The boy adjusted his helmet, until the entire world outside of him was shut out. When the virtual reality game started, he was in another world. Far away from his meddling parents and the bullying of his older brothers.
Apart from when he was interrupted, that is. Occasionally the interruptions were jarring, like the time the family dog — Modi, a mischievous red spaniel — jumped into his lap. It had felt like something exploding on his body. For a frightful few seconds, a loud crackling noise assailed his ears and bright orange flames enveloped him. Then a blur of colours and the next thing he saw was his mother, standing over him like a giant and holding his VR helmet. At first he'd thought it was a large boulder and that she was about to squash him with it. His mother had laughed when she saw his expression of fear. The boy remembered, shamefully, that he'd begun crying then. It was one of those distraught, end-of-the-world howls that eleven year olds still do, from time to time. He couldn't help it.
After he'd calmed down, the boy had insisted to his mother that the dog be kept in his crate or outside when he was playing the game. He'd cried again, although he had really tried not to. This time, his mother soothed him and ruffled his fine light brown hair. "You're a funny one," she'd said.
That should've been the end of it, but of course his mother had then posted the episode onto her Facebook page. Later, she'd told it to the family over a dinner of sausages, mashed potatoes and green peas. The response was predictable. "Serves you right for having your head stuck in those games, son," his father had told him, eyeing him scornfully while he forked a piece of sausage. His two brothers, sitting opposite the boy, had giggled between themselves. But they'd been careful not to catch the attention of their father.
Today it was a smooth entry into the world of King's Ransom. The boy began where he'd left off last time. It was a part of the game he'd been to many times before, inside the castle of Lord Walthrop near the River Meads. He began walking down a dark, stone corridor, illuminated only by a series of flickering yellow candles. There were six large wooden doors down this corridor, three on each side. He'd tried each one of the doors before, of course, but you never knew if something new would turn up — the game didn't often repeat itself. He hoped to come across more pieces of gold, an armour update, or (wishful thinking) the elusive Skull of Remarkability.
The boy turned the dull brass knob of the second doorway on the left. He wondered if he'd see any other players in this room. It felt like eons since he'd last seen anyone. This was a massively multiplayer virtual reality game, after all, so he expected to run into others at some stage. Not that he minded being on his own. He was a loner in VR, just as he was in real life. He didn't like other people getting in his way. Sometimes other players simply followed you around, or worse, tried to get you to follow them. Work as a team, no thank you. The boy preferred to make his own way through King's Ransom.
As he pushed open the heavy door, the boy was surprised to see a verdant green field on the other side. He had to shield his eyes, because of the brightness of the primary colours — the green field, pristine blue sky, a large orange-yellow sun. It took a moment to adjust to, after having walked through the dark corridor of the castle.
This scenario wasn't unusual, opening a door in a castle and finding an open field. King's Ransom had its surreal aspects. Occasionally you would encounter a dragon out here, or a troll, which you'd have to fight and conquer before being allowed to continue. Sometimes you'd stumble upon a chest of gold, which you'd bank excitedly. Or you’d have a jousting competition with another player. The boy looked around, wondering what it would be this time. He noticed a person standing in the middle of the field, waving to him. The boy squinted his eyes and saw that it was a woman.
She had long, golden hair and wore a flowing light blue dress. She looked like a miniature version of the sun and sky, out there in the emerald green field. The woman beckoned him with her forefinger. Shyly, the boy walked closer. Then he saw three other women, standing behind the golden haired lady. These other women were dressed plainly, in identical black and white dresses. They must be maids, the boy decided. They were giggling together. The boy's face flushed red. He wasn't sure about this, he didn't know how to talk to girls.
"Come here, little boy," the golden haired one shouted out to him sweetly. She looked tall, and old — perhaps even 20. The boy approached, walking slowly and hesitantly. He felt his face heat up and he knew his cheeks were red. When he finally arrived, the one in the blue dress smiled down at him. She was radiant and despite himself, the boy smiled back at her. His face was aflame now.
"What cute blue eyes he has!" declared one of the maids. The other two maids laughed appreciatively.
The woman in the light blue dress shushed them. She beckoned the boy to come closer, till he was standing directly in front of her. She had golden brown skin and eyes the same shade of blue as the dress she wore.
