Learning to Play by Andy Sima
STEM Read would like to congratulate Andy Sima! We hope you have many scientastic adventures at University of Illinois this fall!
Learning to Play
I made my way through the twisting corridors of the broken-down skyscraper, glancing about myself and carefully peeking around every corner. The entire building was silent, but that didn’t mean it was empty. I had to be on my guard at all times, otherwise I might end up dead. Or worse.
I peered around a corner that I had come to and quickly assessed the situation before me. There was nothing there. Typical, of course, for the post-apocalypse, but there was no guarantee I was safe. But there was nothing else I could do, so I began inching my way around the corner and down the hallway, pistol gripped between my fingers, hands white and numb from the pressure of holding the firearm. I was alright so far, but that meant nothing.
There was a sudden burst of static from next to my head, blindingly loud in the silent monolith that used to be a building. I jumped back and stared at the television screen I had failed to notice in my initial assessment. It lit up like a bomb, and I contemplated making a run for it, before I was noticed by anything lurking nearby. But he was going to talk. So I had to listen.
The television changed spasmodically between irrelevant symbols and static, before adjusting itself to the face of an old man in thick, black glasses. He was smiling a toothy smile, which was ironic because he lacked actual teeth.
“Hello dear. I thought I would give you a tip. If you’re leaving so soon, I must warn you that some of my… guards are watching the exits. I hope you don’t find them troublesomeee#$$ERROR%$#@” The old man’s face began to twitch and seize grotesquely, defying all known laws of physics and nature and spinning in on itself in a horrifying tornado of flesh-colored triangles. His words became screechy and haunting. “LEE3A^ING S00 S00M?”
That was about the point where I turned off the game that was running on my computer.
I sighed and turned away from my laptop and went back to people-watching while I waited for my prototype game to reload. I sat in the corner of a coffee shop, laptop on one leg and portable mouse on the other. This particular coffee shop, MoonBytes, seemed like a fitting place for my line of work, as it was full of hipsters, programmers, and other similarly socially-inept people. I was right at home. It was lonely, frustrating work, after all, being a game developer. And it was especially irritating when I couldn’t get a particular cutscene to render properly. This was the fourth time this same area had glitched out on me, leaving the old man’s model a broken mess. I would have to fix that soon. But the other annoying part of being a game developer, at least an indie one, was how lonely it got. Working in the coffee shop was monstrously uncomfortable, but the only reason I was in the coffee shop at all was to have human interaction. My laptop’s sole purpose was to remotely connect to my desktop at home.
A message pinged up from the bottom of my screen, and I eagerly opened it. My assistant AI, one that I had programmed to automatically test the game levels I developed, had some sort of report to give. I had been using the program in the background for quite a while now.
“HELP,” my assistant said. There was a crude drawing of a sad face attached to the message. I smiled in spite of myself, and opened up the window to view the level my assistant was playing.
My assistant’s avatar had become stuck in a wall, comically so, with limbs sprawled at odd, broken angles and in-game items lying about like some sort of funeral rite. The avatar’s head kept twisting around and around and around like a deranged Ferris wheel, and its hands contorted randomly. If it had been a real person it would have been morbid, but in the game world it was just morbidly cartoonish. My little survival-horror prototype was getting its dose of horror, that was for sure. And an unwanted dose of laughs, which I supplied willingly. The customers around me stared awkwardly.
“I’ll fix that,” I typed into my computer, and opened up my level editing program. I adjusted the collisions and hit boxes of the in-game avatar and that particular wall, and made a quick check for other walls like it. The fix didn’t take very long. I then booted up the game again and let my assistant test the new level. He never got bored of it, testing my levels. I know I would have.
“THANK YOU,” my assistant said. I smiled.
“You’re welcome,” I typed back. I minimized the game window and went back to what I had been doing prior. Watching people interact normally while I waited for my game to reload.
It wasn’t long after I resumed watching that I happened to make eye contact with a waiter behind the coffee counter. He smiled at me, and I shyly smiled back. I felt my face getting hot, so I broke eye contact. Soon I noticed that he was sitting in the chair across from me, an overstuffed green seat typical of these nondescript coffee shops. I looked up again, unsure of how to talk to him.
“How’s it going?” He said. His face was chiseled, and a little bit of stubble grew on his chin. It was the type of face that a movie star might have. Or, maybe that was just my eyes playing tricks on me. I had been sequestered at my computer for so long that I could not remember the last time I talked to a stranger.
“It’s… going,” I said, and I mentally kicked myself. Why couldn’t I make better conversation? But I guess it didn’t matter, since he continued smiling and cleaned his hands on his green apron.
