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PRESS X TO NOT DIE

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The words hang in front of him, stark black on a yellow background:

PRESS X TO NOT DIE

He isn't an idiot.

He presses X.

 

***

 

YOU ARE IN A MAZE OF TWISTY LITTLE PASSAGES, ALL ALIKE.

what?

YOU ARE IN A MAZE OF TWISTY LITTLE PASSAGES, ALL ALIKE.

i don't understand

I DON'T UNDERSTAND THAT!

right, exactly

I DON'T UNDERSTAND THAT!

go trepan yourself with a grapefruit spoon

I DON'T UNDERSTAND THAT!

i quit

DO YOU REALLY WANT TO QUIT NOW?

yes, you fucking torn condom stain

I DON'T UNDERSTAND THAT!

quit

DO YOU REALLY WANT TO QUIT NOW?

yes

OK

 

***

 

PRESS X TO NOT DIE

Which is worse: dying, or having another conversation with whatever brainless entity he was just talking to?

He presses X.

 

***

 

and then he's running down a corridor running running running and there are these things in front of him and he eats them even though they taste about as good as packing peanuts he still wants to eat them like a hungry hungry hippo on meth and he turns a corner and there's a THING in front of him like a bright pink mop and it hurts when he runs into it but then there are more packing peanuts to munch munch munch OW YOU SPOOGE SPONGE he keeps on running but there aren't any more peanuts so he turns another corner not that way there's another demon dicktip that way aha more peanuts maybe eating them will make him feel better NOPE

 

***

 

PRESS X TO NOT DIE

He's pretty sure he just died. Three times.

But he presses X anyway.

 

***

 

This time there aren't any packing peanuts or brightly-colored murder doilies or corridors for him to run down, but everything is kind of . . . flat. He can go forward; he can go backward. He can't go left or right. He sprains a synapse trying to even think about it, like "left" and "right" are concepts in the language of tentacled hentai aliens from the outer dimensions.

Can he go up?

Da-ding!

He has no idea what made that noise, because he can't look up. But ahead of him he can see some things in the air, flat disco balls for a flat really not disco world (what is that sorry excuse for music he's hearing) so he runs toward one and jumps.

Da-ding!

Heh. It's kind of fun.

Da-ding! Da-ding! Da-ding da-ding da-ding da-ding da-ding OOF

It doesn't really hurt, not compared to running into one of those killer nose rags, but it whacks him a good one. That was some kind of block, not a shiny thing, and then a mushroom slides off and lands on his head. Maybe there's some truth to the spam that keeps winding up in his inbox, because suddenly he's taller, and when he runs toward a green thing that's ahead of him he's big enough to jump on top of it.

When he jumps off, he lands on some kind of ambulatory mushroom and squishes it flatter than a shitty takeout pizza.

Oops?

Any twinge of regret he felt vanishes like a teenager's commitment to abstinence when another mushroom runs at him and this time he doesn't jump. OW. Right: so ambulatory mushrooms are this place's equivalent of roaming jellyfish. After that he squishes them with increasingly vengeful glee, until he comes across something that's more like a tortoise than something you would eat for a really sweet high, and when he bounces on its head it curls up inside its shell. So he gives it a good ol' kick, which is great until it ricochets off a pipe up ahead and boomerangs back to him like a heat-seeking murder turtle. OW.

And then he caps the whole experience by jumping up to the top of that pipe and taking a Venus flytrap to the arse.

 

***

 

PRESS X TO NOT DIE

What the hell just happened, if not him dying? Again?

Given how much it hurt, he doesn't really want to find out.

He presses X.

 

***

 

The world isn't so flat anymore, but it isn't really three-dimensional, either. The buildings remind him of those old Hollywood facades, like if he went behind one of them he'd see it was just a bunch of painted boards propped up with struts -- except that he can't go behind a building. He tries, and just winds up going left and right and left and right like a cat that can't make up its walnut-sized mind whether it wants to go in or out. And it isn't even raining.

So he's got the illusion of all the choice in the world, but in reality he's still stuck in a corridor, except this time it's invisible.

Great.

"Come on," he says, and then twitches in surprise. He has a voice!

"Okay, this is an improvement. Mind you, that's about on par with saying that being kicked in the junk is an improvement on having your junk gnawed off by a rabid ferret with halitosis, but still. However low the bar is, it's nice to see you clear it. Whoever 'you' are."

