Live Arcade

By Erik Amundsen

Murr must always be traveling to the right.

In the kid's language this is the same direction as reading and writing, the same direction in which he gnaws corn on a cob. Sometimes Murr has to travel left for a while. Sometimes there are towers or pits that call for up and down, but right always reasserts its dominance.

This is interaction, in one direction. The kid plays, the game responds.

The dapper little grayscale sprite chose his own name. The kid had eight characters and three chances in which to name Murr. These were FAGBALLS, URGAYLOL, and FFUCKYOU. Murr rejected these, announcing his own name with a smug little animation.

The kid dropped him down a pit.

Murr had no lives. The swampy-sunset sky behind the forked, slate-colored trees changed a little every time he got hurt, but there didn't seem to be a connection to Murr's condition. The backdrop had no stars, just a thin, diffuse crescent moon, some fireflies, also the dead.

They were skeleton men armed with torches and sickles. They slouched an endless path until Murr got close enough to trigger aggro animation: pulled up straight by invisible strings, they scooted toward him, dragging their bony toes and singing a thin, looping melody.

They didn't kill Murr when they caught him. They just grabbed hold and he shook them off, faster when the kid helped him.

Pits didn't kill Murr, either. He grabbed hold of something at the last second to pull himself out. Murr must always be traveling to the right.

He limped the first few steps, though.

After two more skeleton attacks and another trip down a pit a blue-black owl came down from the top of the screen with a hoot like the cycling of a jet engine, hollow and nasty. It caught Murr at the lip of the pit and threw him to the ground.

Murr flailed arms and legs, pushing at the beak, the claws. The wings flared; orange eyes at the tip of each primary feather. There was no prompt, no A no B, no X or Y.

Murr fought the monster bird off with hands and feet until it gave in and took back to the sky. It shrieked its frustration, and the kid realized he had been mashing the buttons with his palm.

Murr was truly limping, holding his middle with one hand. Was his palette a little lighter? The kid squinted, and a skeleton glomped Murr, singing its evil tune.

Murr threw it off in brutal animation and looked straight at the screen. Next to his head, in tiny, white letters:

you can give up if you want. i won't. i am going to rescue Sooney-Crow.

Play or don't play. Murr could not be killed, but the kid could make him suffer. He tried to see how much, because that's something you do. How many bad things Murr could endure, skeletons, owls, thorny vines and pits? If Murr had a limit, it was beyond the kid's.

The forums were useless and full of trolls. Someone blogged a walkthrough with a few screen shots that had nothing to do with the game the kid experienced. Characters named Bell, named Solace; different than Murr, but variations on the same theme, all moving to the right.

Creepypasta claimed the game was haunted. Really it was just the same shit they did with the old game where you kill the devil or that boring game with the blocks and the exploding bushes. The kid was glad that all he paid for the game was what amounted to the lint in the corner of the pocket of his Live Account.

Murr traveled to the right, in and out of grape arbors clustered with fireflies and black-golden grapes. Here there was one skinny tree with spider leg roots and eyes hung from its branches. It followed Murr, screen to screen, not attacking; it watched.

this thing will follow us all night. maybe we should wait.

The kid looked at the clock. It was later than he'd expected. It wasn't that he had an official bedtime, but Mom would not want to catch him up now. He went to bed.

When he came back to the game, the tree-monster was gone. The kid was kind of glad it was. He'd dreamed about it, watching. Sadly, the fetch quest a trio of creepy children had given him for the lantern he needed to get into the Dark Market was still here. The kid considered erasing the game and abandoning Murr for good.

Murr navigated to a meadow where a swallow with a red slash under her beak offered the needed whistle from her throat. Murr must bring her three flowers of the five kinds in the golden meadow in front of the bright black sky.

the devil will come if he likes the smell of your flowers, so be careful how you bring them

It was a sequence puzzle; the wrong sequence filled the first screen of the forest with the devil, a giant, cloaked hunchback with the face of a boar and fiery eyes. The devil knocked Murr to the ground with his orangey hoof-hand and took the flowers.

The kid cried out.

