Four forty-five on a Friday afternoon, and May was counting seconds. At home, the last few gigabytes of a seven-hour download were trickling into her computer through a lethargic Internet connection. Four forty-six. Here, dregs of coffee sat cold in a stained mug on her otherwise barren office desk; she sipped at them, and shuddered at the foul burnt taste.
No calls and no customers. A coworker drifted past her to the water cooler, lavender dress shirt and khaki slacks wrinkled from hours of idleness, and filled his glass. He slipped one hand into his pocket and stood in front of her. “Any plans for the weekend?”
Tom? Tim. Tom. Ted? May had learned his name at a company mixer and forgotten it at once. That had been nine months ago. “Not really,” she said. “What about you?”
“Some of us were thinking about going out for drinks later,” he answered. May nodded and smiled. “I know you don’t drink, but you could still come.”
“No, I’m—that’s okay,” May said. “Actually—there’s a new game that came out that I’ve been looking forward to for a while. It’s waiting for me at home.”
“You like games? What’s it called?”
“Um, it’s called Legend of Aria,” May answered. She cleared her throat, tucking a short lock of straight black hair behind her ear. “It’s a new RPG from Japan. It’s supposed to have really advanced AI.”
He nodded. “Oh,” he said. “Well, I hope you enjoy it.”
“Thanks.” He walked away.
She exhaled through her nose. Legend of Aria. Why’d it have to have such a generic-sounding name? She could barely say it with a straight face. Warm with embarrassment, she stood up sharply, signed out of her office computer, drained the last of her dreadful coffee. Four fifty-one—close enough.
The moment May pushed open the door to the office parking lot, the frigid chill of the air conditioning gave way to suffocating summer heat that wrapped around her and squeezed. It was a relief, for the first few seconds, bringing life to her half-numb fingertips turned purple by bad circulation. Then it was hard to breathe. She hurried to her car.
Traffic arrested her on the baking black pavement. At a red light, she leaned back and drummed her thumbs against the steering wheel, mind meandering. She’d starved herself of news about the game. Finally something was coming out other than a reboot, a remake, a remaster, and she wanted no spoilers or negative reviews to dull her experience. She only wished she had more time. She hadn’t even gotten home, and she could already feel the scratching claws of Monday morning, a scant sixty hours away.
She remembered cool summers of soft white clouds and long mild nights, sitting around a fat television playing co-op with three of her neighborhood friends. Summer had seemed eternal back then, its own lifetime. University, too—holed up in her dorm room on her computer as assignments marched, unattended, toward their due date, and the sun rose behind the curtains.
She pulled into the parking lot of her apartment, a first-floor one-bedroom in dull creams and browns. When she walked inside, it was dark except for the blue glow of her monitor streaming out from her bedroom. She kicked off her flats and dropped her slacks immediately, unhooking her bra on the way through her kitchen, where she slid some leftover Chinese food into the microwave. Coffee? Later. May’s heart was stirring as her anticipation grew; she hurried to her desk.
She bent over her backlit RGB keyboard and started the game up, pulling bobby pins from her hair until it fell from its bun to her shoulders. The sounds of a piano bubbled up from her stereo, rising like morning until the game’s logo appeared on a white background. Legend of Aria, shaped out of silver and enveloped in winding ivy and blue blossoms. She sat in her throne of a gaming chair and wielded the mouse.
New game. Select your character. Four choices appeared on the screen, and the one that was currently highlighted was illuminated in full color. Each character was drawn in the style of an anime, with large eyes and impossible hair, in poses of lively combat. Two male, two female. One of the women resembled May, dark-haired and dark-eyed, of average size, dressed in muted purple cloth armor. The thief class, Ilyana. An agile light-hitter who could steal items and use ranged weapons against enemies. She had been drawn with a smug expression.
Next to her was a woman in silver plate mail, fair with long blonde hair. Van, the knight class, the tank, who could withstand heavy damage. She had an expression as chilly as her complexion.
The first of the boys was tall and slender, with ropey bare arms and calloused hands, dark red hair to match his eyes, and oiled leather armor. He grinned a challenge at the screen. Bertred, the warrior.
The last was smaller than any of those before, dressed in blue robes, with a gnarled branch of a wizard’s staff. August, the mage. He had wide blue eyes and dark brown hair which flopped over his round face.
May knew all these people. She’d met these archetypes a hundred thousand times in a million different costumes, so many times they almost seemed real to her, though she’d never met a real person like them. She thought she’d have gotten tired of them by now, but instead, every story in which she’d found them felt like a part of a larger narrative, the story of the world’s relationship with the idea of a kind of person.
May was partial to the little one, August. He was the one she most wished she could actually know, soft-spoken, innocent, and good-hearted. Though she would rather have played a fighter than a mage, she selected him.
She heard the sound of the microwave behind her, but she didn’t get up.
The game asked her to confirm her choice with an ominous “Are you sure?” Yes, May insisted, and then the game produced the following:
“Warning: Death is permanent.”
May’s brow furrowed. You didn’t usually see a hardcore mode in a JRPG. She shifted in her seat, thinking of those three hundred-hour mega-adventures and how she’d have felt dying in their end game.