He's in something that looks like a super-pixilated town, with two doors off to his right. He heads toward one of them. The effect is kind of like walking up a wall; he sort of goes deeper into the town but not really. Then the door opens and --

And he's somewhere else entirely. Inside the building, without knowing how he got there or where the rest of the world went, because he can't really see through the door, even though it's open and barely a foot away. Around him are a bunch of pixilated things he thinks are maybe books, and an equally pixilated guy who says "Hello, I will be right up," and then a not at all pixilated thing in the corner.

He's not sure whether to be worried or reassured that the thing in the corner so obviously doesn't belong here. It isn't shaped anything like a knob end, though, and after his experiences lately, he counts that as an unqualified plus. Or if it is a knob end, you wouldn't want it going anywhere near your tender bits. It's flat and black and its limbs consist of little spiky triangles; it stares at him with soulless white eyes.

It doesn't try to kill him. This day keeps getting better and better.

"Where am I?" he asks it.

"That is quite a question, young man," the pixel guy says, having returned to his counter. But baby's first construction-paper monster holds up a sign that it seems to have pulled out of its geometric arse. The sign reads:

Psst! Over here!

He casts a glance over his shoulder. The shop owner is still talking, going on about islands. Pixel guy, or demonic inkblot?

"What the hell," he mutters, and goes over to the inkblot.

It looks around furtively, like they're meeting in a dark alley rather than a smear of bright colors he thinks is supposed to be a bookshop. Then it holds out a brown, vaguely teardrop-shaped blur he thinks is supposed to be a bag.

If that bag contains drugs, this may be the best day he's had since . . . since . . .

Since whatever the fuck is happening to him started happening.

He reaches out for the bag -- and it vanishes. Before he can be pissed about that, though, he suddenly knows that he's in possession of:

  • a rotten egg
  • a hole in the wall
  • a flute
  • a lantern
  • a brick
  • an iceberg lettuce
  • a piece of coal

And a bunch of other random shit he can't be arsed to inventory, because he's busy wondering a) why the hell this creature just handed him the objectives of Lewis Carroll's own surrealist scavenger hunt and b) where the hell he put all of them on receipt.

He says, "What the fuck?"

The creature looks even more furtive and holds up another sign.

You'll need those.

"For what?"

To win.

"To win what? And what if I don't want to win?" It might make a better change of pace than losing, which is what he's pretty sure he's been doing -- but still, he doesn't trust this thing any farther than he could drop-kick it. Which would probably be up the invisible wall of this not really three-dimensional world.

Sorry. Gotta go.

He really wants to reach out and grab the thing by its spike-eared little head, but he finds himself strangely frozen as it sidles down the invisible wall of this world and out the door. Once he can move again, he runs out into the street -- but of course the thing is gone.

Swearing to himself, he heads up the world and POOF, he's in another place, but he's getting used to that. Turns out you can get used to just about any fucking thing, and he's had a lot of practice lately. There's a house to the right and he doesn't really care and he goes left and POOF there's a dock and a kid or at least a vaguely kid-shaped bundle of pixels diving into the water.

"Hey! Stranger! Come join me! The water is wonderful, and I can show you the way to the next island!"

Maybe the next island will have some answers. He dives in, and only when he surfaces again does he notice the bundle of pixels' eyes are glowing.

The last words he hears, a short but very unpleasant time later, are: "Ticket, please!"

 

***

 

PRESS X TO NOT DIE

He's increasingly tempted not to press X.

. . . but not tempted enough.

He presses X.

 

***

 

The overweight black star is there again, in another half-flat, half-deep world, this one populated by less pixilated people who have the most boring fucking lives he can imagine. All they do is eat and sleep and do work and babble nonsense at one another. It's like his life. Except more boring.

Which means he had a life. Before . . . this. And in that life, he knew what a pixel was.

He has a lot of time to consider this in the small room he's bricked himself into, waiting to starve to death. If they offered him the chance to press X right now, he wouldn't take it. Anything's got to be better than this fucking place.

 

***

 

PRESS X TO NOT DIE

It's a quick time event.

He remembered that while he was sitting there starving to death. That's what these things are called: quick time events. Hit the button fast enough, or --

-- or you die.

Sort of?

He hits the button.

