[‘Letters from the Metaverse’ is a regular weekly column by Mathew Kumar about his adventures in the massively multiplayer online world of Second Life. This week’s column covers RPGs in Second Life.]

I remember reading a short post Gamesetwatch’s dear journo-chum Kieron Gillen once made on his workblog, in which he stated “Gaming’s dark secret: Occasionally it’s enough to see a number getting bigger.”

2006_08_08_backpack.jpgWhen it comes down to it, it’s true. There’s absolutely no other reason that I can explain why this morning when I logged into Second Life just to get a few more shots of Dark Life, the (get your head around this) “MMORPG within an MMORPG” that I’d find my self watching my character hit rats for another couple of hours, tidily dragging me over my deadline for this article and then some. Indeed, you might find it a bit hard to believe, but he’s actually doing it right now while I write this article. I’m just occasionally clicking back to the Second Life window, running him back to the shrine to heal, and then running him back to fight rats.

It’s all because of that bloody Givan dagger.

You see, I’d started Dark Life shortly after my disastrous attempt at golfing, and decided that perhaps sports weren’t the way to go in Second Life – after all, they represent something we understand perfectly well in real life, and therefore have pretty far to fall. My only experience as a medieval warrior comes from video games, so this seemed to be a likely positive game experience in Second Life.

2006_08_08_action.jpgDarkLife is set on the Island of Navora, a small plot of land with a town, a swamp, and other stereotypical RPG areas. When you arrive you must purchase a backpack, which costs $498 Linen (around $2), and a basic sword and shield which cost a nominal $1 Linden each. Once you own these things you are perfectly able to go adventuring around the island of Navora – as long as you’re prepared to begin the hard slog of leveling.

DarkLife is not a sophisticated RPG. It features no quests, and perhaps due to the realities of being inside Second Life and featuring many autonomous monsters it’s one of the laggiest areas I’ve visited so far. It therefore features a very simplistic, turn based combat model. Interestingly, and something that makes the game feel a bit like a throwback to the Multi-User Dungeons of old, is that the majority of commands are performed using the chat window. So to cast a spell, say a heal spell, you say ‘magic heal’. To check how much gold you have you type ‘gold’. It can lead to a fair amount of cross chatter.

2006_08_08_action2.jpgWhen I began playing DarkLife, even with its beta status, I wasn’t particularly impressed. Much like FloG! Golf system, the price you pay seems entirely too high for something that isn’t particularly polished or even finished. In Dark Life it stings even worse, as even though in-game items such as weapons and spells are purchased using gold, each item also requires a payment of $50 Linden.

So, to get yourself entirely kitted out with new weapons and armor it’ll cost you several hundred Linden, and therefore realistically several dollars each time you upgrade. I could see a month of DarkLife costing me $10 dollars, and while the price might be comparable to a month of World of Warcraft, there’s really no comparison in content. And for those of you taking issue with my comparison, there really isn’t any comparison in content to a free Roguelike, either.

But sometimes, it’s enough to see a number getting bigger. I can’t complain about the other players – there aren’t many, but they’re pleasant, and generous. After several unrewarding hours killing rats with the basic sword, this morning (unasked) another player gave me 1000 gold, which I instantly invested in a Givan dagger, only to find that my stats weren’t high enough to use it. And so I spent yet more hours killing rats and watching my numbers go up, and strangely, I enjoyed it, and enjoyed it even more when my new dagger allowed me to venture out into the swamps and begin to kill dragonflies.

If you’re a Second Life devotee with lots of money to burn from your full account it’s a nice timewaster. But I can’t recommend anyone else pay to play a beta.

[Mathew Kumar is a freelance journalist who’s dabbled in MMORPGs, but is too cheap/strong willed to play past a free trial. He got his break with Insert Credit, and his work has been featured in publications as diverse as The Globe and Mail, Torontoist and Eurogamer.]