Residents of Syzygy’s subterranean barracks recognize three layers of existence: hyper reality, which refers to the analog planet where our organic bodies occupy their pods, mostly forgotten; global reality, or the sprawling, artificial universe synonymous with the Aftermath brand itself; and local reality, a term we use to describe whatever self-contained game or virtual episode within Aftermath we happen to be experiencing at any given time.
Our triplicate reality is more than a simple nod to the concept of variable scope in programming languages. There are explicit rules governing the passage of information from one layer of reality to another, and these rules are enforced draconically by the system’s AIs. It is forbidden, for example, to exchange an item with someone in one local reality for some benefit in another. In this way every local economy is hermetically sealed, so that a player who amasses wealth and power in one game may not use it to gain an upper hand in another. And in global reality, no economy exists whatsoever; every member of Aftermath has access to the same resources, the same programs, the same functions. The very concepts of credit and currency are anathema.
The one exception — if you can call it that — applies to those who would intervene in hyper reality through the use of Syzygy’s real-world drones. That’s an exclusive club, and a different set of rules applies to those who belong to it. I couldn’t tell you anything about them.
So let’s leave that echelon to our demigods and stay focused on global reality, where mortals like me belong. And specifically, to the mysterious local reality called Cimmeria that seems to have spontaneously generated itself last week, and which has so quickly and utterly addicted a few only to repulse the majority.
When you log into Cimmeria, you lose a dimension. The vibrant colors of Aftermath’s frame-world burn away and you’re left with a vast, black canvas interrupted by a single block of pixelated white text and a blinking cursor.
You can’t turn your head and look away because your neck’s not there. You want to gasp. No lungs. You want to blink. No eyes. The bleeding-edge, multi-threaded avatar you’re used to riding around in evaporates, and you’re reduced to a disembodied consciousness, to something more like an idea than a person, to a vague sense of agency without any physical manifestation. One big phantom limb.
Your universe is a command prompt:
Welcome to Cimmeria.
No character found.
> Create new character? Y/N
The panic subsides, but nothing around you makes sense. Not after your first log-in, not after your thousandth. There are plenty of other two-dimensional interfaces in Aftermath, some wildly popular and in constant use, like those for reading books and writing code. But in all of them the user remains incarnate in his avatar, so that if he wants to stop what he’s doing and check his mail or scratch an itch or swill some coffee, he can – just as he might have when life was real. There’s no rationale for an experience like Cimmeria’s, in which players are stripped of their carefully engineered sense of humanity and downgraded to the raw output of the brain cap stapled onto the scalp of a cold, derelict body they’d squirrelled away in a pod under the doomed Earth, back when they were flesh and blood. The game’s developers1 must have written thousands of lines of code and spent ungodly hours on the log-in screen alone, all to replace Aftermath’s perfectly familiar, glowingly reviewed, standard-issue UI with something that felt like a quadriplegic’s bad acid trip.
And there’s no way out. Nothing obvious, anyway. Not on that first screen. There’s no exit button, no escape key. If you want to leave you have to pay attention, to pause, to read between the lines. And you’re not about to do that. You’re in shock. Cimmeria’s developers1 know that. Existential dread is not an unintended consequence of their game; it’s their goal. They want you to know what you’re signing up for.
Still, I formed a Y in my mind that first time I logged in to Cimmeria. I’m not sure why, really. One part curiosity, two parts masochism: an ancient Western formula as familiar to modern-day adolescents as it was to medieval Catholics. No matter. My decision then is history now, a Boolean transaction preserved on a blockchain somewhere in the ether, mournfully immutable.
A new prompt replaced the first:
> Enter character name:
I wasn’t sure what kind of character I’d be creating, which made it difficult to think of a suitable name. I wondered if I could change my choice later.
Your character’s true name is permanent and may not be changed. However, you will be free throughout the game to use false names, aliases and pseudonyms as you deem appropriate.
> Enter character name:
Interesting. And, I supposed, fair enough. What’s in a name, then? I didn’t know my character’s class, or his attributes, or his race, or even what classes or races or attributes there were in this game. Or whether there were classes and races and attributes in this game. Or whether he would even be a he.
But I knew that if I were given the choice, I’d make him old, not young. Gentle, not fierce. Introverted. Understated. Maybe a recluse, or even a luddite. An artist? A farmer?
Then it hit me: Miles. Just thinking the name slowed my racing heart – or would have, if Cimmeria had given me organs – and when it appeared on the screen a smile leaped across my mind and began searching for lips to pull, dimples to fold, eyes to light.
> Choose your class. The class you choose will determine the sub-classes and skills available to you. There are currently 114 combinations of class and sub-class available to new players in Cimmeria.
