The flames were too even, the way they leaped and darted and flared too repetitive. It was proof, if Jan needed any more. She’d already been suspicious.
“Are you a player character or an NPC?” she asked the man stoking the fire.
She knew his name. Ted. They were Ted and Jan, like that wasn’t a dead giveaway, a label screaming, “not real, not real!” Who named anyone Jan these days? Who named anyone Ted?
She couldn’t remember her real name, but she knew it wasn’t Jan. Jan just didn’t fit. Jan was… stodgy. Old-fashioned. She wasn’t either. She didn’t know who she was, but she knew who she wasn’t.
“Excuse me?” His eyebrows rose. They were white, bushy, the eyebrows of an old man. The eyes underneath them, though, weren’t wise and knowing. They were innocent, open.
NPC, probably, then, but just to make sure, Jan asked the question again, “Are you a player?”
“A player of what?” he answered with a laugh.
She glanced around her. Forest setting. Trees, bushes, leaves underfoot, a twilight sky with the lightest sprinkling of stars overhead. The graphics were good but not great. Everything was a little blurry, a little out-of-focus.
Why couldn’t she remember the game she was in? She did have memories, lots of them, but they had to be faked. They were no feelings to go with them. And no continuity. She could remember baking cookies with her mother, sugar cookies, the kind that required a rolling pin, the careful sprinkling of colored sugar. That memory was clear as day. But what came after it?
What brought her to the forest?
She had nothing.
“What were you talking about, Jan?” Ted asked. He set down the branch he’d been using to poke the fire and came around it to join her.
She was sitting in a low chair. He sat down in another one, just like it, next to her. Had that chair been there before? Sloppy programming, if the designer was introducing objects as needed, instead of building them in to begin with. What was the name for that? She had it, almost had it. Object-oriented, was that it? Calling instances of a class when they were needed. But it wasn’t sloppy, it was efficient. Just not very realistic.
And this simulation, because that’s what it had to be, was otherwise pretty good. Oh, the graphics weren’t impressive, but she could smell the smoke from the fire, not just see the dancing flames. She leaned closer, putting her hand out. She could feel its warmth, too.
She could hear a chorus of chirps, a rustling of leaves. The chorus was too rhythmic, though, too perfect. It was like the chirps were synchronized, running off the same clock, and all at exactly the same pitch and tone.
“The music,” she said. “It doesn’t really work.”
“The cicadas?” Ted put his hand over hers. “You used to love that sound. Remember?”
A memory drifted into her mind. Lying in damp grass. Near a creek. The stars overhead, thousands of them, like tiny pinpricks in a blanket of black wool. They’d listened to cicadas that night.
She licked her lips. She could feel their softness, the wetness of her tongue, the hardness of her teeth. What a strange simulation this was. The physical reality was so concrete, so solid. But while the memories were a nice touch, the disconnect between them and the current setting made them seem less than they were. Random background flashes, but what did they mean? How did they connect to the forest?
But maybe that was the game? Was she playing a puzzle game? One where the player character woke up with no memory, no idea where they were, and had to figure it all out? She’d played games like that before, she knew. She tried to remember names. Waking up in an empty room, needing to understand what had happened… she knew she’d played a game like that, but the details just wouldn’t come back to her.
More proof, if she needed any, that this was a simulation. Somehow the designers blocked player characters from their real memories. Clever. So it was a virtual reality in which the player character had amnesia. And the goal would be? She looked around her again.
“Jan?” Ted’s hand tightened over hers.
She slipped her hand out from under his and patted the back of his hand, then tucked her own into her lap. The first character the player meets after entering the game could be an ally or an enemy, but traditionally ought to be the mentor character. He should be the one to give her instructions, tell her where to go and what she was looking for. So far, he hadn’t been much help.
She must not be asking the right questions.
“How did we get here?” she asked him.
“You… don’t remember?” he responded, his words cautious.
“I wouldn’t ask if I did.” Could he be an enemy NPC? She didn’t want to lose the game before she’d even gotten a chance to start playing. She didn’t seem to be carrying any weapons, though. And she was sitting down. It would be a bit unfair if she was supposed to leap to her feet and kill him immediately.
“We walked.” He gestured behind her and she glanced over her shoulder. A tent, the small kind, sized so that they would need to crawl into it and be snug once inside. “You wanted to go camping again. We drove up here, but we parked at the lot and hiked in.” His smile looked forced. It didn’t reach his eyes.
Enemy, then. Or bad design? Maybe they’d hired cheap talent for the acting jobs and this guy couldn’t act.
There was a rustling in the darkness. Jan cocked her head to the side, listening. The rustling grew louder. Could this be a horror game? The rustling would be the danger. It would kill the NPC giving her time to escape, or maybe the NPC would sacrifice himself to save her. Either way, the NPC was probably doomed.
But nothing happened. The rustling faded away.
Ted was watching her, his eyes still worried. “Everything okay?” he asked, his voice gentle.
Jan’s eyes dropped to her hands. They were old. Gnarled, dotted with brown spots like fruit gone bad, and the fingers ached, deep inside, a pain in the joints so familiar she’d barely noticed it.
This was a terrible game.
She’d been right.
It was horror. Worst game ever.
She sat back in her chair, watched the fire, and waited for it to end.