Fiction: Cow Level

Before You Read: This short story is clearly an imitation to Impossible Dreams by Tim Pratt  — a truly wondrous sci-fi short story — from start to finish, from the idea to the plot. Shameless! And I should mention that I have actually never personally visited any video game retail shop in the U. S. and thus my depiction may be far, far away from being accurate. I should also mention that I was not born into an English speaking country and thus except stupid errors. Lots. Of. Them.

Thanks to some friends of mine for their inspiration and deep knowledge of those amazing games in another reality and didn’t make it to this timeline: Fhtagn, Firsdrea, GA_Frank, Riptide. Thanks to all those wonderful pioneers and explorers in video gaming industry and it’s their talent and striving that make my life meaningful and entertained.

R. Masayoshi (of course, this was merely an online alias. One of a dozen) was taking a walk for some fresh air after his third revisit to the late Clover Studio’s God Hand, in which a cheeky dude beat up devilish villains and well, some were literally devils. It was late at night and the air was soothingly cold. That’s when he first noticed the video game store.

The name’s Cow Level. How peculiar, he thought to himself, for it was not a GameStop or any of its subsidiaries — which makes him wonder how it had not been crushed down into pulps. And not until seconds later did the namesake occur to him. Standing indifferently with certain pride between an auto repair and a record store that had been falling apart — since 1969, presumably — the store seemed to have been around for quite a while, a few years at least. Except that he was familiar with every retail store in town; not that he was a console player, but not long ago he did visit every last one of them in a futile attempt to secure a Switch. R. Masayoshi grinned at the lettering on the door as if they were sharing a secret, and decided that it’d be a good idea to step through the door just to check it out himself.

As he entered the shop, a misfit bell was struck rang like a cafe or small bookstore. The space inside was confined in a comforting way, with only a few aisles of games and a wall showcasing huge fancy boxes of collector’s editions. Lights were shimmering, if not gloomy. The flooring was cheap laminate that could use some more waxing from time to time. The clerk was busy playing a game on TV that looked familiar, but he did not recognize what it was until later as he randomly picked up a game from “New Release” section in the first row of a shelf. And he was so shocked that he almost collapsed and died on it.

Scalebound it read, on the upper part of the case, right beneath the Xbox One logo, in bold and fluorescent greenishly white letters, and in lower right corner two logo lied proudly: Platinum Games, SEGA. That’s when he realized why the game she was playing seemed so weirdly familiar.

“Is this a joke?” R. Masayoshi asked, as he turned around holding up the box. Great effort went into not flipping.

A “what” was her reply, without even looking at his general direction.

Scalebound,” he approached the counter with the box, “created by Platinum, published by SEGA. What stunt are you trying to pull off?”

“What?” again she said, and he was totally going to do the Pulp Fiction scene. What she said afterwards turned his fury into confusion. “It’s not just created by Platinum of course. SEGA provided huge support in making the bold game real.”

R. Masayoshi digested a bit. She kept playing. He watched. And it was the game he saw on E3, only slightly different. In a good way.

“And this is exceptional.” She concluded after a while, as she reached another checkpoint. Then she paused the game and turned to the guy she’d never seen before. “Mind you, it’s a new release,” she pointed at a Scalebound poster by the door that he missed when coming in, “for now we got no used copies around. If you wanna get it cheap, wait a month or so.”

He leaned against the counter. “I’m… confused. I was told that the game was going to be published by Microsoft… supposing they didn’t cancel the game.” Judging by her rolling eye and her finger taps he believed that she was somehow convinced that this customer had issues, but he knew he was telling the truth, so he slowed down and explained. “It’s impossible. Last time I heard, officially the game was cancelled.”

“Sure, that was true. Until Microsoft dumped the title and SEGA picked it up. I bet Microsoft is bitterer than an almond now.” She gave a triumphant smile.

No, it’s outright impossible. The forums he spent hours on everyday should be boiling if it were true. Instead, SEGA should be working on its two Sonic games released this year. There was no way this news could possibly pass him by. He browsed every major site on a daily basis: RPS, IGN, Gamasutra, even Eurogamer, Polygon or Joystiq before it got shut down, and he had been following those “more informed” people on Twitter and Youtube all those time. “By all means, do enlighten me. How did it happen?”

