A couple of months back I used to be a college teacher, teaching computing development. I wouldn’t call myself a lecturer; I wasn’t good with just talking at people for an hour. Plus my ‘lectures’ never took place in a hall. Most of the time we were in one of my university’s computer suites, very much like a lesson in a normal IT class. Most of my days were spent showing my classes how to design files and documents, and eventually code their own games. I have to tell you, it was a pretty fun games seeing these guys start my class barely being able to code a game of noughts and crosses and leaving after three years being able to make their own fully rendered 3D games.
A little exercise I used to do at the end of the second year of the course would be to give them the ROM documents to some classic 2D games you can find on emulators and forums anywhere online. These ROMs ranged from the Super Mario Brothers to Final Fantasy and everything in between. When I gave them the documents, I used to give them until the beginning of the next year of edit the documents in such a way that you’d be playing a different game, designing new levels and sprites etc. This gives the students a chance to enjoy playing with old games, while also learning how to code for themselves and insert their own creativity into the pieces. Over the years of me doing this, I have had some very mixed results, depending on the level of the students. It ranged from an intriguing “de-make” of Aliens vs. Predator using game mechanics from Contra and Ninja Gaiden, all the way down to a Pokémon game with some truly terrible attempts at changing the game with awful new Pokémon and glitchy game play which was almost painful to play through. Some of the students even tried to frighten me by attempting to make these games ‘scary’ or ‘disturbing’ somehow. Only one student managed to do that.
It was late in the term and I set this particular piece of work for a relatively small class of mine. There were only ten students in the class, six guys and four girls. They all seemed to get along pretty well, not animosity or bullying in the class at all. In smaller classes of older students you usually find that. As I set this project for them over the summer, there was a mixture of excited and concerned faces. This was common among less confident students. One of the girls in the class, called Kim, asked what I would be looking for in the games, as in themes or game play elements from the existing game. I always tell them the same thing that I would try and stray as far away from the source material as they could, to allow more creativity in the game itself. I always give the analogy that I won’t mark a piece of work highly if you just change the sprite of Sonic the Hedgehog into a gopher, or made Mario a German plumber. I also say that sometimes the best way to innovate sometimes is to make something close to your heart, something which you truly enjoy. After I had explained all of this, the class seemed more assured of what they needed to do.
I adjourned class, but called back one of my students, let’s call him Tom. He was a problem child in the class. He was extremely intelligent and very good at basic coding before he even started the classes. However, he was very socially inept, usually sitting to the side of his classmates and only really talking to the others if they asked him for help or asked how he was. No one was mean to him; he just seemed to keep himself to himself. I asked him if everything was ok and if he understood the assignment, as the last few he had handed in hadn’t been up to his usual high standard. He said everything was fine, even saying he had an idea for a completely original game to do for the project. That assured me he would provide something interesting for me to play, and the prospect of an original game was very welcome. Too many times had I been sent a game which was just a re-designed level from Super Mario Brothers, claiming it’s a new game, which wasn’t nearly as impressive for a student at this stage of their teaching.
Over the first month of the summer break, I always keep myself free so that my students can contact me via email if they have any problems with the assignments I set them. Usually I get a few questions on basic formatting from students who miss classes and then some more asking me to test their game to see if it works. I usually say no to the latter of these, as it means I am giving that student an advantage over the others. It was at this point that I got an email from Tom. This was the first time since his application that I had received and email from him. Like I’ve said, he kept himself to himself, and he was always pretty good with understanding projects and assignments. He didn’t need much prompting towards getting the work done. However, Tom’s email wasn’t asking for help. He wasn’t emailing me to trial his game.
This is the message he sent me:
I am writing to you for two reasons. Firstly, I regret to say that I will not be rejoining your class when the New Year starts. This is due to important matter which I have to attend to. I wish I had enough time to complete your course, but my leaving is unavoidable.
Secondly, I have completed the project you set the class before leaving. Although it will not count towards my final grade, I would like you to have a look at it. As I said in class, I think it is very original and based on something personal to me. However, could I ask you one favour when playing this game? Please don’t show it to anyone else. You will know why when you play it.
Attached to the email was a file called ‘Bead Dice Sky’. This confused me greatly. What could have happened to him that would make him suddenly quit the course? And, if he was in such a rush to quit the course, why did he still send me his game? I should have questioned this more, but I always tried to stay out of the personal lives of my students as much as possible as to avoid complications.
