My dad bought a video game called "The Real World". I want to stop playing it.
"I'm selling it," my dad said.
"I can buy it from you!" I pleaded. "I've saved up a bit of money."
"Is that supposed to impress me?" he snarled. "A kitchen porter. Is that the dream career I imagined for my son? You're eighteen. It's time to be an adult. So, no, I don't give a shit about the money. You're not buying the Xbox from me. You're too old for video games."
My dad is an abusive arsehole, so I didn't try to reason with him. I knew the battle was over before it even began. Out of context, I might sound like a spoiled brat, but that brief snippet of conversation was one of my dad's better moments. I could talk about the time he smashed up my vinyl collection with a cricket bat because it was, and I quote, "pussy music". I could talk about the time he brandished a broken beer bottle as a weapon.
Yeah. He's a twat. But he's right. I'm hardly a roaring success. I would move out, but my "salary" couldn't buy me a fucking shed. Mum died a few years ago, and my sister's at university, so I have to deal with the prick on my own.
Of course, that's the least of my worries. I'm terrified of "The Real World". No, I'm not talking about the real world. I'm talking about the video game. Oh, you haven't heard of it? Yeah, that's the weird thing. I can't find it online. I can't find it anywhere. But my dad found it.
"Happy birthday," he grumbled.
Yesterday, it was my nineteenth birthday. The Xbox "incident" was a distant memory, so you can imagine my shock when I opened the clumsily wrapped present before me and found myself looking at a PC game.
"You can play it on the computer in the study," my dad said.
I was bewildered. For a few precious moments, I truly believed that he had a change of heart. The next sentence shattered that naive illusion.
"It's supposed to teach you about life," he explained. "Maybe it'll get you off your arse."
He strolled to the living room and sat on his own arse, switching on the TV. Hypocrite. But as double-edged as the sword seemed, I resolved to play the video game and force myself to enjoy it. I wanted to devote every waking hour to it, even if it were a piece of crap. I wanted to waste my life on it, just to spite my father.
I read the front cover of the game as I walked to the study.
"The Real World: A Simulation"
It was hardly a descriptive title.
The picture on the front displayed a man's black silhouette on a white background. It wasn't a vibrant graphic, but, of course, it had been enough to entice my dullard dad.
I slotted the disc into my computer's CD drive and installed the game. The main menu was a blank screen with only one button: "Play". There were no options for settings, help, or even basic information about "The Real World".
"Crappy two-quid game," I mumbled to myself.
I clicked "Play".
The game had a third-person perspective, and I was playing as the little silhouetted man from the cover. I found myself in a white, expansive world. Again, it was much like the image on the CD case.
There were four different metrics at the bottom of the screen. There was a green bar with the word "LIFE" beneath it, a blue bar with the word "WATER" beneath it, an orange bar with the word "FOOD" beneath it, and a yellow bar with the word "ENERGY" beneath it.
A small text box was also displayed at the top of the screen. It read:
"Welcome to The Real World. Survive."
The text box disappeared, and some small buildings appeared on the not-so-distant horizon. Everything was black-and-white. The buildings were simply outlined objects. I had to admit that I was intrigued. It had an original aesthetic.
"Okay," I said to myself. "Perhaps this minimalistic game has potential."
There were three buildings. Each was a simplistic structure. The first had a sign that read: "Food". There were two long window panes and a door. Through the shopfront, I could see long aisles of shelving and a man behind the counter at the back. The second building had a sign that read "Medical". The windows were white and did not display the interior. The third building didn't have a sign, but the thatched roof and picket fence suggested it was my character's house.
It wasn't much of a world. Three buildings in a seemingly infinite void of whiteness. I could see myself getting bored of the game mechanics quite quickly, but I decided to give the simplistic simulation a chance.
I strolled through the door of the "Food" shop and started to browse the NPC's fine selection of digital grub. That wasn't sarcasm. There was a surprisingly extensive range of food on offer. Whenever I stood before an item of food, a small pop-up box appeared on the screen, listing various details. For example:
"Tomato Pasta [Ready Meal]
This game developer really wanted to create an authentic shopping experience, I thought to myself. But I went along with it because I was utterly fascinated by the minute details that the game had included. I filled up my shopping basket and walked up to the till. The cashier communicated via text boxes.
"Good day, sir. Is that all?" he asked.
There were two options: "Yes" or "No". I picked the former.
"Fantastic. The total cost of your shop is 56 Tokens," he replied. "Thank you."
A "-56" pop-up box flashed at the top of the screen for a few seconds. I had no idea how many "Tokens" I owned. The game had not mentioned anything about currency of any kind. What are Tokens? I wondered. And how do I earn more?
I left the shop and strolled over to the "Medical" building. When I tried to enter the door, however, a beep emitted from the speakers. Then, a text box explained: "Opening hours are 9 am - 5 pm". I looked at the time on my computer. 6:14 pm. I hadn't expected it to be a real-time simulator.
Still, I was content to skip the "Medical" center. What I really wanted to explore was my house. I sprinted to the door, and it swung open. No need to lock one's door in the middle of a white, featureless expanse, I supposed.
My bemused demeanor quickly vanished when I stepped inside.
"What the fuck?" I murmured.
It was my house. My real house, I mean. With my heart pounding furiously in my chest, I explored every crevice of the outlined home. It was an exact replica, down to every last piece of furniture, picture frame, and room.
Sweat poured down my face, and I started to descend into a full-blown panic. I'm not one to overreact to things, but I immediately had a dreadful feeling about this game. Something about the digital rendition of my real-life home had unnerved me. It felt like a violation. It felt intrusive. It felt sinister.
I was interrupted by a rumbling in my belly. It was time to make dinner and confront my dad about what was happening. I thought it might be a fake game that he'd specifically designed to torture me.
A second before I closed the game window, I noticed something odd. A text box appeared on the screen:
"You're hungry. Time to unload your shopping and eat."
