Welcome to the Metaverse

You roll out of bed at 8 AM, powering on your computer then heading to the kitchen to make coffee and grab an energy bar. Back in your room, you launch Eternity, opening YouTube on your second monitor and scrolling through your subscriptions as the game updates. You hit the character select screen and choose your main, an endgame-level Communer who can tap into the magic of the cosmos to use powerful offensive abilities. The game holds for a second as it runs ownership checks on your equipment. You own your character, of course, but the exotic equipment you’re using is leased from one of the big factions. It’s not unheard of for players to own their gear, but the rare weapons and armor necessary for the game’s toughest activities are beyond the reach of all but the most wealthy or dedicated players. Most simply opt to sign on with a faction, getting powerful items to use in exchange for tithing a portion of their in-game earnings to faction leadership.

The biggest factions are owned by corporations — Tesla, Amazon, Facebook, and so on. Signing up with them means quicker access to critical equipment, but also a lower take-home percentage of your earnings. It’s only fair, since they own the resources that skilled players require to take on bosses and raids. And as wages stayed stagnant and the weather got more and more unpredictable, staying inside to play games like Eternity for a living became more and more attractive, meaning that the big factions can set whatever rental fees they want.

Of course, there are other ways to play. You’ve seen people on socials 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 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 online financial systems yet, so you wouldn’t go to jail for stealing someone’s virtual property, but it’s against Eternity‘s Terms of Service and you’d likely be ID banned and locked out of the game for years or even the rest of your life.

There are other games out there in the metaverse, of course. But learning them takes weeks or months, and none of them have the narrative quality of 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.

You sip your coffee and check the time — 8:10, giving you a good half-hour to play before you have to log on for work. Eternity isn’t your full-time job, just a fun hobby that kicks you some extra income on the side. You’re 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 you work for, retooling them to become part of their newer offerings.

Loading into the intricate Gothic-styled city-world of Pathos, you marvel at the detail and beauty of the world around you before pulling up your quest log. Right now there’s nothing much on your plate besides your dailies and weeklies — repeatable activities you complete for random rewards. You’ve played through these hundreds of times before, but the world is so captivating, the gameplay so satisfying, that you always find yourself coming back. With about a half-hour before you have to start getting ready for work, you’ve got time to run a quick mission while you catch up on your video subscriptions.

“I need a job done, friend,” Dar’zal the merchant tells you, beginning a bit of dialogue you’ve heard so many times you’ve memorized it. “Bleak Dancer, the Scourge of the Rings, is once again leading raids against my vessels. I tire of her interruptions. End this once and for all, and you will be richly rewarded.”

You grab a few side quests — tasks to defeat a certain number of foes, use certain tactics, and so on — before you hop in your ship and launch into the high reaches of the atmosphere. As you rocket towards space, three other ships pull up alongside yours, representing other players who’ve been matched with you for the mission. You check their data — pretty average gear, decent playtime — they should be reliable enough. Still, you flip chat off — you get enough of talking to strangers at your job.

“Fools,” the Bleak Dancer hisses through your comms as you approach the merchant ship. “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!”

You and your squad are teleporting onto the ship even before the voiceover is done. You try to remember the first time you 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, you can do this mission only half paying attention, your gaze divided between the grim corridors of the merchant vessel on one screen and a video about using mushrooms as a 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 your rampage. Your Communer calls on the deep, channeling its energies through your faction-leased Apex Insignia to devour dozens of foes at a time with crackling tears in the fabric of reality itself. Little indicators on the right of the screen tick up various resources you’re earning in the process, but you barely pay them any attention.

When you arrive at the bridge, Bleak Dancer turns — as she has a thousand times before — and draws her blades, unfurling her eight arms to dramatic effect. Your 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, you fight off a swarm of her goons, she comes back, rinse and repeat.

The music swells as you deal the final blow, Bleak Dancer cursing you 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. You’ve run the mission so many times, collected your meager rewards so many times that you almost miss it — a white token, signifying the highest level of gear. Even your faction-provided equipment is only yellow, two rarity tiers lower. You’ve never even seen a piece of white gear in person, let alone equipped one. As you move your 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. You 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, you could even start your own faction, maybe quit your job—

Your phone vibrates on your desk. The subject line reads “Congratulations!” It’s from your faction. You open 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.”

You realize you haven’t been breathing since you picked up the Insignia. You check your inventory again, and it’s gone. Exhale. You check the clock — 8:45. Inhale. Time for work.

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merritt k

Managing Editor, Podcasts

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