Otherland is an epic Post-Cyberpunk novel series written by Tad Williams, comprising four volumes: City of Golden Shadow (1996), River of Blue Fire (1998), Mountain of Black Glass (1999), and Sea of Silver Light (2001).The story is set Twenty Minutes into the Future, where corporate entities are as or more powerful than governments and the Internet has become a Metaverse with its own private virtual reality environments. It follows a disparate group of ordinary people whose lives become entwined in the discovery that thousands of children around the world are falling into comas that are seemingly related to their use of the 'Net. As they delve further into these mysteries, they encounter a secretive figure named Sellars who tells them that the comas are connected to a conspiracy of the world's elite known as the Grail Brotherhood. Their apparent goal is to create a computer simulation more powerful than anything that has ever been seen before, called the Grail Network by its creators but Otherland by the few outsiders who know of it. With Sellars' help, they break into this system looking for clues, only to be trapped within the network, unable to "disconnect" and return to their bodies.Stumbling from one hostile virtual reality environment to another, chased by agents of the Brotherhood, they discover that the system is becoming distorted in a way that no normal computer ought to be, and that these distortions are centered around a dark entity known as the "Other" that serves as the operating system of the network. People who die in Otherland are dying in real life. Back in the physical world, forces are at work hunting down and destroying the enemies of the Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood itself seems to be building its project up to an ultimate conclusion. Even worse, their party has been infiltrated by a sociopathic killer, named Johnny Dread, with a hidden agenda of his own, one that ultimately disrupts the Grail Brotherhood's ceremony and threatens the stability of the entire system. It becomes a race against time to solve the mystery of the Other before they are killed by the network or by Dread himself.If this sounds like a long synopsis, wait until you read the books themselves. Tad Williams prides himself on the interweaving of multiple plot threads and enormous casts of characters, and even more on having the reader actually care about what happens to them. This despite the fairly standard Cyber Punk setting and rather more pages than necessary spent on the way to each plot point. It's notable for having a fantastically diverse cast and treating them all with respect. The story could also be read as a Fantastic Aesop about the dangers of seeking Immortality.There is a (work in progress) Character Sheet.
These novels provide examples of:
Abusive Parents: The Freudian Excuse of John Dread, whose mother used her string of pimps and boyfriends to try and shape him into a walking nightmare. She was successful.
Achilles in His Tent: In the Trojan War simulation, Orlando is placed in the role of Achilles, while Sam is Patroclus. The AI characters react to Orlando being too sick to fight as if he's stubbornly refusing, exactly as in The Iliad, and when Sam dons Achilles' armor in unwitting imitation of the myth, Orlando is forced to ride out and rescue her from Hector.
Aerith and Bob: More like Renie, Martine, !Xabbu, and t4B. Justified because the characters are drawn from across the world and, in the case of t4B, is essentially going by his online handle. His name's Javier.
Quite literal in the case of Jongleur, whose personal simulation casts him as Osiris in a fantastic Egypt, with thousands of virtual worshipers. Some of the Brotherhood call Jongleur on this theatricality, but he points out that through their wealth they have as much power as men who were called kings and gods. He also privately considers that they may find eternity living in simulations tiresome if they insist on treating them as fake.
Dread gets a severe case of god syndrome after he takes over the system from Jongleur, embarking on an orgiastic campaign of destruction and subjugation in the virtual worlds. As the fourth book progresses, you can see his sanity slipping as his megalomania takes over.
The Other is cast as this, with much speculation from the characters as to why and how it has such bizarre characteristics. Is it good or evil? Insane or misunderstood? The answer ends up subverting the trope, as the Other is not, in fact, an AI.
A double subversion occurs post-climax with Sellars' AI entities, who are not malicious but merely alien.
Susan Van Bleeck gets beaten to death by the Brotherhood's thugs, but manages to spell out a dying message to Renie with finger typing.
Calliope Skourous manages to call triple zero after being stabbed in the back by Dread, and Dulcinea Anwin uses what seem to be her final moments to combine the video footage of Dread's serial killings with a powerful virus and upload it into his system. Both are saved, but Dulcie is paralyzed.
Ambiguously Brown: John Dread is a quarter white, a quarter Australian aborigine, half Filipino. He's accustomed to being mistaken for everything, and it also helps explain his dark charisma. note The more average a person's appearance (as in averaged over ethnicities), the more attractive they are to everyone.
