Eddie rolls out of bed at 8 AM, powering on his computer then stumbling to the kitchen to make coffee and grab an energy bar. His machine takes ages to start up lately. It’s beginning to show its age, having been built a few years prior. He’d like to upgrade, but the price of graphics cards has shot back up recently thanks to the resurgence of crypto mining. In the back of his memory he recalls a period during his youth when his family never turned their home computer off. But electricity is much too expensive for that these days.
Back in his room, he launches the game Eternity as he’s done thousands of times before, opening YouTube on his second monitor and scrolling through his video subscriptions as the game updates. He hits the character select screen and chooses his main character, an endgame-level Communer who can command nanotechnology to deploy powerful offensive abilities. The game holds for a second as it runs ownership checks on his equipment.
He owns his character, but the exotic equipment he’s using is leased from one of the big factions. The biggest factions are owned by major corporations — Tesla, Amazon, Facebook, and so on. Eddie’s is owned by a Chinese chicken processing company. Signing up with a faction means quicker access to critical equipment needed to run the game’s harder content and make money, but also a lower take-home percentage of your in-game earnings. It’s only fair, since the factions own the resources that skilled players require to take on bosses and raids. And as wages stayed stagnant and employers replaced more and more workers with AI, playing games like Eternity to earn cash became more and more attractive, meaning that the big factions could set whatever rental fees they wanted.
Of course, there are other ways to play. Eddie’s seen people on social media advocating for the creation of player-owned factions, in which gear and loot would be collectively owned and distributed throughout the group with no fees extracted by owners. It’s a nice idea, and works well enough on a small scale, but in practice these factions have trouble getting a hold of the resources they’d need to make the model work in the first place. Some more extreme elements advocate even more radical actions, including forcibly taking high-level gear from the big factions via hacks and social engineering, but it’s risky. The law hasn’t caught up to in-game financial systems yet, so they wouldn’t go to jail for stealing someone’s virtual property, but it’s against Eternity’s Terms of Service and violators would likely be ID banned and locked out of the game for years or even the rest of their lives.
Eternity isn’t the only game in the metaverse. War of Heroes is another a popular one, set in a fantasy world populated by elves and wizards. Another is Dark Ops: Advanced Combat, a contemporary military shooter where players fight for survival on a massive island. But learning these games takes weeks or months, and none of them have the narrative qualities Eddie finds so fascinating about Eternity. The story is doled out slowly, bit by bit, but the character development and changes to the world over time are truly incredible to behold.
Some players aren’t at all interested in this kind of thing and just play for the action, while others get deeply into the world, sharing videos and essays on the meanings of the smallest in-game details. Some of these content creators make a living in this way, forming a kind of secondary market of experts, advisors, and decoders around the game itself.
Eddie sips his coffee and checks the time — 8:10, giving him a good half-hour to play before he has to log on for work. Eternity isn’t his full-time job, just a fun hobby that kicks him some extra income on the side. He’s officially employed as a customer support agent for a retro games platform. The term used to refer to games for decades-old hardware, but shifted over time to describe any game not hooked into the metaverse.
These kinds of games became less and less popular as developers saw the money to be made in play-to-earn systems, but they maintain a steady fanbase, some of whom are loudly critical of the shift to metaverse gaming on socials. No one really listens to them — the idea of a game where you don’t own your gear (in principle) or make money by playing fell out of vogue once the big studios got on board with the metaverse. Now, retro games are mainly the province of independent artists. Some corporations have even begun pulling their pre-metaverse back catalogs off services like the one Eddie works for, retooling them to become part of their newer offerings.
Eddie’s character transports into Eternity’s hub world with a spiralling flash of light. The area, called Pathos, is set in a massive, sprawling tree that grows upwards into the sky, nourished by the light of a blazing blue sun. Paths and structures are carved along the tree’s branches — or more accurately, built into them, as the tree was created out of a kind of technorganic material, part biological, part mechanical.
In the worldbuilding of Eternity, humanity was once able to control and cultivate such matter, but a global catastrophe of unknown origins had wiped out the knowledge to do so. Now, only a few select individuals are capable of directing the technology with the aid of invocations and items that have long since lost their original meaning. Science has become magic, as man’s lost descendants desperately attempt to understand their heritage and survive the onslaught of numerous alien species interested in claiming it for themselves.
These little details had drawn Eddie to the game in the first place — Eternity’s world was so different from that of any other title available when it launched. While other games were focused on simulating “realistic” combat situations or accessible multiplayer experiences, Eternity was exploring grand philosophical questions in the tradition of classic science fiction. Of course, none of the worldbuilding would matter if the game itself wasn’t compelling, and Eternity was — and still is. The moment-to-moment loop of traversing areas on insectoid mounts, acquiring new gear from the game’s characters, and doing battle with fantastical powers is what keeps players coming back even during content droughts.
Checking his quest log, Eddie realizes that right now there’s nothing much on his plate besides dailies and weeklies — repeatable activities he can complete for random rewards. He’s played through these hundreds of times before, but he always finds himself coming back.
“I need a job done, friend,” Dar’zal the merchant tells Eddie in-game, beginning a bit of dialogue he’s heard so many times that he’s memorized it. “Bleak Dancer, the Scourge of the Rings, is once again leading raids against my vessels in orbit over Oberon. I tire of her interruptions. End this once and for all, and you will be richly rewarded.”
