The last few days had been real scorchers. Egg-on-pavement weather with cold nights that just served to make the office bloc that much more uncomfortable. Still - it'd been a pretty good summer, and though Francis was about to retire, we were pulling even on our own, and I felt like we'd be able to keep doing so. The party had gone on for far too long, though - no one wanted to stay around and eat suspiciously rich-tasting custard cake, but no one wanted to be the first out the door, especially when The Boss was completely plastered. Rich, being the gentleman that he was, managed to excuse himself, and the office started to empty - half-mumbled farewells and well-wishes fading into silence as the lights flickered and died.
On account of my position, I was one of the three people allowed the keys to our building - the one sandwiched between the dentist and the army recruiter. We liked to joke that we were the second circle of hell, but it was a pretty weak joke - the second circle of hell probably had better heating. I hadn't drunk at the party, but still those nights were cold - the kind of bone-chilling cold that gets under your fingernails and makes your veins ache as you type.
It took me awhile to realize that someone was standing beside me - Harris, with his youthful grin and the energy that hadn't been siphoned out of him just yet. He was looking at the picture of Karen, I guess, and I rolled around in my chair to face him and kind of obscure it from view.
"Hey." I replied, and attempted to smile. I'm not normally very emotive, let alone before closing; Harris was the kind of guy who you didn't want to let down, even if you didn't much care for him; he deflated like a balloon at any (perceived) criticism or lack of enthusiasm, which was both exasperating and oddly depressing. Harris' smile widened, at least, so I guess I hadn't completely exhausted his favour.
He cleared his throat; I had one of those motion-sensitive figurines at my desk, a certain rubber monster - the presence of something moving caused it to bobble more wildly then before.
"You like videogames, right?"
It was completely out of left field, and I laughed - how anyone can fail to recognize the King of Monsters in this day and age is beyond me.
"Yeah, I do. It's something Karen and I can do to relax on the weekends when we see one another, though I wouldn't say they're my first passion."
That wasn't all true - I like gaming a lot as a personal hobby. But I've found being too enthusiastic about anything at work is one of the most dangerous things you can do - and I honestly wasn't sure where Harris, who was nervously looking at the picture of Karen again, was going with this.
"It's just... You work pretty late, uh, and -"
Preparing to shoot him down, I was surprised when he placed a flash-drive on my desk.
"Look, could you look into this for me? It's a 'game', I guess, a friend of mine sent it to me after his kid got sent a copy. His kid was about Karen's age - I know it's a weird request, but I can't seem to find anything about it on the internet, and I wouldn't mind someone else looking into it. Please?"
First, I was floored - most people didn't talk to me, and if we did talk it was about carefully neutral things. So Harris trusting me was both surprising, and oddly touching. Secondly... Secondly, something about how desperate he seemed got me interested, and what the heck. I could probably find a few hours after work to look at it, so long as it was just during the week - and told him as such.
Harris seemed like a huge burden had been lifted off his shoulders, and for a minute I thought he was going to faint, then and there.
"Thank you, thank you so much! Look, I really appreciate it - I mean, its just..." It was only him and me now, and the atmosphere had become conspiratorial. He leaned in close enough for me to realize he was trembling, and the paranoia seemed infectious - I could feel hackles rise on the nape of my neck.
"I couldn't solve it on my own, and I trust you."
With that, Harris excused himself and I fiddled with the sixty-cent party hat in my fingers. It was nice being trusted, and I'm more reliable than I look - but some weird game, really? It was about eight, and I figured I had a few more hours in me; alone in the building as I was, with only the darkness separating the cubicles around me - I slipped the flash drive into a port and opened it up. Harris had removed any personal data from it, if there'd been any in the first place; there was one file, PanopticonGame.
Yeah, I should've had file extensions unhidden, but it was a work computer and I honestly don't think it would've told me that much. I copied the file to my workstation and gave it a double-tap. The cursor faded into a loading position, and... Continued to do so. Eventually, I got impatient and made myself some hot water from the breakroom, only to discover that we didn't have any tea. Feeling silly for having put so much effort into something that was obviously just the nervousness of a young coworker, I returned to my station with the full intent to shut the computer off and call it a night.