“Well, last year, Microsoft claimed they should prioritize on their more promising titles instead of starting a whole new IP. There’s where SEGA came in and saved the day, as usual,” Wait. Did she just say SEGA saved the day? As usual? Is she being sarcastic? “In fact Scalebound was already in a feature complete state. SEGA provided funds necessary to continue its development, playtesting and even porting support. The game shipped last week and it’s amazing. For Shinji Mikami –”

“Shinji Mikami? No way, it was Hideki ‘the-bald-that-shines’ Kamiya all along.” He cut in. It was almost rude.

For a moment he thought she was going to call the police. But she just chewed a bit, talked to herself in silence, than smiled and nodded. “Yep, that’s the guy. Are you buying or not? The game is a total blast.”

He said he would browse for more. She seemed relieved and glanced at the clock. “Sure. Take your time.”

He heard she resumed playing the game. The game that got cancelled. He went in front of a row in the back where used games were and the first thing that caught his attention almost gave him a heart attack. It was a used PC game copy. From the cover greenness shimmered vividly through thick dust of years negligence. A shadowy figure looked dead into his eyes. Command & Conquer 3, the box said. And it continued, Westwood Studios. R. Masayoshi picked it up with trembling hands and sullied his palms gray of the ashes. Before coming across this curiosity shop, long before that, when the real time strategy was still thriving, before EA could screw the franchise over, he wondered what Westwood’s Command & Conquer 3 would be like. Ingenious, of course, with bold yet rigorous settings and stories. Though the balance could use some years of patches. Same old same old. He felt a bit sad as he recollected.

But now holding it in his hands, he was then utterly bewildered in a way he couldn’t comprehend if he should consider the whole thing a prank. A prank so sophisticated that they rent a place? Not likely. Finally he made up his mind: he would give this place a shot. One at a time. He could always get his money back. He had faith in the law and consumer rights. He carefully put the case back to where it belonged and remembered its location, then returned to the clerk with a used copy of Prey 2. Killian Samuels looked at him firmly, holding up a pistol. Behind him sat a street shrouded in darkness and expending into a city.

“I’ll take this one. $30, is it not?” He just received a paycheck for some reviews he wrote. No need to be stingy. He got to play the game. What if it wasn’t a joke, that was a risk he could not afford to take.

“Yeah. You up to membership? You’ll get this nice card.” She tapped on a sample by the cashier. It had some Mondrian-esque geometric figures forming a head of a cow. “Artsy, artsy. You get points for your purchases that you can later use for a discount.”

“Fancy. I’ll take it. What do you need?”

“Just your phone number, email address, date of birth and the name please.” He filled out the information (“Mr. Masayoshi”) and she smiled, handing over one Cow Card. He put it into his wallet and looked into it, and found out that he didn’t have enough cash on him. Of course, he was out for some fresh air, not for some major triple-A game, not even a used copy. “Uh. You take a credit card?”

She took his card and looked at it suspiciously, and slowly she replied, withholding her doubt. “Uh, so it’s a… ‘Visa’. We currently only accept CapPay and ManaCard –”

“Um. This is THE Visa,” he looked at the card she was holding out to him, and looked up at her, into her eyes, and explained slowly. “Everyone takes Visa. Not only here in the states, They even take Visa in China.” Instead of giving any meaningful reply, she glanced at the clock again and somehow this act conveyed more than words the clerk later came up with just to string along. It read five minutes to ten and he realized the shop was about to close. “I apologize for that, but I’m afraid it’s beyond my authority.” She said.

And she sound even more professional now. Goddamit, I am not going to screw up this one. R. Masayoshi had to get his hands on Prey 2. It was absolutely not apologetic of him, to miss a game like this. As much as he was into indie titles, triple-As from major publishers made by good developers were always welcome in his collection. Every thing else could wait. Before he knew it, he started babbling. “Just wait for me, would you? I live right across the street. I’ll run and grab some cash from my apartment and be back real fast. Please.”

