1.0 Zero_Chapter 1: Cracks on the ceiling

I stared at the cracks running across the ceiling. They spread out from the corner of the ceiling directly above the bed where I lay, making it easy to follow them as they snaked across patches of crumbling, gray paint.

I raised a hand towards the ceiling and curled my fingers into a fist right below the center of the cracks. My vision blurred as the images of the fist and the cracks superimposed for a moment.

What if…?

And then I slammed my fist back onto the bed.

Fuck! Stop dreaming! You’re pathetic, pitiful, and powerless. You couldn’t stop them from taking away your life’s work and ruining everything!

I sighed and let my gaze fall from the ceiling onto the only thing in the room that was almost as useless as me – my old computer. An ancient machine that wasn’t even worth the effort of scrapping; the only reason I hadn’t thrown it away was because it was my very first computer.

It was also the computer I used to make my very first Role Playing Game, or ‘RPG.’

Heh, I thought I’d come a long way since then but I guess I haven’t.

I closed my eyes and allowed myself to drift back in time…

Kos Kara, Escalon, Wyvern’s Quest, The Last Fantasy … all my masterpieces. My childhood dreams turned into reality. And yet, I couldn’t save them. I couldn’t stop them from fucking them up!

I walked through the heavy wooden doors.

“You called for me Mr. Smith?” I said.

“Kai! Welcome, welcome. Good to see you! How’ve you been? Living it up in the new mansion, I’m sure?” said Mr. Smith, flashing me a quick smile. The small wooden plaque on his desk identified him as the CEO of Palcrox, the largest video game company in the world.

“Course I am! Had to celebrate our new deal, right?” I said, smiling back at him.

“Of course, of course. In fact, that’s exactly what I wanted to talk to you about today,” he said, leaning forward on his chair and putting on his business face. “You see, we’ve consulted with some of our top analysts and editors, and they’ve proposed a few edits that I’d like you to go over. Nothing too serious, but I would really appreciate your input on this. It is, after all, your game.”

“Right,” I said, wiping the smile off my face and sitting down. I grabbed the file he passed me and began looking through its contents.

“Add repetitive motions to increase hours of game-play… need catchier soundtrack… tone down story… plot too thick… focus on action…” I murmured, going over some of the recommendations the experts and analysts had so graciously given me.

“Uh, Mr. Smith –”

“Hold on for a second – Yes?” he said, picking up the phone that had started to buzz with an annoying jingle. “Yes, yes. The fifteenth sequel is in the works. We’ll release it on time and fix up all the bugs in the first ten patches or so. We already have people working on the patches so rest assured. Bye.”

“Right, sorry about that Kai, you were saying?” he said, as he put his phone down.

“Mr. Smith, I’m sure you realize that Kos Kara is a fantasy RPG. The story is meant to be thick and immersive, and nobody likes endless hours of grinding, even if it does increase the hours of gameplay,” I said.

“Well Kai, our experts believe that modern audiences don’t care about stuff like that anymore. I understand that you’re one of the few game developers out there who still sticks to the old formula, and that’s worked for you so far, but you’ll fall behind your rivals if you don’t change with the times. Adapt to your audience. You understand, right? Besides, we aren’t asking for big changes, just a few tweaks here and there. They’re all there in the file so just keep reading,” he said in a measured, professional voice.

I continued to read the rest of the file as a growing sense of unease rose in my stomach. However, I ended up agreeing with Mr. Smith’s arguments since the proposed changes didn’t seem too outlandish. I’d just have to adapt a little and move on, I told myself. I gave him a smile, shook his hand, and said yes.

But I didn’t go to the mansion. The mansion was huge, beautiful, and magnificently designed, but I didn’t like it. It was empty, lonely, and fake. So, I went to my parents’ house instead. Back to my old room.

And that’s when I saw the first crack on the ceiling.

I sighed as I stared at the computer sitting in the center of the room. I sat up on the side of the bed, the wet sheets squelching beneath me.

No point thinking about all that now though. You’ve already decided, haven’t you?

I stood up and carefully made my way towards the computer, making sure to avoid stepping on the white lines and symbols drawn on the floor. I turned it on and picked up the book that lay on the table beside it. I sat down on the chair in front of the PC and waited for it to boot.

I stared at the cracks again.

“Mr. Smith, don’t you think the edits for Escalon are a little too heavy?” I said, barely suppressing the anger bubbling inside me.

