They quickly went down the steep steps, fifty of them just like last time. Two of the party carried torches lighting the way but Britta still kept one hand on the wall to steady herself.
The tunnel at the bottom was smaller and crudely gouged out of the earth. It smelled different, musty, and the darkness here had a much heavier feel to it, closing in from all directions.
When she had been here last time, fear of the dwarf had been uppermost in her mind. There had been little time to stop and consider her situation, deep underground in a mishmash of tunnels that might collapse at any moment and bury her alive.
“Don’t look so worried,” said Tal. “You aren’t claustrophobic, are you?”
“No. I don’t think so.” She reminded herself this was her second time here. And she had worse things to worry about. Monsters, for a start.
“Okay,” said Lord Jim. “Let’s try to do this as smoothly as possible. Bit, try not to fall off this time.”
Rarebit scowled. “That happened once. Once!”
There was smirking all around, some private joke Britta wasn’t privy to.
“Right,” said Jim. “Let’s go.”
He ran into the dark. The others followed and Britta did her best to keep up. She didn’t want to get separated from them.
There was no hesitation, they all seemed to know exactly where they were going. Until they came to a dead end. Britta had her map open. It seemed like they had spent the last few minutes going in the opposite direction to their goal, assuming the goal was the treasure room.
None of the party showed any concern. They were too busy getting stuff out of their inventory. Each took out a small wooden frame. Then they began joining the frames together to form a ladder. They put the ladder against the wall. It rose up into a hole in the roof you wouldn’t have been able to find if you didn’t already know it was there.
One by one they climbed up. Britta went third. Her head popped into a large open area and even though the torches only lit the immediate surroundings, there was a feeling of space, a lack of structure. The dark could have been endless. After all the time in the narrow tunnels it was both liberating and disorienting. You had nothing to get your bearings from.
Britta climbed out and stood on the rocky, uneven ground that was the roof of the tunnel they’d been in. She stamped her small feet. It felt sturdy enough.
“Welcome to the other side,” said Lord Jim.
“The other side of what?”
“Of the dungeon. This is what’s outside the map. When they build a world in a computer, it’s like a movie set. They only build what they need. There’s no point filling in all the earth around the tunnels, that would take up a lot of unnecessary processing power. So they leave gaps, like this one.”
“But why are we up here?” There were no secret treasure chests or magic coins to collect as far as she could see, which admittedly wasn’t very far.
“Shortcut,” said Rarebit as he came out of the hole last. He pulled the ladder up behind him.
“Oh,” said Britta. “Isn’t that cheating?”
“B,” said Lord Jim like he was disappointed in her, “that’s how it is with games like this. The devs spend a lot of time creating content they want to get full value from, so they think of ways to make the players run it again and again. And the players have better things to do, so we find ways to make each run as short as possible. Ever has it been thus.”
“If it’s ever been thus,” said Father Paddy, “you’d think they’d come up with an alternative that wasn’t so bloody tedious.” He held up his torch and began walking.
“Paddy, I’ve been playing MMOs for over twenty years—”
“Oh, Jeez,” groaned Tal, “not the ‘twenty years speech’ again.”
“—and I’ve learned to appreciate the difficulties of creating good content. The reason you see the same problems over and over in every game is because there are factors you aren’t aware of. You should be aware of that, at least.”
“It’s like telling the time,” whispered Tal in Britta’s ear.
“It’s like telling the time,” said Lord Jim. “Just because you’ve done it a lot, doesn’t mean you know how to build a clock. There’s a whole lot more going on behind the clock face you will never know about unless you look. Game designers have a whole range of issues to deal with beyond what we experience as players. Often the choice isn’t between good and bad, it’s between bad and worse. Sometimes the solution everyone thinks would be an easy fix isn’t even available, for a whole host of reasons they have no idea even exist.”
“Yes, Jim, I know,” said Paddy. “But I don’t care. Bad is bad. The fact they haven’t come up with a decent alternative isn’t my fault, it’s theirs. That’s their job. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s okay to do it poorly.”
“But that’s what I’m saying,” insisted Jim. “They aren’t doing it poorly. They’re doing it deliberately, you just don’t know the reason why. I mean, do you really think it’s a coincidence this dwarf pops up here, in the least popular dungeon in the game? Suddenly, players who only ever ran this place once are running it ten times a day. All their content gets maximum value.”
For someone who understood that there may be factors not known to them, Lord Jim was still happy to jump to conclusions based on incomplete information. Britta knew the devs had nothing to do with the dwarf being here.
“And all we do,” said Rarebit, “is climb outside the map and avoid as much of that content as we can.”
Everyone stopped. They seemed to have travelled from one dark, anonymous spot to another.
Paddy waved his torch around. He held it over a slightly darker patch on the ground.
Rarebit lifted the ladder off his shoulder and lowered it into the hole. It was a rickety contraption that wobbled quite a lot and probably grew less stable with every use. Britta climbed down as quickly as she could and found herself in the bridge room. The large chasm yawned ahead of her and two large vases stood behind her.
Cheating or not, she had to admit this was much better than having to traverse the tunnels the regular way. It was just a matter of perspective. Mum would have said these people were a bad influence. Dad would have asked her to draw him a map with directions. Britta fell somewhere in the middle. If you were going to be led astray, might as well do it with people who knew a shortcut.