She almost sighed before he had managed to talk his way through. “You are not just any clerk working here. You like games, right? The way you brightened when you mentioned Shinji Mikami. And the way you said Microsoft screwed up! You love video games. You’ll understand me.”

The clerk let her frown loose. He never knew the chances of success of this awkward persuasion and it just worked out marvelously. “I’ll hang in here for 10 more minutes. And I’ll call it a day.”

He thanked her and dashed out of the store, all the way back to his place. Of course it wasn’t just across the street. It was four blocks away. He caught a breath only to find out the elevator leading to his apartment wouldn’t descend so he rushed up 8 flights of stairs, and finally made it to his secret cookie jar where he stored the larger notes. And he started running back. He ran as his ears began to sting, and ring, his lung burn and the pizza he had eaten earlier today was almost coming out. He ran until it was the momentum that pushed him back to Cow Level.

And there was no Cow Level. R. Masayoshi bent over in front of where it was supposed to be, exhausted, inhaled, exhaled, and then inhaled once again. He looked up and between the auto repair shop and the record store there was only a place for lease, nothing resembling the retail store he’d just been in a few minutes ago. It had been empty for quite a while by the look of it. He leaned on the dusted door — there weren’t even traces of the lettering Cow Level left. From the remains of glue he could make out the name of a cafe. And he knew this cafe. And he was well aware that it had been closed for more than 6 months. And he tried to convince himself that he was in a wrong block. That he lost the direction in running all the way back. But he knew it wasn’t true, he knew the neighborhood well enough to not get turned around in running.

And he walked home slowly. The games he saw there kept banging his head. There was a copy of Prey 2 by Human Head. The cancelled Prey 2 where you instead played as a space bounty hunter free-roaming an alien metropolis. He went straight into his living room and collapsed into his sofa, where he usually played games until he felt like to sleep, and where he usually slept. A coffee table sat between a large Samsung TV and himself and there was a slice of pepperoni pizza left on it, all cold and chewy. He felt he blacked out for a while but he was exactly sober, thinking. Then he jumped up and dug out one game from a pile of colorful cases. It was Prey, a reboot title by Arkane Studios, publisher: Bethesda, released in May, 2017. He turned the TV and Play Station 4 on, inserted the disk and picked up the controller. He started a new save. As he heard that overly triumphant tune was played when the protagonist put on his suit, as Dr. Yu attended a series of tests that would first seem arbitrary, as a mug turned into a mimic and devoured a researcher, he mumbled and nodded in comfort. That was the latest Prey everyone knew. And he played all night through.

The next day R. Masayoshi woke up at early afternoon and ordered a pizza online. 30 minutes later, the pizza boy arrived, with extra cheese came the grand total of $16.99 and that was when he remembered the game store from last night. There was this peculiarly colorful member card with Mondrian-esque shapes forming a head of a cow, underneath it it read Cow Level.

“It’s there anything wrong, sir?” The pizza boy asked. He shook his head and handed over a President Jackson and told the kid to keep the changes as a tip. After the delivery kid left, he took out the card, leaned against the open door and flipped the card over and over, thinking. Then he came to a decision. He had to pay the place another visit.

Across the street he waited with a cup of coffee that he barely drank. The empty shop stood there. To its left, one mechanic in blue jumpsuit was busy fixing a Toyota the whole afternoon and by nightfall, he drove the SUV back into the shop and closed down the shutter door. To its right, the record store was only open after 5 by a guy looked like Kurt Cobain and no one bother to walk through the door with a The Door poster, color deteriorated, and that was when he fetched a Big Mac from around the corner. Some time after 8, the Kurt kid closed the shop and left. The empty shop was still a sore to the eye. R. Masayoshi tried to recollect the time he entered Cow Level, but he wasn’t sure. After half an hour, when he was about the give up, out of nowhere, Cow Level appeared from the corner of his sight.

