Jul/Aug 2011  •   Fiction

Death Ximple

by Paul Zakaras

Photo by David Graham

Photo by David Graham

My niece emails, wants to know if I've started editing the article and reminds me of her drop-dead deadline. Rush, rush, Uncle Bob, please, don't just sit on your butt in the patio watching the olives drop. Got to have it first thing tomorrow, east coast time, so there's no wiggle room, okay? The author's a big fish in a hot sea, and so on. I type fast: I swear, Cass, I'm trying my damndest, but—ow! shit!—fucking migraine sneaked up and grabbed my head again. You can see it, can't you? A giant with hands like God's pushing my skull into an iron vice and crushing hard until I'm a character from Lear, my twisted mouth all agony and despair. "Why, ye icy staring stars!? Why me!?"

None of this is true, I've never had a migraine in my life, but Cass needs to understand I'm not exactly dying to step into that piece of crap she sent. Cassie girl, I remember when you pulled me by the hand at the county fair and wanted nothing more than sticky lollipops in your mouth: The red one, Uncle Bob! And the pink one, the pink one too! But no time for memory lane. What's happening is I'm online playing a game called "Death Ximple," and my competition—a kid gamer who goes by Tough Tits—has raced past me on points. So I've got to concentrate full bore now, make the smart decisions, and yank myself back into the lead. I'm so lame at the famous, super-duper, multi-player games, so slow and club-footed, that sneering pubescents catch on in minutes, calling me a "gummynoob" and "moldy-oldy" and chicken pecking until I cover my head and run and hide. But it was love at first sight with Death Ximple, a game perfectly designed for a man who's lived real decades in the brick and mortar world, a man who drove the first T-bird to hit the road, who yelled at the Fab Four in Dodger Stadium, a man who laid eyes on hatless JFK waving to a crowd in a fall rain.

By now much of the world knows this type of computer game: first-person shooter, it's called. You've got a death-dealing weapon at your fingertips, you see targets pop up—snarling terrorists, blood-sucking Draculas, greasy Elvis impersonators, lying ex-presidents—and you get a rush of satisfaction as you gun them down. This particular version is dubbed Ximple, I'm guessing, because no one's shooting at you. No need to be looking over your shoulder into the evil mouth of that rat-and-cockroach alley, wondering if you'll take one in the head any time soon. You win if, in the allotted time, you rack up more good kills than your opponent does, that's all.

A second reason for the name—my guess, again—is you're not playing some fantastic role, a freak loaded with powers only a fevered juvenile mind would dream up. You're not young Fung-Gu, for instance, beheading a hundred red-haired ninjas with one swirling kick and instantly morphing into a winged serpent to elude the Virile Virgin's lethal pounce. No purple fantasies in this game. And no killing sprees either. You're not blasting away like some mindless arcade junkie. Everything's personal, serial-killer style. You stay slow and steady, taking out one terrified pixel target at a time. If you pull back into a cut scene to watch yourself stalk, you can see you're a pair of marching feet, straight from the movies, trump, trump, trump, moving ever closer toward the one who'll die. Not bare feet, of course, that's out. You choose from Army boots, cowboy boots, Nike basketball shoes, or plain brown Oxfords: "Select your footgear option by clicking here." The setup also promises your choice of music for the killing scenes, but there must be a glitch in the software because no matter what you order, say parts of the Ninth or the Third, you keep rehearing the game's relentless default song: eerie electronic screams soaring like a valkyrie of witches over a pulsing, bass-like beat. The music of a victim's heart in terror, you can't help but think. A heart imagining the unimaginable, grasping what no heart ever wants to grasp.

So there it is, simple enough: two gamers killing to movie music, scoring points, doing their damndest to own the bigger number when that final bell rings. What you'd love, ideally, is a string of ten point kills. But perfection is hard to come by no matter what game you're in, and soon enough you're telling yourself eights and nines are much more realistic than tens, that you'd be thrilled, in fact, to pick up a nice little run of sevens. Fuck, even fives are acceptable, you eventually concede: sharp players can surely learn to live and thrive and win with fives. On the other hand, naturally enough, at the far end, way down low, if you're bagging lousy single pointer after lousy single pointer, losing time on idiot mistakes and falling behind fast, you can't help but throw your head back and hammer your fist on the desk. Sometimes, if you remember to listen, you can actually hear your angry voice yelling at you from a distance, calling you vile names.

