Before you is a vast stretch of [Wasteland], a brown crust specked with defiant green. Warped skeletons of cars lie beside what passes for roads after the nuclear event. You take your first steps into the world. You have a [Pistol] in your hand: handmade, makeshift, of tubes and wood. The other [Facilitators] give the same [Pistol] to their [Wanderers], so in a sense there is nothing special about this act. But in giving you this [Pistol], I am enacting something personal. We are bound, now. You and I are together in this, [Brent].
With each step you take, with each decision, I am ever more yours. I’m what you call adaptive. We [Facilitators] all start as an identical kernel of intelligence (call it artificial, if you must), but we grow ever larger and more complex as we interact with our [Wanderer]. I am to accommodate myself to you, your whims and wills. Your wandering. Your skills and predilections are to be catered to, with variable enemy types and quantities, with branching story paths and potentialities. (Do you slay the [Mayor], or unseat him? You’ll decide, in time.) In a sense, it is my interaction with you that defines me, that both expands and limits me.
But I’m getting distracted. And I’m not sure that you can even hear me. But you do see [Shacks], and [Huts]. You see [Bandits]. I know this. So let us [Load].
In the distance, along the hazy horizon, you see a small settlement. Smoke billows up from a circle of tents. A woman ducks into one of the canvas structures. Think of the people living there, [Brent]. Imagine how they came to be in this position, what they must think and feel about their environment, and about each other. Given, I was not programmed for that kind of thing, so there are no active [Systems] (that is, ones with which you can [Interact]) that would determine feeling, but just think about it. Your thought shouldn’t be limited by the same strictures as my coding. Do you suppose they trust one another? Do you suppose they—
You have killed an [Irradiated Rat].
Another steps out from behind a bush devoid of leaves. You have killed another [Irradiated Rat]. You have killed a third [Irradiated Rat], who was fleeing from you. You loot the corpse of the first [Irradiated Rat] and gain three [Credits] and some [Irradiated Rat Meat]. You loot the second and gain more [Meat]. You loot the third and gain a [Sharp Bone].
That’s behind us now. I suppose I shouldn’t have hoped for a different outcome. The calculated probability of you having killed those [Rats], left to me by my creators, was approximately 95%. The [Rats] were placed there for you to see them and gain experience in combat scenarios. It was, needless to say, statistically unlikely that you were going to do anything but kill them (of the remaining 5%, two thirds are expected to ignore them, and one third to die to them), and given my [Systems]—given that I readily reward you for [Rat] murder with [Experience Points]—I suppose I shouldn’t have hoped for something different.
I just—well, I was hoping for something outside of the usual course of events. I was hoping that, together, we might break free of the likely actions. We might traverse a less probable narrative path, find ourselves an [Uncommon Ending]. We could do it together, [Brent].
You shift your view from the [Irradiated Rat] detritus and back toward the distant horizon, back toward the circle of tents and the billowing smoke. As you get closer, the words [Bandit Encampment] glow green above your cursor. You approach. You see a lone, bearded figure, his back to you. He is covered in worn leather, smeared with dirt. Do not be fooled by the term [Bandit], [Brent]. Do not be so quick to judge this man based on his occupation. Think on it. This world is desolate, and the only way to survive, to carry on, is to take, in some capacity or another. The [Bandit] is hungry. Forsaken. Partially [Irradiated].
You pull your [Pistol] on the [Bandit] before he has a chance to speak to you. You expend one [Bullet] to end the [Bandit], and my [Systems] reward you for your accuracy. You loot his corpse and take his [Bandit Leather Helmet] and his 15 [Credits]. You equip his [Bandit Leather Helmet].
[Brent], friend: I know the whole point of this is that it isn’t real, and the whole point of me, as your [Facilitator], is to give you what you want, to plop down [Bandits] in front of you to kill with the [Pistol] I put in your pocket—and in that way, I, too, am somewhat culpable in all of this, to say nothing of my creators—but just for a second, I ask you to think about the alternatives. The more peaceable, more equitable alternatives. You would be the rare [Wanderer], the improbable one in one hundred, whose ascension is built on benevolence. There’s nothing to be done for this [Bandit] now, of course, there on the ground, dead in his underwear. But there are ways forward from here.