Another Man's Terror: Orlando uses VR simulations that play out fatal accidents or other forms of death. There's an urban legend that they're made by monitoring someone's actual death, but this is dismissed as ridiculous as someone would have to be loaded up with expensive recording devices in advance. He has reason to be preoccupied with the experience.
And I Must Scream: Possibly the children in comas, although this is explained later not to be the case. The Other, on the other hand, is an absolutely literal version of this. Also, the karmic Fate Worse Than Death of John Dread.
Anti-Villain: By the fourth book, you'll have long forgotten that Dulcinea Anwin is an international terrorist and a murderess, as overshadowed (and overwhelmed) as she is by Dread.
Bloodless Carnage: The rules of how avatars can be damaged vary widely from one VR environment to another. In some, wounds simply shear off body parts with no mess or blood, while in others they are treated with gory realism. There's even a world that works on cartoon physics, complete with Amusing Injuries.
Boarding School of Horrors: Felix Jongleur comes from an upbringing in one of these. Combine it with Kids Are Cruel to form his Freudian Excuse for being, essentially, the biggest bully in the world. Later, it turns out that the reason he selected Paul Jonas was because he went to the same school, in a mild form of revenge-by-proxy. Paul protests that he was a victim of bullying at Cranleigh as well, but Jongleur is beyond caring.
Brain Uploading: This is the goal of the Grail Brotherhood, in order to cheat the inevitable deaths of their natural bodies. Ironically, their attempt to do so fails utterly due to the interference of John Dread, while the characters who do end up getting their brains uploaded successfully are both protagonists, Orlando and Mr. Sellars.
The Nemesis program, which ends up being the key to communicating with Sellars' artificial life entities.
The Chessmaster: Mr. Sellars has been scheming to get to the bottom of the Grail Brotherhood's plans for decades, not to mention having a secret all his own that doesn't come out until the very end.
Cloning Blues: Discussed by the characters, since uploaded personalities are technically identical copies of the deceased originals. This becomes a major plot point for Paul Jonas, who is himself an uploaded copy, but doesn't realize it until the very end when he's called to make a Heroic Sacrifice.
Jongleur's first immortality plan was to make a female clone of himself, then let her bear a male clone of himself, and let this clone grow up as he himself has to become a "perfect copy" of him. He gave up on it after the grail project got to the final stage.
Commander Contrarian: Yacoubian is a villainous version within the Brotherhood, constantly naysaying everything Jongleur does.
Convenient Coma: The Call to Adventure of the series is the comas suffered by thousands of children who come into contact with the Other. Also happens to John Dread at the end.
Convulsive Seizures: How Eddie responds when Renie asks him what happened at Mr. J's club the night Steven got sick.
Corrupt Politician: Half the Brotherhood are heads of state. The rest merely own heads of state.
The Cracker: Dulcinea Anwin is a professional Black Hat, although she is not nearly as hardened a criminal as she believes herself to be. This causes her to bite off a bit more than she can chew with Dread.
Creating Life: Mr. Sellars' dark secret and his motivation for invading Otherland.
Cyborg: Mr. Sellars, who is enhanced not for speed or strength but to be a living computer, able to connect to the 'Net with no external hardware. In a rare realistic treatment, this combined with the physical trauma he suffered earlier in his life leaves him a barely functional cripple.
Death by Irony: The fate of nearly all the members of the Grail Brotherhood. (See trope page for details.)
Death from Above: At the end, the Other crashes the satellite it is housed in into the headquarters of J Corp. The chapter in which this occurs is poetically titled "Star Over Louisiana".
Deep-Immersion Gaming: Implicit in the VR game worlds, done quite a bit more seriously in Otherland itself.
Digital Avatar: A significant part of the first book's Justified Tutorial includes a description of how avatars work on the 'Net and the process of creating one. The characters' avatars are described in great detai: Orlando's muscular Thargor, the flamboyant sims of the very rich, the esoteric and fanciful sims of the Treehouse inhabitants, the functional sim that Renie uses, even the nonexistent sim of Martine Desroubins.
Dream Apocalypse: Well, VR apocalypse. There's a fair amount of speculation by the characters as to whether the inhabitants of the simulation are truly alive, and hence whether destroying the simulation would be murder. Fortunately, there's a way to Save Both Worlds.
Driven to Suicide: The Other had already been tortured and manipulated for decades, but it isn't until Dread gets hold of the system that it gives up all hope of saving anything of itself and chooses to escape its own horrifying existence and take as many of its tormentors with it as possible on the way.