Over a hundred options? And what, exactly, was a sub-class? The smile in my mind stopped tugging and began to uncurl. It would take me hours to map all the branches of Cimmeria’s character class decision tree, and that was before optimizing for any skills I’d be asked to select. If I were back in Aftermath’s frame-world, I’d have brewed a pot of coffee.
I studied the screen again. A third time. Then I paused. I realized that while its contents had been designed to stagger its readers, to overwhelm them with legion permutations of class and sub-class, it had divulged by omission two subtler mechanics of the game: First, that the 114 combinations enumerated in the prompt were those “currently” available to “new” players, which suggested that additional options might become available to new players at a later date, or that players might unlock new classes or sub-classes as their characters advanced in the game. Or both. I also noticed that no magical classes were listed. No obvious ones, anyway. Perhaps there was no magic in Cimmeria, or perhaps it had yet to be discovered.
Eager to learn more, I selected Aristocrat, then marveled at the dozen or so pages that fanned out before me like an illegal poker hand, with headers ranging from Duke to Diplomat. Each page included a basic description of its sub-class along with a list of skills available to characters who chose it. The Sommelier, for example, featured skills such as gastronomy, diplomacy, horticulture, and the choice of a foreign language. Interestingly, the languages available to the Sommelier were Tentillian, Elenic, and Vespan, which revealed that while the world of Cimmeria may have been loosely inspired by medieval Europe, its nations and peoples were original.
I tried Fighter next and found that its list of sub-classes read like the concordance of a twentieth-century sword-and-sorcery omnibus: Barbarian, Knight, Paladin, Monk, Pirate, Brawler and the like. When I moved on to Cleric, I found Monk listed for a second time, and learned that different classes occasionally shared a sub-class – though its two variants began the game with marginally different skills.
After flipping through a dozen sub-classes it became obvious that each was nothing more than a label for a unique combination of skills. The description the game offered for each sub-class was fantasy-genre boilerplate, mass-market literary fluff, and it never referenced abilities or limitations inherent to the sub-class itself that would objectively impact gameplay. The description for Woodsman (an Explorer sub-class), for example, read as follows:
More at home in the wilderness than in the city, woodsmen are trained survivalists whose expertise in hunting, foraging, tracking and naturalism equip them to spend long periods of time – even entire lives – beyond the limits of Cimmerian civilization. Woodsmen may earn a living as guides for traveling adventurers, or by selling pelts and meat. More often, however, woodsmen choose lives of self-sustenance, eschewing traditional notions of occupation and opting out of the Cimmerian economy altogether.
If sub-classes were merely labels for skillsets embellished with flavor text, then their parent classes were something less still: glorified UI elements, menu headers, organizing principles. And that got me to wondering whether I was going about things backwards, whether the more elegant approach would be to pick my skills first, then have the game assign me whatever sub-class happened to match them.
No sooner had the thought occurred to me than a new block of text filled my tiny universe.
You have chosen to select your skills before your class. There are 65 skills available to new players, each of which belongs to one or more classes. As a new player, you may allocate a total of 100 protopoints across a maximum of six skills. The following rules apply:
1. A character’s mastery of any given skill is measured on a point scale of zero to 100. Some skills have baseline point values, indicating that a certain level of competence in the skill exists across all standard characters. For example, the Running skill has a baseline point value of 20.
2. Some skills are more challenging to learn than others, and most skills become increasingly difficult to improve at higher levels. The learning curve of a skill is included in its description, and this curve determines the number of protopoints required to purchase each point of the skill. For example, after Chemistry is raised to a point value of 40, players must spend two protopoints for each additional point they wish to add to the skill.
3. For each skill of the same class that you select, a protopoint will be added automatically to every skill you select in that class. For example, if you distribute your protopoints evenly across five Fighter skills, each of those skills will receive 25 protopoints (20 from your bank of 100, plus five bonus protopoints for selecting five skills in the same class).
> Would you like to view a list of all 65 skills in alphabetical order, or filter your list to a specific class?
Now I was getting somewhere. I wondered how many players had elected to choose skills before class – or, for that matter, how many even knew it was an option.
2.94% of players choose to select skills before class.
So I was on the road less traveled. Hardly traveled at all, really. More of a rough trail. Which meant that I would enter Cimmeria with either a rare advantage or one incoherent mess of a character. That, I reckoned, would depend on what skills I selected.
Three hours later, I’d chosen four:
Description: The study of codices and manuscripts, including the materials and techniques used to make them as well as how they are inscribed and illuminated. Cordicology encompasses the discipline of palaeography (the study of handwriting) but is an academic skill and does not encompass adjacent but practical fields such as calligraphy, illustration, and bookbinding.
Protopoint cost: 1 for each point up to 50; 2 for each point thereafter
Your protopoint allotment: 24 (allocated) + 4 class bonus
Your starting skill points: 38
Description: The study of how knowledge is encoded, with a focus on symbols and signs. Semioticians analyze signifiers ranging from everyday hand gestures to arcane pictographs. Semiotics encompasses the discipline of syntactics but does not encompass the adjacent field of linguistics.
