It Takes More
I don’t know when he first became me, or when I first became him, and answering that question is like picking between the chicken and the egg, but my wife bought the video game White Valley University on August the 5th, and our lives have been irrevocably fucked ever since that day.
Her intentions were good. I should start out by saying that first and foremost. I don’t blame her for any of it. Quarantine drives a wedge between the strongest of relationships. It’s an innocent fact, an open fact, one we’d all do better admitting to every now and again. I think she thought we just needed a break up from routine. Something different than black coffee, plain toast, dressing the kiddos, signing them up for homeschool, slouching down to the cave to telework, emerging only for Netflix, or cheetos, or whole wheat pasta, or bedtime; just in time to wake up and do the same shit all over again, and again, and again. We just needed something new. Something exciting. Something captivating, right? A hobby, maybe, like painting. Or reading. I don’t fuckin’ know. Maybe we’d be a lot better off if we just bought a puzzle or something. That’s what all the Facebook Moms and Dads do, anyway, right? Set the shit up and pose enough for the Internet world to think you’re sociable?
We didn’t get the puzzle.
Sidney instead ventured off into the far corners of the Internet, in search of a particular video game, one that would fit our completely polar personalities; and therefore be interesting enough for us both to get into. She struck out on Amazon. She tried Gamestop too. Nothing good. We settled for a deeper dive into eBay.
I liked sports. Always have. I played Halo, and Counterstrike, and other stuff as a kid, so I would be open to variety, but my wife was never interested in those sorts of things. Sidney liked fantasy. Sidney liked roleplay. She grew up on Roller Coaster Tycoon, the Sims, and world building universes with intricate avatars and delicate storylines.
WVU fit that bill.
Her big blue eyes lit up like flying saucers when she read the product description for the first time. It was one of those types of things where she asked me if I wanted to buy it, like a question only for the sake of manners, but the reality was if my answer was no – we would almost certainly be in a fight.
“Enter the lives of Anton, Melissa, Alyssa, and Nicole.” she read. “Chart their path from the first day of Freshman Year at White Valley University until Graduation Day. Choose a major field of study, establish relationships, fall in LOVE, and so, so much more in this entirely immersive experience from the creators of SAINT LAZARUS DAY.”
“Says it doesn’t need a system.
“It needs a system.”
“Says they will mail you a new console just for the game.”
I had never heard of anything like it. Now, in retrospect, the feeling from the fleeting Google results, is that most people have not heard of it. But the look in my wife’s eye was sheer and complete defeat. Our son didn’t go to bed until three the previous night. She needed this. We needed it.
“Let’s do it.”
The payment went through without a problem, but the seller’s name was blocked, and that didn’t bother me as much as it should. The console itself took a couple days to arrive. Sometime around the night of the thirteenth, Sidney pulled it off the front porch, rushed downstairs to hook it up, and shouted for me to join her.
I didn’t really know what to expect. I put the kids to bed after about an hour’s battle. I grabbed a beer. I shut off all the nights and headed down into the basement for what should have been, at most, another hour of gaming before bed.
“You can be Anton, obviously,” Sidney chattered as I got settled. “I will be Melissa. They are dating!”
The TV lit up with an array of different options. The graphics were pretty incredible for a seemingly unknown system. We selected our characters from a neat little lineup, and soon after, we were immediately dropped into a small four bedroom dorm. My guy was wearing jeans and a white tee shirt. Sidney’s was naked.
“I can get used to this.”
“You can see my coolie!” Sidney squealed. “We need to pick our outfits. Go over to your closet.”
I obliged and skimmed through the results of clothing. Like most games, only the most basic options were available, while the more decadent options were unlockable by achievements completed in the game. If I picked a Science major, I got a labcoat, if I completed law, I got a suit… you get the idea. None of them really seemed to fit me. I probably took a while.
“I am going to be a softball player,” Sid mumbled. “Or maybe a sorority girl. It is so hard to pick. So many options.”
“What are you going to pick?”
“Can’t I just wear this?”
“No you can’t just wear that,” Sid scowled. “You’re not being fun.”
I recognized that tone right off the bat. This was the ‘you are not taking this seriously’ voice that almost inevitably led to the hurt but defiant ‘why did you agree to play anyway’. Three seconds later and we’d be in another fight, the exact thing we wanted to avoid, so I backpedaled as quickly as possible.
“Okay, okay, I’ll be a musician.”
Sidney giggled. The game granted my character a bandana and loose jacket before dropping him back in the dorm. We were free to move about. I quickly shuffled my character over to Sidney’s room, but before getting there, a help tip popped up.
