I stepped from reality and onto the wooden porch of my cabin, looking across the rolling grass plains as the sun rose on the Wild West land of Buzzard. The wind blew warm and sweet in my face, and I stood enjoying the first few moments of entering the game I’d been playing continually for ten years, a game I’d invested a lot of time to at the expense of my real life. The goal of climbing to the top level possible was my motivation, my drive and, I suppose, my obsession. In here I was a tough cowboy, guns always in my holster and with my own couple of acres of land, far from anyone else and safe from the dangers of Buzzard. There was also my stunning wife, always there to greet me on my return from whatever quest I’d decided to embark on. It was a far cry from my real world, even though my western wife was an NPC, non playing character, controlled by software and only loved my because of a subroutine. It didn’t matter the love was virtual on her part, but over the years I’d formed an attachment to her, desperate to log into the game to see her, feel her and live the life I wanted.
Wild West Adventure was the first total emersion video game, the experiences transmitted right into your brain through a contactless port at the back of your skull. You couldn’t tell the difference from reality. Better than reality and affordable to everyone, the advert claimed. They were right: I didn’t want to be in the real world. Freespace Systems, or FS as everyone called them, had been a rising gaming company, blowing the competition away with high end graphics and virtual reality sets of the early part of the twenty first century. I’d been young enough to have played on those early rigs, but FS took things to a new level when they released their Link System, bringing the games direct to the brain without the need of a clunky headset. Everyone had a neural link fitted already for the internet, but FS had realised the potential. Suddenly, people were really put into games, unable to tell the difference from reality and the game, able to feel the wind on their faces, the heat of the sun and the smell of the old west in a bitter reality of grit and dirt.
FS had only one emersion game at first, Wild West Adventure, but after a year or so, they released Land of Legends, an even bigger open world based in a fantasy realm where you could be a hulking barbarian with a huge broadsword, or a wizard with a range of magic spells. Legends was huge, the map three times the size of Wild West and a ton of quests the seasoned gamer could swing their axe at. More fantasy realms came soon after and then the sci fi epic Space Dust landed, offering people an entire system of worlds to explore and fight in, jumping around in custom spaceships, joining a massive stellar war where you could carve your own empire. I’d taken a look at those games, but I liked Wild West Adventure, playing this character for so long I felt I was the cowboy I’d created long ago at the start. I’d invested a lot in the game and I’d been rewarded, completing quests to earn experience points, climbing to level 99. I’d completed every quest and side quest, though level 100 was still far away. I was going to be the first to gain the highest level. No one in other games had managed it, but the competition here was smaller as people moved to the bigger games, and I was convinced there was a final quest; I just had to find it, or spend the next ten years completing a few side quests for tiny amounts of experience. Out there was the big one, but I’d been told to stop dreaming and move across to the epic games. My real life friends, of which I had two, ribbed me all the time for clinging onto this old game. FS had stopped adding updates a long time ago and I’d been all across the map. If I grabbed a horse, I could ride to the opposite end of Buzzard in a day, real time.
‘You’re up early, my love,’ Clementine said from behind, her voice musical and light. ‘Are you riding into town? I’d love to come with you, maybe get a new dress. This one is old and tattered.’
I turned to her and smiled, reaching my hand to stroke back strands of long, blonde hair from her face. She was like rays of the sun. ‘Maybe tomorrow, Clem,’ I told her. She was always asking to come to town, but the AI in the game would keep her here at our ranch. If I invited her with me, she’d change her mind and say she had to get dinner on for me later. Sure, it was a sexist thing to have her as a stay at home wife, a slave to my every whim, but this was only a software response. In real life, or IRL, women were a lot stronger and I was pretty lame. There were a few cow girl players in the game, and my social interaction was not great when I realised it wasn’t an NPC I was talking to. Clem was safe, someone I could talk to for hours when I didn’t feel like riding out into the wilderness for a taste of adventure. Sometimes, I forgot she wasn’t real and struggled with accepting this. When I disconnected from the game, the memory of Clem lingered and I was a slave to the love I felt for this construct. Often, I found myself wishing she’d turn up in my apartment and I would find she was real. If that happened, I’d never leave reality again.
‘It’s for the best, I guess,’ Clem said with a sigh. ‘You always seem to find yourself in deep horse shit, and I’d hate to get my dress all messed up.’ She did a twirl and her white skirt flew up around her leather walking boots. Her laugh was rich, genuine, and my heart thumped. ‘You won’t be late back, will you? I’m making stew tonight and I want to spend time with my husband. A woman has needs, you know?’
I laughed and threw my arms around her waist, bringing her close to me, pushing my lips into her willing lips and gave her a long kiss, tasting sunshine. Her mouth slightly opened and I tasted berries. When I pulled away, I saw her face had a red flush. ‘I promise I’ll be back before sunset.’ I let her go, hating the separation, but I’d spent an entire day yesterday with her, unable to tear myself away. I’d been neglecting the hunt for the quest for virtual love.