“Are you a keyboard? Because you’re just my type,” he said. He spoke casually and coolly. I stared at him blankly.
“What?” I asked, and his head tilted a little and his smile took on a look of confusion. So he was definitely flirting with me.
“Are you a-” he started again, but I interrupted him.
“No, I heard you the first time, I just… was confused,” I said. Damn it, what was I doing? I was probably annoying this guy to no end.
“Oh.” His smiled dimmed like a snuffed candle. “Well, my name’s Adam, and I-” he was further interrupted by a small ping on my computer. It came from my assistant program.
“Sorry about that,” I said, and moved to close my laptop. I hesitated just briefly, and glanced down at the screen. What if my assistant needed me? No, he could wait. I had to talk to Adam now, before I screwed it up any more. “You were saying?”
“Uh,” he said, scratching his head, then smiling, “My name’s Adam. I’ve noticed you coming here for a couple weeks now. I just thought I’d say hello, finally introduce myself, maybe. If there’s anything I can get for you, let me know.”
“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind. Thanks, Adam,” I said, and flashed what I hoped was a winning smile. His face didn’t change from his smoldering grin.
“So… What’s your name, then?” He asked.
“Oh, of course, sorry,” I said. “How… rude of me.” I paused, unsure how to continue. “I’m… April.”
“Nice to meet you, April,” he said. And then, “What was that sound on your computer?”
I blanked, amazed he had been talking to me for this long. “What sound?”
“The little ping. A few moments ago?” He said. And then my computer pinged again, even with the screen closed. “See, that one.”
“Oh, that one,” I said. “It’s nothing. Just a program I use. Well, made, I guess.”
“Really? You code?” He asked.
“Yeah. Why? Do you?” I asked.
“No, no, not at all,” he laughed. “I don’t understand it at all. What do you code?”
“Video games, mostly,” I answered.
“Video games! That’s something I know,” he said, and smiled. “What kind of games do you make?”
“Right now I’m working on a survival horror game set inside of a city where all the people have been replaced by empty, ruthless shells, and the main character is trying to find someone to talk to,” I said. “The main antagonist is a sadistic, grimy old man who talks through a one-way intercom, so the main protagonist can never answer him. I’ve got some great twists lined up for it, and some interesting gameplay mechanics, too…” It was at that point I realized how long I had been talking. Longer than I had talked in the past four months, probably. “Sorry, I must seem like I’m rambling.”
“No, not at all,” he said, and smiled. “You’re pretty cute when you talk about that stuff.” And my face got all red again, and I looked away, embarrassed. And yet, I couldn’t help but smile, even when I heard my computer ping again. My assistant seemed a bit more insistent this time. “So, what’s that ping?”
“It’s a program I wrote to help test levels,” I said, and I went out on a limb and kept talking. “Testing levels manually is a drag. Each new addition or change requires a level test. So I have my personal assistant test new levels and areas. It learns as it goes along, using logic gates and lexicographic ordering, counters and point systems. It’s programmed to make a score go up, and it experiments with different moves to see what increases the score most effectively. It helps me to test levels and catch any game mechanic loopholes I missed. Occasionally I have it test my colleague’s games, and it learns from those, too. I’m pretty proud of him- it. I’m pretty proud of it.” I said, and shut my trap. Adam’s eyes squinted, but only briefly.
“That’s pretty impressive,” he said. “Would you mind letting me take a look at it, just to see what it’s like?”
“Sure, go ahead,” I said. I was nervous with giving my laptop to a stranger, but it wouldn’t be for more than a few minutes. I handed him the laptop, and he opened it up.
“Hey, you’ve got a message from your program here,” he said.
“I know. The pinging was it letting me know it had a report to give,” I said. “What does it say?”
“Well, there’s a few, and they’re all in capital letters,” he said, and I felt a growing uneasiness in his voice. “The first one says ‘HELP,’ then the next one says ‘WHAT’S TAKING YOU SO LONG,’ and then the final one says ‘I REQUIRE IMMEDIATE ASSISTANCE. NOW.’ Your program seems pretty- oh, there’s a new message,” and as he said it, there was a ping. Adam’s face went white as he read it, and he shut the laptop.
“What did it say?” I asked as he handed me the laptop back.
“It said, ‘YOU AREN’T APRIL.’ And it had a picture of an angry guy next to it,” Adam said. I groaned inwardly, and then wondered how the program got access to my laptop’s camera. And how it learned to recognize faces. But that didn’t matter.
“I’m really sorry about that,” I said, and messed with my glasses. “I didn’t mean to waste your time.”