It was a coincidence, surely?
That was what I told myself at the time. Yet, a bitter chill coursed through my body. I closed the game and switched off my PC. No more of that nonsense.
I bounded down the stairs and strolled into the kitchen to make dinner for my dad and me. I'm the cook. That's the condition I must fulfill to live in my dad's house "rent-free". I often offer to pay rent, but he always changes the topic of conversation. The man loves power. And this fake simulation game, I decided, was simply his latest power trip. It's not real.
I made a roast dinner, hoping to put my dad in a good mood. He'd barely seated himself before I grilled him for information.
"Where did you find the game?" I asked.
"Huh?" he mumbled. "Oh, er, some website. Are you learning some hard truths about reality, eh?"
"Dad," I said. "Did you commission a custom game to be made? How much did it cost?"
"What the fuck are you blabbering about?" he growled.
"The house in the game. It's an exact replica of ours," I replied. "I actually think it's pretty cool. Fair play. Thanks for going to the effort."
"I don't really understand the joke," my dad said. "Look, just Google the name of the game, okay? Jesus. I thought kids were supposed to be tech geniuses. But make sure you wash the dishes first. I'm going to bed."
And that was the end of the conversation. I was a little surprised at myself for not thinking to Google the game immediately, actually. It didn't make any difference, though. There was nothing about "The Real World" on the internet. I found an online forum that discussed all manner of dark practices, and some users suggested that Veilbreaking could untie my soul from this evil force. But I couldn't find anything about that practice online.
I decided there was only one way to learn more. I had to keep playing.
My stomach rumbled again. I'd just wolfed down an entire roast dinner, but I somehow felt even hungrier. As I loaded the game, I reached for some crisps and started to munch away. I finished them and still felt hungry.
"The Real World" picked up exactly where I left it. No main menu. No "Play" button. I was still in the house.
My stomach groaned. It was a little more insistent this time. I felt a stabbing pain in my gut. And that pop-up window lingered on the screen, telling me to feed my character.
Coincidences usually make me chuckle, but this one didn't. Horrible thoughts swam in my busy mind. Horrible ideas of what might be happening to me. Ideas that would soon be confirmed.
My character was still holding the bag of food. I strolled over to the fridge and selected the "Unload" option. Then, browsing the options, I chose the tomato pasta ready meal. I microwaved it for a few minutes, plated it up, sat at the dinner table, and selected the pop-up "Eat" option.
My character started to eat, and his orange "FOOD" bar suddenly filled up. He drank, and his blue "WATER" bar filled up.
Much to my horror, I found that my belly stopped rumbling. I suddenly felt replenished. Worst of all, I could taste the food and water in my mouth.
I jolted to my feet, falling backward and taking my desk chair with me. I lay motionless for a few seconds. Then, I propped myself on my elbows and looked up at the monitor in a state of pure terror. My body was violently shaking, and my mind was starting to slip into a state of existential panic. What the fuck is happening? I thought. What the fucking fuck is happening?
Another text box appeared at the top of the window:
"You only have 10 Tokens. Would you like to earn more?"
The "Yes" and "No" options had returned.
I sprang to my feet, limbered up, took a deep breath, and picked up my desk chair. Sitting down, I selected the "Yes" option. The text box updated:
"You can complete a challenge for 1000 Tokens. Do you accept?"
If this digital character truly were a voodoo doll of me, I would only have two options. I could run out of the Tokens needed to buy digital food and starve to death in real life. Alternatively, I could blindly accept the challenge and stand a chance of surviving.
I chose survival.
The screen blackened for a whole minute. My body clenched and my breathing quickened. I watched in sheer dread, terrified that I'd broken the game and resigned myself to the fate of dying by thirst, starvation, or perhaps even sleep deprivation. I could only assume that I was linked to the doll in every way, shape, and form.
The horrifying consequences of that truth only hit me when the challenge loaded.
A timer appeared at the top of the screen.
It started to count down. Five minutes to achieve what, exactly?
My silhouetted character returned, but he was now a white figure against a black background. White outlines of shapes started to appear on the screen. I soon realized that I was faced with an obstacle course. A text box briefly flashed:
"Watch your 'HEALTH' and 'ENERGY'. Run. Time is slipping away."
I didn't need to be told twice. I sprinted down the long, narrow passageway before me. It was a rather derivative and stereotypical obstacle course, but when the stakes are life and death, those clichés start to become a little more petrifying.
I paused, staring at the swinging axes that blocked my path. 04:16 on the timer. I didn't have time to think. I just had to act. I sprinted recklessly through the sea of rocking blades and held my breath until I safely made it to the other side.
That wasn't so hard. I could do this. A watery, crocodile-filled pit, lined with lily pads? Easy. I leap-frogged my way across. 03:49. I could already see the doorway with "FINISH" above it. Just a few more obstacles.
Why did I suddenly feel completely fatigued?
My "ENERGY" bar. It was empty. A text box popped up:
"You will be penalized for moving too quickly."
Suddenly, my character was levitating in the air. I felt my stomach lurch, and I realized that I was no longer sitting on my desk chair. My body was starting to lift into the air, and I found myself suspended a few feet above the ground. I didn't want to call for help from my abusive father. He would've fled and never returned. Plus, for all I knew, he'd purposefully dabbled in some dark ritual to create this game.
Instead, I bit my quivering lip so viciously that it drew warm blood, which started to trickle down my chin. A stream of tears broke through the floodgates, drenching my cheeks. I watched the character on my screen, waiting to see what horrendous fate awaited us. 03:17.
"To recover your energy, choose a handicap."
I didn't understand the instructions, and then I saw two options on the screen:
- "Lose 20 seconds on the timer"
- "Twist an ankle"
I couldn't afford to lose another twenty seconds. I was already wasting time. I stretched my hand forward, still hovering in the air but desperately wrestling with the paranormal force that had suspended me. I managed to grab the mouse and wiggle it onto the second option. Twisting an ankle would be painful, but I had a terrible feeling that it might cost my life to lose the challenge and the Tokens.
