GameMaster

July’s theme was Technology Gone Awry.

Synopsis

The lines between reality and gaming becomes blurred when the executive of GameMaster, Inc. becomes involved in a legal scandal.

GameMaster

by Jessica Wren

The target stood on the corner of 38th and Main Street. At two in the morning, he was only one of the thousands of people who loitered in the street. He was wearing a knockoff designer suit and stared ahead as he drew on his cigar. Ethan hid behind a nearby parked car as he trained his assault rifle on his victim, whose only offense was being out at the wrong time.

“This idiot thinks he’s Al Capone,” he chuckled to himself.  “That crap is going to get him shot out here anyways.” With that, Ethan felt a little less guilty for what he was about to do.

“Don’t move,” he mumbled as he aimed his rifle. A passing car was slowing down, clearly approaching the target. Possibly for a drug deal, or to offer a ride, or simply ask for directions. The only thing that mattered was that the target stayed put for the few seconds of time Ethan needed to complete the mission. The target took one more drag on his cigar before taking notice of the approaching vehicle.  I am Shotgun Sutton, he thought. Ethan concentrated on his aim and placed his finger on the trigger, knowing if he acted even a second too late, he would miss his chance.

Before he had the chance to second guess his actions, Ethan squeezed the trigger. The loudness of the shot made him wince, but looking ahead, he saw that the target hadn’t yet moved; his demise was inevitable. Ethan had aimed perfectly and the bullet was only a nanosecond from his temple. As he was about to revel in the satisfaction of completing his mission, suddenly Ethan was plunged into darkness, hearing the high-pitched squealing that accompanies the sudden disconnection of electronics.

“What the heck, Mom. I was in the middle of a game,” Ethan said after he took a moment to reorient himself back to reality.

“You need to get in the middle of cleaning your room and doing your laundry,” his mother, Rhonda, said, sternly pointing the electrical cord she had yanked from the wall a few seconds earlier in his direction. “I’m getting tired of smelling your dirty socks.” The two stared at each other for another second. “No more video games until your room is clean.”

“Whatever,” Ethan muttered as his mother stalked into the kitchen. After he half-assedly shoved a load of clothes into the washing machine, he left the house without notifying his mother.                                                               

                                                      **************

Rhonda walked quickly, and then broke into a light jog, on the picturesque county road that stretched out before her. A winged creature that resembled a large hawk swooped down at her. Rhonda prepared her bow and arrow and fired at the creature.

“Damn it,” she said when the arrow narrowly missed the creature. Rhonda ducked behind a nearby tree, avoiding the creature as it swooped by her head, making a ‘caaaaaaaw’ sound. When the mutant bird was out of sight, Rhonda walked back to the road and looked into the distance. Her destination, a medieval castle, was just over the horizon. If she was going to make it to the castle to battle the Wizard Scott, she needed to be more attentive.

She continued on the path as her leather boots hit the road with a soft thud, counting her steps.  Her mind was elsewhere; she couldn’t understand how her son, Ethan, had gone in such a downward spiral. In just a few short months, Ethan had gone from being a straight A student and captain of the tennis team to being a video game addicted loser with a major attitude.

Ethan was lucky; If Officer Milton hadn’t tackled him before he had the chance to fire a shot at a the man, a  con-artist who was well-known to the police due to multiple arrests for fraud and forgery, he would be facing much more serious charges than a single count of possession of a deadly weapon. Rhonda felt fortunate that her worthless, deadbeat ex-husband hadn’t shown up for the hearing. He would have opened his stupid mouth and made things worse for Ethan.

Rhonda sped up her pace, dodged three other of the winged creature, and finally arrived at the castle gates.

“What is your business here?” asked a troll who was guarding the gate.

A scroll opened before her. How do you want to answer? Rhonda pondered her choices. (A) shoot an arrow at him (B) pay him thirty gold coins for admittance (c) turn around and go back.

“I’m here to take down Scott,” Rhonda said, aiming her arrow at the troll. “I would advise you not to stand in my way.” When the troll offered no response other than a blank stare, Rhonda handed him a small sac containing thirty gold coins. “Which way do you want to go with this?” The troll, still not exhibiting any outward emotion, wordlessly opened the gate for her.