You can now customize your character’s features via Facial Recognition Technology! Just hit X and position your face in front of the camera on the front of the console!
I moved to protest. Sid beat me to it. She hit X and stuck her face in front of the camera with a big, dopey grin. The screen snapped like it took a picture.
We both laughed at the result. Her eyes were closed. Her mouth was wide open. And her teeth encompassed about ninety percent of the picture.
“Accept,” she giggled. “Your turn.”
I sighed and positioned myself evenly in front of the camera. I didn’t want her to make fun of me, so I tried to be serious. I thought about smiling, but before I could muster up the strength, Sidney hit X, and the screen snapped again.
I got a jolt out of the result. Anton looked just like me. Brown hair, blue eyes, medium height, slight beard, slight gut. The character smirked from the dorm room, and I swear, I have seen myself make the same stupid face in the mirror while getting ready. I won’t lie. It creeped me out.
“Wow…. so handsome!”
Sidney moved her cursor to try and find my character in the common area. Another help tip popped up.
You can now customize your character’s voice via Voice Recognition Technology! Select Y and speak no less than three full sentences into the controller’s microphone!.
“You first,” she gestured. “Say something.”
I hit Y.
“My name is Marcus and I love Sidney Rae Miller more than anything in the entire world.”
“My name is Marcus and I wish Sidney Rae Miller didn’t have a clothing option.”
“My name is Marcus and I just want to play the damn game.”
She scowled. Sidney finished up her sentence with a few generic lines. We went to move our characters again. Another help tip popped up.
“Look… it can link to Social Media.”
“Why would we give them that information?”
“Because it’s not safe!”
“How is it not safe?”
“Anybody could use that data. You don’t even know who you’re giving it to!”
“It’s already online anyway!”
“You think any idiot with half a brain can’t find your stupid fucking YouTube channel?
My anxiety level ticked up a notch. I had to draw the line somewhere. Something about the game creeped me out, sure, but it was more than that. I was tired. I worked all day. I took care of the kids all day. I didn’t want to play some guy that probably harvested my data and sold it halfway around the world before we finished even setting up.
“I’m going to bed, hon. You can play.”
I knew Sidney would be mad at me. I knew she would hold it as a grudge, at least for a couple days, but I didn’t care. The whole charade started to wear thin. We didn’t need a fantasy version of ourselves to change. We just needed to do it on our own. I could change. I knew I could. I just needed a chance. Maybe she needed space. I had to give her a little space… right?
And so I didn’t think much of it when she didn’t come to bed.
I didn’t think much of it when she didn’t help get the kids up in the morning.
And as the now proceeding day’s hours slipped from the morning into the afternoon, with the television set still blaring downstairs, I still held out hope that she would come upstairs and apologize.
I woke up that night to a rough shrug of the shoulder. Sidney looked like a caricature of herself. Her hair was tangled like rope. There were food stains on her shirt and her breath smelled like alcohol. I knew from the moment I saw her that she had not slept a bit in the previous twenty-four hours. I knew that she probably drank for most of it as well.
“You have to see,” she slurred. “You have to see Anton. He can sing. He can sing.”
I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. I pushed back the covers and grumpily followed her frantic footsteps. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t really know how to react to the whole thing. It was so completely out of Sid’s character to do any of these things, to the point where I wondered where she even got the alcohol to get drunk with, because we had so little of it in the house.
“It’s incredible. He sounds just like you. Really,” Sidney shouted over her shoulder. I had to remind her to keep her voice down so the kids didn’t wake up. “They’re fine,” she snapped as her tiny feet bounded down the steps two at a time. “Just listen to this, it’s amazing, you could do this.”
I stifled a yawn and followed her willingly. But I couldn’t hold back disgust when we made it into the gaming area. The adjacent table was covered with half empty, half filled drink glasses. The couch was decorated with discarded bags of chips and crackers. The entire room had a distinct scent to it, and even now, I won’t call it urine – but it smelled an awful lot like urine.
“Look at this!” Sidney squealed as she pointed to the TV. “Anton’s been practicing.”
A large group of the characters were gathered at what looked to be a concert. I immediately recognized Sidney’s new and improved character, with a readjusted face, now decked out in one of the more decadent outfits, front and center by the stage. The other two computer bot roommates were standing next to her. But no Anton.
I scanned the crowd for a minute and still didn’t see him.
“Hit X,” Sidney smiled. “On controller 2 – yours.”
The crowd started to cheer. A drawn curtain slowly peeled back. A familiar song started to play through the speakers and an even more familiar face appeared onstage – mine.
I was dumbfounded.