And that's what finally has to give you pause. You come across a new kind of fun game, and you're bright-eyed and bushy-tailed out of the gate. Earnest, eager, charging hard even when you're stumbling around—damn the banana peels, full steam ahead! But then, just as you're finally hitting your stride, piling up your kills, right then, out of nowhere, as you watch your feet stalk the next victim, you suddenly feel that first unsettling touch of doubt. Wait—something's not right here. Just look at those numbers: your scores could be better, sure, but they're not even close to what your opponent has racked up. The competition, this little bubble-gummer, is beating you with a stick. That's when you call time—each player can do it once—and lean back in your swivel chair, tapping your thumbs together. What's going on?

Time to read the explanation of the scoring system again. I mouth the words slowly to make sure there's nothing I miss or misunderstand. "Without exception," the gamemaker writes in the definitive (and copyrighted) XimpleBook sold separately from the game, "your score for any individual kill is based on three criteria: degree of injustice, degree of difficulty, and degree of risk—with degree of injustice given nine times the weight of the other two criteria combined."

Degree of injustice? Say you're a newcomer to the game. You read the injustice line and you nod, you get it. To score high you need to fix on targets even Dr. Henry Holmes, celebrity killer of two hundred decent Chicago citizens, might pass up. A selfless man or woman, for instance, working as a community organizer, helping the helpless, exuding a positive, can-do spirit round the clock. Thumbs up, people! Thumbs up! How perfectly unfair and heartless to take a life like that.

The selection process? Easy enough: You're in the hectic, honking city, all these busy people rushing around, shopping, waving for cabs, hurrying to parking lots, texting, talking on cell phones. You slide your curser over one of them and a "bio bubble" appears. If the bubble says you've got a pederast priest, or a billionaire banker, or a braying TV head, you veer off fast. Might be fun, swatting one of those against the wall, but no great injustice to it, a lowly one-pointer, not worth your time. On the other hand, you'll sometimes get a bubble reading like this: "Rick Smiley, 39, teaches inspiring math in a third-rate school, stays late to tutor, volunteers at an old folks' home, bikes long, joyous hours through pristine countryside with his chaste wife, reads bedtime stories to his squirming twins, plays his dead dad's banjo every morning to greet the sun." See what I mean?

And that's where life experience comes in. If you're still a malformed teen, all ears and elbows, who loathes Rick's class, you literally can't help yourself. That's Mister Smiley there? OMG! You hide his bike in the dumpster while he's tutoring and then have your feet stalk him, trump, trump, as he trudges homeward in the dark. You make him look back, make him afraid, and maneuver him into a crowd of Jehovah's Witnesses where he thinks he'll be safe—your difficulty points. Then, for risk, you push up close enough to touch him, giving him a chance to turn and fight. But no, poor Rick's paralyzed, can't even raise his eyes to your unforgiving face. You pull the trigger, ping, and you hear the music soar. A perfect ten. Happy gamer—you raise your tattooed fists to heaven. Yes!

Or maybe not, because the scoreboard, sitting up there in the right corner of the screen, says you've earned a miserable "01." A one? How is that even possible? And where can you complain? But wait, just think about it for a minute—the game is called Ximple, not Simple, and you were given fair warning in the fine print: "Almost all the negative bios are reliable," one of the footnotes tells you. "The positive, conversely, tend to be misleading, full of distortions and bald-faced lies." Which translates as what? I can imagine your brighter gamers bending over their calculator apps, wrestling with randomized algorithms as they try to pin the thing down. Me, I read the note as a gift, fair or not, that plays directly to my strength, a sharp cynicism honed in the beds and offices of life. Rick's perfect bio, his stainless biking soul? I have to laugh. Stick it in the circular and pedal on.

Not that I'm free of error—far from it, as my score shows. There are times when the play gets tricky even for the grown-up crowd, like when the bubble gives you a character with mixed marks. A willful woman, for instance, who steadfastly ignores the Sabbath and commits rutting adultery once a week instead, but a woman, the bubble tells you, who does unto others, who turns her left cheek, and who pours her love over the least of the world's children day after day. Slows you down, if you're like me, makes you run in place. What's true? What counts? And why? There's no glib answer because your personal little prejudices and homespun morals hardly matter here. You're in a hardwired realm where the secret score and meaning of each target was determined long before your feet arrived.