 

***

 

So of course then he finds himself surrounded by bullets flying every direction at once and at him especially, which is extra freaky because he can't actually see himself, he can only see the muzzle of some giant fucking gun that would make him feel like he must be compensating for something, except that when he runs for cover he can tell he's got a massive dick and equally massive balls, like, not enough to make him deformed, but maybe enough to earn him a lucrative career in porn, if he could get out of this hellhole of a warzone first.

Behind the shattered ruins of the wall he finds another of those black spiky things, out of place here like it is everywhere else. Even if it's wearing a combat helmet.

He tried to talk to the one in the Boring As Fuck world, but all it did was hold up a sign that said "Grouw, shoo flee!" and then he had the vaguely satisfying feeling that he'd had a conversation with someone. Hoping this one will do better, he says, "Who the hell are you?"

His voice is deep and gruff, a voice to match the dick he can't see. He doesn't need a mirror to know that he's bulging with muscles he only wishes he had in the life he can't really remember. Also that he needs to shave, a state that probably recurs five minutes after he puts down the razor.

Apparently these things just suck at communicating, because even though people here have voices and don't talk like drunk toddlers, this one whips another sign out of its two-dimensional arse. It reads:

You made me.

"I fucking what?"

This thing has less expression than the brown-haired dude whose face inexplicably pops into his memory. Whatever storage system it's got up its bum, he wants one, because apparently this thing can fit everything in there and then reach back and immediately pull out whatever it needs without having to stop and rummage.

Sort of.

"You're about as helpful as an Easy-Bake Oven in a volcano, you know that, mate?"

I'm trying to help you.

"If you want to help me, try pulling out a jumbo-sized sign with enough words on it to tell me what's going on, and none of your namby-pamby whining about rectal bleeding afterward."

How something whose face never changes can manage to look reproachful, he doesn't know. One of the miracles of modern hallucinogens, maybe.

You could at least make an effort.

"AT WHAT?" he roars, standing up to loom over the creature, and of course somebody drills him through the head from behind the flaming wreck of a bus and he drops.

 

***

 

PRESS X TO NOT DIE

He presses X.

(With what, exactly? His right synapse?)

 

***

 

After that bullet-ridden testosterone-drenched nightmare, he didn't know what to expect.

He should have known it would be something like this.

The sword strapped to his back is bigger than the gun in Spunkgargleweewee World, he's wearing a waistcoat that looks like a sports bra somebody forgot to sew up the front, and his hair is ridiculous.

He's in a bloody JRPG.

Because these are games. All of these worlds are games. Some of them so ancient he could probably run them on his microwave and still have processing power left over for instant ramen, others a lot newer -- though not necessarily more fun.

But why in the name of sweet double-ended dildoes is he in the middle of them?

Of course the creature is there, with a mop of equally ridiculous hair and what he thinks are supposed to be thigh-high boots, except the thing's legs are about ten centimeters high, so that's like seven centimeters of boot at best.

He pins its little triangle T-Rex arms before it can reach back and whip out another sign. "Don't. I'm tired of dying and I'm tired of pressing X to not die and I'd really like to put some proper clothes on. Tell me how to get out of this -- whatever 'this' is."

The creature looks at him. Then it wriggles. Sighing, he lets go of it. He supposes it isn't really fair, telling it to talk, then stopping it from talking the only way it seems to know how.

With the slow and careful movements of somebody reaching for a tranquilizer gun while having a staring contest with a large and extremely twitchy tiger, it pulls out one last sign.

Wait.

He really ought to have been paying more attention to his surroundings. There's been noise in the background this whole time; now he turns around and sees two other JRPG types swinging away at a dragon with a bad case of wing mange while brightly colored magical effects flare around them.

Is he supposed to wait for the fight to be over? If so, it won't take long; Moldwing the Undead Dragon is trouncing those two. The guy goes down -- he thinks it's the guy, but it's really hard to tell with this kind of character design -- and the girl is barely on her feet -- assuming that's a girl. Just to satisfy his own curiosity, he draws the giant bling sword from his back and swishes it a couple of times through the air. Sure enough, it doesn't weigh a fraction of what it should. The creature told him to wait, but it might be kind of fun to carve into a dragon --

Those swishes drew its attention. The dragon rears back, and he has just enough time to wonder where his healing potions are before he dies.

