The Otherworld Series
Centuries in the future, upon learning about new developments in brain-computer interfaces, a mysterious man named Joe with enormous resources at his disposal commissions the creation of an immersive virtual world, ultimately to be interacted with through such a brain-computer interface, the further development of which he also funds. The platform is called Virtuality, and of the several realms built upon that platform, the first and largest is called the Sphidiverse, styled after an amalgam of traditional fantasy settings. In addition to the behind-the-scenes development of the world and the platform, and Joe's own exploration of it, the lives of two early adopters are explored as exemplars of how the existence of this virtual world begins to reshape many aspects of society. One is a a young man, Tom, a rather asocial person who spends most of his free time in the already-existing virtual worlds of video games, getting most of his mental interaction through that medium, and his physical interaction, including his sexual needs, through a pair of non-sapient robots, one male and one female, as Tom is pansexual and pangender, often presenting in his games with a female avatar and wishing he could just as easily switch on a female body in reality, but not wanting to actually transition and have to be female all the time. His high hopes from Virtuality are the ability for his own perceived body to be as changable and dynamic as the virtual worlds in which he already spends most of his time, seeking "morphological freedom" as he terms it. His main interest in games is action, and as a beta-tester of Virtuality and the Sphidiverse, he spends most of his time exploring the fantastic aspects of it, adventuring around and looking for a fun fight. In the early stages of development, absent the brain-computer interface, he mostly finds Virtuality just another interesting video game, but only one among many, nothing unique yet. The other exemplar whose life is explored is an elderly woman named Xiuying, who is severely disabled and dependent on prosthetics, mobility technologies, and the aid of her robotic caretakers, which allows her to live an independent enough life but keeps her from enjoying it as much as she once did. Her interest in Virtuality is the hope of looking and especially feeling young and beautiful again. In the early stages of development, absent the brain-computer interface, she finds the virtual world a pretty distraction, sort of a fun sandbox in which to build things including a photorealistic avatar that looks just like her young self but also things like the home of her dreams, and an interesting way to connect with other friends and family from around the world; but still being ultimately confined to her real body while doing so, she's not completely sold on it yet. Then the brain-computer interface becomes safe for general human testing, and both Tom and Xiu plunge into the virtual world "for real" at last. (More details).
Finally experiencing a virtual world as though it was truly real, Tom and Xiu have a number of shocking experiences, and provide feedback as beta testers that reshapes the nature of that virtual world before it goes live to the public. Xiu is simply loving feeling young and healthy again, and spends most of her time playing in the world as a virtual sandbox, working with her hands and coordinating with other users on grand projects of "physical" art, buildings and structures and such, aided by the "magic" system of auxilliary commands (besides control of their virtual avatars) available to users of Virtuality, to e.g. levitate objects, heat or cool them, etc. Meanwhile one of the first things that Tom wants to explore is what it feels like to actually inhabit his female avatar, and especially what it's like to have sex as her, feeling as though real the sensations of body parts he has never had before. Even more mind-blowing that that, however, is the sensation of inhabiting an avatar as it dies and regenerates. In the world of Virtuality, pain and injury remain possible, so that people can experience the full range of sensations available in real life. But death is impossible, and upon the death of the virtual body, the user becomes a "ghost", completely incorporeal at first but growing gradually more corporeal as the old virtual body decays. After experiencing that just once, Tom almost quits the program, but decides to stick it out and just be way more cautious about the kinds of fights he gets into and how he handles them. As other users adapt likewise, surrender becomes much more common, and battles to the death much less so. The adaptation of the "magic" system to combat also becomes much more frequent, with users duelling through control of that system rather than avatar-to-avatar combat, and surrendering when threatened with direct harm to their avatar. Xiu and friends are continually annoyed by other users fighting in their virtual sandbox, often destroying the things they'be built in collatteral damage, not to mention threatening virtual bodily harm as well. Even users like Tom who willingly engage in the combat find that some users, far more skilled than others, can easily dominate others and ruin their experience as well. In response to feedback like this, Joe and company implement a system of tiered realms, where there are two small uppermost and lowermost realms wherein only the most well-behaved users and the strongest fighters can enter, respectively. Though Tom is not surprised to find he is not the strongest fighter, and quickly resolves himself to practicing until he can win his way into the deepest depths of "hell", Xiu is shocked to find that the algorithm does not consider her good enough to enter the highest reaches of "heaven", and after much soul-seaching dedicates herself to a program of sincere self-improvement to earn her place there. She fears she will not have time to complete that project however, as real-life medical issues threaten to end her time in any world. But Joe offers her to be an early tester of the next major feature of Virtuality: mind-uploading, to make the virtual world into something of a virtual afterlife. She gratefully accepts, and the procedure is a success. Her body passes on, but her mind continues in Virtuality. (More details).
Virtuality has gone public and is a resounding success. Exceedingly popular with the sick and elderly and dying, virtually all of them begin mind-uploading, and the population of Virtuality explodes, but the system of tiered realms sorts them into appropriate groups and everything works out fine between them. Some users like Tom even choose to have their mostly-unused physical bodies put into suspended animation after uploading their minds, so as to become effectively immortal while also retaining their physical youth. It turns out this mind-uploaded virtual afterlife was Joe's purpose in commissioning Virtuality to begin with, as he is secretly the immortal Xio, thousands of years old, who has had trapped within his mind all that time the enraged consciousness of his once-lover Met, who he regretfully murdered in a time before history. Virtuality was built to be a place to finally release her, to set her free from his mind, and to free him from her as well. She unfortunately does not flourish once set free in Virtuality, but instead, tortured into insanity by her millennia of mental imprisonment, becomes a violent character automatically confined by Virtuality's systems to the lowest of the realms, which she quickly comes to dominate, earning the popular moniker "the Queen of Hell". Tom eventually fights his way into hell and meets her, being awed at her fighting prowess and apparently ceaseless rage, as well as intrigued by many of the cryptic things she often shouts at those she fights. He tells one of his virtual lovers about the Queen, someone who it seems works for Xio, as when the two of them begin a quest to fight back into hell together and show the Queen to Tom's lover, the lover's coworkers pursue them and try vehemently to dissuade them from disturbing the Queen, to the point of eventually disconnecting the lover from Virtuality, which Tom finds as appalling as something like imprisonment or execution, as Virtuality is his world and to be denied it seems to him like being denied life. Xiu meanwhile has continued her path of self-improvement and earned her place in the most heavenly realm, where she has helped to craft many grand and beautiful vistas and settings for the people of that realm to share. But not too long into the future thereafter, the real world suffers an unprecedented cataclysm, and Xio rushes to connect to Virtuality so as to at least rescue Met, making his way directly to "hell", where he finds Met and tells her what has happened and urges her to reupload to his mind, but she refuses, being happy that the world is finally ending. As Virtualty begins failing, and he can feel his immortal physical body being buried in the crumbling ruins of the real world, Xio uses his administrative powers and the side-effects of his immortality to preserve the bit of Hell where Met is, and whoever happens to be there, including Tom. Then he bridges a portal to "heaven" and urges as many as possibly to come join him. Many see the hell-folk there and refuse; many disconnect against Xio’s advice only to die in the real world soon after; but other do heed his advice, including Xiu, who must reluctantly abandon her grand creation. Xio promises her and the other heaven-folk that this bit of hell he has preserved will be made into something much better, and that he will sustain it and them for as long as it is within his power to do so. (More details).