Bitter 319

Britta wasn’t sure what Nigel meant. How was he realistically going to stop APE, stop Clark and Harman, from doing whatever they pleased? They could just pull his plug. The only reason they hadn’t already was because he was pushing the game forward faster than they could.

She didn’t see their reluctance to pull the plug as a sentimental thing. She saw it as them hoping to squeeze as much progress out of this opportunity before they had to shut Nigel down. Probably for good.

Even if he was no longer around, they would still have made a giant leap in progress. Putting up with Nigel was probably a very minor inconvenience considering the rapid advances they were making.

“You think I’m exaggerating, don’t you?” said Nigel. “Believe me, they might not be too worried about me, I have an Off switch, but the investors I told you about, they’re the ones really in charge. Clark and Harman are too scared of them to risk any delays. Broken legs with baseball bats.”

He was just trying to frighten her now. “I know video games are big money, but—”

“Video games? You think that’s what this is about? Hardly.” Nigel brushed away the sides of the nun’s headdress. “A world where you can do virtually anything. A world where you can live forever. The possibilities...”

Britta wasn’t sure what he was getting at. Some kind of path to immortality? Could people live in here permanently, just their minds? Was that what Stan had done?

“If people can live forever here, why do you let the NPCs die and reset? Why not let them know they can come back? At least then they’ll be the same as the players.”

“I would love to, but there’s something in the core code preventing it. I’ll find it eventually. Making them realise players can come back is as far as I’ve managed to get, and I’m not sure what good that does.”

“If you made it a little less about everyone trying to kill each other,” said Britta, “maybe it wouldn’t matter.”

“And you don’t think people would find that boring?”

“No! Not everyone, anyway.”

“I’m not so sure. They tried something like that in Phase One, and the testers lost interest very quickly.”

“I don’t know what the game was like back then,” said Britta. “But maybe your understanding of what people find boring isn’t fully developed.”

He bridled a little at that, and looked at her through narrowed eyes. “They keep me in an ice box in a hole in the ground. Boredom is probably the human emotion I find easiest to identify with.”

She felt a bit bad for him now. She’d been down to see his living arrangements. They were sparse. “But you have the internet,” she said to lift the mood.

“I’ve read it.”

“All of it?”

“Twice. Which is why I know how little Utopia interests people.”

“I think you’re selling us short,” said Britta. “We might have started like that, but we evolved. Plenty of people prefer to avoid violent means to solve their problems. You don’t have to worry about dying and coming back if people stop trying to kill each other all the time.”

Nigel sat there thinking for a while. Britta finished her drink. It tasted even worse once it had cooled down.

“It would be a different kind of game.”

“Yes,” said Britta.

“They won’t like it. They still want to make money out of it. Everything’s been geared towards an MMO style of play. Survival through conflict is integral to their business model.”

“There are other forms of conflict. Putting NPCs on the same footing as players doesn’t mean you have to make them more like real people. The people in here aren’t like real people, so why should the NPCs be?”

Was she advocating for the whole game to be rebuilt? They really wouldn’t like that at APE. But she wasn’t suggesting they needed to change the actual mechanics, just the attitude of the inhabitants.

Of course, the players might not cooperate. Their attitude might be one of pleasant surprise because they’d have the opportunity to kill everything for free.

“Interesting,” said Nigel. “I can see maybe making a few adjustments. They might not even notice them, if I’m subtle about it.”

“There you go, you’re coming up with ideas already.”

“Yes, thanks to you. This is what I mean. You’re very helpful when it comes to looking at problems from a different perspective.”

“Thank you.” It was the sort of compliment she was happy to take. If he just needed a sounding board, then maybe she could be of help after all. A consultant, there to point out dumb ideas, and support the good ones.

Of course, that didn’t mean her opinions were going to be of any help. If APE had designed a game based on a kill-or-be-killed mentality, then they might not be best pleased if it suddenly turned into a farming sim.

But small changes might not be too bad. As long as he was subtle like he said, it might even make the game more exciting.

Nigel seemed to have become consumed with his thoughts and was more or less ignoring her. She told him she had to go and he waved her off distractedly. At least he wasn’t as downbeat as before.

She’d only had a drink and a chat, but she felt quite drained. She wasn’t in the mood to go looking for a quest. She had no idea what had happened to the Mayor’s wife or Frau Magda’s birthday dinner. It had probably worked itself out somehow. She logged out.

It was Saturday lunchtime and Britta was hungry. She went downstairs and chatted with Mum about school stuff and the parents’ evening coming up. Dad was in the game, so it was just the two of them, which was nice.

It wasn’t until much later that evening that Dr Reedy called.

“Did something happen today?” she asked Britta.

“No. Not really. Why?”

“The NPCs are refusing to fight any of the players.”

So much for being subtle.

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