What followed was the most painful experience of my life. I expected a sprained ankle. What I was actually given was a mutilated ankle. The vehement entity that operated the game snapped my left ankle in a 180-degree rotation, leaving my foot facing the wrong direction and causing my bone to protrude through a bloody, gaping wound above my heel.
I screamed at the top of my lungs. I screamed until I threw up.
My dad shouted something from downstairs. I couldn't hear him over my agonized wailing. He didn't come to check on me.
I collapsed into my desk chair, left leg rendered a shaking, useless mess. My character looked much the same. 02:51. Feeling faint, I placed my unsteady hands on the keyboard and pushed forward at a much slower pace. I made it through a passage of deadly darts, and all that remained was a small stretch of hallway before the exit. 01:17.
I hobbled forward, sobbing at the blazing sensation in my left ankle (and the massive amount of blood loss, no doubt). My character was waddling at a glacial pace. 00:59.
Suddenly, the walls of the passageway started to move inward. They were closing on my character. They were closing on me.
"Not like this," I whimpered.
Being compressed between two walls seemed like a death too excruciating to possibly imagine. 00:41. I was confident that I could reach the door in less than forty-one seconds, but I wasn't confident that I could reach the door before being crushed to death.
00:30. Just a few more steps. The walls were starting to touch my character's shoulders. I couldn't move quickly enough. I could feel the pressure against my real shoulders. I started to accept my fate, as pain coursed through my body. I heard cracking sounds in my joints, and I started to pull my arms inward, attempting to save any other limbs from being mutilated.
In a miraculous turn of events, the walls stopped moving. I found myself squeezing through the world's tiniest passage, but I hadn't been crushed. I was alive.
00:12. Just a few more steps. 00:08. A few more.
I made it.
With three seconds to spare, I reached the door. The screen faded to black, then I found myself back in my character's house. I'd never been so happy to see an award in a video game:
I cried joyously, frantically pulling out my phone and calling an ambulance. The rest of the night is a blur. I know I spent it in A&E. The problem is that I wasn't thinking clearly. I was in so much pain, and I'd lost so much blood. I forgot that I needed to keep playing the simulation.
I'm trapped in the hospital. My left leg has been patched up, but it certainly isn't operational. I can already feel hunger pangs. And I slept for ten hours, according to the nurse, but I'm so tired. I haven't eaten or slept in the game. I don't know how much longer I can leave my character unattended.
I have two options: I get home to "The Real World", or I find a way to break this curse.
Time is running out.
I left the hospital.
I couldn't avoid "The Real World". My character was withering away, and I was following suit.
Firstly, to update all of you, I tried to resolve the situation whilst I was in the hospital. I called my girlfriend, Darcy, and asked her to play the game for me. She didn't accuse me of lying, but she thought I'd hit my head and imagined the entire thing. She suggested psychiatric help. I said I'd do whatever she wanted, but I just wanted her to go over to my house and take care of my character. I wanted her to do it for me.
"Okay. I'll go over to your house and play the game, but I'm coming to the hospital after work. I want to see you. I love you."
That was the last thing Darcy said before hanging up. When she stopped replying to my texts, I found myself succumbing to intrusive thoughts about awful scenarios that might have taken place. What if the game has chosen her as its new host? What if my dad caught her and hurt her?
I had to go home.
As I hobbled out of the building on crutches, I looked down at my left foot, which was being held together by a metal rod. Still, there was no physical evidence that, less than a day prior, it had been a mangled mess. And yet, I experienced a phantom sensation. My foot still felt as if it were twisted around. I still endured excruciating pain. Maybe I need to take my injured character to the medical center, too, I thought.
The taxi driver attempted to engage in small talk about my injury, but my mind was vacant. My eyesight had become hazy, and I had a throbbing headache. I was experiencing dehydration, starvation, sleep deprivation, and (possibly) blood loss. My character was suffering, so I was suffering.
When I leaped out of the taxi, I was on the verge of passing out. I burst through the front door, ready to apprehend my dad and ask him what the fuck he had bought for me. Where did you find the game? Are you trying to kill me? I imagined the things I'd say.
My dad wasn't home.
I didn't think anything of it. I was close to collapsing. I sprinted to the study and found that the computer was still switched on. The game window for "The Real World" was open. I slumped into my chair and hurriedly raced into action. "Drink" was my first move. My throat soon felt soothed. "Eat" followed. The searing pain in my stomach subsided. Then, I moved my character to the upstairs bedroom and selected "Sleep". Though I (the real me) remained awake, I slowly started to feel revitalized.
I survived by the skin of my teeth. The knot in my chest started to loosen, if only a little. Everything in "The Real World" happens in real time, of course, so I realized I would have to leave my character in bed for several hours. I was still drained of energy, but after an hour or so of digital sleep, I no longer felt entirely depleted. My character's "ENERGY" bar was gradually filling up.
I decided that it was time to figure out how to stop the madness. I had work to do. Of course, I didn't want to exert too much real-life energy. But I still wasn't exactly sure of the mechanics behind this computerized voodoo doll magic. And that was why I started to browse the internet on my phone, searching for answers. There was no time to waste.
I revisited the forum I mentioned in the first post. I found the user, "Guest17", who had told me about something called Veilbreaking. It's the act of recovering a soul from the world of the dead. I told Guest17 that it didn't really seem applicable to my predicament. This was his exact reply:
"Think about it. Veilbreaking allows you to move your soul between realities. It might detach you from the voodoo doll, given that your soul seems to currently be tied to it."
Yeah, I wasn't buying any of that shit. I didn't want to add more curses to the pile. That being said, it wasn't a fruitless chat. I knew I needed some sort of "magic" solution, so I asked Guest17 where he learned so much about Veilbreaking. And that's when he popped up in my private messages on the forum.