When Murr returned to the flower field, he stood over the black-blossomed hadesmantle and looked out of the screen for a moment.

these are Sooney-Crow's favorite flowers.

There was a building at the other end of the field.

i used to work here.

Inside, one of the light-blue-smocked potters (this is Clee. we used to be friends) working at a wheel offered to help Murr figure the flowers if he would throw a pot for her. Rhythm game.

do you want your old smock?

With it on, Murr and the potter looked very much like one another. When Murr tried to leave, a man came out of the office and forced Murr to sit at his old wheel and more rhythm. When it was done, Murr tried to leave again only to get caught by his boss and sent back to his wheel.

i don't want to go back to this life.

To get out, Murr gave the smock back to Clee. She might have laughed or cried; it was hard to tell. She held out a pot for Murr to reach into or not. Play or don't play.

Murr pulled a knife, like a chef's knife for a hand the size of the devil's burning hybrid appendage.

it's dangerous to come with me.

it's dangerous to go with you.

The come and go, the me and you flickered for a moment and an inventory screen opened full of empty slots, except the knife and a little pink heart. The knife was called "knife." The heart didn't have any name, any option to USE or DROP.

Murr left and slashed his way through the forest screens back to the meadow, two unconvincing animations, but a use for the B button; perhaps a way to give the devil a taste of his own medicine.

No such luck.

To get the rest of the flower puzzle, Murr had to go back to the potter's shed and threaten his boss with the knife.

The mother swallow made the medicine for her child at her nest in the red-sky forest. For the whistle, she told Murr he had to cut it out.

i don't have to, do i?

Not a question Murr was asking the swallow. The kid took Murr away from the nest and Mother Swallow's barred throat. He hunted through the forest, the levels back before. He went left, but found only skeletons. It was satisfying to knife them, but nothing new appeared.

No way forward without the whistle.

i don't have to, do i? No game had ever asked the kid not to play before. The kid couldn't tell Murr that, though. Play or don't play.

It wasn't a big deal. There was hardly any blood. Murr left the screen, but the screen remained for a moment and five little swallows fluttered down from the nest to stand by the remains of their mother. The music changed. It stayed changed for the rest of the level.

It was kind of late for a school night. The tree might be coming back.

The game had a mediocre rating. Half the reviews said it was genius and the other half said the people who liked it were wrong on the internet.

The kid drew a doodle of Murr in the margin of his Spanish notebook, the potter-boss dead at his feet. His friends asked if they could come over; the kid had a brother in college who moved in with some guys who had all the games the kid and his friends couldn't just get, so he left his copies at home. The kid told them his mom was wise to all that, and it shut them up for a while.

you should go to the river.

Murr traveled to the right, then down, as snow fell all around him. He descended crumbling construction frames, vermilion, realgar and verdigris, spots of smalt and India yellow, caput mortuum, ivory black. Murr pointed out each color as they passed.

The lantern was a better weapon than the knife, fierce orange arcs at the press of the attack button. The ubiquitous skeletons were now attired in great green overcoats, remnants of tattered uniforms.

Murr's coat had become chocolate brown and his hair more like walnut. His hands and face were a rich light brown. He had salmon-colored cheeks, big brown eyes. His hair grew out. The kid's notebook margin doodles followed suit.

Murr reached the bottom, but not the river. Instead, there was a billboard in that fake Cyrillic that looks Russian but reads in English. Well, it eventually read in English. The colors that Murr mentioned formed the puzzle for the billboard that the kid had to solve.

The kid was getting better at drawing Murr. The kid wasn't a very good note taker, but he had figured out the trick to tests, so the teachers let him get away with it, mostly. Murr started doing as much in his notebooks as on the downstairs TV.

His friends noticed, one asked him if that was his girlfriend in the notebook. The kid answered that with a gesture, but later he drew alternate Murr, distaff Murr (he picked up the term from the internet somewhere), with pigtails. When he was done, the kid turned the page, wrote some notes, left to right.

