The hardest thing about being unemployed, other than the crippling financial pressures and the constant need to fend off a myriad of questions from various family members, is trying to find a way to meaningfully occupy time. As such, video games quickly became my preferred form of escapism. In video games I could run and jump as if my legs were perfectly normal, and the only things I had to fend off were whatever enemies were opposing me. I spent so long immersed in these fictional worlds that it almost seemed to be more real to me than reality itself. Then one day, that was exactly what happened.
I had downloaded a retro game app onto my console and had been playing on it for a few hours when a notification appeared in the corner of my screen saying that my controller needed to be charged. I moved around the coffee table towards the TV, picked up the charging cable, and leant forward to connect the wire to the console. As it slid into the port there was a spark quickly followed by a blue flash of light, and then darkness.
Slowly my eyes became accustomed to the lack of light and I looked around. On either side of me were two tall walls coloured dark blue, seemingly made in solid panels not bricks or wood. I could see a break in the wall a few metres ahead of me on the left and another on the right, and the passage I was in seemed to turn a corner after this junction. The floor was lined with small, white dots in single-file, like the reflective cats-eyes they use on roads.
Before I could take in any more of my surroundings, electronic sounding music filled the air. I recognised it instantly as the iconic Pac-man music and now I realised that my setting was highly reminiscent of the Pac-man maze itself, but I continued to believe this was impossible until a giant, red ghost appeared around the corner ahead of me.
I turned my wheelchair on the spot, my feet scraping along the walls of the narrow corridor, and made sure that my wheelchair was set to the top speed. As I moved along the passage the white dots disappeared as if consumed by Pac-man himself, accompanied by the traditional sound. Turning at right angles was difficult in the wheelchair but I managed to stay just ahead of the red ghost. I had lost count of the number of corners I had fought my way around in an effort to escape my pursuer when a large, brightly shining dot appeared in front of me. I hurried towards it with renewed enthusiasm, followed closely by the red ghost. To my horror the blue ghost appeared ahead of me at the other end of the passage, and started moving towards me. There were no breaks in the wall by which I could escape. Whichever way I turned I would encounter a ghost. My only hope was to reach the giant white spot before either ghost reached me. Wishing that my wheelchair would carry me faster, I glided towards the blue ghost.
The blue ghost was so close that I was sure I could not reach the special dot in time, and I closed my eyes in fear. The music changed. I opened my eyes. Ahead of me a dark blue ghost was moving away from me as fast as it could, and I set off in pursuit. Within a few seconds I had reached him and one touch of my finger burst him like bubble. I turned around and did the same to the ghost behind me, presumably what had been the red one. Then the music returned to normal and this time I was being chased by both the pink and orange ghosts.
I steered down passages still lined with dots, weaving in and out of each passageway in a desperate attempt to collect all the dots. Once again I reached a large, white dot, but this time I did not manage to catch any of the ghosts. I continued on my task and soon I had found all four large dots, and was left to collect the remaining few small ones. With three ghosts hot on my tail I made it to the final dot and everything went black.
I was hopeful that this would be enough to take me away from whatever had happened when I plugged in my controller and back to the comfort of my home, but I was out of luck. I appeared in the same place where I had arrived, the map filled with dots as before. I was trapped.
I was so preoccupied with my pessimistic thoughts that I wasn’t aware of the approaching ghost. It was only as his pink glow illuminated my surroundings that I looked up. I tried to turn away but was stopped by a deep voice.
“Hello,” it said.
I looked around but could not see where the voice was coming from. It took me a moment to realise that the pink ghost had stopped in its tracks and was looking at me.
“Hello?” I uttered back.
“Don’t run away,” the ghost said.
“I’ve not done any running away in a long while, mate,” the ironic sentiment came out of my mouth automatically. The ghosts’ expression was extremely difficult to read, but it seemed to be upset by my sarcasm.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude,” I added.
“We just want to be your friend,” the pink ghost blurted out, “Pac-man always runs away too and sometimes he eats us, but we just want to be friends.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I uttered nervously as the other three ghosts came to join their companion.
“Why are you scared of us?” the blue one added.
“Well I play a game where the instant you touch me, I die,” I replied.
“Is that why Pac-man is scared of us too?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“But we don’t want to kill you,” the orange ghost chipped in.
“I understand that now,” I replied.
“Why do you have wheels?” the red one blurted out.
“You can’t just ask that, Blinky!” the pink one retorted.