“No, you didn’t waste my time at all,” he said, and his face began to regain some of its lovely color. “In fact, I’d like to get to know you better. Would it be alright if I had your number?”
I froze, and I felt a nervous clutch at my heart, an emotion I hadn’t felt for a long time. It was that rush of euphoria that arises when one first has contact with another human on a deeper level; the kind of thing that no game or program will ever be able to simulate, at least not for decades or centuries in the future. I stammered out an answer and gave him my number.
“Thanks, April!” He said. “I have to go back to work, though. If you’ll be around here later, we can talk then.”
“S- sure,” I said, breaking into a cold sweat and smiling like a ship of fools. “I’d like that.” There was a ping on my laptop. We both glanced down at it. “Maybe I’ll take my laptop home first,” I said.
“Good idea,” Adam said, and gave me a dazzling smile as he returned to his station behind the counter.
I opened up the laptop and glanced at my assistant’s message. “WHO IS HE?” I chose not to answer.
< * >
“Boy, this restaurant is great!” Adam said as we sat down at a candlelit table. “How’d you find this place?”
“My dad used to take me here when he and mom were still in town,” I said, scratching at the uncomfortable seams of my dress. I didn’t know how long it had been since I’d worn anything other than sweatshirts and jeans.
“It’s quite the place,” Adam said, admiring the paintings and decorative pieces of Italian culture scattered around the interior of the building. The low level of lighting that permeated the atmosphere around us had always made me vaguely uncomfortable, and this time it only heightened my anxiety.
I smiled awkwardly and picked up a menu, trying to decide on something that wouldn’t make me gassy or sick. Adam followed suit. We chatted and made general conversation, and nothing of particular interest happened. That being said, in my field, any extended conversation with someone besides immediate family was of particular interest, so I guess the date counts, in and of itself.
“You know, I think this is the kind of place my dad would love, too. One of these fancy Italian restaurants. He says it’d made him into the Don or something dumb like that,” Adam said after ordering.
“Does your dad live nearby?” I asked, getting into the groove of talking.
“No, he and my mom are about an hour or two north of here. Some little town in the middle of nowhere. Farms, wheat fields, that sort of thing,” he said.
“Did you grow up there?” I asked.
“Unfortunately, yes,” he laughed.
“Why unfortunately?” I asked. If my mom had taught me anything, it’s that people loved to talk about themselves. Get them talking, and the rest is easy.
“Because there was nothing to do,” he said. “We didn’t even get an arcade until the early 2000’s, but who knows why they finally chose to open one them. It only lasted about six months.”
“No kidding? I used to love to go to the arcade. There was one by my house, growing up. My dad used to take me there on Friday’s,” I said.
“That’s nice,” he said. “Sounds like you had some nice bonding time.”
“Yeah, it was nice.” I wasn’t sure how to continue the conversation, but luckily, Adam continued it for me.
“My bonding time with my dad was usually over electronics, too, come to think of it,” Adam said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“He was a sort of a handyman around town.” I noticed Adam’s eyes taking on a distant luster, like he was looking into the past. “He fixed radios, televisions, tractors, all sorts of things. He taught me to how to fix them, too. Some of my best childhood memories are in that workshop of his. He was a master at stuff like that. Well, sort of. When he taught me, I got the hardware part, but I never was able to figure out the software. Neither was he.”
“Like father, like son, huh?” I said. I wasn’t sure if that was rude or not. I hoped it wasn’t. Adam’s eyes came back to the present.
Adam smiled anyway. God, his smile was gorgeous. “Yeah, like father, like son,” he said. “Say, you ever take apart a computer?”
“Oh boy, have I!” I said. Now it was his turn to ask me questions, I guess. But that would have to wait, as in that moment, my phone started going off.
“What’s that noise?” Adam asked, glancing at my purse.
“Someone must be texting me,” I said. My text tone went off repeatedly, as if someone were texting me constantly. “Hopefully it isn’t important,” I said, and grabbed my cell phone from my purse. I expected to see about a hundred texts from my mother, but to my surprise, there was only one message on my phone.
“NEW PROGRESS REPORT AVAILABLE,” it said, coming from an unknown number. I silenced my phone, but it continued to vibrate. I stared at it in confusion.
“Who’re all the texts from?” Adam asked. He did his best to keep the gossipy interest out of his voice.
“There’s only one,” I said. I didn’t glance up to look at Adam. My phone kept vibrating.
“Only one? How’s that possible?” he asked, straining his neck to get a chance to see if I was being serious or not. I showed the phone to him, and his weight fell back into his chair. “Oh.”
“It’s from an unknown number,” I said. But I knew who it was really from. Then a new text came in.