Realgar was an orange pigment made out of arsenic that they stopped using because it was toxic. Vermilion was made of mercury, verdigris from a toxic copper compound. Ivory black was burned ivory, India yellow came from the urine of cows fed mango leaves, which, from what the kid could dig up, was bad for them. Smalt was just a blue that was hard to make.

No help—no help ever—on the forums; you play or don't play, and the kid found out about the colors on his own, which made the puzzle fall into place. Next time registration came around, the kid decided to sign up for a period of art. The billboard resolved itself into lead white on vermilion:

MULTIPLAYER MODE UNLOCKED

There was no mention of a multiplayer mode anywhere on the forums but the darkest heart of the creepypasta grown around this game.

Dasha the Night Witch was down at the bottom of the structure. There were characters at the top that mentioned her, telegraphing a boss battle, but Dasha was a regular-sized girl-sprite in a uniform like those the skeletons wore and a pilot's leather cap. She stood next to an old plane.

i can't help you while my sisters are dead. remember us to someone and we'll live again and fly.

Skeletons filtered down the structure, took up the transparent appearance of female pilots and flew away in ghost planes.

A notion that the game was meant to be educational, like the programs they plunked a younger him down in front of like it was a treat annoyed the kid. He decided not to play, and stuck by that choice for about a week. Then he saw something in the library during a research period, when his Western Civ teacher had thrown the lot of them to the librarian to get topics for a paper.

In WW2, Russia employed women pilots in trainer planes to do nighttime bombing raids on the invading Germans. Night witches. So the kid had a paper topic, and when he got home, just out of curiosity, he checked the game with this new knowledge. If there was a puzzle, he couldn't find it. Instead, Dasha was waiting for Murr to climb into her plane with her.

No one online wrote about flying sections, about the series of harrowing runs along the treetops of a vast forest in the dark, setting Dasha up to bomb.

No owls with eyes on their feathers that boiled up from the trees in lieu of enemy planes.

Nobody warned him that Luftwaffe owls would attack his house and tear at his walls the moment he closed his eyes, leaving him only Murr's mustache-on-a-stick weapon to fight them from his dreams.

PLAY OR DON'T PLAY he shrieked at them.

Murr got a mustard yellow scarf that the kid thought looked ugly at first, but started to like around the time the paper was written and handed in. He drew a picture of Murr and Dasha holding hands. It made Murr look more like a guy.

Several people warned that the game would unlock portions and levels based on what you did IRL (whether that was something that the game could do through spooky powers or whether it was a clever electronic stage magician's illusion depended on the creepy to pasta ratio). Still, there was only one way for the kid to interact with the game.

Play or don't play. The choice you really have; it became apparent in all the other games. The kid wouldn't say he preferred the honesty, but Murr the former Potter continued moving right; Murr Shepard languished on his ship while vast synthetic monsters destroyed the earth.

The next time he had people over, well, the kid intended to load up the game they all came over to play, but instead he asked them, "Want to see something that isn't supposed to exist?"

Everyone got to choose characters, except for him. Dasha, the Flute Kids, the Devil, Mother Swallow, Clee Potter. . . . There was also a grayscale generic hero which had once been Murr, which gave those who chose him a chance to enter a name. It was a brawler, and aside from the characters' tendencies to help one another back onto the platforms after knocking them off, it wasn't bad.

None of the kids could believe the developers would keep quiet on this part of their game. It was fun. It passed the time. When they left, the kid didn't think one of them would not download the game. He wondered if their heroes would keep the names they gave them at his house.

After that, other heroes joined Murr when the kid played. There wasn't a way to hurt the others in singleplayer, but you could help them. Play or don't play; the names of the heroes appeared on the screen but not the account IDs.

Murr returned to the red-sky forest and defeated the devil to save a comrade who was making the same medicine for big-brother swallow's little brothers and sisters. While the other adventurer (Canon) was getting the right flowers, Murr overheard the children who had given him the lantern gloat about the third whistle they were getting, one for each.

i knew we shouldn't have. poor Mother Swallow.

The kid had a hard time looking at the screen. He looked at his hands on the controller, instead. When he looked up again, the kids were still in gloat animation.

