Ascend online by Luke Chmilenko

Tl;dr:

This gets a 4.5 star review.  It’s really good.  It doesn’t break any new ground and a lot of it is going to be old saw to LitRPG readers, but the devil is in the details and the details of this book are excellent.

If you’re a reader who wants to know what type of LitRPG it is, it’s a town-building/action style LitRPG.  Think of Daniel Black, Aleron Kong’s The Land, G. Akella’s Realm of Arkon, and of course, the book everyone will confuse with this one, Travis Bagwell’s Awaken Online.

The best summary doesn’t come from me, but from someone who wrote that, “It feels like a game designer made this book.”  Yes.  This is a book with lots of love put into the World and the system.   It’s a great addition to the LitRPG genre and I hope the future books continue on this path.

It’s a great study in avoiding what I like to call Tale of the Village Janitor.  The docking comes from two problems, one minor and one larger.  The minor issue is the village armorer’s level in the goblin invasion, which can be easily fixed with a tweak.  The larger issue is that the side characters rarely have anything to do or anything that makes them unique.

Long Review, Spoilers:

Despite having great World building, the book never bogs down itself too much by going overboard on the town building.  If you are a critic of Aleron Kong, one of the downsides to his novels is that he can heavy-dose his town building and then get into the action.  So the arc is first half town building, second half action.  This can slow down the pace if you’re not invested enough

Stylistically, it reminds me closest to G. Akella and Travis Bagwell’s book, and since I have never reviewed Akella’s series, I’ll mostly be using Travis Bagwell’s books as the counterpoint here.

The book starts off with a brief introduction to the characters of the story.  The MC is an independent videogame developer, who finds out from his friends that a brand new virtual reality game has been released.  He’s initially skeptical, as a big budget VR game was released a few years prior that underwhelmed everyone, (A No Man’s Sky for the virtual World), but curiosity gets the better of him and he buys a tremendously expensive VR capsule and starts playing the game.

Here, I have to give him some praise because there’s a key point that has to be made.  Even though he’s not introducing anything new, he is introducing it in a way that makes sense.  I.e. he uses the same plot device that several other books have used.  Someone is entering into the video game with the hopes of selling their stream data.  Usually when this plot device gets introduced, my reaction is simple:

ynlqwrm

If everyone can play the game, why would anyone’s twitch stream be worth anything?  The best twitch streamers make about 2 to 5k per month off of twitch.

Of course, we all know the twitch streamers make far more money than that because they also pull advertising deals, Patreon support, YouTube channel, etc.  But with the exception of Harmon Cooper’s Fantasy Online, none of that ever comes up, people just expect to earn millions from twitch streaming alone.

In this book, it deals with that by stating that the initial run of the game has a backlog of over two years for the VR capsules, so people are watching the game in lieu of being able to actually play it.  Hence a streamer can expect to earn a far heftier price than if this was a game anyone could go play right now.  This is a subtle change, but it makes a huge impact for believability.

After purchasing a capsule and logging in, the MC spends all of his time designing his race/class/stats for so long that several hours elapse with him doing nothing more than that.  He finally jumps into the game and spawns in an area naked surrounded by goblins.

He defeats the goblins and learns about the area.  This scene is one of the few areas that kind of bugged me in the book.  He meets two of the major NPCs, the town armorer and the town mayor.  He finds out the mayor is a former knight, and has a major backstory to the plot of the novel.  He also finds out that the blacksmith is a warrior.

This has a major consequence because in this game World, your first ten levels are novice levels that allow you to experiment with any build you want before settling on an actual class path that determines your future development.  The game leaves a lot of flexibility for path development and unique combinations, but the key point is that by being a warrior, the armorer is at least level ten.

The town is invaded by level one goblins, but the town armorer isn’t able to fend them off, instead, he’s huddled up inside of his shop when the MC discovers him.  The issue is that if the armorer is at least level ten, and we see the MC destroy goblins around level 7, why is the armorer huddled in his shop?  He should just be able to go out and wipe the floor with the goblins, particularly since they are kidnapping villagers.

Minor tweak to fix this?  The armorer has a peg leg.  He can’t maneuver fast enough to stop goblins from flanking him, so he barricades himself at a choke point so goblins can’t get past him.  This tweak would change how the MC meets him, but it would help out with explaining why he isn’t able to go after the goblins and why he spends his time in his workshop.

From there, he saves the village and learns that he’s been transported to a newly formed village that’s between a week to a few days away from the main city.  The area was supposed to be surveyed already and certified as free from dangerous monsters, so the villagers and militia were not prepared at all for an attack.  They lack basic fortifications and enough people to secure the village against any sort of opposing attack.

