The Story So Far: Six players remain of nine in Neptune's Pride. I role-play The Aspiration, a race of theopaths now coming under the influence of an ancient collective consciousness. I try to broker an alliance opposed to Starspackle (Kent Sutherland) and Switchbreak but it's all too late as Veret, with military power that dwarfs mine, invades.
Tuesday, May 1 2007.
Every question is the wrong one. Sometimes the voice in my head stops co-operating and starts screaming, not because I'm at the wrong interview, because the interviewer is. I'm perfect for this job, having passed through three interviews with full gold stars to get to this one, the so-called rubber stamp. But this guy, this interrogator has such a narrow, stupid focus that he's going to turn me down.
I don't get up and walk out, I keep my cool. I go the distance, smiling through every barbed question as he loses his patience. The constant assault, the insinuation that he is conversing with a human failure, begins to solidify into something like cold stone in my chest. Self-hatred manifests. If only I had studied this crap he thinks is important. If only I had been better at... If only...
But a shred of hope remains, egging me on through the stress. Maybe I can turn it with the right anecdote about how I single-handedly resolved an application meltdown in 2005 using a bottle of glue and a slinky spring. Maybe these questions are unimportant and the interviewer is just sounding out my response to adversity. Maybe...
The end comes, the interviewer lunges his hand forward for a conclusive, hurried shake. "We'll be in touch," he says. I know, then, the magnitude of my failure. It's explained in the grip of his hand, the frown of his eyes and all those missing words. Waste of time.
I leave the interview, yank the tie from my neck, skipping straight over relief into a numb emptiness. I feel less of a human being than I did when I woke this morning.
In that room, I lost something.
Tuesday, July 6 2010. Day Fourteen.
Hundreds of ships inbound. Supposed to catch a train to work, five minutes. Mental paralysis. I want to walk away, but should do something, no? Map glares back at me. No easy answers here, if answers exist at all.
Revenge. Starspackle and Switchbreak did this to me. I send all of my fleets, every single one, on suicidal flights deep into Veret, Starspackle and Switchbreak territory. I will punch a hole in their game - but I'm still wielding a flint axe before their atomic death rays of oblivion so it's laughable, really. What kind of defiance is this? It's nothing like standing in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square.
Courses are set. These one-way journeys are The Aspiration's final words with the galaxy. If only I had been better at working with Facewizard. If only I had partnered with somebody. If only I...
And there it is. A shred of hope undermines me. In Neptune's Pride, there is a cool-off period of thirty minutes after fleets are issued instructions. The orders are countermanded. There will be no suicidal run terminating my game today.
Instead, the fleets move around aimlessly, as if it is business as usual. Children study numbers at school. Shoppers pick up the discounts at the supermarket, hot cakes are selling like hot cakes today. Traffic lights flicker from red to amber to green and back again. Everyone is ignorant of the impending apocalypse.
I miss three trains to work, sitting there, staring at this impossible puzzle, my Kobayashi Maru.
Baron Copernicus (Miles Newton), having misinterpreted my partnering intentions as hostility, receives this:
baron, i appear to have wounded you, but i'm not sure i should care as i'm about to be KILLED
next up, switchbreak intends to conquer you once orange is done for.
i had wondered about a pre-emptive strike on switchbreak, that's what i'm doing down here and you're just "oh i don't like your jokes" which, as reasons go, is a terrible reason to accept cultural death
you needed to think about your exit strategy. you needed to partner your way out of this.
your kingdom is over, too, baron, your last chance blotting out on the horizon
The words are robust, but the man behind them is not. The weight hasn't lifted from my shoulders – it's like the roof has collapsed and I'm trapped beneath rubble. I write a mail to Starspackle with my grief, that it's all over and I had tried to warn him. Bitterness and self-pity in equal measure. I'd let this game take over my life and now the game no longer needed me. We'll be in touch.
I tell Mrs. HM. She's sad for me after all I had put myself through, although pleased it is at an end now. I leave the house, just making the last train before hitting where-the-hell-are-you lateness.
On the train, I replay the situation over and over again. I can't stop thinking about the coming death blow, with a special focus on how to kill Veret. The only real idea I come up with is to tell Starspackle that I am in retreat and let Veret slip freely below his rump and see how he enjoys Veret's ministrations. I am in the game for a few days at least, just to see how the retreat plays out. I'm pretty sure I will stab at Switchbreak, too, to force redeployments in the war against Abacus Master.
Time is short so I send a mail to Kent from work as The Aspiration, the first time in the game that I use personal e-mail to front the role-play. It feels cheapened somehow. A small excerpt:
[veret] was beat up as a small kid. they made fun of his small tail and this is the price we all have to pay. i can't believe he's forgotten i used to stick up for him in school. that's not the kind of thing a Union Mind does every day, you know. more fool me.
We are leaving. We are not waiting on assistance any longer. It has been clear the security of The Aspiration has not been a priority for Starspackle and we vacate our homeworld sector, with tears in our jaw yet Virtue strong in our hearts.
Alone we Survive.
I will deny them the death of The Aspiration. My people will flee the galaxy to live another day.
At work I continue to mull over possibilities through the strong stench of grief, but every direction is the same: a painful struggle across a bed of hot coals followed by death. Do I really want to go home and look at Veret's dirty redness thrusting into my green and pleasant imperial body? I don't remember consenting to this.
I expect this to have happened while at work:
But when I get back, I discover the damage is not severe – Veret has only taken three stars so far, Dnoces, Procyon and Tabit - although his fleets are still advancing. I hadn't been thinking clearly. Of course Veret would be unable to conquer The Aspiration in a single day. I have time. Time to mess around.
