Authors: Austin Grossman
Tags: #Ghost, #Fiction / Ghost, #Fiction, #Fiction / Thrillers / Technological, #Suspense, #Technological, #Fiction / Thrillers / Suspense
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To everyone making games.
For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passeth show…
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BLACK ARTS STUDIOS ADVERTISEMENT
MAGAZINE, MAY 1992
o what’s your ultimate game?”
He made it sound like a completely normal question, and I guess in this context it was. My long afternoon of interviews had come down to these two strangers. A tall guy, twentyish, with an angular face and graying hair pulled back in a ponytail, who enunciated everything very precisely, as if speaking into a touchy voice-recognition program. The other one was slightly over five feet tall, with long, Jesus-like, wavy dark hair and a faded black T-shirt that read
CTHULHU FOR PRESIDENT; WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER OF TWO EVILS?
It was from 1988.
“Right.” I swallowed. “So, how exactly do you define that?”
None of the questions was what I expected. Most of them were esoteric thought experiments, “How would you turn
Pride and Prejudice
into a video game?” and “If you added a button to
what would you want it to do?” Conundrums like “How come when Mario jumps he can change direction in midair?” And now this one.
“You know, the game you’d make if you could make any game at all,” the long-haired designer explained.
“Forget about budget,” the short guy added. “You’re in charge. Just do anything! Greatest game ever!”
I opened my mouth to answer and then stopped. It was obviously a throwaway question, a way to close out the afternoon on a fun note. And so it was weird that my mind had gone blank when it was the one
question I should have known the answer to, given that I was interviewing for a job as a video game designer.
I’d spent the past few hours in a state of mild culture shock. I’d arrived forty minutes early at the address the office manager gave me over the phone, an anonymous office complex at the far limit of the Red Line, past Harvard and Porter, where Cambridge gave out entirely, lapsed into empty lots and restaurants on the wrong side of Alewife Brook Parkway, and then into wetlands, brackish water, and protected species like sweet flag and pickerelweed.
Beyond the wetlands were the forested hills and the suburbs Arlington and Belmont and Newton where I grew up. Alewife was built to be the point of exchange between Cambridge and the true suburbs. It was also home to the acres of office space demanded by high-tech companies spun off from academic research and funded by the Department of Defense, IT training schools, human resources offices, real estate companies, and tax attorneys. Coming back here felt like I’d made it to the big city and now was on the verge of drifting back out into the nowhere beyond. This was where Black Arts Studios set up shop.
This particular building was apparently designed in the early eighties, while the Department of Defense was still funding blue-sky tech companies. The heavy glass doors led into a three-story lobby and courtyard with a fountain, pastel Mediterranean tiling, and incongruous broad-leafed faux-tropical foliage. It had a humid, greenhouse smell even in the oddly chilly spring of 1997; the frosted skylights let in a perpetually dim half-light. About half the office space looked empty.
Black Arts was on the third floor. There was no sign or number on the door, so I wandered back and forth along the balcony until I saw a piece of paper with
written in black Magic Marker taped to the inside of a glass window reinforced with chicken wire. There was no doorbell. Through the square of glass I could see an empty reception area, and behind it an open doorway leading to a dimly lit office.
I wasn’t exactly comfortable in a job interview, and what made it worse was I already knew these people—pretty well, actually. We’d met when we were in high school together, fourteen years ago. Now I would be asking them for work, in the company they started. Darren and Simon were the cofounders. They’d been friends since as long as anyone could remember. Simon I remembered as small and dark-haired, round-faced, with olive skin that never seemed to see the sunlight. He wore checkered shirts and corduroys and never seemed to quite come into an adult body—at fifteen he could have passed for twelve. He was supposed to be smart but for some reason didn’t take any advanced classes. Pathetic, but so dorky as to almost round the corner into menacing. People claimed he built pipe bombs and had hacked a kid’s grades on the school computer once. They laughed at him, but not to his face.
Darren was taller and horse-faced and passably athletic. He ran track one year, but when he got to high school he grew his hair out, dropped the athletics and the honors classes, found an old army jacket and wore it all the time.
They were a fixture, short and tall, two different flavors of loser. You’d see them walking home every day, Simon’s hands shaping the air. What did they talk about? Comics, movies, inside jokes held over from the fourth grade? Another teen friendship, another tiny mysterious universe.
I met them in an intro to programming class, and six years later they were legends, the two burnout kids who founded a computer game company and got rich. But even the money wasn’t as alluring as the idea that they’d made video games their jobs, even before anybody knew that games were going to turn into an industry, an entertainment medium as big as the movies—bigger, if you believed some people. Simon and Darren made money out of—well, being awesome, essentially.
Don and Lisa went with them, too—got rich, stayed, won. Meanwhile,
I went on to an English degree, a year of law school, an internship at a doomed newspaper in Dallas, sublets in Cambridge, Queens, Somerville, San Francisco (a new start!), Austin, Madison, and imminently, nowhere.
Simon never graduated from college. He was killed four years ago, in a ridiculous accident that resulted in security cameras being placed inside all the elevator shafts of all the buildings on that particular campus. He wasn’t even a student there.
People were already starting to talk about him as a genius on a par with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and about what he might have done if he lived. The software he left behind was still state of the art in some ways, even though he wrote it way back in the eighties, before video games were in 3-D, before CD drives, before photo-real graphics. It was called the WAFFLE engine, a witches’ brew of robust world simulation and procedural content generation, the thing that powered Black Arts games first, to critical success, then to profitability, then to becoming a runaway phenomenon. It was still under the hood of every game they made; it had a weird genius
factor to it; it had never been surpassed or even duplicated. Before Simon died he was working on a project that he claimed would the next generation of the technology. He used the word
more than once—in fact, right there in the title of his proposal (it was meant to finally get him his BA from MIT; they’d as much as offered it to him, but he never followed through): “The Ultimate Game: A Robust Scheme for Procedurally Generated Narrative.” There had even been a press conference, but no copy of the proposal had ever been found. The idea—the Fermat’s last theorem of video game technology—lingered on at Black Arts.
I should say, people have had the impression Simon killed himself, or else died as part of a game. That was the way it was reported in most of the papers. “A ‘Gamer Death’ on Campus,” as if there were such a phrase. More than one dipshit psychology professor said things like,
“It’s not uncommon for these self-identified ‘gamers’ to lose the ability to distinguish between what is a game… and what is reality.”