Driving Question: One per plotline in the first book. From the second book on, discovering the true nature of the Other becomes this.
Eagleland: The cast is amazingly multinational, and the Americans in it are not treated particularly specially, but Yacoubian embodies just about every negative stereotype possible: brash, obnoxious, impatient, and impulsive.
Earn Your Happy Ending: The Other, strangely enough, seems to be playing this sort of game, subtly manipulating everything that occurs within the network to make things play out like the fairy tales that it imagines itself to be in, complete with heroes fighting a desperate struggle against hopeless odds to free it from its imprisonment. Then Dread comes along and makes the trope play out for real.
Encyclopedia Exposita: Sort of. Each chapter is prefaced with a short passage from a subscription news/entertainment feed, used as a Framing Device to establish a context for the larger world that the story takes place in. For example, the deaths of major characters may get mentioned in a subsequent chapter. The articles get increasingly creepy as the plot advances.
The End of the World as We Know It: A psychic predicts the world will be destroyed. After the good guys win, she comes out of seclusion saying her prediction came true. A dense reporter says, "Because the world is ending and beginning again every day?" to the psychic's disgust. It's because the true depth and realness of Otherland died with the Other, leaving only the world's largest and most sophisticated computer simulation.
Enemy Mine: Jongleur and the protagonists are forced to work together after he loses control of the system to Dread.
Eternal Recurrence: Many of the virtual worlds in Otherland "reset" once they reach a programmed endpoint. This is appropriate, as they are intended to simulate games.
Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: The Other is gratified to experience a mother's unconditional love. John Dread explicitly does not. One of his first victims was an expy of his mother.
Everyone Meets Everyone: Subverted — it looks like this is going to happen at the end of the first book, but then things go very badly wrong, and a whole slew of new characters get introduced in the second book.
The Farmer And The Viper: Dulcinea Anwin, who falls in love with Dread and tries to civilize him. For his part, he considers her an amusing toy that he keeps around because she's useful. When that's over, though... Fortunately, she realizes the danger before Dread tries to kill her.
Fetus Terrible: Olga Pirofsky's unborn child is a mutant — powerfully telepathic. In the delivery room, his psychic emanations are sufficient to kill attending medical personnel before he can be sedated. Jongleur's agents are aware of the child's potential and arrange to snatch him away, telling Olga only that he died.
Fictional Video Game: Appropriately for a story about future Internet technology, games are abundant, especially full immersion VR games. The Middle Kingdom is the premier example, and several of the Otherland simulations are set up this way.
Foe-Tossing Charge: Subverted when Orlando attempts to rescue Sam in the Trojan War simulation. He rides out like an Olympian hero to confront Hector, but is too ill to fight effectively and is defeated.
Freudian Excuse: John Dread was raised by his abusive, drug-addicted mother with the intention of making him evil. It worked. Felix Jongleur grew up in a Boarding School of Horrors and took that experience with him into the business world, becoming the biggest bully in the world.
Gender Bender: In Otherland you really can be whoever you want to be.
In the Trojan War simulation, characters' avatars are automatically chosen by the system unless they know how to override them, resulting in some hilarity.
Renie: I have a penis.
General Ripper: General Yacoubian apparently considers invading Third World countries to be a casual exercise of power that he might do any week, just For the Evulz.
Genius Bonus: The Real Killer, in a slightly meta in-universe example. So called because he writes "REAL" on something in his victim's blood. It's actually a punny joke at his employer's expense. In French, "sang réal" means "royal blood" and was a medieval pun for "san graal", which, in Old French, meant "Holy Grail" (the cup that caught the blood of Christ), which of course grants immortality in myth. Jongleur found it a tasteless joke.
Genre Savvy: Since most of the virtual reality worlds of Otherland are based on actual fiction, the characters spend time plotting how to take advantage of their "rules". Martine is also unusually Genre Savvy all by herself, which ends up getting a subtle justification in that the Other seems to believe in fairy tales (one in particular) and is deliberately shaping events along those lines.
G.I.R.L.: Inverted: Sam pretends to be a boy online so she can be just "one of the guys" and not get singled out for her sex.
Grand Theft Me: Dread plays The Mole in the protagonists' party by hijacking the sim of one of their initial members, starting a game of Whack A Mole once they figure out that he's infiltrated them. The poor sod he does it to is executed off screen.
Hot-Blooded: Both Renie and Florimel, which sets them against each other.
