The art of roleplaying has been one of the several key drivers in virtual environments over the last 20 years. Indeed, there have been environments packed with features supporting roleplaying, scriptable objects, and user-generated content for a long time.
Mostly those environments were text, but that shouldn’t really be held against them. Many roleplayers coming from these environments find them technologically superior to Second Life in many respects, and the textual aspects of them cannot be ignored — with good reason.
A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words.
Not when you’ve got to paint it yourself, though, because frankly we’re not all painters.
Text remains one of the primary mediums of the imagination, because it is cheap and accessible.
Images have power, but words command it.
Let us take two characters. Mandor Sawall, a prince of the Courts of Chaos, and Sofia Senor, major-domo and spy-master to one of Mandor’s deadliest enemies. We examine these two immediately after a masque ball, though for many of the participants shape-shifting has replaced more mundane masks.
Let us examine their avatars, then.
Sharp blue eyes regard the man’s surroundings with an almost clinical scrutiny. The face is young, with ageless eyes. His white hair is pulled back in a dark blue ribbon.
He is clothed in a trim uniform of some vaguely recognizable military; heavy midnight blue cloth with grey trim and buttons. The pants are tucked into snug black boots and edged with grey piping up the outside legs. His modestly trimmed short jacket covers a pearl grey linen shirt, and is open at the neck, tapering down his chest to a close at his waist, and fastened down the front by woven loops of the same grey cord that makes up the epaulets on his shoulders. Two or three small medals, unrecognizable in rank or meaning, are pinned to the left side of his jacket, and a dress sabre of dull grey textured metal hangs in a black leather sword harness at his left side.
Sofia’s hair is a mass of copper and silver wire, interspersed with glasslike fibres. Each wire or fibre seems to be bound in a double-helix of blood-red thread. Her eyes are a shade lighter than the threads, and the pits are tinted powder-blue. Every inch of her visible skin (which seems to be all of it) is a deep brown color, almost ebony. She is completely covered in mirror-bright gold tracks, in designs like the tracks on a circuit board. There are subtle shadings in the gold patterns and the dark background, subtly lighter at the low points, and darker at the highlights, smoothing and concealing any trace of features or shape underneath, except in silhouette.
Total content creation time? About a minute and a half each.
Don’t even get me started on how long it would take to reproduce these two in Second Life. Even a skilled designer might spend many hours on each. Skins and clothing textures can easily run to many tens-of-hours of work.
Now, let’s move to Mandor’s suite of rooms, and see how our avatars fare in action, in a typical, real-time exchange between the users:
Sofia is sitting on the edge of the bed, unbraiding optical fibres from her hair.
Mandor appears in the center of the room, smiling, and his gaze goes to her.
Sofia looks up, and smiles. Enough to show the teeth so that it can be seen beneath the make-up.
Mandor sounds a touch surprised, says, “Ah, Sofia, have you decided to try my offer to arrange a thorough working over from your costume?”
Sofia laughs lightly, “Indeed, yes. I imagine some artistry might be required. I was very thorough.”
Mandor walks to the bed, inspecting her with the intentness of a doctor. “I see…creativity as well as artistry.” he chuckles.
Sofia turns her head to follow his movement, tugging another wire free, and unbraiding the hair that held it, “I pride myself on both. I spent a great deal of time on this costume.”
Mandor smiles, easing down on the bed, then lying on his back, watching her. “It does show. I am sorry that I did not have the pleasure of dancing with you.”
Mandor reaches out a hand and touches her back, as if testing.
Sofia laughs richly, and lands back slightly against the hand, “Too many women to dance with, lord Sawall. They were queuing up for your attentions.”
Mandor mmms. “I noticed. It seemed to get more pronounced after I unmasked.”
Sofia says “I was left in no doubt of your identity, myself, although apparently many were.”
Mandor makes a lazy gesture, and a large white tub shimmers on the other side of the room, steam rising from it. An array of fluffy towels poofs next to it. “I though my ‘disguise’ was obvious too.”
Sofia’s neck arches slightly at the appearance of the tub, and she mmmms, softly. “The very thing. How kind..”
Mandor smiles, brushing her back still. “Will I have to scrub to cleanse you?”
Sofia chuckles lightly, “Come and find out.”
Mandor sits up, saying, “A moment, I want to see this, and not catching glimpses between those in line.”
Sofia slowly stands. She holds her arms out from her body, and slowly turns a full circle.
Mandor stands, watching. He nods appreciatively. “Remind me to hold a private ball some turning.”