A shiver ran down the spine that was holding his (or him, as he sometimes used this pun) back. He looked at his watch, it suggested it was 8:30. A shop that would manifest at 8:30 and vanish later. He believed that must have been what people felt like when they saw a dude turning plain water into wine. Or it must have been some technology so sophisticated that it could not be differentiated from magic. Whatever the case, he thrilled in exhilaration and slowly, acting calm, he pushed open the door and stepped in and said hi to the same clerk he met last night. She was reading a magazine this time.

She looked up and her lips were in a harsh line upon seeing him, then she continued reading. “I waited. And I missed the last bus home.”

He tried not to look her in the eyes. His story was that didn’t find enough cash at home; after he withdrew enough money in nearest ATM he lost his way back. “Fine, ” she loosened a bit. She don’t seem to know she’s part of this miracle. He thought to himself. A game shop that don’t belong in this world. “You have enough cash on you this time, right?”

He apologized again and said yes. “But I’m going to browse a bit more.”

“That’s okay. The night has been slow, even by Monday standard.”

“The record shop dude should be quoting that, but I guess he never had chance.”

“What record shop?” She looked confused and he realized why.

He had to come up some stuff quick. “Oh. There’s a record shop called ‘Akashic Records’ near my place. No one ever enters.”

“The name’s charmingly clever, though.” She nodded and went back to her reading.

His curiosity drove him to ask more. After all, she should be, not unlike the games they had here, misfit in this world. “You work here?” The words popped out, and he realized how stupid they sounded. “I mean, alone?”

“Yeah. I usually take over at 6. This semester I don’t have courses at night. The guy before my shift isn’t really into games. There’s supposed to be another dude minding the inventory stuff, but the boss can’t afford an extra mouth and I happen to have been forced to pick up accounting during my freshman year. So that’s some practical experience. I don’t know. Digital publication is taking over, and people tend to buy games from those big time retailers. We’re mainly selling old games here you don’t see in GameMania, and some antiqued consoles, even.” — Must be one of those “big time retailers”, he thought — “But still, the turnover rate is miserable.” She sighed, “I’m not sure when am I going to lose my job here. That the case, I guess I’ll have to make do with waitress-hood or a GameMania, perhaps a ShowcaseGaming, recommending the latest exciting installment to the Medal of Honor family where you point your crosshair and click as enemies show up.” — So in her world, Medal of Honor is the Call of Duty equivalent.

“And I couldn’t find any used textbook copies so I had to pay good money for them. Now that my roommate had bailed on me, I can’t really afford to eat — oh, sorry, don’t mean to dump all these on you.” As she talked, he was able to look at her. At least that was what social etiquette told him to do. She had a Black Mesa hoodie on her. And she was pretty, but not the type that he’d like. But again, she was a gamer like him, and that meant something. “Nah, it’s fine. I wish you luck in not losing your job here.” He replied.

“Thanks. Concerning the situation, I can really use some luck stat here.” She concluded the conversation, “Hope you find what you’re looking for.”

Then he buried himself in the seas of used copies or antique games in mint condition that should have failed to make their way out. Only that they did here. He was increasingly excited as he was then convinced the shop belonged in some alternate universe, a timeline not unlike the world outside, with changes that were subtle but influential enough — even exquisite, he would say, when he found a Fallout 3 made by Black Isle itself, and from what he saw he believed Square never merged with Enix. The shelves were full of wonders. A Castlevania: Resurrection on Dreamcast. He knew the project had been called off due to the failure of the console platform. A Dungeon Keeper 3! The game was in a complete state when EA called it off. Capcom shipped Mega Man Legends 3 in 2014, that was worth a wow. A Duke Nukem Forever released in 2004. A Nintendo 64DD, that would have made this world hugely different. And there was still more. A lot more. Even Scalebound seemed trivial by comparison.

“… And how are you going to carry them home? You drove here?” She seemed both surprised and amused as R. Masayoshi came with a pile so tall he couldn’t see straight and almost caused a bit of havoc.

“No, but I think I’ll manage.” Unloading the loot upon the counter, he said. The boxes really were dusty, his indigo sweater was mottled in gray, but he shined. “How much do I owe you?”