He grabs a few side quests — tasks to defeat a certain number of foes, use certain tactics, and so on — before he hops in his ship and launches into the high reaches of the atmosphere. As he rockets towards the moon of Uranus, three other ships pull up alongside his, representing other players who’ve been matched with him for the mission. He checks their data — pretty average gear, decent playtime — they should be reliable enough. Still, he turns chat off — he gets enough of talking to strangers at his job.
Their ships sail through space, masking the game’s process of unloading the previous environment and readying the next one. Meanwhile, Eddie scrolls through the news on his other monitor. The war in the Indo-Pacific is flaring up again, as it had on and off for the last five years. Storms are expected to batter the northeast US harder than usual over the next few weeks. Fires rage across California and the southwest, kicking up vast clouds of choking black smoke.
Eddie sighs and closes the window, getting up and heading to the bathroom while he waits for the game to load. He cracks open the medicine cabinet, pushing aside bottles and tubes until he finds what he’s looking for — an orange plastic prescription bottle that had belonged to his ex-girlfriend. He unscrews the childproof lid and discovers only one and a half of the small turquoise amphetamine pills still left inside. He shakes the broken-off half out into his palm, fills a glass with water, and downs it, re-closing the medicine cabinet and getting a glimpse of his face in the mirror for the first time since the night before.
As a physical specimen, he is unremarkable. His body is beginning to show the effects of years of bad posture hunched over a keyboard. His eyes and hair are a similar shade of dark brown, his skin pale and slightly scarred from a particularly vicious teenage struggle with acne. He presses the heels of his hands into his closed eyes, feeling the pressure and hearing his eyeballs squeak in his skull. He drinks the rest of the glass of water, shuts the light off, takes a deep breath, and walks back across his room to the desk, where he sits, cracks his knuckles, and begins the mission.
In reality, Oberon is a barren ball of ice and rock, and, Eddie passingly thinks, probably will be until the sun explodes. But in Eternity, it had been terraformed by giant, spiderlike aliens who left crisscrossing transit webs across the moon before they had been hunted to extinction by another of the game’s alien species. As a result, Oberon is starkly beautiful — skyways of thread as strong as steel crisscrossed the skies, giving the effect of a kind of otherworldly jungle.
“Fools,” the Bleak Dancer hisses through Eddie’s comms as he approaches the merchant ship where the mission takes place. “I am the Scourge of the Rings! I claim this ship and its goods in the name of the Speakers! Leave at once or face your deaths!”
He and his squad are teleporting onto the ship even before the voiceover is done. He tries to remember the first time he heard it — years ago at this point. Back then, Bleak Dancer was a legitimate threat, one that required careful planning and coordination to beat. Now, he can do this mission only half paying attention, his gaze divided between the grim corridors of the merchant vessel on one screen and a video about using mushrooms as a sustainable building material on the other.
Gunfire and crashes of energy tear through the ship, which is conveniently absent of human crew who might get in the way of Eddie’s rampage. His Communer manipulates nanotechnology, commanding the microscopic robots through his faction-leased Apex Insignia to spear and cleave apart dozens of foes at once with deadly blades spawned from the walls and floor of the ship. Little indicators on the right of the screen tick up various resources he’s earning in the process, but he barely pays them any attention.
When he and his crew arrive at the bridge, Bleak Dancer turns — as she has a thousand times before — and draws her two axes crackling with electrical energy. Eddie’s squad immediately lets loose with lasers, rockets, and machine guns, blasting at her shields. This was exciting, once, but now it’s rote. She leaps into the vents, they fight off a swarm of her goons, she comes back, rinse and repeat.
The music swells as Eddie deals the final blow, Bleak Dancer cursing him in death as she collapses and the “Mission Complete” text appears onscreen.
“Excellent work, Communer,” Dar’zal’s voice says. “I’m unlocking your rewards now. You’ve certainly earned them. I look forward to future collaboration.”
A chest spawns in the middle of the arena, cracking open and launching a burst of multi-colored resources and equipment into the air like confetti. Eddie’s run the mission so many times, collected his meager rewards so often that he almost misses it — a white token, signifying the highest level of gear. Even his faction-provided equipment is only yellow, two rarity tiers lower.
He’s never even seen a piece of white gear in person, let alone equipped one. As he moves his character over the item to collect it, its identity appears in bright letters in your inventory — the Apogee Insignia, the rarest and most powerful piece of Communer equipment in the game. He can’t believe it — a drop like this can change everything, can make the difference between a good player and a dominant one. With this kind of gear, he could even start his own faction, maybe quit his job—
Eddie’s phone vibrates on his desk. The subject line reads “Congratulations!” It’s from his faction. He opens it up, scrolling through, barely seeing the words. “Congratulations on your rare find… as agreed to in your contract all drops above yellow become property of the faction… we’re pleased to offer you a discount on your monthly lease as a finder’s fee… thank you for playing Eternity.”
He realizes he’s been holding his breath since he picked up the Insignia. Eddie checks his inventory again, and it’s gone. He exhales, a long, drawn-out sound like a balloon deflating. He looks at the time. 8:45. Time for work.