chapter 4

start at the beginning

read chapter 3

***************

Whatever is past is gone beyond recall; whatever is future remains beyond one’s reach, until it becomes present.” – S.N. Goenka.

The present moment is like a great crucible. All the myriad possibilities of the future are transformed in this cauldron of now, stripped down and distilled into a single strand, which becomes the immutable past as soon as it forms. That’s how we understand it using classical physics. Time is a continuous one-way path, and the present moment moves forward like Ms. Pacman, eating her way into the future.

It’s just that it’s not true in quantum physics.

The reason it works in classical physics is the assumption that there is a universal present moment, a one true now that everyone experiences at the very same time.

In quantum physics, there is a different now for every observer, just like seeing rainbows. Plus, time is as likely to move backwards as forwards. The present is local, not universal; relative rather than absolute. And all moments are real, whether they physically happen or remain imaginary. Time is no longer a constant; it has become a variable, an illusion, the effect on the observer as you move from point to point in a universe where everything has already happened. It’s like living in the pages of a book.

***

Flipping a couple of pages, then, we find Josh, Anomia, and Fairy with their heads together, designing their videogame while waiting for Kurt to build the game engine. You’d never know they were working together, because they were always in different locations, but they were coediting spreadsheets in realtime, discussing things in chat windows and text messages, and talking to each other in their heads.

Most videogame development teams are familiar with project plans, schedules, milestones, contingency plans, budgets, priorities. But not this one. They were going strictly on their vision and a quickly fading hubris. It was scary, so nobody thought about it. They just left blank spaces labelled ‘miracle,’ and assumed they would somehow fill themselves in.

Anomia was in the bowels of her corporate day job, stressing out as one of the last graphic artists at Big Behemoth, Inc, the partners having cut her nice bustling department of twenty down to only three in order to stoke their double digit profits. She was working on three proposals at once, and every now and then frantic management droids would come rushing in waving their hands with a crisis for her to fix before she could go home. But she still had downtime, because she was fast, and they dithered making their changes. She kept her game behind the boss-key, and turned to it whenever she got a chance.

She was working on the background scenery for each level, pouring endlessly over stock landscapes and google image results. She was also supposed to be storyboarding and writing scripts for the intro and the cut scenes, but she hadn’t touched them, altho she insisted they were coming right along when the others asked. They were the least of her problems. She had to think about everything, because nobody else did. The box art, the press releases, the demo and screenshots. That’s why she was so stressed out – the success or failure of the game rested on her shoulders.

Josh was sitting in a cafe, looking cool while he tooled with the level design. He was supposed to be specifying the climate and geology of each level, how much rainfall, types of flora and fauna. Things that actually bored him to tears. But he spent most of his time working on his easter eggs of mayhem, featuring evil alien vampire zombies and hidden tunnels. He was also putting in pirates. He could do it, because it was all part of the level diagram, and that was his baby. He got to say where the desert started and where the glaciers stopped, when the seasons changed, what the prevailing winds were like. But it was tedious and repetitive, so he kept coming back to the evil alien vampires.

Fairy was sitting up in bed with her animals around her, tracking the assets in her world diagram – giving each asset a universally unique identifier, determining its place in the game’s flowchart, working up style sheets and pantones, deciding on sounds and musical themes. She was responsible for the non-playing characters, too, their functions and actions; she was looking forward to drawing up a list of NPC animations that she and Josh could fight about at some point.

Fairy wondered about the objectives, currently a blank column in the spreadsheet. What are the players doing in all these different environments​? The disciplines you want them to learn?

The girl reeled it off. First you master your mind and your body, and then you develop your consciousness, and after that you learn to control your subtle body. Once you’ve built up your etheric muscles, you learn how to move and fly, develop your intuition and clairvoyance, and learn how to manifest things.

We learned a mnemonic, the boy added. CNNGSPP.

Fairy snorted into her teacup. That’s not a mnemonic, it’s a collection of consonants. What’s it mean?

Create, name, nurture, guide, share, preserve, pass on. Those are the objectives on each level. The girl repeated the list for Fairy to write down, sounding pompous.

And the lessons?

OWWKRPATO.

Bitch, please.

All one way, all knowable, all relative, all possible, all alive, all together, all one.

Fairy sat there and shook her head.

Don’t worry, the boy soothed. We’ll work the bodymind exercises into ingame rituals, and embed the lessons in the theme of each level.

Who’s we, kimosabe?

***

Trying to fill in the details of her diagram, she grilled the couple about their experience, using interrogation techniques she learned from a jealous cop exboyfriend. After awhile, the repetition annoyed everybody. Especially when they were reduced to txt spk.

GRL: lvl 1. roks + watr far as i cn c, v cold, v hungry, v wet. 2. huge mtns blocking passag inland. 3. lowlands, v fertil, w/mkt twns. 4. ++ plains, wetlnds, desrts 4evr. 5. mining twns @ far edg of continnt, industrl citis. 6. megacity of futur, ++ wondrs. 7. inaccessibl mtns. we died
FER: assum deth sene not obligatry all playrs
BOY: evry lvl diff paramtrs, ++ resorcs, ++ nvirmnt
GRL: r task bild + organiz + make sur ppl hapi, = lvl up. main diff = tec advancs.
BOY: go thru ea lvl, cre8 + name + tell ppl what 2 do. chooz setlmnts, rearang condits, fuk w/ppl piss us off
GRL: teh gema s/b big nuff 4 evry xperiens

Okay, you might not understand a lot of that. Neither do I. My mind glazes over when I see words mangled like that. Eventually they learned to discuss the finer points in their heads, because txting sux, and the chat window thing got crazy with six divergent conversations going on at once.

