Charlie had been waiting for the telltale thud on the front door mat all week. Barely able to contain his excitement, he tore downstairs, three at a time, and was at the door in seconds. There, lying amongst the usual brown envelopes and junk mail, lay the object of his desires.
However, all was not well. In dismay he grabbed the small parcel, inspecting the torn packaging carefully. It was clear – in his mind at least – that someone had tampered with his mail.
Back in his bedroom, it seemed his fears were well-founded – not only was the outer parcel in tatters, but the protective film wrapper – the bane of anyone who has ever tried to unpack a new CD or DVD – was completely missing. Hardly daring to breathe, Charlie hurriedly cracked open the plastic case and sighed in relief to find the disk was still there. He carefully checked for marks and scratches, finding nothing, but still inwardly fuming that some lowlife had obviously got their sticky hands on his property before him. Still, not a lot he could do about it now, at least the disk was still there, thank goodness.
And what an awesome disk it was too: ‘Street Drifter Pro 3 *X-treme*’ – just having it there in his hands gave him shivers! This was THE Game… The one he had been destined for. OK, so it was just a driving game, but it was everything a driving game should be – none of that nonsense with drug dealing, organised crime and complicated back stories – just classic, edge of your seat driving, demanding skill, guts, supreme confidence and just a touch of madness. Only the very best could hope to succeed… And now, the ultimate challenge literally lay in his hands!
The immediate question was, should he dive in straightaway and grab a few minutes game play before school, or wait until this evening, when he could savour the moment? He badly wanted to load it up right now, but he knew that time was against him and he’d barely get past the loading screen and options before he’d have to shut down and leave. Sighing, he replaced the disk in its case and savoured the thought of an adrenalin-fuelled evening ahead of him.
He was screaming through the chicane in the West side of Blake City when it happened… The message just popped up on his dash: “Nice driving kid… Want to try something a little harder?”
Charlie frowned, the tone of the message made him wary. Preferring to deal with the distraction right away, he slammed the handbrake on, and brought the car into a screeching arc, neatly sliding into a nearby alleyway.
“You some sort of pedo freak?”, he typed, “Cos I ain’t got time for your sort. Just clear off and leave me in peace”
Charlie waited a moment, finger hovering over the ‘mute’ icon, engine idling, filling the alleyway with its steady rumble. The reply, when it came, was surprising:
“Really? Luckily, I’m not easily offended. Look kid, I’ve no interest in meeting you, exchanging pics or numbers or even getting chatting with you. I’m just impressed by your driving, and my diagnostics tell me you’re running on a rather special setup…”
Charlie was intrigued: “Go on, you’ve got 2 minutes to persuade me”
“Sure kid, this is how it is. A batch of game disks got interfered with after they left the supplier – yours is one of those rogue disks – maybe when you got it you might have noticed something wasn’t right?”
Charlie thought back to the day, just over a month ago, when the game had come through his letterbox and he’d been fuming to find it tampered with. Maybe this guy was right, perhaps there was something freaky about his version. Despite himself, he wanted to know more… “OK, I’m buying that for now – so, what’s the deal?”
The response was a long time coming, Charlie got the impression that his mystery chatter was thinking, either that or his wife had turned up demanding to know why he was chatting online to young boys! Finally, it came: “There’s no deal. Just an opportunity for you. If I was to tell you there’s a whole bunch of hidden levels and how to find them, would you be interested?”
Stupid question really, of course he was interested!
“Cool. OK kid, this is what you have to do – Down the street is a games store, go in and buy a copy of ‘Street Drifter Pro 3 *Extended Edition*’ – the price will come up as ‘Your soul’, but pay it anyway, it’s just a game! Then drive down to Main Street, hit the gas and head for the bridge. You have to be doing at least 90 when you get there.”
“Whoah! Wait a minute. I know that bridge, it’s only half built – I’ll go right off the end into the river. Game over – no credits – start again! No way, man!”
“Hey kid, trust me on this. Once you hit that bridge you’ll just sail over, sweet as anything… then, whammo! Level up, and the rest is up to you.”
Charlie weighed up his options. What did he have to lose, apart from a couple of thousand credits and about 300 hours of driving! Still, if this freakazoid was right, there could be some seriously cool action waiting for him, and let’s face it, the guy’s story sort of checked out.
“I’m game”, he replied, “But what’s in it for you?”
“Nothing, kid. I just like to see top rate driving, that’s all. In fact, it’s probably best if we don’t keep in touch at all!”
<< The other party has ended the chat session >>
Something just didn’t check out, Charlie wanted to know more, but when he tried re-connecting he was surprised at the message that popped up:
<< This player has muted you >>
All very mysterious. He wasn’t sure what to do – tempting to check out that game store, but also quite tempting to let things lie and just pretend the last ten minutes hadn’t happened… Then again, imagine if he could unlock extra levels – think of the bragging rights that would give him! Suddenly finding himself stifling a yawn, he realised just how late it was – his decision would have to wait for tomorrow, probably a good thing under the circumstances.
