It was a Wednesday evening in the Upper East Side of New York. George Young, a slender young man, walked out of a convenience store with a small bag of groceries. He propped up his coat’s hood, and as he exited the store he saw an orange leaf falling.
He looked up with miserable eyes and saw a somber blue sky, which faded into a grim grey in the distance.
It’s fall already, isn’t it?
He sighed and continued his way.
While walking along the sidewalk, he noticed a giant TV in a store’s window. It was broadcasting Dream World, the world’s most popular virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game—or VRMMORPG. Or VRMMO for even shorter. Dream World’s player base was over 400 million, which consisted of people from all walks of life: the young, the old, the rich, the poor. Anyone you could imagine played it or knew what it was.
“And there you have it folks!” yelled one of the shoutcasters. “The new world raid boss has just been taken down! Congratulations to all the guilds who participated!”
The shoutcasters continued their commentating; to George, it seemed more like rambling. Disinterested, he continued on his way.
Dream World, huh?
George once played Dream World. It was considered pay-to-win, but that didn’t stop players to use their income to buy gear for their characters, whatever that amounted to. Five dollars. One-hundred dollars. One thousand. Ten thousand. Hell, it wouldn’t be a surprise if some spent millions. George himself had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy high-end equipment for his own character, thinking of it as an investment. He even managed to get hold of some very rare and valuable items as well.
Unfortunately for him, his game mechanics were terrible, both on the micro and macro levels. Adding to that, he was also in a small and weak guild, so players from stronger guilds teamed up and easily player-killed (or PKed) him. He eventually lost all his items due to this.
But what was more regretful were the circumstances that led up to this. George was gentle and lax, and ultimately, a spy got into his guild and betrayed him. Players had learned of his valuable items and that was why he was targeted—it was the spy who always ratted out his location. And so, being unable to bear the loss, he quit. His deep regret was the reason why he’d been in such a gloomy state for the past six months.
George arrived at the bus stop. While he was waiting, he took out his phone to check his bank account balance. He gloomed at the number on his phone’s screen.
$12,589. That’s all I have left. And I have to pay the rent on Monday, too. How much does that leave? …$10,000? No… not even.
He stared down at the screen for an extended time with a mindless expression. For George, it seemed to be only a moment, but when he looked up the bus had already arrived, and the driver had already yelled at him for the third time.
George put away his phone and got on, ignoring the bus driver’s remarks, too preoccupied with the things on his mind. He walked through a crowd of eyes and gagging noises and found a nice, lonesome seat by the window at the back. He quickly zoned out, ignoring the disgusted faces eyeing at him, gazing out the window the whole ride home.
When he got back to his apartment he lazily placed the groceries in the refrigerator and went straight to his room. He turned on the computer screen and stared at it for a solid minute before finally deciding what to do.
I guess I’ll watch some YouTube videos.
He scrolled through the video playlist, most of which he knew would be about Dream World.
Tch. Why is there so much Dream World?
He sighed but continued searching for a potentially watchable video.
As he filtered the videos to the “Last Hour,” he saw that at the top of the list was a video titled “Second World: New VRMMO,” which had been uploaded two minutes ago. He thought it bizarre that someone would post a video with such a title. It was well known that very few VRMMOs had been released since the launch of Dream World. On top of that, following the surge of Dream World, virtually all developers who sought to make their own VR were bought out by Dream Corps, the company responsible for making Dream World. Of course, this was all a business strategy to shut down competition. The VR gaming world was essentially a monopoly, with Dream World being the face of it.
George pondered for a moment.
Eh, whatever. At least it’s better than Dream World.
He clicked the link and enlarged the video screen.
Appearing on the screen was a dark-haired man wearing glasses, seemingly in his late 20s or early 30s. He stood face-to-camera in an all-white background—a background which seemed to be glowing, looking like a kind of halo effect.
He’s cute at least.
With striking confidence, the man spoke. “Hello there. Thank you for clicking on this video. I am the developer of Second World, a soon-to-be-released VRMMO.” He then paused and smirked. “Although, I wouldn’t call it as such.”