***

Fairy consulted the level diagram, parts of which were cribbed from a game development website. A list of the game’s environments and missions, and the characteristics of each mission. She went thru the levels sorting it out. The first level was…she prompted.

The boy answered. The rocky shore of this huge, uninhabited continent, and we had nothing but the clothes on our backs and our new powers, which weren’t very strong at that point.

Fairy made a note about feebleness in the avatars.

We had nothing, the girl whined, and it was so cold. And it was really hard for a really long time, like we had to do things by hand, and the best we could manage was drafty huts and weak fires.

That helpful skua, dropping food into our camp, the boy remembered.

Their digressions weren’t helping Fairy organize her spreadsheet. So the first level is all stone knives and bearskins. I’m guessing Animism for the belief system. And your skills all have to do with manifesting food and shelter the old fashioned way, with your hands – this is magic?

We made sparks with our hands. We talked to the animals, Anomia thought. Fairy oozed doubt.

We kind of tamed the fish, Josh explained. They agreed to be dinner.

Fairy scoffed. What, they jumped into the pot for you?

The girl thought for a moment. Well, we didn’t have pots yet. They jumped into the coals.

Fairy winced. Ooh. Didn’t you feel sorry, or squeamish, or guilty?

The boy snorted. We didn’t cry over them, if that’s what you mean. We were hungry.

But we thanked them, the girl protested, and we did favors for their relatives.

This is too Walrus and the Carpenter for me, Fairy thought in disgust. Can we move on? The next period, that’s kind of Viking, right? Everybody loves the Viking esthetic. Should they be Pagans or early Christians? She answered her own question and scribbled a note, Gotta have Druids. You control the waters and the winds on this level, right?

We made the trees grow, the girl thought.

Right, Fairy responded, adding a question mark, not sure how we’re going to animate that.

Yeah, and they grew everywhere, the boy added. And the huts grew into mountains.

The girl felt sheepish. That was a problem. We could make things happen, but we couldn’t stop them, so in the end we had to kill all the trees.

But that’s why the lowlands were agriculture-ready, the boy pointed out.

Yeah, but it also meant thousands of miles of grassland and desert. Those kinds of problems got more complicated as we went on, she remembered bitterly. We obviously didn’t learn by fucking with the trees and the mountains.

Mosquitoes. They remembered experiments gone wrong. Rabbits. They radiated horror. Fairy squirmed uncomfortably.

Then the sound of the girl’s thoughts faded as a message popped up in their chat window.

GRL: ffft, consultants. brb.

***

Leaving Josh and Fairy to go over the game’s attributes. Okay, then we figured out how to make pottery and glass, and simple machines and tools. We discovered the wheel. The boy was proud of himself because he’d figured it out and the girl thought he was a hero.

So that’s the third level. Medieval. Priest-ridden, with saints and witch hunts and walled cities and serfs and plagues and bad hygiene. You learned agriculture, and I suppose invented writing and math, and supported cities and government and commerce.

Maybe, the boy agreed. He never paid much attention to the details when they were playing the game. He found something to do and did it without trying to understand the story or finesse the rules. If anything, his contribution was a snarky comment and some daring do.

Fairy was growing concerned. She was being left to construct a compromise world out of Josh and Anomia’s wildly different experiences, but she had a good grasp of where it was supposed to go, and knew it was her job to make it happen. By the goddess, she was going to be their fairy godmother, and save the project with crazy hard work and brilliant organizational skills. Anomia and Josh obviously appreciated what she was doing, and she was gracious about it, because of course she was the one actually holding it all together while they buried themselves in minutiae. In anxious midnight musings, she wondered if she shouldn’t copyright the game in the morning, to keep it out of scheming hands as yet unknown.

***

She pressed on.  Now this fourth level I don’t understand. I’m not really down with the endless fruited plain motif.

Well, it was full of game and nomads and there weren’t many trees, and after awhile the water ran out and it was cactus and shit. He was getting bored.

No, I mean I don’t understand why it’s such a mashup. like the court of Henry the Eighth at Burning Man. There are social experiments and harnessing nature and science and stuff, like the Enlightenment. But it’s in the desert, so it’s kind of like the Crusades meets the Golden Horde. I don’t think it works, that’s all.

Their spreadsheet was seven game levels across and seven rows of aspects down, and they’d already run into trouble over basic things, like the religion and philosophical belief of each level, their economics, their politics. It was a mess. They had no idea how to make the game conform to their vision. There were no words for what they went thru. Everything was connected, and trying to divide it up into rows and columns drove them all nuts.

Anomia cut back in, bitching because the stupid consultants had pushed right past their deadline, and she had to stay late again. They’re calling out for pizza. At least I’ll have more time to work on the game, the girl thought, what a consolation prize. Where were we?

Whoopee, you can help now, Fairy thought without enthusiasm. Going on to level five, then…

Well, technology really took off when we discovered iron and coal in the far hills, the girl remembered.

Steel, engines, the industrial age, added the boy. Electricity. Nuclear fusion.

Fission, the girl corrected him.

Whatever.

The way society was organized, the girl added. That was the other difference between each level. Each was bigger and more advanced, so we went from tribes to nations, and from serfs to citizens.

Kind of. Not exactly.

I’m too busy to be interested unless you can be more specific. Fairy was getting a headache. Those Victorian cities on level five, they’re in the age of Revolutions? That’s a stretch, but okay, Victorian makes a good visual – cool costumes, we can do Steampunk. This is where you organize society instead of tinkering with the resources, right? She paused, looking at the row of belief systems. Fundamentalist? I guess revolutionaries can be fundamentalists, she thought doubtfully.

