My happiest childhood memory took place at a closing Circuit City. There were tons of sales that day. Buckets and barrels full of five dollar computer games stocked the shelves aisle to aisle. My father and I raided the store together, bringing home bags full of Independent releases and failed franchises.
He passed away from cancer a few months later. That memory clung to me like wet paper for the remainder of the year. I waited until his birthday to play the last one by myself. My sister, Christine, was set to come over at six with a bottle of whiskey and the evening's dinner.
As soon as I popped the disc in the drive, a faded holographic image encompassed my screen. The title read in comically dated font -
Welcome to the River Styx!
I clicked next.
How would you like to customize your character?
That was an easy question. He had my name, after all. He should look like me. Brown hair. Blue eyes. High cheekbones. A couple freckles, sure. Five o'clock shadow… and maybe my nose is a little smaller. Maybe my gut is a bit fatter.
Enter your avatar's height.
That was a lot harder. If you make a character too big and tall, he will probably be slower. Speed is equally important to strength in almost any game. I settled on the 6'6 range.
Do you live alone?
How is that relevant? Nevertheless, I entered yes.
Once my input was complete, I sat back and waited for the story-line to generate on the old rickety system.
The opening sequence was a poorly visualized attempt at my avatar's back story. James came from a broken home. Literally. There were cracks in the foundation that caused rainwater to drip into the basement where he slept at night. Black patches on the wall indicated mold as he coughed his way through the animated skit. A man with a hood covering his face came downstairs and awkwardly raised his arms over his head.
"Get up, have you seen the news?" he asked via noiseless gestures and subtitled text.
Something unlocked, and I was able to control James' motion with the keyboard. I walked him up the stairs steadily. The man had a rifle in his hand once we got to the top.
"Take this and practice in the backyard," the text read. He turned haphazardly to nail more wooden planks to the windows.
The layout of the house was weirdly familiar. I shuffled James through the tall hallways and headed out the sliding glass door to the backyard, which was little more than a concrete covered alley. There was an old target setup by the basketball hoop. The computer moved James towards it as a Help tip popped up in the background.
Train firearm ability by aiming at the bulls-eye!
The background was faded mayhem. Every property on the block contained a carbon copy neighbor vomiting blood into the bushes. Gagging and upchucking noises filled my surround sound as the block figures rhythmically moved up and down with blood pouring out of their mouth. The house to the right contained a man in a business suit. He wandered back and forth, mumbling inaudible curses with a bullet wound bleeding through his blue coat,
I took a few practice shots with James. His ability was awful to start. After the first twenty shots, I got a handle of the keys, and started to get better control of the weapon. Time to find a moving target. I turned James to the left and shot the suited man between his eyes. He fell like a sack of potatoes, with a moaning groan that rose and fell to fill my apartment.
A red alert lit up.
Warning: You have veered off mission.
The sky seemed to grow darker. James looked angry. He started to balk unexpectedly at my commands. Suddenly, all the animated characters turned and stared from their chain-linked kingdoms. The background music stopped.
Then they rushed forward.
An army of rabid people launched themselves at our fence, gnashing and gnawing at one as another as they built the type of human wall you would see on your typical zombie dramas. The realism of the situation was still enough to make my palms sweat. I fumbled for the hotkey to open the door inside, just as an enormous animated hand reached out and pulled James inside.
"You attracted a herd, kid."
The man pulled back his mask. I nearly cried at the sight of those realistic blue eyes. For the first time, the audio actually played. My father’s voice sounded as familiar as the day he died.
"Hey, son. I need you to save me," he said. The people outside were getting louder. They weren't attacking the house… they just waited. Some stomped their feet and pounded the walls angrily while a timer on the screen started to tick. Sixty seconds to decide.
"Can you save me?” he repeated, his tone growing more distorted. The subtitle text asking the same appeared in red, Comic Sans Font.
Do you want to save your father?
I clicked yes.The background grew black and another alert displayed.
"Are you sure you want to continue? This decision is irreversible,"
Christine's headlights filled my apartment as my Dad spoke again.
"Son, I know you know how to save me. I don’t understand. We have the money…" His voice changed cadences. I recognized the thinly veiled accusation from years before. It was something he said before he died.
A horrible laugh echoed from one of the people standing outside. Thirty seconds. I clicked yes again.
The cruel cackles from outside got louder. My father's animated lips moved up and down like a marionette on the screen as he inched closer. Soon enough, his face took up the entire frame of the picture. It aged horribly in moments, growing grey with rot and wrinkles that creased into every inch of his previously youthful skin. The voice that spoke next was not his. It's demonic deepness was difficult to compare to anything I have heard since.
"Did you like my game, Jamesy?" it said.
"Jamesy, the voice said seriously. "Climb on in here."
I said nothing. It was as if the game could read my hesitation. The voice was not addressing my character anymore. He was not even visible. It was talking to me.
"Don't be a little bitch now, Jamesy. You agreed to the terms. Don't want Daddy to die again here, do ya?"
A liver-spotted hand reached forward. There was a crackling noise, like the breaking of glass, as faded palm lines took up the majority of the screen. In a moment, one finger pierced through the wall of my monitor like it was water.
Christine cut off the power the moment after she opened the door. I was already crying on the floor.
Some nights since it has been hard to let go. As far as Chrissy knows, River Styx was burned in the fireplace. But that was just for show. Just to be safe, I kept it in a special case. Maybe we can finish the game when she goes home.