Thursday, April 26, 2012

Grand Romantic Delusions Chapter 06: The Venture

     Seth pulled the beat-up Camaro into the driveway of his small house. It was a side-split, only about 1,200 square feet, with siding painted in the most eye-watering shade of green imaginable. He drove over the half a dozen or so issues of bagged community newspapers that lay in the driveway as he parked.
     Grabbing the book he ran up the front steps and unlocked his deep red front door. He figured the people who had owned the house before him must have been huge fans of Christmas, or something.
     After grabbing a beer from the fridge, he plopped himself and the book down on the couch. He needed something to take his mind off Mary and how he was going to find her. He often found that the best way to solve a problem was to take a break from thinking about it. He was very Zen like that.
     He turned on the TV and grabbed a game remote. This guy Gary at work had been telling him about a new game called "Venture" or something like that. It was one of those downloadable console games you could get for, like, ten bucks. It was supposed to be a sort of "art" game you just had to experience to understand, he'd said. Of course Gary was quite the stoner, so his opinions were hit-and-miss. Still, Seth had plenty of points in his account, so he thought he'd give it a shot. After logging in and starting the download he stood up, downed the rest of his beer and headed back to the kitchen, book in hand. He dropped the book on the counter next to the fridge, grabbed another beer and went back to the living room. 
     Something felt … odd. He pushed the front curtain aside with one finger and peeked through the small gap he'd made. There were a couple of kids playing in the yard across the street, and one guy a couple doors down washing his car. He could hear the sounds of a lawnmower and those of a couple of dogs barking … pretty much just a typical Saturday afternoon on Cortona Road.
     He sat back down. The download was finished so he started up the game. He was greeted with a title screen which included a shadowy character floating about and making ghostly chimp-like noises while soft piano and synthesized flute music played over the sound of wind and crickets. Yeah, this looked like something Stoner Gary would get into.
     Seth was completely unprepared for what happened next. After hitting the start button, he found he had control of one of the ghostly shadow characters and he was floating through some standing stones on a hilltop in the middle of a foggy moor. It was dark, with only the barest sliver of a moon, but in the distance there was a faint light, so he moved his avatar in that direction. Quiet music rose and fell as he glided across the landscape towards the source of the light. It seemed to be coming from the base of a tall tower at the top of another hill. 
     On his way there, he started playing with the controls to see what functions they had. One button made him leap into the air. Another made him glide more quickly. A third caused his character to vocalize—making chimp-like noises. He found that if he tapped this button he got a simple ook-like sound, but that if he held hit down the sound became more of a squeal. If he held it long enough the noise was like that of a chimp screeching after having had a banana taken away or something. How could any of that possibly be useful? The fourth button didn't appear to do much other than make him squat down and raise his hands up. Weird.
     Seth shrugged and held down his sprint button. His character floated at double speed towards the tower in the distance. He downed rest of the second beer and went to pause the game so he could get another. It wouldn't pause. Weird … so apparently you have to play this game in real time? He quickly went to the kitchen and grabbed two more beers (the remainder of his six-pack), as well as the bottle of Jameson's and a glass tumbler from the top of the fridge for good measure.
     When he returned, he noticed that the faint light that had been at the base of the tower was now a little brighter … and a little closer. In fact, it appeared to be moving towards him. Suddenly he remembered a key point that Gary had mentioned about the game.
     "It's multi-player—online only. But you can't actually talk to the other players. You can only communicate through noises and gestures," Gary had said. "And you can't pick your partners. It just randomly teams you up with someone else who's playing the game."
     So, that light coming towards him must be another player's avatar! Cool, he thought. I can get into this. After taking a swig out of the third beer bottle, Seth set about moving towards the other player. As they neared one another, he could see another ghostly figure, similar to his, but white and glowing rather than dark and shadowy. When they came together, the two characters did a little dance around one another. 
     Seth tapped his vocalize button a couple of times. Ook! Ook! The other player did likewise. OK, well we can sort of communicate, Seth thought. But what do we do now?
     The white character willowed back and forth a couple of times then ooked at him three times and turned away, back towards he ruins of the tower from which she'd come. (Something about the way the white figure moved made Seth think of a woman, though he knew there was no way to know who was on the other end.) He followed.
     Suddenly it became a race. They each moved towards the tower as fast as they could. Seth realized that he could only sprint for so long before his character slowed down, and that it took some time before he could sprint again. However, as there was no "energy bar" or other indicator on the screen, you just sort of had to get a feel for when you could sprint again. So the two of them traded leads until they were almost there, when suddenly the white figure pulled ahead and touched the tower first. She must have been conserving her energy, thought Seth. Of course, this person had probably played the game before.