“Mind you, that’s gonna take some time.” She smiled, started scanning the boxes. Some barcodes were so worn out she had to type instead. “… and the grand total is $213.89.” She leaned back and looked at him. “That’s quite a sum. You have the card on you, right? I think I can manage to trick the system and get you some discount.”

“That’d be really, really gracious of you.” He held out the artsy card. And she started working on the computer and a calculator — and it wasn’t a chore for her. She seemed to enjoy the fact that someone just came in and swept the shelves of classics. After a while, “Um, $199.32. That’s all I can do.”

“Much obliged, madam.” He stood up and gave a salute. He was high in the moods and merely $200 dollars for what he was going to get from? It was virtually nothing.

She chuckled. “At ease.” But as he held out the dollar notes, she looked up at him, half amused and half dubious. “Well, I believe you are not trying to use counterfeit here, because this is outright funny. You played tabletop Monopoly or something recently or what?”

He almost squirmed a bit. The money. He realized what he had not realized, the money could be different in her world. Like the cards. His brain began spinning, part of it was even trying to come up with an armed robbery plan. Part of it was about sneaking in, if he could find a suitable cardboard box. “God. I’m so sorry. It’s from a game we played earlier today and I must’ve messed up. Stupid me.”

She shrugged. “That’s fine. Just remember to bring good money next time. Perhaps I’ll see you tomorrow? I’m closing.”

He nodded profusely, mumbling sorry and goodnight. He was so embarrassed and angry at himself. As he was about to leave, she said, “You know what? You are a weird guy, Mr. Masayoshi. Hope you don’t mind me saying so.” And he was well aware of that.

The next day he did try to buy a gun, but failed because he didn’t have a license or the connection to get one without it. Afterwards, in reflection it was funny and stupid — he was seriously going to for armed robbery?

That’d be a bit too far.

Is it?

And she’s been nice to me.

Aight. No robbery.

No shoplifting too. 

He determined that he would not leave empty-handed this time. But how? Last time he checked his CHA wasn’t decent enough to allow him to charm his way through. But he had to come up with something.

That night, as he waited outside for the shop to show up, he carried a stuffed paper bag with him. Timing was the essence — but the shop was late. Like the train. Or the aeroplane. Where passengers could only walk back and forth wondering if the date would leave, or a meeting would start without them. When Cow Level finally showed up it was around 9. Not the time he remembered, giving him an uncanny feeling.

He came in and presented her the paper bag. “You said you can’t afford to eat and I, um, wanna apologize for being such a fuss. So I picked up some food from my work.” Of course it was a lie. He had a friend — not the type of friend they would hang out, but the type when someone talked about this person, R. Masayoshi could say “Oh, her. She’s a friend of mine” type of friend — who once said the best way to conquer a man was by conquering his stomach. He thought it might work the other way around.

And it did. The Big Kahuna burgers he brought worked magically. “Master Masayoshi, you are my Messiah.” She tore open the paper bag and peeled off the wrapping and stuffed her mouth as if she had not been eating meat for some time. And that would probably be true. And she nearly chocked. “You know what I had today? Candies. I took a handful from the admission reception and got by. I thought I was not gonna last long before you showed up with a halo. God, I was going to shoplift.”

He suppressed the lingering thought to shoplift. “Glad you like it. I grilled the beef myself.” And he guilt tripped himself. What was he thinking? To endear himself to a defenseless young woman so that he could get to play the games he wanted so badly? This could get her fired for good — and she might not even fall for that. If he pushed his luck she might even realize his vile intent. He sighed.

“Wotz wong?” She swallowed the food hard and took a sip of Coke and asked again, “What’s wrong? You seem troubled.”

“It’s nothing. I’m just flat broke.” He told the truth. Partially. “With all those amazing games you’ve got here, there’s nothing I can really afford.”

“Sorry to hear that. Wait, what?” She was astonished at first, then burst into laughter. “So last night you did try to fool me with those color paper?”

He froze. That didn’t occur to him earlier. Luckily she just seemed utterly amused. “Remember last night I said you are weird? You truly are.”