Except, Panopticon had loaded.
It had auto-adjusted itself to the width and height of my monitor, display black save for the chunky orange font that spelled out the game title. It was painful to look at, too - something about the font looked stretched several times over, and despite the clearness of the letters I had to remove my glasses had to make sure the title was one and the same. There was no indication of what I needed to do to progress. I tried clicking, enter, shift, escape - which didn't close the program, I noticed - and space. No luck.
Then, on a whim, I tried rotating the mouse to the side - and the screen slowly faded away and the into a new transition. It was blocky and full of image-compression artifacts, and felt much like hypercard-produced games of old. I could've sworn it had been made ON hypercard, save that I don't think Hypercard is still in development. Regardless of whatever program was used to make it, the transition was clearly a cell in a dungeon, possibly feudal. Two torches flickered pixelblurs and particles at me from both my right and left, and moving the cursor too close to them brought up the title screen. I tried exploring the title screen again first, then returned to the dungeon.
Bars in front of me 'blocked' my progress, and moving the cursor elsewhere didn't create any new transition. I tried clicking through the bars, which produced blocky text telling me that 'I wasn't ready to do that'. Uh, yes I was damn ready to do whatever it was! I tried clicking multiple times, but apparently this wasn't one of those puzzles were the parser is just playing around with you - waiting for you to repeat a certain action until it gives in.
A strange grunting noise from the distance seemed to indicate a pig or something, maybe a boar, coming towards me. I waited and sure enough, a large boar appeared across the bars from me - or rather, badly faded in, in two sets of mono-coloured stripes.
Only the head of the boar was animated, and it simply bobbed up and down, grunting occasionally. I clicked its head - no luck. The rest of it didn't lead to anything either, until I tried clicking the neck. Hands - rendered much more smoothly and efficiently in FMV - lashed out towards the boar's neck and began to choke it with frightening realism, knuckles growing red as the boar squealed in fear and lack of oxygen. Then, the hands withdrew as a strangely comical 'plunk' sound effect played, and the boar flipped over - hovering slightly in mid-air, since whomever had rendered it clearly didn't care about how it looked.
Clicking its tusks 'GOT YOU A TUSK', to quote the parser, caps and all. Despite that, neither tusk disappeared - but the bars did, fading away with no further prompt from me. I clicked the distance - and the dungeon and the boar faded away, replaced by an isometric top-down view of a grassland, filled with orbs that looked like marbles; the orbs came in many different colours, and spun slowly in perfect harmony.
Moving down returned me to the dungeon, with the cursor returning to the grassland if I went up. Nothing seemed new in either of the previous areas, so I experimented with the marble area for an hour... And couldn't figure out what to do. The marbles didn't seem to react with anything, and it was ten in the evening. Feeling ridiculous, I tried to exit the program - alt-f4 wouldn't close out, so I tried f1. To my surprise, no help menu came up, but the game closed. Intuitive.
I made sure everything was off, locked the doors, went home - and tried to puzzle out the marble room.
The next day, Harris was bombastic with enthusiasm. "So, you saw it, right?" He asked me the moment I walked in the door - leaning over Cybele's cubicle wall to talk at me. I nodded and asked him if he knew about the marble room; he gave me a strange look and shrugged, telling me that he hadn't made it past the first screen. I wasn't sure if he meant the opening screen or the dungeon, but let it rest. Then, for the rest of the day, I worked - but my thoughts remained on the Panopticon.
When I booted the game up that evening, I started in the marble room - but there was a difference. The marbles had been replaced with stationary objects of different size and shape, all different shades of bone-white. The skulls were funny at first, but clicking a skull generated a seemingly-random article, with a name, a date of birth, and a date of death.
None of the dead ever seemed to be more then eleven years old.
Feeling a little nauseous, I accidentally managed to click another skull on the edge of the news clipping 'boundary' when one article was already open. The screen suddenly began to barrage me with newspaper articles, before playing an error beep multiple times, and fading away with the same weird transition effect.