Sofia says “Indeed, I shall.”
Mandor glances to the starburst, studying it a moment before looking back to her, holding out a hand. “Shall I make up for the lack of dancing?”
Sofia turns to him, and cocks her head slightly, her gaze flickering across his face, from one feature to the next. She reaches out to take his hand, and says softly, “Is it what you want to do?”
Mandor accepts the hand, drawing closer with a slight smile. “Do you think I would ask if it wasn’t? A few steps privately, no hostly duties, no politics?”
Sofia steps closer, herself, and her gaze lowers to his chest. She murmurs softly, “Lose the medals. Paint is not armour, and my skin is soft.” she looks back to his eyes, and she is close enough that he can see her smile, beneath the disguising patterns and pigments.
Mandor looks down and chuckles almost silently. “They were earned, but I wish for waltzes, not military music, yes.”
Sofia nods silently, and reaches up to touch his cheek, just a brief brush of the fingertips.
Mandor brings her hand up, clasped in his, his smile fading almost unnoticeably.
Mandor murmurs, amusement in his tone, “I must be feeling my age, Sofia.”
Sofia whispers, “So very busy, Mandor. A life full of kings, and women.”
Mandor quirks a small smile and holds her close. “Kings have come and gone in my lifetime, and women. It is not unusual. But I considered myself beyond picking up women at my own parties.”
Sofia snugs up closely “Past tense? There were enough that desired you, or at least your notice.”
Mandor is silent for a moment, then nods slightly. “Only the bold make that known.” He pulls away, looking down at her. “Or those whose curiosity overrides caution.”
Mandor leads her gently over to the hot water.
Sofia moves lightly on the balls of her feet, until she stands by the edge of the tub. She observes, as if to herself, “I have aught that I might desire, but for friends who do not fear me, nor fear my company.” she lowers her gaze to the water. “Life is strange.”
Mandor’s faint frown is thoughtful as he holds her hand high. “And you have many such friends?”
Sofia raises her foot, and tests the water a moment, then lowers it into the tub, watching it’s progress. “I do not make friends easily.”
Mandor helps her into the tub, carefully, nodding. “I do not keep friends easily.” His tone implies the stating of a fact.
Sofia steps completely into the tub, and stands there a moment, “I seem to have mislaid a few myself.” she says, looking at the bath’s carved highlights.
Mandor smiles, his gaze on her face. He leans in and touches his lips to hers.
Sofia turns first her eyes, and then the attention of her lips on him. A two-step process like the changing of gears. She shivers once, the slightest hint, and then squeezes his hand.
Mandor’s kiss is short but eloquent, and his expression thoughtful as he draws away. “Mislaying friends is, unfortunately, the lot of many people such as ourselves.”
Sofia plucks at her lower lip with a fingertip. “A time ago, we spoke of friends and hope.” she lowers herself into the water, “Then we made love. Do you remember?”
Mandor nods, looking about the tub and taking up a soft body brush. “Yes. And here we speak of lost friends and…” He looks at her.
Sofia finishes, “…and I am not certain what else. Have you enlightenment, my friend?” she splashes a little hot water on her arm and hand, and extends it. “A little soap or oil will be needed.”
Mandor nods with an odd little smile, and reaches for a bar of green translucent soap, stops, and sets the brush on the edge of the tub, murmuring, “Sleeves.” before removing his short jacket and rolling the sleeves of his silk shirt. He takes the brush and soap again, and applies apple scented lather to the brush. “Some enlightenment. I find it constantly in the oddest ways and forms.”
Sofia draws up one knee, and rests her chin on it, watching him. Her expression fades into a smile, with an almost impish gleam, after a moment. Whatever, she seems amused at something.
Mandor pauses, catching the look, and smiles. “Enlightenment, or a joke?” He takes her arm and gently but firmly begins scrubbing, moving the brush in circles.
Sofia shifts her head slightly, still smiling, and idly trails the fingers of her other hand in the water, “The uniform. The rolled up sleeves. The brush.” She suppresses a soft giggle. “A true gentleman.” The pigment begins to come away, revealing copper coloured skin, beneath. The gold traceries seem to be some sort of foil.
Mandor chuckles. “The very image of a high ranking floor cleaner. I would not be recognized thus.” He pauses to inspect the traceries, pulling a few loose.
The foil peels up with reasonable ease, not deigning to break into pieces. It seems to all be a single piece. Sofia chuckles softly, “Not a floor-cleaner, no. Not you.”
Mandor continues scrubbing, paying attention to her hand and fingers. “I noticed something at the Ball.”
