The Game

This short story was originally published on richardholliday.co.uk on January 23rd 2014.

The Game
by Richard Holliday

“The Game is a pervasive, always-online entertainment experience,” the Avatar chuckled confidently, but also noticeably insincerely to the darkened room of investors, “and it fe… we feel it’s got a lot to bring to your company!”

But what really was The Game? Taking thoughtful, slow paces around the conference table, the Avatar snapped the plastic buckles on each headset closed. In a flash the potential investors were absorbed. The experience the headsets were the gateway to was totally captivating – the lack of bodily movement while the headsets were active indicated as such.

For years virtual reality had been that – a reality that was all-too virtual. Too rough around the edges, and too limited in scope and power – limited merely to the whims and arbitrary boundaries imposed by a designer. With The Game, all that changed in favour of a reality much more vivid than the dull, humdrum existence that actual reality offered to most people. Children ran wild across never ending plains and rolling hills that stretched as far as the eye could see – and as far as a server could render. Whatever a user wanted to experience was there, powered by their own thoughts – fed into what was called the Imagination Engine.

The key innovation in The Game was not just fancier graphics or better armour for pretend characters that existed as mere magnetic particles on a hard disk. In arcades, a concept revived for a new generation, people young and old queued for hours to occupy one of the shower-like booths that wired their very consciousness into The Game and dispensed with the antiquated notion of ‘creating’ avatars – the player now was the avatar.

Likewise, The Game could conjure up the objects of even the most active imaginations in a heartbeat, giving scope to adventures that were utterly compelling. The Game knew when a player desired a challenge and stepped up the difficulty; it knew, too, when a player was winding down and adjusted the enemies’ skill as such. This novel and utterly ‘customised’ experience left people coming back for more.

The Game knew this – it had built up a reputation that was utterly spotless. The quality testers had scored it perfectly, though of course, the designers had engineered for The Game to do exactly that. The Game used the testers own subconscious notions of quality to deliver to them an experience that was unquestionably a quality one. The reviews came in, improving unquestionably after each reviewer played more. (Though one review briefly dipped to a middling score; but that was just a connectivity issue.)

As the queues for the arcades became problematic, a breakthrough was reached. The headsets – bringing the cutting edge electro-neurological tech only The Game could utilise right to the player from the comfort and stability of their own home. Nothing had been this successful – eighty million sold in forty-eight hours; though this was part and parcel with the ‘experience’ the booths had instilled into the very consciousnesses of the players it apparently served to entertain.

For every memory plucked from the neurons of a player, soon a memory could be implanted… replacing the extant one. Players left sessions thinking of nothing but The Game – not because of particularly alluring game play but because The Game had planted that idea in their minds. Original memories soon merely became archived on the servers of the players, stored alongside their profiles. With each successive stint in-world another few moments were replaced with lingering memories about The Game – what would the next session bring? When was the next session? Why wasn’t the next session right now?!

With each successive time playing, the urge to dip back into a limitless virtual wonderland was more vivid, and harder to dismiss, like an itch gnawing away at the back of people’s minds with growing voraciousness. A self-duplicating compulsion overtook millions of players, drawing them to their headsets. Their very lives were contained in those headsets, through Wifi and microwave signals, and connected to The Game. After a couple of months, some players whose minds proved malleable couldn’t survive without The Game. Literally, the nervous reflexes for breathing, digestion and their circulatory systems were on their profiles; offline time an uncomfortable, painful and, in a few cases fatal experience for the early adopters of The Game; including it’s own creators.

The prospective investors gasped in unison. The Game had them now, and their companies too. The first sponsors had allowed their products – sugar-rich soda, potato chips, chilli dip to name but a few – to be advertised in the game world, but the potential for something far more potent was obvious. Soon, offline time for players was dominated not just by a compulsion to re-join The Game… but to buy a soda. People really, really, wanted a new sofa, or a speedboat. Each time they played, the nagging urges of the compulsion they were left with was stronger. Players weren’t just addicted to The Game, but the very things The Game gobbled up.

Partnerships became stakes in sponsor companies, which became controlling interests, which became fully-owned subsidiaries. The Game owned the products whose sponsorship kept it running and kept paying for the servers to store the increasing number of human memories and human lives. Within three months The Game had infiltrated every facet of society; to more and more players, with each ever-lengthening session, The Game was society.

Taking off the headsets, each investor stared blankly into space. As if by clockwork, each turned to the Avatar. “Where do we sign?”

“Oh,” the Avatar smiled wryly, removing his own headset to reveal two blackened, burned out eyes fashioned into squares, “you already have.”

The Game had won itself.

© Richard Holliday, 2014

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