In the castle, Rhonda took down two monsters that resembled large bats, and took what she knew to be the quickest route to the room where The Wizard was awaiting her arrival.

The Wizard greeted her with a saccharine, professional smile. “Welcome, Rhonda, please come in,” he said in a businesslike tone. “Look, Rhonda, I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you.” Scott continued to talk as Rhonda reached for her bow and arrow. “…Ethan needs help, Rhonda, and frankly, so do you.” The man’s insincerely and hypocrisy was so thick and syrupy that a candy-house could have been built from it. Just the type that Sam Scott and Tom Yates can be lured into. Beware the evil witch, you bastards.

Rhonda aimed her arrow directly at Yates’ eyeball. “I believe, sir, it is you who needs help.” She pulled back her bowstring and released the arrow.

Good enough. I think Yates will be very happy with this version of Country Mile.

“And…perfect!” Rhonda said, taking off her virtual reality helmet. “The demo is running as planned.”

“Great!” said Mr. Yates. “If Country Mile sells as expected, you will be reinstated to your position to chief designed. Once this whole business with your son blows over, of course, and with Sam’s approval.”

Rhonda had the sinking feeling that the whole business with Ethan would not blow over any time soon. He may have been spared harsh penalties, but the repercussions of his actions would continue long after the social media chatter stopped.

“Thank you,” Rhonda said, forcing the most sincere smile she could muster.

                                                     ************

Tom Yates prepared his mace as his opponent, Sam, stood in front of him with his hatchet. A deep voice from somewhere about said, “Ready…Fight.” Tom started the match by swinging the mace at Sam’s head, a move his opponent dodged.

“This is not a decision I took without a lot of thought,” Tom said. “On one hand, Rhonda Jones is a talented designer, and her Shoot ‘Em Dead brought in record sales for GameMaster. That’s why I voted against her removal as chief designer,” he said as he continued to bloody Tom’s face “The social media chatter will die down, but replacing Rhonda may be extremely difficult.”

“On the other hand,” Sam said as he delivered a solid kick to Tom’s solar plexus, “the fact that her own son took an assault rifle out to reenact Shoot ‘Em Dead is a bit hard to ignore.”

Tom swung his feet around in an attempt to knock Sam down at his ankles, but Sam anticipated it and jumped. “Are you sure that’s what happened?” Tom asked as he struck Sam in the shoulder with his hatchet, leaving a large, bleeding gash. “I have two teenage sons myself, and I can tell you that about ninety percent of what teenagers say is bullcrap. Where in the hell did Ethan get an assault rifle, anyways? Whoever gave that to him needs to be held equally accountable.” Sam returned the blow with one of his own on Tom’s jaw. Two bars appeared, indicating that Sam now had sixty seven percent  life. Tom had seventy five percent. “What if we made a public announcement that Rhonda has agreed to get counselling for her son?” He grabbed Sam’s head and repeatedly bashed it against some rusty, leaking metal pipes as his opponent thought about his meeting with Rhonda Jones earlier.

“Mrs. Jones, do you have any idea how bad this could have gone?” He had said. “If it hadn’t been for Officer Milton’s diligence, an innocent person may have been killed.”

“No, no, Ethan would never have fired that rifle,” Rhonda replied defensively. “Besides, Nicco Silvano wasn’t exactly an innocent victim. Did you know that my ex once hired him to shoot me?” Rhonda winced at the painful memory. “I just had no idea Ethan knew that.”

“Ethan admitted to the grand jury that he had planned to kill someone on the street, in the exact manner as Shotgun Sutton.” Sam’s tone changed and he was more sympathetic. “Look, Rhonda, I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you. But believe it or not, Ethan was lucky to be arrested when he was. Right now, he’s only facing a single weapons charge and will probably get probation. If he had actually gone through with it, he would have been looking at life in prison. What Ethan ‘meant’ to do is a bit beside the point. The public perception of GameMaster is what’s on the line here. If folks start to think we as a corporation don’t take seriously the effects of video games on mental health, that could be a slippery slope. Next thing you know, everyone who has ever played our games and later commits an act of violence could blame us. Think of the lawsuits. It’s unfair, yes, but that’s the way it is.”