No they can’t, they’re opposite, the girl objected. Fundamentalists are reactionary.

Hmm. Fairy made a note. I see a kluge coming on. I guess we’ll use a tech tree, she suggested, where you have to choose between technological advances, which influences the choices you get down the line.

Um, sure, the girl responded, then got revisions and had to brb. She tried to listen along in her head, but the edits distracted her.

Fairy made a pot of tea and brought it back to bed, careful not to disturb her laptop balancing on the back of a Hello Kitty pillow. The sixth level is Totalitarian breakdown, that doesn’t sound very nice.

It was great if you were rich, the boy protested. I was rich. There were loads of advances. Jetpacks. Replicators.

According to the girl, it was way overcrowded and very unbalanced economically, Fairy grumbled. Their lack of agreement again; it was getting to her. Slaves, global wars, crashing civilizations, being forced to rethink everything. Sounds fucked up to me. She paused. The religion is Antichrist, huh? I’m not sure I even know what that means. The boy was evasively silent. Fairy sighed and reached for her teacup. Maybe we’ll figure it out later. And what happens in the inaccessible mountains? she continued wearily. Oh yeah, nothing. Epic battles are totally uninteresting. Is this how we’re supposed to end the game? I don’t like it.

They changed the subject and complained about Anomia while Josh moved into the wifi cone of the bar next door. She’s tactless, they agreed. And a bitch.

***

While Anomia was looking the other way, Fairy altered the economics from endless wealth to faucet and drain, and rearranged the belief systems. Anomia called for an immediate reversion when she noticed it. Fairy argued that her improvements made more sense. Anomia insisted that they were supposed to recreate their experience, not interpret it. Fairy complained that they were making it up as they went along anyway. Josh argued that they were going to have to sacrifice accuracy to make the game playable. Then Anomia, who had a wicked sharp tongue and was convinced she was right, forced a no edit-wars rule, and went back to her paid labors. Fairy fumed and whined, and Josh had another beer and waved off his irritation because he had to live with her.

The horse trading continued. For keeping Josh’s easter eggs hidden from Anomia, Fairy could adjust the world diagram as she saw fit, a fact that was also to be kept from Anomia.

Then there was the character design battle. Anomia threw her hands up in horror when it came time to hand out responsibility for the avatar design. 😯

Josh said he’d do it, and made a show of incompetence, and as he obviously knew nothing about style, Fairy was forced to take it over. But Josh wanted to keep as much control of the game as possible, so they had a turf battle, and finally Josh gracefully surrendered everything – the avatars’ shapes and appearance, their skin textures, their clothes, their animations, the squeakiness of their voices, their backstories and personality quirks.

But now that she had the responsibility, Fairy realized what a huge task it was. Millions of players meant infinitely customizable avatars, and that boiled down to thousands of costume parts and body types. She was great with individual styles, based on her intuitive knowledge of the person she was styling. But working up 1,286 textured fabric swatches was not her thing. She’d rather spend her efforts slipping a few dragons into the game.

So she started a child account and secretly handed the entire avatar portion of her workload to Radhu. They chatted a lot, and became good work friends, but Fairy kept her world diagram to herself and didn’t give him access to the collaborative document, or let him chat with the others. The others had forgotten all about Radhu, so Fairy got to keep him as her little secret.

***

Radhu worked nights in his Bangalore call center, trying to be top scorer again so he could go back to Atlanta on next year’s trip and ditch his telecom conference for Dragoncon. He was hooked on comic book conventions after his experience, and had already booked his ticket for the only con in India, but it was only a couple of years old and a hundredth the size, and he was planning to go back to the states for another hit.

He began playing videogames in his spare time, something he’d never done before. He liked adventures, but didn’t enjoy shooters at all, even tho the Panchen Lama played them. There was something too disturbing about all the blood and guts, and he tried to avoid the adrenaline rush – his guru had advised him that negative emotions were disruptive to good health, so he played management and social games.

He was delighted when Fairy asked him to help design the game, and began staying up all day to work on the avatars. While he worked, he constantly meditated on creating his future, generating images of success, putting energy and enthusiasm into the fantasy, knowing that his beliefs shaped his life. It was already going to be totally great.

He rejected Fairy’s idea of deriving the avatars from the tarot’s 78 cards. With 14 cards in four suits, plus 22 trumps, he could only expand it to around 1200. So he decided to base his avatars on Hindu gods, which were infinite. The only problem was that Radhu’s avatars were more Bollywood than Vogue, and Fairy had to own the design because she was taking the credit.

***

Several months came and went, like Fairy’s boyfriends. Josh unwisely handed his level diagram to Anomia for an art pass, but she’d been proceeding with her own plans, so they had a fight, and he ended up spending a few days back at his parent’s house.

Then Snake reappeared.

They were in their usual places, working on the usual things. Anomia was drinking free coffee and eating out of the vending machine at work as she shuffled between revising a proposal and mashing up tudor and thatched cottage styles for medieval market towns.

Josh was tinkering with weapon designs for battling evil alien vampire zombies and drinking beer with pretzels in his local wifi bar.

Fairy was propped up in bed eating microwave popcorn and guzzling energy drinks, working on dragon NPCs to replace Radhu’s Ganeshas.

Why dragons instead of Hindu gods? Because Fairy couldn’t explain to the others why talking elephants should hand out information, quests and rewards. She hated Babar as a child, and wanted friendly dragons instead, zen dragons with ancient wisdom and knowledge – believable characters who would teach skills and quantum thinking, and startle the wayward minds of the player, keeping them on track and directing them down the paths they needed to follow.

That doesn’t answer why dragons, the boy pointed out.

