Ms. Yue escorted them to a grand, cavernous room with narrow windows stretching from floor to ceiling, vines creeping up great stone pillars, and a dais squatting at the opposite end. Rico recognized it: it was the throne room of the Great Temple of Massassi on Yavin 4 from the end of A New Hope.
But there were differences.
The first was the ball pit. Instead of a bare stone floor, the stairs at the entrance sank into a massive Olympic-sized pool of multicolored balls. Rico remembered reading about the famous ball pit in a gamer magazine he got when he was a kid. The man who commissioned its construction told the interviewer something like, “What’s adulthood about but doing all the stuff you weren’t allowed to do as a kid?” It was the largest ball pit in the world up until 2013, when a hotel in Shanghai made a bigger one for a breast cancer awareness event.
The second difference was the dais at the other end of the room. It was occupied by a throne—an out-of-place one, from a totally different media franchise.
“Game of Thrones,” Rico muttered.
“Wrong franchise,” Terrence said.
“When you’re a billionaire, you can decorate however you want,” Dave-O said.
On that throne sat a short, round figure clad in jorts, a black T-shirt and sandals with socks. He was in his 50s, bald and bearded and gray. He did not look up at his guests. Instead, he scowled down at a smartphone into which he was jabbing a message with his thumbs.
“Mr. Crunchy?” Ms. Yue called. “Your guests are here.”
His real name was Arthur Darling. But for reasons unexplained, he went by the nickname Crunchy, and that was what the press generally called him.
It was a legend every Hive fan knew well. Boy genius. Wunderkind. In 1984, Crunchy was only sixteen years old. His neighbor Arnold Salt was a freshman taking computer science classes at the local community college. Working on hand-me-down computers in the garage of Crunchy’s family home, the pair created the first Hive game, which they sold at flea markets out of the back of Salt’s wood-paneled station wagon. A copy of the game ended up in the hands of an executive of Imperial Software, a fledgling tech company looking to branch out into entertainment media. Imperial picked up Hive and made it the crowning jewel of their new games division. Salt and Crunchy became millionaires overnight. Tech magazines, talk shows and even glurgey e-mail forwards held up Crunchy’s story as a tale of rags to riches, a geek-flavored bowl of inspiration fodder.
Arthur Darling was quite possibly the most influential man in Rico’s life. Rico’s parents divorced when he was young. His father moved away and did not visit. But when he disappeared, he left behind a dusty PC and a 3 ½ inch floppy disk with his favorite game, Hive 2.
Rico spent the entire summer playing that game while his mother screamed about child support and custody rights over the phone. Before the divorce, she might have nagged her son to go play outside. But afterward, she let him do what he wanted. Maybe she felt guilty. Maybe she just didn’t have the energy to fight him.
When his mother’s new boyfriend took him to the mall to try to win him over, Rico wheedled a copy of Hive: Long Die the Queen out of him, and played the game with his headphones on so he wouldn’t have to hear the man and his mother through the walls.
Rico and his mother moved when he was in middle school. Hive: Xenocide kept him busy while his mother unpacked, and it numbed the sting of his failure to make new friends.
On Prom night, Rico played Hive: No Mercy from beginning to end without dying once.
When Rico ended up on academic probation for failing English 101 too many times at his community college, he consoled himself with Hive: Extermination.
It wasn’t until 2010’s Hive: Eternal Warfare that Rico started LPing. He didn’t get many views, but the smattering of compliments on his talent pleased him all the same.
He went into LPing full time in 2014. This was not entirely his choice. One day, he drove up to the call center and found the entrance locked with a notice on the door. Beneath the heading (attention all employee’s in comic sans), the sign announced that there would be no more work that day, or the next day, because operations had been outsourced to India.
Rico still wasn’t a popular LPer, even after eight years. His videos just weren’t interesting enough. He played skillfully, but with little flair. And he played in silence, with no clever commentary or comedic screaming for the audience. Still, his videos pulled in enough money to pay for gas and help his mother with the grocery bill.
And there, sitting in a throne on the other side of a ball pit, was the man responsible for it all.
Crunchy glanced up at the visitors. His phone chimed. He went back to it.
“Mr. Crunchy?” Ms. Yue began, “These are the LPers—”
“Can’t hear you,” he said, eyes on his phone.
“These are the new LPers for the latest game,” Ms. Yue called across the ball pit. “They have some questions for you.”
Crunchy did not put his phone down. “Ask away.”
Terrence went first. “I’ve noticed the Hive games have this—”
Terrence cupped his hands around his mouth. “I’ve noticed the Hive games have this weirdly realistic feel to them during the combat sequences. How do you pull this off in a game about space bugs?”
Crunchy answered, “I don’t…” but the rest was inaudible.
“I said,” Crunchy nearly shouted, “I don’t program them anymore. I haven’t written a line of code for the games since 1991. So I don’t know. You’ll have to ask somebody else.”
Terrence blinked. “Thanks.”
“Scout?” Ms. Yue looked at the girl with blue hair.
“May I enter the ball pit?” Scout asked.
“You may,” Crunchy replied.