There was only one way to answer back. Play or don't play. The kid pressed buttons.

Murr attacked. The children revealed themselves as bat-faced vampires with long, sinuous bodies that swayed like charmed cobras. That was the worst boss fight. The kid was sure that Murr was going to actually die in this, flattened to the ground or torn apart by their grabby vampire hands.

Canon's return might have saved Murr. The kid had figured Canon for a weaker character given where he was in the game, but he could jump high up to the vampire snake children's heads. Murr limped for the better part of the night after they won, and Canon never left his side. The kid drew him, too, fox-fur-colored scarf and winged boots.

The kid didn't come back to the game for days. He hung out with a couple of his friends down at the stream in one of the odd patches of forest where suburbia keeps all its secrets. They threw rocks into the water and talked about the creepy game the kid had gotten them to play. As they left, the kid thought he saw, through the leaf buds and catkins, a brown coat (caput mortuum, made of ground-up mummies) and a flash of yellow.

When he came back, the kid gave Canon Murr's lantern instead of letting him cut the whistle from Big-Brother Swallow's throat.

He didn't get anything for it. It didn't really make him mad. He had one of the red whistles from the vampire battle, but all it seemed to do was turn whatever music was playing into the music that played when he killed Mother Swallow.

i liked the river.

Murr got a book which turned out to be the strongest weapon yet, a fact that made the kid roll his eyes a little, but the history paper had come back an A, and those weren't really all that common outside of math class (always came easy) and gym (you can hardly fail badminton). The animations for it were a cooler than the ones for the other weapons. Sometimes, when the kid left the controller idle, Murr would sit and start reading the book.

Reviews got pretty sparse on the game; it was a little long for the usual review cycle. The game ended sort of randomly, levels generating and regenerating until the final rescue of the princess (names varied, designation didn't) sort of unlocked itself. One lady blogging had been through almost a hundred levels with her armored, pigtailed avatar Solace. The kid was up over 30, he was sure, but he hadn't really counted. Murr always traveled to the right.

Murr got stuck at a temple to Hermes that he needed to get into to get a blue orb that was going to unlock the gate to the base of a tower. It was a long game, the kid realized; he'd lost any real investment in the story or the recycled environments a while ago. At this point, he just wanted to see how it ended. To see how Murr ended. The guards turned him away.

no girls allowed

Murr went left. Came back right.

no girls allowed

Murr went left to the beginning of the level, past the respawning, ivory-colored bulls with dark red symbols on their flanks, fighting puzzles to open doors that closed again as Murr passed through them. Murr returned to the temple.

we need to find another way in.

The kid came back to the forums like an empty refrigerator; the only thing he found was that some protagonists seemed to develop more girly hairstyles as they developed—Solace and her pigtails. It was really rare; most posts about people's characters referred to them as "he" and the object of their quest as "she."

The kid couldn't find any conclusive proof that any of legions of right-traveling alternate Murrs were dudes. It wasn't like any of them were going to drop their pants. No pictures came up of facial hair, except for the fake moustache on a stick, a weapon that usually turned up around the middle levels. Murr used to pose with it when idle.

Murr's hair was longer than when the game started, but the kid's hair was longer than Murr's.

There were screen caps of the hero and the rescued embracing. Sooney-Crow's alternates were also a little ambiguous, sometimes, but most of them looked as much like girls as the graphics would permit.

There was fan art. There was fan art that made the kid clear the history on the browser and wish he could do the same for his head. The kid couldn't post the question on the forum, not with his own picture of Murr as an icon.

There was Murr holding the hands of Dasha the Night Witch in the kid's English notebook.

Meanwhile, in the memory of the console, Murr was standing outside the men-only temple telling the kid they needed to find another way to get the orb.

The kid wondered if Sooney-Crow was a boy. He wondered if she was a girl, if they both were; was that gross or cool or did it even matter? The embrace in the screencaps wasn't really sexy or anything, but that wasn't the way he'd seen it. It wasn't just the fan art talking. That's how it is. You go right, you beat the reptile, evade the ape, you get the girl, that's what she's there for, that's why you showed up.