"You are cute," she said, bending down to inspect his freckled face. "Now tell me, and don't be shy about it," she continued, her voice turning sly. "Do you have an older brother?"
Just then, the scene paused. The beautiful older woman in front of him froze, her red lips in mid-smile. Damn it, he knew what this meant.
The boy took off his helmet with a sigh. He looked at his mother questioningly, an annoyed expression on his face.
"Mum, you did it again!" he said, not even bothering to hide his frustration.
"I'm sorry!" she said, putting her hands in the air in apology. But she had an amused look on her face. A long strand of wavy red hair fell across her forehead. She brushed it aside, trying to suppress laughter. Her other hand held her ever-present iPhone and she brought this down now, hovering before her left eye, poised to take a photo of the boy.
She laughed. "Ok, ok...you just look so cute!"
"This isn't funny, Mum," the boy said, with a mixture of hurt and indignation. "Why do you keep interrupting me when I have the helmet on? I've told you not to, but you keep doing it!"
"You were being very still again, darling!" his mother protested, serious now. "I never know if you're alive in there, I can't even see you breathing."
"I'm sorry my little prince, were you playing the game with the dragons again?" As his mother said this, a notification beep went off on her phone and she switched her attention to it. She stared at the phone, a delighted smile coming across her face. She began scrolling and then typing. She squealed, obviously thrilled at the latest tidbit from whatever app had whistled at her. She giggled, did a little jump, typed some more into the phone, sat down on her chair, laughed out loud, blushed, got up again, put her free hand over her mouth, giggled some more, sat back down, typed something into the phone, closed whatever app she'd been using, and looked at the boy again, suddenly flushed.
"What?" she said, seeing the boy's cross look.
"Mother, can you please not interrupt me again," he said, trying to muster the patient voice he knew he should use. Even so, if his father ever heard him talking like this to his mum, there would be trouble. He looked at her plaintively, but she was busy typing something into her phone again. With an exaggerated moan, the boy put his helmet back on and resumed the game.
The fair-headed woman was still there in front of him, gently teasing him as if the interruption had not occurred. But the boy felt a residue of anger in him. He ignored the woman's flirtatious questions and instead asked her bluntly if there were any gold coins or bonus packs in this scene. The woman looked at the boy with a mixture of sadness and annoyance. "No," she said, all hint of slyness now removed from her voice. She turned her back on the boy and the three maids did the same. He trudged off back towards the door, dejectedly.
For the next few hours, the boy played the virtual reality game uninterrupted. He managed to add a law rune and a pair of feather boots to his pack, which would come in handy in future scenes. He briefly battled with a troll, coming out victorious after just a couple of minutes. He knew all their tricks by now. Eventually, the boy began to feel hungry inside the game. That was always a sign that it was nearing a mealtime back in the real world, so he logged out.
After relieving himself in the toilet, the boy walked fast down the hall to the kitchen. He could smell a roast and was now starving. Just as he entered the kitchen, his father came in through the back door. He was dressed in his usual dark grey suit and white shirt. His tie today was the blue polka dot one. As his father stepped into the kitchen, the boy noticed that his forehead was shiny with drizzle. Ignoring the boy, his father took off his suit jacket and shook it briskly, showering pieces of rain into the kitchen. The boy heard plates clinking and silverware clattering in the living room — his mother was setting the table. He nervously looked at his father, who returned his gaze. It was just the two of them in the kitchen, as the smell of the roast wafted around them. His father seemed to be in a decent enough mood. His full bearded face wasn't smiling, but it didn't have that grim frown that the boy had learned to watch out for.
"How are you lad?" enquired his father, as he unloosened his tie and walked over to the oven. He bent down and peeked into it, looking satisfied at the contents. "Smells nice, ay!" he remarked, almost cheerfully. The boy stayed quiet. His mother walked in, saw his father and smiled. She put her cellphone on the bench and gave him a kiss on one cheek, with one hand stroking his bearded face.
"Oh it's raining again I see. Did you have a good day?" she asked him.
"Not bad love," he replied, distractedly. "What have these characters been up to today?" he said, indicating with a subtle turn of his head that he was referring to the boy and his brothers.
