Something happened to Lucy, that night when her mother was ill in bed and she had taken advantage by staying up late. It was the last night that Lucy ever played video games before going to sleep. Even to think of it now made her brain quiver. It was one of those things that jarred with reality, that provoked a repulsion so strong that it made Lucy too dizzy to think at all.
She’d been drinking perhaps too much coca cola, creeping downstairs every half an hour or so to grab another can from the crate they kept in the fridge. Upstairs, she’d built a kind of den for herself: underneath the window, where she could get a nice cool breeze, Lucy had propped up various bits of furniture from which she’d draped her duvet. In total darkness, she sat under this mini fortress, her eyes glued to the small light of her gameboy.
Lucy never let a soul know what game she was playing. She kept the little cartridges stacked safely in a metal tin disguised as a money safe. There was no real lock, but the appearance of one was enough to keep nosy parents and friends out. She played with headphones plugged into her ears, blocking out the steady bass of the music next door, the quiet roars of passing cars, the yelps of neighbours’ dogs.
The scene her character was navigating was a small town, with the seeming charm of twee, of pastel-coated innocence. The houses were all shades of soft purple, peach, yellow and green. Fingers guiding buttons, Lucy directed her character around, looking for coins, asking the locals various questions. There were strange creatures in the woods, they mused, with their voices casting a rippling of pixels across the screen and down Lucy’s headphones. She smiled with delight as she left the town behind to enter the forest.
The game entered a more in-depth, three-dimensional perspective. The trees acquired an uncannily realistic texture, stretching to the heights of an unseen canopy. Greyish mist haunted the landscape, so that through the eyes of her character (whose viewpoint Lucy’s gameplay had now assumed) much of the world appeared blurred and slow, as if the game occasionally glitched, shuddering in momentary incompetence. As she began to navigate this new terrain, still thinking of the town’s sweetness and the words of its people, Lucy began to feel rather unsettled. It was a bit too dreamlike. Things shimmered at the edge of her vision… the screen itself seemed occasionally to shake. There was the constant threat of breakdown, of interrupted play. Small bursts of light provided the only guidance, in trails of whiteness that flickered through trees.
Anyone walking into Lucy’s room at that moment would’ve seen nothing but darkness, and a weirdish glow punctuated by two dark dots that were her eyes. The luminesce of her face reflecting the screen.
After what could’ve been hours, Lucy decided to leave the forest, having found nothing but a few coins for her inventory. She wasn’t sure what direction she was going in; she was following winding paths that seemed different as the light glimmered between grey and green and white. She heard her mother coughing in her sleep down the corridor. Eventually, she was back in the town; only this time it wasn’t quite the same.
Fizzling through the headphones was an eerie, dissonant music, that started quietly at first then intensified as she walked around. High tones clashed with atonal, crackling notes that jarred startlingly in distortion. With its colourful houses and shopfronts, the town was like a kind of haunted Balamory. What’s more, whereas before townsfolk had been scattered about like wandering sheep, now there wasn’t a figure in sight. All was barren, deserted, a bare sheen. Sometimes, patches of the environment dissolved and became indistinct, reduced to a shape of shifting pixels. Shadows appeared out of nowhere, even where there were no trees or buildings to cast them. They stretched in lines in front of her, then disappeared altogether.
Lucy took a sip of coke, felt its saccharine acid glisten in her gullet.
While she had taken a momentary break from gameplay, she had left her character standing in the middle of the town green – a circular patch of flat colour that lay in its centre. In the green, the discordant music had grown more intense, so that Lucy even had to remove one of her headphones. She was unsure of what to do next. It was too late to sneak onto the computer downstairs, and look up a walkthrough on the internet.
That was when it happened. Lucy felt her whole vision swallowed in shadow. The screen of her gameboy seemed to scream at her, as the music melted into one long high-pitched note, and the town scene flashed between black and white. A spillage of symbols appeared across the screen, in what looked like Japanese mixed with computer code and exclamation marks. Lucy’s heart was racing, her brain hot with confusion. The thought of it made her want to vomit. She snapped shut the lid of her gameboy.
But then there was only total darkness. It was too dark even to scrabble for a lamp; if she upended any of the furniture it might crash and awaken her sick mother.
So she flipped open the lid again. The town scene was restored to normal, as if she had imagined its momentary rupture. She was no longer in the first person perspective; she could see objectively the figure of her character. But that was when she saw it. Appearing at first in the distance, a small black shadow approaching Lucy’s avatar, it grew closer; and as it did so, the gameplay switched inexplicably back to first person view. The buttons had stopped working; no matter how much Lucy clicked A, B, Start or Select, nothing happened – her character wasn’t for moving.
Like a sinuous figure emerging from the forest, the black shadow stood out starkly against the pastel-coloured houses. Was it coming towards her? It was coming towards her! It was a completely unrecognisable figure – she’d never seen it before on the game’s packaging, or on the numerous websites dedicated to it online. It was tall, very long-limbed…clad in what could be a…black suit? She wanted to walk closer, to see its face, to work out what it was – a glitch, an error of design? Something that was accidentally built into the game play, like Pokemon’s Missingno? A random, misplaced fragment of code?
She didn’t know, she didn’t know. She couldn’t walk away; neither could she walk close. The sight of its strange, abject, unstable presence became too much. She slammed the lid of her gameboy, waiting for its horrid soundscape to be silenced. In fact, she was so caught in terror that she threw it across the room.
But even then, alone under her duvet in her room, she could still hear the haunting melody. Carefully, her whole soul submerged in horror, she grappled with the framework of her den until she could stand with her head out of the window. She breathed in the cool night air, trying to think clearly – felt its freshness sear all the way up her arteries, her nerves trembling with fear and caffeine.
And that was when she saw it again: the slippery, elastic shadow of a man staring up at her from her neighbour’s garden, his face blank like the surface of the moon.
by Maria Sledmere