This sets up the first quest and makes the book interesting.  To get down to brass tacks of storytelling, the most important element in any story is “Therefore” and “But Then”.  The village is attacked, therefore, the hero goes out and explores the surrounding areas to find out what is around the village.  But then, he encounters an underground ruin with a rare guardian, therefore, he defeats the guardian and realizes that the area isn’t nearly as safe as assumed.  Therefore, he starts focusing on the village defenses and becoming more powerful.

The antithesis of the “therefore” and “but then” structure is the “and then” structure.  In video games like Mass Effect Andromeda and Final Fantasy XV, the structure runs like this:

  • Go scan some rocks.
  • And then, go find some frogs.
  • And then, go race a chocobo.
  • And then, go find an ancient structure.
  • And then, go kill some enemies.
  • And then, go repair some pipes around the city.

None of these events relate to each other in any way, and none of them have anything to do with the plot.  This type of story structure creates the Tale of the Village Janitor.  The character runs around, does one thing, does some other thing, does some other thing, rinse and repeat.

In terms of LitRPG, this can be seen in Way of the Shaman, book 5. He finishes a wolf quest.  What does that do in the story?  Nothing.  There’s no “But then” or “Therefore”, it’s just a quest.  And then he finishes the goblin quest.  And then he meets some zombie PC player and teachers her how to fish.  And then he becomes a pirate.  None of these things relate to each other, they’re just a laundry list of things he does.

In contrast, Chmilenko makes sure that each of the quests he generates follow from a previous action.  Even though the book is long, it stays on task, each story element being a natural consequence of the preceding events.

The other thing he does very well is break up monotony by juxtaposition.  Some of the comments on Aleron Kong’s The Land series call it boring.  They don’t often qualify that statement, but I think what they mean is the typical structure for one of Aleron’s books, particularly in the later ones, is:

  • Some event is going on outside the village.
  • Hey Blacksmith, what’s going on?
  • Hey Alchemist, what’s going on?
  • Hey Town Builder, what’s going on?
  • Hey Sprite Leader, what’s going on?
  • Hey Twins, what’s going on?
  • Go deal with the event outside the village.

Roughly the first half of the book is the MC talking to people in the town, then the last half of the book is action.  There’s not a lot of juxtaposition between the two elements.  Both good game design and good storytelling require a juxtaposition between the elements.  Hence, most starting areas in a level in video games do not place you in immediate danger.  They let you observe the surrounding area before you jump into action.

Once you jump into action, they then put you in danger.  You escape the danger and they give you a save room in the old Resident Evil games that lets you know that you have a breather from the damage.  You refill and go back out into the danger.  This was one of the things lost in the latter Resident Evil series (until the soft-reboot) where you were instead just constantly mowing down waves of enemies.

Luke gets this right because his MC spends some time in the village, but then has to immediately venture out into the wilderness to fight enemies.  Additionally, he has to make tough choices that don’t have a clearly right answer.  He can help build fortifications, he can craft armor, he can help train, he can go out and fight enemies, any of these answers are plausibly right and help the village, but they have a cost in that he can’t do them all at once.

What’s nice about Luke’s story is that it’s one of the few I’ve seen where the NPCs will actually tell the MC, “Hey, stop doing that.  We can do that.  Go do the stuff we can’t do.”  By circumventing the Tale of the Village Janitor, he’s able to keep his protagonist focused on the things that the regular people can’t do, instead of making the protagonist the errand boy for the villagers.

Because the MC is always adjusting to the situation at hand, he’s never just wandering around the village checking off a task list, he’s always responding to a particular problem at a particular time.

Another nice thing that Luke does is he brings back Traits from Fallout.  He doesn’t really call them that, but it’s one of the few times (I actually can’t remember seeing it before this book), where a characteristic has both a positive and a major negative.  Most books tend to overpower their MC to the extent that the MC is the greatest of all greats, with no downsides or real penalties that they ever have to suffer for their choices.

So the upsides of this story are good pacing, juxtaposition, world building and settings, and attention to detail.  What are the downsides?

He sets up a large ensemble cast in the first part of the book, who we do meet later on, but they never really develop as characters.  Everyone is overshadowed by the MC.  This is why most books tend to have only have one or two other people besides the MC in their story, it’s just too difficult to focus on giving everyone a unique personality in one book when you have ten other characters running around.

Overall, the book is solid.  It doesn’t introduce anything new to the genre, but it does take the time and care to really think about everything, to not violate its own rules, and to keep everything moving.  This is a tight, well-crafted, and well-paced novel.  Hopefully Luke continues to write many more books like this.

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