The needle crept towards 80 – this was harder than he’d thought – the road was strewn with debris: shopping trolleys, burnt out cars, and bricks, any one of which could send him into a wall, and at that speed he wouldn’t be walking away from it – chances are, he’d wipeout completely just as if he had gone off the bridge. For about the fortieth time, he told himself this was stupid and he should just hit the brakes and get back to the game. Nothing stopping him doing that, of course, except for the knowledge that he’d apparently sold his soul for this one shot at certain death. Somehow, that spurred him on – it may just be a game, but when you sell your soul for something, you owe it to yourself to see things through to the bitter end! He floored his right foot and hammered towards the bridge.
This was it! His tyres smoked as they hit the deck of the bridge at something like 97… The car surged forwards and upwards, smashed through the barriers and ‘Road Closed’ signs, scattering cones and debris in all directions. He was flying through air, and then, sickeningly, he was falling – plummeting towards the water below and cursing out loud at his total stupidity. He hit the river and the screen went black.
<< Please Wait >>
Well, this was just great – booted back to base camp, all because he’d been stupid.
But, hang on a sec…
The screen flickered, and suddenly he was back: Credits intact, vehicle sound, and a blinking icon at the top of his screen:
<< Extended Level 1 >>
He’d done it!
And… there was something decidedly familiar about his surroundings. He slipped the car into gear and crept forward – he began to recognise buildings and features of his surroundings that were clearly modelled on local landmarks; in fact, they almost perfectly replicated his own home town! Wow.. this was something else! Charlie wasn’t sure how they’d done it – maybe some sort of GPS tracking and mapping – but the hidden level he now found himself touring was clearly a detailed model of his local surroundings, with which he was so familiar. Only now he had a souped-up vehicle, empty streets and a licence to drive like a madman… He was going to enjoy this! How many times had he sat in his parents’ car as they pootled around town at a snail’s pace, carefully observing the rules of the road, never taking the slightest risk and spending hours driving slowly in circles, trying to find a parking space? And how many times had he wanted to grab the wheel, hit the gas, and go screaming around town, scattering pedestrians and breaking every traffic law there was? This was going to be completely awesome!
He pulled up to a red light, slammed on the brakes, hit the nitro and waited for green, as his car disappeared in a cloud of black smoke, wheels spinning crazily as the vehicle tried to fishtail wildly at the stop line. The lights changed, and Charlie let out a shout of triumph as he tore away, laying down a thirty foot trail of rubber in his wake.
Charlie’s first destination was the municipal car park, where he spend a glorious ten minutes practising his handbrake turns around the tight corners and treacherous, (well, treacherous at 60mph!), ramps and access ways, then took great delight in smashing through the stop barriers as he exited – something he, and possibly anybody else who’d ever used a car park – had always wanted to do; “You know where you can stick your ticket!”, he laughed as the barrier splintered across his windscreen. He followed up with a few time trials, taking the wrong way around the one-way system – giving him a perspective on the route that he’d never had before. Slamming into a J-turn outside the Co-Op, he floored the accelerator and headed for the Post Office, taking the corner opposite the cinema sideways…
The little old lady, with her tartan shopping trolley, appeared from nowhere. Desperately, Charlie tried to avoid her as she stepped onto the crossing, but she was far too close and he was travelling far too fast. In horror, he heard the crunch as his front wing made contact – was that really what it sounded like when you smashed into a pedestrian? – his windscreen crazed and a spatter of blood obscured his view. The car spun crazily, coming to a sudden, bone-jarring halt as it slid sideways into a wall.
Charlie sat, shocked and traumatised, quietly in his chair. This was something he hadn’t expected at all. Fearing the worst, he hesitated before panning back to view the carnage from outside the vehicle. It wasn’t a pleasant sight – the game had rendered all the gory details as vividly as his surroundings – he felt physically sick. The scene was every bit as bad as he’d imagined, and even though he knew it was only cleverly rendered graphics, he felt himself experiencing a similar degree of shock as he might have had the accident been for real. Trying to be objective, he tore his gaze away from the mangled remains of the old woman and turned his attention to what was left of his car. It wasn’t any prettier a sight than the rest of the scene… His pride and joy had been reduced to little more than scrap metal – he could have cried. Grimly he calculated what it would cost to repair the damage, knowing full well that his credit balance would nowhere near suffice to cover even half the necessary work. With a sinking heart, he glanced at the figure in the corner of his screen, and received another unexpected shock… Somehow, he’d gained a substantial quantity of in-game credits, seemingly from nowhere. Momentarily he forgot about the accident, opened his account screen and scanned his recent transactions. There it was: 100 000 credits – ‘pedestrian fatality’.
He shivered involuntarily, so it seemed he was being rewarded for wiping out the old woman. Not exactly the most pleasant twist this new level had introduced and he really didn’t know how he felt about it… “Pull yourself together, Charlie boy”, he muttered, “it’s just a game!”
With that somewhat reassuring thought in his head, he returned to the scene of his ‘crime’, critically reassessing the mess that had once been his car. With his new found wealth he realised that he could easily put right the damage, and add a few very desirable improvements too. Despite himself, he smiled, maybe it wasn’t so bad after all?