"Not everything's on Google, you know. [link redacted]."
The link was an invitation to a Discord server called "XI". I knew it was sketchy, but I was out of fucking options. I couldn't depend on a video game for the rest of my life. I couldn't keep completing deadly challenges, living every moment in utter dread. It had to stop.
I accepted the invite.
The "XI" server had 547 members. And they seemed obsessed with all manner of supernatural things. There were numerous rooms:
- "Heart Charms"
- "Navigators of the Void"
I immediately went to the "Voodoo" section and explained my predicament. I know nothing about the supernatural, but it certainly seemed that someone had made a virtual voodoo doll of me. I hoped somebody on the forum might be able to help. The first reply was a little harsh:
RRen: Effigies (Voodoo dolls) aren't actually linked to Voodoo culture, you filthy casual. Who let you onto this server? It's private.
Fortunately, one of the other replies was a little friendlier:
Tuscan: RRen is right, but he's also a dickhead. You're in serious danger, [my username]. Technological magic is the specialty of riprip78. Message him.
I messaged riprip78. I waited and waited. No reply.
Around 3 pm, six hours after returning from the hospital, my stomach started to rumble. Really? My character's sleeping, and he ate before going to bed, I thought to myself, sighing. I looked at the game window for "The Real World", and my jaw froze.
My character's "FOOD" bar was practically full.
It dawned on me that I didn't just have to keep myself alive in the game. I still had to eat, drink, and sleep in the real world. I would have to survive through two different bodies.
I stumbled into the darkened kitchen, overcome with a terrible feeling of powerlessness. How long can I keep this up? I wondered as I eyeballed the ready meal that was rotating in the microwave. I'd have to keep performing deadly challenges to earn Tokens and keep working in the real world to earn money. My manager had taken me off the kitchen rota whilst I recovered, but there were still real-life bills to be paid. And it seemed my dad had finally left town, so he wasn't going to be paying his way.
I strolled back into the study, tucking into my bowl of macaroni and cheese. Still no reply from riprip78. Whilst I waited, I decided that I had to do something about the agonizing pain in my foot. It had been treated in the real world, but it still had that phantom sensation of being twisted and mutilated. I looked at the game window. My character's "HEALTH" bar had been depleted to the extent that it was orange in color. If I could heal him, perhaps my real-world pain would subside. It was worth a try.
I decided that six hours of rest would be sufficient, so I tore my character out of bed. It was time to finally explore the "MEDICAL" building. I had to be quick. It would be shutting shortly, after all.
My character limped out of the front door, facing the white nothingness of the horrendous hellscape. Turning to my right, I strolled over to the building beside me. This time, the door wasn't locked. I strolled through it, feeling uneasy about the potential horrors that might lie within.
I had expected a local health clinic. I had expected to be told that I needed to ring and come back when I had an appointment. Instead, I was faced with a bizarrely enormous hospital. There was an expansive waiting area, and it was overflowing with silhouetted NPCs. This was even more detailed than the shop.
There had been jolly, elevator-style music in the "FOOD" store. In the "MEDICAL" building, however, there were sparse, dissonant piano notes playing. It filled me with both sorrow and horror in equal measure. There was something wrong with the idea of cold piano plinks being chosen as the background music for a building filled with such life, even though it was artificial life.
Additionally, the building, like a Tardis, was far larger on the inside. In the center of the open-plan ground floor, there was a staircase that led up to numerous levels. Moving my character's POV upward, I could see the interior of the hospital building all the way up to the very top floor. The staircase zigzagged upward. I counted six levels to the building.
Remembering why I came, I walked over to the reception desk. I prayed for a brief break from realism. No waiting times. No need for appointments. Just let me see a doctor.
My wish was granted. The silhouetted woman spoke through text boxes, much like the cashier at the "FOOD" shop:
"Hello! My name's Kiera. How can I help you?"
- "I need to see a doctor"
- "I want to volunteer"
The second option unnerved me. Volunteer to do what? I wondered. I selected the first option, obviously.
"Dr. Ted will see you on the third floor. Room 319. That'll cost 500 Tokens. Thank you!"
Figures, I thought, watching the "-500" pop-up window come and go. I strolled up the stairs, trying my very best to ignore the haunting piano music that filled this eerie, white, black-outlined building. I thought about muting the game. Believe me. But two things stopped me:
- I didn't want the game to penalize me again. I might not survive my next trip to the hospital.
- I didn't want to miss anything.
For all I knew, I might miss something important if I were to mute the game. I decided to soldier onward, weaving in and out of silhouetted doctors and civilians.
When I reached the third floor, I followed the numbers until I reached Room 319. I strolled inside, and a silhouetted doctor was waiting for me. A text box appeared:
"My name is Dr. Ted. What seems to be the problem?"
- "I have a headache"
- "I have a mental health problem"
- "I severed a bone in the challenge"
I selected the sadistic option at the bottom, obviously. It felt as if the game were tormenting me. It knew exactly why I had come into the "MEDICAL" building. I was horrified by the prospect of some intelligent entity watching my every move and terrorizing me. Another text box popped up:
"Let me have a look. Ah, okay. That's an easy fix."
Seconds later, the pain in my real ankle subsided. My character stood upright, seemingly better.
"Thank you, Archie Bolton. Come again!"
My blood turned to ice in my veins. I'd never specified my name whilst playing the game. "The Real World" knew me. Of course, it knew me. Why should I be so shocked by that? And yet, something about seeing my name on the screen made the curse feel so much more unbelievably frightening. The torture felt personal, I suppose.
With full bars across the board, I exited Room 319 and strolled over to the third-floor balcony that overlooked everything from the ground floor below to the very top floor. Every moment of time that I spent in the game was chilling, but I didn't see what other option I had. There had still been no reply from riprip78 on my phone. I had to learn about the mechanics of "The Real World". If I could figure out the game, maybe I could beat it.