Humanity Ensues: The Nemesis program gets released into the simulation to hunt down Paul Jonas. It can mimic anything nearby—and when it mimics a recently deceased character, it begins to take on human thought processes. This turns out to be the key to communicating with Sellars' artifical life entities.
Immortality Seeker: The Grail Brotherhood all seek virtual immortality to escape the inevitable deaths of their natural bodies.
Incredible Shrinking Man: One of the first simulations the protagonists enter is run by an entomologist who configures it so that the human visitors are tiny in comparison with the insects. He is also openly disdainful of the "survival" of the people in question, figuring that if they get eaten (and thus kicked out of the simulation), it's their problem. After Dread takes over, the insects turn into something far worse.
Inside a Computer System: Otherland is a network composed of virtual reality environments. There are also "hidden" virtual worlds inside it — some representing the operating system and some created by the operating system.
Jerkass Façade: Sweet William and t4B, for different reasons. Sweet William is intensely private (and is also The Atoner) and actively rebuffs any attempt to establish a friendship; t4B is in fact a teenager and also has a secret affiliation. Both are actually decent people.
Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: City of Golden Shadow puts all of the characters through the ordeal of finding their own way to Otherland through Sellars' clues, assembling them like a puzzle to which none have all the pieces. Once they arrive in Temilún, it seems as if the pieces will be put together, but Dread's assault on their hosts breaks it up.
Just Between You and Me: Jongleur and Paul Jonas share a moment of truth in Sea of Silver Light, after the latter manages to recover his memories. Subverted, however, because Jongleur knows what Jonas, at that point, does not: he's talking to a brain-uploadedclone, not the real Jonas.
Justified Tutorial: A large amount of the first book is spent on Renie showing !Xabbu how to navigate in and program the 'Net, cluing readers in on the same.
Karmic Death: Most of the villains go out in an ironic and/or karmic way.
Jongleur dies when the Other blows up his corporate headquarters with him inside it ... after mind raping him.
Dread's fate, while not technically death, is most certainly karmic: trapped in a comatose dreamscape, being endlessly pursued by the ghosts of his victims.
Kiss Me, I'm Virtual: Obviously, in a VR world, virtual sex is cheap and easy to come by. Due to the hyperrealistic nature of Otherland, however, it can be really, really lifelike.
Also, one of the methods used for long-term VR requires the user to be fully immersed in a tank of goop and hooked up to a life-support system. The goop hardens and softens to simulate touching things—and this is abused.
Kudzu Plot: So these guys want to become immortal, except this guy just wants to wreak havoc, but they think they have him under control. And these guys want to destroy it all. And then there's Sellars, who wants who-knows-what, and the main characters, who each have personal reasons for getting involved, except for The Mole. And then there's something called "Sprootie"...
Literal Metaphor: When told that the Other put children into comas because he wanted to make friends, the character replied "And he played too rough?" This is when we learn that, no, he wanted to make friends, the inhabitants of his little fairy tale village, and was studying children to learn how they work.
Little Hero, Big War: Most of the protagonists play this role, as, let's face it, they are ordinary citizens thrown into a massive web of conspiracy.
Magical Native American: !Xabbu is an African Bushman who was raised partly in the industrialized world; his "natural wisdom" plays a major role in solving some of Otherland's mysteries.
Man Child: The Other is like this in a sense — its understanding of the world is very childlike, even though it's been around in some form for at least twenty years. More traditionally, Long Joseph Sulaweyo is extremely petulant and childish in his behavior patterns as an emotional defense against pain.
Man in the Machine: Jongleur, sans robotic body. He doesn't need one, with all of Otherland to rule.
Meaningful Name: John "More Dread" Wulgaru, on at least three separate levels:
His mother, an Australian aborigine, gave her son the surname "Wulgaru" (a monster from their mythology) because she wanted to create a monster that would exact her revenge on the rest of the world.
After Felix Jongleur hired him, John learned that Jongleur had a bit of a King Arthur theme going on, what with the group behind Otherland calling themselves "The Grail Brotherhood" and all. So, to screw with Jongleur, he started to call himself "More Dread" - as in Mordred, the knight who betrays King Arthur and starts a civil war.
Medium Awareness: Played with in that the real people who are online in Otherland are aware that they are in a simulated world, the inhabitants of that world are not. This is different from the 'Net as a whole where AIs ("Puppets") are required to identify themselves to real people ("Citizens") if asked. Thus, the protagonists get some odd looks from Otherland's inhabitants when they attempt to work with the mechanical rules of the network rather than the internal logic of each simulation.