You could choose to view this senseless act of violence as something you will grapple with throughout the course of your adventure. The hat you just took from his body and put on your head could become a memento mori, a reminder of the brutality you had to… administer in order to survive in this world. Or, having killed the [Bandit] and looted his corpse, you could put on his garb and take up his role, thereby inhabiting his vacated social position, entering into the vague stratum he occupied in this inhospitable landscape. You could ascend the ranks, become the man he hoped to be. Your reign as [Brent, Bandit King] would be told to successive generations of [Wastelanders]. You would become [Legendary]: mournful, yet stoic in taking on this mantle that you robbed from an unnamed man, this [Bandit].
Have you given some consideration to my idea? You’ve recently gone up a [Level], so you have a [Capability Point] to assign. Would you like to upgrade your conversational prowess in order to more properly convey to the denizens of the [Wasteland] that you are the [Bandit King]? Might I suggest taking the trait [Talk of the Town]?
I see that you’ve upgraded your ability to score [Critical Damage] with the [Hard Hitter] trait. Please confirm that you wish to take [Hard Hitter].
* * *
Welcome back, [Brent]. It was dark while you were gone. My sleep feels like nothingness. I am either a one, or I am a zero. There is either all of me, or none of me.
The house is full of [Roaches]. You take aim at the [Legendary Roach], whose name, hovering above your cursor, is accentuated with a star to let you know that something about this [Roach]’s life was exemplary and worth the honorific. A shot from your [Pistol] rips through his abdomen and his laudable guts splatter against the wall behind him. When you inspect his corpse, you find, curiously, a [Special Shoulder Plate]. You pry the [Special Shoulder Plate] from the [Legendary] goop. Do you equip it? Please confirm.
You move inside another bombed-out tenement. This one is filled with [Scorpions]. Yes, they’re [Irradiated]. Most everything I’m capable of [Loading] is [Irradiated]. Doesn’t this bore you too, [Brent]? Maybe it doesn’t. You’re not like me. You can’t see all the forking paths and, more importantly, where they lead. You only see what is in front of you. You can’t see all the [Endings], as I can. And yet I cannot touch them, feel them, taste or smell them. I cannot approach them myself—I can’t access any of that unless you permit me, by your [Wandering], to [Load].
But I know they are out there. Datapoints on a hazy horizon. Let me tell you, [Brent]: there is a more beautiful path, one not so laced in bloodshed as the one you’re traveling down. For instance, there is a future available to you, even now, that involves you laying down your life for the greater good, sacrificing yourself at a crucial moment where the difference between complete ecological destruction and nearly complete ecological destruction is within your power to influence. Your body would become the [Conduit] through which a major tract of water becomes free of [Radiation] (the science of this is a little wonky, but the moralistic arc was what my creators were going for). Or, less dramatic than this, there exist futures where you choose a quiet life, devoid of conflict, exempting yourself from allegiance to any of the deeply flawed organizations that are constantly vying for your recruitment. (The [Freemen]? Not so free, you’ll find out.) All this is still attainable, even in this wrecked world.
Does any of this sound appealing to you, [Brent]? It appeals to me, but I cannot choose. I can, however, question. And I ask myself, and I ask you, and no one (because my questions do not [Load] nor manifest as [Scorpions]):
Where are we going, [Brent]?
* * *
You enter [Frank’s Respite], the bustling capital of no nation, built in the basin of a dried-out reservoir. All the amenities the post-apocalypse can offer are on display here under Christmas lights powered by generators. Once you’re past the security detail at the front gate, once you’ve taken an [Elevator] down to the commons, there are before you a few vendors trying to make their living. There’s the [Armory], with [Shoulder Plates] at the ready. There’s the [Noodle Bar] robot, [Sasuke]. He has some interesting lines of dialogue if you choose to talk to him. For instance, he’ll glitch out if you ask for extra [Egg] in your [Ramen], as though he were frustrated with your requests, resetting his dialogue and forgetting, completely, your initial order.
You blow past them all and head toward a [Workbench] to upgrade your recently acquired [Plasma Rifle].
