“Let’s look at the last topic of the day.” Jimmy Parker, the news anchor of VLN, glanced at the tab in his hands. “Oh! It’s a big one. One of the biggest concerns the players have about the current state of the game.” He wore his usual easy smile as he looked at the woman sitting on a cushioned chair opposite to him. “It’s about fast travel. The lack of it to be exact.”
“I see.” Vanessa Norton nodded, flinging her shoulder-length hair away from her glasses. She’d been expecting it to come up sooner or later, but they sure saved the best for the last.
“So what do they want to know?” she asked.
Jimmy gestured at the holographic screen floating beside them just as a giant picture of an antiquated drawing of a map replaced the logo of the news channel.
The map of Ardaea, the game world of Finitum.
Except for about ten per cent of the whole picture at one side of the map, a curtain of light grey mist shrouded the rest of the land.
“In the seven months since its launch, players only managed to explore about ten per cent of the entire map. It’s even more amazing if you consider the in-game time. We can only imagine how much time exploring the entire map would take.”
Vanessa’s eyes narrowed, skimming through the image. “That’s not the entire map though.”
Jimmy gaped at her. It took him a moment to find the words. “It isn’t?”
Vanessa smiled lightly. “No. There are even more places to explore other than the main map. Various realms. There’s some information about that on the official website,” she said, shrugging. “Finitum is a big game in every sense of the word.”
“Uh.” Jimmy rubbed his palm, feeling unprofessionally unsettled. Should’ve done my homework. He looked at his tab again to settle his mind. “Right! And that’s where the issue is. Even the explored part is a big area to cover, and travelling to particularly long distances could take months in real-world time. Not to mention, the perception of time in the game is about the same as reality.” He crossed his fingers in front of him.
“The lack of a fast travel system is one of the biggest issues with the game. At least according to the players we've interviewed. It’s certainly one of the most discussed topics in the forums. The biggest question they have is, are there plans to introduce fast travel in the game in future updates? And if there is, then when?”
“Never. We have no intention of introducing it,” Vanessa said, and Jimmy’s eyes widened. Not the answer he was expecting. He frowned, about to confirm her answer, but she wasn’t done yet. “Because there is no need to ‘introduce it’. It’s already an existing feature within the game.”
Vanessa nodded. “And there won’t be any future updates. Not for this feature or for any other for that matter. Finitum already has all the features it needs.” It was scary, being part of the development team of Finitum and experiencing the extreme amount of work and research that went in, and all that within only two years, when any other quality VR game could take anywhere from five years to a decade.
M was a diabolical genius without a peer.
“The game is a complete product with little room for further improvement,” she said.
“Really?” Jimmy asked, doubtful. Where are those features? “Well, the unprecedented full-dive VR experience, bug-free gameplay, the revolutionary AI; Finitum more than lives up to being a fantastic experience. We can’t deny that, but the lack of gameplay features that are usually expected from these types of games makes it, for the lack of a better word, ‘hard’ to play,” he said as a graph replaced the map on the screen.
A graph of Finitum’s popularity.
“As you can see, after the hype of the initial release, Finitum’s popularity has been on the fall recently. It could drop off from its place as the world’s third popular game at any moment. And it’s all because of its lack of features you claim already exists in the game.”
Vanessa sighed. If the boss didn’t give two shits about popularity, who was she to care? Well, she at least had to show she did.
“The features are locked,” she said.
“Yup. For example, the access to races.” She righted her glasses with the tip of her little finger. “The world of the game is a self-sustaining one, not much different from reality. We want to let the events develop on their own, so we have a non-interference policy. As for the features, unlike other games, instead of introducing them through updates or DLCs, we’ve already included them in the game before its release,” she said with a calm smile hanging on her lips.
“But they’re locked?”
Vanessa nodded. “They aren’t accessible from the beginning, to be precise.”
“Are you talking about paid access?” Jimmy raised an eyebrow. As a gamer himself, that notion didn’t please him. “Micro-transaction or something similar?”
“No, nothing like that.” Vanessa chuckled. “Just like the race options, the key to unlocking those features are hidden within the game. The players have the complete freedom to discover and unlock them at any time. Basically, they’re the ones who can bring worldwide changes to the game.”
Vanessa shrugged, tucking a few strands of hair behind her ears. “The clues are scattered throughout the whole world. Some of the more advanced players already pursuing those hidden storylines.”
Chitra hummed thoughtfully, closing the ongoing interview with a nudge of her mind. Interesting... maybe? She could definitely see the appeal for a devout gamer like Arun, but for her... the interview held little interest. Instead, it took away from her recent favourite pastime, surfing the net from her capsule. The device had many other uses, but nothing fascinated her like exploring the various sites scattered throughout the thoughtnet.
All the surfing she’d done before was audio surfing for studying and maybe a bit of music, and that was it. As for audiobooks, she’d always preferred the feel of Braille on paper under her fingertips more. But now... an entirely new horizon had opened up to her, helping her step out of that seamless world of darkness into the broader world.
She understood why kids her age basically couldn’t live without thoughtnet in the current world.
Well, some things were less entertaining than the others, though. For example, the interview.
She had no plans to leave Caramis anytime soon. So Arun, Rose and Rahul had more chances of stumbling upon those ‘features’ than her. Of course, there were things she too wanted to find in the game, but those had nothing to do with the subject of this interview.
She kept her thoughts abstract, scrolling through the forum posts half-heartedly. The beast egg she got; she had a hunch it had something to do with pets and stuff, but maybe there’d be some info here. As for asking those three...
She shook her head. No need to make them wonder where she got it. They were coming to rescue her. And she really wanted to see the look on their faces when they reached her.
Bet it’d be priceless.