Sam paused, allowing Rhonda a moment to absorb the seriousness of what he was telling her. “The line for him between gaming and reality is blurred. In real life, there are consequences for actions. He isn’t Shotgun Sutton. And unfortunately, I can’t have you on management if you are going to minimize the potential impact this could have on GameMaster. He needs help, Rhonda, and frankly, so do you. You appear to be in over your head on this.” Rhonda glared at him. “Do need time off to sort this out?”

Sam, now regretting his choice of words, tried to duck as Tom swung his mace with his remaining strength and delivered the fatal blow to Sam’s head. “Do him in!” the commanding voice from above said.

“Yes, Tom, I know. Your sons are my nephews, after all. And I’m sorry, but I’m not convinced that paying someone to be your best friend for an hour actually helps anyone,” Sam said as he lie dazed and bleeding on the floor. “Are we still going through with the release of Country Mile?”

“Oh, yes,” Tom replied. He grabbed Sam by the throat and swung him like a ragdoll, throwing him over the railing and onto the dilapidated floor below.

“Mortality!” the voice said. Sam lie on the concrete floor below and Tom, near death himself, made his final decision. There just might be a way to save GameMaster’s reputation without losing Rhonda.

                                                         *************

GameMaster stocks plummeted with the news of the charges of attempted murder against Ethan Jones were reduced. Why was the son of GameMaster’s top game designer being let off so easily? Just because Nicco Silvano was a scam artist he deserved to be shot? Once again, a privileged white boy beats the system. And the collective social media blathering went on and on. Sam was sick of the whole thing. The non-stop ringing phone that Sam dreaded picking up, knowing that it was either a journalist or an angry vendor on the other end. The stress of knowing that declining stock could kill his pension and even his own job security. The irritation that GameMaster was being held by the balls by a sixteen-year-old prick. The resentment that Tom was undermining him and that Rhonda and her son were causing all this headache.

They’re right, though, Sam Scott thought as spaceship took off. Being an asshole is not a death penalty offense. Not even for Ethan Jones. Sam fired a missile and blew up an asteroid as a computer screen appeared before him. What do you want to do? (A) Nothing. People will move on to other topics soon enough. (B) Offer a generous settlement to Nicco Silvano as a token of GameMaster’s public apology. Certainly, GameMaster’s legal team would advise against this (c) Kill Rhonda and Ethan, frame Nicco Silvano, and be done with all this shit. Worry about Tom later.

Sam veered a sharp left to avoid an oncoming asteroid. Tom had a soft spot for troubled youth, and GameMaster had donated a lot of money to teen mentorship programs.  

“Hey, Tom. What do you think about offering Ethan Jones a job at GameMaster?” Sam asked. Tom, who had been caught in an asteroid storm, smoothly pulled up beside Sam.

“I don’t know,” Tom said. “What could he do?”

“It doesn’t matter. He can wash windows, vacuum carpets, make coffee, or anything else. Then we make a public announcement. You know, we’d be teaching him responsibility. Saving a young person from a life of crime. The stuff people eat up on social media.” Sam fired a missile, taking out a large asteroid that was on a collision course with the spaceships. “Make GameMaster the hero in all this.”

“I suppose it’s worth a shot.” Fragments of rocks and ice rained down on the spaceships. Sam smiled. Tom had bought it, hook, line, and sinker.

“Certainly we can reach out to the Jones kid. Offer him a job. What harm would it do? But that shouldn’t be our PR strategy because it’s only a short-term solution” Tom said. Tom’s doubt’s didn’t matter. The only thing that was important was to get the kid where Sam wanted him. “I was thinking more along the lines of re-releasing our popular family-friendly games,” Tom said. “Talk of the town is that GameMaster’s products, in particular Shoot ‘Em Dead, are harming young people psychologically. We need to show that we’re committed to the well-being of all customers. I’m thinking maybe we can create Space Wars 2018 with advanced graphics. What do you think?”

How do you wish to respond?” A computer screen appeared and offered him three choices (A) “That’s a great idea. Shall we begin the development plans?” (B) Are you fucking out of your mind? The newer games, especially Shoot ‘Em Dead, are the money makers. If you want to run GameMaster into the ground, by all means release the updated version of that corny ass game.” (C ) “This where you die, Tom Yates.”