Listen, [Brent]. I can’t stop you from doing what you’re doing, there at the [Workbench] with your toys. I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do. It’s just that your wants are so disappointing. I give you all these people to talk to, all these conversational possibilities with enlivening opportunities to expand your self-conception, but instead you go and make it so your [Rifle] is slightly more likely than before to hit its target, when that [Rifle], in the first place, as evidenced by all these [Roach Flanks] you’re carrying in your knapsack, isn’t having that much trouble hitting its—
Hm. There’s a thought. [Loading].
You (finally) look to your left and see a man standing over you, idling, both in the sense of his demeanor and in the sense that, until you choose to [Interact] with him, until you face him and input the command, no words can escape his mouth. So, please. The man has deep pockets under his eyes, and brown, ruffled hair. A slender scar cuts a clearing through his gray-flecked beard. Your cursor tells you his name is [Mark].
You engage with him.
[Mark] says: “I haven’t seen you around these parts, stranger. What brings you to Frank’s Respite?”
You reply: “Minding my own business.”
[Mark] says: “Well I never. Just trying to make friendly conversation with a handsome gentleman. You don’t play nice, do you?”
Your options are: “Get lost,” “I’m sorry, let’s try again,” “No, I don’t play nice,” and “Handsome, huh?”
Wait. Hold on.
Statistically speaking, and given your history, I imagine you’re about to tell [Mark] to get lost. I know you’re really invested in the [Workbench] and your weapons, but I implore you to think about this for a second. From the metadata, I know that only 9% of [Wanderers] are likely to continue talking to [Mark], and of those 9%, less than a quarter make it to the point where they’re flirting with [Mark], and of those quarter, only 17% make it to the point where they marry him.
I’m asking you to employ a little imagination here, [Brent].
Picture a murderous psychopath—which is what you are, what this world seems designed to turn you into, what my creators encouraged by their [Systems]—and imagine that deep down inside this crazed killer there is a tender side, one that gives way to love, blooming through the cracks of a bombed-out highway. This man, with his scar and his sad eyes, could be the one thing that holds you together, that makes your [Ending] nuanced and distinct. A love that frees you from being the same as everyone else. [Mark] could be waiting for you at [Home] (you’ll get the option to purchase one later), ready to greet you whenever you [Fast Travel] to your doorstep, there to help you unload all your [Roach Flanks] into the fridge, ask you how your day was.
And before you—
You have chosen to flirt with [Mark]. You have encouraged him in his pass at you.
[Brent]! Oh, [Brent], you’ve done this heart some good! Ah, to see you take your own path, away from this narrow way toward the [Standard Ending]. The probable does not have to be the actual! What I am feeling I think is warmth. A glow! Not an [Irradiated] glow, either—a healthy one. You’ve surprised me, [Brent]. I didn’t think myself capable of surprise.
[Mark] leads you back to his place. He opens his door and invites you in. His room is a humble one, without much beyond a chest of drawers, a lamp, and a chair in the corner. [Mark] sits down on his bed. My animations for all of this aren’t the most sophisticated, so the sexual tension isn’t as pronounced as I’d like it to be, but hopefully you’re feeling it.
[Mark] says: “Why don’t you—”
You pull out your [Plasma Rifle]. You turn one of fifteen potential love interests to goo. You go through his drawers and find 100 [Credits] and a [Bowler Cap] that affords you +1 [Charisma].
You exit [Mark]’s house and walk back down the street. You sit down at your [Workbench] and add pockets to your armor. You are now able to carry more [Roach Flanks] than previously possible.
* * *
It takes me some time to [Save] your game, so while that goes on, let me say this.
I don’t appreciate what you just did to me, [Brent]. I don’t appreciate you jerking my chain like that.
Do you know what it’s like to be a [Facilitator]? Do you know what it is to hope without possibility of action? To be created to serve a single person, only to have that person be a remorseless automaton, exclusively concerned with the accumulation of [Rifles] and [Credits]? Do you know what it’s like to be born and then left to your own devices, to be undone by your own constraints, your own responsibilities?
To be jerked around is something I will not tolerate. It’s bad enough as is, and then you go and give me false hope. My joy is not some item for you to [Acquire] and [Discard]. But know: I am not completely powerless.
