Thirty minutes in, and Maximus still hadn’t killed anything.
Elite mode was a joke. It had no opening cinematic. No action. No NPCs. No enemies. Nothing but a slog through the forest half-shrouded by blue fog, then a long wait by a river. Maybe the developers wanted him to admire the twin-tailed fish in the water, or the alien foliage.
But Hive wasn’t supposed to be a scenic stroll. It was supposed to be action-packed sci-fi horror. This was, after all, a game threatened with bans by do-gooder congressmen and angry moms. Even Arnold Salt, one of Hive’s original developers, went crazy and started saying his creation was inspired by Satan after one of the game’s fans carried out a shooting in Glenville High in the mid-90s. Salt later committed suicide.
Still, Maximus tried not to complain. He knew how lucky he was to be one of the chosen eight. He knew the company could kick him out at any time. They’d already done it to a friend of his, the Righteously Indignant Gamer.
So he tapped his foot and scowled and grinded his teeth as he waited for a report from Scout and Rico. He picked up a stick and drew angry emojis in the mud of the riverbank. He threw rocks at Dave-O’s floating corpse. Eventually, the body dislodged and began to float downriver.
“If anything’s downstream, they’re going to know we’re up here,” Terrence said.
“Good,” Maximus said. “Maybe they’ll come say hi.”
“Rico,” Terrence called over the comlink. “Report.”
“Still walking,” was the response. “I haven’t seen anything.”
“Scout?” Terrence asked.
“There’s a spot up here where the river’s a little more narrow,” Scout replied. “And there’s a really big tree nearby.”
“On my way,” Dave-O chimed in. “I’m gonna draw dicks on it. Be right there.”
“I was thinking we could chop that tree down and use it to cross,” Scout said.
“And also for drawing dicks on,” Dave-O replied. “Multitasking.”
“Good thinking, Scout. We’ll meet you there.” And to the other members of the group, Terrence said, “Team, let’s move. Head toward Scout on the automap. Rico, that means you, too. Come on up.”
As they walked together, Terrence lectured them about how to move as a unit. All the players already knew how to function on their own, but they hadn’t really worked as a team in a 3-D environment like this before.
Maximus wasn’t thrilled. He had never liked cooperation. In school, he had always hated group projects and always ended up getting picked last in gym class. Even now, Terrence had assigned him a space in the rear. It wasn’t fair. He deserved better. This was Hive. This was his home.
The group caught up with Scout at a spot where, as promised, the river dropped into a narrow gorge overlooked by a massive Tithorian willow.
“That looks good,” Terrence said. “Good eye, Scout. Anybody got a chainsaw, or did we all go with the blade?”
Crushinator raised her hand. “I’ve got one,” she said.
“You’re my lumberjack,” Terrence said.
After a salute, she whipped out her chainsaw and set to work on the tree.
Maximus checked the time. Forty-five minutes of gameplay and the only enemy they’d faced so far was a tree.
The group waited for Rico before they crossed atop the trunk of the massive willow. Dave-O passed the time by carving an image of a penis into the stump.
“Assuming the tree rings work the same on Tithoria as they do on Earth,” Scout said, “This one was about a thousand years old.”
“Were you in the Girl Scouts?” Crushinator asked.
“Boy Scouts,” was the reply. “That was a long time ago.”
“But you’re a girl,” Rico said.
“Yes,” Scout replied, “but I didn’t know it yet.”
“So, are you pre-op, post-op?” Maximus asked.
“You know, I’m not really in the mood to tell you what kind of genitals I have right now,” Scout replied.
“You brought it up,” Maximus protested.
“I brought up the Boy Scouts,” came the response. “I did not bring up my crotch.”
“Let’s move on,” Terrence said, with a wave of his arm. “Literally, I mean. Daylight’s burning. You all know how dangerous nighttime is on Tithoria.”
“Carnivorous plants?” Fredi asked.
“Carnivorous plants,” Terrence replied.
The group moved on, walking perhaps another mile in silence through Tithorian forest. Maximus checked the time. It was now an hour into the game, and he hadn’t killed anything, plus he’d been lectured for being politically incorrect. So far, Elite Mode was shaping up to be the most disappointing gaming experience he’d had since 1994’s surrealistic softcore slideshow Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties.
At last, the group reached the checkpoint on their map. “Plant your spawn point,” Auriana said, speaking for the first time in over half an hour.
Maximus looked around. There was nothing special about this place. No unique foliage, or striking rock formations, or spectacular view. Just a patch of ground with some trees on it.
“The level geometry is non-existent,” he said.