The files in that email stayed there for a few days before my curiosity got the better of me. Although I no longer had to mark his work and he had left so abruptly from my course, the idea of an original game made from the engines of old 2D games compelled me to look into it. I opened the file and, surprisingly, I could open it straight from the file itself. No need for an emulator which was par for the course in this project as it is easier to code and edit. When clicking on the main file, simply named ‘BeadDiceSky’, my screen went black for a few seconds while it was loading. After a couple of seconds of this, the title screen appeared.
The title seemed to be made of children’s play blocks and spelled the title of the game. No spaces, all in capitals. The background was a simple blue sky with the odd cloud floating by the in the background. I pressed the start button and the game started with the player in his room. I recognised the engine used for this part of the game was the one for Pokémon Gold and Silver. The sprite and surroundings, however, were completely different. The room was much more detailed that anything in the Pokémon games, with very specific posters on the wall, a computer, bed, games consoles etc. It even had stray socks and coke cans on the floor. I felt relieved by the fact he had put so much work into this. Almost every single pixel on this screen had been changed. Nothing was reused from the original game bar the model for the character sprites, and even that was heavily edited. The character seemed to have light brown hair, a red t-shirt on with dark blue jeans and white and red shoes on. The sprite itself looked very much like Tom himself, which made me think this is what he meant by the game being something personal to him, like a fantasy adventure where he was the hero. Although I was impressed by the amount of detail put into just one screen of the game, the fact that he did has suddenly left the course despite all his hard work worried me slightly more than before.
As I moved the character around the room, it seemed quite fluent. There was no lag or glitching in the movement. I left the room and came to a corridor. Each room had its own flavour text. For example:
“DAD’S ROOM – He wouldn’t be happy if I went in there without asking firsty”
“ELANOR’S ROOM – I hear snoring. She probably is resting after her nightshift last night. I’ll leave her to sleep”.
I was mightily impressed by all the work Tom had put into this game, it had barely been two weeks since I set the project and this looked very polished already. I couldn’t go into any other rooms in the corridor so went downstairs to a large open area, with the first character despite the one I was playing as. It seemed to have a receding hairline and glasses and wearing a suit. I went over to him and began to talk to him.
“DAD: Good morning, TOM. Are you off to university today?”
“TOM: Yeah I will be soon”
“DAD: Ah good, just don’t wake your sister, she had a tough shift last night”
I had met Tom’s dad before when he was having some problems in class at the beginning of the course. It’s strange to say, but I could almost hear his voice when the words came up on screen. Almost like this conversation had happened in real life between the two. It wasn’t a massive piece of dialogue, but Tom wasn’t really a big talker.
After this I left the house and began a short cut scene of Tom (which is what the character was called) on the bus. The music was innocent enough, it matched the ambiance of the background, which was colourful and had lots of pastel colours on show. However, this changed for a split second. When I looked at Tom, the sprite seemed it had its eyes closed. Suddenly, for about half a second, the music changed to a static sound and the background flickered between the colourful normal backgrounds to a navy blue void with only Tom’s sprite, coloured against the blue background. I assumed it was a glitch. No one gets this kind of ROM hack completely right first time, especially one as ambitious as this one.
After this short bus journey in game, Tom’s sprite arrived at a large building with a billboard outside of it. This is where the game’s accuracy became slightly concerning. Looking at the billboard, it turned out to be a map; an exact map of the university campus. I don’t mean a rough outline of the pictures. This was accurate down to the trees and benches in the centre of the university. This level of accuracy surely wasn’t healthy, especially in the short time since the piece was set. It was bordering on obsession. As I entered the front door and a word box popped up with the word “OBJECTIVE” in block capitals. When I continued, the next line said “Find BECKY”. This is when my slight concern turned into panic. One of the girls in our small class was called Becky. She was a smart enough girl, but not amazing at the course, so asked Tom a lot for help. As the teacher, I could see him staring at her a lot during classes and looking away nervously when she turned around. I thought this game would be some kind of sick wish fulfilment game where he gets the girl, which is fine as long as it stays within this game. I realised I sounded a bit hysterical; this part might just mean he has to find his classmates to get to the lesson. I pressed on and noticed the game play suddenly changed. Although all the sprites remained in the Pokémon style, it now played like Metal Gear, a Nintendo game which focused mostly on stealth. All the other characters had a cone in front of them which conveyed their sight, and Tom had to avoid all of these to reach the top of the screen and, eventually, Becky. However, the glitch from earlier re-emerged, but this time every time the player was caught. There would be a small surge of static noise, the background would go dark blue and the player would be sent back to the beginning of the room. This made me think this was either a glitch to cover up for a dying animation, or deliberately programmed to signify something.
