The Old World
It took the threat of total annihilation to stop the first cold war.
It took a computer game to stop the second.
Russia and Europe were on the verge of nuclear annihilation. America had gone dark since enforcing its net neutral wall. Fingers were hovered over buttons that would begin the war to end humanity. But as always, humans found hope.
No country really wanted to start the war, but they were between a rock and a hard place. Their citizens needed a focus, and war focused the mind like nothing else. The people weren’t really to blame.
Thirty years after the financial sector had left Britain, and the country had fallen because of its greed, seven young computer programmers pushed the button on their own dream.
The HOPE engine loaded onto servers around the globe. Disparity was gone. The rich rubbed shoulders with the poor as if they were old friends. Nationality became a thing of the past. America gave up on its self imposed retreat from the world. The first ever global law was founded and enforced – every person, regardless of the colour of their skin, the god they worshipped, the number in their bank account, or anything else that used to matter, had to have a VR headset with a mobile connection to HOPE.
It was a game based in a fantasy world that one of the developers dreamed up. It wasn’t the most unique or innovative, and it didn’t have the best graphics or gameplay, but it had luck. Of course, luck is just when preparation meets opportunity. The world needed something to unify them, and HOPE gamified people’s lives while providing a built in translator.
That was all it took. Give people a goal and remove the communication barrier.
But HOPE has moved on since its first release. Now it does have the best graphics, and the best gameplay, and the best everything.
The developers realised that games went in cycles. Games used to be hard, then with the invention of mobile phones, they became easy. They became too easy. They were non-games, just blinking happy sounds at the user with no mental input. Without stakes, people couldn’t engage with anything. But with stakes, came motivation, came teamwork, came fulfillment and happiness.
HOPE isn’t the only game engine, but it’s the only one that matters.
Quentin Vine, Class 201C#9
There. The last scrap of school work I’d ever have to do. Done. I wasn’t saying it was my finest writing. I’d skimmed over so much. I didn’t even touch on Britain becoming a pod habitat country, whose sole source of income is rent from HOPE players demanding to be closer to the root server. Not a single mention of the N-plague. Not even a nod towards the growing orphan crisis, of which I was a card carrying member. Hmm, maybe I should add those. Nah, who cares, I’d already collected enough class credits to pass, so it didn’t matter.
I folded the page and held it in front of me. A dynamic context menu appeared, and I selected “submit”.
I hadn’t been to class for the last few weeks, and this was my final procrastination over and done with. Why stop procrastinating now? Because the clock had just ticked, and I was officially sixteen. I could play. Sure, I could have continued in education. Everyone had that option, but I was so done with it. I hadn’t learned a thing this past year. They gave us complete access to the entire world’s knowledge, but did they update the curriculum? Hell no. From the ages of eight to sixteen, every child across the globe had to attend school. Technically, you could attend a physical school, they did still exist, but no one did.
HOPE was just an engine. In its alpha testing days, it had been a giant expanse of nothing. It was a literal sandbox as the devs pushed the limit of how many sand particles they could move around before the engine crashed. It was a lot, by the way – thirty six billion, to be precise. And it was in this sandbox mode that all us youngsters were trapped. We were allowed access to three zones. School, Community, and Home. School is pretty obvious – we go there to learn with other like minded individuals. Home isn’t exactly a stretch either – it’s a private sandbox, one kilometre square where each kid can do anything they want. Imagination is the limit. And Community is where you can meet people you don’t really want to invite to your home when school hours are over.
I was sat in a cartoon house – yep, I’d turned the cel shading on in my little slice of Home – that was soon to be obsolete. In this zone, I was a god, but I knew that where I was going, I’d be just another scrub grinding gear trying to level. I pushed my chair back from the desk and stood. I walked forwards, forcing the desk to explode as I went through it and then reassemble behind me. My best friend would be here soon, and then we’d walk to the booth together.
Like magic, a ding sounded. Not at my front door, I’d set it to ding the entire zone in case I was ever running through the crystal maze, or practicing in the firing range I’d set up. Still, for my own fun, I walked to the front door, mentally granted Daniel entry to my zone, and opened the door.
‘Done?’ he asked, popping in to my home zone.
‘Of course. You?’
‘For hours. I just figured I’d give you more time to waste.’
‘I do like wasting time, so good call. Need anything?’
‘All ready.’ He peered inside my house. ‘You?’
I turned to look at the place I’d called home for the past eight years. I felt nothing but excitement for getting to this point of life. I’d been ready to give all this up years ago. My home zone, that is. I wasn’t so sure about giving up Daniel. Somehow, we’d fallen into our roles without thinking about it. At age nine, some kid shoved him, and something inside me stopped working. You know, that part that keeps you out of fights and lets you live a normal, calm life. The next thing I knew, I’d charged in and shoved the kid back, helping Daniel to his feet. A second later, it turned out Daniel was pretty good with his words and managed to stop three other boys beating me up.
He stopped bad things from happening, but if they did happen, I was there for him. A tank and his crowd control.
‘Yeah. Let’s go.’
I opened up the context menu and chose the next zone I wanted to port to. Hmm, I couldn’t see “Booth”.
Daniel waited silently for a few seconds before seeing my blank expression. ‘Forget to patch?’
I rolled my eyes. ‘Yeah, sorry. Bit nervous I guess. Hold on.’
Using the menu, I pulled out to the main interface, suddenly seeing the whole of my home zone from a bird’s eye view as the global network overlaid news stories and interesting facts on my UI. Hah, there was even a blinking icon telling me I needed to install a patch. Great job, me.
A small install started downloading to my VR suite. 17 terabytes. It was done in five seconds, and that was it. I was officially ready to start the rest of my life.
