In the grim cyberpunk world of the 22nd century real life sucks. So people use neural nano-interfaces to escape to the vibrant fantasy worlds of DMMO-RPGs. For years the most popular of these was YGGDRASIL, but it slowly lost momentum and by 2138 is being shut down. Three friends log in to face the last minutes of the game together, completely unaware of what will happen after it ends.
She's the head of their guild, so it's proper really for her to do the send off. They weren't the greats, there's always been someone with more money and time, but - it's been one of Takeko's only connections to the world. To her friends and even her brother now that they live apart.
She walks the halls of their headquarters, committing everything she can to memory, an uneasy silence around her. Soreiyu's still in the central hall, but Kuchinawa's pacing her, a faraway and thoughtful look on his face.
Eventually they circle back around and settle in to wait for the timer to run out.
The timer runs out and apparently nothing happens.
That's weird. Maybe a glitch?
She turns to Soreiyu, who'd been playing around with the controls. "Did the timer run out for you guys, too?"
"Yeah. Something feels weird, though?"
He frowns, and - "I think something's off with the interface. Or I'm hallucinating." He could've sworn he smelled old wood and books, ever so briefly. He takes a deeper sniff.
Anyone particularly perceptive will realize that what feels weird is their clothes, and that they feel weird because YGGDRASIL's haptic feedback is limited enough that they usually don't feel them at all. Also they can see each others lips move and can't see any of their game menus. Those are other things they might notice.
Kuchinawa notices these, and that he's getting more feedback than he used to - not just in game, but in real life.
"Hey guys is this suddenly very real to you two? Because either the game is now real and I'm a snake-person with actual snake-person senses, or I'm having a major hallucination."
She reaches up to touch her raven-feather hair. She can feel individual strands.
"...I think this is now very real. My HUD vanished too, but that might be the game half ending...?"
Soreiyu can feel the coarse hairs on his tail. His ears are picking up on sounds he's never heard.
"Logically, we are all experiencing the same sort of altered qualia, in a higher detail than a hallucination might usually provide. The game world is subtly different, in ways that bring it more in line with reality. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude we have been - either switched to a much higher quality virtual reality system without our knowledge, or transported to another dimension that merely looks like our guild hall."
Kuchinawa digests this, then: "I'm looking outside." He's anxious, jittery, and he ignores his sister and friend calling for him to wait as he darts to the nearest sliding paper door leading properly outside. The castle doesn't have windows, that was unaesthetic, and the wood grain of the shoji door is startlingly real under his fingers. The door rattles in its track as he flings it open.
They castle is on a large rolling plain that is very much not the rice fields that previously surrounded it.
Nothing in particular is in sight.
"Hey guys! Come check this out!" he shouts. Then, before they can get there, runs to check if the NPCs still exist. He'd liked the old samurai dude, Masamune, who hangs out in the courtyard and helps them train the best, so he heads there first. Ranmaru, one of the samurai retainers, should be there too this time of day.
They are both present, and immediately bow upon seeing Kuchinawa.
"Uchiha-Sama. How may we be of service?"
"Hey," he says, lamely. "Have you guys noticed anything. Weird?" They're NPCs, they can't give much feedback, but they sometimes give 'reports' so maybe they know something?
"Do you mean the clouds disappearing?", he says out loud. Which is a feature the devs had talked about adding but never gotten around to. Largely because they were perfectionists and while voice synthesization is doable lip syncing is still firmly in uncanny valley.
That's evidence in favor of Soreiyu's theory, at least. "Yeah," he says. "I'm trying to figure out if something we should know about happened."
Possibly he should check the other NPCs. He's worked enough on most of them over the years to be worried - and also he has a sneaking suspicion he should ask one of them if they have internal experiences. But that would be really weird.
"Could it be an outsider used weather control in our domain without permission?
If so I request you allow me to properly chastise them."
"It looks like the outside also changed? I remember us being surrounded by rice paddies, there's plains there now, and - I want to confirm whether my memory has been altered or we've been moved."
"Sure that we were surrounded by rice patties, that I am.
A scouting party, arrange I shall."
"Thanks. That'd be appreciated. I'm going to check with everyone else, see if anyone saw someone or something out of place."
In YGGDRASIL bases have two broad classes of NPC. Those that are created by the guild owners from a pool of levels, and "POP" monsters that autospawn based on the general theme of the guild base. The later have incredibly primitive AI that cannot be modified by the PC's. Furthermore POPs are at most level 80 which is very week in direct combat against max level PCs. However, these NPCs can still serve as a living wall/alarm system and fight against the hordes of disposable monsters summoned by many classes. Additionally they have the benefits of being relatively plentiful and auto respawning after a certain amount of time has passed since they were killed.
After swallowing a brief moment of distaste Ranmaru decides to call upon the castles "hanzo" POPs to form a stealth group, sending them out in every direction. It will be about an hour before they report back.
He updates Takeko and Soreiyu on the apparently actually-existing NPCs, runs through his mental catalog of his NPCs (sure Soreiyu helped with the code, but Kuchinawa was the one breathing life into them), checks on a few to get their perspective, and then finds one - a shy servant girl who usually plays the biwa and tells old stories for atmosphere - who is extremely, immensely unlikely to spread tales about Kuchinawa behaving strangely, and approaches her to ask, "Hey, this might sound weird, but - how far back do your memories stretch? I think someone might have used a world item to mess with us, so I figured I'd be a bit extra thorough..." It's more indirect than asking 'so do you have internal experiences,' but - he gave her a few hints of backstory, but far from as much as he usually does, since she's one of the more recently instantiated NPCs and with Yggdrasil shutting down he hadn't had the motivation to continue writing.
"Eeh! A world item! How scary!"
She takes a second to calm her self then bows again.
"I apologize for my outburst master. I can remember being rescued by the guild and somethings before that." She has an extremely brief look of confusion before giving you her life story. She remembers what explicitly in her backstory, but not anything else that happened before she actually existed. She also remembers things that happened since she existed and her role in them, and doesn't see anything odd about having not had any agency or even very complex orders until today. Similarly, after that one brief look she had no trouble reconciling the family from her backstory with Kuchinawa being her god and creator.