Class(es): Scholar, Cleric, Artist
Protopoint cost: 1 for each point up to 40; 2 for each point thereafter
Your protopoint allotment: 20 (allocated) + 4 class bonus
Your starting skill points: 34
Language: Empyrean (dead)
Description: The study of the dead language of Empyrea, a lost civilization. Empyrean relics are occasionally unearthed throughout Cimmeria.
Class(es): Scholar, Explorer
Protopoint cost: 2 for each point up to 25; 3 for each point between 26 and 50; 4 for each point thereafter
Your protopoint allotment: 30 (allocated) + 4 (class bonus)
Your starting skill points: 17
Language: Cthonic (dead)
Description: The study of the dead language of Cth, which is sometimes found partly transcribed on Empyrean tablets. The Empyreans appear to have regarded Cth as a lost civilization.
Class(es): Scholar, Explorer
Protopoint cost: 3 for each point up to 10; 4 for each point between 11 and 25; 6 for each point thereafter
Your protopoint allotment: 26 (allocated) + 4 (class bonus)
Your starting skill points: 10
I spent the next hour second-guessing the preceding three. Had it been wise to select only four skills? The “class bonus” mechanic certainly suggested otherwise; if I’d added two Scholar skills, for example, then each of my six would have enjoyed another two bonus protopoints. And would I regret choosing not one but two expensive dead languages? Sure, they might prove interesting in the long run, but without any combat skills, would I live to use them? And how on earth did I intend to make any money by studying – not making, mind you – tomes and symbols?
I had mechanical questions, too: what were “disciplines”, and how did they differ from skills? I noticed that the “fields” referenced in the descriptions of my skills – calligraphy, illustration, bookbinding, and linguistics – were listed discretely among the 65 skills available to new players, which implied that “fields” and “skills” were interchangeable terms. But “disciplines” like syntactics and palaeography must have operated at a different level, perhaps as subtending attributes of skills. The word “adjacent” also piqued my interest; I wondered whether there was any formal relationship between “adjacent” skills, or whether the term was purely colloquial.
The next screen did nothing to assuage my concerns.
Based on your skills, you may select one of the following class/sub-class combinations.
1. Class: Scholar, Sub-class: Archivist
> Make your choice carefully. After confirming your choice, you will be unable to return to previous menus to make changes.
That last part was very strange. Games didn’t usually prohibit backtracking during set-up; it was a CX taboo. If a player created a character with which he was unsatisfied, he’d just delete it and start over anyway. Why make him go through all that, when a standard “back” button might have prevented the inconvenience in the first place?
Filing the question away for later consideration, I returned my attention to the game’s latest prompt, wondering about the sub-class that was evidently Cimmeria’s only fit for my unlikely assortment of skills. The interface responded immediately:
Charged with the preservation of knowledge, many archivists spend most of their lives in a single library – and often, in a single corner of that library. They are typically specialists in some sliver of human experience: a region, or an eon, or a war. They are rarely active participants in their chosen domain; rather they collect and consolidate whatever documents or artifacts describe it, ensuring that those records are accessible to future generations.
Perfect. A student of a made-up civilization known only to another made-up civilization in a made-up world of which I knew nothing at all. Might as well start at the center of the matryoshka doll. I confirmed my choice with the system, then nearly passed out at its response:
Your character's physical profile and attributes will now be copied from those of your body in hyper-reality. Please wait...
Physical profile translated successfully. Your physical profile is as follows:
Weight: 145 lbs
Age: 55 years
Physical disabilities: None
Mental diasbilities: None
Physical attributes translated successfully. Physical attributes are rated on a scale from 1 to 10, where 5 is the median value across all human player and non-player characters in the game. Your physical attributes are as follows:
Character creation is complete. Miles is the only character available to you in Cimmeria. Miles can no longer be modified except through gameplay. If Miles dies during gameplay, your account will be deleted and you will not be permitted to create a new one.
When the terror subsided I searched frantically for an exit option. Cimmeria had achieved something that no other game had — that I hadn’t thought was possible. It had accessed my body. My real, meat-on-bones body. I hadn’t laid eyes on the thing myself in more than a decade. I felt a sudden, deep, visceral sense of intrusion, of violation. Of existential danger. Years of pre-Third, anti-AI fearmongering came rattling out of snake holes in my analog memory, a nest of hissing Remainder rallies and noxious radio hosts and virulent billboards, and for a split second I was sure there were wires lashed to my hands and feet, that somewhere above me or around me or within me a hitherto silent marionettist had sneezed and jerked.
But then my monochrome ASCII universe imploded, and what replaced it was realer than anything I’d ever experienced.
Welcome to Cimmeria.