“You are not going to call the cops?”

“Consider this. One, you brought in food and saved my life. Two, you prevented me from shoplifting for food and becoming a petty thief, which by extension you saved my life.” She waved his thoughts off and finished the burger with a huge bite. “Just don’t do it again. Now allow me to repay my debt. Come over.”

He came around the counter and was presented to a console. It was an Xbox One, but the controller button layout is slightly different. X and Y were in each other’s position, so were A and B buttons — the Japanese way. He toyed with it for a bit, and saw her turned on the TV and the console machine. A Bethesda logo showed up. Then a Human Head one.

“You wanted to play Prey 2 — I happen to be paying it a revisit today. Now you get to play it.” She winked, “Just don’t overwrite my save. You got 50 minutes before I shut the shop.”

He looked at her and was about to cry. Then he mumbled if she could close the shop a bit later, though he knew he shouldn’t have pushed his luck. “Sorry, my bus wouldn’t wait. 50 minutes should be enough to play through the intro and the first two main quests — if you aren’t too bad a cowboy.”

And he played. Not as a Dr. Yu, but a marshal Killian Samuels. His plane crushed into an Alien spaceship, and he knew that was the Sphere where Prey took place. The game was exactly what he thought would have been: fascinating setting, expanding streets, towering but accessible buildings, fast, classy, action-packed, but a little bit lack of polish. and he had barely scratched the surface of the story, but he’d love to see where a space cowboy would end up, and how would Tommy Tawodi show up. It was not that he didn’t like the Arkane Prey. He did. It was just that he really wanted to get his hands on a game that had potential to be great until it got cancelled by a malicious publisher.

But he was glad that he even had such a chance. He considered himself to be the luckiest man for a while before she softly tapped on his shoulder, reminding him of time. He saved the progress and put down the controller slowly, almost sadly. As she shut down the console, he felt exhausted.

“Thanks for it.” His words were almost inaudible. His mind still resided in Samuels, in Exodus.

“Why don’t you come earlier tomorrow? My shift starts at 6.” As she showed him out, she asked, sincerely.

He was so sad. He really would. Except that he could not. “I can’t. Got work to do. But I’ll come. Around the same time.”

And he hadn’t caught her name. “And I haven’t caught your name. Who do I owe this wonderful night to?”

“The name’s Olivia.”

“Well met, miss Olivia. Goodnight and see you tomorrow.”

He left and across the street, he watched she waved, took out the sign with OPEN written on it. And she shut the lights. Shortly after 10, at an instant, Cow Level was once again nowhere to be found, but again an empty husk looking to be rent.

At the following night he brought fish and chips. Before he resumed playing, he asked Olivia what her favorite game was.

“Tough call.” She thought for a while. “There were just too many. Among the recent releases my favorite is Bioshock Infinite.”

That he knew and had played. But the game never grew on him. “Yeah, the game is beautiful. I don’t know, I think the combat is kind of uninspiring…?” He observed her expression and gesture. He did that every time he was about to say something different. He once heard Japanese language put verbs at the end of sentences and he firmly believed that the language was created by people like him. “Uh, and it lacks enemy variety. And that part where you travel back in time back and forth to save the Chinaman is just a chore.”

“Yes, that was the 2013 release.” She frowned, as if she was explaining the obvious to a kid who missed some history classes. “I thought when people talk about Bioshock Infinite, they talk about the 2015 remake.”

“Wait. It had a remake?”

“That was more like the game we saw on E3 2010 and 11. Columbia is more vibrant, the Sky-line realized what it was advertised to be. The plot gets a lot less linear too. Of course even though it went through a total overhaul, the combat is still uninspiring, but at least civilians don’t just vanish after certain point this time and enemies don’t just Serious Sam you.”

“Oh. I remember Ken Levine said that the content getting cut was enough to make two or three more games, or is it three or four? So, like, wow. That’s something, its potential being fully realized.”

“Yeah. May him rest in peace.” She agreed.

Oh no. No Ghost Story Games.

“Hmmm. As for the classics, I really love Fallout.” She reflected a bit and said.