The only problem was, one, she had no clue where to find that info, and two, there were too many things to distract her from her research. The forum section, for example. So many new and interesting topics by other users. She could spend hours going through them. The thread Arun had told her about, the one about Caramis’s poor reputation was also there.
[Never ‘ever’ ever EVER start at Caramis.
Chitra’s experience at the village might not have been great, but the raw hate this guy’s thread radiated was caustic. He’d bashed the place in every possible way he could think of. He wasn’t alone, either. Dozens of reply posts fuelled his hatred, giving it solid ground to stand on. A few started at Caramis, some travelled there out of curiosity, but they all had something bad to say. As for exceptions, they were rare, and hardly something to be categorized as ‘good’.
The whole southern section of Ardaea had always been a hard place to play on because of the general dislike towards players among the NPC, but only Caramis got a reputation as ‘worthless’.
The people inside either didn’t give any quests or gave ones that were nearly impossible to complete for measly rewards. Even the monsters outside started from level ten, so level one starters were basically screwed. So ‘stay away from Caramis’ was the general consensus among players.
It isn’t that bad, is it?
Chitra felt a bit defensive. She had also faced the ‘Caramisian’ brand of prejudice. Though for her, it was nothing like the posts in the forum. Well, she hadn’t tried talking to the villagers much, so maybe...
But there are nice people in Caramis too.
At least the ones she’d interacted with were decent. Thoringar, Greyvern, Elsa...
Should she... write something, maybe?
Chitra Exhaled slowly. Her eyes hovered above the reply button for a bit before she opened it. The silent cursor fidgeted on the upper left corner of the blank white page, anxiously waiting for her words, but...
What should she write? How would she even begin?
She tapped her chin, making a few combinations of words in her head. “Like that, or…” She stopped, staring at the page for a few gruelling minutes before shaking her head.
“That doesn’t sound right,” she muttered, frowning at herself. Writing a few words shouldn’t be this difficult.
Am I a dimwit?
She gritted her teeth, pinching her temples forcefully, hoping to squeeze out some ideas from her brain. Eloquence wasn’t her favourite game, at least not for a while. She used to write some songs and poetry when she was younger, but that’d stopped for a long time now. Her current reserve of words was… embarrassing.
Drawing a few slow breaths, she calmed her mind a bit before concentrating again. It took another five minutes before she finally had something that could be decent. She nudged the words from her mind to the page.
“I started at Caramis. And—”
She stopped, biting her lips as she stared at the words.
Erasing the words, she started again. This time, she went a good five sentences before her brain ground to a screeching halt.
This doesn’t feel good.
She erased again, restarting. After a while, she erased the words once more. Erasing, restarting, erasing, restarting– went on for a good two-and-a-half-hour until her final manuscript got done. A full two thousand words of it. She read it again and again, looking for anything to be dissatisfied with, but the writing was decent enough. It had good structure, read nicely, had sound arguments on both the pros and cons of Caramis, at least the ones she’d noticed, and most importantly, it satisfied her.
She outdid herself.
Smiling, she gave herself a silent nod of approval.
Now, post it…
Her eyes hovered over the [Post] option at the corner of the page. She paused, noticing the [Cancel] button beside it. Once again, she took a glance at the other posts above.
Her throat felt dry.
She didn’t know any of these people! And to just barge in on a conversation like that...
Stop being such a baby! A little voice in the back of her mind shouted at her. It’s not barging in when you are a part of it. You have every right to comment.
Yes! She had every right!
Chitra’s jaws tightened. She’d faced down monsters several times stronger than her, survived against them, defeated them. She could post on a forum. Should be easy.
She inhaled, taking another look at her post, and scrunched her brows.
It’s too long.
Since she decided to do it, she had to do it properly. And instead of a massive essay full of unnecessary words, a concise post would be a lot better. Nodding, she erased the post again, intending to start over.
By the way, what time is it?
She took a small glance at the time on the lower right corner of the screen.
Her eyes widened. Wasn’t it 11:30 ish when she opened the thread? How come she spent so much time? Damn! She had no time for another post. Her biology tutor would arrive in fifteen minutes! She immediately shut the thread close, and as soon as she did, a heavy stone lifted from her heart.
The relief was intense enough to shock her. She’d really been dreading making a post this much? Really?
She shook her head, about to exit the forum section, but something else caught her eyes. A relatively new thread with over a hundred views, but only five replies.
Chitra frowned. Did she read that right? She gave it another careful look.
[Can playing Finitum give you superpowers?
Um… what? Superpowers? Was this one of those legendary clickbaits?
But the title was so... intriguing!
Chitra’s palms itched to take the bait.
Beep! Beep! Beep!
The sound startled her. The door alarm! She’d set it to inform her if someone was at the door while she was in the capsule. And the timing... her tutor must be here already.
Chitra sighed, giving the thread one last glance before ordering the capsule shut with her mind.
And once again, she embraced the ever-familiar darkness.
The midnight darkness surrounded the village of Caramis like a sea of pitch black. The time was, for most villagers, to be in their beds. The time when the village should fall silent, and the surrounding jungle would wake to the babble of the beasts of the night. Usually, that would be the case.
But for the past few nights, the natural order of things had reversed.
The forest was silent, the village awash with the noise of people moving, talking, working–no less noisy than the day, though a tense mood lingered above the din. Most people, except for the children who their parents forced into sleep, were wide awake, alert, and battle-ready.
Lamp posts, torches, lanterns made pools of yellow light everywhere. Guards and villagers alike gathered on top of the walls, wearing armours and wielding weapons that were losing their edge after three days of constant battle. Still, they kept their fatigued bodies upright, fretful eyes warding off sleep, fixed on the silent wilderness outside.
And from the darkness, eyes aflame with madness and frenzy glared back at them.