Jerry’s jaw cracked as he yawned, his mouth stretching wide like a feeding snake’s.
Mike looked over in mock disgust. “Real attractive there, man,” he said. The clicks and clacks of their controllers continued unrelentingly, even as the two bantered. They were old hands in the testing business, and they knew how to do the job without going crazy.
“Yeah, yeah, gimme a break,” Jerry muttered, taking his right hand off the controls for a moment to scratch underneath his stubbly chin. “I can’t sleep lately. I think staring at a screen may have finally short-circuited me. I feel like a robot half the time.”
“Don’t we all?” Mike replied, swiftly executing a choke slam on Jerry’s avatar. Neither of them held grudges. It was just what you did when you sensed weakness, either in the game you were testing or in your opponent.
“At least it’s almost done,” Jerry said, his calm voice belying how fiercely he waggled his left thumbstick. His character struggled, but could not escape the final blow. He nodded wearily at Mike as he waited to respawn.
Dunn, supervisor extraordinaire and liaison to the world of game programmers, nudged open the door behind them and sidled back in for his last check of the day, looking like a sick, greased weasel.
“How we doing boys? The link still up and running?” he asked. Their game was connected to another group of testers on the far side of the building. It was as close as they could get to real-world conditions; after all, a game like this was lucky to even make it to beta.
Mike and Jerry nodded without thinking, two perfectly programmed bobbing heads almost (but not quite) in time with each other. They had the conditioned synchronicity usually reserved for identical twins. One would think they had been working together for a lifetime. In actual time it was more like two months, but in a game testing cycle for shovelware like this, two months felt like a lifetime. Jerry really didn’t understand why they bothered pumping out this generic shit on a high budget.
“Good, good,” Dunn said. In all his managerial training, they never covered “making conversation with disinterested nerds,” it seemed.
“Let the machines run,” Jerry finally said after a few tense moments of silence. He couldn’t stand being watched for more than a minute by a complete stranger. Years of fiction and obscurity had taught him that as soon as someone pays attention to you and you become important, life is hell. Main characters go through shit.
Dunn slipped out and the clacking resumed. Mike was taking on his partners across the building in a one-on-three melee fiesta, and Jerry took the opportunity to test some boundaries. His character ran into the wall, kept running in place, and then started to slowly circle around the edges of the map, jumping frantically. He hugged closely against the contours, looking for gaps or seams. It held up well almost all the way across until finally his character slipped through into oblivion and went limp. Ragdoll physics are probably the greatest job satisfaction in this industry, he realized as his character bounced a few moments, twitching violently in opposing directions.
Killed by the Guardians, he thought. Back when he and his pals had first play-tested Halo, Bungie’s programmers blamed the glitches they found on the Guardians. It was a scapegoat he’d remembered all his life. Secretly he believed that all the programmers pumping out code were as merciless as the Guardians, even though in reality they only killed him through inattention.
There was a thunk outside. He barely registered it. It just floated into one ear, around the back of his brain and right out the other.
Then he heard a scream, this time more clearly. He thought it synced perfectly with his character’s brutal headshot from across the mile-wide arena.
And then a gunshot, so much louder than anything he’d heard in a videogame. There was no doubt it was real. He thought he could even suddenly smell a trace of gunpowder.
“I think I just had a stroke,” Mike said. “That’s the only explanation.”
“That was the loudest stroke I’ve ever heard,” Jerry replied. He wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. What a stupid thing to say, dumber than almost any line he’d heard in the long line of cheesy, poorly-written suck-fests he’d played through.
They heard it again, twice, three times, pounding their eardrums through the walls.
“Hoo boy. What does that mean?” Mike asked. Jerry knew Mike was probably talking to himself. They sat there anxiously for a few moments before Jerry had a realization. His body relaxed, all the tension slipping out of his joints and flowing away into the atmosphere.
“Oh, wow,” he said. “They must be doing some sort of sound capture. That’s got to be it. For the gunfire. I thought our gunfire sounded shitty.” His relief was contagious; soon he and Mike shared a euphoric smile.
“Wow, they really should do that somewhere else. This is not a soundproof studio.”
“What a bunch of jerks,” Jerry said. “Scared the shit out of us.”
“Prolly why they did it here,” Mike said, and then laughed a happy, stupid laugh, picking up his controller again.
Another shot came, and this time there was a sick crunching noise and a yelp of pain barely audible in the aftershock of the blast. Then, silence.
“We’re going to die, huh?” Mike said.
“What kind of an attitude is that?” Jerry asked.
“Well, it’s true,” Mike replied. He looked hurt to have his logic questioned. In truth, he didn’t see any alternative.
“Well, I’m out of here,” Jerry said. “Good luck with that whole living thing. You should try it.”
He was out the door before Mike could respond. What would he have said, anyway? Thanks?
The hallway was long, but there were no signs of struggle. No running, no screaming. It was the eye of the storm, he thought. Plenty of time and space to find a door and lock it. Plenty of time to get out of the way. He hoped Mike would get some sense and join him.
Some door nearby had to have a lock or a place to hide. First, he checked the door across the hall. Of course the handle didn’t budge. He thought he already knew that. The next room down the hall was a bathroom, and that wasn’t going to help.
The next door was more than just locked. It wouldn’t even budge. It had a handle, but the handle felt like a prop in his hand. It was very solidly there, just a piece of backdrop.
What was funny was that it made a rattling sound even though it didn’t move in the slightest. He didn’t have time to examine it further. He had to get to the next door.
Just as he reached another locked office, there was a flurry of fresh shooting. It sounded like two or three different guns firing at each other this time. Adrenaline flooded into his system. Scuffling madly, he went to the next door. This one didn’t even have a handle; instead, there was a smudge on the door, where the handle should have been, resembling a badly mapped JPEG.
“What the hell,” he muttered, before ducking as more gunshots slammed past his ears. A team of five security guards turned a nearby corner. As Jerry looked on, one of the guards fell to the sound of six or seven shots. He was dead, no doubt.
Panic gripped him at last. He started running frantically, feeling at the walls for any escape, any hole in the system.
He found one. One moment he was in a dimly lit corridor; the next he was surrounded by a vast, brilliant white. He didn’t have time to look around.
“God damn it. Killed by the Guardians.”
His joints went comically floppy and he sank into infinity.
“What’s that one, Tom?” Karen asked, peering over into his cubicle.
“Oh, just a little character programming,” he replied with a wry smile.
“A little? Man, that looks complicated.” In fact, it was one of the most complex things she’d seen on a screen, and she didn’t exactly know what language it was in. Tom had always been way ahead of her, way ahead of everyone in the office. If he weren’t always so distracted with his own projects, he’d probably have left them all behind years ago.
“It is,” he said in response. He’d been frantically at work on something for weeks now, though Karen guessed he spent very little time doing his designated work on the game. “It’s … very complicated. I don’t know if I really understand it, but it works.”
“Just a character?” she asked. His enthusiasm was catching, and she felt curiosity bubbling up in her.
“Just a background character you might not even see.”
“He’s breaking the game!” she blurted out a little too loudly.
The programmers around them paused in their work, heads turning and fingers halting. Then they went right back to their screens.
“It’s his job,” Tom said. “He’s a game tester in a game. He’s perfect.”
“Perfect?” Karen asked. Her mouth was drying out. It couldn’t be. A character couldn’t think like a person.
“Perfect,” he repeated.
Richard Poskozim is a freelance contributor for The Escapist.