Anton started to sing. With my voice. And when I say he sang… you should know.… I am a terrible singer. Sure, I had a band back in high school, and me and my friends recorded a few demo tapes. None of them were any good. Trust me with that much.
But Anton… he sounded perfect. And I don’t know how to describe that in quite the right way. Like if my voice could carry a tune, or hit every dancing note of the same Frightened Rabbit song my band Fireside covered half a hundred times, then maybe, somehow, I could be half as good. But it just wasn’t me.
“My hole, I’ll get my hole.
I’ll get my hole, get my hole, get my hole.
And I will find out more.”
I hit pause.
“How did he find that?”
“I added your YouTube channel.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Because it’s fun!”
I laughed nervously.
“You could sound like that, you know.”
“Like Anton. If you practiced.”
I couldn’t believe the callousness and cruelty in her voice. It stung.
“No I can’t.”
“Because I tried.”
“It’s your voice.”
“That’s not my voice.”
“Who else could it be?”
I didn’t have an answer for her there.
“You could be thin like him too,” she muttered. “If you tried.”
“I do try.”
“You never try.”
I didn’t have an answer again. I didn’t have an answer for anything. I didn’t understand why she was so nasty. The past few days completely caught me off guard. We were happy. Bored, yes sure, but happy. I didn’t know what to do, so I did what I did best, I ran away. I stormed out of the room like a baby and shouted –
“Go to bed!”
loud enough to wake the actual baby.
I spent the next twenty calming my daughter to sleep in a now much emptier bed. I couldn’t believe her. I didn’t understand what was happening. It just hurt. I was so mad that my sleep deprived brain spent less than a minute worrying about my poor wife’s actual mental state.
That was a mistake.
I woke up to moaning.
I set my daughter down in her bed and followed the pleasured groans down the hall to the basement.
A pair of Cheeto stained shorts decorated the couch.
Sidney acted a little surprised when I caught her. Like she couldn’t hear my footsteps tracing above. Like she couldn’t hear me knocking on the door. She grabbed her clothes in an unembarrassed trot. She got dressed. Then she turned her attention back to the game.
I looked at the TV.
Anton was front and center. He had a guitar slung over his back, and a vest without a shirt, with thick muscles pulsating over the top, like he somehow just finished a workout. And he had this dumb little grin on his face… this stupid fucking smile….. It just made every vein and stem of blood in my body boil like an oven.
Press X to go back to the party!
I attacked the system like a lion let out of its cage. I ripped the cable from the wall, allowing the wires to pull and rip from the console, cracking the screen in the process. I ignored Sidney’s screams and protests. I pulled the disk from the tray. I snapped it into a million little pieces. I shrugged her hand off my arm when I took the entire mess upstairs, outside, and deposited it into the garbage.
By the time I got back, she was gone.
I checked everywhere. I checked upstairs. I checked my kid’s rooms. I checked the kitchen. I checked outside again. Gone. Gone, gone, gone. It took me a good ten minutes to realize the one place she could be, the one place that did not make any sense, right around the time the television in the basement started playing again.
I descended the stairs slowly. It was the same song. Our song. The song I practiced half a hundred times in high school with only the completely desperate hope of impressing her. Even through the cracked screen, and even without the goddamn console attached, the stupid fucking thing still played that song. Our song.
Can you see in the dark?
Can you see the look on your face?
I picked the TV back up and stared at the screen. Anton and Melissa were back in the dorm. Anton was strumming the guitar evenly, looking deeply into Melissa’s eyes, while pink little hearts displayed overhead. I didn’t have a controller to click away from it. Not anymore.
I waited. I watched them. I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t exactly attack a video game character. And then my avatar did something newly impossible. He looked at me. I don’t mean he looked offscreen. I don’t mean he looked somewhere in the distance. He looked at me, right into my eyes, and it felt like… it felt like he saw me.
Anton stopped playing Keep Yourself Warm. He raised the guitar over his head.
“No…” I muttered. “Please…”
Sidney’s avatar looked deep into his eyes. Her expression remained unchanged. She loved him. She loved him when he swung the guitar and shattered her forehead. She loved him while bits of brain peaked through the fractured skull and fell into a heaping mess by her blood soaked feet. She loved him when he stood up, and swung harder, and stronger, until the guitar shattered into nothing but bits of shredded wood and twisted metal commingled with the horribly mangled remains of my only love’s once beautiful face.
When Anton was done, he straightened himself up, and sat down back on his bed in White Valley University. He looked at me one more time, and smiled, with that same damn smile, my smile.
The television flickered and showed a blank INPUT 1.
Sidney has been missing ever since.