This is a blog post about a story, Game On.
If you want to skip the waffle and go straight to the story, you can read it here.
Game On is the tidied up version of a short story I had to write for a course using the Hero’s Journey archetypal story structure as a basis. Not on my top ten list of favourite assignments.
I’d had this idea for a story about some teens who run into big trouble in a virtual world while gaming. Game On is not that story, although I do hope to write it one day.
I know almost nothing about online gaming (which will be quickly apparent to any gamers who read the story; I beg your forgiveness and maybe you should get the tissues ready for any tears that accompany your howls of laughter) and I struggle to apply the Hero Journey structure, so I decided to combine the two for the purpose of the exercise.
There was a 2000 word maximum – anyone who’s familiar with any epic fantasy would know that’s not usually how quickly a Hero‘s Journey story unfolds. It was, shall we say, a bit of a challenge.
This isn’t a very good story but it got me through the final subject I needed for my diploma. There’s also a lot I actually like about it; it definitely stretched me to come up with the concept, structure it using the Hero’s Journey and keep within the word count. I understood even at the time that I was learning a lot by writing something so different to what I’d usually write.
I tend to have themes emerge in my fiction and this story is no different in that respect. I’m also a sponge and I absorb what’s happening around me. You can see some of that if you read at that deeper level and I’d definitely love to have a conversation with anyone who is interested in discussing any themes they find here.
Above all, though, as this is the semester and the place for me to develop and explore, I’m sharing the story here.
Happy reading. Or not. No, seriously, you can stop at any time.
Chat open 13.53pm------
SmartyCat>o<13: Still not interested
NinjaWar007: Come on, Kat, you know you want to
SmartyCat>o<13: It smells wrong
NinjaWar007: It’s virtual reality, Kat
NinjaWar007: it can’t smell like anything
SmartyCat>o<13: If something seems too good to be true
NinjaWar007: majenik already agreed and obvs I’m in
NinjaWar007: we need the trio or none of us get the link to the game interface
SmartyCat>o<13: Why us? dodgy
NinjaWar007: Who cares? Come on. Imagine being first
SmartyCat>o<13: short memory
SmartyCat>o<13: forgot what happened last time?
NinjaWar007: you need to get over that.
SmartyCat>o<13: U didn’t listen to me
NinjaWar007: I will this time
SmartyCat>o<13: this gives me the same feeling
NinjaWar007: Are you in or out? Plenty Navs begging me for your spot
SmartyCat>o<13: so use one of them
NinjaWar007: want the best this could lead to big things
SmartyCat>o<13: it’s too weird we even have this opportunity
SmartyCat>o<13: don’t these developers have their own gamers?
NinjaWar007: I think this is like a job interview
NinjaWar007: You know how bad I want this
SmartyCat>o<13: I don’t like it
NinjaWar007: What are you now chicken?
SmartyCat>o<13: better chicken than dead.
NinjaWar007: being ridiculous now.
NinjaWar007: You’re in or you’re out. Time to man up
NinjaWar007: Well, woman up.
SmartyCat>o<13: Ur a sexist pig
NinjaWar007: And you’re the best Navigator there is. Are you in?
SmartyCat>o<13: Damn it. Yes. I’m in
Here’s the link. Just to be clear, we cannot share this link – that confidentiality agreement you signed is serious shit!
Did you get the new headsets? It won’t work without them. If you haven’t got yours yet text me asap.
Nick, when you follow the link then you need to log in as the Magician and Kat you’re taking the Nav role. I know you wanted to try Navigator on this one Nick but we only get one shot to impress and Kat is still the best around. And dude, you fucking rock at that magic shit and both me and Kit-kat can barely do more than a don’t-see-me.
PM me when you’re logged in.
What the everlovin’ fuck? The keyboard is gone. My computer screen. My hands. Black. Sensory loss. The headset is too tight, it’s squeezing my skull, ow, stop, get it off, get it off! I’m going to kill Tez if I was right and he was wrong. Again. Why didn’t I trust my gut? Again.
I can see my hands again. That’s the good news. The bad news is they don’t look exactly like my hands, and this is definitely not my dorm room, if the giant hedge in front of me and the sun beating down on my back is any guide. I push down dizziness and imminent panic and take stock. This isn’t the first time this has happened, after all. A quick scan of what I can see of myself confirms it; I am my navigator avatar, right down to the satchel crossing the front of my body between Lara Croft-like boobs and the periscope clenched in my right fist. I’ll be taller, stronger and smarter than I am IRL, and, because this game is guaranteed just as man-centric as most, I’ll be smoking hot, with long legs and these fantastic gravity-defying tits. I can’t see my arse, but I bet it’s just as good, and the tight leather leggings and vest showcase every asset. IRL I’m medium height, skinny, and flat chested with a ten year old boy’s butt. I guess the first time I picked this avatar I was having some wish fulfilment or something, but now I could give a shit how sexy I look, although I’ll take the longs legs and muscled butt and the contrary-to physics speed and strength. I turn my head, trying to see past or over the towering hedge, as the unaccustomed weight of my heavy waist length braid slides across my shoulders. Groping on top of my head, I am unsurprised to find spectrum goggles perched up there.
