I’m thinking this might be the hardest element to write, and as such I’ve been putting it off. I mean cripes, I’ve been dusting.
April’s element is the plot. This bit feels really strange for two reasons. Firstly, when I write fiction it tends to be a more organic process as I go along (read: I’m too indecisive to make plans and stick to them); and secondly, it goes against my instinct to reveal big spoilers! (Seriously.)
Am I just procrastinating further? Probably. So without further ado…
The game opens on a family of four eating at a table. The little girl reaches for a bowl while her father tells a joke that makes everybody fall about laughing. They are happy.
The view pans back and now we are looking at them through a window. Back further, and we can see the whole building. The facade is that of an old English stately home, nestled in the picturesque countryside.
The people in the window suddenly freeze, and as we pan back further a gold frame comes into view around the scene; it’s actually a painting. There’s an audible sigh. We realise we’ve been looking through the eyes of Pete, who is slumped at his desk and wishing he was part of the happy family he imagined living there all those years ago.
A phone rings, and the story begins here.
Pete, an architect, is sent by his boss to take photos of an old office floor that has been buried underground for years, recently excavated by archaeologists. His company plans to gut it and build on top.
When Pete arrives, he’s transfixed by the perfectly preserved concoction of 80s computer systems and pop culture memorabilia. He starts taking photos, and begins piecing together the lives of the people that worked down here under the dim glow of the computer monitors. The lowly IT department at Frankfurter Bank.
But the more he finds, the more he realises something isn’t right. He finds cryptic notes, suspicious floppy disks and strange photos left by Earl, the IT head. It’s as if he was leaving a trail of important clues for someone in the future.
In 1989, Earl is gazing at an INXS poster wishing he was Michael Hutchence. In between, he completes some minor bug fixes and starts work on a misbehaving PC sent down from the fifth floor. His lead systems engineer strolls over to the coffee pot. Earl throws a grunt his way and rummages in a drawer for his screwdriver. He closes it, and notices a stream of coffee making its way to his feet. He looks up at the engineer, who is standing motionless while pouring coffee into a definitely-already-full mug.
His team have been acting strangely, lately.
After a few more incidents like this, Earl identifies that the level of insanity in his team is directly correlated to the amount of time spent at their workstations, and begins to suspect something much worse than an over-indulgence in marijuana. My team are acting peculiar, and it ain’t the doobies. He notes with interest that there have also been an unusual amount of issues reported to the helpdesk, ranging from small glitches to spontaneously combusting printers.
We learn that the bank is being hacked by a shady government organisation known as the Suits. The purpose of the hack, it turns out, is to covertly test a new mind control program, by uploading thoughts to the network and infecting its users [don’t ask me how, I’m just the narrator]. Unfortunately for Earl, his IT team are the perfect test subjects – low-profile, hidden away underground and the least bit of interest to their peers. Earl must find a way to stop the infiltration and avoid having his own brain turned to mush.
Back in the present, Pete has barricaded himself in the underground office – much to the fury of his management – while he digs deeper into the mystery. He becomes emotionally invested. From what he can deduce, the Suits are now long gone, eliminated one by one by Earl or by something else. He finds himself desperate to know what happened to Earl… then the clues run dry. They just stop. Exhausted and disheartened, he decides to take a break. He hauls the copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text adventure from Earl’s backpack.
And then something strange happens. As he plays, the game starts returning commands as if speaking specifically to him. It’s spewing harsh warnings, threatening to fondle Pete’s brain if he continues to probe. At first Pete is amused (especially at the careless innuendo), thinking it’s part of the game (this is Douglas Adams, after all). But then it gets personal. Pete finds he was wrong about the Suits; one remaining evil genius still exists in the form of an AI – one that communicates (poorly) through a text adventure. It continues to rage, informing Pete that Earl is dead and his efforts are futile. Yeah, right.
With the help of Earl from the past, Pete takes down the AI and makes sure the mind control plan can never go ahead. He seals the gateway, and finally allows the building to be destroyed. At the end of the game Pete has one last task: to find Earl. Despite what the AI said, he knows he’s still alive. He eventually tracks him down, and makes his way to the isolated trailer park where he believes Earl has been hiding out.
When he gets there, he finds a grave. Another decoy, obviously. But then, in the church obituaries, he learns that Earl succumbed to a long illness shortly after he left the department. The AI was telling the truth; his death was nothing to do with the Suits. Just a cruel, bitter coincidence. That must be why he was in a hurry to leave clues – because he knew he wouldn’t be around to see it through.
Pete is crushed.
This last blow, and everything that has happened before it, throws Pete further into crippling loneliness. He can’t face going back to his meaningless, empty life – no job, an ex-wife who would now likely rinse him for everything he’s got, and a daughter who he’ll never get to see again. The pain would be immeasurable.
Then he remembers. Among other things, the AI had complained that its virtual environment was stuck in the 80s. It had absorbed the world Pete felt he always belonged in, instead of the bleak, vacuous present. He goes home to his computer and re-opens the gateway. Swallowing back tears, he uploads his consciousness, taking the place of the AI he destroyed.