He wasn’t sure if he should start humming Maybe or do the “War, war never changes” thing just to resonate. He eventually chose to sing the phrase in Maybe’s tune and it was hilarious. And he got it right. So they started talking about Fallout, how lucky it was that Tim Cain didn’t stick to his original idea, how the game should have elaborated those factions, like, Vipers and Jackals should have sophisticated side quests. And they both sighed in content nostalgia. He learned how Fallout 3 had both real-time and turn-based combat, and the latter was obnoxious — just like in Arcanum, he thought, almost loudly.

They then talked about Final Fantasy VI. Turned out in Olivia’s world Final Fantasy VI was Final Fantasy III — this happened in R. Masayoshi’s world too, but it was like ancient history. The misunderstanding got cleared after the global release of Final Fantasy VII. So he didn’t talked anymore about the other titles of the series, and it was when he remembered seeing a Nintendo 64DD here. Japanese world must have been hugely different.

She caught his line of sight and attention really well, instead of the games she talked about. Of course it was the games that he cared so much about, but the person filling him the ins and outs of the games he knew, he knew differently and he knew not was amazing in every way. He didn’t date a lot. There had not been much he could’ve come up with when sitting next to a girl, not to mention at a dinning table. Not that he didn’t like girls, it was that he didn’t know that they were talking about and didn’t intend to find out, and by comparison he felt more comfortable facing screen interacting with video games. But this clerk was different. They two fully concurred.

“Ah. I talked too much about myself. I don’t usually do. What’s your favorite?” She called him back. So he gave a name.

Planescape Torment? Fascinating name. By who?”

“Black Isle.” Wait. They don’t have Planescape Torment?

“No way. RPG is my field. If Black Isle does manage to ship a game I’m not aware of… that’d be existential crisis for me.”

For a moment he was about to insist and tell her about it. But he didn’t. He knew he’d better not.

The next few nights he came. Each time with food. Each time a bit later and his worse suspicion was confirmed: the time window was narrowing and he determined that he should make the most out of it. And they talked about games, developers, publishers. In that world Love-de-lics didn’t fall and was instead became one of those indie pioneers and Moon was a huge blast. 3DO closed down shortly after they published Heroes of Might and Magic V, in which they attempted to go RTS but resulted in a fiasco. Yasumi Matsuno was persuaded not to make a movie out of Final Fantasy and thus Square never merged with Enix and Lost Odyssey was never made because Hironobu Sakaguchi never quit. Blizzard released Starcraft: Ghost and it stank, and they never gave up on Titan, which consequentially brought down the company.

Other times he played games and she sat aside watching, sometimes giving comments that resulted in fruitful conversations. He thought he was leaving a bad impression, because he never finished any one of them. He didn’t have the time. But she seemed okay with him just playing a tiny bit of each game. Duke Nukem Forever (released in 2004) was underwhelming and “it was the major disappointment of the year”. Fable Legends did gave him the thrill like when he stumbled upon the first Fable years ago. He didn’t go for Hideo Kojima’s Silent Hills because he couldn’t handle horror games and it would just be too embarrassing to leave with brown pants. He had fun. And by the frequency of her chuckles, smiles and laughter, he guessed she had as much fun, too.

“So, why do you like games?” He asked, one night. He was watching her played Castlevania: Resurrection on Dreamcast. The control was wonky.

She frowned. “You are asking the wrong person. It’s like asking why do people like to breath. It’s not something I can live without. But that was a fairly good question coming from you. Others asked me countless times but I don’t care about them. Perhaps I’ll think about it and conjure something fancy, so that next time whoever asks me I can throw it right in the face.”

They laughed a bit and she asked in turn. “So, why are you so peculiar?”

R. Masayoshi was confused. “Me? Peculiar? What?”

“Mr. Masayoshi, you are a mystery, you are conflicting. Sometimes you know things not known to many regular gamers — you do know Final Fantasy III is actually the sixth of the series. You are familiar with every LucasArts adventure game. You know Steven Spielberg had involvement in the industry. How come you lack some common knowledge while getting so many things wrong? Like, you mentioned a game — what was it called — made by Black Isle? That Starfox 2 was cancelled? A Deus Ex sequel made by Edios? That you didn’t know Clint Eastwood actually made a bunch of super duper good cowboy games as the director?”

