Mum thinks that a teenager’s first experience with death should be an artificial one, brought on by the passing of a pet purchased with it’s mortality in mind. That way, when an elderly relative kicks the bucket in front of you all quiet-like, it doesn’t bother you as much as it should.
I don’t know if it really works, but I can’t admit that my life changed all that much when my grandmother passed away last week.
Oh, apart from the fact that I now have to sort through 92 years worth of trash she managed to stuff into her bungalow.
There’s not a lot in here anymore; stale biscuits that she would offer to me and my cousins, moth balls, and old brass tat. If I hadn’t admitted to Mum that I wasn’t upset, maybe I wouldn’t be the one sifting through the scrap right now.
Isn’t this the last opportunity they’ll have to look at all this stuff before it’s handed between our subsequently distanced family members, exchanging owners a la ‘pass-the-parcel’ before ending up between the sticky fingers of a charity shop worker, or between the metal jowls of a junk compactor.
They’re paying me to do it; does that mean I shouldn’t complain about being some kind of Anti-Hoarder Patrol? I’ve got objective eyes, apparently. They’re earning me £2.50 for every hour spent packaging up photo albums and old board games that are no longer sold due to choking hazards and lead paint jobs.
Fifteen minutes into today’s job and I managed to hit the jackpot. It’s old fashioned and dusty, but I’m pretty sure it’s an early adoption release of the Imhotep system. A thin number on the plain beige box reads ’632/3000’; could it be a developer’s kit? I never asked how Grandma made her living back in the day but ‘programmer’ wasn’t out of the question, maybe she still liked to tinker in her spare time.
A lone moth flaps out from beneath the unfurled lip of the box, landing with grace between my pigeon-print socks where it reveals itself as a slip of cardboard. I reach down, hands wrapped in pink marigolds, and collect it with care. Unlike the packaging itself, the design of the business card was anything but gentle on the eyes.
“IMMERSIVE VR FOR THE MASSES” “BUSINESS, ENTERTAINMENT, LIFE!”
I dipped into the box where the helmet sat beneath wads of fresh, untouched white tissue paper. I wondered whether she had received it as a gift and never actually touched it herself but the device itself held the scars of repetitive use.
The sunlight had stained the outside of the headset’s front plating, where it curved over from the forehead to the upper lip, and the inside held traces of Grandma’s person: grey hairs stuck to the comforting foam, cheap yellowing plastic, and a aroma close enough to disinfectant that it concerned me.
I threw the machine down, almost in disgust as a torpedo of unclean thoughts seared through the waves of pleasant memories. Just in case, I double checked the box for any reputation destroying physical media that Grandma would’ve wanted me to destroy, had she been able to warn me. It was all in the Cloud, where I would have to <<DIVE>> into the device before it could be deleted.
I better not find any porn, I swear…
It’s a pretty neat system; pop on the helmet, strap on the wrist nodes, and, once it detects your pulse, the internal HUD flicks itself on. “Warning!” an electronic voice calls out to me, “this development kit will now initiate! Is this okay?”
“Okay!” shouts the voice, allowing a sequence of flashing lights and hieroglyphic nonsense to send my brain haywire as I’m pulled into the system’s virtual library where links to Grandma’s content are stored on a single row of wooden bookcases, pushed against an awful JPEG of her bungalow’s rose wallpaper. Did she do this herself?
I take a quick look at the shelves, pleased to find a distinct lack of pornography. In fact, all that she’s got laid out is a handful of mock vinyl records from the early 2010’s, a boxset of F.R.I.E.N.D.S, and a single video game entitled <<C&C ONLINE BETA>>.
It’s got all the wear and tear of a physical box that I half expected to open it up to see a cracked disc but, as I pull it open, a whole new world begins to render around me in a flurry of orange hues and dry, dusty winds. I’m logged in immediately and, once the particle physics settle, I find myself knee deep in the sands of a great, expansive desert.
A stream of virtual sunlight scolds my avatar’s cheeks so hard that I’ve got to shield myself with her cape. In the distance, there’s nothing but turquoise skies, mountainous dunes, and those wobbly lines you get in the distance of Summer days.
And a cautious herd of scaled creatures, emerging from their home which I thought was some kind of large, misplaced pine cone. The six creatures slither though the sandbanks contorting their front four limbs like oars; they keep their distance, sussing out my actions. Afraid, but compelled by game logic, the beasts begin to attack me one-by-one, bouncing off my armour and back onto the sand for the recovery.
I flail around, unable to control my weaponry or my magic to any extent. I cast off insignificant, BSL-esque gestures until a passive <<ANALYSE>> skill kicks in which informs me that I’m up against six <<LVL 210 | DRAIG: HEADHUNTERS>> in a delightful Welsh brogue.
My poor Grandma; I can only imagine that one of my little cousins downloaded the game, only for her to wander into the wrong area, and get beaten on until she gave up. Soon enough though, I manage to bat away the creatures until they bury themselves back into the sand, until they’re triggered by somebody else later.
