A Short Story
I first noticed him on Dark Ride 2. He used the default avatar every time: plasticene, off-white skin, a crop of brown hair, brown eyes and a blank, empty smile. In the winner profile screen, the UI displayed him standing with a trophy, waving his arm at us. To and fro. To and fro. Sometimes I would count how many times he waved before my time to ponder my second place loss ended and we moved on to the next course.
Player. That’s what he went by. You can see why it took me a while to notice him—to see the pattern. I’d join a new game around six p.m. on Wednesdays, the day I set aside every week to conquer the world with my thumbs, and start in last place on the track. It takes time to edge ahead from last in a new group simply because newcomers to the game start in the rear, and the more talented players hang on to first.
My rank floats above my head. Somewhere in the 8,100s these days. Out of a maximum 10,000, of which the highest rank to date was only 8,433.
So I start in twelfth. I play a few rounds and I’m competing for first and second place with an avatar named Player and another named 7Los7. Los and I often find ourselves competing for first, if we’re placed in the same group. But he drives a big vehicle that can destroy him on a course with tight maneuvers.
Tonight we have another competitor—looks like a guest, or an avatar playing with a friend. The name “Player” is a good indication. That’s the name your little sister or your dad gets by default when he comes over on Sunday nights and wants to play online.
Well, in Angela’s case, I try to avoid having her over for videogames and a beer when at all possible. She’s fearsome at Dark Ride. Luckily, she doesn’t have much time to play since she started working graveyard shift at the hospital.
Los tells me on the in-game chat display that Player has been holding first place for almost an hour. We get a short window to chat between levels, when players vote on their course of choice for the next round. Then the computer picks one at random from the list of selections and gossip time is over.
“An hour?” So it’s not a fluke. Players in last place can jump to first on flukes—like last round, where an avatar called mikkOka got a special power-up and it rained down meteors. Every car lay smoking by the side of the road as she raced to third place up from twelfth.
There he is, waving happily in first place. I open his profile.
Nothing. No place of origin. No bio or rank. Then the clock beeps 0:00 and the next level starts.
Player plays a hard game. Always just ahead of me—or Los, when I got a cannon to the right fender and fell back to eighth. His execution is near-flawless, but still perceivably human. He cannot simply go faster, the technique game-makers use to create computer-controlled opponents that can compete with high-ranked human players. To match the human’s ability to think on his feet, the computer simply accelerates to 125% of the human’s maximum top speed.
Player makes mistakes, but very few of them, which keeps him ahead. He knows a double-tap on the emergency brake button helps you recover faster from direct hits. He drives the standard vehicle, in standard red.
I give up early that night and head to my nextdoor neighbor’s place for Conan the Barbarian.
The next Wednesday, I take a break from Dark Ride and move to another platform game, Gladiator. I find Los on the message boards and suggest he join me in the first-person shooter, where he reigns as regional champion.
After an hour, Player appears.
“Might not be the same one,” he says. Player only stays for a few minutes, but he doesn’t take a single hit. He signs off with zero deaths and a dozen kills.
The week after, we play Gladiator again, and Player dominates the scoreboard for most of the evening. Los gives up with a colorful farewell and logs off for two weeks.
But Player says nothing. Well, that’s not entirely true. When he stands in first place after each ten-minute round, waving at us, he’ll sometimes say over the in-game:
Good game. He’s telling us, “Thanks for losing so admirably.” The more we play with him, the more his ritualistic “GG” makes my face burn an angry red.
“GG?” I demand over the in-game. “GG? How is this a good game? You’re mopping the floors with us. Get a goddamned rank.” Maybe if he gets ranked and put in his proper place, he’ll get paired with other players instead of us all the time.
Player says nothing. I hurl my controller at the wall, then pick up the remote and kill the power. The television flashes NO SIGNAL.
I call Angela. She got the week off, and is taking the time to do her Christmas shopping and spend afternoons with her kids. We meet for drinks down the street from my apartment.
“Teddy, I’m surprised you’re letting this get to you,” she says. “It’s just one guy. Maybe a girl.”
“Maybe a god damned alien,” I say into my drink. “But he’s following me. She’s following me. Whatever.” I stare at her. “You’re the only one who is supposed to beat me that bad. And these days you’d probably lose since you’re so out of practice.”
But Angela knows she’s better than that and simply smirks at me.
“Okay, fine, Ted. So are you asking me for my opinion, or for my help?”
“Help?” I ask.
“Yeah.” She finishes her beer and stuffs a napkin in her glass. “You want me to beat this guy, right? That’s why you called me?”
I hadn’t thought about it, but I nod anyway.
“All right then. Let’s go to your place, or else we’ll have munchkins hogging the TV and spilling mac and cheese.”
Angela gives it her best shot. She really does. She edges ahead for some time, dominating Player’s curves with her dwarf-sized avatar and tiny, agile motorbike.