No reason, Fairy fudged. I like dragons.

Fairy and Josh argued over attributes. She was in favor of completely defining every NCP – stats, skills, gear, appearance, moves. Josh wanted to use general descriptions and draw from a pool of random attributes as needed, later. Anomia was distracted by a hovering droid demanding changes to the changes.

Their ideas were vague. Their objectives were as simple as ‘training minds and bodies’. They took comfort in the fact that all the mystery schools were vague – Dune, Star Wars, Harry Potter. Zen was obscure on purpose, just like the Sufis, just like the Christian mystics. ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ How vague can you get?

Okay, after players interact with a given NPC, Fairy asked, what do they do then? Go on the quest or go off somewhere else to explore? Or some other independent behavior? There are so many choices.

Behaviors aren’t independent, Josh reminded her. Games are linear. Players only think they have a choice.

Not in this game, Anomia insisted. Real choice is a feature of the game, not an illusion. Everything depends on what you do from moment to moment. It’s cumulative.

But you can’t script that, Fairy protested. You can’t flowchart it, you can’t possibly tell what players are going to do with real choice. It’s too complicated.

You have to set limits, Josh agreed. But where you put your limits determines the flow of the game. Having no limits means players accumulate infinite wealth and power. But too many limits leads to profiteering and slavery. How you do it matters, too. If you tax wealth, players get resentful. If you cap it, they’ll cheat or quit.

So where do we set the limits? Fairy demanded.

Everything costs something, the girl said. Call them energy points. You can use item converters, or trade for assets in the markets. The more you own, the bigger your emotional investment.

Fairy wrote, Resource management => player involvement.

Then Snake appeared out of nowhere in the chat window of their collaborative spreadsheet. Having physically showed up in the bar where Josh was working on the game, Josh gave him an account and started bringing him up to speed.

SNK: y flesh out npcs at all?
FER: wtf who r u?
BOY: old programr frend gonna wrk on gema
SNK: nobdy cares npc dtails. + mprtnt wrk 2 do
FER: +real npcs => ++ vivid gema. s/b photoreal
SNK: southpark. dnt wast ur time. new esthetic betr. ur silly dtails r just showing off
BOY: wat he sed
SNK: fuk hello kitty brony shit. y not use evil vampr aliens?

Josh elbowed Snake and reminded him the aliens were a secret.

Anomia was on a tight deadline, and the consultant was standing at her shoulder being anxious, but she picked up on Fairy’s distress and decided to look into it. Sending something to print and telling the consultant to go fetch, she restored her chat window to have a look at the conversation.

She wanted photorealistic and as close to real as possible NPCs, and was fine with Fairy’s ideas about dragons, even tho she would have used unicorns and gnomes if it was up to her. But her stomach instantly soured as she saw the boys preparing to dumb down her game with crappy graphics. Then the consultant came trotting back with the papers and she had to break away.

GRL: angel sed no evil. s/b angel npcs.

Snake winked at Josh and they changed the subject.

***

Over a beer, Snake wanted to know why they were bothering with a point system.

“Points reflect your mastery of quantum skills,” Josh said, downing his drink with enthusiasm. “Health points, skill points, experience points, adventure points. They all roll into an overall karma score that influences your passage thru the game.”

Snake fiddled with his phone and didn’t say anything.

“It’s sort of a feedback loop,” Josh continued. “Everything you do affects your karma, and your karma affects everything you do. There’s instant karma and judgment day karma. So, like, you can build good karma by practicing your quantum exercises, or playing the game every day, or going out of your way to help other players.” He drained his beer. “These are small glasses.”

Snake rolled his eyes. “And if you’re a good boy you get to unlock special areas and get prizes, right? How predictable.” He waved at the bartender for another round, clearly bored. “Tell me it gets all touchy feely newage, please. I want to hear that your relationships with others count toward karma points, I want to hear that every time I crush a blade of grass I’m mounting up my punishment points in hell.” He motioned again to the bartender, trying to hurry him up. He looked disgusted.

“The whole idea is what goes around comes around,” Josh said, feeling defensive. “The game gets harder or easier, depending on your karma.” None of the details were actually his idea, and he felt foolish explaining them. “It’s supposed to show in your avatar, too, like wealth and social status.”

“What, like halos and horns? Pinocchio noses? How fucking stupid,” Snake huffed.

Josh shrugged. “There’ll be some sort of complex algorithm, I suppose. The girls were talking about karma as a gameplay quality as well as a measure of the player’s spiritual development.”

“Did they say spiritual? In a shooter?”

That’s when the boys decided to turn the game back into a traditional videogame, the first step being to take NPC design away from Fairy. So Snake made a big thing out of the too-fucking-PC ethnic design of Fairy’s (Radhu’s) character designs, and Josh insisted he was crazy busy with the specs for the animations, so Fairy reluctantly handed the NPCs to Snake, who proceeded to ignore all the guidelines and implement his own designs.

And continued to torment Fairy about points.

SNK: in trad vgame u get pts 4 kilz, xtra pts 4 hedshts, pts 4 surviving wav, xtra pts 4 defeat boss. y reduce it 2 arcade game?
FER: angel = no violens
SNK: = no fun. y bothr targt practis at all?
FER: use fors luke
SNK: so u cn move pixls w/mind? cuz not like ur using real wepns (+ u banned wepns rembr). just illusn
FER: not illusn. pwrs real

Anomia found them arguing again. Don’t make me come over there, she thought.

GRL: angel sed no violens
SNK: fuk angel. vgame not bk of spelz, not drug inducd visn

***

“They’re doing this ass backward,” Snake bitched to Josh over a joint they were smoking behind the dumpster. “They’ve been concentrating on the details – the environment, the terrain – and they haven’t even designed the geometry. They have no idea what the gameflow is supposed to be like and they’re fucking around with the idealism level of the fucking NPCs, shit that’s bound to change.”