I dropped back down into my avatar and opened the zone selection menu. “Booth” was there. I joined as a party and Daniel accepted.
A fun thing about HOPE is the way it waits to load until you blink. I forced my eyes open and took a final look at my home. I was happy to leave. Then I blinked, and a few hundred people were stood next to me, the chat channels going crazy and exploding in nonsense.
Everyone here was either my age, or four years older and had just finished their advanced education. There would be thousands of other “Booth” zones just like this, all housing the next generation of new players. This was a temporary zone, created solely for this purpose. Just like the home zone, it was a flat sandbox – with god powers turned off unfortunately – with a blank, blue skybox. Helper AI bots, similar to those found in schools, and able to be summoned into home zones, were dotted around.
A new icon appeared in my HUD, a small running man. I checked it.
‘Hey,’ Daniel said. ‘Let’s see if the bot says anything new.’
I nodded and we walked to the nearest bot. This bot was a standard helper, dark blue with a bright blue grid over top. I looked at it and opened the context menu, selecting “Talk”.
A list of options appeared:
Where Am I?
What Do I Do Now?
What Is “Armies of Tulgatha”?
What Is “Galaxy At War”?
‘Just the standard,’ I confirmed.
Despite everyone spending most of our lives in HOPE, the creators spent a lot of effort keeping the adult games separate from the education mode. Only the most basic scraps of information were drip fed to us kids. The two games, Armies of Tulgatha and Galaxy At War, were essentially the same – just a gigantic reskin, one being fantasy and the other being sci-fi. In both, you picked a race and a class. The core gameplay was lifted from MMORPGs of old with an emphasis on survival, but there were MOBA and RTS modules that could be played along the way. We knew the races we could pick for each game, and the classes, and we knew bits of random information that the HOPE team had included in education-approved trailers, but that was it. They kept how the games actually played entirely to themselves. It was a computer engine, so stats and numbers had to make up the world, but they hid those from the player whenever possible, or gave them in simple terms.
And that was it. “Booth” was a holding zone as people chose the game they preferred and created their character.
Daniel nodded. ‘Figured as much. You still set on Armies?’
‘Definitely. You on Galaxies?’
‘I don’t get how you can turn down the idea of mowing down alien hordes with a laser chaingun, or order world-destroying airstrikes.’
We’d had this argument dozens of times. We loved and irritated each other like brothers, and we were the only real family the other had, but this was the rest of our lives we were talking about. We both had to do what we thought was right for ourselves. It hurt, but we knew it was coming. No time for regrets now.
‘Nah. We’re living in a computer world already. I’ve got all the sci-fi I need. I can go out and buy a gun, and frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if there were aliens I could shoot in one of the ocean dump sites. But magic? Giant warriors? Secret portals, taverns, and guilds? Definitely can’t get that.’
Daniel rolled his eyes. ‘Oh well. I’m sure they’ll implement some sort of cross-game thing soon. I’ll send you a minigun or three to help you level.’
‘Thanks. I’ll send you a fireball that fits in your hand but explodes with the power of a volcano when it hits.’
I checked my place in the queue.
‘Hey, I’m going to evac quickly. If I’m not back in time… it’s been good.’ I threw him my best “I’m never going to see you again” grin, and tried to hide whatever it was I suddenly felt in my chest.
‘I’m telling you, cross-game is coming.’ He punched my arm, which I didn’t feel because it wasn’t really me, of course. ‘See you soon, man.’
My vision launched into the air and took up the bird’s eye view. I didn’t want to logout as I’d lose my place in the queue, so I focused on the button next to the log out. “Autonomy”.
My vision stayed as it was, but there was a slight border around the screen now. I could feel my body. The pod, realising I was getting out, began the evac process. The receptors loosened, then pulled away from my arms, chest, and legs. They were small electrical pads that pulsed, keeping the muscles exercised. Who cares, right? I agree, until now, they’d been useless, just making getting in and out of my pod take longer. It wasn’t like I wanted to do anything in the real world, so who cared if I could sprint a mile or whatever my exercise regime was set to. But once I loaded into the game, the safety controls would unlock, and they would simulate pain. How awesome was that! When Daniel had punched me in the Booth just now, I’d felt nothing. If he did it ten minutes later, in the game, I’d feel it. Amazing!
Finally, the screen retracted, pulling itself back into the roof of the pod. I slid my legs to the side and felt the floor beneath me. As always, it was comfortably warm – living on the 162nd floor and collecting all the heat from the HOPE pods below meant that heating wasn’t an issue for me.
My home zone was five metres square, and had everything I needed to live. I’d been outside twice in the last eight years. Along one side was a kitchen, but I’d never used it. Why bother when I have government supps? That was what I came out for now in fact, to swap the canisters over so it wouldn’t interrupt me for another month.
The lights turned on slowly, exposing the white room. It was featureless, and clean. I loved dirt and grime in the game, but not in real life. I’d heard horror stories of mold colonising an entire room and suffocating a player because he didn’t keep his home zone clean.
My knees cracked as I moved. The receptor pads kept my muscles in shape, but there was no cure for a lifetime of unmoved joints. At the far wall, I pushed a button, opening a hatch. Supps were delivered straight to your home zone, so no need to leave. It was a large, black plastic tub with a feed port in the bottom. I’d made the mistake of opening one up once and looking inside. Supps were everything you needed to live, but it turned out that living wasn’t pretty. I hadn’t looked again.
I swapped the canisters, putting the used one back in the delivery hatch, and set myself back in my pod. It was only then I realised I’d forgotten to take my receptor gloves off. Oh well, just made it quicker to get back in.
The pads reapplied themselves to my body, and the screen lowered itself into position. There was a small electrical shock as the sides of the screen connected with the ports at my temples.
I exited the menu and zoomed back into my own eyes.
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