My mind is fogged up again, my eyesight has started to go funny. The world is turning a dull, flat grey. My old pal depression is paying me a visit.
I’m so tired all the time now. My head feels heavy and leaden. Whenever I try to force myself to leave my cramped apartment to take a walk, I wonder what’s the point. There’s nothing for me in those streets. No friends left behind to greet. All gone, or just never there at all.
I have the means to escape, the old tried method: I take a pee and a shit, I undress myself down to my boxers, and I lie down on my VR chair. Then I strap my brain into place and load up the virtual hub.
I’ve been trying this recent game, an advanced clone of the old ‘Dwarf Fortress’: the player is a godling that oversees the development of a fantasy village. The sentient AI characters are the stars, for as long as the player can stand to witness their beloved villagers suffering.
It takes some skill and imagination to build a medieval village that doesn’t make you want to pull your hair out. It’s complicated to get the right balance between resources and population density and infrastructure and housing stock. You need to plan carefully, arrange everything like a clockwork mechanism, and then keep an eye on things as they happen, so that you can respond if something goes wrong. I’m barely getting the hang of the game.
I start from zero, in a generated world. Temperate forests are newbie territory, but the depression hinders my ability to focus, and I’m using this game to distract myself. I choose a wide clearing surrounded by a forest. The trees are full of little green leaves, the grass is bright yellow and lush. It smells fresh here, clean and sweet.
I generate my starter three AI villagers. The RNG gods provide a nice combination of personalities: a human farmer (Joseph) who hates his life; an elf girl (Sue) with big breasts; and a dwarf merchant (Kurtz), who thinks he owns everything.
The villagers stand around confused, while my avatar, invisible to them, hovers over the scene.
“How did we end up here?” Joseph asks.
The dwarf, Kurtz, narrows his eyes in suspicion.
“Dunno. Maybe you’re the one that got us into this situation,” he grunts.
Joseph rubs his temples.
“I think we were all wandering around in the woods when suddenly we found ourselves here.”
Sue is looking around frantically. Her hair reaches down to her waist, and is a pretty dark gold. I can tell I will spend plenty of this playthrough ogling this virtual creature. If she survives.
“My sister is home alone!” Sue says in a high-pitched voice. “I need to get back!”
I speak to them with my stentorious voice, “Listen to me, villagers! I’m your god now, and I have brought you here to this forest so you three would establish a new village. This is an adventure that will test your abilities.”
They all stare blankly in my general direction. Then Sue looks down at her chest.
“I don’t have abilities, merely big breasts.”
“Yes, I’ve read your bio.”
“What’s the point of having these? They just get in the way sometimes.”
“You’ll develop some. Abilities, I mean. Anyway, get to work. You need to entertain me, or else there might be consequences.”
“Why are you even doing this to us?” Kurtz asks. “I’ve been through enough already. We didn’t ask for any of this.”
I sigh as I hover above their heads. The three of them look up at the source of my voice, puzzled.
“H-how should we call you, godling?” Joseph asks.
“Refer to me as Festerbump. It’s an internet thing. I’m going to give you three a chance to prove yourselves worthy of the task that lies ahead of you. You must build a village in this sacred land, and survive for at least a few years. If you do, then I shall reward you handsomely.”
“A-a few years?!” Sue yells. “My little sister is alone!”
“Your sister will be fine, I’m sure.”
“When will we return to our homes?” Kurtz insists. “I have a store to run.”
I laugh bitterly.
“Oh, the three of you are too pathetic. There’s no such thing as a home, only a prison cell called reality. Now to begin. Start working!”
The three villagers look at each other nervously.
“What do you want us to build?” Sue asks. “I’m not good with tools.”
Joseph, the farmer, rubs his stubble as if thinking about the weeks or months of work ahead.
“For anyone to visit our future village, we’ll have to figure out where exactly we are, and build a road…”
“This is stupid!” Kutz complains. “Why have we been chosen, of all people?!”