“Now Kai, we’ve been over this before. Our consumers are gravitating towards simpler games and we need to make sure that this game is well received,” said Mr. Smith, waving his finger from side to side as if he were lecturing a child. “Quick, fast-paced, testosterone filled power-jerks. That’s what the consumers want.”

“But this changes everything about the game! You want to take out the multiple endings and the open world mechanics as well as all the side quests!” I exclaimed, standing up from my seat.

“Kai,” he said, sternly. “I’ve been in this business for 20 years now and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that video games aren’t nearly as magical as they seem. It’s all about catering to our consumers while balancing the cost of production. And to do that we need to cut out the unnecessary elements. Besides, this way everyone can focus on the addictive battle mechanics, the gorgeous graphics and that amazing main story-line that you wrote!”

We continued to argue for several hours before I returned, dejected, to my old bedroom. I had to give in.

At least I still have control over the main story, I thought while gazing up at the ceiling.

The cracks had spread.

I leaned back on the chair and started reading the book for the umpteenth time.

It’s so hard to find real books these days. Everything’s written on computers now, though I probably wouldn’t mind it as much if fiction wasn’t dying out. Why the fuck does everyone want to stick to the real world just because science is so interesting? Nobody gives a damn about imagination anymore because reality itself has become so unbelievable.

I sighed again. I turned to the computer and grabbed the mouse. Yes, it had a mouse. It was a really old computer. It didn’t even have a standard holographic interface.

I brought the cursor on top of the only application on the screen. The first RPG I’d ever made, and also my favorite. After all, it was an uncorrupted representation of everything I believed an RPG should have.

Open world mechanics, multiple endings, a deep and thought provoking story-line. Although the graphics were pretty basic, the world itself was huge and complex and you could probably spend hours just exploring everything on the map.

The story had a simple enough premise. There were six kingdoms, each representing an element and worshipping a different Goddess. The water, fire and light kingdoms represented the Holy Union and the earth, air, and dark kingdoms represented the Dusk Alliance. Both sides were locked in an eternal battle decreed by the Goddesses, but were locked in a stalemate that only the player could break.

But what really made me love this game were the choices it gave you. You could choose to be the Hero on a quest to lead the Holy Union against the Dusk Alliance, or you could choose to be the Demon Lord bent on conquering the Holy Union! Then you could choose exactly how you wanted to go about achieving your chosen objective.

And it was one of those old-school RPGs where you’d be asked a bunch of questions to determine your personality type, and then assigned a unique special ability that no other character had!

I sighed again.

If it’s this game, then I’m sure I won’t have any regrets.

I violently thrust the door open.

“Mr. Smith, what is this!” I shouted, swinging the small box in my hand, wildly. “Wyvern’s Quest, it’s… it’s… a fucking endless runner! It’s worse than T*mple Run!”

“Sit down Kai,” he said offhandedly, not even raising his eyes from the papers he was signing. “There’s no need to shout you know? Also, please don’t swear in the office, and calm the fuck down, okay?”

“I will not fucking calm down Mr. Smith! Look at what you did to my game! And you didn’t even fucking tell me, god damn it!” I shouted, slamming the game on his table.

“I think I told you to stop swearing and sit down, Kai,” he said sternly, looking up from his papers and giving me a disapproving look. “And I think you’re under a misunderstanding here, this isn’t your game. It’s our game. Palcrox owns it, you just helped design it.”

I stared at him dumbly and then I bit my lips until I felt the taste of metal.

“Mr. Smith, no, Leer, I thought we had a mutual understanding regarding the integrity of my work. If you felt that something was unsatisfactory, you could have at least run it through me,” I said, in a measured tone.

“Now look here kid,” he said tersely. “Why do I have to run our game through you? Besides, these changes were essential. Your first couple of games were popular enough but they didn’t make nearly as much profit as they could have if we’d implemented what our analysts were telling us. And after the concessions you forced out on your last game, our analysts estimate that we lost millions of dollars in profit and –”

“But those estimates assumed that the same number of people would’ve bought those games. They wouldn’t have bought those games in the first place if those changes had been implemented!” I exclaimed

“Don’t you dare interrupt me again son!” he shouted, getting up from his seat. “Our version of Wyvern’s Quest is estimated to net several billion dollars in sales, in-game purchases and ad revenues! If you want to survive in this industry, no, in this world, then you have to fucking adapt! Got that son?”

