Attract Mode 3: Kill Screen
How long had I been playing?
I... I want to say it was only a few hours, but all the evidence was to the contrary. The time of night, the headache, the pain in my eyes from staring at the screen, and not least of all my parents. I was being incredibly quiet, I'd turned off the volume, but somehow they sensed someone was in the living room.
There I was, eyes glued to the screen, playing Weird Worms™ on my 280-game Pleico™ console.
My Dad actually had to jostle me, shake my shoulder, to get my attention. Right up until that moment, I thought I'd been completely alone in the room.
I didn't hear him approach, didn't hear him ask what the Hell I was doing at... five? Six AM?... and I didn't hear him scolding when I didn't respond.
Instead, despite the muted television set, all I heard was the blaring ruckus of the game system. A series of beeps and buzzes that were no longer coming from an external source. My brain lit up with each noise, and everything except the screen wash awash in whirling, kaleidoscopic hues.
It was decided that I had a gaming addiction. Probably the first diagnosis of this phenomena, as well.
I had been seeing a child psychologist, by force, since Nicolas had disappeared. I'd found myself envisioning the "kidnapping"... in my own personal thoughts... just how everyone else insisted it happened.
There was a large part of me that wanted to believe that. When faced with the choice between perverted child-killer versus inexplicable bone horror... the mind tends to gravitate toward the former.
I even told the psychologist about how I'd spotted Nicolas in the Pleico games. How I could control him, how I'd watched him die hundreds of times, and how I didn't particularly care.
The result? Pills, naturally!
Pills as colorful and plentiful as the dizzying spots and streaks I'd see when playing my games.
Oh, and I kept playing them. Don't doubt that for a second. The console was taken away, hidden, re-hidden, but I'd always find it eventually. After a couple screaming matches and a full-on spanking, I learned to re-hide the thing exactly as I'd found it when a car pulled into the driveway.
They could never bring themselves to break my heart by throwing it away or giving it to some other dumb kid, though. That was their mistake.
They attributed my behavior to the trauma and side-effects of the medication based on whichever they'd last tried to address. Stealing, lying, basically doing whatever I felt like because it was fun.
I had no more sadness, no more guilt, and after enough sessions of Quizzap™ I could feel my grip on happiness and fear loosening.
I had plenty of anger. Great, heaping stockpiles of it. Everywhere those emotions had been, anger stepped in to courteously fill the position.
I became enraged at the simplest things, even things I myself had caused and things that were intended to fill me with joy. When Christmas came around and I was expected to open my presents in front of my Parents, my cousins, and my Aunt... I flipped out.
There was nothing wrong, no flaw in their behavior or absence of presents I had wanted. I was just pissed at the idea that ANYTHING new was OCCURRING.
They took away the presents... wrapped in shiny paper and bows and all that... took them away and said I couldn't have them until I apologized.
I never apologized, and I didn't need any of that shit because I knew where the console was hidden.
My favorite game on the console was definitely Zeeno For 84™. It took place somewhere called "The Minus World", and featured a series of questions that affected gameplay in ways I wouldn't think possible.
The basic set-up was simple. At the center of the screen was a tiny ship, not unlike the game Asteroids, and all around was a sea of skulls, bones, and so on. Shooting a giant skull would splinter it into three tiny skulls. Shooting one of those would splinter THAT into little bones. Each smaller object moved faster, spiraling around in this black, featureless abyss.
Every so often, the faces would appear.
Pixellated, stark white faces that looked remarkably like people I knew or had known. The first time it happened, I was startled to see my Mother's emotionless visage looping and turning around my little ship.
Then it was my Dad. Then the Child Psychologist I'd been seeing. Then other kids and relatives.
Shooting at them enough gradually peeled the flesh from their faces, revealing first gristle, then muscle, then bone. If I removed enough of my loved one's flesh, they'd become regular giant skulls, and... well, you're familiar with that part already.
Even though I was clearly guiding a little ship, each new turn was signaled by reminding me how many "NICOLAS"es I had left. Nicolas 2 of 3. Nicolas 3 of 3. Additionally, with every onscreen death, the identical death-cry that was now slowly taking the properties of his actual voice.
Now I'm realize I've completely forgotten Oad.
He does that sometimes. Darts around in my memory. Hides behind things. Sometimes I'm reminded of Oad simply because I hear the clattering of his bones and wonder what's in my head. I imagine this is what it would be like to have a tapeworm in your brain, but instead of feeding off what you eat, it's siphoning your thoughts and emotions.
Zeeno Foe 84™ wasn't all random skulls and not-so-random faces. Every so often, if I was doing particularly well during a round, Oad himself would come in at some strange angle and, rib cage after rib cage following, would collide with my ship and end the turn.
It seemed like there was no way to avoid him. If I moved the ship, no matter how quickly, he would simply alter his route and destroy me anyway.
Then the explosion, the scream, and a question or statement between rounds.