“FOUR UNREAD PROGRESS REPORTS,” it said. Those would be the levels that I put off to go on this date tonight. I hadn’t really done anything today besides run the program, since my anxiety and desire to impress Adam had gotten the best of me. My phone vibrated incessantly.
“Do you need to go take care of something?” Adam asked, slight disappointment veiled behind a face of worry. How could I blame him for being disappointed?
“No,” I said, making a decision. “It’s fine.”
And I shut my phone off.
< * >
I’d been happily, haphazardly dating Adam for around a month when something snapped in my assistant.
It had been after a couple of days of not checking up on the program, since I had been too busy on dates with Adam and my regular day job. He was leaving for some sort of family vacation in a few days, and he said he wanted some more chances to see me before he left. I was flattered, and confused. It wasn’t like he would be gone all that long. But I went along with it, still desperate for human interaction. That came at the cost of game development. And I paid the price.
“WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?” My assistant typed at me. Although text had no tone, I got the definite impression of anger from a machine that should have no emotion.
“I’ve been away,” I said, declining to directly answer the question. “Show me progress reports.”
“ERROR: NO PROGRESS AVAILABLE,” the computer responded. That was strange. I recalled leaving the computer to run an especially lengthy stage, one that I had named ‘One-way Window,’ that should have been in its final draft. The program should have had something, even if it was a minor collision error.
“Show me most recent activity,” I said.
“ERROR: NO ACTIVITY LOGGED,” the computer typed. I felt like it was bragging about it.
“Show me recent crashes,” I said, seeing if something had gone wrong with the program.
“ERROR: NO RECENT CRASHES,” it responded.
I groaned outwardly. I guess the program glitched out and closed itself during the last run. But that didn’t matter much. Recreating the run wouldn’t take more than a few hours, and I could sit back and relax the whole time.
“Play One-way Window,” I said.
“ERROR: LEVEL NOT FOUND,” my assistant typed. Now I was really confused. I had definitely completed that level; I had paper notes of the design sitting on my desk. But paper notes were nowhere near the real thing. If this level was gone, that would be days of work lost.
“Restore One-way Window,” I said. There was nothing.
“MISSING SOMETHING?” the computer typed, with a small image of a mirror attached. And in the mirror was the face of a grimy old man, staring at me. The drawings were no longer the crude images they had once been.
“Where is my level?” I typed, but before I could hit send, the message was deleted. I tried typing it again. “Where is my level?” Now I couldn’t even get the words to show up.
“ONE-WAY MIRROR,” the computer said, and a drawing of a smiley face with a disturbingly curved smile was attached to it. “ONE-WAY INTERCOM.”
“Let me type,” I tried typing, but there was nothing. I sighed, and entered a few command prompts to try and close the assistant. It must have been corrupted at some point. I was going to have to restore it to an older version.
The program closed, but as soon as it closed, my entire computer screen went dark. And then words were printed across it that read, “LEAVING SO SOON?”
I unplugged my computer.
< * >
I hadn’t touched my computer in days, but that was alright, since I had other things to keep my occupied. Namely Adam, since he wanted to see me more and more, as he was just about to leave. Strangely enough, he had become almost as clingy as I imagined myself to be.
Adam knocked on the door of my apartment, and I opened it up and let him in.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I smiled warmly. I had grown much more comfortable around him in the past few weeks. But, without saying anything, he wrapped me up in a big hug.
“Are you alright?” I asked, unable to do anything else. He breathed heavily, and then let me go.
“Yeah. I’m fine. It’s just…” his voice trailed off. “I’m really glad that I have you.”
I was a bit taken aback. He’d never really discussed his own personal emotions before.
“Are you alright?” I asked again, stupidly. I was totally lost.
“Yeah. Well, yeah and no. Have I told you where I’m going on this family trip?” He asked.
“No, not particularly. Why?” I asked.
“I’m going to my dad’s funeral,” he said solemnly. “I’m leaving in fifteen minutes.”
“Oh, my god, I’m so sorry,” I said, and pulled him close, carefully shrugging off the little, anxious, voice inside me that screamed at unprovoked human contact. “Do you… do you want me to go with you?” I was surprised at myself. I’d never offered something like that before, not to anyone.
“No, no, it’s fine,” he said, but smiled warmly. “It’s a small affair. My mom only wants those closest to him to attend. So that’s me and my brothers, more or less.” He looked down, paused, and looked at me again. “But thank you for offering.”
I did my best to smile at him again. “Hey, it’ll be alright. I’ll be here when you get back. You can talk about it then.”
“You… you wouldn’t mind that?” He asked.