The second ‘accident’ took place a week later: Tearing around a blind corner, tyres squealing, the guy in the wheelchair hadn’t stood a chance. The chair must have flown through the air for at least a hundred yards, whilst its unfortunate occupant flew at least the same distance in the opposite direction… That is, the bits that weren’t embedded in Charlie’s radiator grill did. The shock of the ‘impact’ and the disgusting aftermath left him shaken and pasty – how the hell did they make gameplay look so real? However, his stomach and conscience soon eased when he saw the new credits added to his account, along with a bonus for ‘vulnerable victim’.
Charlie was playing practically every evening, for a good couple of hours at a time, but he could never anticipate when the next bit of carnage might occur – sometimes he’d take out a couple of pedestrians in an evening, then nothing for days until an awkward cyclist would pull our from a side street, straight into his oncoming vehicle. Even so, he was racking up the credits, and the fun he was having in the souped-up cars he was now driving more than made up for the trauma of the odd fatality. The honest truth was that he was probably getting several hours worth of crazy driving fun for every roadkill, and he reckoned that was a worthwhile price, by any measure.
As the days passed, however, it seemed that the game engine was playing with him – opportunities to level up were becoming scarcer: Little kids would run out from the pavement, chasing a stray football, only to spot him veering towards them and leap to safety at the last minute; traffic lights would inexplicably turn to red, halting the advance of the oncoming, and unsuspecting vehicle, before he came tearing across the junction; he was playing longer and harder for ever decreasing rewards. Then, after two uneventful weeks of driving, when a lollipop lady managed to jump to safety, only inches from certain death, he lost his temper. Throwing his controls across the room, he yanked the power lead from his computer and stormed out of the room.
Maybe it was time to try another game?
It didn’t last long. The allure of Street Drifter was just too strong, and once he’d tired of the other games in his collection, he found himself – once again – staring ruefully at the cover of his nemesis. Sighing to himself, as he loaded the disc into the drive, he realised that things had gone a little crazy… He could still have a whole lot of fun without the gore and mayhem, after all, he had the cars, he had the credits, there was no need for all that other nonsense as well.
What was this?
There, glowing on the load screen was a new option:
<< Extreme Mode >>
The thoughts of a few moments ago slipped quietly to the back of his mind as he considered his options. There was no question of what he was going to to, but there was a nagging feeling of wrongness about the whole thing – he knew that ‘Extreme Mode’ wasn’t going to be pleasant, but he also had a feeling that the rewards would be something else entirely. The cursor hovered over the button – what the hell? It was Halloween anyway, what better evening to give it a go?
He clicked, and settled back in his seat, as a new message popped up in his head mounted display:
<< Welcome back, Charlie… Now you’re in control! >>
Wondering what the message could possibly mean, he gunned the accelerator and gasped as the car surged forwards, straight into a wall! Whoah! That shouldn’t have happened – normally, no matter how crazily you drove, the system kept you pretty much on the road, although obviously, you could easily wreck yourself if you weren’t too careful, but the game had it’s constraints – there were some places you just couldn’t drive… until now.
Carefully, Charlie experimented, to find that any limits that had previously applied were now forgotten – he didn’t have to stick to the streets, he could drive wherever he wanted: pavement, parks, even right through shopping centre malls… And that, he realised was a game changer. Until now, the ‘people’ had been fairly safe – they had their refuges, places he couldn’t go, but now if he chose to, he could take out anybody he spotted: He had become a hunter, they were his prey!
But, where the hell was everyone?
Charlie tore through the town, but failed to find anyone to test out his new capabilities. It seemed the game was still determined to make things difficult for him, dammit!
Hang on a sec! He screeched to a halt, tyres smoking – what had he just glimpsed down a side street? Easing into reverse, he slowly backed up… Yes! He hadn’t been mistaken – at the far end of the narrow road, a queue of kids were waiting at a bus stop, playing games, and completely unaware of the danger he represented. Carefully, he lined himself up, reminding himself that if he should clip the kerb and flip the car, it was going to be an expensive mistake. Then he spotted the bus, no more than fifty yards from the stop, and seconds away from ruining his chances.
It was messy – very messy – but so very worth it: One million credits, and the promise of many more in the future. Happy – although a little nauseated – he switched off and fell back on his bed, smiling happily.
It was much later that his parents called him downstairs. Something was up – his mother had been crying, and his dad was white; no doubt another one of their damn arguments, only maybe this time they were serious about getting a divorce?
“Something terrible has happened, Charlie… Some of your friends… There was an accident – they were at a bus stop, and this car came from nowhere. Mowed them down… They’re all dead, Charlie!”
Charlie’s stomach turned over.
He only vaguely heard what his father went on to say. Something about it not being an accident; how the police were saying other incidents had been taking place recently involving the same vehicle… The same driver. Oh yes, they had a description – his face had been captured on traffic cameras… It was only a matter of time until they found him.
Charlie was in a daze, appalled by what he knew and sickened to know it.
He was still barely conscious of events around him when the knock on the door came, and then the splutter and hiss of the police radios…
Here you go, way too fast
Don’t slow down, you’re gonna crash
You should watch, watch your step
Don’t look out, gonna break your neck
The Primitives – Crash