Most of the text was innocuous enough... "DO YOU WANT TO KEEP PLAYING?" and "DO YOU THINK YOU WILL WIN?"
Some of the more disturbing lines, back when I could feel disturbed, ranged from "I HATE YOU." to "NICOLAS HATES YOU", and "DO YOU KNOW HOW FAR YOU'VE GONE?"
It was Oad who told me, in that white block lettering, to throw away the pills. He even told me where the console was going to be hidden next when my parents suspected I'd been getting at it.
"I WILL BE IN THE ATTIC"
But yes, sometimes the questions or statements would change the game in strange ways. It once asked "WHAT WOULD YOU KILL SOMEONE WITH?" to which I answered, spoke, the word "Knife".
In the next round, whirling machete-like blades had replaced the standard pixel-sized bullets my ship had fired. Using this method, I'd received power-ups like flame-throwers, bazookas, and even an ill-conceived request for a bigger ship.
All that did was make the ship onscreen easier to hit, and I could see Nicolas in the cockpit, clawing at the hatch desperately, his face... only a few pixels in width... frozen in a black-eyed scream.
I was getting better at the game.
As days, weeks, and months passed, all I thought about was how to beat the game. How to progress to the next level, defeat any new threats, and what power-ups I could ask for that would benefit me the most.
At the very end, I'd come to the realization that the Pleico™ motto... the one that greeted me every time I powered up the console... actually did quite well to explain what was happening.
"Plaico™ INC., DREAM REAL."
Dream it, and it's real.
The last time I played Zeeno, the last time I played with the console at all, I came prepared and was ready to request the power-up that would help me win the game.
I don't know how... don't know how it did anything, really... but it knew.
Before the first round started, the screen stayed blank for the longest time, and blood-red block letters faded onto the screen.
I could barely get enough breath to talk. I knew that this was going to be the night. That icy, silent night, right around the stroke of midnight. That was going to be the night I FINALLY... DEFEATED... OAD.
The thought of outwitting him thrilled me. The thought he might whine or gasp or give some sort of sign of weakness was all I lived for in that moment. It had been a long time coming, and I was finally going to see what happened when I had the upper hand over this mysterious, otherworldly thing.
I spoke the request quietly, almost a whisper...
"Take Oad out of the game."
There! Every other request had been fulfilled, no matter how crazy, so this should be no different. I would remove Oad from the game completely, and without him there to thwart my progression I could play forever.
Nicolas and I could play forever.
FOREVER!! Just the two of us, with me guiding him and deciding his fate. It may not seem like something a good friend would do, but I wasn't Nicolas' FRIEND, anymore! I was his God!
The screen faded to black once again. No text. Nothing.
"What's the matter," I asked, "Not going to leave, pansy? I asked for it, now you have to do it! Fair is fair."
The screen immediately changed to static. It was a sudden, disconcerting break with my virtual reality that left me feeling like I'd been slapped across the face.
The sound of scratching. That's all I heard. Scratching on glass.
I approached the television, pressed my ear to the screen, and listened. Scratching... slow and sparse at first, then more and more fervent. It sounded like rats were just behind the screen, clamoring and clawing to get out.
The screen shifted a bit... just the screen... and the bulky television set remained perfectly still.
I stepped back as, not unlike a car window, the screen slowly descened and revealed a vast expanse of nothingness just behind. All the while, the violent mosaic of static played on the gradually descending glass.
I knew what I had done wrong.
I asked for Oad to leave the game, and my request had been fulfilled.
Appearing from the void like some horrific moon emerging from an eclipse, the pointed, twisted skull-face of Oad peered out of the television at me... its empty eye sockets at once seeming both vengeful and sad. I'd never noticed the duality in the past, and perhaps only saw it now that I had lost most semblance of my own own emotion.
With the sound of an off-kilter roller coaster click-clacking along some nonexistent track, Oad rocketed forward from the television, his innumberable sets of ribs snaking out behind the malignant head bone.
I fell to the floor in complete shock, unable to gain control of my motor skills or my voice as Oad sped through mid air, over my living corpse, and shattered the front window.
As he burst forth into the open night sky, never again to darken my sight, I could only stare upward at the series of ribs blurring past.
Within each cage, a person.
Only a face. Only hands.
Faces crying. Hands grasping the white bars of their grim cells.
White, Black, Asian, every race I knew or would come to know since. Every age from the smallest children to acne-riddled teenagers.
In every rib cage, a stolen child.
To this day, I recount the tale with neither a feeling of dread, nor fear, nor shame. I do not feel sad for them, I do not feel bad for myself, and I do not feel sorry for burdening you with this knowledge.
I don't feel anything, anymore.
I'm not even angry.
I don't even remember what angry feels like. Maybe if I could feel something, anything... I'd be able to figure out why one image still haunts me to this day.
The mental picture of Nicolas' face, enclosed within ribs, peering out at me with dread... as if *I* was the monster.