Chapter 02 – At the threshold of the Portal
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From this point onward, we are starting to enter the fascinating world of fiction. I have no real experience writing, so this will likely be a fun and confusing trip as I discover my style. I hope this'll be as entertaining to you as it will be to me. Also, I’m a game designer, world builder, frequent D&D Game Master, so I may sometimes get lost talking about technical terms. Please provide feedback, so that I can improve!

 

     I turn into my driveway after an uneventful drive home. As usual when it’s cold, the remote control for my garage door is being unresponsive. I discovered a year ago during the coldest days of winter that I can easily fix that by pumping up the heat and placing the remote closer to the heat vents for a minute. The battery must be getting weak, but temperature has a pretty significant impact on their performance (Bonus points -- electric cars are actually very sensitive to both high and low temperature. Batteries perform their best at a specific range.) Once the remote manages to open my garage door, I carefully park inside, and cut the engine. Having an indoor garage is so amazing. Cleaning the driveway is much easier without having to play musical chairs with your car, and not having to get rid of that foot of snow before you can take off in the morning is a huge time saver!

 

     It takes about five seconds after I enter the house through the door from the garage that I hear a little happy chirp and series of light footsteps. Rune, my Siberian tabby, is pretty much rushing to the front door to greet me. As I put my coat and boots off in the wardrobe, he’s very loudly sharpening its claws on the entry mat, which is pretty much his routine when I come home. I drop my GunGale Online messenger bag on the floor and slip into my warm but boring-looking loafers. “How’s my baby? You missed me, didn’t you, Ru-kitten?” Like most Siberians, he is a very vocal cat and answers me with a series of chirps and inquisitive meows. I know he must be bored when I’m at work.

 

     I bend my knees down and signal him to come over. I pick him up as soon as he gets close enough. I think he must be around 4kg at this point (9 pounds). When I had just gotten him, he really didn’t like being picked, but over the last six months, he’s grown more and more accustomed to it. I stand and start carrying him towards the kitchen, cradling him on his back, like a baby, which he doesn’t seem to mind too much. The cutest thing, however, is when I approach one hand close to his body, he’ll immediately latch on it with both front paws and hold to me. Like he just did now, dawwww~. I’m sure this is actually a reflex due to his breed being tree-climbers. Since he’s currently upside down, as if he’s in the middle of falling, he’s most likely just trying to hang on to a branch to prevent the fall. Regardless of the reason, it’s way too adorable for me to stop carrying him like that.

 

     I pet him beneath the chin and wipe the little dried up tears around his eyes. He is always so cooperative when I take care of him, which makes me feel so good. Cat in hand, I make my way past the kitchen into the combination dining-living room. First order of business is to start that download! I sit in my computer chair and free my right arm from Rune's adorables clutches, extracting a small meow of dissatisfaction. My gaming PC is still fairly new, I upgraded it less than a year ago, and the specs and parts were all hand-picked to make a system that suits my precise needs. 

 

     The best parts of my new system are how fast it boots, and how silent it runs. I flip the switch and within seconds, I am greeted by my familiar login screen wallpaper. The reflection of  a cute anime girl with long straight brown hair, reaching to a glass window in front of her, staring straight at it. Or me, as it is. This kind of image evokes in me of those rooms with mirror walls, reflections showing reflections like fractals to infinity. As I hit the still-yet-to-be-truly-discovered [Any Key], the wallpaper blurs itself out, bringing up the user login interface. I hastily enter my password, and the cute black, purple and blue desktop wallpaper replaces my lockscreen.

 

     Ry forwarded me one of his two beta keys earlier. I quickly click the pinned Chrome icon on my taskbar, and find the Gmail bookmark. And since this is such an engrained ritual, I immediately right-click and open all my webcomics in seperate tabs a new window to check and read up later. I still can’t believe how long some of the ones I’m following have been running. EGS is probably the most surprising of the lot! I started reading it some 18 years ago, and the writer is still churning them out daily, as well as bonus non-canon works multiple times a week. Right, I keep getting distracted. Time to tab back to the gmail window, I can check the Penny Arcade funnies later. The unread email “FW: Welcome to Final Fantasy 14pointXI.” sits at the top of my screen in bold letters. Slightly trembling in excitement, I click open the email.