I’m still coming to grips with the issue that I am – once again – inside a virtual reality game sim when Nick and Tez stumble through a gap in the hedge to my right. A gap, I see, that immediately closes behind them.
So this is a maze quest of some kind. I’d punch Tez, but in his warrior avatar form he’d just hand me my arse.
“You’re so fucking dead when we get out of here,” I tell him instead.
He glances down at me, blue eyes flashing from atop a seven-feet tall muscled mountain. Again, so not what he looks like IRL. The quicker I can get us out of here the better. One of the reasons I’m the best virtual reality navigator around is my ability to retain my real world awareness and connection, however tenuous. One of the biggest problems with the new vr tech? People can’t retain who they are and where they are. The game environment seems real to them, which means there is no motivation to get through the game and back to the real world. Because as far as they know, this is the real world.
There’s billions begging to be made here, but until the tech companies can sort out these slightly life-threatening glitches there’s no way they can go commercial. So they keep finding dummies like us to test them. I knew I shouldn’t have listened to Tez when he assured me this time would be different. Yet again it’s going to be up to me to navigate us through the game until we complete this phase, so we can get to an exit point. Fuck.
I rummage in the satchel for the stuff I know must be there; information or clues or gadgets to help us with our quest objective. I’ve got no sensation of headset or keyboard, no sensory connection to the real world at all, so everything we need has to be in here.
“What’s our exit key?” I ask Tez, suspecting by the way he’s standing there, scanning for threats, flexing the gigantic muscles, that it’s probably too late.
“I.. don’t know about that,” he says, though there’s a puzzled flash in those too-blue eyes that suggests something of the realworld Tez is not too far down from the surface. I don’t even bother checking with Nick, because there won’t even be that twinkle. It’s why he’s never going to be a safe navigator while this vr is still so bleeding edge.
My groping fingers pass over some small lumpy unrecognisable objects and then brush against the unmistakeable crackle of stiff paper. Ignoring the other doodads for now I withdraw the parchment.
Yes, it’s a maze.
Yes, it’s a quest, with a treasure in the centre of the maze.
It’s the ‘here be dragons’ bits on the map that bother me, though.
I drop the periscope into the satchel and flip the flap closed, giving me both hands to work the map. There’s no convenient ‘X’ or ‘You are here’ to even let us know what side of the maze we’re standing on, and the sun hasn’t moved enough to give us any guidance. I decide to go to our left, because the nearest gap marked in the hedge lies in that direction.
Without a word, the Warrior and the Magician fall in behind me. They may not remember who they are IRL but they know what their roles are in here. It’s up to me to get us to our objective, secure the treasure, and hopefully find a game exit to get us back. The dragons? I won’t worry about those just yet. Let’s just hope that it’s background colour, rather than a literal description of the tests that await us. And if there are dragons, it will be up to the Mage and the Warrior to defeat them, not me. I find a gap in the hedge, and lead the others in.
We’re doing far too well. We’ve had to double back a few times when the map wasn’t accurate or the hedges moved, I wasn’t sure which. Mage and Warrior have fought off the usual shit, trolls, goblins, ghouls, the warrior – Tez – taking down the fighters and Nick as his magician avatar foiling the magical beasties with spells and glamour. Our satchels and quivers though are getting ominously light as I navigate our way towards the centre of the maze, and I am still worried about those dragons.
We push through another of those shifty gaps in the hedge and pop out into a space that, to my dismay, once again doesn’t correspond with the sweat-grimed map. We are so close. Damn it. I look left, to a dead end that shouldn’t be there, and then right, where the darkness of a gap appears in the greenery only a few feet away.
“Are we lost?” Tez the warrior says accusingly, peering over my shoulder at the map.
“No. A disagreement between the map and the maze. Unsurprisingly.”
“Which way, navigator?” the Magician asks me.
I hesitate, because I don’t know.
“This way,” Tez says, pointing his sword to the gap to our right.
“No, this way,” I say, aware the instant he says it that he’s wrong. “That way is too easy and too obvious. Likely to be a trap.”
“There is no way through there,” the warrior says.
I look at my map, and then peer towards the wall of green. The map, and my gut, tells me we should go that way. I can’t remind him that he promised he’d listen to me this time, because he won’t remember.
The warrior pushes past me and starts to move right and I leap after him and grab him by the strap crossing his broad back. “Stop.”
He does stop, but I can feel it’s a hesitation rather than a change of heart. I have to convince him. Last time I let Tez’s warrior instincts to rush in overrule my navigator sense and we got annihilated. And that ‘virtual’ part isn’t entirely accurate; take a bad enough beating in here and it has nasty, potentially lethal impact that carries over into the real world. I had to trust myself, this time. I’d agreed to participate against my gut feeling, and I make a promise to myself that this really is going to be the last time. But I have to get us out of here first.
