At five in the morning I closed my laptop, thinking about my 20,000 gold, the grim reaper’s scythe, and logging back into Death Kingdom tomorrow, or, uh, later today, I guess.
“You out?” called Double Sam from the room across the hall.
“Yeah, meeting Alette at noon.”
“Noon? Not good, man. I’d just sleep, I was you.”
“I am gonna sleep.”
“You know what I mean.”
I rolled into bed. My game focus gone, I became aware of a calming patter of rain, noticed some missed calls on my silenced phone, felt more than a little hungry. Oh well, I was too tired to do anything now, but the rain was nice. Until shortly after 11 am, when the gentle patter leveled up to a category seven pain in the ass.
I woke up to a breakfast roll of thunder that knocked out power in the apartment. Oh well, I was meeting Alette soon. Maybe I’d have power by the time I got back.
Alette and I sat across from each other on uncomfortable McDonalds chairs. “So, I think we should just be friends.”
I looked at Alette and didn’t say anything.
“Don’t make this hard. You don’t have time for a relationship as much as you’re on Death Kingdom. Though I could look past it if you were a top earner. Or if you had influence on social.
“Huh? I pay the rent through Death Kingdom! I bought that Sausage and egg sandwich you’re eating! Anyway, it’s not just a game, it’s an experience of . . .”
Alette banged the table and raised her voice. “Don’t talk to me about your second rate game!”
McDonalds fell quiet for a few awkward seconds.
She continued. “Try out Lost Empire. Everyone’s going to it. The fanbase is huge. You do well, you could buy a house.”
“Look, Lost Empire has monthly dues. Death Kingdom is free to play, so—”
Alette put a hand on my arm. “Do yourself a favor. Quit that stupid game and find something else, maybe Lost Empire. See what happens. I’ll see you around, Nijel.”
I watched her walk out of McDonalds and out of my life. She had always reminded me of the elf warriors of the Lost Ice Caves in Death Kingdom, except she wasn’t pixelated and women looked better in three dimensions.
I didn’t want to take her advice, but when I got back to the apartment the power was still out. Double Sam was throwing his gear into a backpack as I came in.
“McDonalds have power?”
“Yeah, but no internet. Said the generator had them running, but internet’s down everywhere else too.”
“Shit! We’re supposed to run Unreal Armor, and I need Unreal Armor!”
“I know, dude. I know.”
Double Sam hung his head in grief.
“You know, we could try doing something, uh, else.”
“I don’t know. Take a walk?”
Double Sam laughed. “You’re insane. Let’s just drive to a different McDonalds.”
“That’s a good idea.”
“Of course it’s a good idea. We’ll buy a coke, get refills all day, and use free Wi-Fi.”
I stuffed my gear in my backpack, and we were on our way.
Double Sam’s car died twelve miles away from the apartment. He got out and opened the hood to stare into a non-mechanics existential abyss of smoke, tubes, and chrome.
I peered over his shoulder. “Guess the universe wanted us to walk.”
Sam bent over to get a better look at the engine, not that it would help. “Damnit.” He pulled out his phone and thumbed to his favorites list.
I glanced at his screen, noticing I was the only person on the list. I didn’t say anything.
“Yeah, we have to walk.”
Thirty minutes later, he was breathing heavily, sitting on the side of the road.
I stopped, shook my head, and gave him a look. “Come on, man. We’re not gonna get to McDonalds with you sitting there. Keep walking.”
“Dude, chill. I haven’t walked this far in years. I can hardly breathe.” His face reminded me of the over-ripe tomatos in the fridge.
A van came to a stop beside us, Last Decade’s Arcade emblazoned across the side. A middle-aged guy with a Nintendo beanie leaned his head out of the window. “You dudes want a ride to the arcade?”
I raised an eyebrow. “The arcade has transportation service?”
“Yeah,” said the guy, “it’s a bar too. When the kids stopped coming, we got a liquor license. Got an older crowd of players now.”
I turned to Double Sam to see what he was thinking, but he was way ahead of me, moving to the van.
The arcade was packed. People crowded the bar. A couple made out on the Fast and Furious chair, the girl astride her man.
I looked at the titles of the cabinets with disbelief. “What are these?”
Double Sam looked at Spy Hunter suspiciously. “The music sucks. The graphics are worse.”
“Totally. It all sucks.”
We found the bartender.
Sam looked at him the way a drowning man looks at land. “You dudes got Wi-Fi?”
The bartender narrowed his eyes at us. “You getting something, or what?”
Drinks in hand, Sam and I circulated through the maze of cabinets. The arrhythmically pulsating lights, and out of sync midi tracks, could have been its own art form or a particularly cruel stress test.
