A short story by S Loh.
Kevin Sim looks up from the tablet and out the window at the houses lining the street. Not much out there, just the same boring house copied and pasted over again. Whoever said red sky at night shepherd’s delight was a real joker. And those trees, a scrub of green on a brown stick. If the environmental artist thought parallax error would solve the problem of user fatigue they needed to check their eyes. There’s no excuse for fucking up a skybox this bad.
Since the success of the Dray-Drei-something immersive escape series, he expected more from Players First. If Triple A games companies can’t be trusted to produce good looking and functional games, who can? They should be ashamed, churning out glitchy garbage like this.
Who decides Triple A anyway? Probably not people like him, people who actually know the difference between static and dynamic lighting. Or else they’d get actual good games every now and then. He’s not a coder or anything, he just spends enough time on the forums to pick up a few things, and everyone has knownhow to install Minecraft mods since they were like at least 7.
He picks at a piece of flaking plaster. Not a terrible engine, he can feel it crumbling between the pads of his fingers, powdery smooth just like actual, nope—he was wrong, the texture is just like sand. The curtains are like sand too, the glass can’t even register friction. The Holoday’s texture pack needs serious work. Hah, ‘texture pack’, that term sure has changed since 4D gaming. Maybe he’ll have a good laugh about it on voice chat, leave a scathing review somewhere the sun doesn’t shine or maybe his friends will egg him on to tweet it on his public account. Spicy. He’ll stick to voice, though. Yeah, he doesn’t really feel like VR chat, not when he’s going to be immersed for the next few hours. He’ll probably spend the rest of the weekend sleeping when they go home. Turn the air-con up and dive under the covers. Bernice wouldn’t care, she’d probably spend the rest of the day pampering Guaiguai. He’s never known a more spoilt dog.
Where is Bernice anyway? It’s been hours since they’d agreed to meet, she can’t possibly be still working on that project of hers. She said she’d be done by 3pm and…actually, he has no idea what time it is. He never knows what time it is. Always gets distracted. He could know if he checked the little tablet they gave him, or the HUD. But he’s using the tablet and HUD to design the house and if he exits out of the program now he won’t be able to make any further changes. It’s devious is what it is. A scam. They put the design button right where you’d have to press to switch it on. Practically forcing you to sit down and design the house just like that. It’s just like those character design screens except if he messes this up, Bernice will be furious. They were supposed to design the house together but when she got that last-minute project assigned to her, she told him to go on and start it first. Of course he wasn’t actually going to. He just accidentally clicked the ‘redesign house’ button when he opened the HUD. But that one-off redesign isn’t the real scam. It’s the paywalled re-redesign that’s the scam, and they only got the basic package. Lousy Holoday and its tiered payment system. Not everything has to be a subscription, not everything has to be add-ons or pay-as-you-go. Whatever happened to flat fees?
He’s never been very good at decorating. His parents took care of that with their gaudy keepsakes back when the world was larger and there were actual collectors’ items to buy and not knock-offs sold at a fraction of the price. Nowadays everyone’s got a laughing Buddha, everyone does yoga, and everyone lives in a hipster-hippie nightmare while the rest blend into their minimalist homes. What happened to painting the walls your favourite colour? Who decided white was the new black? But Bernice is no better. She’s a ‘if it looks cute’ designer, which is why their house is stuffed to the brim with crap, a revolving door of knick-knack packages, double-click, get here quick, sell to dump. They could form a country off the trash people toss, he’s heard about that. Somewhere in the ocean is a country made out of literal garbage, the mass grave of online shopping trends and over-consumption.
He flicks through the couch catalogue, past the two-seaters, on to the three-seaters. A three-seater would work better for kids, especially with one of those foot rest attachments. A settee, no, that’s another couch. Ugly as sin. What’s more, they all look the same. It’s as if all the furniture companies in the world saw one couch was doing well and did the exact same thing. Chaise lounge, settee, loveseat, this is the result of the cultural melting pot everyone wants. This absolute nightmare—
A divan. That’s the one. His aunt has one in her house, complains her kids eat on it all the time and make it impossible to clean. Maybe not the three-seater then, it sounds like a black hole for crumbs. But it’s not like they actually have kids yet. He doesn’t even know why he considered them earlier. When did he start doing that?
It’s Bernice’s fault. She keeps talking about them. And for what? Okay, because she was paranoid about school enrolments, but everyone’s learning online these days, doesn’t make a lick of difference where they learned. As long as they learned the right things, not just from streamers or influencers. Imagine if they became an influencer, not that it ever panned out for him the short year he tried it out. It just means you can make a living even if you’re a complete bodoh.
Yeah alright, yeah. Everyone’s had that phase, everyone’s tried it. Everyone wants that get-rich-quick money, that wink-at-the-camera, simp-funded pool. Do they still say simps? Whatever, that’s what they are. Everyone wants Lambos or Rolexes or streamer houses where a bunch of Pick Me personalities infect their followers with viral videos and memorable moments. Smile at the camera and some lonely sucker in a far-flung corner of the world tosses you an easy 1,000. He saw a documentary a few years ago, there’s actual companies that groom people to be influencers. But not everyone thrives on that kind of attention. He’d rather stand in front of a radiation plant until the Make A Wish Foundation showed up.