“No, no, it’s OK. I can’t walk so this wheelchair carries me around,” I tried to reassure them that I didn’t mind at all; I was as curious about them as they were about me. Without thinking it through I reached out to give them a handshake and introduce myself, but the second I touched the pink ghost everything started to fade.
“Oh no, our new friend!” one of the ghosts shouted. It was the last thing I heard before being smothered by darkness once again.
I was no longer in the Pac-man maze. I was beneath a lime green arch, and ahead of me I could see some kind of gun moving back and forth in a line, firing white bullets into the black sky. I could hear music, electronic like in Pac-man, gradually getting faster. It was instantly recognisable; I was in Space Invaders.
Cautiously I moved out from beneath the shield and looked up, expecting to see the classic grid of pixelated aliens waddling across the sky. However, what I saw bore almost no resemblance to the aliens I was familiar with and it took me longer than I would care to admit to realise that the white lines, lengthening and shortening in time with the music, were how the aliens looked from beneath.
As I gazed upwards a horrifying realisation crossed my mind. Being directly underneath the aliens meant I was in the perfect position to have a bomb dropped on my head. Upon realising this fact I immediately moved back underneath the shield, only to see the gun on the ground moving towards me at a fast pace. There was no way for it to get past me and it barrelled into me, pushing me out into the open while it sheltered in relative safety. Almost immediately I heard a faint whistle crescendo into a scream and I felt a wave of electrical static wash over me. Instinctively I raised my arms to protect my head and screwed my eyes shut tightly. I couldn’t hear a sound.
I looked up as a warm light illuminated my new surroundings. I was in a large room with metal gangways spread across it all the way up to the ceiling. A bank of computers was tucked into one corner but like everything else in the room they appeared to be damaged. There were shards of broken metal littering the floor and everything was covered in a strange, orange dust.
In the far corner of the room was a glowing, red orb, balanced on a strange, lumpy mass. I started to make my way towards it and heard something crunch beneath my wheels. I looked down to see a decaying, dismembered hand, with scaly skin clung to the brittle bones. It took a momentous effort not to vomit at the horrifying sight. This was no retro game; the graphics were too good.
Suddenly I heard an angry roar from behind the glowing orb and the ground shook beneath me. A huge creature lumbered into my line of sight, at least 10 feet tall, it’s thick skin barely able to contain the bulging muscles beneath. It moved towards me with surprising speed for something so large but I could see nowhere to hide.
I heard movement behind me before a stream of purple bubbles of energy rushed over my head and within seconds the giant monster was dead. I turned around, and from the shadows someone in a battered, armoured spacesuit emerged.
“Jesus, I didn’t think there was anyone else down here. What the hell were you doing facing off with that monster without even a chainsaw?” a voice came from inside the suit.
“Are we on Mars? Sourcing renewable energy? Like in Doom?” I asked.
“We’re on Saturn, and this is a research plant into the afterlife, not energy. More like a nature reserve gone wrong,” the voice replied. I was too scared to smile.
“Listen, I’ll get you up to see Professor Hollister and he can sort you out, but we ain’t going nowhere until I’ve dealt with that nest,” a gun was waved in the direction of the orb, “because this area is on lockdown until I’ve done just that.”
The person inside the suit seemed to be looking around the room.
“I’m not gonna be able to get you to high ground; I’m strong but I ain’t lifting that wheelchair anytime soon. Right, shelter under those steps. I’ll build a barricade around you and take this.”
A bulky machine gun and boxes of ammunition were placed on my knees.
“Anything gets too close, shoot it. I’ll hear and get to you as fast as I can. Anything big gets close, there’s the mini-rockets. Got it?”
I nodded mutely and backed into the corner beneath the stairs while a barricade was built around me. After a few minutes my new companion disappeared and I heard a loud screeching noise as the nest was destroyed. Almost immediately the room was filled with demons of all shapes and sizes. Some were not much bigger than the average human and some dwarfed the first monster. They all seemed far more interested in my companion and I could hear bullets flying around the room as demons fell. On the odd occasion I caught sight of my new friend, who seemed well practiced at handling guns and was an excellent fighter.
I was so distracted with watching the fight that I hadn’t noticed one of the smaller demons running straight towards me, ugly teeth bared in a hideous grin. Reflexively I squeezed the trigger and the gun jumped around in my hands, so much so that it was impossible for me to maintain my grip on i, and to my horror it fell to the floor beside me. I ducked down desperate to reach the gun, but as usual the side panels of my wheelchair prevented me from bending down far enough to reach the ground. I could brush the gun with my fingertips but no more. My legs were tucked behind the barricade so tightly that I couldn’t even kick the gun around to where I could reach it.