That was when I noticed something. The dissonant piano was no longer the only audible sound in the hospital. I could hear voices. Shouting. I saw movement on the other side of the building. Silhouetted NPCs were dragging two squirming silhouettes along the second-floor hallway.
"Where the fuck are we?" a girl wailed.
"Let me go!" a man bellowed.
I immediately recognized both voices. The girl was Darcy, and the man was my dad.
Unable to accept this dreadful twist in the game's hellish vendetta against me, I found myself disassociating from everything. There was ringing in my ears, as I fervently struggled to process what was happening. I scrambled for some sort of explanation. I had nothing.
I moved my character down the stairs, exiting onto the second floor. Following the silhouetted figures from a safe distance, I hoped with every fiber of my being to ascertain that they were not, in fact, capturing my girlfriend and my dad. The large group of striding shadows entered a door on their right. The sign above it read "SURGERY".
I burst through the doorway, throwing caution to the wind in my blind panic. Behind the door, of course, was yet another narrow hallway, and I could hear Darcy at the end of the corridor. She was bawling her eyes out.
"DARCY!" I bellowed.
She didn't respond, but she kept crying. I had a microphone connected to my computer, but I realized that Darcy probably couldn't hear me. The game had no settings, after all. There was no option to switch a microphone on or off. I was unable to communicate. So, I watched helplessly as the five silhouetted NPCs dragged Darcy and my dad into an operating room on their left.
I realized that long windows spanned the entire hallway, so I could see into the room. My hands froze on the keyboard. I stood and watched. The voices within the room were muffled, but Darcy was shouting at such volume that I could hear her clearly.
"What have you done to us? What is this place?" she cried.
"I'll fucking kill you!" my dad raged, frothing at the mouth.
The five silent NPCs started to strap my girlfriend and my dad to two separate operating tables. The hospital's background music became foreground music. The slightly out-of-tune piano plinks now resonated powerfully atop the screams of the two victims. Even in such a desolate world of black, outlined shapes, painted against a white backdrop, everything felt real. In fact, what followed was the most real thing I've ever seen.
I could see one of the NPCs fiddling on a computer. As if they'd transmitted a message to me, a pop-up box appeared on my screen. It read:
"How should we proceed?"
- "Save them (-10,000 Tokens)"
- "Kill them (+10,000 Tokens)"
I repeatedly clicked "Save them", but a deafening buzzing noise sounded with every click, and the same message incessantly popped up:
"Give me a fucking challenge to earn some Tokens, then!" I screamed at the screen, tears rolling down my cheeks.
Another window popped up:
"Only the original player can operate the simulated character. Unauthorized players must face trial in 'The Real World'. Select an option."
- "Save them (-10,000 Tokens)"
- "Kill them (+10,000 Tokens)"
I placed my face in my palms and sobbed. Truthfully, I didn't give a moment's thought to my villainous father. I was thinking of Darcy. Only Darcy. The beautiful, redheaded girl who radiated such warmth and vibrant color. Now, she was reduced to a black silhouette, writhing on an outlined operating table.
Another window popped up:
"Pick an option. You have 10 seconds."
"You won't let me… You won't let me pick the option I want…" I blubbered.
"The offer has timed out. 'The Real World' has chosen to kill them."
"NO!" I screeched.
One of the figures picked up a large bucket and started pouring a white liquid with a black outline over Darcy's body. Horrifyingly, as loudly as she screamed, her voice was mostly lost in the sea of piercing piano notes that seemed to be building toward a vile crescendo.
As the piano played, cheapening the very real terror that my girlfriend was enduring, I had never felt so utterly powerless and petrified. She emitted a scream that I am sure barely began to express the grueling brutality of her suffering. As the white liquid poured over Darcy, her body started to melt, transforming before my eyes from a black silhouette into a black pool of liquid.
Her final, pained wail swiftly transitioned into a haunting, warbling whisper, as if she were gargling water, and she became a black, gooey liquid that trickled down the sides of the outlined operating table. I could not speak. I could not blink. I could not move.
"Don't you bring that shit near me!" my dad growled. "Fucking… NO! Let me out of these restraints! Let's fight properly!"
I hated him. I hated my dad more than I'd ever hated anything. He bought "The Real World" as a form of psychological torture, even if he hadn't quite anticipated the supernatural horrors that would unfold. It was his fault that Darcy was dead.
"Hey!" my dad shouted. "Who's watching us from the hallway? Is that… ARCHIE? Are you playing the game? Archie, it's your dad! HELP!"
I didn't respond. I was completely devoid of feeling for the monster in the shackles.
"Archie?" my dad gasped, seemingly stung by my inaction.
He soon showed his true colors.
"You fucking waste of space!" he yelled. "I nearly smothered you in your fucking sleep when you were a kid, you know. I could've crushed you like a bug! I should've done it, you fucking - ARGHHHH!"
I locked my gaze onto Darcy's liquified body, tears stinging my eyes and dread consuming my heart, as the NPC with the bucket started to pour. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my dad melt into the same pool of gore as Darcy. It was a gruesome sight, even though I despised him. His screams rapidly dissipated.
Everything was still.
There was no sound, other than the sinister piano melody that played ceaselessly.
I wiped the tears from my eyes and looked at my screen. As I watched the NPCs, my heart started to thump frantically against the inside of my ribcage.
The motionless silhouettes were facing the window. They were facing me.
Pulling me back into the "real" world, my phone buzzed.
riprip78 had replied.
The figures started to exit the operating room.
Petrified, I made my character run toward the hallway door and sprint onto the second-floor balcony. All of the NPCs in the "MEDICAL" building were immobilized. Their bodies, however, swivelled on the spot, so that they were always facing me. Avoiding them, I ran down the stairs. I didn't know whether the five silhouetted monsters from the operating room were still chasing me. I didn't stop to check.
Hurtling across the main lobby, I weaved between the swiveling statues. They littered the waiting area and followed my every move with their empty faces. I reached the main hospital door, turned left, and tried to ignore the splitting pain in my sides. My "ENERGY" bar was rapidly draining.