     The white figure began spinning around and jumping, ook-ooking the whole while. What did she want? He imitated her, spinning his avatar around, alternately tapping the vocalize and jump buttons. Sure, the dancing around and chattering senselessly at one another was kind of fun, but what was the point of this game?
     Suddenly the other character began bumping into him—sort of pushing him forward, guiding him around the tower. Once they were at the other side, Seth noticed that the tower had a large open doorway and inside there were alternating stones sticking out from the walls like a spiral staircase, but with big gaps between the individual steps, and the bottom step far higher than their characters could jump. This must be what she wants me to see!
     Seth finished the third beer and popped open the fourth and last bottle. He had a big gulp then turned his attention back to the game. OK , he thought, it's a puzzle. We have to find a way to the top of the tower, I guess.
     The white character began spinning again, then jumping. The more she spun, the higher she seemed to jump. She appeared to be trying to reach the bottom stair, but couldn't quite manage it. He tried the old Mario double-jump, but that didn't work at all in this game.
     Then the white character jumped on top of him and squatted. She held the position for a moment then sprung up into the air … but only slightly. This clearly wasn't going to help them reach the stairs, either.
     After landing in front of him, the white character squatted again and made an ook sound. Seth imitated her. She gave him two ook sounds this time. Then she squatted again and held the position. He pressed his squat button and held it. She ooked twice then jumped up. He did likewise. She stopped in front of him and ooked once, then stepped away and squatted again.
     Seth wasn't sure what she wanted at this point. He stepped towards her and squatted. She ooked twice … and he released the squat. She gave him one ook and stood still. Suddenly it dawned on him She wanted him to hold the squatting position!
     Seth squatted again and remained. The white figure ooked twice then began her spinning jump until she was on top of him again. She ooked. He sat there in his squatting position, unsure of what to do next. She ooked twice. He still didn't get it. Then she started shrieking. He remained in position, holding the squat button for a good thirty seconds or so … her shrieking rose in frequency and intensity. Finally, she jumped back down in front of him and shrieked some more. He stood up.
     She alternated between bouncing and squatting and shrieking, over and over again. Then she jumped on top of him once more. After several minutes of this, Seth finally got it. He squatted, she jumped on top of him, and he released the squat button and flung her into the air, high enough to reach the bottom stair … but in the wrong direction. So the squat button was really a throw button, apparently.
     Seth finished the fourth and final beer then grabbed the whisky bottle and poured himself a double-shot into the glass tumbler. He took a couple of sips. Nothing like trying to solve a co-op puzzle game while drunk, he thought.
     He moved towards the bottom stair, facing it, and ooked at the white figure. By this time he was sure it was a woman on the other end. He tried to imagine what she was like. She was probably patient. One had to be patient to play a game like this—especially with such limited communication. With patience came kindness, of course. He tried to imagine a pair of kind and gentle eyes. He thought they would be a light brown color, like Mary's—when you could see them through the glare of her glasses, that is.
     Seth squatted and let the white character jump on top of him again. This time he threw her accurately and she climbed onto the bottom stair. She hopped to the next step, then the next, but fell off the one after that, so he squatted and threw her again. 
     Wouldn't it be hilarious if it was Mary on the other end of the game, he thought. He knew fate was bringing them together, but wouldn't it be something if after trying to find her through the library, he ended up playing with her online? He finished his whisky, the cool warmth flowing down his throat and hitting him in the chest. He poured another.
     He watched as the white figure leapt from step to step until she made it all the way to the top of the tower. OK … what now? How was he supposed to get to the top? She disappeared through a trap door and then he heard a "click" and suddenly the walls of the tower began to rotate in sections, each section moving opposite from the way the section above and below it moved. The whole tower was like a big clockwork. As the sections rotated, more stairs popped out of the walls and then it stopped. Now he could climb right up to the top and join his companion without the need for jumping. 
     Once he reached the top and climbed through the trapdoor he stood next to the white figure and looked out towards the horizon. The tower was quite tall and they could see a fair distance away as a result. It was a beautiful, haunting kind of game world—especially with the soft New-Agey music and the wind and frogs sound effects. It felt like they were really outside in some mysterious and alien world. The sliver of moon lit the rolling hills and moorland about them just enough that he could make out the contours of the surrounding countryside without seeing any of the details.
     His partner began ooking again and spinning around. She stood on a pale circle of light on the roof of the tower. He stood next to her and ooked back. She moved to the other side of the tower and he followed her again., then she screeched at him.