“This way,” I say firmly. “I’m the navigator, so trust me.”
He stares down at me, and I looked steadily back, holding his gaze. Finally, the battle-fire in those ice-blue eyes dims, and he gives me a nod, indicating I should lead.
I return the nod, and then lead us in the right direction.
My instincts have been right. As we draw close to the dead end, the bushes inch back, creating the gap that was supposed to be there according to the map. And there, beyond, is the treasure, a golden chest that will contain not just riches, but our entry through to the next phase of the game. And wherever there is an entry to a new game level, there is an exit option.
As we step into the centre of the maze, a large scaly claw appears from a gap in the maze. Of course, it’s between us and the treasure. I tuck the map into my satchel and step back.
“You’re up, big guy,” I say to Tez. As the warrior rushes to battle the dragon standing between us and the treasure, I gesture for the magician to go throw some spells to help slow the beast down. I’ll sneak around and grab the treasure chest, and hopefully get us out of here before the dragon can kill us and eat us.
All words and images ©AJ Macpherson 2016
I recently read What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler, a young adult novel published under the HarperTeen imprint of HarperCollins Publishers in 2015. I’d seen this book months ago and been drawn to it, but for whatever reason on the day (quite possibly the rather mundane one that I’d maxed out my book budget already that month) I didn’t buy it. I also neglected to make a note of the exact title or author, and when I went on the hunt for it some weeks later, all I could remember was it had the word ‘Saw’ in the title. And of course, it was nowhere to be found.
So when I did come across it again, I was determined not to leave it behind a second time. The photo that accompanies this post is of the actual book I bought from a local Big W.
I started reading What We Saw when I got home that afternoon. Apart from a few short interludes (feed the dog, talk to my husband, check in on Twitter) I kept reading until I got to the end. It’s here I need to make full disclosure: I suspect another reason I may have left that book languishing unbought on a book shelf when I first came across it is the fear that the author would not deliver a satisfying payoff on the premise. I am pleased to report, that fear has proven unfounded.
It’s always difficult to talk about a book that has a ‘reveal’, or a strategic unrolling of key developments because you really don’t want to give it away to anyone eager to read the story and make that discovery for themselves. I shall tread carefully, accordingly.
In What We Saw, the main character and narrator is Kate, a 17-year-old girl whose rekindled relationship with a childhood friend, Ben, seems to be transforming into romance. This is, naturally, foremost in her thoughts when she wakes up incredibly hungover from a party held by one of her classmates the previous night. Fortunately for Kate, Ben has seen her safely home after she downed too many shots and got drunk, and apart from an unflattering photo on social media that’s quickly deleted by the BFF who took it on her phone, Kate has escaped with nothing worse than a headache. She soon learns that Stacey, the girl she was doing shots with the night before, has suffered more lasting damage to her reputation, and possibly something even more damaging.
The question of whether Stacey - a girl with a bad reputation, from a poor part of town - was raped by four stars of the basketball team as she claims, or whether she participated willingly, at least until she sobered up to regret it the next morning, soon divides Kate’s friends, the other students at the high school and the town itself. Rumours circulate of a video posted online that proves – one way or another – what really happened, and despite almost everyone in Kate’s life advising her to leave it alone, Kate feels a growing need to find out who is telling the truth.
Aaron Hartzler is a terrific writer, crafting realistic, relatable teenage characters who draw us through a compelling narrative. They aren’t always perfect, they don’t always do the smart thing, but that just adds credibility. As a reader you care what happens to them, and of course you hope for an answer to what really happened on that night.
What We Saw explores some contemporary and at times confronting territory with a deft touch, including social media use, rape culture and the thoughtless egotism of young adults. There is an excellent scene where Kate calls out her younger brother for adding a hashtag associated with the party to one of his tweets when he doesn’t know what it means (and tellingly, neither does Kate). The author also turns a spotlight on some damaging assumptions that teens may make about consent and personal responsibility.
This novel truly is contemporary, effortlessly incorporating the ubiquitous presence of camera-equipped smart phones and social media access just a swipe away as an everyday part of the life of the modern teenager. The high school students in the novel treat their phones and their online activity as casually and comfortably as a toothbrush, and so does the author.
There’s nothing new in teenagers throwing parties when their parents are out of town, and engaging in risky behaviours including under-age drinking and sexual activity, either in fiction or in reality. Now that we live in the age of digital technology and social media, how much is that changing the way teenagers see themselves and each other? Is it altering their perceptions about actions and consequences? While online profiles and social media allow people to hide their real identify, is this potentially leading people into the trap of thinking how you behave – online or for real – doesn’t matter?
These and more are the kind of questions this novel will leave you with. I define a great book as one that stays with you after the last page; one that makes you think or even invades your dreams. What We Saw is still with me, and I recommend it to you.
The reproduction of the cover artwork for What We Saw (Copyright HarperCollins Publishers) is permitted under Fair Dealing usage for the purpose of review.
I'm a writer. I love words and story. I'm also rather fond of my husband and my dog.