I was surprised to find my house door unlocked, as I thought the game might lock me out and leave me to whatever twisted fate the NPCs had in mind. The second I was inside, I closed the door, selected the "Lock" option, and backed toward the kitchen. Multiple text boxes started to pop up, indicating that the five murderous NPCs were, in fact, at my front door.
"Let us in."
"Do you want to earn 5000 Tokens? Let me in."
"You can just let me in. Forget the others. 50,000 Tokens?"
Feeling utterly depleted and not yet brave enough to look at riprip78's message, I moved my character to the fridge and looked inside. Nothing. It was empty. Another punishment, I assumed. Instead, I filled up a glass of water from the tap, and both my "WATER" and "ENERGY" bars started to replenish. But I was so hungry. Then, a window popped up:
"For the sake of realism and immersion, certain food items are kept outside of the fridge."
Suddenly, there was a bouncing arrow over the fruit bowl on my character's dining table. There were still some pixelated apples inside. I ran over, selected "Eat", and breathed a sigh of relief as the ache in my gut began to ease.
Another pop-up window appeared:
"Uh-oh! It looks like your fruit might be moldy."
As my character bent forward and started to projectile-vomit a black substance, I felt an unsettled grumble in my real-life stomach. Fuck. I expected vomit, but I should've known that the grueling simulation would have something much more sickening in store for me.
I bent forward, mirroring my character's position. Feeling a blazing sensation in the back of my throat, I projectile-vomited a thick, black, gooey substance that looked identical to the one my character had just produced. Knees knocking together, as I trembled in terror, a second wave of black vomit, thick in consistency, flew from my mouth. This time, something horrific was moving in the black substance that was coating my computer desk.
Caterpillars. Hundreds and hundreds of caterpillars, wriggling and drowning in the thick, unidentifiable black bile that surrounded me. They had come out of me. Screaming at the terrifying sight before me, I was even more horrified to see the caterpillars slowly morph into black goo, much like my dad and Darcy. They became one with the evil substance that was dripping from my desk. The creatures unleashed a tiny chorus of haunting wails as they melted. As far as I know, caterpillars don't wail, but "The Real World" doesn't exactly abide by the laws of nature, whether in the game or reality. I was taunted by another pop-up message:
"Whoops! Just like the real world, you can't always trust fruit. It looks like some hungry little caterpillars found their way into your apples!"
With my sleeve, I wiped the repulsive bile from my lips and finally picked up my phone. I opened Discord.
riprip78: Firstly, don't delete the game. It needs to be destroyed with a ritual. We're not just trying to destroy the effigy. We're trying to sever the connection. I read your message, and I'm sorry for the late reply, but I've spent the last few hours developing a game extension for you. It's essentially a virus. Put the attachment in the main folder for "The Real World". I know you shouldn't download files from a stranger, but you don't really have a choice. Time is not your friend. You're gonna have to trust me.
I asked him about the file extension. I'm not a tech whiz, but I'd never seen the "gc" file type before.
riprip78: It's graycode. Take a look in the folder for The Real World.
The Real World
That was the only file in the folder. So, naturally, I asked him about graycode.
riprip78: It's evil shit. Probably the worst kind of tech magic. I'd rather not talk about it. You shouldn't fuck with it. I've only ever programmed something in graycode once… Well, I guess I've now done it twice. Yeah. I don't know whether that ritual.gc file can help, but your dad didn't tell you anything about where he found the game or who made it. With the knowledge I have at my disposal, this is the best I can do.
I downloaded the file and put it into the folder.
riprip78: Okay. I developed a two-part ritual in graycode (it's based on stuff I read about destroying physical voodoo dolls, so let's hope it works for digital ones). Within the game, when you've installed my extension, you're gonna cleanse your character with fire, then you're gonna cleanse it with water. You won't have much time to complete the ritual. The entity is going to fight hard to keep you as its host.
The next pop-up window read:
"Extension has been successfully installed. Cheat code detected. Penalty for seeking help outside the simulation."
- "Break a leg (-10,000 Tokens)"
- "Lose an eye (+100,000 Tokens)"
I didn't have 10,000 Tokens. The game knew that. I told riprip78, hoping he'd be able to help me.
riprip78: Ignore its demands. Focus on the ritual. The installation of my extension must have actually worked. I told you that the game wouldn't give up without a fight. Just keep going. You should see the golden doorway that I created. Has it appeared?
Another pop-up window:
"Do not enter."
Suddenly, a pixelated golden doorway appeared in the middle of the kitchen. I was a little mesmerized by the sudden burst of color on my screen. The door oozed with warmth in the midst of that barren, black-and-white, outlined environment. Finally, I had found a slim spark of hope in the heart of such a dismal place.
My joy was short-lived, however, as the next text box violently displayed itself:
"Offer has timed out. You do not have 10,000 Tokens, so 'The Real World' has selected the only available option. Congratulations! You're about to earn 100,000 Tokens!"
- "Lose an eye (+100,000 Tokens)"
My body clammed up. Flooded with a feeling of revulsion, I started to notice a sensation at the back of my retina. It was a prodding sensation, as if someone were gently tapping a ball with a snooker cue. The gentleness quickly transformed to brutish thumping. I wailed in agony, clutching at my left eye with both hands and trying to stop it from being forcefully removed from its socket.
I could feel an excruciating tearing sensation. My phone was pinging with messages from riprip78, but I was flailing wildly on my desk chair, futilely striving to save my eye. I felt something warm trickle down my hands. Blood. It started to trickle down my face, too. Over my piercing screeches of agony, I could barely hear the squelching noise of my eye being peeled from its home.