 

“Greetings from everyone at Square-Enix,

We would like to welcome you to the Closed Beta Invite of Final Fantasy 14pointXI!

Please use the following [LINK] to register. 

You can find the client download on the same page after you finish filling the forms and sign the required Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), End-User License Agreement (EULA) and Tester Personality Survey (TPS).

We are looking forward to hearing your comments, feedback and tales of your adventures in the world of Vadæl’n!

 

The FF 14pointXI team.”

     NDA. EULA, and nonsensical project naming conventions. So far, it all looks very legit Square-Enix. I click the only link in the email, which takes me to a new registration system, called “Neovie”. Sigh. They have one for Square-Enix store, then the Square-Members and points system, one for PlayOnline, the service they use for FinalFantasy XI, and finally “Mogstation”, that they use for Final Fantasy XIV. It’s no surprise that they created a totally new one for this project, but it seems like such wasted efforts. Well, I can give them points for being consistent in their inefficiency. 

 

     The name makes some sense to me -- Latin and French for “New” and “Life”, respectively. For an MMORPG, I can see the reasoning behind the name. But for the rest of the world, I struggle how they’ll remember to type something like “www.neovie.com” to add a month of playtime on their account. Oh wells, barrier of entry and user-friendliness aside, if the game is good, I don’t care about the hoops I have to jump through first, usually. But I can already hear some of my RL friends whining to me about it. Whenever I hear them complaining about these things always felt like they just needed an excuse to stop playing MMOs with me. Whatever, I mostly play these games with nerds and weebs like me, not college or work buddies.

 

     Yadda yadda, mouse-wheel scroll all the way to the bottom of EULA. Repeat for NDA. Repeat for yet another EULA that’s somehow different from the first one. Is this one for the server, the game, the service, the company? I’m not even skimming them, let alone reading them. Does anyone actually DO that -- read them? I mean, I don’t think there are nearly that many clauses on a contract to buy a car, and this is simply to play an online game! 

 

     I finally reach the forms where I can put my name and information, and fill out the details on the specs of my computer. I fill both of those, and hit the “Next” button. Come on, show me that download button, will you? Oh, yet more things to fill. A survey? This looks eerily like a personality test. Actually, I’m fairly sure this is a combination of an MBTI and Bartle Test. Given that I’m super interested in the psychology of gamers, I am very familiar with those questions. I have a pretty good understanding of the kind of results I will get if I answer their questions truthfully. I should be an ISTP - Introverted, ObServant, Thinking, Prospective. (But I’m so close to 50/50 on the scales of S/N, T/F and P/J...)

 

     ISTP are also known as “Virtuoso” (I’m part of the Assertive subgenre, as opposed to the Turbulent one) -- and for people who follow Game of Thrones, that’d be Arya Stark. Other popular virtuoso in fiction? Jessica Jones, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Hawkeye. Arya was already enough to make me beam in pride, add Jessica and the rest are just gravy at this point! MBTI makes for fascinating reading, would totally recommend! 

 

     And for the Bartle Test, I’m an ESAK, for sure, with a spread that will look something like 94% Explorer > 66% Socialiser > 34% Achiever > 6% Killer (Yeah, the sum is 200%, because it’s 2 different scales that compete for 100% each). I usually mostly visit the “theorycrafting” side of the Explorer profile, rather than the “must visit every nook and cranny” definition. And my anti-conformist personality trait totally reflects in that score. Bartle Types were created at the dawn of the Virtual World genre, by Doctor Bartle, a game designer and teacher at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. His online blog is a treasure trove of information for any aspiring game designer. If it’s at all a subject you care about, add that to your pile of stuff to check out!

