January is a season for resolutions. Not just the New Year’s attempts to chart courses, but also in conclusions. And in the indie world, many popular series are concluding, including the popular litRPG series, Viridian Gate Online. Since December 2016, nearly twenty books across a half dozen plotlines have woven a tale of three million souls caught up in the crises of a virtual world. In Empirical Endgame, a chance exists for these souls to win peace. But whether it is the peace in their time or the peace of the grave is yet to be determined.
“Grim” Jack Mitchel has come a long way on his second lease on life. He has survived the quite real and devastating impact of the asteroid Astraea by irrevocably uploading his mind into Viridian Gate Online, a full immersion MMO intended by its creator to act as a sort of ark for the consciousnesses of a fraction of humanity. Soon after, he finds a cheat item intended for a drug kingpin who paid VGO’s creator to establish his own empire within the game. Grim Jack soon finds himself as the leader of a faction of players in violent opposition to the criminals, mercenaries, and would-be kings enslaving the players and NPCs inside VGO. Even if it means fighting the man who created VGO’s systems, Osmark.
Grim Jack’s war again Osmark, however, destabilizes VGO to the point where the AI algorithms that control the game’s systems move against both men. Now forced into an uneasy alliance, Grim Jack and Osmark must defend all the players from armies that not just bring death, but permanent deletion from the sanctuary that VGO was intended to be. When a chance to reprogram the increasingly erratic AI of Death appears, Grim Jack and Osmark must lead a raid into the very core of Viridian Gate Online’s code before the other AIs delete the remnants of the human race.
As befitting the litRPG setting, author James Hunter envisions this quest as a series of MMO dungeons and raids. And while legacy character sheets and skill selection diversions are present, they take a back seat to the clash of spell and blade. The genre has been moving to more natural abstractions and narrations, and VGO is no exception. However, the action and systems are based more on the action RPG classic Diablo II than MMOs such as Rift, World of Warcraft, or Final Fantasy XIV. LitRPG books are based around the illusion of choice, and the talent trees and stat allocation of Diablo-style games offer more opportunities for characters to deliberate about their progression.
Yes, this means that drop-all-your-points-into-one-stat Maple builds are common, which require copious plot armor to pull off. Grim Jack uses a more balanced build, but then, his advantages are hard-coded into the system thanks to those cheat items he has found. And, as litRPGs are the adaptation of Golden Age Mystery plot games with the reader, his powers come from the extrapolations of the effects of that cheat item’s disruption of the system. Hunter builds the world of VGO with a methodical progression, and any surprises are consistent with a logic that never cheats the audience.
But what if a reader is not a systems junkie?
VGO is a well-executed epic fantasy race against the apocalypse transposed into the conventions of a permanent game world. And while the fantasy is typical of the type, Hunter not only brings back the literary sense to a genre often bound up in systems and rules, the implications of his story also are unsettling and have a place in the Great Conversation of science fiction.
Observant readers may notice the repetition of the word “system” throughout this review. This is intentional. Literary RPG stories tend to fall into three subgenres: dungeon builders, game literature, and system fantasies. While VGO is primarily a game literature tale showcasing player struggles in the context of PvP battlegrounds, dungeon dives, questing, and raids, it also dabbles in the other subgenres. And this is most evident in the climax, where the conventions of system fantasy come into play.
Whereas game literature is the imposition of real world characters into a game world, system fantasy instead deals with the imposition of new rules of reality upon the real world. Think of it as if one day, out of nowhere, our reality is governed not by physics, but by the ruleset of Dungeons and Dragons. How would society and even the necessities of life change? Who would adapt? Who wouldn’t, perishing as a result? VGO dabbles in this subgenre as part of a conversation reaching back to the days of Astounding and earlier.
Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are familiar to many science fiction readers. While Asimov spent most of his time writing his Robot stories in finding where the laws contradict each other and fail, the idea that AI will require a logical ethics set was popularized. Many subsequent rogue AI stories continue to be written, using deviations from an established starting ethics set programmed by humans. But AI is no longer programmed line by line by humans, but generated by machine learning. These programs are often black boxes, where the interactions within are currently beyond investigation. If one of these AIs were to go rogue, there is (currently) no way to reprogram or patch out the errors.
VGO proposes instead to change the very system of the (virtual) world, to change the costs and incentives for various actions until a peaceful balance between AI, human players, and NPCs can be found. The price? Everything that makes humans different from the programs around them, including immortality. The three million souls seeking immortality through virtual upload have lost it, permanently, and are now no different from the other cogs in the system. That subservience, diminishment, and devolution may be the only compromise acceptable is disquieting. That there may be no way to reason, argue, or appeal to the AIs prior to this surrender is just as disquieting.
“Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it,” after all. And life since the transhuman upload for most in VGO has been a continuing diminishment of humanity, from the shedding of the body, to the loss of freedom, to the very obliteration of everything that separates humans from their fellow programs. Whether this is deliberately written as such or a consequence of VGO’s systems is yet to be determined.
Viridian Gate Online: Empirical Endgame may be a well-executed epic game literature fantasy, complete with a triumph for its heroes, but the implications of the setting and consequences of the conflicts are a transhumanist’s nightmare.