Mentor Occupational Hazard: Renie's mentor Susan gets beaten to death within days of being sought out for help. Singh, the wizened hacker that helps the team get into Otherland, is killed by the security system.
The Metaverse: Arguably one of the more nuanced and well-researched examples.
Mind Rape: What the Other does to people by accident.
Monster Clown: Mr. Jingo — well, he's not technically a clown, but he sure does fit the trope.
Mood Whiplash: The jarring post-climax revelation regarding Sellars' artificial life entities.
My God, What Have I Done?: Sweet William, an 80-year old retiree, goes to Otherland after discovering that a person he had solicited for sex online is in fact 12 years old and is now in a coma. He wants to help her in order to apologize.
Mysterious Informant: Sellars plays this role throughout most of the first novel, hiding clues to Otherland in out of the way places on the 'Net that he hopes the protagonists will stumble upon. Justified in that he's trying to recruit people to confront a multinational conspiracy that is well known for "disappearing" anyone who crosses them.
The Obi-Wan: Sellars plays this role to a certain extent, although there are two inversions: first, he's a crippled old man who just happens to be a incredible hacker, and second, he doesn't technically die.
Point Defenseless: At the climax, it turns out that the J Corp tower, in addition to having a private military force, is equipped with surface-to-air missiles. They prove woefully inadequate against what finally comes knocking.
Psycho Prototype: The secret military program that Mr. Sellars came from was wrecked by one of these.
The Punishment: After his "daughter"'s death in an accident, Jongleur has Paul Jonas rendered unconscious and placed into his World War I simulation as a nameless soldier in an endless cycle of trench warfare and death. This lasts for years.
Released to Elsewhere: It is unclear whether the Other truly understands the meaning of death, but the fairy tale that Martine shared with it as a child and that forms the basis of its perception of its own existence ends with the lost boy being "set free" of his imprisonment by going to heaven. This is a not-very-subtle Foreshadowing of the climax of the story.
The Reveal: There are quite a few, but finding out that the Other is a human being - namely, Olga's lost son - probably takes the cake.
Sealed Evil in a Can: A literal, if not figurative example of this occurs with both Felix Jongleur and the Other.
Send in the Clones: Not only are there versions of Finney and Mudd in almost every part of Otherland, Dread makes thousands of virtual copies of himself for the express purpose of destroying everything in sight.
Shaggy Dog Story: !Xabbu shares Bushmen myths, and others point out that they have endings that don't relate to the beginning. Shaggy dog story within a story?
A fair amount of the falling action and denouement are concerned with the new artificial life that Sellars created, a plot point that seems jarringly irrelevant after everything that's come before, and is almost certainly intentional.
Blade Runner: In The River of Blue Fire, the dying Scarecrow quite intentionally paraphrases the "tears in the rain" speech, calling it a "good ending speech"
Star Trek: In The City of Golden Shadow: When Orlando and Sam are brought to the Treehouse, their guide refers to the environment as "It's the net, but not as we know it" then lampshades it as a very old joke - referring to the song Star Trekkin by the Firm.
Snuff Film: Dread likes to record his "kills" on camera for his own private amusement. This ends up being a Chekhov's Gun.
The Starscream: Ptah/Wells is this in to Jongleur in the Grail Brotherhood. Dread is one too, but he's smart enough to wait on his betrayal until he's in a position of genuine power.
Sugar Apocalypse: Twice. First there's the battle in the cartoon-based world, then there's Dread's reign of mayhem, culminating at the battle of the Well when the Other's Ugly Cute fairy-tale creatures get slaughtered.
Staying Alive: Orlando, who is brought back to life in a virtual avatar by the Other and then given his own Big Damn Heroes moment when he fights and defeats the avatars of Mudd and Finney at the Well.
Talking through Technique: Subverted. Mr. Sellars' chess game is just a chess game. It is, however, a front for his other covert activities.
Tap on the Head: Given how many times the protagonists get knocked unconscious at major plot transitions, it's a good thing they're in a computer system where their real brains aren't being turned to mush.
Technopath: John Dread's "twist"; a form of telekinesis that works at the level of individual electrons and allows him to manipulate computer systems.
Team Mom: Renie, but not without a great deal of resentment from the others, who are (mostly) not kids.