“Maybe they should have blocked everything in first,” Josh agreed.

“And why hasn’t anybody playtested the map yet?”

“I can answer that,” Josh becoming a little offended by Snake’s accusations. “It’s because we don’t have enough people to sit there and play with something we’re still trying to figure out. We’ll know what it looks like when we see it,” he said, starting to cough from the smoke. “When we get it right.”

Snake looked impatient. “What’s your focal point on the first level, then? Just off the top of your head. From your vision.”

Josh thought for a moment. “The rocks?”

Snake rolled his eyes. “You’re not getting the idea of focal points. Usually it’s a big object in the middle of the level that’s there just so you know where you are.”

“But there are no objects on the first level, just rocks, water, and the sky. Would the sun be the focal point?”

Snake smoked up the end of the joint and tossed it into the dumpster. “The skuas,” he said as if anybody would know. “They hold the keys to your survival and you have to defeat them to move on.”

“What? The skuas are the bosses and we have to fight and kill them, is that what you’re saying? Anomia’s not going to like that idea. The skuas were our friends. Even tho they weren’t very nice, and we had to bribe them.”

***

Snake didn’t really give a damn about the integrity of the couple’s vision. He was in it for the glory, and didn’t look past the rather narrow goal of getting rich off of game production. To Snake, and millions of the world’s male population aged 13-48, the whole point of a videogame was to give boys something to destroy, and the idea of using it to raise consciousness seemed ludicrously idealistic. Another good reason to subvert it.

There are many ways to cheat in a videogame. Most players are familiar with currency farming and camping in front of respawning lairs. There are cheat codes, written as shortcuts so testers can get to where the trouble is without having to play all the way thru a level. Cheats can throw up a minimap to show where everybody is. Cheats can put a glow on characters and objectives. Wall hacks make obstacles invisible or bring objects out in front of whatever they’re hidden behind. There are social engineering cheats, including infiltration and betrayal, scamming, suicide ganks. Strategy freaking, it’s called – why work for something when you can steal it? The boys saw nothing wrong with including it, even tho Anomia and Fairy would go ballistic if they found out.

“We can work around the girls,” Snake assured Josh as they knocked a few more back at the bar. They’d taken to meeting at the pub, because Snake sneered at coffee when there was real go juice available. “We know more about games than they do, and it’ll be easy to do it our way. Because the girls are going to ruin it with their insanely inappropriate ideas.” He watched himself in the mirror as he spoke, thinking how handsome he was in a dangerous way. He brushed his lanky hair out of his eyes. “I mean, their idea of an intro is a lecture on doing good. Nobody wants to hear that. You’ll lose players as they come in the door. They make a character and go on a quest, then you praise the shit out of them, give them something useful, and send them on another mission. That’s how you snare them.  The girls want to bore them to death with maybe if they behave rewards.” He finished his beer and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “It’s too goddamned religious.”

***

Over another drink, Snake laid out his argument for traditional videogame values. “You absolutely have to cater to every type of player, but there are only four types of players, so it’s no biggie. Diamonds want to win something, and show off their points, and beat other Diamonds, and impress Hearts. So we’ll need a scoreboard and achievement points, and we can give out titles and pimped out rides as concrete proof.”

Josh wished the others were listening, but the others could only sense his awe of Snake’s expertise.

“Spades like to map out everything and dwell on the details and backstories, so you give them things to dig up and let them explore their environments. Hearts are social, and they don’t much care about the game itself, as long as they can have relationships, even with the NPCs.” They both snickered. “And then there’s Clubs. They like to compete like Diamonds, but really they just want to kill something, and they’d rather fight player versus player than just kill bosses. They like carnage and destruction. Or just being the bad guy. I’m a little like that myself,” he confessed. So was Josh. “And, Clubs are socially dominant. They’re the ones who do empire building and terraforming, and bring order to sandbox games, and corner the markets.”

“But the whole idea is to teach players how to be magical,” Josh protested, knowing damn well that Anomia wasn’t going to go for Snake’s ideas.

“Fuck it,” Snake said. “You’re talking about hand-waving mages, exactly the same thing as warriors swinging swords. None of it is real. If you want to be a real magician, you have to study for years. You can’t just select powers and then go out and battle monsters. Besides, it’s not magic if everybody can do it.” They ordered another round. “What we should be talking about is funding. How are we going to make this game pay?”

“Hmph.” Josh considered. “The angel said…” Snake made a face so violent that Josh winced. “Okay, whatever. The idea is to make the game completely free. We’re working for nothing, after all, so it’s not like we need tons of bucks to get it going. We’ll make what we need.”

Snake scowled. Josh sounded like the girls. “I’ll agree this isn’t a triple-A title we’re making,” Snake said dismissively. “We’re not working with a hundred people and we don’t have investors and there are no sunk costs. We couldn’t attract an investor if we had to – they don’t like risk, and there’s a good chance this game will never get off the ground. But if it does, I plan to make millions of dollars for my efforts, don’t you?”

They discussed whether it was better to sell the software up front, with incremental sales on expansion packs down the road, or go freemium and give the core of the game away with a monthly fee to play. Or set up micropayments for everything but the most basic items and restricted gameplay.

“We could make money trading items ingame, too,” Josh suggested, energized by the idea. “We could take percentages of every player transaction. We could charge leveling fees.”

“There you go,” Snake said approvingly. “We could sell ads, and do product placements. We could sell insurance. But we’re not making shit if nobody will play it because it’s fucking boring. I gotta pee,” he finished, leaving Josh sitting at the bar looking into his beer, wondering how he could save the game from certain doom.