I’ve gone over this crap with other games that feature sentient NPCs. A significant part of the playthrough involves convincing the AI to do your bidding, or preventing them from going insane.
“I let the RNG gods choose you because I need to switch off my brain, forget how bad things really are,” I say. “So just get to work, damn it. Make something. Build a house. Build some houses.”
“Build some fucking houses,” Kurtz mutters. “You know, you could build yourself a house instead of making other people do it. You are supposed to be a god, aren’t you?”
“I’m not omnipotent,” I confess. “I don’t have that kind of power.”
Joseph keeps talking to himself out loud, “They’ll need roofs, doors, windows. And furniture.”
Sue puts a hand on the dwarf’s shoulder to calm him down, but he shoots the elf woman a nasty look.
“Hey, a god has put us to the task,” she says. “We are building for someone, aren’t we? So let’s make sure he likes it.” Sue looks up to address the invisible presence. “Will you make sure my sister doesn’t suffer any harm while I’m gone?”
Her sister likely doesn’t exist as data in the game, but this kind of background info helps round Sue out as a character.
“Sure, I’ll take care of your sibling,” I say, then sigh. “So all of you, stop bitching and get to work already.”
Kurtz keeps shaking his head.
“Just leave me alone, damn it. Do you think we know how to make houses? I’m a merchant! I can tell these two are clueless as well!”
“You’ll figure it out, I’m sure,” I say. “Quit whining.”
* * *
The three villagers venture into the surrounding woods to gather sticks and logs light enough to carry. Watching them walking around is boring, so I make time pass faster until, a couple of hours later, the three villagers have amassed a decent haul. They are already tired, but they start building a simple wooden fence, enclosing a square plot of ground. It’s just planted sticks and logs that will keep the villagers inside the boundaries of their future village, and hopefully will keep dangerous wildlife outside.
Sue is busy planting a few saplings along the perimeter. The other two villagers watch her as if they had nothing to do.
“I’ve never built anything before,” Kurtz grumbles. “Why should I have to do this?”
“It gives you a sense of accomplishment,” Joseph replies. “You’ll look at the stuff we will build, and you’ll think ‘I was partly responsible for that’.”
“I don’t even know what I’m doing. I just want to go back to the city.”
Sue stands up and wipes the dirt from her hands. Then she looks up at the sky as if I were floating in the clouds.
“Godling, we are hungry. How does one survive here?”
“Yes, what kinds of crops grow well in these lands?” Joseph asks me. “Is there water nearby?”
I’m hovering close to them, and when I project my deep voice, they are startled.
“You can hunt deer, or wild boar. Also, I believe I picked an area with a stream. I’m sure you’ll find it.”
“Hunting?” Kurtz complains. “That sounds like so much work! And we don’t have any weapons!”
“Well, then I’ll help you. I’m a god, after all. The more you obey me, the more points this game, so to speak, grants me so I can in turn materialize tools for my minions to use.”
I look up in the interface what I’m able to buy with the points these three useless villagers have accumulated by gathering the sticks and logs and building that fence. There are only a few things unlocked, mostly simple objects like a hammer, a pickaxe, and a shovel. However, I could spend the points on a big knife or a shoddy bow with a dozen arrows.
A few seconds later, the three villagers are staring with a mixture of awe and fear at a bow and a quiver full of arrows that has appeared on the grass in front of them.
“Now you have a tool able to murder simple animals,” I say. “Let’s get to hunting.”
“That’s amazing. It came out of nowhere,” Joseph says in a thin voice. “You truly are a god, oh mighty Festerbump.”
Sue steps back, looking paler.
“Our god has granted us a boon. We owe him now.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Kurtz mumbles.
“I’ve never used a bow, though,” Sue says.
“Don’t worry, I’ll do it,” Joseph tells her. “It will be easy.”