There was a loud bang as a shotgun was fired, and I was splattered with the blood of the demon who had tried to attack me. The room had gone quiet.
“Done,” my companion said as if the task were a minor inconvenience. The barricade was moved and I was given a pistol in place of the machine gun, “This way.”
We headed down metal passageways littered with bodies and broken weapons, the artificial atmosphere howling down the damaged air vents. We moved as quickly and as quietly as we could although the electric whine of my wheelchair seemed to echo around the corridors at an unbearable volume. Finally we reached a lift.
“Glad this place is accessible,” I said, awkwardly trying to make polite conversation.
“Considering some crazy scientist woman let a load of those demons escape and run riot around here, I suppose so,” came the reply. We remained in silence until reaching our destination; the office of Professor Hollister.
The professor was tall and gangly with wire framed glasses perched on a thin nose, and what little hair he had left was plastered to his skull. Both of his arms appeared to have been amputated from the elbow down but the false replacements seemed to move just like normal hands, leaving him able to do things normally.
He seemed surprised to see my friend at his office and even more so to have a companion in addition, as far as I could tell from his expressionless face. He ushered us towards his desk, closing the door firmly behind him. My companion pulled the chair in front of his desk to one side and sat down, allowing me to pull up next to them. They put down their weapons, reached up, and removed their helmet.
Brunette curls tumbled around a pale, thin face, with eyes so dark they appeared to be almost black. The surprise at seeing a woman within the suit must have shown on my face, because she tutted and rolled her eyes.
“Now, I believe you owe me an explanation,” Professor Hollister sat down, robotic fingers clasped before him on the desk.
I took my time to explain what had happened in great detail and I wasn’t interrupted once. When I had finished Professor Hollister sat back in thought.
“So, are you suggesting that we are a video game like the others you mentioned?”
“I, well, I thought perhaps that this resembled a game I have on my console called Doom, but the details are all different. So, I guess I don’t really know,” I had to restrain myself from adding sir.
“Hmm, how interesting. This isn’t a recognisable game but we are certainly not from the same world.”
“Not really,” I responded.
“Now, getting hit by this pink ghost or an alien “bomb” caused you to transition between games?”
“Yes,” I nodded.
“If gently touching the ghost only took you to another retro game but getting hit by the aliens caused you to transition to an entirely different genre, maybe the harder you are hit the further you travel.”
“I suppose that would be logical,” I did not like the sound of where this was going.
“So maybe if you were hit really, really hard, you’d return to your home,” Professor Hollister seemed very pleased with himself for suggesting this solution.
“Maybe,” I said.
The professor stood up suddenly and opened a cupboard behind his desk. Inside was a huge chunk of gleaming metal, with pipes and wires twisting around each other in intricate patterns.
“You’re going to shoot her with the Humongo Gun?” the woman in the suit said in disbelief.
“No,” the professor said, “You’re going to do it.” He held out the gun towards her. Slowly, with obvious reluctance, she took the weapon from him.
“What if it doesn’t work?” she asked.
“Then he’ll be stuck with us in this demon compound for the rest of her life. Even being dead is better than that,” Professor Hollister almost seemed to have no concept of the finality of death, “It’s the only chance he has.”
The woman walked behind the desk and levelled the gun at me. I could see down the barrel of the gun into a seemingly endless abyss.
“I truly hope this works,” she said. Before I had a chance to respond or even to think about what was happening, the trigger was pulled. A bolt of bright, white energy flew towards me at an enormous speed, hurling itself into my chest with the force of a tsunami, overturning my wheelchair. When the residual image of the bright light had cleared from my eyes I realised that I was lying on my back in front of the TV, with my controller on the floor next to me. There were no dark blue corridors, lime green arches, or strange glowing orbs. I was home.
I sat up slowly and with great effort I righted my wheelchair. Once I had hauled myself back into it I grabbed my phone from the table to check my notifications. I noticed something about video games on my news feed and with curiosity I clicked it.
“Retro games app recalled due to copyright issues over content; blocked on all major consoles,” screamed the headline. I couldn’t help thinking that there were more important issues that the app should be recalled for but I doubted I would be believed. I decided it didn’t matter; I was home and the app wasn’t in use any more.
That was when I heard a noise from my kitchen. I glided down the corridor and poked my head around the door frame, only to find a demon trying to climb into the snacks cupboard.