***

Snake managed to bring everybody down in the short time he’d been active on the project. He led the criticism of Fairy’s (Radhu’s) character designs and Anomia’s backgrounds, and never let up about the shitty idealism that would ruin the game for any serious player. Behind their backs he was vicious. But he never criticized anyone to their face. In person, he was concerned and kindly, offering expert tips and praising their amateurish first attempts as if they were limited but earnest and he was a sorely put-upon genius.

During their next face to face meeting – a video chat that Snake was too busy to attend – Josh voiced the thoughts they’d all been having.

“I don’t think we can do this,” he said, looking away from the camera. “We’ve got shit to show for months of work, and I’m running low on funds.”

Anomia looked steadily at him. She was paying his expenses at the moment. Was he suggesting she pull more overtime to keep him in coffee?

Fairy tried to say something positive, but she was almost ashamed of the cartoonish characters she’d (Radhu’d) designed, and couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound stupid.

“The whole thing is clunky,” Josh continued. “We don’t know what we’re doing. Videogames take millions of dollars and hundreds of artists and programmers to create. Our stuff is just a mashup, a half-assed collage of the worst cliches. Why are we bothering? I’d be better off if I just said never mind and got a job.” He was hardly serious, but it made his point.

“We have to teach the essence,” Anomia insisted quietly. “We have to go on as if it mattered, because it does.”

“What she said,” Fairy agreed without much conviction.

“I don’t know. Maybe I can take my new found mystical powers and develop some sort of mumbo-jumbo exercise ritual filled with abstract newage concepts,” Josh suggested. “Magical sex therapy or something,”

Anomia bristled. “We were specifically told to make the damned game.”

Josh frowned. “I know. I just hate doing something that’s going to turn out like drunk Southpark.”

“You just want to be Walt Disney,” Fairy accused.

Josh retorted, “No, I want Walt Disney to buy it.”

“The angel said to create the game,” Anomia said.

Josh lost his temper. “Look, it’s a videogame. Videogames are for murder and mayhem, not teaching enlightenment thru physics. Go write a book if you want to put all this peace and light shit into it. Go develop a religion.”

They continued to argue for awhile, but Josh ended it and logged off. “The most important part about what we’re allegedly supposed to do is give people superpowers. All we know is that it’s some kind of quantum entanglement pixie dust, and we don’t have a fucking clue how to do it.”

***

So they bummed out about their own ineptitude and foolish ambitions for awhile. Anomia worked longer hours on fancy sales pitches for Big Behemoth, Inc. Josh retreated into videogames and porn with beer chasers. Fairy slept for 28 hours three days in a row. Nobody was sure what Snake did.

Fairy was the first to come around. She was no stranger to depression, in fact she had a good working relationship with it. Depression is a great excuse to toss all your responsibility out the window for awhile and really indulge yourself in a childlike state of rest and sleep. Depression is suppressed anger. Depression is a form of emotional compression, and can be used like force field power.

So Fairy directed her energy back to her work using affirmations, which never had enough oomph to do any good. “Let it be easy and fun to create the most ingenious world-changing and unexpected consciousness-raising evolutionary videogame possible of all time. With healing light and delightful blessings for all.”

Snake scoffed at the idea of affirmations and teased Fairy about it every chance he got.

Josh couldn’t understand how affirmations worked because he didn’t believe in psychology except where it involved pharmaceuticals. He was happy being depressed, because he secretly relished being a loser and felt anxious about giving it up for the rigors of success. Playing videogames all day was a slacker’s paradise, and since his whole life was a waste of time, he didn’t see any problem wasting it on creating a videogame, and worked on it, or not, as it suited him.

Anomia cringed when Fairy talked about cognitive shifts and affirmations. She felt she deserved her depression as punishment for thinking she was chosen for some cosmic mission, for dreaming she could escape the life of a corporate droid – scraping by on a hundredth the salary of partners her own age.

It was actually dangerous for her to make a cognitive shift, as a droid. When you reframe a problem from a new angle, it looks completely different, and you can see new pathways thru what looked impassable before. You begin to feel hope and relief, you entertain less guilt and self blame. Your self-talk changes and your attitude improves; you attract better outcomes, and rise to a stronger position in your environment, spreading your purpose and infectious energy to others who are stuck in fruitless efforts. You tell the partners off for being idiots and assholes and only thinking of themselves. You get fired.

***

After several conference-skypes, the three friends faced the fact that they didn’t know how to teach real superpowers. At best they might encourage a different way of seeing the world. Anomia knew about altered states from getting lost when she painted pictures, and Fairy actively meditated most days when she was in the mood. They wondered if they should use soundwaves and embedded subliminal messages. Josh wanted to shortcut the process by playing the game on mushrooms.

They decided they could develop consciousness in stages, linked to changing physics on each level. First classical physics, and then relativity, and finally quantum physics. Josh and Snake hated the idea. But Anomia pushed for it, remembering a platformer with altered physics that was really rich in player choices. To her, more complicated was better, more reflective of the world the angel wanted them to design than the corridor setup the boys kept arguing for.

For once, Snake and Fairy put their heads together on it. They added on a couple of amusement park levels, where players would take rides and play games with everyday classical physics like gravity and centrifugal force, and on the second level, the players – acting as carnival workers – would tweak on the settings using relativity, throwing black holes into the center of the tilt a whirl, for instance. A third level was all clouds, where players would learn the basics of quantum physics by making things out of cloud fluff.

Snake presented it as if it was all his idea and Fairy went back to hating him. “The constants on each level are mere variables on the next level,” he pronounced.