When it had finished loading, I was apparently 'on' what appeared to be an old paper press. In the background, thousands of other presses were clamping downwards, spraying ink and other fluids in every direction. Papers came from the left, and after they'd been pressed, they turned into skulls.
I was now getting the distinct impression that this had been made by someone with a pretty sick sense of humor; it reminded me a little bit of some of the 'edgy' shareware of ages past that had seemed desperate to break the status quo and had never succeeded at doing that, and then faded into the selective memory of a few people who remembered perhaps a game between them.
So lost was I in contemplation that I almost didn't realize that the game had shifted in full-motion video again. This time, I was staring down at my feet on the conveyor belt. Ahead of me, something was wailing - it sounded like a goose. Skin pooled out above the conveyor and grew into a face staring up at me. It opened its mouth - and sucked me in.
Everything was black now, and I couldn't return to previous screens. This seemed to be the end, and I decided to give it up; though that night, for the first time in several days, I couldn't remember precisely what my dreams had been about.
And yet - the next day, despite the hurry at work, I was desperate to 'play' Panopticon again. Harris was extremely accommodating, bringing me sandwiches and drinks throughout the day, as I guess I was too tired to get them myself. This led to some jokes from the rest of the staff, but The Boss approached me after work and told me, with some genuine concern, to take it easy. I hadn't realized I'd been pushing myself - and promised him I would.
Then, as soon as he was reassured and gone, I fired up Panopticon again.
It was still as featureless a void as before, and I resorted to hammering keys, then pixel-hunting for some fraction of the screen that did something. Frustrated, I was about to call it quits again when a 'slit' in the void opened, revealing something that looked like a fingernail. I tried clicking it, and a 'digging' stock sound effect played, excavating more of the void in messy clumps. Eventually all of it was removed, revealing the entire screen covered in fingernails, shucked from their fingers and in various states of discoloration.
Clicking the mound of fingernails faded them out of existence, and replaced them with a console prompt and a question mark. I immediately typed help - and got a response.
Panopticon 1.12.01 About the Developer Jurgis Blusins is living in a cage, surrounded by water. The water is tepid, jump right on in! Hi mom! If you can read this, pass it on to your friends!
Even more curious, I tried typing pass. The response I got was a very... Retro sounding electronic bleep, and one frame of the screen below rising at a time as an ASCII football slowly appeared. When it was fully centered in the screen, a stock applause sound effect played, and then the football lowered at the same, glacial pace.
Next, I tried typing cage.
There are hundreds of cages, a special cage for a special person. You are in one cage now. Do you want to try to find another?
So of course I tried typing yes, but that didn't do anything, just made a space appear in the screen. Next I tried 'find cage' and that made the cursor materialize, as if it were loading.
Sorry, all the cages are full. No more cages, no more prisoners, no more water, no more. There is someone else in your cage.
I looked over my shoulder, suppressing a sudden chill - but there was no one present, of course. I spammed commands - open cage, look, inventory, exit, almost everything I could think of - but nothing seemed to happen and finally I shut Panopticon off, and left the office.
It was eleven at night, and a Friday.
That weekend, Karen was worried about me. She said I was distant, and that grandma was worried about me, too. Mom sure seemed worried, but knew me well enough to knew that I wouldn't just talk about it - a flaw that's passed around in this family for far too long, now. We had a pleasant chat, and I ate pancakes, and I told Karen I loved her - and I dreamed about Panopticon.
When I returned to work, The Boss immediately cornered me and asked if I'd heard about it. Not knowing what he was talking about, I said as much - thinking for some reason it'd be related to the game. He told me a few houses in the area had been broken into recently, and since I lived alone that I should double-check my apartment. I told him I'd be careful, and that I always was.
Honestly, it didn't even register.
That night, when I loaded up Panopticon, the message was there to greet me, but slightly different.
All the cages are empty. There is someone else looking into your cage.
Cracking my fingers, I feverishly began to type: look back.