"Oh, you know, playing games. In this weather, not much else to do," said the boy's mother, a note of apology in her voice.
The father shook his head and pursed his lips. He turned to look at the boy. "Don't you have any homework to do, over the holidays?" he asked.
The boy looked down at the floor and shook his head.
"Look at me, will you," his father said, that tone in his voice now.
The boy looked up. His father stared at him with tired, black-rimmed eyes. His dark brown hair, receding at the front and balding a little on top, was damp and patchy.
"You ought to be reading a book, on a day like this," his father said, his voice rising a notch. "Exercise your mind. These damn games... when are you going to grow out of them?"
The boy shifted from one foot to the other, his gaze returning to the floor. He thought about protesting that his brothers still played VR games — and they were older than him. But his father had heard that before. "The whole lot of you are lazy," he would typically say. "Rotting your brains under those helmets," he'd add. His mother would then attempt to change the subject. To politics, sports, her Facebook friends — anything but what the boys did with their spare time or what he, her husband, had to do at work.
This time the boy was lucky. By the time he looked up again, his father had already walked out of the kitchen. His mother looked at him sympathetically, then turned to the stove to check the peas.
The boy knew that his father disliked his work. He was a claims manager for an insurance company and this, his mother would explain to the boys, was why he often came home stressed. His father never talked about his work of course — and to be frank, the boy wasn't much interested. But his mother regularly told the three boys that their father worked hard for them, to provide them all with food on the table and a house to live in. They should be grateful. She also reminded the boys that their father wanted them to study hard, so they could go to University.
The boy understood that he had a better life than his father had as a child. There were nine children in his family, six boys and three girls. His father was the oldest and he'd had to leave school early after his own father died young. "Your dad never got to play games when he was a boy," said his mother, at least once a week.
After dinner that night, an uneventful one in which his father ate his food sullenly and didn't talk, the boy returned to his room. For a while, he stood in the doorway of his room and listened to the sound of the TV coming from the end of the hallway. The volume had been turned up and it sounded like white noise. He looked at the sliver of yellow light at the bottom of the doorway and felt glad he wasn't on the other side of that door. He jumped onto his bed, put on his helmet and re-started King's Ransom.
After a few hours, he took the helmet off. He ran a hand over his short-cropped hair. What was left of it, that is. He ruefully touched the top of his head, bald and cold to his touch. He'd lost more hair by his mid-forties than his father ever had.
Laying down the VR helmet next to him, he lifted his tall frame up and stretched. He heard something crack in his back. He gingerly touched his lower back, but there was no pain — and anyway the crack had come from further up, where he couldn't reach. But he did feel discomfort in his arms and legs. No surprise, since he'd been sitting down for at least five hours straight. His bladder felt full too. He asked his virtual assistant for the time and was told "8.24pm." Wow, so he'd been playing King's Ransom for over six hours!
He reflected on his progress in the game. He'd now gone much further than when he first played King's Ransom, all those years ago. He'd been eleven when he began the adventure, eighteen when he stopped. Life then intervened and here he was, at forty-six, playing it once more. Not just any old copy, he marvelled, but an enhanced version of the real thing.
It was all thanks to MemoryBank™, software that his own company — King’s Virtual Reality Ltd — had pioneered and was now testing. When you played a classic game like King's Ransom through the MemoryBank™ platform, you not only got to play a favourite game of your youth, you also tapped into your childhood memories of playing it. You actually felt like a kid again while playing the game.
At least that was the idea. Unfortunately, there was a bug in the software. While it had successfully brought back the feeling of playing King’s Ransom as a child, it had re-surfaced other memories from real life too. That would have to be fixed, the man reminded himself. Much as he liked to see his father's gruff features and his mother's laughing face again, that world didn't belong in the virtual world.
Also, the bit about the golden-haired woman in the green field? He felt sure she wasn't part of the game’s script. He remembered a similar scene from his real life, when he was about eleven or twelve. He'd visited a friend's place, who had an older sister of about fifteen or sixteen. A few of her friends were there that day and he remembered them teasing him. One of them, the sister perhaps, had asked if he had an older brother.
The man smiled at this memory and scratched his unshaven chin. He looked over at his child, who was twelve years old. She had a VR helmet on and was engrossed in her own game.