just trying to give this game a self-imposed difficulty setting and seeing how long we’d survive in an unknown environment.”
“Are the monsters not sufficient enough of a challenge for you?” Kurt asked.
“The monsters are fine,” Nitrogue said. “It’s cool to be able to defeat them and defend the realm and whatever. It’s just that…” The player trailed off and didn’t continue until Kurt turned around, silently encouraging the player to speak. “You NPCs are cool and all, and there’s no telling how long we would have been stranded in the ocean like that, but most MMORPGs that I’ve played have the NPCs in situations where they need to be saved by the players. Not the other way around, you know? Certainly not with NPCs that know that they exist only in a game.”
Kurt glanced at Leslie, but the female non-playable character shook her head at Nitrogue’s response. “Sorry you feel that way,” Leslie responded with a tone that sounded as if she was anything but. “I bet the administrators thought the same as well when they first started the game, but with the sheer amount of players that got into trouble with stupid ideas like you guys, they needed a few extra hands.”
“Maybe something’s wrong with the game then,” Nitrogue said, “if the administrators need so many self-aware NPCs.”
“What could be wrong?” Kurt asked gently.
“I don’t know.” Nitrogue shrugged. “The difficulty settings?”
“If it’s difficult enough,” Leslie retorted, “then you wouldn’t have needed to go off into the ocean on a sinking ship.”
That effectively ended all conversation until the group returned to the main land. There Nitrogue and his party gave the NPCs a grudging thank you before they went off toward the Central Hub.
“I don’t understand,” Kurt said as the NPCs watched the players go. “What could be wrong with Dragon Tamer?”
Leslie scratched the back of her head. “Not sure about that,” she said. “Seems like some of the more ambitious players need something to reach for that have more to do with them than with natural disasters in the environment. Maybe we should see if Gears or Animus is on.”
“I haven’t seen either of them in a while,” Kurt said. He gave Noodles’ neck a rub before directing her to follow Leslie and Rosie.
“I know his favorite spot in the Wildlands,” Leslie said. “If he’s on, he’ll be there.”
“How often do you see him?” Kurt asked.
“Probably about as often as you would see Animus,” Leslie said, glancing back at him. “You see her far more often than you see Gears, right?”
“That’s true,” Kurt said. “We tend to find each other around the landscapes that cater more to Water and Wind dragons, while Gears and yourself—”
“We’re more Fire and Earth,” she finished for him. “It works out, I guess. Certain NPCs reporting to certain administrators. Makes sense.”
Kurt merely nodded in response and the rest of the ride to the Wildlands was silent. Eventually, the pair of NPCs landed at the edge of the Labyrinth that looked out over the Wildlands.
The Wildlands had an appropriate name. While the landscape didn’t have quite enough trees to be called a forest, it was rather green and brown with foliage. Thorny and sticky bushes and undergrowth were a favorite hiding spots for the monsters that plagued the area, and it granted those who wished for their Spirit hatchling to grow into an Earth element dragon plenty of opportunities to gain experience. There were areas spotted with barren earth, rich in yellows and reds in color, which boasted sandy terrains and valleys, generally hiding quicksand if one was not swift on his or her feet. While Kurt had some experience in the Wildlands, he was more than content to follow Leslie’s footsteps obediently.
Leslie confidently strode through the Wildlands, finding paths and easier roads to follow rather than the crude trails that most players and NPCs, Kurt himself included, would have taken. She deftly stepped over quicksand spots and Kurt did his best to mimic her footsteps. He was proud that Noodles had to pull him out of a tight spot only once. It wasn’t too long that Leslie pulled back a curtain of vines to reveal a small cave lit with fireflies.
“Just follow the path,” Leslie said, allowing Kurt to go first. Noodles shrunk down to fit in Kurt’s arms and he absently stroked her back as he marveled at the colorful glows around him. The cave was simple to navigate with enough of the bugs to light the path, even as they began to dwindle in number. When Kurt passed the last violet-hued firefly, the pathway became brighter as they emerged into a grassy clearing.
“What is this place?” Kurt asked as Leslie stepped up beside him. Rosie was perched atop of her head.