George had come into the video thinking about pressing the large ‘X’ button at the top right corner. He had been waiting for the opportunity. A moment where even the slightest mistake, however small, would have made him stopped watching. He was hoping to do just that. But when the man smirked at the camera, it captivated George in the most curious way. It felt compulsory to him to watch the video to the end, even if everything that would be said would be gibberish. Deep in his heart, he felt something important would come out of this video, and so he listened intently to what this mysterious man had to say.
“Before I begin, I want to make things clear to everyone watching this: I have made this YouTube account today solely for the purpose of uploading this video. And this video will be the only video that I’ll be publishing online,” said the mysterious man. “Furthermore, what you hear from watching this video will be the only information you’ll receive from me about Second World. So, you all should listen closely to what I have to say.”
What is he talking about?
“But before I get into the details, I will be upfront with you all: this game has never been tested by anyone but myself. The reason for this is pretty simple: I did not want players to experience the game before its release date. Moreover, there will be no patches or updates of any kind, or even expansions—ever. That is all I have to say about this.” And with a happy smile, he clapped his hands and said, “But don’t worry. There will never be technical issues—of any kind. I promise.”
Upon hearing the words ‘never been tested,’ George zoned out for a second, his only reaction: Huh?
“Now, onto the nitty-gritty,” the man said. “Second World will be live starting this Friday at 6:00 PM Eastern Time.” And with the biggest grin, he added, “And I will tell you now that it is and will be the greatest thing anyone in this world has ever experienced.”
Upon hearing these words, George subtlety changed his posture, raising an ear. Because surely, the words ‘best thing ever’ had a nice ring to it and warranted careful attention.
“As for the VR equipment, there is only one thing you need. It’s these,” he said, pulling out a pair of silver-black electrode pads into view. “As you can see, it’s only a pair of electrodes. But this isn’t ordinary technology. It’s something that I myself created, so it’s extra special. All you do is place them on your temples, find a good spot to lie down, relax and close your eyes, and voila!” The man was smiling happily, as if he had just given his best explanation for anything, ever. “There are other things about the equipment, too, but I don’t need to go into detail about them. You’ll eventually realize what those are.” He smirked.
George, with his ear still raised, was still waiting for the punch line—now beginning to get bored with this insane man’s speech. But nonetheless, curious.
“Anyhow…” the man went on. “VR equipment packages have been shipped to selling locations around the world, and they will be available for direct purchase starting tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM EST.” He paused for a second and smiled mischievously, pushing the rim of his glasses up. “However, I have set up only five stores, and these stores are located in different cities across the globe, one for each city. The cities are as follows: New York City, Paris, Johannesburg, Beijing, and Tokyo. Furthermore, equipment that has sold out at a location will not be restocked, and once its stock is no more, that location will close. If that happens, you’ll have to go to another store in one of the other cities to buy equipment.”
The strange man’s gleaming smile suggested that he didn’t care if what he had just said was good or bad.
He continued. “And if you’re wondering: No, there isn’t an online store. At least, not yet. It’ll only be when all equipment from the physical stores have sold out that the online store will become available. At that time, the link to the online store should magically appear down in the video description. But for now, I have included only the addresses for the physical stores.” And with an innocent face, he said, “So all of you better get going if you want to get your equipment!”
George rested his head against his fist in a bored manner, his face full of disappointment.
“Lastly, the only information about the game you’ll receive from me, which is exactly and only this: Second World is whatever you want it to be.” He paused for the perfect moment, and with a smile full of mystery, he said, “That is, of course, if you have the power to make it so.” He then clapped his hand and gleefully said, “And that’s it! That’s all you need to know! Wasn’t that just so simple? Hope that helped!”
The man was silent for a moment, still maintaining his mysterious smile. He then changed expression and looked deep and sincerely into the camera. “Now, go forth and claim this unknown world, my dear humans. I do not expect all of you, or even any of you to take part in this adventure. But I do hope that at least one of you will be curious enough to see what lies beyond.”
The eccentric man smiled one last time, and then the video cut into black, seemingly ending.