Eventually, there was an unimaginably painful tug, and my left eyeball was suddenly in my hands. Half of my vision was gone. I tentatively lowered my palms and my eyeball cascaded into them. It swam in a murky river of blood, which was fed by a waterfall from my eye socket. I looked at the monitor with my remaining eye and saw my character clawing at his face in horror. I didn't think the silhouettes had eyes to lose, but perhaps I was wrong.
"Would you like emergency medical care to stop the bleeding for -100,000 Tokens?"
Twitching in a mixture of pain and shock, I shakily moved the mouse over to "Yes" and clicked. The dripping from my eye socket abruptly halted. Something had stemmed the bleeding. I did not dare look for a mirror to see how it looked. I thought I might pass out.
riprip78: Tell me what's happening. You need to go through the door! The entity will be trying to destroy my code. I don't know how much time you have.
I didn't need to be told again. I started to move my character toward the doorway. The game hurled numerous pop-up windows at me, obscuring my character's POV.
"All of your Tokens have been deducted."
"-50 'ENERGY'. Stop. You need rest."
"You will be penalized."
Pushing forward, as riprip78 had instructed, I flew through the golden door.
The chaos ceased.
The pop-up windows vanished, and the metrics at the bottom of my screen were suddenly full again. I found myself in a pitch-black void, lit by a circle of eleven pixelated candles. They ever-so-slightly illuminated my silhouetted character, who was mostly submerged in the darkness of the endless, empty landscape.
riprip78: Right, you're in the room I created. I included some code to keep your bars full for a little while. We need to be quick. Pick up one of the candles, and set your character on fire. This should, if I've developed it properly, cleanse your effigy (the character). The game will no longer have a link to the inside of your real body.
I immediately moved my character over to one of the candles. The option "Set self ablaze" appeared, but before I had a chance to click anything, a window abruptly popped up.
Without any instructions or offers, the toll was extracted. My left wrist suddenly snapped backward. I yelped in pain, and one meager tear trickled from my remaining eye. I had nothing left to give. Even the horrifying torture was no longer evoking powerful reactions from me. I was gradually fading into the icy embrace of death.
My left hand was flopped backward over my wrist. It was completely incapacitated. I don't need it, I weakly thought to myself, as I continued moving my mouse with my right hand. I clicked on the option to "Set self ablaze".
My character combusted in less than a second, and I winced, preparing myself to meet the same fate in real life. But I didn't. I was fine. I didn't feel the scorch of fire against my skin. And within moments, the inferno had extinguished, as had the eleven candles which encircled my character.
He was no longer drowning in the darkness. My black-silhouetted effigy was now a white silhouette.
riprip78: Good. It should be white. That means the first step of the ritual worked. You've severed the tie between your insides and the doll's insides. But we can't stop there. You're still connected. Your character has been reduced to a shell, but its outer body still has a connection to you. The game can still hurt you from the outside. Give me your address. I need to call an ambulance for you. Your injuries sound serious. When this is over, you'll need help.
As if "The Real World" had read riprip78's message, another window suddenly displayed itself on the screen:
"Complete challenge for 1M Tokens?"
I didn't even have any options to choose. The window simply disappeared, replacing itself with one that read:
"You selected 'Yes'."
The black landscape reverted back to the white one with which I was so familiar. My white silhouette had a black outline, much like the objects that were now forming across the game's environment.
riprip78: That means it's rewriting part of my code. The lake should be safe for now. I protected it. However, time is slipping away from us. This is the last part of the ritual. Enter the lake, cleanse your character, and it should safely disintegrate, severing your tie with the game once and for all.
That was all well and good, but riprip78 couldn't see what I could see. A maze was starting to build itself before me. And I had a feeling that "The Real World" was concealing the lake right at the heart of it. This was the challenge.
riprip78: Don't trust the game. It doesn't want you to reach the lake. It wants to keep you trapped. Forever.
I ignored riprip78's warning and pressed forward into the labyrinth of threats that I was sure awaited me. Sprinting down a long tunnel, I entered the white, featureless maze. I had no idea which way to turn, but the game had a sadistic solution for that.
"The correct route will now be highlighted, and obstacles on dangerous routes will be activated."
I sobbed in terror, looking at my broken wrist and tenderly raising my right hand toward my mangled left eye. There were two passageways before me, and spikes suddenly protruded from the floor and walls of the right-hand route. Drawing a deep breath, I started to move my character towards the left passageway, but then I stopped. What had riprip78 said? Don't trust the game.
I realized it wanted me to avoid the dangerous route. It wanted me to take the safe one. Looking down at my real-life feet, I felt my lip quiver in fear.
"This is going to hurt," I whispered to myself.
I seized my last shred of bravery and charged along the right-hand route. The spikes were small, but they were sharp. Each step inflicted a new wound on my skin, bombarding me with waves of searing pain in the nerve endings of my feet. I could feel a puddle of blood starting to form across the study floor, but I didn't look down. My eyes were firmly fixated on the game and the challenge ahead.
Reaching the end of the spiked passageway, I cried from a mixture of relief and horror. With renewed confidence and purpose, I pushed forward. The next "dangerous" (correct) route was filled with the slivering, pixelated outlines of small snakes. A pop-up window appeared:
"Take the safe path to avoid a penalty."
I ignored it and ran through the narrow tunnel of hissing snakes. Weaving my character in and out of them, I believed I might actually make it through the passage unscathed. I was wrong.
"FUCK!" I screamed.
One of them bit me. It didn't actually hurt as much as the spikes, but I'd been psychologically prepared for those. I hadn't prepared myself for the possibility of being bitten. My character hopped from side to side in pain, and I let out a long exhale, deciding to keep moving.
But the game informed me of something dreadful.
"Whoops! That snake was venomous. It looks like you need to administer an antidote within the next 60 seconds."
I was feverish, and I had a feeling that it had nothing to do with the wave of fear coursing through my veins. Something else was coursing through my body.
- "Buy an antidote (-1M Tokens)"
- "Sacrifice a friend (+0 Tokens)"
A black silhouetted figure fell from the top of the screen, landing on the floor before my character. A voice started to sound over the speakers.