Leaving Fairy to explain. “F’rinstance. On the carnival level you can physically change the roller coaster track – the height, the path, and even the weight and shape of the cars. Those kinds of variables. But on the carney level you can do things like change gravity and dilate time. And on the clouds you just manifest things with your mind.”

“The physics of each level is exposed and turned on its head by the discoveries of the next,” Snake edified.

“A different understanding allows new possibilities on every level,” Anomia mused.

“Whatever,” Josh said.

“The first level’s mechanistic,” Fairy said, ignoring him. “There’s one system, everything’s based on fixed principles that are repeatable and predictable. Conventions and rules, and everything makes sense. And it all breaks down into simple, repeatable parts, so you can figure it out.”

“Mass, speed, momentum,” Snake offered, “vectors. Things you’d use to throw a ball, or drive a car. The amusement park is an illustration in classical physics. Like roller coasters,” he waved, listing the rides before Fairy could. “Arcade games, tilt a whirl, bumper cars, merry go round, the hall of mirrors, even the funhouse.”

Anomia doodled on her graphics tablet. “And you have to complete those rides before you can move on?”

“Right,” Fairy said. “We’ll grow the avatars as players gain experience points, and then when they’re tall enough, they can level up.” She made a note. “So the players start level one as kids.”

“What,” Snake asked, “they’ll be teenagers in level two? Like being chained to their desks in science class? That’ll impress your demographic. It’s drudgery.” He laughed. “You want to go shoot aliens, but no, you have to learn fucking physics. Stand here and pull this lever. Because you’ll need it when you grow up.” He made a face. “Shoot me, please.”

Fairy drew herself up. “We can surprise ourselves by finding a creative way to ingeniously and unexpectedly succeed. We’re going for the best possible outcome – not just survival, but thriving beyond anything we could hope for.”

So they reorganized the game, archiving many gigabytes of work and starting over with a different structure. The levels they’d been designing were shoved to one side and cannibalized when needed to design a game of games, tutorial levels that would eventually win a nobel prize (after certain initial, mostly political and moral, objections). They each stuck to their old tasks. Anomia tried to get the artwork right, leaving the layout to Josh (constantly urged by Snake to make it more battle friendly), and the design to Fairy, who wanted way too many tchotchkes for Snake’s taste. Anomia kept reminding Josh of the real meaning of the game, and Snake kept reminding Josh that angels were figments, and the real meaning of the game was market share. Radhu toiled in silence, alone in his room.

***

Meanwhile, across town…

Nathan had his after-school job, on two conditions – that he keep his grades up, and that his dad didn’t find out. He qualified for work study, so he’d go to his first couple of classes and then be out the door for the foodcourt, where he worked from 11:30 until 2:30. Then he sat in the empty atrium doing his homework, and got home in time for the mandatory family dinner.

This night, Dad beat him home. Dad turned around in his chair and caught Nathan edging silently to his room. “Why you creeping around, boy? Come here and let me see what you’ve got in that backpack of yours. You’re not doing drugs, are you, kid?” He kept up a patter of suspicious questions while rummaging thru Nathan’s book bag, and fished out his laptop, smirking. “I didn’t give you no laptop, where’d you get this?”

“It’s the school’s, Dad. See, there’s the sticker on the back. Property of.”

“Don’t smartmouth me. What are you doing with a computer?”

“It’s for doing my homework. It’s for my advanced placement classes.”

Dad smirked and raised his eyebrows. “What else you do with it? Play videogames? Watch porn movies? Flirt with old lechers pretending they’re teenage girls?” Nathan froze for a moment when Dad asked about videogames. How much did Dad know? “You better not be doing any of those things, or I’ll connect it to my portable battery charger and run some volts thru it.”

“Dad, you can’t. It’s not mine.” He edged toward his room.

“You’re right it’s not yours. In this house, it’s mine. Hand it over.” Dad didn’t let up until Nathan gave him the laptop. Then he had to show him how to open it. Then he had to show him how to turn it on. And then he had to identify all the icons. And then the low battery noises started, and Dad got nervous and let Nathan have it back, suddenly wondering if his son was plotting to blow something up. Dad picked a book out of the backpack. Quantum Physics for Idiots He thumbed thru the book, which was mostly equations. “What kind of language is that?” he asked. “This what you learn in school?” He pointed at the illustrations of goofy teenagers doing impossible things. “Are you sure this isn’t a comic book? It looks like an asian comic book. They’re the worst. Where’s the sex?”

“No, Dad, it’s a math book.” Nathan reached to take it back. “Everybody studies quantum physics in high school,” he added, so Dad wouldn’t start up about being smarter than everybody else.

At work he’d gotten used to civilized treatment from adults, but Dad operated under a different code – Father Knows Best, otherwise known as Jerks Win. When they were younger, Dad insisted they only watch reruns of black and white TV shows, and blew up at the mention of Bart Simpson. Usually his king of the castle rant irritated Nathan, but his new job made him more confident, and Dad’s taunting wasn’t bothering him.

Still, the less Dad knew in general, the easier it was to get around him. He brought Dad a beer and escaped to his room with his things.

***

The reason for Dad’s shrillness these days was his job, where the pressure had notched up. He had to supply an exhaustive breakdown of every single thing he did for an updated job description. And because corporate also increased their sales quota over last month’s, he had to bust his ass dragging in more business, all the while working up the same stats on all his employees.

He felt so discouraged. The American dream was all about independence and freedom, self-reliance and strength. Here he was trapped in a job that only valued fearful, dependent obedience. Work hard and be a good wage slave, keep your head down, never try to out-think the boss, and never show an original thought or they’ll use it against you. No wonder he got so irritated with Nuthin; whose dreams were just going to get him into trouble.