But suddenly, he came back onto the screen, laughing in embarrassment. “Oops, I probably should have mentioned: I’ve set up an auction house where you can buy, sell, and auction items for Earth money. Not that making money is the reason one should be playing this game… Also, don’t die. You’ll end up feeling very bad about yourselves. But I promise you’ll have tons of fun. If you don’t like the game, you can always return the equipment for a full refund at any time. Although, there are…certain caveats.” He let out a cartoonish laugh of mischief, then reverted back to his goofy character. “Anyways, toot-a-loo!”
And with that, the video ended. Finally.
George calmly shook his head.
I should have known this was clickbait.
He turned off the screen and went to lie on his bed. He scoffed in skepticism.
A new VRMMO… Yeah right.
It was early the next morning. George lazily woke up and went into the kitchen. He scoured the sink for a cup and poured himself some milk. His eyes gloomed down at the almost-expired fluid. He then shifted his eyes to his phone, whose screen displayed his dwindling funds. He gulped the milk down and dumped the cup into the heap of dishes in the sink. After, he put his coat on and headed out the door, unshowered and unchanged.
Seven hours later, George walked out of an office building, dragging himself to the bus stop. When he sat down on the bench, immediately, the people around him moved away, catching his scent. But he didn’t pay attention to them. He was expressionless, thinking about all the mistakes he’d made up to this point. Fortunately, though, he didn’t have to think long about his life decisions, as his bus soon arrived.
When he got on the bus people started covering their mouths and pinching their noses. They pushed him away until he had no choice but to sit at the very back, right next to a larger-than-portly man who emitted a more pungent odor than George himself. However, George was oblivious to it all.
After many of the passengers rallied to the driver to kick them off, George and the potbellied man were eventually forced off at Madison Ave. It was only eight blocks from his apartment, but George didn’t seem to care, even if it had been twenty blocks. Or thirty. Or forty. Or fifty.
While he was walking along Park Ave., he—perhaps to his fortune, in the grander scheme of things—overheard two well-to-do teenage girls talking to each other.
“Is that guy kidding? $2,000?”
“I know!” the other girl chuckled. “I mean, it’s a lot less than Dream World’s equipment. But still, I doubt anyone’s going to buy one. It’s a total rip off. Not to mention it looks lame as hell.”
“Yeah!” the first girl exclaimed. “Anyways, do you want to go raiding tonight?”
“Sure. What time are you gonna be on?”
Their giggling voices grew fainter as they walked away.
George fixed his melancholic gaze at a tiny store that had been up for lease for several months. Oddly, the light coming through its windows was rather luminous, more luminous than any of the lights George saw on the streets.
So that’s where it is?
He casually disregarded the idea of entertaining the new VR shop and continued walking.
As he walked away, thoughts entered his mind. Vaguely fond memories of him and his friends playing Dream World—memories that brought happiness yet also sadness.
After walking several steps towards the direction of his apartment, he stopped and looked back at the tiny store. He stared at it for a while, thinking.
I guess I can go take a look.
George turned around and walked to the tiny white-lit store. Upon entering, he saw a single clerk standing behind a white counter. He approached the counter and asked, “Can I see the lowest-tier model?”
“There is no ‘lowest-tier model.’”
“Is that say so?” George said in a soft voice.
“Yep,” the clerk said. “Shocker.”
“How much?” George asked, even though he already knew the answer, remembering what the two girls said. He just wanted to re-affirm the inevitability of all this.
“Two thousand,” the clerk responded.
“Can you tell me anything about the game??” said George.
“I know just as much as you. I’m here only to sell equipment.”
George sighed heavily and shook his head. “Have a good day then.” He turned and walked away.
But as he was walking away, now almost to the door, those distant memories from before came rushing back, and he remembered why he started playing Dream World. In truth, making money was secondary for George. The reason he had started playing was that he’d loved the experience of it all: killing monsters, raiding, completing dungeons. It had been a real adventure for him. And now, all his fond and joyful memories resurfaced, and emotions began swelling up.
I guess it can’t be helped.
He turned back and approached the desk again.
“I’ll get one.”
“Alright,” the clerk said. “Just wait one moment.”
The clerk opened the locked door behind him and entered the back room. He returned with a small white box.
“Here ya go,” the clerk said, placing the box on the counter, right by the credit card scanner.
Before George finalized the purchase, he asked, “Will I get a refund on the monthly fee too?”
