Domino Finn: Afterlife, Black Hat

Tl;dr:  4 stars.  There’s a lot of things Domino Finn does that are very interesting and unique in this book.  However, the first part is antithetical to the character developed in the first book.  The “turn” from the first part of the book is easy to spot, and it does lose some of its feel as it turns into a more standard fantasy novel without a good explanation.  Overall though, it’s a fun book and a great read.  There’s a lot of ideas with the adaptive algorithm that Domino plays out very well.

Long Review, Spoilers

The main features of Finn’s World are twofold.  First, the World is evolving.  Since the game is based on adaptive-learning algorithms, the rules of the game change constantly while the people are playing it.  Second, because the rules change dynamically, there are a lot of unintended consequences with what players do.

I love this because as a programmer, I can tell you that nothing ever works exactly the way you intend it to.  That’s because programming requires perfection.  One, as Immanuel Kant said, humans are a crooked arrow from which no straight thing has ever been carved.  Two, also philosophical, we don’t have tests for perfection.  Even our best tests in programming only test for imperfection, they test when things don’t work the way we intend.  The failings of AI and why have been addressed in another blog post I wrote.

What I like about this is many GameLit books assume a perfect game AI and World.  There might be tweaks to it, but nothing is ever broken.  The AfterLife World is a rushed beta that’s getting released to production fairly soon.  So a lot of the game is spent trying to balance out game-breaking bugs and questlines.

Back to the story, the beginning uses an Action Prologue where the team is trying to complete a quest by doing it the easy or alternative way.  In this case, the alternative way is to climb around and sneak into a fortification rather than trying to brute force past the open door.  Coming up with alternative assassinations was one of the highlights of the Assassin Creed games, so I’m onboard with this.

The quest they receive is to remove the pagans from the surrounding countryside.  Their job is to go after wildkin, which are essentially humans without civilization, and destroy their leader, the Wild King, by retrieving his crown and then destroying it.  The group leader (Talon) isn’t a huge fan of this quest as the wildkin are closer to humans than the pagans.  He also gets a bit of foreshadowing when the king asks him who exactly is writing these quests?

Talon takes the Wild King’s crown, and returns back to city.  This is where the novel takes a turn.  The character of Talon has been established to be a rule-challenger, if not flat out rule-breaker.  When the team arrives back in town, a faction called the Crusaders has taken up residency.  The crusaders are a group of devouts dedicated to purging the land of all pagan influences.

One of the nearby cities (Shorehome) has been sacked by pagans, the result of the final battle where Talon scattered their forces in the previous book.  The refugees of that city are now flooding his hometown (Stronghold).  Talon is inadvertently the cause for both problems after awakening, then defeating, a pagan demigod (a Titan) in the previous book and preventing the game from going through a reset.

Talon then learns from the game programmers (the Saints in the series) that the sorts of patches they can work into the game have to be small, since a large scale patch could crash the entire system, and the game’s AI system might reject it anyway.  As a result, the developers are having less and less control over the game.  Several of these patches are simply to reduce some of the powers that Talon gained in the first book.

The Saints decide that in order to rectify the influx of refugees and pagan expansion into other territories, they’re going to pump up the number of Crusaders in the area, offer tons of quests to destroy the pagans, and try to get players involved in Crusader-line quests.

The other new faction that’s arrived are the catechists.  If the Crusaders are a GameLit version of the Knights Templar, the catechists are more akin to the Inquisitors.  Talon meets up with the Crusaders and Catechists to retake the city of Shorehome.  The problem is that Talon’s rebellious nature is nowhere here pleasant.  He sort of stomps his feet about it, but just goes along with the plan in the end with none of his usual skepticism.

The motivation given is that he’s in doubt over his actions in the previous book and wants to make amends, but there’s no reason given for why he’s following around a bishop and knight that criticize and nag him at every turn.  If this were more in-line with what his character has been like so far, he would simply scout out the situation on his own with his friends helping him rather than relying upon someone he has just met and doesn’t like.  Remember, this is a guy who criticizes the people that literally saved his life, once in the real-World version of himself running around and once in the game-life version of himself that existed currently.

The unlikeability of the bishop, and the fact that Talon trudges along with them, sets up a plot twist that you can see coming from afar.