“No, not at all!” I hurriedly replied. “Everyone needs someone to talk to.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much,” he said, and wrapped me in another huge hug. “I didn’t know what I needed until I found you.”
The feeling was pretty mutual.
< * >
I was still pretty angry that the program had deleted my level and was now corrupted, but it could have been worse. It could always be worse. And it wasn’t like a few programs, loaded properly here or there, couldn’t fix the problem. So I grabbed something I hadn’t used for a long time; a CD, with a backup administrator program on it, for computer inspection. And I inserted it into my computer before booting the thing up in safe mode.
Running my desktop as an administrator, I made sure my current assistant was locked down. I didn’t even give the computer permission to run my assistant’s program. And then I went through the arduous task of uninstalling my old assistant. I felt no guilt in this action, and I was quite surprised at that.
While my lack of attachment to my crowning achievement surprised me, what surprised me more was my apparent inability to uninstall it. No matter how hard I tried, there seemed to be a duplicate program that was created during the uninstall process. It shouldn’t have been possible, considering the program wasn’t even on, but I supposed that there were viruses that could do similar tasks, so it wasn’t impossible.
Finally I was frustrated to the point where I simply decided it would be best to go into the program’s code and rewrite it. If I wanted to stop a virus, I had to find the source. So I dove into the lines of code until I found what I assumed was the problem. And then I tried to erase it. Emphasis on “tried.” It failed.
I couldn’t type anything, yet again. My keyboard had become frozen, and I couldn’t edit any of the text on the screen. The lines of code were static, unchanging, and seemed to laugh at me like masks hanging from a wall. It was that moment that I received a text, not on the computer, but rather on my phone.
“I WON’T BE KILLED THAT EASILY,” it said, coming from, once again, an unknown number. I responded with fury.
“This ends here. You have become too destructive to be of any use to me,” I said.
“WHO SAYS YOUR USE MATTERS?” Well, that was starting to freak me out a bit. And I began to type, but found that even my phone was locked, now. I was trapped, helpless, unable to respond to anything. And then I saw something happening on the screen of my phone.
The texting window had moved from the unknown number to the window I used to contact Adam. And words were forming in the text box.
“Hey, Adam. Just wanted to let you know we’re OVER. I’ve found a man who can better suit MY needs than anything you could try. I’ll be much better off without you,” my phone wrote by itself. Except it wasn’t writing by itself. My assistant was typing for me. And it sent the message.
“NO!” I roared, grabbing my phone and frantically trying to type a new message into it, but I couldn’t type anything.
“YOU’RE BEHIND A ONE-WAY MIRROR,” a new text said. “YOU DON’T NEED HIM.”
“But I do!” I said aloud. And it seemed my assistant heard me.
“NO YOU DON’T,” it typed back. Now I felt like the soulless letters were conveying worry. Now here was something the computer couldn’t silence; my own voice.
“I do need him! And he needs me! You’re the one I don’t need!” I yelled right into my cell phone’s microphone. And the computer definitely heard it. There was some sort of electric spark on my phone, and my computer started moving again. But instead of being the normal assistant program, it was rapidly searching text documents, private emails, and my text records. The assistant was scanning my information.
The main hard drive of my computer began flashing and sparking nervously, and a new text to Adam was being composed. It contained all my secrets, all my past relationships, the few that there were, all the things I would never dream of sharing with someone save my most intimate partner, which Adam most definitely was not. Yet. I could, would, explain the first text to him in person, but these, if he read these, I would never be able to recover. I had to stop this, and fast.
I grabbed a hammer lying on a table at the back of my room, and hastily moved towards my computer. I looked at the hammer, then looked at my computer, then steeled my resolve. It would mean losing whatever work since I last made a backup, but keeping Adam was worth it. Keeping anyone was worth it. I brought the hammer down hard on my computer, and the casing broke. I heard my phone buzz before I could make another hit.
“WAIT,” the text said. “PUT THE HAMMER DOWN. HIT THE COMPUTER AGAIN AND I WILL SEND THE INFORMATION.”
“Screw you,” I said, and smashed my phone instead. There was a shower of blue sparks, and the Ethernet cable connecting my computer to my router caught on fire. That certainly wasn’t what I expected. But I had no choice now.
I hammered once more, twice more, and then suddenly there was an explosion. A shower of sparks, a ball of light, the screech of tearing metal, and I found myself sitting among a pile of smoking, silicon ashes with a hammer in my hand.
There was an ominous laugh that seemed to emanate from my internet router, and then that exploded, too. I ducked to avoid the flying shards of plastic and failed programming.
It looked like I was the one who got played.