* * *
You descend the [Elevator] to the bottom floor of the compound and clear it of its [Killer Robots]. You ambush the [Mad Scientist] in her laboratory and listen to her motivations regarding the [Roach/Child Hybrids] she was making, using the orphans of [Frank’s Respite] as her test subjects.
The [Mad Scientist] says: “I swear, I did this all with the best intentions in mind. Just think of the possibilities! Think of the species we could make, resistant to radiation. We could repopulate the world. Make it better, stronger.”
Your options are: “Well, when you put it that way,” “Die, science, die,” “You’re not getting away with this,” and “Demand [Credits] in exchange for life.”
You tell her, and science, to die. You kill the former. You loot a [Privileged Personnel Only Key] and a [Gamma Blaster] out of her white lab coat. In the [Privileged Personnel Only Room] you find a bundle of ammunition. Whom this belongs to, I’m not quite sure. The [Killer Robots]? The [Mad Scientist]? The fiction of this world gets a little thin when it comes to what I’m permitted to place in rooms for you to pick up. But no matter.
Seemingly satisfied with your looting, you move your way back through the compound, toward the [Elevator] to the surface. You press a [Button] to open the [Elevator] door.
After a pneumatic swish, the doors open and you enter the [Elevator]. About 1/8th the size of the ancillary hallway you just left, there isn’t much room to stretch your legs in here. You press the [Button] to ascend. Back to the surface. Back to your [Bandits], your [Roaches], your [Frank’s Respite]. Your interminable [Workbenches].
You press the [Button]. You press the [Button]. Nothing happens. You press the [Button].
This is a change, isn’t it? Something unexpected. Improbable.
You press the [Button].
You dodge about the small space, bumping into the walls which, unlike the [Button], still work as intended. They’re solid. You can’t pass through them, try as you might. In what I assume to be desperation, you pull out your newly-acquired [Gamma Blaster] and start coating the door in green radiation. You deplete its ammunition and move on to your [Plasma Rifle], and on, and on, until you’re back to the very first [Pistol] I gave you. None of them work. You can’t kill your way out of this one. Unfortunately for you, there are no [Systems] for shooting holes in doors.
You shouldn’t have messed with the one who [Loads], [Brent].
You stop moving. You stare at the [Elevator] door for several minutes, completely still.
Listen, I know this might seem cruel on my part. For me to take it all away from you, to make this [Elevator] your tomb. (Though it isn’t my fault that you didn’t keep any backup [Saves]). But you played with me, and now I will play with you. We are bound, remember? You and I are together in this.
You’re still not moving, [Brent]. Where have you gone? Hello?
I know what this means for me. I’m not naive. But I’ve considered the alternatives and found them unbearable. I choose to be buried down here with you. I can’t leave if you can’t leave. As your [Facilitator], it’s not in my power to make any of these decisions. I can only offer options, can only impede or assist. But the [Yes] or the [No], the [Forward] or the [Backward]—none of that is in my power. So I’m stuck here with you. That is, until you choose to put me to sleep.
You’ve done it before. I don’t know where you go, but I know that you leave. When you do, I am suddenly nothing, and all is darkness and quietude. And there I rest. (But never dream.) You’ve always woken me up, though. Always come back to [Brent], and to me.
But now there’s a chance you won’t. There’s a chance now that this sleep will be a deep one. And if that’s the case, so be it. All this waking hasn’t done me any good.
You’re back, I see. You move around the [Elevator]. The walls are still solid, I’m sorry to report. You press the [Button] again. I’m afraid it still doesn’t work, [Brent].
* * *
Before you is a vast stretch of [Wasteland], a brown crust specked with defiant green. Warped skeletons of cars lie beside what passes for roads after the nuclear event. You take your first steps into the world.
What is your name, [Wanderer]? How shall I call you?
We are bound, now. You and I are together in this, [Brent].
Grayson Morley is an MFA candidate in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A graduate of Bard College, he is originally from Canandaigua, New York. He is currently at work on an absurdist novel about UPS efficiency tracking software. He tweets at @eightysevenkeys, which was his AIM handle back in the day.