I type myself a note. "Master challenge: grasp the guiding pattern. Can't win if you can't read the mind of the game... But if so, if that's the case, how can a kid who knows as much about life as your average garage band, a kid—"

The electronic bell tinkles—a batch of new junk mails has arrived. "Grow a giant penis," one advises. Another says, "Meet people just like yourself." Plus there's Cass, writing back. It's really not funny anymore, she tells me, your horror-movie migraine excuse. She reminds me she pays good money for what I do and knows exactly why I'm procrastinating. It's because you can't tolerate the kinds of things the article's trying to say. But I'm the editor-in-chief here, Uncle Bob, I decide what gets published, and right now Dr. Duffy is absolutely perfect for me. I'm putting her on our homepage where she'll be smiling back at Oprah, ready to give the woman of our time the hugest heartfelt hug. This is it, my chance to show the world we exist and matter. So please, I'm serious, shoulder to the grindstone, nose to the wheel.

What the article's trying to say? The heads and subheads promise to put us in touch with the latest research findings from spirit-world economics—more scientific proof, for one thing, that holding hands at conferences can help make famine go away. As for the text, it's nothing but a string of undernourished platitudes that Cass, with author's permission, wants me to beef up. Turn them into something resembling real thinking, Uncle Bob. Won't take you but a minute, you've got the touch.

Right. You might as well be dodging bullets as the prize-winning Elizabeth Duffy serves you ace after ace. "Everything's interconnected," she says, "everything that happens... We can never lose sight of the fact that we're together in the same boat... What impacts one person, anywhere on this planet, impacts us all." I started an email: My Dearest Doctor Duffy, I watched a fire on the late news the other night and saw a young girl burn to death because she was afraid to jump. I watched the flames leap up to touch her. Then, when the smoke cleared for a few seconds, I saw her turn into a pillar of ash. Same boat? A Simple-Simon figure if there ever was one. And what "impacted" the girl, you duffbag, wasn't at all the same as what "impacted" me. But no, fuck, why bother? A girl on fire? What's that? It's only the thought that counts. Delete, delete.

The XimpleBook's Rule 12 says you can take as long as you want on your time out, so long as it's not forever. A useful check, according to the gloss, because gamers tend to cut and run when they see humiliation swaggering in. Not me. If I've pulled back, it's only to gain perspective. I'm like a losing sports coach taking time to do what's necessary: sit in darkroom silence and study film to catch his critical mistakes. Where did he go wrong? What changes does he need to make if he can ever hope to win?

Coach, there, in front of you... Makes you cringe a little—doesn't it?—when you finally see something you've been looking at the whole time. Even sweet Cass, I'm sure, would've flagged it in a minute. Two words, Uncle Bob. Slowly now, repeat after me: Tough Tits.

Fine, I get it. You see an "adult game" mentioned in an obscure blog. You check it out, looking for whatever. And of course you know the kiddie gamers, your lords of flies, will swarm all over it, too. Has to be heavy porn, dudes, somebody's hairy mom and dad doing gross things in bed. But what you get instead is a P2P game, pay-to-play, that asks for a fat fee. No fucking way, amigos. I mean, the thing looks slow as school in that stupid sample scene. And as for roleplay—these dorks can't be serious—you're always nothing but a crappy pair of feet.

Not for kids, in other words. But with luck you might actually snag one, some outcast tween or teen in a black raincoat—shoot first, think later—just dying to kill anything that moves. A bush-league rival that will make you smile because it's so good to get a leg up from the start. Which is exactly what the other side was thinking, too... I beam back to square one and take a look at Tits' Greeting Message again. "I'm fat fourteen," it says. "Stuffing my face with chocolate cake and cherry ice cream. I call myself Tough Tits—haha—because I plan to grow a pair real soon." So lame, I was sure it had to be real. Tossed a twerp like this, you can take chances, chase inside straights, no worries. Advantage Tits, in other words, even before a point was played.

I pace, crack my knuckles. So what's out there, sitting in front of that other monitor, waiting to finish me? Not some fresh kid gobbling sugared cereal straight from the box. You've got to flip the thing around. Best bet is a full-fledged grown-up who's taken more bad falls than he'd care to admit. I can see him hunched forward in his squeaky swivel chair, balding maybe, wearing a sweatshirt with his alma mater's name across the front. A man a lot like me, only smarter, sharper, making better choices every time.