Scout descended the steps into the multicolored plastic sea and waded up to the dais. Dave-O went next, leaping in with a belly-flop. Then the others followed, except for Terrence, who wasn’t confident in his artificial leg’s ability to manage the terrain, and Angela, who held her dog tightly and said, “If I go in there, Fluffinator’s gonna follow me, and I’ll never be able to find her again.”
Scout approached the game developer’s throne to ask, “What are—”
A plastic ball bounced off the side of her face. “Headshot!” Dave-O shouted. “No scope.”
Scout started over. “What are your—”
Another ball struck her, this time from the other side, thrown by Rico. “Headshot,” he said.
Rico struck again. “Headshot.”
Scout waded through the balls, over to Rico, and stared him down. Rico realized she was slightly taller than him. “That’s enough,” she said in a voice as stern as a drill sergeant’s.
Rico did not look up.
“He was merely trying to amuse himself,” Maximus protested. “There’s no need for you to get hysterical over it.”
Scout moved back to the dais and asked Crunchy, “What cultural influences went into Hive?”
“Oh, you know,” the developer replied. “Ender’s Game. Starship Troopers. The book. Not the movie. The movie sucked.”
“Thank you,” she said, receding toward the center of the pit. She took a position slightly behind the group. Rico felt her gaze on his back digging into his flesh like a dagger. She probably hated him now.
Now it was Dave-O’s turn to speak. “Can I get a selfie with you?”
Crunchy grunted his assent.
Dave-O clambered up onto the throne and wrapped an arm around his hero’s shoulders. “Smile, brah.” And he snapped a picture.
“You know,” Ms. Yue said, “I think it would be great if you’d take a group photo in the ball pit. Could you?”
The crew cheered and clapped as Ms. Yue pulled a groaning Crunchy out of his chair and down into the pit. With the precision of a Bug Queen (albeit an unusually pretty, smiley one), she herded the group into an aesthetically appealing arrangement, making sure to keep the few stragglers in the back in-frame, and snapped a couple of pictures on her cell phone.
“Great!” she said.
When it was finished, Crunchy didn’t bother to ascend to the throne again. He just slumped onto his back in the ball pit and lay there as though floating in a pond. “Next question,” he said, fiddling with his phone. Rico twisted his head to see what the famous game developer was doing; it looked like he was arguing with someone on Twitter.
Maximus stepped forward. “Can you kidnap Maidens in this game?”
“Fraid not,” Crunchy replied. “You can thank political correctness for that.”
In the early games, Hive permitted players to abduct Maidens (immature Queens) and carry them back to base like a Viking raider. But in the late ‘90s, feminist media critics launched a letter-writing campaign and IG dropped the feature. The last game to permit the kidnapping of Maidens was 1995’s Long Die the Queen.
“That’s fascism,” Maximus cried. “Cultural Marxism!”
“Yep,” Crunchy replied. “Next question.”
Speaking of Marxism, it was Comrade Ogilvy’s turn to speak. “What’s your net worth?” he asked.
“About two billion, give or take a couple mil,” Crunchy replied.
“About two billion,” Comrade Ogilvy repeated. “You haven’t worked in almost thirty years, and you’re worth about two billion?”
“Ah! That’s two questions. You only get one,” Crunchy said. “Next!”
Fredi cleared her throat. “With the gamification of learning spreading to disciplines like coding, foreign language instruction, and social engineering, have you ever considered Hive’s potential as an educational tool?”
“Hive’s already educational,” Crunchy said.
“What’s it teach?” Fredi asked.
“How to kill Space Bugs,” Crunchy replied.
“How does that apply to real life?” Fredi asked.
“You’d be surprised,” Crunchy said.
“Rico,” Ms. Yue said. “Do you have a question for Mr. Crunchy?”
Rico cleared his throat. “Did you ever talk to Salt again?” he asked.
Crunchy’s thumbs froze, hovering just a millimeter away from the screen of his smartphone. His lips tightened. He must have shifted his weight somehow, for the ball pit began to engulf him, slowly, one inch at a time. “We’re done,” he said. “You can go now.”
“Mr. Crunchy,” Ms. Yue said, “your contract—”
“I’m not answering that.”
Rico’s body tightened. Now a second person was angry at him. In video games, when Rico picked the wrong dialog option, he could quit and load his game and try again. But here, he couldn’t. He had said the wrong thing, and now Crunchy hated him, and there was no way to undo it.
“There’s still one more person,” Ms. Yue said. “Remember, you’ve got to speak to all of them.”
Crunchy grunted. The balls were swallowing his chin—now only half of his face was visible.
From her seat on the steps near the entrance, where she and Terrence were playing with Fluffinator, Angela called, “Do you even like ball pits?”
Crunchy sighed. “Not really,” he said.
“Well!” Ms. Yue smiled. “Thanks so much for meeting everybody. I know they got a real thrill out of it.” She reached out to shake one of Crunchy’s hands, the only part of him still visible over the sea of colorful balls, but he maintained his grip on his phone.
Ms. Yue herded the group out of the room, toward the exit, toward their cars, toward their hotel rooms. And with one final glance over his shoulder, Rico left the most important man in his life behind, sinking alone into a ball pit.