Dad’s attention was caught by an ad for a movie he couldn’t wait to see.

The scene opens on a long view of a steamy city at night. A dark stranger stalks thru gloomy urban shadows. A gravelly voiceover: “He’s fabulously wealthy, a financial wizard, a job creator.” The camera focuses on the face – punishing, cruel, hyper-masculine. “He’s a one man army, fighting to win in a ruthless world where only the fittest survive.” The camera pans over razor-wire enclosed factory prisons, military patrolled city blocks, land-mined parks and neighborhoods. “Now he’s going to take his revenge on the diseased vermin that infest his city.” The scene shows food lines, refugees, piled-up bodies. The titles come up. “Run. Batman‘s Coming This Way.”

Dad was excited. He loved action movies the way he loved cliches. Greed was good. Revenge was sweet. Every man for himself. Unlimited wealth and power was a great idea. He admired the rich and powerful – look how much they made. Only the strong and ruthless, survival of the fittest, American Way.

“I’ll tell you what freedom is,” he said as they sat and ate pot pies with macs and cheese. “It’s being able to look after myself and my family without being persecuted by haters because I might offend some whining scumbag welfare rat, or endanger some goddamn salamander or something. I don’t care about them. It’s not my job to solve America’s problems. My only responsibility is to feed my family.”

“But why does it always have to be your way?” Nathan complained. “You’re not the only one who’s ever right.”

“But I am right, by definition. God told me to make the decisions and shoulder the burdens for this family. I’m strict because I’m your father, and it’s my job to beat responsibility into you from an early age. Your place is to stop bucking my authority and do what you’re told.” They’d had this argument before. Nuthin was growing stubborn.

“But why do I have to obey you without question? I know right from wrong, too. Why can’t I use my own judgment?”

“You were born bad.” Dad reached over and pinched Nathan’s arm, hard. “I’m the head of this family, and we’re going to do it my way.” He pinched again. Nathan squirmed. “You’d jump off a roof if someone told you to, and it’s my responsibility to protect my kids from evil, so you’d better fucking obey me if you want to remain safe.” He pinched once more and let go. Nathan rubbed the welt. Dad reached for his beer. “You need to obey me so you’ll learn discipline, so we can trust you to go out in the world and do the right thing. If you don’t want to listen, the Bible says I should beat the living shit out of you, as an incentive for you to get it right the next time.”

***

Nathan went to his room after dinner instead of watching the tube with his loving family, and, inspired by Kurt, studied quantum computing online. Half an hour later, Dad stopped by on his way to the bathroom. He walked in without knocking, hoping to surprise Nathan jerking off to some diseased internet slag, but his son was fully dressed and sitting with his back against the headboard, reading his physics book. “So tell me about this quantum physics,” he said, plopping down heavily on the edge of the bed.

Nathan drew a blank. Where to start? There was his dad, weaving back and forth like he was going to fall off the bed. Nathan searched for something that would satisfy him and get him out of there and back to his couch. But how to simplify it so Dad could understand it without making it sound like magic?

If he said anything about the role of the observer, the idea of being able to influence reality would be vaguely threatening, and Dad would get mad. If he talked about multiple universes, Dad would get pissed off thinking of certain things being allowed. If he said everything was relative, Dad would be outraged to hear there wasn’t a single, absolute right and wrong. Worst of all, he would look at Nathan as if these poisonous lies came from him. So, instead, he talked about transistors and satellite TV and the GPSs Dad sold at work, and Dad nodded comfortably, patted Nathan on the head, and staggered off to the bathroom.

Sis came in while Dad was taking a pee. She was wearing black leather and chains, and swaggered into the kitchen. Soon she and Mom were having a fight about the speeding ticket she came home with. You could have heard them outside. Dad broke it up by telling Mom to get Sis’s dinner and bring him a beer, and steered Sis into the living room to ask her about her day.

Mom would have liked to keep fighting with Sis, who made a face at her over Dad’s shoulder, but Dad didn’t tolerate sass from anybody, so Mom meekly heated Sis’s pot pie and fussed around mollifying Dad as he and Sis sat whispering to each other, saying mean things about Mom right in front of her.

Dad took care of the ticket, of course, and Sis had no trouble convincing him that it was the first time she’d done anything even a little bad. She was hiding the fact that her grades were bottoming out, mostly because she was sleeping right thru her early classes, and then either sitting in class texting people or going awol. She liked to hang out with members of the local gang who went to her high school, and who were much more exciting than other students. She liked to take their dares and pull fire alarms in the halls, and race between cars at the stoplights. She got in the guys’ faces and acted as tough as they did, and while they laughed at her, they all jostled to get next to her, and were even a little afraid of her. Of course they all wanted to fuck her, but she was playing the head of the gang off against his closest rival, so they kept an uneasy distance, as both carried guns.

Nathan stayed away from Dad and Sis and studied late into the night, then dragged thru school and work the next day, and only hit his stride sitting in the atrium doing his homework. He looked up from his book to see Kurt sitting a few tables away, puffing absently on an electronic cigarette and scribbling on a pad of stickies, his wispy hair falling into his eyes over and over. He reached stubby fingers up and tucked loose strands behind his ears.

Nathan left his things at the table and walked over to say hi, weaving around awkwardly for a minute trying to make conversation. They talked about how his job was going, and about saving up for next year’s Dragoncon, and then Nathan asked Kurt what he was up to.

***************

read chapter 5

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About jeanne

artist, grandma, alien

Posted on November 7, 2012, in Chapter, fiction, Nanowrimo and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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