Bernice still wants it though, not the attention but the money, the house. She’s sick of the two-bedroom flat they have and somehow makes it his problem whenever she can’t find a place to put her stuff. Even if it is equal parts her stuffed toys and his gym equipment. He eats, lives and breathes gains, which is why he’s not pleased the Holoday decided to downsize his arms. “How you see yourself” his ass. So if he saw himself as a chair, he’d manifest in-game as a Razer, issit? The best ergonomic seat on the market! Maybe Bernice wouldn’t even notice, maybe she’d try to sit on him and get the shock of her life.
He laughs; it echoes strangely through the house because it doesn’t echo at all. It just sounds like it happens in his head. He hasn’t spoken a word aloud since he entered the sim but he tries it now. Feels like he should film himself being an absolute idiot but he tamps it down just before the HUD system picks up on the urge and autostarts his livestream.
Distraction, distraction. He flicks through to the Electronics section of the catalogue and picks out a TV wall which floods the useless fireplace with a brilliant blue ocean. 6k is so real it hurts his eyes. Alright. Now to finish furnishing the rest of the house. Quickly, so he can shut off the TV. Throughout the design process, the kids don’t leave his mind and he doesn’t realise this until he’s finished the nursery. A two-bedroom flat would work for a four person family. Lots of people do it. Lots of people make do. Think about the tax benefits. He could cut back on his gym equipment or move itto the living room. You just have to get the right floor space, the right design, and even a shoebox can be a home.
Bernice has other plans. She wants to live near the schools so they can ballot for a place in case the whole alumni thing doesn’t pan out. He’s ok with giving up their BTO, almost everyone’s sold theirs by now, they’ve only held onto theirs for so long because it’s hard to give up such a central location and anyway Bernice refuses to settle for a condo. But now all the freeholds are gone and those that haven’t are an eye-watering 7 mil easy, otherwise it’s 3 mil on a 50-year lease which is pointless. It’d be different if they were talking about America or the UK or something but the only people in Singapore able to afford a walled garden are business owners or retirees looking for actual grass to die on.
It reminds him he doesn’t have the money to spend on experiential bullshit like this. ‘Try only, beats house hunting’, don’t make him laugh. It’s all a ploy. His nine-to-five salary won’t allow him to even piss on the lawn of a house this big. If Bernice expected him to become suddenly motivated to cosy up to his boss for that promotion she has another thing coming. Short of being enamoured with the layout, he’s disillusioned by it. Open plan is best, these walls won’t be able to deal with the humidity. The game designers had no forethought for the humidity or heat of tropical countries.
He flicks the page and it reads “Please confirm your design.” Whatever. He hits the big OK button and everything snaps together like a tile falling into place. The three-seater, the fish tank, the gym equipment, the SMEG fridge and house plants spidering down the walls. He switches off the TV wall. It was starting to give him a headache.
He takes a tour of the house, makes himself a protein smoothie. Even if it doesn’t give him any nutrition it tastes good. He stands in the kitchen and surveys the space, the decor, the colour of the walls. Yeah, he can imagine kids charging through the front door, hopping up on the counter seats ready to tell him about what they learned in school. He’s left a wide space in the living room for them to litter with their toys. Kids have a lot of toys. And a playroom upstairs which will be used as a study until the kids take it over and demand to use the family computer. They’ll have to put web locks on it. Back in the early 2010s, people were up in arms about putting a lock on the internet, but they did it anyway. He thinks he’ll understand it better when he has kids.
And there she is, coming up the driveway.
It’s like a landing strip, leaving her so exposed. You wouldn’t dare have open driveways like these in Singapore. He doesn’t know why the design is like this. Players First isn’t even an American company but every time someone says ‘house’ all anyone can think of are those detached flat-pack houses that go up like tinder-boxes. He hears her open the door. Honey, I’m home! Then the quiet oh my god.
She’s looking around like she’s trying to make sense of it. Honey, did the house come like this?
She starts walking through the house, big strides like her mother, the XZB. Drives over to their flat every weekend just to complain about how small it is and how he doesn’t feed Bernice properly. Always ready to jump on the fact that he works from home three days out of five and never knows what time it is. She walked in when he was on one of his dungeon raids once and she’s never looked at him the same since. He’s always prayed Bernice would never turn into her mother but he’s watching her make that squint, the one she tries not to make when she disapproves. He doesn’t say anything, not yet, not until she’s examined the nursery and the TV wall, bounced on the bed a few times and run her hands along the conservatory window. He thinks about telling her how much the texture pack sucks. Instead he sidles up to her and asks, What time did you get in? Does the visor fit okay?
Yah. Can’t get the taste of the pill out of my mouth, though.
Okay lah, they’re working on a more tasteless nutrient pill.
I’d rather eat a seasoning packet.
You won’t get full though.
Yah well, I need to eat less anyway.
Okay enough lah. So what do you think?
Scary sia. What are you so angry for?
I’m not angry. What do you think, baby?