When I finally managed to reach the top of the screen, the game went back into the Objectives screen, this time with a more sinister message:
“OBJECTIVE: Follow BECKY without being seen”. This lead onto a group of sprites standing in front of Tom all of them looking like one or another of the students in the class. Standing in the middle of this row was a brown haired girl with a blue shirt on and whit skirt. It was Becky. It must have been. The focus of the game in this section was to find her, so it has to be her. The object of this part of the game was frankly quite disturbing. What you needed to do was to get close enough to the group to hear Becky talking, without them noticing you there. What this is, essentially, is a stalking game. Stranger still, when you got close enough to hear her, text boxes would appear with what she was saying. The ones I remember were:
“BECKY: I’m so glad this is the last day of term. I have the house to myself for the rest of the week so you can come around whenever”
“BECKY: I can’t wait to get home. I didn’t sleep too well last night. I kept on thinking I heard rustling in the bushes outside my window”
There were sentences like this every 10 seconds you went undetected, and the same static noise and blue screen as before when you were noticed, along with a message simply reading as Becky turned around:
This section lasted for about five minutes before getting to a familiar door. As the group reached the door, I lost control of Tom. The next bit was creepily accurate. All the students entered the class and a sprite of...me was standing at the front, wearing the same clothes as I was on the last day of term. It became even creepier that the teacher...I mean my sprite recited the entire lesson I gave them, including setting the project for them to do. At this point I didn’t really know how to feel. What was I even playing anymore?
As the students left the room, the objective stayed the same as before; “Follow BECKY without being seen”. Only this time it was a lot longer, leading out of the campus and to a house where the girl ran inside with her friends. After this the flash of blue lasted a bit longer, as well as the static. It showed not only the sprite of Tome, but also the outline of the house Becky entered. It felt like the house would play a bigger part in this game, and my gut told me not in a good way.
The screen cut to black and the next scene showed Tom in bed. The light was dark, only showing the outlines of items in the room. The flickers started again, but a lot more frequent, until the static sound stopped and the screen was permanently dark blue. This must have been what the flashes of blue and static conveyed: the dream world. Tom got out of bed and I controlled him again. I left the house and there was another character standing at the door. This one looked incredibly similar to Tom’s sprite, but darker. I went to talk to him, and a series of text boxes popped up:
“TRISTAN: You flaked again, didn’t you? You didn’t go through with it! I knew you wouldn’t! Why did I even trust you to do it in the first place? Listen, you know why you have to do it. I’ve given you so many reasons why they deserve it! Who’s gonna miss them? No one. Who’s going to expect you, kind, gentle little Tommy, for such a thing? No one! It’s fool proof! Don’t make me take the matters in my own hands...Get up and do it now!”
After this, there was a loud sound of static, the screen cut to black, and it went back to night time in Tom’s bedroom. Although it was all back to normal, well as normal as it could be, this dream raised a lot of questions. Who was Tristan? What had Tom failed to do? Was he talking about Becky? Another class mate? Me? My questions were soon answered.
Tom’s sprite got out of his bed and the screen cut to black yet again. As my gut feeling earlier predicted, Tom’s sprite was now stood outside of Becky’s house, and moving around the windows. The game then gave me control of Tom for a short time, it went back to the stealth game play. I tried walking away from the house, but a hedge around Becky’s windows stopped me. I couldn’t walk backwards; I could only walk towards a small window. As soon as I reached the window, the screen cut to black again, and suddenly I was inside the house. What is going on? I thought, perplexed why this game was even sent to me, Why did Tom send me this? At this point the light came on in the room and a sprite stood in the doorway. It was Becky. My heart sank, almost like I was trying to prepare myself for the next scene. Becky began to speak:
“BECKY: Who....Who’s there? Is...is that you Tom? Why are you in my house?!? I’ve told you before, Tom, if you don’t stop following me I would call the police. I saw you today, following me and my friends! Now you’ve...broken into my house? What were you going to do?! That’s it, I’m calling the police!”
Becky took a couple of steps into the room towards the phone, then Tom spoke:
After this, a battle scene appeared. This was by far the most disturbing part of the game. The ‘battle’ played out like one would in a Pokemon game, but instead of a sprite, there was a very distinct pixelated image of a girl in floral pyjamas and barefoot. Each ‘player’ had a health bar, but no numbers underneath them, only their names above.
“TRISTAN: Stop her, you idiot!” appeared at the bottom of the screen, then a menu showed up. The only option was ‘FIGHT’, and Tom only had one attack, ‘PUNCH’. I hesitantly used it. A big chunk was taken out of Becky’s health bar when the move went through.
