Susie arched her left eyebrow and curled one corner of her mouth. It was a unique expression that Dan knew well; it had taken about three months of married life for him to crack it. The expression meant Susie disapproved of something he did, but was too nice to mention it directly.
Susie tightened Dan’s purple-and-blue-striped tie. “You sure you want to go with this one?”
“Yeah. Why not?”
“It’s lucky,” Dan said.
Susie smiled. “Fine.”
Luck was something Dan needed a great deal today: He was going in for his final interview for a Senior Designer position at the legendary games studio, Explosive.
“How do you feel?”
Already he was nervous; in a mere few hours, he’d be in the hot seat. He had worked in the industry since he had finished college, but always for fairly small development studios. Nothing like Explosive. Explosive was one of the biggest dogs on the block.
Dan put on a brave face. “I’m going to nail it,” he said.
Susie smiled and her cute dimples appeared, assuaging Dan’s nervousness some small but perceptible amount.
He took a final glance in the bathroom mirror, took his coat, took one more little kiss from Susie and headed off to meet his destiny.
Driving down the I-280, Dan’s mind was a mess of thoughts. Bills (hydro, medical therapy for his bum back, a wedding gift for his friend Bill). His last job (Enterprise Studios. Company went bankrupt after releasing an unmitigated trash heap of an MMORPG that had more bugs than Master of Orion III). His Toyota Tercel (needs a new transmission).
“Oh boy,” Dan said to his Toyota.
He had too much riding on this interview. Getting this job was it; it was everything. The foundation of his plans – his existence even. If he succeeded at his final interview, everything would be fine. If not – well, Dan realized as he navigated an onramp, he would be quite simply, irrevocably and completely, royally screwed.
“Well, that just about sums it up,” Cindy Sanders, Executive Producer, said in her high-pitched, pixie-like voice.
“Really? That’s it?” Dan asked reflexively. His grip of the armrests of his chair tightened, and his mouth felt a bit dry. It was almost over!
“There is just one more thing, Dan,” Cindy said, leaning over the desk a little.
“Oh?” Dan exhaled half a lungful of air. “One more thing?” he asked.
The interview – so far – had gone exceptionally well, Dan thought. Every question Cindy Sanders set up, Dan handled smoothly, responding with an astute comment here, a candid, self-effacing admission there all delivered with an unrehearsed, natural-sounding (but decidedly fake) aplomb. Beneath a thick layer of nervousness in some dusty corner of his psyche, Dan even felt the twinges and tugs of a newborn nugget of confidence.
At least until that “one more thing” popped up.
The phone on Cindy’s desk beeped. She picked it up. “OK,” she said into the receiver.
The door behind Dan swung open – he heard it slam against the office wall. Dan turned in his chair. A lumbering giant of a man, cheeks ruddy and red, took two big steps toward Dan’s seat and extended a big, meaty hand-paw. Dan took it and shook it.
The face seemed familiar to him. The side part with the extensively receding hairline. The bushy eyebrows. The hook nose. The Dumbo ears, the missing neck, the baby-faced expression! “Le-Leonard Housley?” Dan stuttered and almost, somehow, slipped out of his chair and onto the ground.
“The one and the same,” the large man responded, after negotiating his bulk carefully into a normal-man-sized chair. He held a black, leather-bound portfolio in one of his hands. Dan immediately recognized it – it was his resumé. “So, you recognize me. That’s a good start,” he said brusquely, with not much as a trace of humor.
Dan forced a chuckle. “Recognize you! Let me say it is an honor to meet you, Mr. Housley-”
“Leonard,” Leonard said, thumbing through documents in Dan’s portfolio.
“Leonard, yes,” Dan continued. “What self-respecting game designer wouldn’t know a man of your, uh stature.” Dan coughed..
Leonard’s head rose from the portfolio, bearing an utterly blank expression. “Well, thanks, Mister Rushmore.” His head lowered again, appraising another one of Dan’s documents. “I guess,” he mumbled.
“You can call me Dan,” Dan said, in a desperate attempt to break the silence – at that particular moment, the office seemed quieter than outer space.
Cindy wasn’t saying anything. When Leonard burst into the office she was smiling, enjoying Dan’s surprise. Now she wasn’t smiling at all. In fact, Dan considered her facial expression to be somewhere between a frown and a smirk.
“I- I, can’t believe you are here,” Dan said. “You sir, are one of the reasons I got into game design.” The shock was only now subsiding. “Honestly, wow … unbelievable. So Explosive snagged you from Cipher Studios for Project Gorgon, eh?”