Yeah. Not bad. ‘Not bad’ is her answer to everything. ‘Not bad’ to the hotel they got married in instead of the church because his parents were staunchly Buddhist; ‘not bad’ when they saw the flat they selected for the first time; ‘not bad’ to his Functional Trainer weight machine after he spent hours setting it up. Not. Bad. It settles in the gap under his jaw, beneath his tongue.
Anyway we’ll basically be destroying it later.
Yeah but I thought you wanted something like this?
She doesn’t say anything.
You want to fight? He asks. That was part of the package. The Holoday comes with an FPS experience. It’s supposed to be a compromise. She gets to design the house they want to move into, he gets to play his ‘violent video games’. Except he’s ended up designing the house. Funny. She basically pushed the job onto him. Still she nods, yes.
It’s an easy set-up. They’re basically already in there, ready to go. The guns feel weird in his hands. Usually he’s gripping a plastic controller but this is the ‘Future of Gaming’ as everyone says, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy one pixel at a time. Bernice doesn’t even comment on it. She’s not a gamer but she has gone on virtual vacations in similar systems. In her mind, the gun is probably a thicker, heavier margarita.
Once they’re armed and ready, he starts the round and a countdown appears on his HUD. Five seconds later, there’s a knock on the door to signal the start of the round. He answers it and sees—
There’s no one there.
At first he thinks it’s another glitch but then his leg starts to hurt. He looks down and a small grey figure is punching it.
It doesn’t say anything. Its AI doesn’t allow for it. Just keeps punching him. He stoops down, can’t help it, he’s curious. He can see two small indents where its eyes might be and a small bump for its nose. No mouth, just a smooth lower jaw. Its movements are laughably slow, just cycling its fists back and forth like a wind-up toy, but it does try to punch him in the cheek with its tiny fists. He moves out of the way, fascinated by this creature that’s trying to injure him.
What are you doing? Bernice says from behind him. A shot rings out and he flinches, looks up to see the NPC’s health bar now half green, half red.
Stop, stop, wait, he says, quickly standing, it’s still hitting the back of his knees. Wait!
She’s standing on the staircase, gun lowered in confusion. What are you doing, honey? I thought we were going to fight.
We can’t kill it!
She sighs, like he’s just said he doesn’t feel like eating after she’s cooked a full meal. Why not?
The knee-sized figure is still shaving off his life one sliver of green at a time. Its grey expressionless face just keeps swinging its fists.
When he looks up, she’s climbed the stairs backwards so she’s got a better angle of the door and her gun is pointed at him. No, not him, the enemy, the NPC. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, only that he’s got to stop her. He grabs for the gun, which goes off in a quick rapport, bullets straying wildly, shattering a plant pot, embedding in the TV wall, and into the door frame beside the NPC.
Get out of the way! More are going to come!
No! He shuts the door, trapping the NPC outside. It takes two clicks to hit the HUD and exit the round and then it’s just Kevin and his wife looking at each other. Bernice sinks down onto the staircase and begins to weep.
He’s never seen her cry. Not even at their wedding. Not since secondary school when she accidentally ran into a railing without looking. He saw her body bend double, curving around the metal railing. Her face scrunched up and she made a little ‘oof’ sound.
It didn’t look very painful but after a moment she sat down on the stairs and began to weep. Tears marched down her cheeks and dove off into the dip in her skirt. Suddenly, without even knowing why, his chest ached. Years later, he asked her why she cried and she said, I felt a pain in my stomach and I thought I was going to die.
It’s a bewildering thing to see his wife cry and not know why. A man should know his wife inside and out. Why else would he get married?
What’s wrong, baby?
It takes her a while to reply. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, okay? I just don’t have any money. I don’t have any money and I’m fat and can you stop looking at me like that? You didn’t even pay for this, okay? I did, and you went and decorated it and now it looks like this and I’m not saying that it’s bad, okay? Just stop looking at me like that. I never said it was bad. I said not bad, just not what I thought and can you just stop?
It takes him several moments to reply and all he can say is, what? Because that’s a lie, she has money. Enough to buy all her stuffed toys which she refuses to throw away and which, he’s beginning to realise, aren’t really decoration. They crowd her bed and give him allergies with all the dust they accumulate and he’s OK with that, he’s got his own bed. There’s her space and there’s his space and he’s never really thought about it like that. He’s never really thought about what she would think when she stepped into this house which he designed all on his own. He did fill the nursery with empty shelves so that she could put her stuffed toys on them but he never really thought about whether she would like to share. Which is ok, because he’ll make the space so that she doesn’t have to share and he’s saying all this aloud and he’s getting angry about it, because she said it wasn’t bad and she always says that when she doesn’t mean it, but he realises he’s yelling at her so he stops.
Then it’s just quiet.
And then she puts her arms around the railing so she’s hugging it. She looks like a child. I was pregnant, she says.
He should ask but his thoughts are loading at 0.01Mbps. He can feel the world shrinking under his feet. The lighting makes the house look even uglier now. He still doesn’t know what time it is, maybe he never did.
Read more about the author S Loh HERE.