“Tom, I just want to be sure,” Sam said. “You’re not buying into this bullshit, are you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Of all people in this city, Ethan Jones just happens to pull a gun on his mother’s would-be hitman? Doesn’t that strike you as odd?” You have exactly one more chance to do this the nonlethal, non-explosive way. Sam intercepted a large meteor and lobbed it in Tom’s direction, causing Tom’s spacecraft to tilt ninety degrees. This vented a little of his rage.

“Sam, you don’t make sense,”Tom said after righting himself. “A minute ago you were wanting to give this kid a job.”

“Yes, Tom, to find evidence that this whole thing was planned. I think Rhonda put him up to this, and if she did, she’s despicable and has no business at GameMaster.”

“Just let the police do their job, Sam, and stop being paranoid.” Tom fired several shots, pulverizing the asteroids ahead of him.

Ugh. Is this guy the dumbest fucker on the planet? Yes, on this planet and all others. He’s just as much a dumb fuck here as he would be on Jupiter. Well, I can see he will need more convincing.

Tom and Sam found the landing strip and landed. They taxied down the runway and upon coming to a complete stop, found themselves back in the office.

                                                               ************

“You wanted to see me, sir?” Ethan walked timidly into the small cabin and shook the snow off his coat. To get here, he had to hike up a perilous mountain, risking hypothermia and avalanches. Whatever this geezer had to say better be damn important.

“Yes, please come in,” Officer Milton said, offering him a seat by the fire. “We uncovered new evidence in the Nicco Silvano case…Silvano case…Silvano case…

Milton sat there repeating himself like a broken record, to use an expression his mother sometimes used. Ethan sat down, impatiently waiting for the bug to clear up.

After a minute, Milton continued. “I wanted to give you a chance to explain yourself before this goes public.”

“Before what goes public?”

“The fact that Nicco Silvano had been hired to kill you and your mother.” Ethan nearly choked in shock. He almost wished the bug had not cleared up. “Did you know this before you attempted to shoot him?”

Once the initial shock wore off, Ethan said in a barely audible voice, “Someone tried to kill us? Why? How?”

“Detroit police arrested your father. He made a full confession.” Milton took a deep breath. “He said he was tired of paying alimony and child support for what he called ‘a dumb bitch and the little shit who probably isn’t even mine. After your parents divorced, your father hired Silvano to kill you, but Silvano couldn’t go through with it.”

“You think I knew that? And if Mom knew it, shouldn’t Silvano already be in jail?”

“A public confession may help your case, and may save your mother’s job.”

“I’ve already told you everything. I’m not going through this again, at least not without my lawyer present. I don’t know anything about what dad and Silvano did, but I am glad the bastard’s in jail.” He turned to leave. He did not see Sam Scott, who had been hiding behind the recliner Milton had been sitting in, sneak up behind him holding an ice axe. Ethan, sensing the change in the air around him, turned to face his attacker.

“Wrong answer,” Sam said.

‘What the—” he spit out before the bird-beak shaped object impaled him right above his collarbone. Ethan collapsed on the floor in a pool of his own blood.

“Reset.” Sam said firmly and calmly.

The setting turned black and Sam was in his office. There was no trace of blood on his clothing.

                                                 **************

“Ethan, watch out!” Rhonda called out a second too late. The landmine exploded with a deafening bang, blowing Ethan to bits and scattering his body fragments all over the desert landscape.

Rhonda let out an irritable sigh before saying, “Reset.” She and her son were back at the same spot in the desert that they were a second ago. “That wouldn’t have happened if you had been listening. You have to be careful of landmines. Let me check for them before walking ahead. I know how to look for them.”

“Yes, Mom,” Ethan said. “And remind me again why you need to come with me to this job interview.”

“Because I know that Sam Scott is a conniving son of a bitch, and his sudden change of heart is just a bit suspicious.”

“Maybe he just has a position open, and wants to help me. He was Dad’s best friend, right? He watched me grow up.”

“Being your dad’s friend isn’t exactly a badge of honor.”

