Episode 1 - The Pilot


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            There was a time when the internet was an unchartered wasteland. Maybe it still is despite the best efforts of the big tech companies driven by their most basic impulse. But at the time of these events, those companies were still getting their footing. They didn’t exist as we know them today. As a whole, the modern internet was still being built, website by website. Or more accurately, digit by digit. Or whatever you call the things that make up code.

            This was in the very early 2000s. We were still very much in the shadow of Y2K, if you or your family believed in that sort of thing. I wasn’t really aware of it. I was just a preteen, trying to get by while trapped in-between the two great eras of discovery. I was disinterested in the supposed Age of Exploration portrayed in the overpriced and out of date history books that Dad hoarded. Space was the next frontier, but the necessary developments were years away, the subject of the science fiction books my teachers discouraged me from reading. Likely on misinterpreted religious grounds, considering where I grew up, but the reasoning was never said. Or I never listened. I don’t remember.

            But my teacher—and really no one—controlled the internet. It was a constantly changing landscape, manufactured by the efforts of human hands. Every person who stumbled into that other world—if they were determined enough—could build their own home. Their own domain. Simply because they wanted to.

            I never did much of that. Honestly, I probably could have. If I put my mind to it. Or… I don’t know. But back then, I seldom had a teacher not gush about how intelligent I am… I was… I am…

            But that wasn’t my style.

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            You have to understand. I didn’t want to plant jungles; I wanted to explore them. And I didn’t want to build the space ship; I just wanted to land on the planet. Preferably not alone. But in your daily life, you didn’t really talk about the internet. At least, not in the circles I was running in. Digital and real. Those worlds were never meant to collide.

            You had your real world, a tangible community. The physical one you’re body dwelt in. And you had the digital one. The internet-based collection of mysterious figures who hovered around you. And I always imagined them as being made up of binary code. Ones and zeroes. Yes or no, repeated thousands of times over.

            That might have been how I thought about it, but it’s never that simple, I guess. I mean, remember all those location based message boards? Emails started at a way to reach out to people you knew rather than being spammed by abstract corporate entities and strangers. No, harsh demarcations aren’t fair. The internet wasn’t meant to be a competing, parallel to lure people over a one-way divide. Rather, it was meant to supplement and enhance the real, to give us more, new dimensions, perspectives, connections, any other thing we can derive pleasure from.

            However, there is a difference between intention and effect. That’s inevitable. There’s too many variables at play for the intention-effect pairing to be a tightly bound one.

            I am one of those variables. I am a storm that swallows your efforts. I am the winds that wear down your expectations. I am rain that washes your touch away. And there are many like me. These free-but-not-entirely-bold spirits looking for a place not only to be called home but forced to be as much to us.

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            It wasn’t immediate, but in time, enter a text-based game that hasn’t survived the various shifts or contractions that bore the modern internet.  Or at least, I couldn’t find the website. And I didn’t know how to download the contents of a website to a floppy or how to download full stop. Not back then. I still don’t entirely know, to be completely honest. Usually, I just assume that what was out there once will forever be around there, a few keystrokes away. But no, this game—or its website home—is gone.

At least, I couldn’t find it. I never bookmarked the page, and even if I had, I’ve upgrade my computer three or four times since then. The URL that faintly haunts my memory goes nowhere, no matter how I interpret this faint specter’s message. And no search engine trick has yielded anything.

            I feel fairly confident in saying that it’s gone. Truly and completely gone. And there’s a funny sadness that something I visited every day for… at least a year if not more has been completely and utterly lost to me. It doesn’t matter why I had it or lost it. Those are insignificant details, I would call them. So small that there’s the temptation of just cutting them away…

I never understood the point of splitting hairs. I mean why stop there? What do little fingers matter? Or our toes? Why can’t we lose them? Or anything…

            (Music fades out) Actually, the toes might matter. For balance, I think. I don’t know, though. But regardless of purpose or meaning, losing something you’ve always had or something you held onto is hard. Now there’s this space that you have to worry about filling. (Pause)

            I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. I don’t know what any of this matters.

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            It wasn’t formally named. The game, I mean. Maybe the creator behind it had a name in mind. Branding-wise, I mean. It didn’t have that. There wasn’t any need for it, in all likelihood. It was a passion project crafted by the hands of a distant soul who—I always imagined—was a bit lost, aimless, if that makes sense. It would have to make sense. That’s how everyone who found the game was feeling. We were lost, wandering across an endless field, searching for some sort of direction. And then there was this path.

            We had all been lost, and then we found a small stream to follow. Not a full escape but something close.

            We referred to it as (quote) The Funhouse Hallway. Funhouse, as in the funhouse mirrors that twisted and turned your reflection into something else entirely. Sure, I’d never been to a circus funhouse, but I knew the reference from old cartoons that would come onto the television screen from time to time, usually times when my parents weren’t looking at me but at something else. It’s how they missed the violence that no modern parent would allow.

            There weren’t any mirrors, though. Not in this game. I think I know what you’re thinking, and webcams weren’t exceedingly popular back then, either. We were just shy of their rise to default-equipment status.