     He wasn't sure what a screech meant. Was he supposed to follow her, or was he doing something wrong? She stood on another circle on the other side of the tower. He went and stood next to her again. She circled around him and pushed him into the circle and ooked at him twice. He squatted. Am I supposed to throw her somewhere?
     She crossed the roof again and he followed. She shrieked and he went back to the circle and squatted. Ook ook! She went and stood in the opposite circle while he remained. Suddenly the entire roof of the tower lifted off and floated away, carrying them with it. So that's the trick, Seth realized.
     Suddenly he knew it was her. That's right … it had to be. The universe was bringing them together, one way or another, and what better way than through the incredible shared experience of this otherworldly game?
     Oh Mary, he thought. If only I could find you in OUR world!
     They went on like this for hours. They explored the world, finding new landscapes, new puzzles and collecting various kinds of gemstones. Seth guessed that was the real point of the game: collecting the gems. Each time they found one, they were treated to swelling music and a new vista. They searched the moors and then a desert and then a barren snowscape. One doorway apparently led them to the moon—everything was grey and lifeless and starkly beautiful.
     Every step of the way they worked together as if sharing one consciousness. They would arrive at the new location and she would guide him through each puzzle —patiently, lovingly. Seth had never experienced anything quite like this.
     With each new discovery he was more convinced that it was Mary with whom he was playing. Who else could it be? Who else could he just click with on such a deep level, without even needing language to communicate? He knew instinctively that it was his soulmate on the other end of the network. And with this knowledge he was more confident than ever that he would manage to find her. He just had to be as patient as she was with him in the game.
     At the end they were in a jungle, exploring the ruins of some sort of step-pyramid. By this time Seth was so drunk he could barely sit up straight and hold the controller, but he was not giving up. He needed some water. He ooked at his companion a couple of times and jumped up—too fast. He fell forward before ever really getting to his feet. He was suddenly very glad he didn't own a coffee table.
     Seth stood and staggered into the kitchen. He grabbed the water jug out of the refrigerator and brought it back to the couch in the now-dark living room. He managed to pour himself a tumbler-full of water without spilling more than a couple of cups worth on himself  or his couch.
     He downed the entire glass of water in a couple of lusty gulps and poured another. God damn, I'm thirsty. He picked up the controller again and noticed that Mary was jumping up and down again, ooking at him like mad.
     He moved towards her and ooked back twice. She led him up the pyramid to a little room at the top. Again, they each had to press a button on either side, but this time instead of floating away, the entire pyramid inverted, collapsing in on itself—the top sinking below the level of the bottom—and they were suddenly in a chamber deep under ground.
     Everywhere was dark. They had only the soft glow of white light issuing forth from Mary's avatar to see by. She led him away from the little room into the deep dark chamber. In the distance there were colorful lights and he could see more ghostly figures like theirs—some dark, some light—dancing in a great circle. It was like a homecoming!
     There was a loud bang from somewhere behind Seth, which scared the living shit out of him. He jumped up, controller in hand, and pulled the console off its shelf. The TV screen went to blue. Disconnected!
     Heart racing, he quickly checked the wires in the back of the console, but realized he could barely see anything. The clock on the cable box said it was 11:30. Fuck! How long have we been playing? He jumped up to hit the lamp and almost knocked it over before he managed to get the light on. Goddamn neighbors! There was always someone in this neighborhood setting off firecrackers or target shooting or something.
     He checked his console now in the harsh glare of the lamplight. The cables were all connected, both to the console and the back of the television. He hit the power button on the console and it blinked on, then off. It wouldn't stay on, no matter how many times he pushed it.
     Seth howled with rage. He'd have to get this fixed. Shit! Probably cheaper to buy a new one. At any rate, he knew he was done for now. He'd get the damn thing looked at tomorrow.
     One thing he knew for sure: he would have to find Mary. He wanted to talk to her about the game. He wanted to finish playing it with her. He wanted to stare deeply into her eyes over a cup of coffee and talk about all the feelings they'd shared tonight. He wondered if she knew it was him she'd been playing with. Tomorrow, he told himself. I will find her tomorrow.

     Somewhere south of Phoenix, Arizona, in an adobe-style ranch house sat a heavy-set, unshaven man in his mid-forties. He wore an ill-fitting black tank, cut-off denim shorts and a trucker hat which read "Horny Old Bastard" —and he was not wearing it ironically. He scratched his ass as he stared at his TV screen, controller in one hand, can of Bud Light in the other. He began screaming at no one in particular.
     "That stupid sunovabitch! Took me for freakin' ever to finally drag his dumb ass to the end of this game, and then he fuckin' quits on me?"

1 comment:

  1. Oh, and although the seeds of this chapter have been rattling around in my head for a while, the final form it took was largely inspired by the game "Journey" from the Sony Marketplace. (No, I haven't played it, as I do not, unfortunately, own a PS3, but the "co-op with a stranger with whom you can't talk" aspect of it is something I found inspiring.)