“We’re in an arcade. We might as well play something,” I said.
Double Sam frowned. “Man, we could play all this on an emulator for free.”
“You already got these games on your machine? We’ve got no Wi-Fi, remember?”
Sam stared off into the neon nether space.
I ignored him and continued glancing around. Something caught my eye. “Hey! Galaga!” I played for all of forty-five seconds before my three lives were toast. The emulator sounded better already, at least I could save state. “This game sucks.”
“Nah, man.” An older guy sipped his beer behind us. “Game doesn’t suck. It’s just a game, like every other game. It just lacks complexity. Doesn’t take too long for you to recognize its limitations. In essence, every game is like this one.”
Double Sam laughed. “That’s stupid. You’ve obviously never played Death Kingdom.”
“Don’t need to; don’t want to. I played hundreds of games, thousands, before I found The Brotherhood.”
I jerked around, momentarily thinking I’d landed in the middle of an assassin’s guild. “The what?”
“The Brotherhood of the Non-Gamer. They teach husbandry, unity, peace, and uphold living in reality as the highest virtue.”
Double Sam downed the last of his drink, peered into the glass, then at the old guy. “What’s a non-gamer doing in a video game arcade?”
“Getting my fill of beer and nostalgia. The games remind me of a life I had before I knew myself.”
“Dude’s a nut.” Double Sam set his empty glass on a Pac-Man cocktail table already covered with empties. “I’m out.” He made it fifteen feet before stopping to catch his breath. “You coming, Nij?”
“I’ll catch up with you at the bar.”
He gave me a look that could make a Pac-Man ghost turn blue. “This bar? Dude, I need Unreal Armor and that hunt starts in thirty minutes. There’s a McDonalds around here somewhere with a Coke and a Big Mac waiting for me… and Wi-Fi. Catch you later.” He beat tracks out of the arcade.
I watched him go, then turned back to find the old guy still looking at me.
He saluted me with his glass, took a swig. “People call me Zen.” Empty glass added to the mess on the overflowing cocktail table, he wiped his hands on his blue jeans, and pulled down the sleeves of his grey hoodie.
I looked him up and down. His beat-up Chuck Taylors might have been worn by Chuck himself.
“How many days has it been since you didn’t play a game?” Zen asked.
“I . . . I couldn’t say.”
“You know the trouble with gaming is the worldview it sustains. Gamers want action. They expect entertainment and a constant balance of challenge and rewards. But life is fundamentally not a game. Though life has challenges and rewards, it also has slow time.”
His words sounded good, but…“Slow time?”
“Two hours looking at paintings in a museum. An evening trading stories with a friend. A sunset that you get nothing from but peace. That’s slow time.”
“Tell me about yourself.”
Sure, why not. The nearest McDonalds with power and Wi-Fi was who knows where, and I didn’t feel like trailing Double Sam all over the city to find it. I told Zen everything. Not at first. At first, I told him about Death Kingdom, but he asked questions that led me into what he called slow time. I told him about Alette but then I went further, and, man, it felt good. And while I talked, we walked around and he introduced me to his friends at the arcade. We told jokes and talked deep into the night.
Later, I rode the arcade van home. Sam was still out, but I stayed up until sunrise. It was the first time I’d watched the dawn appear. It felt like my first day alive.
I sat at a table across from Alette in McDonalds. Double Sam clicked his mouse furiously at a table behind us.
“I found Zen, Alette.”
“What, you’re religious now?”
“Huh? No, this guy. His name’s Zen.”
“Oh, uh, okay.”
“Zen set me straight.” I looked out a window to the world outside. “He showed me a life of virtue! I don’t care about games anymore.”
“It wasn’t the gaming, Nijel. It was the game. And I’ve got a new boyfriend now. He’s a pro.”
“A pro-gamer. Graduated from PlayStation University. Makes ten grand a weekend at big competitions. You should see the size of his—”
“Save me the details.”
“Eww, no! His bank account, Nijel. God, you’re such a perv. But seriously, Lost Empire, you should play it sometime. Definitely watch Manny’s Twitch stream.”
“Alette, we only broke up two days ago.”
“Yeah, look. I just met you here to make sure you have closure. And now that you’ve got it, I’ve got to go. Manny and his friends have been Tweeting about me, so this is a pivotal moment. I’ve got to release some vids to keep my brand hot. Later on, Nijel.”
I didn’t bother to watch her leave, and I don’t think Double Sam noticed me leave, either. I took a long walk through the city park. I watched water course over the smooth stones in the stream behind the baseball fields. The passage of time was its own reward.