There’s also another issue that needs to be addressed in it, and that’s the mechanics of the story.  Domino sets up that gaining levels past 9 are extraordinarily hard, but doesn’t really explain why.

The solution to that is pretty easy to resolve.  The Saints could explain to him that since the game is going to be around for hundreds of years, (as they see it), allowing rapid initial progression with slow later progression will keep the game from being completely unbalanced when new players enter into it.

If Domino wanted to really get into it, the game could use a weighted algorithm where experience is changed based on several factors.  I wrote the formula here:

See the Pen MathJax Equation by Michael Ryan Soileau (@NoMan2000) on CodePen.

The formula has three parts.  The first equation is the general equation, which is used when a player’s level is equal to the average level.

The second equation is the highest level player equation, which makes it exponentially more difficult to gain experience the further the player is from the average level and from the next-highest leveled player.  If the highest level player is the same level as the next highest leveled player, it goes to the third equation.

The third equation is the weighted average algorithm, which makes it either easier to gain levels or harder to gain levels the further from the average level a player is.

For a game like Domino Finn’s, this has a few advantages.  The first one is that it keeps the game balanced because no one can jump far ahead of the other players without suffering serious penalty drawbacks.  Another is it helps explain one problem in the first book, where a player who didn’t level up was hated.

Here, it makes sense. Any player not leveling up is making it harder for other players to level up.  They’re essentially ruining the game.  It also solves the problem of griefing.  Since griefing new players would hurt the highest leveled players, they’d have an interest in both leveling up new players and preventing them from being harassed.  They’d also have an interest in rescuing towns or other captured areas, since if a player was stuck in one, they couldn’t level up and that would be a net drag on the other players, particularly if there were a lot of them.

While maybe not appropriate to every story, this would solve the problem of long-running VRMMOs that expect to gain new players, an issue I’ve talked about in other reviews.  Why would anyone want to play a game where the average player is let’s say 100, has all sorts of unique/rare quest items you can’t obtain, and can possibly kill/grief you at any moment?  This formula addresses a lot of those problems.

Back to the book, the group infiltrates Shorehome after being chased by an invincible guardian of the Wild King’s Crown (Hood).  Once there, they see that pagans and regular people are able to live together peacefully, an affront to the catechists and Crusaders, but something that makes Talon pause.

He meets the main NPC of Shorehome who explains how the arrangement works, before the catechist and Crusaders in his party pick a fight.  He runs into Lucifer, who explains that this new plot twist is because he took Talon’s AI code and gave it to the entire game.  All NPCs and monsters now have free will, or a virtual approximation of it at least.

Anyway, the twist that was set up in the beginning bears fruit, and the “good” guy that you hated becomes the bad guy.

** Domino has said that the “twist” wasn’t actually supposed to be a twist here, but a battle of wits.  My problem is that the MC is still way too reactive and passive to what the catechists want, and he does very little to actually subvert the catechists initially.  The fact that he groups with them so easily seems against the character established in the first book, who later reappears in the second part of the book. **

The rest of the book is convincing other people that he’s not the bad guy, even though he appears to be fighting the good guys.  The majority of the game mechanics here are figuring out how to get around patch upgrades that lock out combat in town, upgrading his base tower (earned at book one with his title as protector), and using faction alliances/quests to give him what he wants.  Essentially, he starts gaming the game.

There is a nice twist at the end that resolves the plotline, and Talon opens up his own faction to remove himself from the restrictions placed in traditional faction alliances.

Overall, the first plot twist though was too predictable, and even with the explanation that it wasn’t supposed to be a twist, the MC was too passive in this part, particularly given his previous behavior that re-emerges at the end.  Without explaining the leveling mechanism better, the book does fall into a good fantasy adventure, but loses a bit of its feel from the first one.

The constant effect of unintended consequences and the MCs planning to circumvent those mechanics does elevate it and make it stand out from other books in the genre.  He is, in essence, a hacker, so the guild faction name as the “Black Hats” is apropos.

The other thing that occurs is the Saints appear kind of witless in this book, as it was largely the unintended consequences of what they did in the first book that lead to the problems in the second book, and their further interferences created even more problems.  I’m not sure if Finn is trying to remark on his previous life as a game developer here or not.

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