Braced for a cutscene, she sat back, but to her surprise the game opened immediately on the main character. The HUD, showing all the controls, options, and statuses, appeared around the edges of the screen. It was a mega-structure, with boxes and buttons whose appearance felt simultaneously familiar and overwhelmingly unknown. She started in the top-left corner and worked counter-clockwise
Time of day: 6:05 pm. Real time. Another genre-defying choice.
Temperature: 98 degrees Fahrenheit.
“So it’s warm there too,” May said softly. Next was a grid of blank squares, probably a hotbar to put skills when August acquired them, or maybe an empty inventory of usable items.
She was distracted by August’s movement. He was standing in a cozy wooden cabin, all his furniture shoved into one room, fixing dinner on a round black stove. He wore the flat expression of someone who didn’t know they were being observed, but from the slight sag to his eyes, he seemed tired, and sad.
A message popped onto the screen. “Press Ctrl to control your character. Hold Space to talk.” Talk? To whom? The game had no online functionality. May unearthed a barely-used headset from the top shelf of her closet and settled it onto her head. Holding down the Space button, she ventured, “Hello?”
August started, hopping away from the stove. Like a rabbit, he went still except for the frantic flaring of his nostrils. “Who’s there?” he demanded. Eyes gleaming, May clasped her hands over her mouth. So this is what they’d meant by advanced AI. She could talk to her own character.
As August crept around his house, May’s mind whirred. Could other characters hear her? Should she role-play? How much natural language could he understand? Would he think of her as some sort of spirit or ghost, or was he aware he was fictional?
She should say something else. “Uh—sorry to startle you,” she managed. Regret hit her at once. She should have come up with something more dramatic. At the very least, more articulate.
August’s head whipped around. “Where are you?”
“I’m, I’m a spirit, you can’t see me,” May answered, making a flourish with her free hand.
“What are you doing in my house?” August snapped.
May wondered if she had handled this right, or if August’s reaction was unavoidable. If things went too badly between them, she supposed she could always start over. “I think I was brought here because you’re having some trouble,” she replied. “Are you doing okay?” She took a sip from the glass of water she’d left on the desk last night.
August paused abruptly, flustered. May had to marvel at the detail in his animations, the subtle ways his eyes and mouth moved. “Am I--” He stopped short. “What kind of spirit are you, exactly?”
May stroked her bottom lip, unsure how to answer. “I’m not from your world, so I don’t know what to say,” she said, opting for honesty. “Sometimes, my kind goes to your world to help with—things.”
August went pale at her answer, and May frowned. Where had she gone wrong? “You’re an anointing spirit,” he said. “And I... can hear you, which means I’m--” He started to breathe harder; he looked panicked.
“Try to relax,” she said.
“Relax?” He laughed hysterically. “Get out!” he shouted. ’Stay away from me!”
This was not getting her anywhere. In a spurt of impatience, her eyes found the Ctrl button, and she stabbed at it, half out of curiosity and half to get him to stop yelling. August went instantly still and straightened up, face falling into a blank expression. Even his eyes were emotionless. “You still in there?” she asked. She pressed Ctrl again to let him go.
August teetered and toppled onto his hands and knees, trembling. May felt instant guilt at the sight of him. “How could this happen to me?” he whispered. “Why me, of all people...? I’m not even good at anything...”
“Aren’t you a mage?” May asked. August clenched his teeth.
“I found out today I... failed the Academy entrance exam, again. It was my last try,” said August. He climbed to his feet. “See? So why don’t you find somebody else to possess?”
“Sorry,” May said. “But you know what? I bet if we worked together, we could get you using magic.”
“Use it to hurt people?” August asked tightly. “I’ve heard of all the things people possessed by anointing spirits were forced to do. Most of the people you haunt end up killing themselves when you have to go back to your world!”
Was that what he would do, if she wasn’t careful with him? A built-in failsafe to keep the player from abusing their character too much? She puzzled over how to reply to him. Conversation was a lot easier when she had four dialogue options to choose from. “I could leave now and promise never to come back,” she said. “At which point, two things happen. One, you can never be sure I’ll keep my word, so you always have to be afraid that I’ll show up again. Two, you don’t have any chance of learning magic.” August scowled. “Or, I could stay and we could work together. You get to learn magic and I get to convince you I only have your best interests at heart.”
August moved his weight from foot to foot. “We’re just pretending I have any choice,” he said.
“Tell me to go and I’ll go,” said May. And start a new game.
“Please go,” August croaked.
May nodded, leaning her elbows on the desk. “All right. Goodbye.” Exhaling, she exited to the main menu.
Obviously, there had been a better way to tell him about herself. Schemes unfurled in her mind as she rose to finally retrieve her Chinese food from the microwave, only to find it again cold. Maybe she needed to wait for a scripted event that would make August more open to accepting her. Maybe she could start the conversation with the offer to make him better at magic. Maybe she’d accidentally picked the hardest character to win over, and she should learn more about the world before she chose August a second time. She drifted back to her desk, crunching idly on a bean sprout.
Technically, she’d hadn’t gotten a game over yet, which meant there was still a chance to salvage this playthrough. She returned to the game, not to talk to him or control him but to observe him. Odds were good she could find some clues in what he was doing.