            We based this on the premise, though. On what it was like to play it.

            When you opened up the game, you were playing it as a nondescript entity trying to piece together what you were, but none of the hints were straightforward. Hence the callback to the funhouse mirror idea. You couldn’t take what you were seeing or reading at face value, but it wasn’t a lie. It was a truth twisted by deliberate craftsmanship.

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            You started on a blank webpage. Because it was loading. Old school internet, remember. When that was done, it would then ask you to walk in one of six different directions. Four were essentially the cardinal directions. Forward, backward, left, right. And there two diagonal directions: forward to the left and forward to the right.

            You see, those were the options that would work. You had the option of moving backwards to the left and right, but if you tried to take them, the game would crash. And sometimes it would take your entire computer out with it. I don’t know how, but reportedly, everything would be fine if you restarted the computer. At least, at first. Supposedly there was a guy out in Seattle who wasn’t so lucky. But he was late to the party. And we had warned him that this particular bug was getting more aggressive. He made his choice.

            The point of the game, as I’ve said, was to piece together the clues of who you were playing as. And those clues would come to you as you moved around. You started at a blank screen. Literally. There was nothing there. We tried all the screen lighting, color contrasting combinations, and never saw anything. And then the screen would prompt you for that first selection. And you would start your choices. All the while, the screen remained almost just as barren as you digitally wandered through the halls the text described while it offered you the distorted descriptions of who you were.

            “You turned left,” it would read. “Your eyes are greatly uneven.” Or “You are taller than the man was.” Before giving you your options for the next fork.

            You never saw any real visuals. It was just text on the screen, results to actions you never fully understood or controlled. Like one of the things I still think about is if we, the players, took a varying number of steps with our choices and if so, how we could have influenced that. And that had to be part of the experience. Because five people could take the same turns and only two of them would get matching results. And the results you would see would seemingly pop up at different intervals except for the two that matched.

Yes, internet speeds were so much more inconsistent back then. But that didn’t seem to matter. We all came to believe that outcome depended in part on that loading time. But what that loading time meant was harder to describe. If time changed outcome, then that’s motion, right? That’s movement. That’s walking.

            So how did we do that?

(Extended - Music fades out and new music fades in)

            It was such a bizarre thing. I know some would call it stupid. After all, I devoted so much of my life at the time to something that was ultimately pointless. Or if there was a point, we never found it. I go back and forth about it. Maybe there was one and maybe there wasn’t. But it felt like there was a narrative behind the visuals and that—really—the only thing stopping its discovery was our inability to put the pieces together.

            And so The Forum was started. Somehow. I had a theory that The Funhouse Hallway’s creator started The Forum around the time people first started finding the game.

            (Pause) I don’t remember what my evidence was for that. Or ours. There were other people who agreed with that theory. But I was the only one really pushing it that hard.

            On the other hand, there were things we could all accept to be true. Like The Wizard, who was the longest surviving presence on The Forum, wasn’t there when The Forum was founded, and when he joined there were four people on it. All long gone by the time the rest of us, I got there. He couldn’t remember what their handles were. And we couldn’t check. True to the instability of servers back then, all data on The Forum would be randomly lost. Depleted. Dumped. Whatever.

            This was back in the day when the internet wasn’t as (quote) “forever” as it is now. Or not in the same way. And we paid the price for that. In addition to all the chat logs that were lost, there were days when The Forum just didn’t work. But The Funhouse Hallway always did. In fact, there were two consistencies or guarantees during that window in my life: The Funhouse Hallways and Aishi.

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            Her full handle was Aishi44713. Looking back, the numbers were an odd addition. Most of us just had words or other simple identities. No one else had numbers in their name. And I don’t know where the numbers for her came from. Now, with so many people everywhere, that sort of thing is just par for the course. But The Forum wasn’t like that. She made a conscious choice to put them there. She chose that. I don’t know why

            While it was a deviation from a norm, it didn’t seem like something to dwell on. Now, I’ve changed my mind. There had to be meaning. And I wish I knew what it was. Then again, maybe it was just force of habit: a carryover from a website with different rules. After all, she used that handle everywhere we talked. And we talked all over the internet.

            Aishi was there when I joined The Forum. I remember looking through the chat logs to find out more about her. And, yes, I say “her” that with a sense of certainty, though I may be wrong. Before I came along, people who posted about her would use she/her pronouns, and she was never inclined to correct them.

And they did talk about her. A lot. The rumor was that she had gotten farther along than anyone else. For that, she was a legend. And unfortunately or maybe fortunately for the rest of us, people do like their legends after all, she hardly ever talked. And that added to the general mystique around her.

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            That changed when I appeared. I only found The Forum after I spent quite a while on the game. And I hit the point where I was falling out of love with it, coming off of an intense obsession and falling deeper into that ensuing low. I mean, it was bound to happen I guess. In time.

            But then Aishi popped up on my screen. A quick hello, and my place on The Forum was sealed.

(Music fades out.)

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