“As far as I know, there is no monthly fee. At least, I wasn’t told otherwise. I think this is all you need,” said the clerk, tapping on the little box. “If you want to return it, there should be a slip of paper inside. You just fill it out, bring the required materials back, and you’ll get a full refund for your purchase. But if you haven’t opened it, you won’t need to do all that. You can just return the package as is. If we’re closed and gone by then, just ship the materials back to the address that’s included on the receipt.”
“Ah. Okay,” George said, shaking his head. “Thank you.” He then headed out and walked to his apartment.
When he returned home he went straight to his room. He placed the box on the side table by his bed, then logged onto the computer.
The first thing he did—merely out of curiosity—was revisit the YouTube video from last night. Much to his surprise, the view count had reached over 20 million. He scrolled down to check the comments. He read through them, and they more or less said things along the lines of:
|“This guy’s a waste of time, and the game’s probably the same.”|
|“Not going to even try this.”|
After going through more comments, he began regretting his purchase.
I made a mistake, didn’t I?
He sat still for a long moment, staring at the screen. Then he took out his phone: his balance was now just a little over $10,000. He set the phone down and contemplated in silence.
I’ve wasted so much time on these dumb things. Is it finally time for me to move on?
Overcome with emotions, he fell back into his chair, seemingly coming to a decision right then and there.
Yeah… I can’t live like this forever… I’ll go return it right now.
He got up and put his coat back on, walking over to the side of his bed to get the package. He grudgingly drifted his way to the door. But just as his hand touched the doorknob, his phone rang.
He held the phone up to check who was calling. It was Chase, his closest friend from Dream World. Although, that all seemed like a distant memory to him now.
George hesitated to take the call but ultimately picked up. “What do you want?” he said.
“Hey, George! How’ve you been? You still aren’t gloomy, are you? Me and the gang have been waiting for you. Well, me and the gang minus you-know-who.”
George didn’t respond.
After a moment of silence, Chase restarted the conversation. “Cheer up, buddy,” he said. “Anyways, I was calling to ask if you’ve seen the new YouTube video about that new VRMMO. Have you seen it?”
“Yeah,” George responded. “Why’re you asking?”
“What do you think? Are you going to try it? We can start new and rise to the top together.”
Silence from George, once again.
“Come on! Don’t be like this. Don’t you wanna play with us again?”
George looked at the little white box he carried under his arm. A little white box that he was just on his way to return. He was just about to leave, too. Until this guy called.
“No,” George said plainly.
Chase became silent and remained so because he knew George’s situation well and how much pain George had suffered. He waited an appropriate amount of time before he responded. “Well…If you change your mind, call me. Okay?”
George continued looking at the little VR package, seemingly not caring for what Chase was saying. “Yeah. Sure.”
“Okay… Bye…” Chase hung up, a little torn.
After talking with Chase, George was too stressed to walk back to the store. He went back to his bed and placed the box on his nightstand. He then collapsed down on the bed, stretching his arms and legs across, folding his arms behind his head, and stared at the ceiling. He thought about Chase, who was really someone precious to him. Together, they had formed a good duo in their early levels of Dream World and eventually managed to start a guild together. Albeit, a very small one. Nonetheless, they had an amazing adventure together.
“Tch. Chase, you idiot,” George said, stressed over the fact that it had been Chase who called. He sighed. “Why you of all people?”
He stared dully at the ceiling for well over half an hour thinking about what he was going to do. He turned his head to the side, gazing at the small package on his nightstand. A glimmer of sentimentality sparkled in his eyes.
He turned his head back up and scoffed to himself. Aloud, he softly said, “I guess it won’t hurt.”
George closed his eyes and drifted to sleep. Strangely, with the slightest smile on his face.
Friday, 6:00 AM. George woke up as soon as his alarm went off. He woke up brighter and more fresh than usual, letting out a healthy yawn. He had had a good night’s sleep, something he hadn’t had in a long time. He woke up with a smile on his face, and he didn’t know why exactly, but he was a little happy, excited even.
He got up and went to make himself a cup of coffee, a thing he considered a luxury. It was something he would only drink when he was in a good mood.
He took a sip, and breathed deeply, fully appreciating the aroma.
