Story: Pygmalion: “Game”
The Pygmalion myth lends itself perfectly to the idea of creating the perfect person as a gaming avatar. I was so glad to see Michael Delaney take on this concept! “Game” is a runner up for the Pygmalion Contest. He may flesh this story out a bit into a longer feature, which I’m really looking forward to.
by Michael Delaney
The entire house shook as the speakers blared, and the drums rattled through the walls like a train passing overhead. Dully, as if through a tunnel, a voice called out incoherently, drowned out by the thundering noise and pealing vocals. Guitars screeched fervent notes as the track came to an end.
Jerry paid no attention to the voice. His fingers glided along the sleek keyboard, tracing the familiar contours of the keys, listening to the sigh of each compression. The bedroom was a shrine to the machine, a loving temple to the internet gods and their bountiful blessings. Offerings of empty energy drink cans lay scattered around the desktop, strewn over the empty packaging of the food that fueled his fervour. Piles of dirty laundry wallowed in the darkness, a worthy sacrifice for his devotion.
Again, the voice called, louder now but still inconsequential.
Jerry licked his lips in anticipation. His leg bobbed furiously as he watched the loading screen shift between images of the game, forever teasing. Beautiful landscapes of pastoral havens, where pixies danced on summer nights. Breath-taking mountain ranges, capped with ice, where giants bellowed at the rising sun. Tumultuous skies splintered by dragon fire and lightning. Suddenly the tiny room felt like an expansive world of unseen wonders.
A nervous glance towards the clock confirmed the late hour. Again, the muted murmur sounded below. It didn’t matter. The moment of truth was fast approaching. Jerry rolled up his sleeves, cracked his knuckles and hunkered down in his chair. Through the speakers, the thrashing music built towards a crescendo.
And then the bedroom door crashed open.
Jerry’s mother stood in the doorway, hands on her hips, eyes bright with anger. Like Jerry, she had a stocky build, with long curly hair down to her shoulders. Jerry sagged in his seat as he turned to face her.
“Mom,” he whined.
“Didn’t you hear me calling?”
“I’m kind of busy.”
She glared over his shoulder at the screen, then back at Jerry, wielding her disappointment like an axe. Jerry looked at the floor. He knew what she was thinking. He’d heard the rant a thousand times. Working was busy, not playing games, and it was high-time he grew up and stopped wasting his life in a dark room staring at a computer screen all day and night. But it was better than the life he had outside in the real world.
“Turn that racket off and get to bed. It’s a school night.”
“I just need to start this game.”
“What you need is sunlight. And a girlfriend.”
She slammed the door shut, leaving Jerry in the darkness.
“If only there were any girls worth my time.”
Deflated, he scanned the room, taking in the collection of action figures, the boxes of roleplaying games, the sci-fi posters on the wall. He was, he had to admit, the picture of the stereotype. So far, he’d avoided any outbreaks of acne, and he wasn’t the type to stumble on his words in front of a pretty girl. But the girls he knew weren’t interested in a boy like him.
They liked the strong, athletic type, with carefully styled hair and on-trend clothing, or the posturing bad boys with tattoos and alcohol poisoning. Jerry didn’t understand the appeal.
Why couldn’t he find a nice girl, who could appreciate his vast movie trivia, his collection of rare variant-cover comics, his mastery of the Klingon language and his complete disregard of vain materialism? Or at least a woman who still longed for that outdated concept of romance, rather than a drink at a bar, or an emoticon wink. He sighed and turned back to the computer.
Titles flashed on-screen, and the options menu appeared, bathing him in pale blue light. The name scrolled slowly upwards, accompanied by a triumphant fanfare: Age of Legends. Jerry basked in the imagined warmth of the computer screen’s light. This was it. The moment he’d been waiting for. All that was left was to create an avatar.
Age of Legends took the player on an adventure through a world of mythic beasts and legendary heroes, to fight in wars of epic scale and journey to forgotten corners. It required a character of untold strength and stamina, with biceps the size of tree trunks and a blade that could cut through a mountain. Jerry conjured the image in his mind, an exaggerated self-portrait: a fierce soldier, built like an ox, with crimson locks and a long thick beard. He’d add a scar or two to make him truly formidable.