Sofia tilts her head slightly, “I noticed one or two things myself. What?”
Mandor says “A surprising number of married couples. Bassor and his wife just had children.”
Sofia’s smile fades, like the wisps of smoke from a newly extinguished candle, “Yes…I noticed as much myself. Aldrayeth and Rynnaen, too. They underscored it, if naught else.”
Mandor’s tone is dry as he covers her hands with lather and rubs firmly, “Yes, I noticed.”
Sofia turns her hand and arm, as more and more of the pigment comes away, more easily now. “While it may have seemed otherwise, I wish them the best.” she shifts her head again, rubbing her lips and then her nose against her knee, looking at some point beyond his shoulder. “Happiness is rare, and where you find it…or so I imagine.”
Mandor’s gaze flicks to her at the last statement, and brings the brush to bear on her shoulders. “Indeed. Have you found that happiness in anything thus far?”
Sofia lowers her knee, and rests her chin on her hands, and her arms on the edge of the bath, leaning towards, rather than away, from him. Her shoulders are well exposed. “Fleetingly. Once or twice, I thought I had grasped it, but it is gone. Although it’s echoes are here.”
Mandor moves his free arm to rest it against the side of her hand, the hand draping on her shoulder as he works. “Ephemeral then, though others seem to have grasped it and held on. Perhaps we should investigate their secrets.”
Sofia nods, slightly, “Perhaps we should.” She mmms, softly, and stretches her shoulders a bit, before relaxing against the side of the tub again. “Have you a plan, or a scheme?”
Mandor moves his hand to massage her shoulders as he hmms in contemplation. “Nothing formed, no. Theories, idle thoughts that turn less idle as I learn more, but little else. You?”
Sofia sighs a little, “I fail to see love as an all consuming thing,” she purrs slightly under the massage, then: “Though some doubtless find it so. Enough to be lost within it’s coils. Whatever may be, that does not seem to be the way for me. Not the heart hammering to the exclusion of the head. Does that make sense to you?”
Mandor nods, starting on her other arm. “Yes, it does, and I agree. To be lost is an unfavorable situation, though I have seen many walk into it, as lemmings, in the name of an ideal.”
Mandor adds, “Not a habit of mine, perhaps unfortunately.”
Sofia lifts her head, giving him better access to her arm, “Well put, though some kind of ideals drive us all, noble or ignoble.” she tilts her head and looks into his eyes “What is it we seek, Mandor? That we do not have it is plain. But what is it?”
Mandor pauses, his expression mild and strangely unreadable but for the tone of his voice, which is now quiet. “Hypothetical question, Sofia, or are you asking me for an honest answer?”
Sofia opens her mouth, then shuts it again. She frowns, arching an eyebrow introspectively. “Honest,” she decides.
Mandor nods slightly, resting the brush briefly on the side of the tub. “You are aware of the dance of politics, the meanings within meanings, and the words that carry them, yes?”
Sofia nods, and turns her head, back to the entrance-Way. “I thought politics was waiting outside….or must it enter with the envelope?”
Sofia looks back at him.
Mandor says “It does not wait, and it has no outside.” He brings up a hand to tap his head. “It resides here.” He lowers his hand to flick water at her idly with a finger. “Tell me, how much do you think trust enters into that?”
Sofia laughs softly, “I find there is some, actually. I trust you to do what is expeditious. I trust you to do what furthers your ends. I do not trust you in my files, or in my wine cellar.”
Mandor smiles, lathering the brush again and reaching into the water, soaking his sleeve, to grasp her leg, bringing it above the surface of the water. “You place trust in whatever is predictable. But would you trust me with your life?”
Mandor says “In any situation where there is a need for that trust?”
Sofia allows her leg to be hoisted, raising it a little farther. She muses for a time, toying with a carved undine at the rim of he tub. “Sometimes.” she pronounces. “One must necessarily start with predictabilities, and advance into the unknown. There is no gain without risk. Even our aforementioned lemmings know that, when they throw their hearts around. Is love, then, so much like politics?”
Mandor scrubs her feet first, then on up, his tone light. “I do not believe there is a difference.” His gaze is studiously on his brush.
Mandor says “I have not had the opportunity to observe it for long.”
Sofia is silent for a time. Then she murmurs softly, “We seem to have yet to master that aspect, then, yes. I have..” She pauses, searching for words “..made observations of my own, of a sort.”
Mandor says with interest, “Oh?” He snags the other leg and scrubs, the water in the tub becoming more and more colorful.