 

     I’m actually pretty surprised that they’re asking Beta Testers to answer those questions (and holy hell, I’m not done yet and I’m over 200 questions in at this point! “Totally agree”, next. “Somewhat agree”, next. “Totally disagree”, this goes fast.) Being able to know if your product satisfies the needs of all 4 Bartle Types, and of all 16 main MBTI types is a good way to have a wide reach, so I applaud Square for such a thorough job with it. I just hope the rest of the testers will take the time needed to fill in the survey, because wow, this is still rather time consuming, even when you’re used to it. I had to let Rune free after the second page, because he was getting restless. Ry poked me a number of times on Hangout, letting me know that he had to run out for groceries before supper. So I was probably not significantly behind him on the process of registering/installing the client yet.

 

     “Thank you for taking the time necessary to fill this survey. This will be very helpful to understand where your feedback is coming from. As a reward for your efforts, we have granted your account the [DedicatedFan] tag, conferring your account with special bonuses! We hope you enjoy your time in Vadæl’n, Clo!” Oh? They even customize their thank you message to the account name? That’s a fairly personal and cute touch. I wonder what kind of special bonus it is. I assume an XP boost for the first ten levels or something like that. That’s the kind of bonuses we got for being Alpha-players in XIV, if memory serves. Oh, and there were those cool boots that made the Sprint ability’s duration as long as the cooldown. Perma-Sprint was nice, until you got your chocobo mount. And was still a nice perk to have in towns.

 

     I raise an eyebrow at the message. Wait, if they give an incentive for completing the survey, was there a skip button? I didn’t see one? Or maybe it was actually a “remind me later”, or “complete survey at a later time” button? I don’t quite remember, but now that I think about it, there was a rather colourful button at the bottom of every page. I guess my brain is so wired to ignore bright and garish-looking UI elements thanks to ever-present ads that I must have dismissed it without even thinking about it. I hate when web pages try to attract my attention to a button, and I only realize after fifteen minutes of searching that they have made their link/button TOO obvious, and it gets filtered out instead. Damn you Brain-of-mine for being too good at what you do?

 

     Oh, lookie here. A huge and gaudy “Download Client Here” icon in the center of the screen. I must say that when the whole webpage is empty and white, then it’s okay to make a “cute” button. A simple URL would have done the trick, but sure, I can click your fancy, candy-colored link instead. The download begins at last, and it looks like this must be for the “minimum playable” build, since it’s only going to take an hour or so. I stand up and type a quick Hangout message to Ry:

  “Pyoron~? Download just started, ETA 1 hour before Chargen can begin. Time to fix supper, and probably play some PuyoTetris, unless you’re home and want to poke a Namielle or two while it’s downloading?”
“Oh? What took the Cloe so long to start the download?”  
  “I apparently didn’t realize you could skip their survey… But they did say they rewarded me with some special perk in exchange. Did the Rythea fill it all?”
“Nah, I skipped it as soon as I could. Download finished, and I started messing with the character creator until I left for errands. Should be done soon.”  
  “Alrighty, I’ll poke you as soon as it’s installed, and you can poke me when you’re home, in case we want to hunt things in MHW then.”
“Sure.”  

     Supper was going to be a simple affair. I am so used to getting home this late, I just open the freezer, and take one of the randomly frozen pre-cooked meals I get at the grocery store. Looks like today it’s Teriyaki pork. That’s good, because it’s one of my favourites, and they’re often sold out. It’s always a struggle to restock enough of them. Close freezer. Remove the cardboard wrapping. Nuke for 4m30 in the microwave. While I’m waiting, I look around for something tasty to munch on. Fake Oreo Cookies? Sure, I can probably okay a small handful of cookies for today. I turn around and see the nearly empty kettle. I take it and start filling it with water. As I wait, I reflect on how shocking it was to me to recently discover younger generations don’t buy electric kettles these days! I know you can boil water on the stove... But an actual kettle makes it so simple when you spontaneously want some hot chocolate, a coffee or some tea! 

 

     I grab a tiny spoon and fork from the nearby drawers, and a cup from the cupboard. Oh, looks like I randomly pulled my “Fairy Tail” themed cup? Hello Erza, Lucy, Natsu and Gray, how are you today? I drop a heaped spoonful of Nescafé Instant coffee in the cup, and then glance at the kettle and microwave, almost making bets on which one will win the race. As I wait, I take one of my cookies and start nibbling on it. I never understood why people care so much if you eat the sweet things before, during or after the meal. Live and let live, and stop getting bothered by the small stuff?

