You - By Austin Grossman

Chapter One

So what’s your ultimate game?”

He made it sound like a completely normal question, and I guess in this context it was. My long afternoon of interviews had come down to these two strangers. A tall guy, twentyish, with an angular face and graying hair pulled back in a ponytail, who enunciated everything very precisely, as if speaking into a touchy voice-recognition program. The other one was slightly over five feet tall, with long, Jesus-like, wavy dark hair and a faded black T-shirt that read CTHULHU FOR PRESIDENT; WHY SETTLE FOR THE LESSER OF TWO EVILS? It was from 1988.

“Right.” I swallowed. “So, how exactly do you define that?”

None of the questions was what I expected. Most of them were esoteric thought experiments, “How would you turn Pride and Prejudice into a video game?” and “If you added a button to Pac-Man, what would you want it to do?” Conundrums like “How come when Mario jumps he can change direction in midair?” And now this one.

“You know, the game you’d make if you could make any game at all,” the long-haired designer explained.

“Forget about budget,” the short guy added. “You’re in charge. Just do anything! Greatest game ever!”

I opened my mouth to answer and then stopped. It was obviously a throwaway question, a way to close out the afternoon on a fun note. And so it was weird that my mind had gone blank when it was the one question I should have known the answer to, given that I was interviewing for a job as a video game designer.

I’d spent the past few hours in a state of mild culture shock. I’d arrived forty minutes early at the address the office manager gave me over the phone, an anonymous office complex at the far limit of the Red Line, past Harvard and Porter, where Cambridge gave out entirely, lapsed into empty lots and restaurants on the wrong side of Alewife Brook Parkway, and then into wetlands, brackish water, and protected species like sweet flag and pickerelweed.

Beyond the wetlands were the forested hills and the suburbs Arlington and Belmont and Newton where I grew up. Alewife was built to be the point of exchange between Cambridge and the true suburbs. It was also home to the acres of office space demanded by high-tech companies spun off from academic research and funded by the Department of Defense, IT training schools, human resources offices, real estate companies, and tax attorneys. Coming back here felt like I’d made it to the big city and now was on the verge of drifting back out into the nowhere beyond. This was where Black Arts Studios set up shop.

This particular building was apparently designed in the early eighties, while the Department of Defense was still funding blue-sky tech companies. The heavy glass doors led into a three-story lobby and courtyard with a fountain, pastel Mediterranean tiling, and incongruous broad-leafed faux-tropical foliage. It had a humid, greenhouse smell even in the oddly chilly spring of 1997; the frosted skylights let in a perpetually dim half-light. About half the office space looked empty.

Black Arts was on the third floor. There was no sign or number on the door, so I wandered back and forth along the balcony until I saw a piece of paper with BLACK ARTS written in black Magic Marker taped to the inside of a glass window reinforced with chicken wire. There was no doorbell. Through the square of glass I could see an empty reception area, and behind it an open doorway leading to a dimly lit office.

I wasn’t exactly comfortable in a job interview, and what made it worse was I already knew these people—pretty well, actually. We’d met when we were in high school together, fourteen years ago. Now I would be asking them for work, in the company they started. Darren and Simon were the cofounders. They’d been friends since as long as anyone could remember. Simon I remembered as small and dark-haired, round-faced, with olive skin that never seemed to see the sunlight. He wore checkered shirts and corduroys and never seemed to quite come into an adult body—at fifteen he could have passed for twelve. He was supposed to be smart but for some reason didn’t take any advanced classes. Pathetic, but so dorky as to almost round the corner into menacing. People claimed he built pipe bombs and had hacked a kid’s grades on the school computer once. They laughed at him, but not to his face.

Darren was taller