Suddenly galvanised, I order two fleets to sweep across the northern and southern flanks of my homespace, named Refugee North and Refugee South respectively, picking up every god damn ship they can save. Other minor fleets are sent on short-lived diversions to recapture stars Veret might not leave well-defended. It's possible Veret might catch the Refugee fleets before they complete their mission because his forces are still faster than me... but I have to try.
Somehow I am readjusting, moving away from grief towards a search for death with dignity. Looking for blame? Take a look in the mirror. The pressure is off, the stress is gone, the tenor of the game changed. This is now about what the game has done to all of us, what it has put us through. And for them, for all of them, I rename the remainder of my fleets: For Seance, For Facewizard, For Crossheart, For The Aspiration.
And I send a billion messages, each communication mixing the original voice of The Aspiration with the recently unearthed Union Mind.
Switchbreak. Need to allay his concerns about the influx of potentially large refugee fleets as I line him up for attack: there are now ankaa fleets swimming overhead dnoces and i decided it was a change of plan moment, relocate down here in the warm south. i am dragging all our forces to pollux for a final stand against veret.
Baron Copernicus and Starspackle. A report from Refugee North: i will try to keep the tailjerk busy as long as possible... so watch out there are a few small fleets that will jump around, although some of them will meet their tragic end earlier than others... starting to sever connections to some of my stars, its just too painful for a union mind to keep being burned by nuclear death of its components en masse .... Celebrate our ascension. Your galaxy, for it is to you it will be entrusted, will be poorer without us. Stop the bleed. End the Horror.
And a report from Refugee South: i am saving as many civilians as i can, and the fight at tabit was lost, 84 ships felled.. a union mind feels these things... 84,000 of my species, *poof* .... We carry Virtue in our spine. We rebuild. The Virtuous Rapture awaits us. Ascension is close. But not today. The Ankaa horror will be disappointed. No species should watch the destruction of their home in such a cavalier fashion.
Baron Copernicus and Abacus Master: so i make a sword at Pollux with which i will strike at switchbreak... tasty... i suggest baron you try to do the same thing... i will give a signal if you want - if you don't want to go, fine, i am never going to win an award for most heroic swansong... and for Virtue's sakes, both of you DID EITHER OF YOU NOTICE I GAVE YOU TECH UPGRADES YESTERDAY FREE OF CHARGE
I also beg Starspackle for a free weapons upgrade ("throw me a bone here") and transmit a long, thought-out insult to Veret, ending on the implication that I might hand everything over to the Neptune's Pride AI. Not that the AI would be able to do any better, of course.
so i was just telling them
you know starspackle, baron copernicus, switchbreak, you know, every major empire
i explained when you were in school, the other kids used to beat you up about the size of your tail
i stepped in
not literally of course, i was an infant union mind back then, surrounded your tormentors with some of my people
those were the days
we used to get on so well
where did it get so serious, probably that day at the bridge, the murder
more jokes, liven things up, lets make fun of genocide and how i am desperately shipping my people out of harm's way, considering they protected you from your bullies
let's joke about you releasing incendiary shimmerstorms over the nursery fields of procyon, killing thousands of young
i suppose it must make you feel powerful, picking on babies
that picture on your christmas card, either that's an image enhancement, or its a surgical one
get over it, we have no need of another dictator suffering from tail-envy
at least the aspiration had a reason for its actions
dear brother you will miss me when i'm gone
well not gone gone, just gone, the aspiration will leave the galaxy if it gets too hot, turn everything over to auto-pilot
i love auto-pilot
The most bizarre thing is happening to me. Having travelled through a dark urban nightmare of grief, I find myself in a vibrant and lush forest of happy insanity. My role-play has transformed from the genocidal pacification of the galaxy into a species fleeing for its very survival.
I'm logged into Steam. Oh, this is unusual. I only log into Steam when playing games on Steam. But there it is. Right now. I'm logged into Steam. And Kent Sutherland wants talk. Today of all days. I'm logged into Steam, can you believe that? And I don't want to talk. Not in the mood.
So we talk.
KS: god, this game is getting exhausting isn't it
HM: it has been very hard on me, i'll be honest. i can never play another game again of NP. it has upset my Real Life immensely.
KS: sorry for getting you to play this one =(
HM: it's an experience. i have enjoyed the role play. and i knew this was going to happen, to be honest.
HM: but the weird thing is and i'll put this out when we blog about it, how soul crushing it was to see veret's ships at last coming down the screen it is like... all the hard work and effort
HM: and map watching gone
KS: I've heard that's the worst thing about this game like I said in my email, you lose in slow motion
HM: i have been in sort of daze today, like i am mourning, it is crazy
KS: the game gets under your skin, it starts to seep into everything
HM: weekend is the worst - left the pc on and could not stop checking like every 10 minutes
KS: you stare and stare at the screen, even though nothing changes. you look at the minimap, thinking of long term strategies, throwing them away. it's awful.
KS: it becomes altogether too human, too personal
HM: yes, we can all talk about how our lives were ruined
KS: I hope your life wasn't really ruined =(
HM: not really, i will heal =)
And in one magic, honest conversation, I reconnect. I see people behind the alien avatars again. All of them going through the same stresses and panic, despite the confidence streaming through the in-game chat.
During this game, I lost something. But now I've got it back... I don't know who I want to hurt any more.
Well, apart from Veret.