“I guess we could use some meat for tonight,” Kurtz mutters. “And vegetables.”
Joseph picks up the bow and the quiver. He seems impressed by their size and weight. Then he pulls back on the string as if testing it.
“Alright, let’s find out if there’s some game in the woods,” Joseph says confidently. “Come with me.”
Kurtz shakes his head.
“Nah. This is your project. Do it alone.”
Sue frowns in disbelief.
“What kind of a merchant are you? Don’t you have any respect?”
The dwarf shrugs as if he doesn’t care one way or another. Sue sighs, but then she walks up to Joseph’s side.
“I’ll go with you! Because you will provide food for us, right?”
Joseph gulps, and looks away from the elf’s breasts. I follow the two villagers as they walk into the woods together. I accelerate the passage of time until the two villagers come across a bunch of deer. Joseph and Sue crouch behind some bushes. The farmer nocks an arrow carefully, then draws the bowstring and holds it against his cheek. He whistles as if calling to the deer. When one raises its head, Joseph lets the arrow fly. It hits dead center between the deer’s eyes with a sickening sound of impact, followed by a grunt and a fall onto the grass. The dead deer twitches feebly.
After the rest of the deer have scampered off, Sue cheers and grabs Joseph’s arm.
“Good shot! We’ll eat deer tonight, thanks to you!”
“Yeah,” Joseph says with a grim smile. “I forgot how good killing feels. My wife hated hunting.”
Sue’s own smile falters.
“Alright, I’ll… help you carry the carcass back to our camp!”
She bends down to grab the deer by the legs. Joseph follows her lead and lifts it up. They stagger back towards the edge of the clearing.
* * *
When we return to the clearing enclosed by the fence, we find out that Kurtz had kept busy gathering firewood, and is tending a campfire.
“Oh, so we are eating deer tonight,” Kurtz says as he stares wide-eyed at the carcass. “I thought you two would return empty-handed.”
“We were lucky to come across some deer,” Joseph says.
“It was a magnificent kill,” Sue adds.
Sue and Joseph leave the carcass close to the fire, and sit down wearily.
“If we hadn’t been able to kill a deer, I’m sure that the godling would have produced some alternative,” Sue says confidently. “We won’t starve, not with a god watching over us.”
I wouldn’t be sure about that.
“This place is getting on my nerves,” Kurtz says as he stares at the flames. “There’s nothing but trees and bugs here. And I can’t even smoke.”
Joseph is kneeling next to the carcass.
“But how do we prepare the meat when we lack the proper tools? Maybe I could use an arrowhead to skin the deer…”
“That’s where your god comes in,” I say.
Thankfully, Joseph killing that deer had produced enough points for me to buy a big enough knife. I materialize it on top of the deer carcass, and the three villagers let out surprised noises.
“Now you own both a bow and a knife, to hunt, prepare the food or defend yourselves from the numerous monsters that likely await their opportunity to hunt you down. Rejoice!”
“Does it have any special powers?” Kurtz says as he inspects the blade carefully.
“It’s just a fucking knife. It should be more than enough at this juncture.”
Joseph sighs. The three villagers stare at the blade curiously as it gleams silver and gold in the flickering orange glow of the campfire.
“I’ve butchered a few living creatures in my time,” Joseph says. “Or do you guys want to do it?”
“No, no, take care of it,” Kurtz says.
Joseph cuts open the pelt with practiced ease. He pulls back the hide, exposing a bloody mass of muscle and fat. Then he slices the flesh into chunks. The elf watches intently at first, but then she starts trembling and grimaces. She covers her mouth.
“Are you sick, Sue?” I ask. “You are sweating quite a lot. Do you feel unwell?”
She blushes. Her eyes dart over to Joseph, who is plunging the blade into the ribcage of the beast with a crunching sound. Sue swallows hard and turns away.
“Y-yeah, I’m feeling a bit nauseous.”