“BECKY: What are you doing?!”
After this, I lost control of the ‘battle’. I was helpless now. Now just an onlooker:
“BECKY used RUN...but it failed!”
“TRISTAN: Stop. Her. Now.”
“TOM: I’m...sorry” “TOM used PUNCH”
“BECKY: Please stop! You’re hurting me, TOM!” “BECKY used RUN...but it failed!”
“TOM: Don’t make me do this!”
“TRISTAN: She can’t leave now...”
“TOM: ...” “TOM used STRANGLE”
Strangle?! This option wasn’t even an option when I had control. It was also at this point that Becky’s sprite changed. She was now lying on her side, propping herself up with her elbow, with her other hand held out, as if to say “Stop”. Her face was battered and bruised, and she looked petrified.
“BECKY: No! Please! Nu....” “BECKY used STRUGGLE...but it failed!”
After this, the screen faded to black for a long time. It felt like an eternity. It gave me chance to try and figure out what was happening. I still couldn’t get my head why Tom had even sent me this. Was it a sick joke? Has he actually committed a hideous crime?
The screen came back on to show Tom in a forest at night over a patch of dug up earth. A spade was in his left hand. After about ten seconds of this screen, a text box appeared at the bottom:
“TOM: I’m sorry. This wasn’t meant to happen”
Tom’s sprite ran away. The text box remained at the bottom as the title of the game lowered in from the top, the blocks spelling out “BEADDICESKY”. Suddenly, the blocks began to spin; distorting the letters and when they stopped, the word was very different. A message in a game I will never forget.
After this screen I shut down the game and checked my university email account. I went through my messages before Tom’s to see one come in from the University, asking for people to come forward if they knew the location of a missing student: Rebecca Dale. I rushed to my phone to call the police and report what I had witnessed and that I may have a lead to the student’s disappearance. I unplugged my laptop and took it to the police station, hoping the game was more of a warning sign of what Tom was planning to do rather than what he had already done. I was too late...
I’m writing this several months after events for several reasons. Firstly, its only really taken me until now to fully grasp what I was involved with. The news of Tom’s trial had come much sooner than I was anticipating. They found him, apparently, north of where we were, hiding in a small abandoned house. I gave my evidence in court and then left proceedings in one day. I avoided eye contact with the young man, but I could feel his eyes burning into the side of my head. A few days after I appeared, the full story was reported on in the national papers. I read the story, just to see what had transpired. The headline read “Game Killer, 20, charged with murder of student” As I read further, the whole grizzly business take place outside of the game.
“Thomas Alexander was reportedly seen entering the Dale household at 2:05a.m early Saturday morning. A neighbour reported a disturbance when they heard a door open at the rear of the house”
“Alexander claims he was ‘encouraged’ to commit the murder by an accomplice, ‘Tristan’. Police have found no evidence to back up his claim, but his father has claimed Thomas had suffered from schizophrenia at an early age, but was told by doctors it was controlled by his medication”
“Dale’s body was found buried in a shallow grave in the woods bordering the university where she used to study. A teacher alerted the police to a game sent to him by Alexander; two weeks after the murder had taken place”
All of this made me feel sick to my stomach. I felt like I had a part of this whole crazy plot. I felt paranoid, almost as if Tom was coming to get me, now that I had told the police of his game, even though he said to tell no one. I hadn’t slept in days. I asked the police whether I could be relocated, somewhere where Tom couldn’t find me if he ever got out of prison. I was put into the Witness Relocation Program three days after the court had cast their sentence. Although I am much more relaxed in my new life, I can never forget what had happened. Recently, while re-reading some of the reports on the case, there was a paragraph at the bottom which I had always neglected to look at. It was after the gruesome description of how Tom disposed of the body, and that was always enough for me to stop reading in disgust. I read further, and the pain and torment came rushing back to me, all because of one line:
“While looking over the data in the game, researchers found a picture file, showing the diseased in the woods she was buried. Her face was heavily brusied, bloodied and her clothes torn, presumably from the attack”.
This line filled me with dread. I looked over my old email address, which the police told me not to actively use anymore, and found the files Tom sent me. Sitting beside the game file I hastily clicked on was, indeed, a picture file; “imsorry.jpg”. To this day, I still haven’t opened that picture. It tortures my mind with its content, but I refuse to open it, just in case it let’s Tom back in, back into my thoughts. Through this, I can be rid of Tom forever.