He straightened his back and poised his hands above the keyboard, like the maestro at the piano, ready to work wonders. Then he thought of that perfect, imaginary girl, and all ideas of a brutish warrior fell away.
Instead, he made his avatar a woman. A steel rose, clad in armour – as much as the game would allow – with sharp angular features and cold blue eyes. He made her fierce, but beautiful, with a lean figure and sun-kissed complexion. He named her Brunhilda.
Hours passed as he sculpted her appearance to perfection, until he knew her body better than his own, right down to the scars and freckles. In his mind, he created an entire ancestry, a history of incidents from breaking her toe as a child to her first love as an adolescent. Before long, there was a lifelike quality to her, as if she might leap from the screen and fall into his arms. It was sad, he knew, but he wished she were real.
She was already more real to him than any of the fakers at school.
And so, he played long into the night, slaying dragons, and solving riddles of sphinxes, winning wars and discovering treasures. And all the while he fell more and more in love with her. The graceful way she moved, the tone of her voice in the few scripted lines; everything about her was perfect. Parting from her was such heartache that he never wanted to stop playing, even as his arms panged with pins and needles, and his neck ached, and his eyelids grew heavy and drooped down, down, down into darkness…
Jerry jolted awake. He was greeted by the sound of scribbling crayons and squabbling students. The geography map sat in front of him, untouched. He’d barely managed to finish writing his name before sleep had taken him. At the front of class, Mr. Geoffries had failed to notice. He sat with his feet up on the desk, reading a copy of some nature magazine.
“You’ve been falling asleep all week. You sure you’re okay?”
Jerry adjusted his glasses, yawned, and looked at his friend. Warren’s eyebrows were knitted together in genuine concern, and Jerry’s half-hearted smile and nod did nothing to assuage his doubts.
“I’m fine. I’ve just been playing Age of Legends too much.”
“Good game. But not worth losing sleep over. Your mom’s going to kill you if you get detention for sleeping in class.”
“No, you don’t understand-”
Before he could explain, Chelsea Saunders’ pert bottom settled onto the desk before them. Warren’s mouth dropped open, exposing the silver tracks of his braces. Jerry looked up to find the girl beaming down at him, twiddling her hair around one finger. Like all the girls at the school, Chelsea was as subtle as a forest fire.
“Hey, Jerry. How’d you fancy meeting behind the bikesheds after class? Maybe I can pump up your tires.”
“Sorry, Chelsea. I have a puncture.”
She gave him an incredulous look, and Jerry wondered whether his attempt to be witty had just backfired spectacularly, but what did it matter? Girls like Chelsea weren’t worth worrying about. She pouted for a moment, stood and snorted dismissively as she went back to her friends. A moment later, they all burst into fits of giggles.
“Dude! What did you do?”
“Forget it, Warren. It was probably just a dare anyway.”
“And he who dares wins, my friend.”
“You need a girlfriend.”
“Tell me about it.”
Jerry had to admit, Chelsea would probably have gone through with it. Any one of them would.
But that was the problem. Their idea of a long-term relationship was remembering the guy’s name the next morning. Jerry wasn’t looking for that. He wanted something meaningful. Chelsea couldn’t even spell the word.
Jerry yawned, and he removed his glasses to rub at his bleary eyes.
“Seriously, you need some sleep.”
“That’s what I was telling you,” Jerry said excitedly, then hushed his voice. “I’ve been playing Age of Legends, and my avatar….she’s perfect.”
“What are you talking about?” Warren whispered back.
Jerry leaned in closer and peered around to make sure nobody could overhear.
“I created her to be, like, the perfect woman. Blonde hair in a ponytail, sparkling blue eyes, trim figure, but strong. So strong. And smart, and funny. Every night this week, I go online and we complete quests together. I know her better than my own family. I think…I think I’m falling in love.”
Warren stared at him, wide-eyed. Then he grinned.
“Aha. Haha, you’re kidding right? You’re not kidding? What is wrong with you? You’re scaring me, man. You just told me you’re in love with a character you created on an online game. You know how that sounds, right?”
“I know, I know. Will you keep your voice down? I know it sounds mad, but sometimes, when I’m playing, it feels like she’s real. There’s this warmth to her skin, like a rosy glow, and I could swear I can see her chest heave with her breathing.”