Painstakingly slowly, an eye began to form in the center of the screen. It was drawn crudely in what looked like neon-green paint, and was clearly an image created and transposed over the background.
I don't know why, but I placed my hand against the screen and it felt smooth and soft and - I'm sorry, I don't know what I'm saying. Time passed for a bit and I removed my hand. Nothing had happened of course, but the console was still there. Uh, look, I know this is going to sound weird, but I told you that I try to be honest in all things, so don't judge me. What I typed next was, I typed:
Now, that shouldn't have done anything, I know - but then, fading in several frames at a time, lips drew close to the surface of the eye - which started to look as if it were shuddering, sweat forming at the edges. Then the lips closed over it. And then came the teeth.
Disgusted, I tried to center myself and figure out what was going on with me. I looked at my desk, once studiously clean, and watched Gojira's head bob up and down - it sounds stupid, but it calmed me, and I returned to the once again blackened screen, and entered another command.
Specify correct tag.
Terminate program Panopticon.
Please specify a valid program.
Terminate program PanopticonGame.
Please specify a valid program.
Frustrated and scared, I took a deep breath and tried to figure out what else could possibly cause this game to do anything else. Harris had asked me to look into it, right? It had been a disturbing ride, but I hadn't found any clues about what this weird game was or why it existed. I hadn't -
Slowly, it occurred to me. I walked to Harris' cubicle, and logged into his workstation. It didn't take me long to find Panopticon's buildfiles as I stumbled back towards my desk and sunk into my chair, staring blankly at the desk surface as the monster figurine on it began wobbling manically, even as I continued to stay entirely still. Sweat ran down my spine as I recognized Harris' voice.
A cursed game, mysteriously appearing, that no one had seemed to know about? It was stupid, I'd been so stupid -
"Harris." I said more calmly than I felt, but Harris didn't make any more moves. Actually - I couldn't see him that well, but was only just aware of him standing next to me. I was terrified of looking at him and making everything seem more real, sure - but my curiousity has always been stronger than my fear, and so I looked to the side.
Whatever I say is going to sound less forceful then the truth. Harris looked awful. Thinner, more gaunt, more hungry. He wasn't looking at me, but looking up at the rough, and his face was worn with regret. Some of my fear started to dissipate, maybe because I realized something else - just like before, Harris was trembling. I slowly rose out of my chair.
"You made it, right?"
Harris nodded, slowly. Beads of sweat were obviously visible against his skin, sticking to one of his tacky polo shirts.
"Why did you make it?"
"Because I was asked to."
"Why did you show me?"
"Type it." He practically begged - but maybe this was my mistake. I shook my head, courage coming to me as it drained from him.
"TYPE IT!" Harris shouted, but as he realized I wouldn't he began to weep - huge tears that would've been comical in any other circumstances, wet sobs that tore from his throat and echoed around the powerless cubicles. And then - after a bizarre shuddering - he ran from the office building. I did what I had to do of course - I chased after him.
Harris was running through the parking lot, a little out of shape already. I assumed I could catch up to him but didn't take the chance and got in my car. That was my second mistake maybe - I could see it in my rearview mirror, even though that didn't change anything. He looked confused, then elated, and finally - for a split second - horrified - as he ran towards me as I pulled out of the lot. It was barely in reverse, and the car shouldn't have even pinged him; but the lot was on a slight incline, and as he tripped it rolled backwards. By the time I'd called the police, well, you know what the coroner said.
The worst part is that I still don't know why he made it. That shouldn't matter, but I still don't know why the police insisted on impounding it all. They couldn't find anything that indicated Harris in any crimes, but on the other hand... His apartment was entirely empty. No furniture, no furnishings, nothing - and after he died, the string of break-ins from around the country stopped. It's faded a bit since then; with the verdict as it was, it's something we joke about even as I end up ruminating how messed up it is that we joke about it. And yet that's what we do; we joke.
I still dream about it at night - and sometimes, when I wake up, I still wonder what would have happened if I just typed that one, short word into the console...