Clem placed her fists on her hips, gave a mock stern expression. ‘You better be, Flynn Noob Seventy Five,’ she said. Her face broke and she grinned, kissed my stubbled cheek and disappeared back into the house. Over her shoulder, she said, ‘Unless you want to stay with me again today. Yesterday was amazing. You make me real happy, Flynn and I love you. But I guess a man has work to be doing; it’s not work for women.’
Flynn Noob Seventy Five had been my character name when I signed up. It was a dumb name and I’d not expected to keep this character for long, but I’d become attached to him, if not the name. The only way I could change it was to create a new character and years of work would be lost. ‘I’m tempted, but I’ve things to do, but I’d be happy to have you at my side in a fight, Clem, all day long.’
She shrugged in response and went indoors. My gaze remained on the space she’d occupied and I yearned for her, but I did have work to do. I turned back to look across the grass plains, staring at my faithful white horse, one I’d had for the last two years. She grazed lazily, ears flicking as a fly buzzed around her. Her mane hung long and silky, her coat glistening in the sun. The illusion was shattered by a voice in my ear.
‘Hey, Trent, you still in that dumb game? When you going to come join the real fun instead of following treasure maps and tending horses?’
I sighed, wishing I’d muted the chat channel. My friend, Joe, was currently logged into Space Dust, his game of choice. ‘How’s that game going for you? Have you got to level five yet or are you still mining asteroids for experience points?’
‘Better than catching fish, or shooting tin cans with your toy guns, Noob Seventy Five. Anyway, we going to meet up later if you can pull yourself away from that pretty little AI wife? Harry said he’ll take time away from slaying dragons to come visit your boring western adventure. Really, Trent, you should get with the game. You should come fly around in my Heavy Class One fighter for a real thrill.’
‘Yeah, whatever. I’ll see you in Tumbleweed, if you can handle the whiskey and low tech guns.’
‘Sure, Trent; you play the lamest game in FS. Gotta go, Noob, I’ve a wave of attack ships coming at me. Laters!’ He cut me off before I could reply with something about the only attack ships he’d ever get to fight were level one kids, and even those could beat him down. Talk of a Heave Class fighter was total bull. Everyone knew he’d recently been wiped out and was starting over. At least here the fights were personal. Dispatching ships from the safety of a heavily armoured ship had nothing on gunslinging with the most wanted men in the west. Okay, so Harry was fighting dragons with his battle-axe, but at least he had ridden the ranks to level thirty. Whenever you died, your character started over at level one again and Joe had died more than anyone I knew. But there was no way I was going to transfer my character into one of those games. With my cowboy character, I’d be dead in no time. That’s why they always met here in Tumbleweed, a town you could gather with players from all across FS and talk shit with the best they had to offer. It was a glorified chat area, a hub for space adventurers and dragon slayers. They all looked down their noses at the primitive world of Buzzard and always tried to convince me to join their game. We were a funny group when we met, me with my cowboy slacks, spurs and holstered pistols, Harry with his hulking barbarian character with his battle-axe. Next to Harry, Joe looked tiny with his tight fitting uniform and laser strapped at his side. The cowboy NPCs would throw comments at them, challenging them to a fight. Sometimes they took the challenge, and inevitably, each NPC would fall down dead, sliced in two by Harry’s axe, or vaporised by Joe’s laser. They found it hilarious, but they’d never last a second in here with a pair of pistols. Likewise, in their world I’d be wiped out before I could draw. When I reached level 100 here, I might stand a chance in Legends. Barely.
The sun was rising towards noon and I decided it was time to get going. My spurs jingled as I made my way to my horse, who looked up at my approach, knowing it was time to get going and continue my hunt for that quest to bring me to the highest level in Wild West Adventure. What happened at that level was a mystery, but I’d have won the game. No other player had ever achieved that in any game. They mocked me, but deep down they were impressed I’d risen higher than any player in the multi realms. There were videos about me, and I had a following of fans as they tracked my progress with interest.
As I mounted my horse, I wondered if the game would end at level 100 and everything would vanish, the life I had built over the years gone because it was game over. Perhaps that was why FS had put limited quests in the game, so the adventure could go on forever. Part of me wanted that to be true, but after years, I wanted to see how it would all end. I would be a God within Buzzard, no character able to defeat me, or deny my will. I’d met NPCs of my level, and fighting them was still tough. It was my dream and my nightmare at the same time to complete the game, yet my curiosity pushed me on, along with the idea of the fame I would achieve within the FS community.
I kicked my spurs against my horse’s flank and urged her into a gallop across the grass plains and towards the sun, riding fast into the wind. The game was on and I had a good feeling about today.