“He doesn’t use power-ups or items,” she says suddenly, missing a curve and blowing through a fence. “He just plays really, really well.”
I hadn’t noticed that. It makes him seem even stranger, more alien.
“Do you think it’s a computer?” I ask.
Angela studies his play style as he accelerates past her, his standard red car making good use of its higher maximum top speed. Angela doesn’t play Gladiator, but somehow Player still found her back on Dark Ride.
He’s like a bloodhound for good competition.
“No,” she says. “He’s reckless sometimes. Not often, but reckless when he thinks the speed gain will help him. Computers aren’t reckless.”
She has a good point. She loses two courses in a row and gives up.
Player says, “GG.”
“Damn,” she says. “That is annoying.”
I record a ghost of one of the courses—a tunnel course where I almost always manage to beat Angela, even on my bad days. Then I stop playing online.
I focus on the ghost recording. Player’s shadow rushes ahead of me on each curve, exactly like he did in the game. I play against the recording again and again, studying his moves. I pick a medium-sized avatar like his, and the standard red car.
One day I stay up so late, I miss the first two hours of work the next day. I decide to call in sick and spend the day playing the tunnel course over and over again, until I beat Player’s ghost to the finish line.
I return to main screen, my breathing accelerated. I understand the movement of the thumb and forefinger required to take that last turn on the tunnel like Player does, heel to the wall without dropping any velocity.
Then I enter the online game arena.
I play a few courses with Los. His girlfriend is demanding a night out, so he signs off early. I’m about ready to make this course my last when Player joins.
I vote for the tunnel course. Three other players vote for the beach course. If you’re careful on the open stretch near the beginning, you can go off the road and bowl over beach bunnies on towels. It’s a popular course.
We play the beach. Player does well, but I come in only half a second behind him. If he were more than just a plastic-skinned dummy on the screen, I could imagine him looking over his shoulder, his eyes widening as he sees my identical standard red car bearing down on him.
I vote for the tunnel again. And again. I get second place twice in a row on the downtown and mineshaft courses, and then fourth place. And then sixth. I’m trying to unplug the power to my console in fury when the computer finally chooses the tunnel course.
I pause, then pick up the controller. I’m in sixth, which is further back than where I started on the ghost recording.
The traffic light goes on. A red light beeps once, then turns orange. Then green. A flag falls and the cars start.
It takes some time to edge up to third. Then I’m struck by providence and I get an Earthquake power-up. It’s best to use on high jumps, where the earthquake will strike everyone on the field except for me.
There aren’t a lot of jumps on the tunnel course, so I veer off onto a grass courtyard toward a jump that’s best when combined with speed boosts. It’s hard to accelerate on the grass without a boost, but I have enough momentum to get into the air.
I use my power-up. The earthquake cracks open the ground below in a spiderweb. I land on the other end of the jump and veer back onto the road, then the course takes me underground.
I speed past a recovering vehicle into second place. On the snapshot of the map in the top right corner, Player is a curve ahead of me. Not too bad, though still not as good as in the ghost recording where I beat him.
Thumb and forefinger. Many of the turns here are the same arc, the same combination of button presses and swings of the joystick. I take risks for tight turns and my car edges closer to Player on the mini-map.
It’s just like the ghost recording, except the finish line is only half a lap away, instead of a whole one. I use a speed boost over a ramp, and Player’s car comes into sight.
If he were ranked, this would be a great victory. Without a rank, it is simply first place. Another notch on my boot.
I roar around the next two curves—the final two curves. There is a stretch before the finish line where I cannot hope to catch up, as we drive the same car. If I drove something heavier, something with a bigger engine—I could overtake him.
On the end of the last curve I am behind. I have no power-ups or speed boosts stored up. I simply lean my head forward over my hands, over the remote, and gun it.
I sail past the plain, smiling avatar of Player. His car slows down, then comes to a stop, just before the finish line. The television chimes as the game counts my final score and posts my time on the screen.
On the mini-map, Player has stopped moving. Other players pass him, crossing the finish line. The game ends.
Player gets last place. I see my own avatar in first place on the next screen, waving at me. To and fro.
There is no “GG” in the in-game chat window. Instead, Player signs off. We go on to the next course, and I hold first place.
The next week, I join the game at six p.m. and vote for the beach course. Player doesn’t show up.
Los tells me on the message board that Player is a no-show for Gladiator, too. We find others who have played against Player. Gladiator, Dark Ride, Settlements—he never lost.
I play against the ghost recording of Player on the tunnel course. I beat him easily. I delete the recording that night and call up Angela.
We meet for drinks, and talk about our Christmas plans.
Soon Los and I forget about Player. Sometimes my heart beats faster when a default avatar joins the game, but they are fathers, or little sisters.
Maybe he was a computer—but he was a computer who couldn’t stand to lose.
I can identify with that.