“You’re imagining things. And not exactly normal things. Like, kinda crazy, messed-up, someone-needs-their-head-checked things.”
“You’re right, you are. You’re right. But you’ve got to see her. “ Jerry shook his head, baffled by his own revelation. “I love her.”
There was a short silence as Warren stared at him.
“But…the avatar is you. So, you love yourself. Every night. Gotta tell you man, not much has changed.”
“I’m serious, Warren. I mean it, I’m in love.”
“Okay. Alright. I guess I’ll have to come see her. Just don’t make it weird.”
Warren stood, brushing back his floppy blond hair smoothing down the creases in his clothes. He took a deep breath and began to walk away from the desk, hands clenched in white-knuckled fists. Jerry frowned.
“Where are you going?”
Warren shrugged, gingerly. “To see if Chelsea wants a riding partner.”
Back at home, Jerry scurried into his room, eager to be reunited with his love. The mass of laundry had been cleared away, the cans and bottles disposed of. The room was spotless. He’d even taken to wearing his best clothes, to make a good impression. Of course, he knew how crazy it all was, but he couldn’t help himself.
He sat down at the desk and took a deep breath, enjoying the fresh air coming through the window. No more teen spirit. Mentally prepared, he pushed the on button and waited. But nothing happened.
For a long while the screen stayed black, as empty as the long winter night alone. A knot formed in his stomach. His fingers tapped an erratic rhythm on the desktop, his eyes flicking backwards and forwards. He stooped down and turned it off at the plug, then turned it on again. Restarting it always worked.
Except this time.
Feeling useless, he thumped the side of the computer. Something flickered and hummed into life, the cooling fan let out a whimper, and the screen switched on. Blue. The blue screen of death. And what of Brunhilda?
“No, no, no, no, no….”
He grabbed the computer and shook it, as if he could intimidate it into working again. And when that tactic failed he flew into a frenzy, ripping out cords and cables in every direction. His mind raced. What could he do? He had to save Brunhilda, but he could barely think straight. All he could concentrate on was the shape of her face, the hue of her eyes, the sound of her voice telling him she was dying. You failed me, Jerry.
He ran from the room, computer cradled in his arms. Twice he almost stumbled down the stairs, and when he reached the bottom his shoulder smashed painfully into the front door. Ignoring his mother’s cries, he dashed out of the house, leaving the door agape as he went.
The nearest tech shop was only a block away. Maybe if he could get the computer there in time they could repair it. AT the very least, they could save the data. Save Brunhilda.
His heart thundered in his chest as he ran, feet pounding on the hard ground. He hadn’t had time to put on shoes or grab his coat, but he was far from cold. Sweat dribbled down his forehead, drenching his long curly hair. His glasses steamed up and were almost falling from his face. It’d been years since he’d ran this fast. Or at all.
Those brief minutes felt like a lifetime as he dodged and bumped his way through the pedestrian traffic, finally clattering through the door of the computer repair shop in a fit of coughs. He felt like an EMT on one of those hospital dramas his mother watched, demanding help for a dying patient.
Softly, he placed the computer on the counter.
“Please, you’ve got to fix her,” Jerry wheezed, not caring how foolish he sounded. “It’s an emergency!”
Everything after that was a blur. He vaguely remembered the shop assistant taking it to the back. He remembered pacing back and forth, wringing his hands for what seemed like hours. He remembered wondering whether he should call someone to let them know what had happened. But who would he call? He was the only one who cared for Brunhilda.
At length, an assistant came out from the back and called him over. Jerry barely looked at the assistant, too afraid to see the prognosis in her expression. He barely heard the words she uttered either. But one word was clear.
Glumly, Jerry nodded his understanding. He glanced up, ready to thank her for her help, and he almost swallowed his tongue. There, before him, stood behind the counter, was the spitting image of his avatar, Brunhilda. Blonde hair tied in a ponytail, icy blue eyes, angular features and a strong lean figure. Her skin was tanned brown, but he could see lighter skin beneath the cover of her sleeves. And on her name tag, pinned to her chest, he saw her name. Hilda.
“Are you okay? You like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Jerry shook his head in disbelief.
“More like an angel.”
© 2016 Michael Delaney. The content of this article, except for quoted or linked source materials, is protected by copyright. Please contact the author to request usage.SUBSCRIBE