Sofia tilts her head back, passive in his grasp. She studies the ceiling. “It began with strangers, becoming lovers…becoming dust and ashes and ghosts.” she pauses for a breath or two, “It was painful, and yet worthwhile. Having removed strangers from the field, what does that leave?”
Mandor brings his hands out of the water, making a lazy circle with one. The water clears and warms, steam rising slightly again. He dips his hands under the clean water and brushes her torso. “Friends and enemies.”
Sofia mms softly, and raises her body slightly in the water. She frowns at the ceiling, “I cannot help but feel that lightning is about to strike.”
Mandor grins wryly. “And you do not feel grounded, I take it?”
Sofia laughs softly, and studies his face, “Not that. Just a feeling of imminence.”
Mandor’s expression is one of calm interest, and he smiles at her. “And so you wait, hmm?”
Sofia says “I explore.”
Mandor says “So, it seems, do I.” he shakes his head. “Flirting. Me.”
Sofia tilts her head again, a little to the right, “I don’t think so. Unless we have redefined the term. Moving. Intending. Testing. Not flirting. No more than scrubbing floors.”
Mandor maintains his glance. “The term still applies, I think. Moving, intending, testing….”
Sofia says “Speak.”
Mandor murmurs, “Turn over.”
Sofia nods. She sits up, and then turns, resting on her knees in the tub, arms folded at the rim, resting her chin there.
Mandor brushes her tush, silent for a moment.
Mandor says “I am uncertain if the flirting has intent. It has not always had it.”
Sofia speaks without turning her head, merely pressing against the scrubbing. “I do not know. I have a feeling that there is intent. Or a suspicion. Whatever word seems best to you.”
Sofia says “I feel you would not act without purpose.”
Mandor shakes his head. “Suspicion, no. And I have not been known to act without purpose.” He cups water in his hands and rinses her shoulders. “It is amusing to think that my purpose might be to see what the attached people have.”
Mandor inquires, “Feel better?”
Sofia stretches languorously, “Much, yes.” She sits up and steeples her fingers, the tips of her index fingers against her lips. “Is it in your mind to experiment, then? With love?”
Mandor flicks a smile, leaning on his elbows at the edge of the tub. “Does one dally, as if in hobby, with love?” He shakes his head. “I dally in many things, but have made a hobby of avoiding that one. Mayhap I am just feeling my age when I reconsider my hobbies.”
Sofia says “Self-examination. The most important art of all.” she gestures at the tub, and the brush, “Did you enjoy this?”
Mandor says “Did you?”
Sofia looks impish again, “I’ve already answered that one. Your turn.”
Mandor smiles. “Yes, I did.”
Sofia says “This is the sort of thing those couples do, when they are alone with each-other. I find it promising that we can enjoy it also.”
Mandor reaches up and brushes her hair near the temples. “Promising.” He takes his hand away, and sets the brush down.
Sofia nods, and murmurs “Yes. A less sophisticated pleasure, but hardly barbaric.”
Mandor smiles slightly, sitting up and surveying her. “I would have to agree, though the results rival any work of art I’ve seen, in more ways than one.”
Mandor pushes himself to his feet, taking a large fluffy towel and shaking it out, like a bullfighter’s cape. “And now, the wrapping.”
Sofia laughs once; a single, bright sound, and blushes, “Oh, my. I don’t know quite how to take that.” She stands, as he flourishes the towel, and presents herself for it.
Mandor laughs also, enclosing her in the towel and hugging tight, for maximum absorption, of course. “You took it well. The laugh and blush only prove my point.”
Mandor says “There is something quite extraordinary about that combination.”
Sofia murmurs “Indeed? Were I to be honest, I would say that I could stand much of this sort of time, in your company…” her voice trails away, from murmur to whisper, “..were I to be honest..”
Mandor lifts her chin with a hand, looking down into her eyes. “Honest.”
Sofia’s chin quivers slightly against his touch and her gaze drops, “Honest…” she echoes, introspectively. Then her gaze comes back up, eyes meeting his, “I want more of this.”
Mandor’s smile turns contemplative. “You propose an experiment?”
Sofia takes a breath “I do.” she says, “What think you?”
Mandor says “I am far from adverse to the idea, Sofia.”
Sofia chews the inside of her lip for a moment, breasts heaving a touch. “It is customary, I think, to make one’s position clear, as I have done…odd though it sounds, there seems to be something in it.”
Mandor traces the curve of her jaw, saying, “We won’t know if we don’t try.” Pause. “I’ve had this conversation before.”