The kid wondered if that was how things worked IRL, the invisible reptile, the unseen ape, apparent to some guys, but not him. The kid forced himself to imagine Murr a guy, but it always came back to the idle animation of Murr with the 'stache on a stick, dancing around, the devil's faux-16-bit twinkle in her eye.

There was no button on the controller to respond to this. Play or don't play. Jump and attack did not change this. Even not playing didn't change this. If Murr never made it to Sooney-Crow, it wouldn't change this.

Canon passed Murr and entered the tower, stopping for a moment and turning in place, which seemed to be the sign for I'll help you, before going inside.

what are you afraid of?

If Canon returned, the kid was not logged in to see him. Kids at school caught on to the game in waves, and for the most part, they dropped the game after a little while. The kid stopped playing games much at all, but summer was coming, so the constant battle with his mom to game instead of be OUT IN THE FRESH AIR turned out to be an easier one to lose than it had been in a while. He went to the river pretty often, but whether he came alone or with friends, no one was ever there.

The kid drew, a lot. He started coming to the art room as the year wound down and teachers were less inclined to care on his study periods. Blue smocks hung on hooks in the supply cage, but he never touched them.

He drew Murr, drew Murr saving Sooney-Crow (an actual crow, just giant), and flying off on her back. It might have been a cop-out, but it made more sense than taking the blue orb and going through the tower and whatever else happened after that.

Close to the end of the year, the kid left his sketchbook in the art room and remembered on the curb next to his bus. He ran back, heard the busses pull away.

The art room was dark but unlocked, and the weird last bell (the one that tells you that you missed the bus) rang. In the silence that followed the kid heard the sound of the pottery wheel, off to the right. He looked sidelong, just until a flash of blue smock came into view in front of the electric wheel.

"I thought you said you never wanted to go back to that life." The figure didn't answer, maybe didn't hear or didn't know to whom the kid was speaking. The kid didn't know to whom he was speaking, either.

"Murr?"

The girl at the wheel threw a puzzled look over her shoulder. He recognized her, she was a grade behind him, seemed an okay person. Maybe she looked a little like Murr might, IRL.

"Wait, you know about Murr?"

The kid shrugged.

"I'm Canon . . . I mean in the game. That's really weird. Do you play? Do you know who her player is?"

An illusionist's trick; clever, kind of cruel.

The kid nodded, which was easy, because he was kind of shaking. Play or don't play?

"I'm Murr." The kid said it at last. Canon smiled at him.

"He told me I would find out about her if I tried tracing her life. I guess . . . I have something for you? The blue orb from the temple they didn't let you . . . Murr . . . get. "

"No girls allowed."

Girl!Canon looked uncomfortable.

Boy!Murr shook his head. Then he started to chuckle. "How was it? The temple?"

"Nothing special."

Murr laughed. Murr's laugh got Canon laughing. "Stupid game."

"Yeah, I know. I was going to call my dad to pick me up. Do you need a ride? We can try to figure out how to meet in the game."

"My house isn't too far to walk."

Canon. Canon's player (Hazel) washed her hands and took off the smock.

"Do you mind if I walk with you, then? I don't feel right carrying around something in that game that says it's yours."

The kid thought about it for a second.

"Sure. I don't mind. You can call your dad to get you at my house or my mom can drop you off."

"Cool."

"Thanks for saving me from those vampires."

They went right, and out to the street.


Erik Amundsen, dressed in indigo, flew to the moon on a pink flamindigo. His work has been found in Clarkesworld, Weird Tales, and Jabberwocky.

Comments

I very much enjoyed this story. It reminded me a bit of playing the indie game LIMBO. Both give off that same grotesque-but-beautiful feel I love so much. Thanks for a good read, Eric!

Loved this story.

This story made me aware that I somehow escaped a big chapter of a geek life by not playing computer games. After reading the story, I spent two weeks exploring the world of gaming and it pretty much consumed me in spite of being 30 years old. A drastic change of my life, one that I am not quite at ease with. So be warned - don't read this story! :))

Otherwise a great piece, a big thanks to the author.

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