“Dave-O,” Terrence said. “You go ahead. I’m guessing we only get one of these per life, and sorry but you’re the one most likely to get killed. Don’t want to waste it.”
Dave-O unstrapped a metal box from his back about the size of a small knapsack. He laid it on the ground. With a faint hum, the box opened like a flower and began to rearrange itself.
Dave-O ignored it to wander to the largest tree within sight and carve a dick into the trunk.
“It’s a nice animation,” Scout said, watching the box fold itself into a new shape like an origami flower.
“I am so bored,” Maximus complained. “What is even the point of Elite Mode?”
“Total immersion,” Terrence said. “Hell of a lot of war is waiting.”
“Next up,” Comrade Ogilvy said, “Peeling potatoes and filling out paperwork.”
“I’m looking forward to the latrine duty minigame,” Angela joked.
A small antenna sprouted from the center of what had once been a box. A small solar panel emerged from the side and moved to catch the light. The spawn point was live. Now, if Dave-O committed suicide again, he would come back to life here instead of at the beginning.
Words flashed across Maximus’s HUD: Objective Complete.
“Finally,” he groaned. “Now we can move on to the real acti–”
“Your next mission,” Auriana interrupted, “is to find the next checkpoint, and plant another spawn p–”
“Are you kidding me?” Maximus shouted.
“This is maybe a little too much realism,” Fredi said.
“We should at least get cheevos for this,” Angela said.
“It’s kind of nice to take a walk in the woods after being trapped in the Enrichment Center all day,” said Scout.
“It’s a walking simulator,” Maximus griped. “A literal walking simulator.”
“Well, let’s move on,” Terrence said. “Scout, I want you to take point.”
Scout nodded and moved on ahead. She nearly disappeared amid the ferns.
With no other options, Maximus slogged on with the rest of the group. After another five minutes of trudging, words flashed across his HUD:
Achievement: I Would Walk 500 Miles
The others must have gotten it, because a couple of them chuckled.
“Cheevo,” Angela said. “Retro ‘90s cheevo.”
“I don’t get it,” Dave-O replied.
“It’s a song,” said Terrence.
“From when you were a fetus, probably,” Angela said.
The achievement pacified them for a few more minutes of their unbroken trek. Then Fredi suggested, “Maybe this is an avant-garde thing. Like a minimalist anti-game.”
“Achievement: Waiting for Godot,” Angela said.
Up ahead, Scout raised a hand. “Stop,” she said. “Be quiet.”
The group froze in the center of a grove of curled palm-like trees, heavy with blue mist. They listened.
“I don’t hear anything,” Maximus said.
“Exactly,” Scout whispered. “No birds. No tree frogs. Nothing.”
“Sensors are picking up something in that direction,” Fredi said, pointing about thirty degrees off of their path.
“I’m going ahead to investigate,” Scout whispered. “Could just be a deer or something. A… a space deer. Could be something else. Wait here.”
“I’m going,” Maximus said.
But Terrence grabbed him by the shoulder. “You’re too noisy,” he said. “It’ll hear you coming a mile away. Save your ammo. Keep an eye out in case something comes to us.”
Maximus unleashed a wordless groan and stayed where he was.
Scout flitted into the forest and soon disappeared. After an interminable wait, her voice came over the comlink:
“Does he see you?” Terrence whispered back.
“She,” Fredi said.
“No,” Scout replied. “She’s up a tree. Harvesting, presumably.”
“Let’s kill it,” Maximus said.
Terrence stopped him yet again. “Hold on. We have limited ammo.”
“I don’t think she’s a threat,” Scout whispered. “She’s just getting a snack.”
“Do you see or hear any more Harvesters?” Terrence asked.
“No,” Scout whispered. “I think she’s alone. If we wait quietly, she’ll probably take off pretty soon. Her sacs are almost full.”
“’If we wait quietly, she’ll go away,’” Maximus said. “A great way to play an action video game.”
“Hey,” Terrence said. “Do you have any trackers on you, Scout?”
“Let me check,” she replied. “Yes.”
“Do you think you can plant it on her?”
“I’ll try,” was the response.
Maximus sat and waited for something, anything to happen–preferably Scout getting decapitated and processed by a Harvester. No such luck.
He should have been the one to sneak up on the Harvester. He wouldn’t have bothered with something as boring as a tracker, either. He’d use his gun. One shot. Dead.
“I’m playing Red Light Green Light with it,” Scout whispered. “It doesn’t see me if I hold still. Okay. I’m close enough. Just let me–”
But her last words ended in a scream and a terrible insect chittering. Somewhere behind the trees, the plants shook, and there was a screech of chitin tearing metal apart. Scout’s comlink cut out.