 

***

 

PRESS X TO NOT DIE

He reaches for X -- and stops.

Wait.

It's remarkably hard to do. He's let quick time events run out plenty of times, but always when the only person at risk was Cocknugget McFrillypants or whatever he decided to name his protagonist this time. It's a bit different when it's him.

But it's worth a try.

Right?

Right?

. . . right?

 

***

 

He actually recognizes this world. Not just in a "hey, it's a video game" way or even "hey, it's a JRPG," but the actual game he's found himself in.

It's World of Warcraft.

And there are a bunch of other people wandering around talking to each other, most of them acting like people instead of NPCs. Races he vaguely remembers are on opposite sides of the Horde/Alliance divide are chatting away without a single person whipping out one of their cartoonish weapons and trying to murderhobo their way through the crowd.

On second thought, maybe they are NPCs.

An undead monstrosity bops up to his side. He's never seen anything with half its flesh falling off look so excited. "Isn't this fucking awesome?"

For a shambling corpse with its jaw bolted onto its face, the thing sounds a lot like a twenty-something dudebro from the United States. "Uh, yeah. It is."

"I killed so many fucking things, man. Just fucking mowed them down. Text, 2D, 3D, didn't matter, just left a fucking trail of carnage in my wake. If this is the setup, I can't fucking wait to see what the actual game is like!"

Even listening to this beer sponge makes him feel old. Also like he wants to loot a thesaurus off a murloc and hand it to the guy with a bookmark on the page for "fucking."

There aren't any monsters around, though, with thesaurusesesesi or otherwise, so he just lets the guy ramble on about all the different ways he killed things while he looks around. There are names above people's heads, and after a moment, he spots one he recognizes.

Then, at last, he remembers.

 

***

 

He can tell by the color palette that he's watching a flashback. But it's a flashback of his own bloody life, which makes it weirder than Dalí on ayahuasca.

He sees his own body, looking more or less like it does in real life, standing in a space filled only with swirling motes of light -- clearly some kind of loading screen. A blank appears ahead of him, hovering in midair. Then letters appear in it, as if by magic:

Y A H T Z E E

Another blank. This one gets filled with asterisks. A password. Not one he chose, either . . . it's one they gave him.

Whoever "they" are.

Sudden wall o' text. He didn't read any of it then, so he doesn't get a chance to read any of it now. The wall vanishes. Then something new appears.

The words hang in front of his flashback self, glowing green on a starry background.

PRESS O TO BEGIN DEMO SETUP

He presses O.

 

***

 

His eyes are burning like he hasn't blinked in the last geologic era, his head is reeling like somebody stuck a hand mixer in his brain cavity and set it to "fast whipping," and he really needs to wee.

Climbing out of the tank takes more tries than he will ever admit to in public. Suffice it to say that if this were an early arcade game, his three lives would have been long gone and he'd be running short on quarters. Getting from there to the toilet is more like a controlled forward fall than actual walking.

Behind him, a message blinks on the tank display.

Preliminary data gathering complete. Generating custom gameplay experience. Please wait.

The progress bar underneath that hasn't visibly budged when he finally stumbles back out of the toilet. That's fine. He doesn't get paid enough to climb back into that tank right now, no matter how mind-blowing of a custom gameplay experience it's got waiting for him.

Bit of a creepy idea, really, letting a machine tongue-fuck his brain and then make a game just for him, like the world's most devoted stalker girlfriend trying to give him the perfect birthday present. But he's so bloody tired of most games these days; they all seem old and none of them are really what he wants to be playing. Except he can't actually say what he wants to be playing, beyond "none of this reheated rubbish" -- so why not let a program take a crack at the question? Even if it pops out some unholy hybrid of his experiences, like he's got to type up instructions to swap the heads of JRPG boytoys to make three in a row before the Germans come charging over the ridge and turn him into a mushroom, at least it'll be new.

He really wants to go to sleep, but he should at least set down some notes on the data-gathering for his next review while it's still fresh in his mind. Yawning, he sits down at his keyboard, picking the tail end of a corn chip out of the gap where the punctuation keys used to be.

Behind him as he types, an image begins to take shape on the tank's screen -- a preview of what the main character in his game will look like.

It's made of circles and ovals, with a double-pointed hat on top. And next to it, coming up only to about his waist, is a little black imp.