“But…but –”

“No buts! All your rivals are netting big bucks for our competitors and the shareholders are getting on my case for choosing you to lead our team. So shut the fuck up, and make the games that our customers really want!

I stared at the red faced, balding old man sitting in front of me and sighed.

I almost forgot. People don’t care about culture or art anymore. Nobody cares about stories. Nobody bothers to treat a story with respect. They skim through the prologues, ignore the exposition and the cut-scenes, and spend hours smashing buttons in pre-determined combinations.

I turned my back on the CEO of Palcrox and left the glass doors of the company’s headquarters. I returned to my room in tears.

The cracks had spread to the walls now.

I stood up from the chair and flicked through the book. The intricate patterns and indecipherable symbols would have given the book an air of sobering mystery and arcane wonder, if not for the notes and doodles, all of which were in bright, pink ink. Some of the diagrams were colored in, and a few pages had obviously been torn out. The previous owner’s name was scribbled on the back cover, although the handwriting was essentially gibberish.

The page I was looking at had a giant circle full of runes and symbols, just like the one drawn across the room. At the center was another circle, inside which I stood with the computer by my side.

Let’s see now, better design a new character. Don’t want to get caught up in the actual story line so I probably shouldn’t work myself into the plot. In fact, let’s skip the entire story itself. It would be pretty boring if I knew how everything was going to happen after all. I hope it doesn’t make things too confusing, though. Ah well, I’ll piece things together with a little effort. Having a story shoved down your throat is no fun, after all.

I began to design my character.

I was powerless in this world, but I will not be powerless any longer!

“Please Mr. Smith, this is the last one. I put everything into it. If you’d just do this for me this one time, I’ll do anything you say from now on. Please!” I pleaded helplessly, knowing it was in vain.

“Ha! Don’t underestimate my contacts kid. Did you really think I didn’t know that you’ve tried to sell this game to every video game company in the country? And now you’ve come groveling back to me.” He sneered. “Nah kid, nobody will buy your game and I know you had to sell your mansion a couple of months ago. You’re on your last legs and you know it. Listen to my advice kid; take the cubicle down the corridor on the fifth floor and start working on Angry B*rds 50. Your Last Fantasy ain’t gonna see the light of day, so you best just give up already.”

I stood up and turned around, never meeting his gaze. I didn’t want to see the smug face he was probably making.

“Yeah, I guess I will give up,” I said, listlessly.

“Ha, ha! That’s the spirit boy! The last cubicle on the right, we’re almost done though. Just need to debug it, so go lend a hand with that,” he said.

I didn’t reply. I opened the door of his office and walked down the corridor to the elevator. I don’t remember how I got back to my room that day but I do remember the cracks.

They were everywhere.

Done.

I took a deep breath, closed the book, and put my hand in my pocket. Then, I took out a lighter.

Either it all ends today, or it begins.

I lit the lighter and brought it under the book. The pages crackled as they caught fire. I threw the burning book onto the bed that I’d soaked with gasoline, and watched as it erupted into flames. The whole building would burn in a few minutes.

I chuckled. I hope Mr. Smith likes my parting gift.

The flames spread all around me, licking my clothes but not engulfing me just yet. The cracked ceiling finally began to crumble as chunks of paint and cement began to fall.

I closed my eyes and said the trigger word I’d memorized from the book. The symbols and runes began to move and glow, as the circles lifted off the floor. There was a bright flash as I lost consciousness.

Leer Smith was in a happy mood today. He’d finally gotten the famous game designer, Kai Zero, to submit to him. Even though his ideas were very outdated, he was a real celebrity in the gaming community. Palcrox’s reputation would surely rise right alongside their stocks.

Those old fools on the board of directors will have to give me a bonus now! Thank you, Kai, you little bastard.

His phone began ringing.

“What is it?” he said, trying to light a cigarette while holding his phone up with his shoulder.

“Sir, it’s an emergency! Someone’s cracked our system and deleted all our files! All the data has been wiped clean, even the backups on isolated systems!” shouted the voice on the other end.

“What! How could that –” His eyes went wide and the unlit cigarette fell from his lips. “What about the files on my computer? Those files are absolutely necessary for the company’s future!”

He scrambled to turn on his computer. The holographic screen flickered as the machine came to life.

And in the center of the otherwise empty screen was a hand raising its middle finger.

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