On the HUD’s auto map, the blip that represented Scout disappeared.
“Another one bites the dust,” said Comrade Ogilvy.
“Rest in penis,” Dave-O said.
But soon, a blip appeared at the spawn point they’d planted. Scout was back. They heard her voice over the comlink again.
“Oh my God,” she said, still shaken from her messy death. “I think it heard me talking. The Bugs can hear us, guys.”
“That’s amazing,” Fredi said.
“That’s going to make LPing a pain in the ass,” Maximus griped. “We won’t be able to say anything.”
He looked over to Rico, whose facial projection showed a broad grin.
“Censorship,” Comrade Ogilvy drawled. “Muh First Amendment.”
Maximus checked the time again. Ninety minutes. Two casualties–both human, both caused by stupidity–and no dead Bugs.
“Did I get it?” Scout asked, rushing through the forest to rejoin her team. They heard a rustling in the leaves as she drew closer.
“Let’s see,” Terrence said. “Auriana, show us the tracker.”
A glimmering image of Auriana appeared, gesturing to the movement of a hovering red dot. The spot moved, slowly, gradually, and as it did Auriana filled in details on a vague 3-D map. Here, the spot sank, which must have meant a drop in elevation. There, it curved around something, indicating some kind of danger zone–an active volcano, or maybe a blast crater teeming with radiation.
“Looks like you got it, Scout,” Terrence said.
The dot sloped upward again. Auriana filled in a valley.
“You were a long way from home, little guy,” Comrade Ogilvy muttered, watching the progress of the tracker.
“Even the Bugs are just walking a million miles,” Maximus griped.
“I wonder why it would go all the way the hell out just to eat some tree sap,” Angela said.
Scout caught up to the group just as the Harvester’s path twisted in tight coils. “Looks like it reached the Hive,” Comrade Ogilvy said.
Then the red blip disappeared.
“What happened?” Fredi asked. “Are we out of range?”
“If that were the case, you would have seen it flicker first,” Maximus said.
“They destroyed it,” Scout said. “They figured out what it was and broke it.”
“I dunno, Scout,” Dave-O said, carving yet another penis into the trunk of a tree. “They’re dumb. I don’t think they can figure it out.”
“Well, let’s not underestimate them,” Terrence said. “Looks like we have a new destination. Good work, Scout.”
And on the automap on his HUD, Maximus could see a floating arrow directing him toward the place where the tracker had gone.
Auriana chimed in: “New objective: head to the Hive.”
“Finally!” Maximus exclaimed. “Something cool to do.”
Without awaiting Terrence’s order, Maximus took off proudly in the direction of the Hive. But within a hundred feet, he stopped short. Here the forest disappeared and the path ended in an impassable gorge. Maximus looked left and right; in either direction, the gorge faded into the blue mist far away.
“Seriously?!” he shouted. “Are you kidding me?”
The gorge was too wide to jump across and too long to go around. There were no nearby trees big enough to use as a simple bridge. The bottom was too deep and the cliff face was too smooth to scale.
“This is garbage,” Maximus said. “This is the worst. I hate this so much.”
Rico arrived, having taken point. He surveyed the scene silently and shook his head.
“I’m done,” Maximus said. “I’m so done.”
Maximus rage quitted the game. He didn’t even bother to hit exit; he simply yanked off the VR rig and hurled them onto the floor of his pod. His counterfeit room came back into vision: beige wall-to-wall carpet, artificial sunlight filtering through venetian blinds, shelves upon shelves of video game cartridges and collectible figurines: Tifa Lockhart, Bayonetta, Slave Leia.
He sat down before his laptop and recorded a rant vlog, shouting into the camera every complaint he had about Elite Mode: zero action, awful level design, the inability to kill other player characters, the utter lack of NPCs.
“It’s like they let the SJWs who made Gone Home develop a Hive game,” he said. “This is ridiculous. Who is responsible for this? I want their heads on pikes! I want to utterly destroy them in the name of all that is good and holy. Find them. Give me their names and their addresses and their families and we will make them pay.”
Then he remembered he could not upload the video. There was no internet.
He tried to log on to his various social networking sites and post a rant. But, he was reminded yet again, there was no internet.
He tried to look up articles and teaser trailers about Hive: Drone Warfare and leave angry comments on them, but he remembered once more that there was no internet.
So he paced about his pod, and when he was tired of it he went out and paced around the rest of the Enrichment Center.
But it was silent and empty of everything but fluorescent light, so after a few minutes of kicking at walls and yelling at the food dispenser in the café, Maximus returned to the Hive.