 

     *Sh-tock!* The electric glass keetle’s techno-futuristic blue light turns off as the water reaches boiling temperature (At ninety degrees, water doesn’t boil, and neither does a right angle.) As I could have predicted, it won the race against the microwave. If only I was a betting man. Pour water, add milk. Quickly get the cup out of the way of the cat. Because, as usual, he's trying to come by to smell it and promptly start burying it. Or at least try to. “I know you don’t like the smell of coffee, Rune, but it’s the same as yesterday, and I won’t stop tomorrow, so better get used to it.” I know most people hate instant coffee, but the price is right, and that’s the smell I grew up on -- my parents only drank that stuff, and that’s what coffee IS for me. Those four-to-six dollar double latté grandé di caprachinno tri fromagi or whatever they sell these days do nothing for me. Plus, the point of drinking coffee has never been the taste. It dampens my headaches and helps with concentration. Also, I’m not sure it does anything to keep me awake, honestly. (Insomnia has that job, and it’s a jealous mistress.)

 

     I finish my first cookie, and take a sip of coffee. The microwave is indicating that my meal will be ready in less than a minute, so I fill a bottle of water from the tap and start to set my placemat and tableware for the incoming supper. “Lunch” for me usually means eating out at restaurants. Most often, the focus being on the speed of service and price, cheaper being the preference. Supper is often those frozen meals, and breakfast is almost always the same combo of Quinoa and cereals. I know some people like to have fun cooking or eating, but I have always seen it as some kind of upkeep you need to pay. Ideally not spend too much time before and after cleaning dishes and cooking implements. I do enjoy cooking when I receive people, and I think I’m better at making dessert than meals. But when it comes to feeding myself? Meh. Toss things together, eat, get the proteins, nutrients, vitamins required to survive. That should be enough. 

 

     *Beep~ Beep~ Beep~* Well, well. It is time to eat that rather tasty, but pretty unexciting meal. Three times before I’m done, I have to take Rune from the table and put him down on the floor. I wonder if he’ll actually respect the fact this is “my space” someday, or if that is going to be a dance we’ll practice for the next twenty years. I am mentally preparing myself for the latter. Thankfully, after three repetitions, he usually gets the memo. I finish eating and rinse everything before sorting the recycling, trash and tableware in the proper place. 

 

     There’s still at least fifty minutes before the “lightweight” download is over, so I go to the living room area and let myself fall in my very comfortable gaming chair. Do I feel like getting wrecked at Tetris, or should me and Ry get at least some progress in our weekly hunts? I check my phone to see if he’s back already as I turn on the PS4 and begin loading Monster Hunter almost reflexively.

 

     “Oh hello Clo, how are you doing today?” I ask out loud as the game prompts me which character I want to log on (I only have a single one, with over six hundred hours of playtime). MonsterHunter’s version of “Clo” is on screen in one of my favourite outfits, a white and kinda wild side-ponytail with a unicorn’s horn, a thick leather short top with exposed belly button, a half-torn and wicked black skirt along with very tribal-looking Tattooed leg and arm armor. Last time I played, I must have saved the game with my Paralysis Switch Axe build equipped. This set isn’t that amazing at maximizing my damage output, but it has a pretty insane amount of Paralysis element on it, and an extremely good range of resistances. 

 

     This makes this specific gearset into a build that disables enemies with ease, and is, in turn, pretty much impervious to most of the enemies’ debilitating tricks. It’s not an awful way to play solo, since the paralysis can create some devastating windows to push damage, and the enemies can’t really crowd-control me at all. But in a group setting, that’s where this build really shines. I act as an enabler, and people who play “damage first, survive later” specs can really unleash hell on enemies that are paralyzed, tripped, immobilized, thrown into walls and staggered by the crazy giant Swiss-Army-Axe-Sword-wielding pony-tailed girl.