Leonard closed the portfolio, and plunked it onto the desk. “Mister Rushmore,” Leonard said with an abrupt inflection, “you do know that as you are not an employee of Explosive, that Project Gorgon is …” – Leonard took a second to find the right word – “adamantly under N-D-A, and should not be referenced in conversation by anyone not a member of this company. Right?”
Dan swallowed. “Yes, sir,” was all that he could come up with.
Five seconds passed that seemed like 50. Dan felt Leonard’s eyes on him, like they were boring into the very essence of his soul. “You say you are familiar with my work,” Leonard’s voice trailed off.
Dan felt timid. He nodded and thought of his next mortgage payment.
Receiving no response, Leonard went on. “Any particular game you are most fond of?”
For the first time in some time, Dan knew exactly what to say next. “I’m the biggest fan of Satan you’ll probably ever meet,” he said.
“Satan – of course, my most famous game,” Leonard said, sounding somewhat unimpressed. Then, straight out of left field, Leonard asked, “Where do you find the +99 Silver Boots of Chaos?”
Nonplussed, Dan replied, “You can only find them on the secret elk level. If you kill Super-Zeus, using Grool’s Tarred Bone Fragment Mace …” Dan frantically tried to recall his late-night high school gaming binges. “And it only appears if you change your computer’s system clock to a Monday – in March,” he said.
Leonard’s eye’s seemed to widen. “So you cheat, then?”
“Uh …” Dan felt sort of weak and light headed, like his brain wasn’t getting enough blood. Like he was, once more, going to fall out of his chair.
“That was a joke, by the way,” Leonard said.
Thank God, Dan thought. “Aw – heh, heh – yes,” he said, readjusting his tie after producing a weak, pathetic example of a good-natured chuckle.
If there was any levity introduced by Leonard’s little joke, it quickly evaporated. Dan still felt like his entire body could spontaneously combust into a roaring, sun-hot blazing fire, burning furiously on the fuel of what was, only moments before, his hopes and dreams for the future.
“Next question mister Rushmore, before we finish up,” Leonard said.
Finish up? Leonard could only nod.
“Actually, staying on Satan for a moment, I’m curious: Did you finish the game?”
“Sure – sure I did. Of course,” Dan said, shuffling in his seat.
“On what difficulty level?”
No hesitation: “Hardcore mode,” Dan said. “On nightmare difficulty,” he added for good measure.
Just for the slightest moment – a few microseconds, maybe – Dan saw something other than indifference spread onto his idol’s face. Almost a grin. But it faded fast, replaced by Leonard’s usual impassive, stony look.
“Hardcore nightmare mode,” Leonard said. “Hardcore nightmare Satan is tough to beat. You know, I had to practically wrestle my project manager to keep that mode in the game. He thought it was a waste of man-hours.”
“What a jerk!” Dan blurted out, partly trying for humor, partly because it was the first thing that sprung into mind.
Another moment of silence transpired as Leonard sat there, unresponsive, while Dan’s mind entertained terrible, miserable notions.
“Even I had a hard time beating the game on that setting,” Leonard said, hunching over the desk. “Our budget was so small I actually had to play-test that setting, because none of our six game testers were up to the task.”
“Didn’t the testers just, uh, use debugging tools – like health cheats or whatnot,” Dan asked, intrigued despite himself.
Slowly shaking his head, Leonard said, “I don’t let game testers use cheats. Screws up their sense of game balance.”
Dan nodded. “Ah, right, of course-“
“So, onto the big question,” Leonard interrupted. “What classes did you use in your hardcore nightmare mode party?”
“Oh, geez,” Dan said. That was easy: He flashed back to when he was 17, back before he even had internet access at home, trying his best to beat the game. Satan was an action roleplaying game where you controlled a party of four adventures. Each adventurer could be one of six classes. Picking the right combination was vital. Back then, he must have tried 40 combinations of classes before finding the one combo that got him – finally – to the special, nightmare-hardcore closing credits of the game: “Ranger, ranger, rogue, cleric.”
Leonard’s massive mouth fell open a bit. “Ranger, ranger, rogue, cleric? Is that what you said?” He looked either shocked or upset – Dan couldn’t tell which.
“Uh, yeah,” Dan said, so struck by Leonard’s response that he even doubted it himself.
“Ranger-ranger-rogue-cleric!” Leonard’s hands came up in a flurry of strange, spasmatic gesticulations. He yelped: “That’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard in my life!”