A momentary struggle with my ethereal surroundings allows me to get the main menu open, offering options for my Grandma’s collected items, character statistics and abilities, collections, achievements, as well as her earnings and playtime… 892 hours? 380,255,324,500 <<COMET PIECES>>?
Pulling myself out of a stupor, I check each and every menu available: she’s got a maxed out <<INVENTORY>> full of Mythical-Level equipment, an incomprehensible <<QUEST-LOG>>, and a character which had reached <<LVL 620>> in total.
It looks like whenever Grandma had a moment alone, she was roleplaying <<HELLFIRE HEXBLADE: HILDA>>; a master of <<DEMONOLOGY>> skills, <<ILLUSION>> magic, and <<TWO-HANDED WEAPONRY>>.
For the giggles alone, I take a step towards the <<DRAIG: HEADHUNTERS>> and let them take another shot at me, just so I can see what punishment I could dole out upon them! Timid again, the creatures slither towards me as I launch an attack which coats the gorgeous sky above in an overwhelming darkness; I can’t see my own hand in front of my face until the armour clamped to my avatar’s body bursts into heatless flames, illuminating my surroundings as an gigantic fist comes crashing down into the dunes below!
As the sun peaks back through the smog, a literal scorched earth situation reveals itself to me in the form of glass, spreading on for miles in all directions.
I have ruined this beautiful area for everyone.
You go, Grandma!
Returning to the gesture-initiated main menu, I manage to find access to the <<WORLD MAP>> which spreads across sixteen unique nations, two different dimensions, and plans for an additional planet in the future. It’s almost impossible to set a course anywhere without being intimidated by the scope of the journey ahead… How does anybody manoeuvre around this world without the ability to teleport?
One quick journey, then I’ll log-off and put it back where I found it. The nearest town to me is about fifteen minutes northwards, but it shouldn’t be a problem now that I’ve got the combat down… and I can just skate across this new glass highway.
I go to stick a virtual pin in the location but I’m interrupted by a short beep. A notification takes over the <<WORLD MAP>> screen, telling me that I’ve received a message from a character on Grandma’s <<FRIEND’S LIST>>.
HILDA! IT’S BEEN SO LONG, HASN’T IT? WE ALL THOUGHT YOU HAD CONKED IT. YOU WOULDN’T BE THE FIRST, I GUESS LOL. IT’S GOOD TO KNOW THAT NOTHING CAN KEEP THE HEXBLADE DOWN FOR TOO LONG.
THE GUILD IS IN THE VILLA IF YOU WANT TO POP DOWN.
<<LVL 269 | PUPPET MEISTER: CARROT DAZE>>
Yeah, I’ve made a bit of a mistake.
If I had seen her playtime earlier, I might not have gone into it… Nobody plays a game like this for more than 300 hours without dipping their toe into the social aspect. She was an old woman, of course she’d like to make friends with similar interests and now, I’ve gotta go tell them that she’s dead.
I take another look at the message, hoping to find an easier way to travel to this area. Fortunately, a quick tap on their player name opens an option to <<WARP TO GUILD-MATE>> which begins a light-speed journey from the ruined desert to the open-grounds of a modern-looking mansion, surrounded by an evergreen forest.
The white stone building hides behind a set of golden gates, announcing itself as <<WISPVILLA>> to my <<ANALYSE>> skill.
Approaching the boundary, the gates respond to the rings worn on my avatar’s left hand. “All hail!” it says as I stroll past, “all hail!”
I do have to do this, don’t I? I shouldn’t let these people find out through the grapevine, that would be more than devastating. I step upon the clay tile steps; only the white door and a small plaque separate myself and my Grandmother’s guild-mates. “WELCOME TO WISPVILLA - HOME TO THE WORLD-RANKING ACG GUILD!”, announces the plaque. “HILDA - CARROT - PLAGUE - JETTA - LUCKY TED - HAL”.
As my own memorial to her, I run my avatar’s fingers across Grandma’s name but, as I do, each piece of equipment I’m wearing falls to the ground, disintegrating up into the air and returning to my <<INVENTORY>>, revealing <<HELLFIRE HEXBLADE: HILDA>>’s underwear to the world around her!
This is so embarrassing!
How do I access the menu again? It doesn’t matter what gesture I throw out, I can’t get into my <<INVENTORY>>.
With a sudden quake and shudder, the Hall's great front door opens itself in my presence, revealing Grandma's guildmates; twelve character avatars, and nobody is wearing anything. No armour, nothing bar a selection of hand-painted animal masks. Like rabbits, they're all going at it against the virtual furniture!
Twenty-four eyes fall upon mine as I try my best to pull away, beckoning me into the hall. "It's been a while, Hilda!" says one of them, "our little parties haven't been the same since the conductor herself disappeared. Where's your mask?"
I'm done, I log out.
The news'll get around eventually.
You go, Grandma.