“Well, be that as it may, I don’t believe for one second that Dad hired Nicco SIlvano to kill us. Dad’s no saint, but he’s not a murderer.” Rhonda had intended to carry the secret of her ex-husband’s murder attempt to her grave. She felt a stab of resentment towards Officer Milton for sharing that information with Ethan. Ethan and his father were not close, but Rhonda saw no point in making her son fearful. The landmine explosion reminded her too much of the night she had woken up to the sound of the smoke detector. Following the smell of smoke, she then discovered her kitchen was on fire. However, before she had the chance to call 911, fire trucks pulled into her yard. Nicco Silvano, one of Mike’s shady friends, was standing by with a strange look on his face.

“Nicco set the fire,” she told the chief of the arson investigation team.

“This is no doubt a case of arson, but what makes you so sure Mr. Silvano set the fire, Mrs. Jones?”

“Just yesterday, he came by my boss’s office. Nicco and Sam stared at me funny and quickly closed the door behind them. Not so unusual except for the fact that I saw them both with Mike in the cafe. Mike straight-up told me he would kill me before he paid a dime of child support.”

When the police told Rhonda that there as unfortunately not enough evidence to charge any of the men with a crime, it hardly seemed relevant. She was just grateful that Ethan wasn’t harmed in the fire.

A loud boom from a landmine jolted her from her thoughts. “Oops,” Ethan’s mouth said from a pile of his body parts on the ground. ‘Sorry, Mom.”

“Reset!”

                            

                                                  **************

Sam felt ridiculous being pixelated, but the dragon boss was the best avatar under the circumstances. Bullfrog Ethan would come to defeat him with fireballs, but what he didn’t know was that once he stepped onto the platform, the floor would open up below him and send him into the fiery pit below. Leaving that idiot Nicco out of his plan would all but guarantee that he wouldn’t fail this time. If Princess Rhonda shows up with the Bullfrog, even better. He could take two out in one shot.  

I shouldn’t even have to be doing this. Nicco set the fire as instructed, but immediately had second thoughts and called 911. He returned the money the next day, saying he just couldn’t go through with it.  In his dragon form, Sam sat and waited.

In any event, Rhonda Jones had stolen from him for the last time.

                                                           

                                                         **************

“After Shoot ‘Em Dead was released, Sam claimed I stole the idea from him. He also claimed he was the model for Shotgun Sutton.” This was another unfortunate event that Rhonda was hoping to keep from Ethan, but as they approached Sam’s office and saw themselves as pixelated avatars, Rhonda became certain they were walking into a trap. “It wasn’t, though. Shoot ‘Em Dead was your father’s idea. He was the model for Shotgun Sutton.”

“So why would Sam claim the idea was his?” Ethan asked.

“He says he told the idea to your dad, who in turn told it to me. That might be true, but how was I supposed to know?”

“                                                           **************

In his ice cold summit, Officer Milton opened the dialogue window to talk to the guard who was watching over Mike Jones’ cell.

Mike, I need you to tell me the truth about the deal with Nicco Silvano, the window read.

I already told you. Sam jumped at the chance to kill Rhonda and frame me for it. I guess being in Detroit at the time of the fire doesn’t give me a good enough alibi, does it? I’m automatically suspect, even though there is no record of communication between me and Nicco. No texts, no phone calls, no emails, nothing.

It helps. It’s just that you threatened to kill Rhonda shortly before the fire. These types of coincidences are the exception rather than the rule. It makes perfect sense that you would be the prime suspect since, after all, most murder victims are killed by spouses or close family.

I was angry when I said that. I even tried to set up a payment plan with Rhonda through my lawyer, but Rhonda wouldn’t cooperate.

Do you know a Sam Scott?

Of course. The paranoid ass clown at GameMaster who claims to have designed all of Rhonda’s games.

Is that why Sam wanted Rhonda dead?

Like I said, he’s paranoid. He always thinks someone is out to get him.  

And this whole deal with your son, Ethan. See, the thing I don’t understand is why Sam has publicly offered him a job after he embarrassed the company like that.

I say it’s a trap. But Rhonda and Ethan aren’t up to listening to me, so I guess they’ll have to find out for themselves.

Officer Milton stepped back away from the cell, which closed the dialog box. “Thank you for your honesty, Mike.” He turned and walked away from the cell.

“Are you going to let me go?”

“Yes, but you’re on your own going back. Don’t worry, though. You have two extra lives.”

                                                               ***********

Rhonda was grateful that Sam decided to hold the meeting in his regular office. Being pixelated was distracting. This feeling of gratitude immediately evaporated as soon as Sam locked the door and turned to them with an evil smile. He grabbed a rifle from his large inventory stores.