Blood rushed to Dan’s face. All hopes of landing the job were dashed. “Oh – oh really … why’s that – uh, if you don’t mind me asking …”
“Ranger-ranger-rogue-cleric!” Leonard was shaking his head like he had just stumbled upon his long-lost son shooting up heroin in an alley. “Can you believe that, Cindy?” He looked at Cindy.
“I can’t believe it,” she said.
“You can’t possibly be telling me that you didn’t use any mages. A maxed-out array of poison-cloud’ed double-synergic mana-leeching fireballs is the only way you can deliver enough DPS to take out hardcore nightmare Satan-“
“But-” Dan tried to sneak a word in.
“-even with four Grool’s Tarred Bone Fragment Maces!” Leonard continued. “You need a mage,” Leonard said. “You need a mage,” he repeated.
“Hang on a second.” Dan could feel the anger swelling within him. This was ridiculous. Job or no job, game design idol or not, he’d be damned if he was going to let this guy tell him he didn’t spend 200 hours of his adolescent life beating hardcore nightmare Satan with a ranger, a ranger, a rogue and a cleric. “You don’t need a mage!”
“You need a mage,” Leonard reaffirmed.
“You don’t need a mage,” Dan said.
“Look, you need a mage.”
“I designed Satan. I’m telling you: You can’t do it without a mage. Not possible.”
Dan couldn’t take it anymore: “You don’t need a Goddamned mage!” He got out of his chair. “Cindy, may I?” Dan said, motioning to her computer. Before waiting for a response, Dan turned her monitor and keyboard around and typed a long and complicated URL into a browser. Leonard and Cindy stared on. “Look!” Dan exclaimed.
Displayed on the monitor was a forum thread – an epically long forum thread, spanning 44 pages on Explosive’s very own Satan forums. The thread was entitled “Why you really don’t need a frickin’ mage for nightmare!” Time after time, argument after argument, aided by arcane formulas and illustrated with flowcharts (and the occasional captioned image of cat in an unlikely pose), a brave forum-warrior by the name of Lanco44Justice served counter-points to every Satan fan’s insistent point that you do, in fact, need a mage to kill hardcore nightmare Satan.
“Let me see this,” Leonard said, his eyes scanning the numerous pages. “Uh-huh, hum …”
Though most of Lanco44Justice’s arguments had no recourse, there was, near the very end of the thread, one diligent poster named CaptainSoufllé who argued with such vehemence and ardent disdain that the thread had descended into sarcastic flame-war – all the way to Lanco44Justice’s final post, which exclaimed, in extra-large, blue and bold letters, “LOL dood if you still think you need a mage you are denser than an freaking iron golem’s turd.”
It dawned on Dan, watching Leonard grimace as he read that last line about the golem turd, who was really sitting across from him. It could be no other: Leonard was CaptainSoufllé!
“You,” Leonard said, his voice a bit tired, a sour expression on his face, “are Lanco44Justice?”
All Dan could do was nod.
“If you really are Lanco44,” Leonard continued, his voice weary, “then prove it to me.”
“What?” Dan was taken aback.
“You know,” Leonard said, sounding defeated, “what you said on page 39 …”
“No – no,” Dan felt his heart skip a beat again. “You can’t be serious.”
“I have to know.” Leonard certainly sounded quite serious.
“Seriously?” Dan asked again.
“OK, then – you asked for it.” Dan turned around and started to unbuckle his belt.
“Cindy, look away!” Leonard blurted.
Dan let his belt fall to the floor.
“Just look away, Cindy!” Leonard again screeched out behind Dan’s back.
With one quick motion, Dan pulled down the top of his pants and wide white underwear, uncovering his left butt cheek. But it was no ordinary cheek! On half of Dan’s ass, rendered brilliant and garishly in cheap (yet woefully permanent) ink, was a droopy and somewhat gross tableau of two elves with bows, a priest in a robe and a dwarf with two daggers, standing over the bloodied and decapitated head of what could only be, certainly and without question, nightmare hardcore Satan.
As Dan stood, exposed, he knew finally – without having to see the expression on his face – that he had got the better of CaptainSoufllé. After all, the proof was on his ass.
“Hire him,” Dan distinctly heard Leonard say behind him.
A massive wave of elation hit Dan, stunning him. He got it! Game Designer at Explosive! After all this!
“I’ll hire him only after he pulls up his pants,” Cindy said.
Kevin Spiess is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.