Those Two Bad Guys: Jongleur's two minions, Finney and Mudd, who gleefully torture both Paul Jonas and Avialle and whose online personas wreak havoc in Otherland.
Tomato in the Mirror: Paul Jonas at first doesn't even realize he's in a computer simulation. When he does understand this, he begins searching for a way to escape, not realizing until the very end that the reason he's wandering around so freely is because he was already uploaded, and he's the copy. This drives him over the Despair Event Horizon, but ironically gives him the resolve to perform a final Heroic Sacrifice to delay Dread long enough for the Other to shut down the system.
Tomboyish Name: In an inversion, "Sam" (Salome) Fredericks gave herself the apparently masculine name in order to disguise her gender from her online friends. Orlando is shocked to discover the truth.
Torture Technician: Dread implies that he's one of these, at least as far as his "hobbies" go. He is most certainly an expert at psychological torture.
Jongleur also demonstrates some proficiency, subjecting two of his employees to their personal worst nightmares — drowning and needles.
Translate the Loanwords Too: When Florimel, a native German speaker, says "doppelganger", which is a German loanword, the 'Net's translation software insists on rendering it as "double-goer" in English.
Turned Against Their Masters: The Other, of course — both subtly, by coopting the network resources to create its "playthings"; and overtly, by manipulating the protagonists to free it from its virtual prison.
Ugly Cute: In-universe example — the inhabitants of the world that the Other creates for itself are a mishmash of fairy tale creatures, often taken literally out of context, such as dwarves that consist of a head on top of a pair of legs.
Unusual User Interface: Where to start? The VR environments of the 'Net can be accessed in a variety of ways, from the simple to the absurdly complex: a plain old flat screen, 3D goggles (both with "squeezers" for input), a mechanical framework that you strap into, full-body immersion in a pressure-sensitive gel, and for the rich, a direct neural implant. Within the 'Net, a combination of hand gestures and speech form the "programming" language. And some users go so far as to have custom interfaces designed for them, whether out of personal idiosyncracies or impatience.
Villainous Crossdresser: Dread poses as a female member of the group for a very long time. None of his true personality breaks out.
The Watson: !Xabbu, whose ignorance of the 'Net provides plenty of opportunity for Renie to explain how it works. Sam, sometimes. On the villains' side, Yacoubian and Dedoblanco function as this for the Brotherhood.
Whack A Mole: When Dread infiltrates the group. It's notable that the viewpoint character changes often between the various parties, but never to any of the suspects, to keep the suspense up as long as possible.
What Do You Mean, It's Not for Kids?: Played straight in-universe. Felix Jongleur earned much of his vast fortune from "Uncle Jingle", a grinning character in his children's show (and, of course, all associated products). The image of Uncle Jingle is inspired by "Mr. Jingo", a character Jongleur encountered in his youth and who became his personal terror as an Anthropomorphic Personification of Death.
What Measure Is a Non-Human?: There's an ongoing debate in the story over the morality of killing virtual people who seem just as lifelike as real humans — they have memories, lives, hopes, and fears. While most of the main characters want to prevent further comas, the Circle intends to destroy the entire simulation as an ungodly abomination, and doesn't particularly care what happens to those simulated. They're talked out of it.
Earlier in the series, Azador talks about how they shouldn't feel any qualms about having sex with puppets, as they aren't real. He even calls it masturbation as opposed to intercourse. Ironically, he is an imperfect copy and not an actual Citizen himself.
What the Hell, Hero?: When Sellars' manipulation of the kindergarten-age Christabel Sorensen is discovered by her parents, they really let him have it.
Win to Exit: When the protagonists come to learn that it is the Other that is keeping them from exiting the VR environments of Otherland, they realize that they need to destroy or "rescue" it in order to get free.
Your Mind Makes It Real: One of the central mysteries of the series is why this trope seems to be in effect inside the Otherland network: unlike in the "normal" 'net, a person whose Otherland avatar is killed also dies in the real world. Brown Note effects are known to exist, but they require especially high-quality virtual reality interfaces, and yet the Otherland network somehow manages to deliver sensations (such as scents) that the users' equipment is literally not capable of producing, in addition to keeping them trapped online even when they ought to be able to simply remove their VR gear. The effect is caused by The Other's Psychic Powers, and was not an intentional feature of Otherland.
At one point a character questions whether the computer is even capable of killing them by simulating freezing to death. Another points out that by the same logic, they shouldn't die from getting dismembered by a giant scorpion, but they still ran for dear life.