“I’m the real Shotgun Sutton.” Sam trained the rifle on Rhonda. “I’m going to kill you and your pathetic kid.”

Rhonda shrugged indifferently. “I have a year’s worth of extra lives accrued. I can share them with Ethan, per company policy. You killing me will just be a minor inconvenience, and will not stop you from having to appear before the congressional committee.”

Sam, surprised, lowered his axe. “How did you know about that?” The look of panic on his face empowered Rhonda.

“Remember that my best friend is your sister, Tom’s wife. They wouldn’t keep me out of the loop like that. I’ll be testifying before the Senate about the dangers of extreme virtual reality, how it changes the brain,” Rhonda said. “Do you still want credit for the games you supposedly designed?”

“You’re testifying even though you’re the game’s designer?” Sam was flabbergasted. Clearly, he was not prepared for this.

“Of course. My son is a victim of the game’s design flaw, after all,” Rhonda said. “Does this mean you are admitting that your claim of my plagiarism was false?”  Sam didn’t answer, only continued to stare at Rhonda with panicked expression. She continued, returning his evil grin. “Tom has GameMaster fully covered by liability insurance. We are expecting that there will be a class action lawsuit.”

“That’s right,” Tom said, coming in from an adjacent office. “We figured you were going to try to pull this stunt, so we sent Ethan in wearing a wire.You can expect criminal charges of attempted murder.”

“What?” Sam was stunned. “I didn’t even fire the weapon.”

“I’m not talking about anything going on right now, Sam. I’m talking about the attempted murder of Rhonda and Ethan in the attempted arson.” Tom said. Rhonda pulled out her own bow and arrow, and aimed at Sam’s eyeball. “As of now, you’re fired from GameMaster, which means you forfeit all extra lives.”

“No!” Sam shrank back like a cornered rat. Rhonda lowered her weapon.

“Yes, Sam, you will be spending a good portion of your only life in prison. There is no reset option for you now.”

                                                         ************

Rhonda entered what was now her office. She was very proud of her son, who since his arrest had worked hard to turn his life around and who had followed in her footsteps. Things had worked out well. GameMaster was called in front of a Senate committee for an investigation into the dangers of their products. When the study concluded that the light effects in Shoot ‘Em Dead, designed to make the scenes more realistic, had a deleterious effect on the brain chemistry of susceptible users, rendering them unable to differentiate between reality and fantasy. Shoot ‘Em Dead was pulled from the market, which nearly spelled doom for GameMaster.  It if hadn’t been for the blockbuster release of Country Mile and later, Space Wars Deluxe, Rhonda’s  career as a game designer would have gone under then. As part of a settlement with the Senate, GameMaster agreed to work with independent techs to find out what went wrong and to prevent another mishap. In the meanwhile, Rhonda was working to re-release and upgraded version of Legend of Zoe, a project she found mind-numbingly boring.

It had been five years since the unfortunate incident with Sam Scott, whose prestigious position at GameMaster she now occupied. Nicco Silvano, who had no stomach for violence, struck a plea deal and avoided prison time. Mike Jones was not implicated in the crime.

Ethan knocked on the office door and then entered before waiting for an answer.“One day,” she told him. “I will design a game called Corporation. Users will do a hostile takeover of a major corporation.”

“You mean they’ll do a hostile takeover of GameMaster and the final boss will be Sam Scott?”  

Rhonda smiled and turned on her computer to work. Soon after her world turned black.

“There’s still too many bugs, Mom,” Ethan said to Rhonda as he took of his virtual reality helmet. “If you miss Nicco Silvano in Level 8, you get arrested, and then get axed in Level 10 at the summit. Good thing I created a backup avatar, or I would not have been able to complete the simulation.”

“Well, let’s just keep working. Corporation isn’t due out until late next year.”

“The investigation that starts in Level 13 is incredibly dull. I don’t think it will hold user interest.” Ethan said. “But I do like how user have several different options to defeat Sam Scott.”

“It’s time to go home, son. Go home to Brianna and the kids. That’s what real life is about., and what could never be virtually simulated.”

Ethan pulled out his bow and arrow and shot a large, owl-like creature before getting his car.