Sofia says “I know that we were in similar vein on friendship, once. I think the results were positive.”
Mandor nods slightly, eyes a touch distant.
Sofia says “I am not a Sawall, Mandor. I am not Dara. I am..outside of all that. Something different. Is it something you want?”
Mandor narrows his eyes a little at that, says, “I realize that, Sofia.”
Mandor says “But…it may be what I need, yes.”
Sofia says “Perhaps the essence of this is…renewal?” she frowns, dissatisfied with the choice of word, “That it is a new thing…a unique thing..in it’s way, seems inseparable from the thing itself.” She searches his eyes, “What are you thinking, Mandor?”
Mandor shrugs, mostly with his eyes and a shoulder. “I weigh risk and losses, past and future. You may be correct when you say love is political.” His hold on her towel-wrapped form tightens briefly.
Sofia puts her arms around him, and pulls tight. “Whatever it is, I intend to take pleasure in it.”
Sofia whispers, “In you, if you would have it so.”
Mandor smiles. “The guests dance around me from desire for self preservation.” He nods, bringing a hand up to rest on the back of her head. “Very well, we shall see what comes of it.”
Sofia nods, “We shall….” she hesitates, and tries appending “Dear.” trying the word out on him, watching his eyes.
Mandor’s sharp blue eye seem distant, though in a moment they reflect a smile as he picks her up, towel and all, saying nothing.
Sofia curls, slightly, forming to his grasp, and against his body, arms slipping around his neck.
Mandor bears her to the bed, and sets her down, saying, “I feel the need, as with Dara, for a disclaimer and something of a confession.”
Sofia pats the bed next to her “You should be comfortable, I think. Only Easu and the Serpent’s priests seem to feel the need for discomfort for confessioneers.”
Mandor smiles, sitting on the bed, then laying on his side alongside her. “It can be, I believe, explained in a story.”
Sofia nods, listening, “Tell me, then.” she strokes his cheek lightly.
Mandor says “There was a time, one of a few, when I loved. She was a minor family member in a House, and very beautiful. Charming, intelligent…” His tone turns thoughtful. “I meant to surprise her one turning, as I am wont to do. She was with one of her House’s servants.”
Sofia continues to listen, fingers probing his hairline.
Mandor continues, “They were dead before I had fully assessed the situation.”
Sofia looks curious.
Mandor says “I never stopped long enough to ask her why…”
Mandor looks at her quietly.
Sofia says “This is in the nature of a warning.” This is presented as a statement.
Mandor says “I hope not, but it is fair to tell you. It was an impulsive thing, an act I regret.”
Sofia continues touching softly “Do you still wonder why? Or have you answered that since?”
Mandor says “Mmm, it was a violation of trust.”
Mandor pauses. “And that is as far as I’ve thought about why.”
Sofia murmurs “So we come to trust again. I cannot destroy … cannot kill … Not in the same ways.”
Mandor reaches over to roll her into his arms. “I consider might be’s before starting. A habit I would like to try dropping now.”
Sofia snugs up close, “Might be’s, might be anything..” she murmurs, and kisses him, softly, slowly, warming.
Mandor returns the kiss, fingers running through flaming hair.
Sofia’s hands roam over his chest, imperatives of ages past introducing themselves to the equation. She deepens the kiss, and smells faintly of lemons, under the apple scent of the soap.
And that’s where we fade out, as scenes of a sexual nature are not a part of the role-play between these two users, regardless of the relationship between their characters.
Total time for the whole scene above, start to finish: about 35 minutes.
At present, there is no virtual environment where this scene could play out in any form other than text, without robbing it of all of its power. Even if one were to generate all the props, clothing, skins, textures, furniture, animations, and assorted whatnots — the fact remains that the scene here was completely unscripted and the actions and results of it were a surprise to the users playing the scene.
When you bring two people together, in real-time and unscripted, the outcome is never certain. If you think it is, you’ve not asked people out on too many dates in all likelihood.
The closest you could come would be LARP (Live Action Role-Playing), but even so, we would lose the richness of costumes, props and settings, all lovingly described in hand-crafted words. So far, nothing is as rich and evocative or as versatile. You don’t need to be a scripter or a builder or an artist to create gorgeous and surprising scenes and scenery.
Despite areas in Second Life devoted to various settings, with landscapes, and props, weapons (where appropriate) and scripted rules-systems, costumery and rich visuals, the very core of role-play in virtual environments always has been the written word, and for quite some time to come will continue to be so.