 

     “I just popped on MHW, join me when you’re home, and we can kill things until 14.11 is done downloading.” I then confirm the logging on Clo’s game, and start killing time, running random little hunts by myself. Maybe I’ll make use of those monster parts someday when I decide to try a new weapon type, unlikely as it is. Ry eventually joins me in-game and in “party chat” 30 minutes later, and we team up to kill some nastier enemies. We have played this and other games together so much, we mostly chat about work, animes. Today in particular, though, we talked mostly about how excited we both are to discover this new world, and poke the character creator. As soon as I noticed the download hitting 100% on my computer monitor in my peripheral vision, I let Ry know.

  “Hey. It’s done.”
“Should we run away?”  
  “Nah. Let’s just finish this quickly and swap to the PC.”
“Kay~kay.”  

      That poor dragon. It never had a chance. We were just killing time before and it may have felt like it could win, but suddenly the two hunters got SERIOUS. Ry’s character in most games is one of the earlier “what is survival, but a miserable pile of secrets?” type of player. If his characters can do more damage, more crits and BIG NUMBER SYNDROME (ideally through some form of EXPLOSION of Megumin-proportions... Seriously, Megumin alone is worth watching the show KonoSuba), then the Ry is a happy camper. A pretty good complement to my builds that are often focused on surviving forever and without support. In MHW’s case, you can’t really build tanky. So I instead focus on making enemies unable to strike back.

 

     Within minutes, the hunt was over. The rewards were distributed, the game saved. Playstations turned off and musical chairs played. I’m now back in front of my PC, joining our guild's Discord voice over channel, just in time to see Ry’s icon show up in the list. “Nya~!” I say as I adjust my micro and headset. Ry simply replies with a simple “Hello~”. I double-click the downloaded file, and go through the usual Setup.exe windows any PC-user should be familiar with. Yes yes, I have read the terms already; I still approve of them. Yes, I clicked this file because I wanted to install the game client, not abort the process. Next. Next. Next. Install path? Yeah, my C:\ drive is fine for games on this PC, I only have a single NVMe drive, so I don’t have to pick between small and fast or big and slow partitions. I just have a big-enough lightning-fast one.

  “Alright, install is in progress. Discord says you’re already loaded up?”
“Yeah, looking at the many races at the moment.”  
  “How many are there?”, I ask, filled with curiosity.
“Too many!”  
  “You tease!”
“You’ll see!”

     I grumble loudly, and am surprised by Rune walking over my keyboard and scratching my mouse pointer on my monitor. I grab him to prevent any damage and start petting him, rubbing my nose against his… And… there he goes, he’s licking my nose now. That’s ticklish as all hell. And somewhat gross, cat! I start laughing.

  “Stop it, stop it, Rune!”
“Rune being overly friendly?”  
  “Yeah, a bit too much, to be honest.”
“Good cat!”

      I keep petting him and check my computer’s main monitor. Almost done! I turn my chair and release Rune over his very comfy cat-bed-nest-thing that is just beside my computer chair. 

 

     He chirps and walks away, his super fluffy tail waving adorably behind him. As I turn my attention back to the screen, the message has changed to “Installation complete. Click Continue to launch FF14pointXI.exe”. “It’s installed! Time to see what are those options!” I launch the game client and am rapidly shown a series of legal screens. Engine. Studio. Tools. I recognise many official logos, because they’re the big names every big studio in the industry uses. Wwise, Bink, Umbra, things like that... Nothing that really matters to me, but I guess they put it there because it does to someone.

 

     The Amano-drawn logo (or -inspired? Does he still do those himself at 67~68 years old?) of the game shows up on screen without too much fanfare. No opening video, no illustrations or even hints of what the game will even look like yet. The music playing in the background is the classic Final Fantasy Arpeggios, but there’s a subtle, unique and familiar take to it. The lack of any intro is surprising, but perhaps it’s because I’m still running the lightweight client, or because the opening comes after character creation? In any case, that means I can get to the good part more quickly! There’s a series of options, but most are greyed out -- No Data Center selection. No server selection. No Character Selection (I don’t have a single one created yet after all). The only option available has the iconic Final Fantasy “finger pointer” hovering next to it, awaiting my confirmation. Create Character. The time has finally come!

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