I think I’ll take a run through Central Park today. Then I’ll walk Mrs. Newmann’s dogs. I should probably go back to Downtown Manhattan and—No, I’ll look for a job again on Monday. I should probably get some new clothes, too. I should be home before the game’s server goes live.
He sniffed his armpit.
I should probably take a shower first.
He finished his coffee, thoroughly rinsing the cup afterward, as well as washing the pile of dishes that had been stacking for the past week. Then, he went to take a nice, hot shower.
After getting out of the shower, the first thing he did was open the window curtains, something he’d left closed for a long time. What he saw amazed him: a beautiful sunny morning, and before him, a scenery of buildings and trees being accented by the warm light. The light that came through the window even glimmered in his eyes, highlighting his dark brown eyes.
He took a good, deep breath. “Today’s going to be a good day!” he exhaled.
After appreciating the view for a solid minute, he put on a nice windbreaker jogging suit and did some light stretching, then went out the door.
Two hours later, George returned, all covered in sweat. He was gasping and breathing heavily.
I’m more out of shape than I thought.
Although he was slender, seemingly ‘healthy,’ George had not worked out or exercised for several months. Not since he quit Dream World. He also had starved himself because of his tight budget. As such, it was appropriate to call him “out of shape.”
“I don’t think I can walk the dogs today,” he exhaled. He felt a long drip of sweat run down the side of his face and wiped it off with his finger. “I need to take a shower again, too.”
He immediately stripped down and hopped into the shower.
After coming out from a healthy, five-minute cold shower, he slid himself into a comfortable pair of pajama pants and a plain white T and lay on the bed. He exhaled, looking straight at the ceiling. Then, he looked over at the VR package. Curious, he brought out his phone.
Chase lives in Oregon, doesn’t he? He probably doesn’t have the equipment yet… I’ll play a for a day or two, and if it’s any good, I’ll give him a call.
He closed his eyes.
I’ll just take a short nap…
Some time later, George opened his eyes, blinking without a thought. He abruptly got up and checked the time on his phone.
George looked at the package, his brows raised up.
I didn’t even open it yet!
He ran to the kitchen to get a knife. He searched through the drawer where he usually put the kitchen utensils, but he couldn’t find one. It was only after two minutes of rummaging the rest of the cabinets and drawers that he finally found the damn thing.
He scurried back to his room, whereupon grabbing hold of the package, he swiftly but carefully sliced through the seal and tape. He opened it, ignoring all other miscellaneous things besides the equipment. He hurriedly unwrapped the equipment, which was a pair of black electrodes with silver lining, both of which were attached to a circular white dial that fit perfectly in the palm of the hand. He placed the electrodes on his temples and rested on the bed.
George took slow, deep breaths. He checked his phone one last time to verify the time.
He closed his eyes, and comfortably adjusted his resting position, taking one final breath.
A bright light shone, and George drifted deep away.
He soon found himself conscious again, but it was in absolute darkness. He couldn’t see anything. He blinked multiple times to make sure he hadn’t gone blind; he thought he had.
It was then that he saw light. Something radiated from behind him.
He turned around and saw a figure descending from above, silhouetted by a luminous light. As the figure drew closer, George could see that it was a tall, beautiful lady. She wore an ornate dress that was lined and laced with platinum. Her hair was silver-white and waved down arm’s length. She had piercing grey eyes, and her skin was reminiscent of a white sand beach. This angel, as it would be more than appropriate to call her, gracefully landed before George.
What is this feeling? This pressure…
“Greetings, traveler. Welcome,” the angelic being said, in a calm, serene voice. “Seeing as you have arrived here, I assume you wish to travel to Albamania.”
Albamania…? Is that the name of this game’s world?
Unsure of how to respond, George simply nodded.
“Very well,” she said. “First, tell me your name.”
I see. So she must be an NPC. I guess that means this is where I create my character… This is completely different from Dream World.
In Dream World, character creation also happened for the first time when a person logged into the game. During character creation, one would create their avatar’s name. However, in Dream World, an NPC does not greet you. You simply entered your name into the virtual screen and then chose your race. Then, you’d be transported to the game’s world.
George took a moment to think of his character’s name.