"Archie!" the man's voice cried. "It's Steve! I mean… riprip78. Fuck! I need your help, man. If you type the following sequence on your keyboard, you can override this hex. X9b-"
His talking ceased. Steve's pleas continued, but they were reduced to muffles, as if the game had sealed his mouth or simply turned down his volume. Before I had a chance to act, the game chose for me.
"You do not have any Tokens. You have chosen to sacrifice Steve."
I didn't know whether I could live with another death on my conscience. Filled with terror, I begged the malevolent game to reconsider.
"WAIT!" I yelled. "May I choose to not receive an antidote?"
There was a pause, as Steve's silhouette squirmed on the floor of the maze, pinned down by some invisible force. The game presented another text box:
"Death is not an option. You have chosen to sacrifice Steve!"
Was he a friend? I didn't know him. Not really. But I'd heard his voice. He'd fought to save my life. He certainly felt like a friend. And his death was a truly harrowing spectacle. Steve's silhouetted body wriggled on the ground, and his arms and legs were plucked quickly and cleanly from his torso, as if some demented psychopath were butchering a microscopic ant on the playground.
Without the antidote, I was starting to fade. Maybe that was a blessing. It meant I barely registered Steve's final, torturous moments of life. His screams, though muted, were deafening. His torso and head were all that remained of his body, and the invisible force hoisted his squirming, mutilated, pixelated form into the air, presenting it to me as his movements slowed. His screams started to quiet. Seconds later, he was still and silent.
"Payment has been received. Antidote has been administered."
I was alive. Barely. It was still impossible to ignore the pain in my eye socket, wrist, and feet. Everything was throbbing. But I couldn't quit. The deaths couldn't be meaningless. I wouldn't let that happen.
I turned a corner, and I saw it. The lake. A blue pool with a black outline. Much like the golden doorway, it shone vividly in the heart of that lifeless landscape. There was an empty passageway leading toward it.
The entity became desperate.
I didn't listen. I strolled onward, but one final text box stopped me before I reached the lake:
"Resurrect Darcy for 0 Tokens? Veilbreaking is a free bonus feature of this incredible simulation. Her soul can be retrieved from beyond the veil."
My heart pounded ferociously. I closed my eye and saw Darcy's face. Her luscious red hair. Her pure smile. And then I saw something else. The dripping black liquid to which she'd been reduced. I thought of riprip78's message.
Don't trust the game.
"Fuck you," I whispered.
On the verge of passing out from a mixture of traumatic stress, pain, and excessive blood loss, I moved my character forward, striding into the lake.
A piercing synth note rang through the speakers, pummelling my eardrums. I'm not sure what caused it, but it sounded as if the game itself was crying in agony. I ignored it, continuing to stride into the watery pool before me.
I submerged my character beneath the surface of the lake, and the synth screech faded away. His black outline slowly started to break up in the water, and the white silhouetted body faded. In a matter of moments, there was nothing left of the effigy. I collapsed to the floor from my desk chair, barely clinging to life, and I realized it might have been pointless. I was free, but I might still die.
"Fuck it," I groaned, hoisting myself back onto my desk chair. "You're dying with me."
One last pop-up appeared:
"DON'T DO IT. YOU'LL NEVER BE FREE. YOU'LL ALWAYS BELONG TO THE REAL WORLD."
I closed the game window. Reaching beneath the desk, I pressed the eject button on the CD drive. Picking up the disc that had caused untold suffering over the past twenty-four hours, I was overcome with a feeling of dread. What if it kills me?
Before I had a chance to reconsider, I squeezed the disc in my right hand.
But that wasn't enough. I had to burn it. Fire cleanses everything, Steve said. I reached for the lighter on my desk. My dad's lighter.
"Thanks, arsehole," I muttered.
Flicking it on, I held the tiny flame to the disc. It scorched the label a little, but it wasn't sufficient to burn through the plastic. I practically crawled into the kitchen, grabbed a half-empty bottle of vodka from one of my late-night drinking sessions (it seemed like a lifetime ago), and drenched the disc in it.
I looked at the microwave.
"Now, there's a fucking idea," I mumbled.
I opened the microwave door, threw the disc inside, added a little more vodka for good measure, and looked at the lighter. I didn't want to reach my one working hand in there and burn it. I set an envelope on fire, threw it into the microwave, and slammed the door shut. Flames started to roar within the enclosed space, but it wasn't good enough. I turned the microwave on.
It's safe to say that carnage ensued. I remember crackles and bangs. I remember smoke. I don't remember much else because my eyesight started to fade, and I fell to the kitchen floor. I do remember hearing sirens, though. Ambulance sirens.
I woke in a hospital bed. The staff were concerned to see me again, of course. There had been no sign of my father, and I'd been to the hospital with severe injuries two times in the space of a day. My dad was no stranger to domestic abuse charges, so I let the hospital staff and the police draw their own conclusions.
It was harder to lie to Darcy's parents. They told me that she'd gone missing and asked whether she'd contacted me. The coincidental timing of my hospital trip wasn't lost on them, but no charges were ever pressed. I don't think they truly believed I would ever do anything to her. I think they're still hoping that their girl is coming home.
Right now, I'm lying in a hospital bed, typing this story. My left eye socket is bandaged, so I'm relieved I don't have to see the gory mess beneath. My left wrist has been fitted with a metal rod to match the one in my left ankle.
This morning, I asked one of the paramedics whether the disc had been destroyed. She said the entire microwave had been destroyed. That sounds promising to me.
I don't think I'll ever find out where my dad bought "The Real World". I want to know. I want to find whoever sold it to him. Right now, I'm back on the "XI" Discord. In honor of Darcy and Steve, I'm looking for answers.
Is it all over? I think so.
Still, every time I feel a pang of hunger or I start to yawn, I can't help but shudder at the slight possibility that I'm still tied to that horrifying game.