By James, 20 March 2018 #
“Right, we’re doing this,” says Matt. He’d been buzzing about the idea for a few weeks, and had been pestering me to get a weekend clear. The fading light of a clear autumnal Friday evening was sending shadows though my flat. We were standing in the kitchen, having both cleared the usual end-of-the-week beer duties with our respective colleagues. He holds out two large-looking blue pills.
“It’s ok to mix this stuff with alcohol right?” I’d been burned by some of his more experimental ideas before. He grins with that familiar twinkle in his eye.
“Absolutely. It has no impact on liver function. All the actives go straight to the neurons. The core of it is based on a modified version of omega 3—it soaks into the pipework of the brain. That’s how it gets started.”
We’d grown up together playing PC adventure games in the 80s and 90s. Uni and adulthood had pulled us in different directions, but we’d always kept more or less in touch. Matt had got into the internet scene early, and was my one degree of separation from the cutting edge. I had actually been kind of flattered that he’d come to me when he’d heard about ChemGaming.
The pills go down smoothly, and he explains that it takes a few hours for the compounds to be digested, start activating and be properly absorbed.
“It’s a basic weekend dose,” he says, “The main event will kick in tomorrow morning, but we should get a bit of an intro tonight.”
“What kind of game is it?”
“We have to wait and see. One of the things about ChemGaming is that each one can manifest differently depending on the player.”
“How will we know when it’s over?”
“I guess we’ll just know? I hope there’s some kind of music.”
We settle in, have a couple more beers and some Chinese, chatting away about old times and old games. It was getting late—I had a spare room and Matt gets up to turn in. He jumps—“Can you see that?”
I look down. A series of blue lights were slowly appearing on the carpet, almost like the footprints of an invisible cat.
“Yes, I can see it too,” I whisper. They move across the floor, and stop just before the wall. “What does it mean?”
“It means it’s working!” Matt replies.
Suddenly, a beam of blue and green sweeps across the ceiling. We’re treated, gaping, to a geometric light show, blues, greens, purples, before it resolves itself into a stunning fanning pattern, like a peacock’s tail. That pattern repeats a couple of times, as if to burn itself into our memories, then it all goes dark.
We wait for another ten minutes or so, but nothing else out of the ordinary happens, so we turn in.
I open my eyes. Is that the sound of horses? Everything is different, and I realise the world has turned sepia-toned. I look around my room, there’s an antique-looking wooden wardrobe and wash basin. I look out of the window and am greeted with an Edwardian London street scene. For a minute I try and remember what it normally looks like, but I suddenly feel nauseous. That’s when Matt makes his entrance.
“Ah, so you’re up old chap.”
He’s dressed in a sharp suit and is looking at himself in the mirror. He whispers, “Don’t fight it: you’ll get disoriented. Go with the flow and everything comes clear. I’ll let you get dressed.” He flashes his smile again and I feel better.
I get ready, which is great fun as I’ve always loved dressing up smart. I go through to where Matt is reading a letter. I say “It’s strange—I can enjoy the aesthetics of the game, but if I try too hard to perceive what’s really there, I feel sick.”
“Yes me too,” he replies, not looking up from the letter, “best we concentrate on playing along, and let’s compare notes on Monday.” He hands me the letter—it’s handwritten in a flourishing script.
Gentlemen, time is of the essence. A bundle of my private papers containing secrets of national significance have gone missing. I suspect the Venetian but do not have enough evidence. Given the sensitivity of the matter, only you can help: I trust that this plea will not go unheeded. Yours gratefully, Lady Asquith-Jones.
An ornate key falls out of the envelope. Matt is grinning: “Let’s go help the Lady, shall we?”
We go outside into the busy street. Most of the view is faded and grainy—indistinct. I can tell what’s there, but it’s clearly background, not of interest. In the crowd, a couple of faces stand out—their colour is sharper and the details clear. The game is making it clear what we should investigate. I notice that Matt isn’t saying much: it’s like the game hasn’t allowed for much dialogue. But it’s reassuring that’s he’s there, and I can tell from the look in his eye that he’s enjoying every second. We step out and get started.
It’s all great fun—we get the hang of it quite quickly. We rush around talking to people, finding clues, picking up objects, working out where they’re needed, all against the period backdrop. The plot starts simple but gets intricate—we never actually meet the mysterious Lady but the story swirls around her like a vortex. There’s a great scene where we have to escape from a police cell, and the climax is a chase through the park. All the time I’m both fully immersed in the game, but also able to marvel at the design, the attention to small details, and also how the designers have made the game easy to navigate. Two days of gameplay pass quickly, we end up feeling pretty victorious on Sunday evening, celebrating with a bottle of whisky we picked up along the way.
The next morning is Monday, back to work. Everything is back to normal, and Matt is nowhere to be seen when I get up. I suppose he got up early since he’s got further to go. Outside, the view has returned to the usual level of mundane clarity. I get to work and head up to the weekly team meeting: we have a ritual where everyone shares their highlight of the weekend. I’m looking forward to having something interesting to share for a change, but when my turn comes, I say “Oh, pretty standard weekend. Spent some time playing retro games on the internet. Nothing much else to report.” The words just spill out without me thinking about them—like they’ve bypassed my brain.
I get to my desk, pull out my phone and send Matt a message.
James: So what do you think of the weekend?
Matt: Oh, pretty standard really. Did a spot of retro gaming, not much else.
James: Weird—I said exactly the same thing. Where did you get those pills?
Matt: What pills? You’re mental. Catch up soon yeah?
I’m suddenly worried, although there’s then a reassuring feeling that comes from the back of my brain. I get on with work. Everything is fine. Despite having sore legs and being ravenous, I’m actually pretty productive for a Monday morning. At lunch time I head out to my usual sandwich place and find a spot in the sun. My phone buzzes—it’s a message from Matt.
Matt: Everything is fine.
Suddenly a woman sits down next to me. She’s on her phone and I hear her say, “Who gave that set to him, they weren’t ready. Bloody typical: he always wants to be there first.”
I look up at her, and in that split second, my vision zooms into her eye. I see a flash of blue and green, spreading like a peacock’s tail.
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