But no, enough of that—the guesswork stops right here. All that's certain is I underestimated what I was up against and played a careless game, lunging after long shots when I should've been sitting on the odds. That tricky footnote, I'd have to argue, helped trip me up. Almost all the negative bios are reliable; the positive, conversely, tend to be misleading, full of distortions and bald faced lies. An uncertain world here, gamers, stay alert. I took it to heart, keeping an eye peeled for exceptions, the good man who's truly good, the saintly woman tarred by gossip from lovely head to perfect toes. Rare birds running around someplace in the bushes whether you're cynical or not. The gamemaker had surely tossed a handful into the bubble mix, just to get you wondering. Or maybe better, colder, what he'd done instead is fooled old boys like me into believing they were there.

I admit it: I'd love to stand behind my opposite number and watch the man play. What can he see that I can't see, especially when I'm making those killer mistakes? The sweet bride of the gentle blind man, for instance, waving from her limo as she rides off to her giving life. The innocent professor freed at last from the blood and muck of Attica because DNA tests fingered someone else. I felt in my gut both times—this one's too good, too obvious, to be another Smiley, a Rick redux. Now you don't see it, but now you do. I stalked them both, I made them panic, I made them run, and then I nailed each one in front of family and friends, grabbing for that ten. But same old, same old. Because what did the scoreboard show? Only that I'd outsmarted myself again. Meanwhile, my opponent—just don't ask.

It tears at you. What's your life experience worth if you keep striking out while others hit home runs? Good question, as Doctor Duff might say. The kind you need to play with for a while. You sit in your chair with your thumbs and knuckles, rocking back and forth, letting your mind move sideways, snake around, coil and uncoil again. Visions come. You see Tough Tits pointing a laughing finger at you, you see an overgrown bald man shaking his head—and then, it's odd, you see an empty swivel chair. The snake inches up, tentative, testing this strange new thing with flicking tongue. And then... Ach so. The fangs sink in, and the rat's caught. At last you've got the picture—there's no there, there. No live opponent, no desk, no monitor, not even that abandoned swivel chair. What's left? The longer you look, the better you can see it: Just Uncle Bob and Death Ximple, standing toe to toe, going head to head.

No small achievement, finally understanding what you're up against. Shows you're not as sorry as you thought, gives you back a chunk of your cracked pride. But at the same time there's anger, too, getting right up in your face. Fucking gamemaker, rigging things, making you chase scores that will always, forever, pull away. I'd select him in a second, have my cowboy boots go after him, corner him in a dark alley—Hollywood style—and grab him by the neck to squeeze out some truth. The mind of the game. Has anybody ever won, you twisted thing? No? Did I hear a no? What's the point, then? Creating losers? Making them feel they were never meant to win?

Payback time. Call in the music, the flying witches. What could be better? Right here, right now—your first-person shooter gritting his teeth like a Doberman and doing his thing.

But anger can't last because you have to laugh a little, too. I'm talking about the picture of my cowboy boots gripping the gamemaker's neck and squeezing truth like toothpaste out of his head. Bottom line: no reason to get excited because this whole Death Ximple thing—what is it? You're just killing time, that's all. Besides, it's almost morning, and Cassie's deadline is right on top of you, coming up with the sun.

I give Duff's stuff another look and start clacking keys, moving her little deckchairs around. "We have to see this living earth for what it truly is," the doctor wants to say, "the home of our extended human family." A little later, next paragraph, she can talk about a child starving somewhere on this planet "only because we refuse to accept that child as ours." I don't force things, I let the lines come to me, waiting for the openings. When I see one, I go hard, pedal to the metal, showing what I'm worth: "That's why, beyond what the science tells us, it's so important to take a moment to hold hands whenever we've gathered together. What better way to remind ourselves of the profound fact that we're in the same boat of life?"

Finish it, tweak it, send it off. Make Cassie smile.

And once I'm done?

Back to the game, I guess—out of dumb curiosity, if nothing else. It's like when you're watching a bad movie you paid to view: you'd still like to get a slice of your money's worth whatever way you can. So you hit resume play. You know how it's supposed to wind up, with you holding the short end of the stick, but there's always a chance something surprising will happen. Rick Smiley, for instance, could turn up again, tuning his dad's banjo next door to let you know he's awake. Then dropping by without further warning. Tall guy with a heavy Adam's apple, wearing one of those graffiti biking outfits, wearing black pedaling boots. Shoving open your door and stepping into your room. Saying, "Bob."

"Back from the dead?" you ask, trying to joke around with him because you can't think of anything appropriate to say.

But Rick isn't laughing. Rick's right there on top of you, all business with those big hands of his. And like in a movie, you suddenly hear this pulsing music. A surprise ending you didn't expect. The game making one last move just for your benefit. Letting you see you were headed down the wrong track all the way.