After chopping the deer’s legs off, Joseph places them beside the torso. The guts are exposed to view, and the smell of blood has filled the air.
“Don’t worry, it’s only a deer,” the human farmer says casually. “It’s not like what I ate in prison.”
“Prison? What did you do?”
* * *
The night has fallen, and the three villagers have filled their bellies with cooked deer meat.
“As a bonus exercise,” I tell them, “let’s see how far you idiots can throw a stick.”
Sue picks up one of the sticks that Kurtz had gathered for the campfire, and holds it as if it were a spear. She throws it a few times, determined to get better quickly, so that she can prove to me that she deserves to be my follower. Joseph has let another stick fly through the air in a straight line. Kurtz has ignored my godly request, and is sitting cross-legged by the fire. He shakes his head from time to time. His long beard makes him look like a madman.
Both of my willing minions get bored in a few minutes, and sit on the grass to contemplate their pitiful existences. Sue brings up how unused she is to hanging out with both humans and dwarves, and that gets Kurtz going.
“I’m sure you would be able to mingle with humans almost anywhere in the world, but my own species has nearly died off. Only the lucky survived the war against the orcs.”
Sue hangs her head low, and hides her face in her forearms.
“Don’t remind me of my brother,” she mutters.
“Your brother?” Joseph asks casually. “What happened to him?”
Sue hesitates. She takes a deep breath before answering.
“He disappeared during the war. As I looked for survivors in the nearby villages, I kept hearing rumors that many had escaped the approaching orc warbands. I held on to the hope that I would catch up with my dear brother eventually. But several years passed, and we never received any news.”
“I’m sorry,” Joseph says. “It must have been terrible for you.”
“His name was Eric. He was a farmer, same as you. He always hated it, though, always complained. He used to say he wanted to change the way society worked. That the whole system needed fixing. But one day he simply walked away, and nobody saw him again…”
Sue cries softly into her forearms as her shoulders tremble.
I wonder if the game made up that piece of backstory for Sue because she didn’t seem interesting or sympathetic enough. I recall vaguely that the process that generated this new game world spewed out notifications about orcs taking over other races’ settlements.
After a minute, Kurtz breaks the silence.
“We should all return home,” the dwarf says grimly. “The sooner we leave this place, the happier we’ll be.”
“You can’t, though,” I say. “You need to build a village.”
Kurtz looks with contempt in my general direction.
“But we can count on your assistance, can’t we, oh mighty god?”
“I’m sure I can do a thing or two for you.”
Sue sniffles and peeks out from behind her forearms.
“You’ll keep us safe from orc raiders and other vermin, won’t you?”
I shake my head, but they can’t see me.
“If we die for whatever reason, will you send our souls to heaven?”
I don’t believe there’s a heaven, nor a hell. Life isn’t fair. But I need to keep these idiots believing in me, or else they may rebel. Even kill themselves.
“Sure. Just don’t blame me if you end up in hell instead.”
Joseph chuckles nervously. Sue kneels and thanks me profusely as tears run down her cheeks. It makes me uncomfortable, but the angle gives me a privileged view of the cleavage of her peasant dress. All that tit meat makes me wish I had a physical body.
“Then we shall trust in you and pray for protection!” Sue says.
“Good, good,” I say, and clear my throat. “That settles it for today, I think. I’m leaving for a while. Go to sleep, and I’ll see you in the morning. Just remember to avoid killing each other in the meantime.”
“Right, godling. We won’t mess it up,” Joseph says.
I remain among them for a while after I’ve stopped talking. Sue wanders around alone, deep in thought. Kurtz sits by the fire and eats more deer meat, most of which will spoil. Their lives move slowly forward. With time, this place will become a home for them. Then the orcs and trolls other crazy shit will likely come to destroy everything.
Now my villagers lie down to sleep on the grass, exhausted after having spent all day gathering firewood, hunting, preparing meat, throwing sticks, and erecting a fence in a tiny patch of land.