Should I stick with my Dream World name? No… I shouldn’t.
Deciding not to stick with his Dream World name, he browsed through his mental catalog of in-game names. However, he realized they were all super lame and childish. Many of them were along the lines of ‘Noobkiller.’ Or even worse, things like ‘xXxSuperGamerxXx.’
But then, after delving deep into his memories, he remembered a name he had adored when was younger. And that was the name he was going to use for this new game.
“Traveler?” spoke the angel.
George gulped. “Ryu. My name is Ryu.”
“Are you certain?”
And resolute, George nodded. “Yes.”
“Very well,” the NPC said. “Now, Ryu…” She drew out a plain, dull orb from out of her robe. “Place your hand on this.”
George looked at the object and hesitated for a moment but did as he was told. When he placed his hand on it, it glistened with a pure white and sparkling luminescence.
The NPC raised the corners of her lips just faintly as if she were delighted. She spoke in a soft manner, with an intrigued tone: “Oh? So this is what you are… Interesting.”
It’s so warm. No… Not quite. But it has a warmth to it. Just what is this?
The angel continued. “I have only one question for you: Why are you here?”
Why am I here? What kind of question is that?
George briefly thought about giving the most objective answer, which was “Because this is a game, and I’m here to play it.” Of course, that was such an obvious and idiotic answer that he dismissed it entirely. He even considered answering along the lines of “I’m here to help rid of Albamania’s lands of evil.” But that, too, seemed wrong.
She’s looking for a serious response, isn’t she?
George understood at that moment that this was a much deeper question than what it seemed to be. The question itself was beyond cheesy. Yet, there was an undeniable truth to it.
‘Why?’ That’s always the question, isn’t it?
He lowered his eyes, melancholic. Images of him standing over a mountain of players’ dead corpses came to his mind. Images of wealth, fame, and glory. Of course, deep down, George knew all of those were just material things—prideful things one would want only for the purpose of bragging. But he wasn’t that type of person.
George then saw other images entering his mind. Images—memories, rather—of happiness, joy, and adventure. A group of laughter and smiles all around. Just thinking about it made his eyes water.
He cleared his throat and restrained his emotions, then sighed with profound relief. But he was also sad. It was the kind of sadness one felt when they realized how helpless they were when faced with the inevitable. When they realized and saw their true self. And when George saw his true self, he felt pain. Most of all, he felt shame. But that shame was something he couldn’t afford to dwell on any longer.
Of course… This is what she was looking for, isn’t it? It’s always what they’re looking for… Always.
“Hmmph…” George scoffed, smiling and shaking his head, coming to terms with the truth—his own truth.
“I ask again, traveler,” the angel said. “Why are you here?”
George composed and straightened himself, and with the most confidence in his voice and sincerity in his eyes, he finally answered. “Because I want to have fun!”
Upon hearing these words, the angel’s face appeared shocked, but only for an instant. “Hoh?” she said, grinning. “Is that so?” She looked at George, smiling with great curiosity.
The sphere then glared, intensifying in its pure white brilliance. The light from the orb blinded George, continuing to grow in radiance, until finally, George re-opened his eyes, and the light dissipated. George saw that the orb was now just a dull, cloudy orb. The only light that remained now was emanating from the NPC, who was maintaining a calm face.
Seeing that the angel spoke no further, George believed things had come to an end, and so took his hand off the orb. As he did that, the sphere disintegrated into the air.
The NPC then raised her hand, and with an elegant waving motion of her hand, a portal appeared. “We are done here,” she said. “Go forth, traveler.”
Dazzled, George approached the portal. “Where will this take me?” he asked.
“You should already know,” the angel said, smiling.
George gulped and walked before the portal. He was about to step through, but then remembered something. “Wait! What about my race? We forgot about that! …Is there no race selection in this game? Are there even…races…in…this…game…?” He paused, awkward, realizing that he was probably spewing nonsense to this NPC.
The angel did not respond, maintaining only a half-smiling face.
A little disappointed but still firm with his decision to partake in this new adventure, George nodded farewell to the NPC. He then stepped through the portal with an unshakable resolve. His adventure—or rather, Ryu’s adventure—had just now begun.