“Don’t think it has a name,” Leslie admitted after pausing to no doubt run through her memory files. With a quirked smile to Kurt, she added, “It’s probably some little nook that Gears added to the game at the last minute to give himself a spot to work from.”
Kurt shared her smile as he followed her down into the clearing. In the middle of the area were a couple of rather large trees. In between them was an equally large hammock stretched across, large enough for the giant Earth dragon to comfortable lay down and take a snooze at full size. Kurt realized that the Earth dragon was Gears’ dragon Soreth and, upon inspecting the creature closer, Kurt realized that there was Gears himself lounging against Soreth’s neck.
Holographic images with bits and pieces of code were in front of the Dragon Tamer’s administrator as he typed away on a matching keyboard. The images were created from varying shades of green and gray, with their source emitting from the goggles obscuring Gears’ face. Every so often Gears would touch the holographic screen and flip or swipe it to reveal another page of code and programming before continuing to type away.
Despite how absorbed he appeared to be in his work, Gears somehow had noticed that Leslie and Kurt had entered his hideaway. Without looking down at them, Gears smiled and greeted them with, “Hello. Is there something I can do for you?”
“We just rescued a bunch of stupid players,” Leslie said, getting right down to the point. Her choice of words made Gears glance down at them, one dark eyebrow rising from behind his avatar’s goggles before he pushed the goggles up to rest at the top of his forehead.
Leslie elaborated. “A few of us caught a literal S.O.S. message and found half a dozen avatars clinging to a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean. Players claimed that they wanted to try a self-imposed difficulty challenge or something.”
“Maybe I should up the levels of some of the monsters, then,” Gears said. “It can’t be too much or too close to the Central Hub and the starting players, of course, but—”
“We’re not sure if it’s just that,” Kurt said. Soreth woke up and snaked down to the ground, allowing Gears to hop off and stand in front of the NPCs. The administrator had a shorter avatar than either of the two NPCs and he didn’t seem to mind looking up at Kurt and Leslie.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” Gears said.
“The players that we rescued,” Kurt continued, “said something about how strange it was that us non-playable characters are this self-aware and fully capable of defending ourselves. Apparently it is not the norm in a video game for the non-playable characters to rescue the players. Generally it’s the other way around.”
“That’s true,” Gears said with a nod. “In all honesty, Animus and I hadn’t meant for you all to be this smart, but I think of it as a good thing. We have less to worry about with you NPCs around to help take care of the realm, and I don’t like creating NPCs just for the sole purpose of having them routinely get into trouble for the sake of players’ quests.”
“The players don’t feel the same way,” Leslie pointed out. She crossed her arms, leaning against one of the area’s large trees. “What should we do about it? I don’t like the idea of pandering to them, but you can change the way I feel if you need to.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Gears said.
“Why not?” Kurt found himself asking.
Gears tilted his head, floundering a bit from the question. “Your personalities evolved from the simple two or three traits that Animus and I had originally programmed into you. It wouldn’t be fair to take that away from you.”
“While I appreciate the sentiment,” Leslie said, “you’re the big boss. It really doesn’t matter to us what you do to our programming. We don’t have a choice.”
“Yes you do,” Gears insisted. “That’s why I don’t want to make changes to your code unless you’re okay with it.”
“I am okay with it, though,” Leslie said. “Do whatever you want.”
“Not like that,” Gears said with a shake of his head. “The NPCs are the population of this world. It’s real to you guys. We don’t want to change things unless we absolutely have to or it would be for the better for you guys.”
“What about the players?” Kurt asked. “Isn’t the point of this place to create an entertaining and stimulating game play experience for them?”
“Of course it is,” Gears said.
“Logically,” Kurt said, “you should be more concerned with how they feel about the Dragon Tamer realm. Not us.”
Gears rubbed the back of his head. “I… I do understand what you’re saying,” he said. “I still wouldn’t… It wouldn’t feel ethically right to me or to Animus if we messed with your world. You’re more self-aware than we had originally realized…”
“Is that bad?” Kurt asked.
Gears gave him a brief smile. “No, not at all. Getting back to these players that you rescued…”