He gaped at her speechless. She continued.

“Look. If you wanna ask me out just go ahead and ask me. You don’t need to make stuff up. That’s just… inconsistent? That’s the term we’d use. The other night you talked about this Sid Meier guy that was like, invented turn-based strategic game? I looked him up and — boy, it was hard — that was really a man went by this name who worked in MicroProse, making flight sim games until the company ceased to exist in ’93. And you even told me there’s one Turkish company that made a medieval game and sold millions of copies. And a Polish miracle.” She grab his arm and squeeze a bit. “Crap. I lost my point. What I’m trying to say is that clearly you play video games, not too much, but enough that we can engage in meaningful conversations. And you are a nice person. You don’t have to pretend you know a lot to ask me out.”

“Wait.” He said, “I like you, that’s true. But I do know them games.”

“You told me Square made a Super Mario game. How’s that remotely possible? We did agree on what a stingy, overly protective cunt that one can be concerning their intellectual properties.”

He glanced at the clock. He still had time. “Wait here. Just wait.”

It occurred to him that Arkane’s sci-fi thriller Prey wouldn’t make it to her world. And there wasn’t even Planescape Torment. She missed as much as he did. Racing all the way home, he picked up his laptop, dragged out its power cable covered in ashes and stashed them in his backpack in a haste. It was so filled with games. Mostly indie games that he wasn’t sure if she had played any of. Thirty Flights of Loving. Furi. Gunpoint. Flywrench. Hylics. Undertale. Sethian. Braid. He didn’t have time to pick. He didn’t have time to download Arcanum, but he already had Planescape Torment installed — he didn’t even have time to delete the porn, but he was sure she couldn’t find them. At least he hoped so. As he was about to spurted back to Cow Level, he stopped and searched his game shelves like crazy. He picked Fallout New VegasPrey (2017), the Witcher trilogy and some other games that could support his story and shoveled them in along with a few random issues of Edge. He didn’t have time. He didn’t have time to consider if the disk coding would work on her side or whether they had the corresponding console machines. He didn’t have time to elaborate. He needed to show her.

He sprinted back and slammed the bag on the counter. “You see for yourself.” He squeezed each word out between gasps, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Alright.” She nodded, half doubtful and almost a bit scared. “Alright. Um. See you tomorrow. Take care.”

R. Masayoshi stumbled out of the store and as he looked back, already there was no Cow Level. He dragged himself back to his place and collapsed on the large, cozy sofa. He was exhausted, but he just wouldn’t fall asleep. He didn’t have time. But that was nothing he could do about that. He just wished that he could see the shop, see her again on the next day.

He pushed the door open and walked in the second the door showed up. It was at 9:40. Olivia was on his computer. Seeing him a question popped right out of her, somewhat harshly. “What the heck is this?”

She turned the laptop around facing him. It was Adam Jensen, leaning against a doorway.

He put down the pizza he had for today on the counter. “That’s the Deus Ex game made by Edios I mentioned about. I take it that the power cable works fine.” He answered in a calm manner, and pressed esc to pause the game. “Look, I do know the games, Olivia. Just not the ones you know.”

“But the games. They are impossible.”

“No, Olivia. To me, you are impossible. Allow me to demonstrate.” He reached out a hand. Hesitated a second, she took it, and he led her to the front door and opened it. She looked out, looked around and jumped back in and shut the door.

“This… this is so wrong. This isn’t the place. This… this is another world.”

“No, it is not the Another World.” She faintly smiled, hearing this awkward pun. She knew that game. Now things she’d known were a comfort. “This is another world, not unlike the Longest Journey. Bioshock Infinite. A Link to the Past, perhaps. That’s why we share our passion on games, yet we know so differently. In my world, Sony never secured the deal with Nintendo and failing to go CD brought down its tyranny. Oh, there was this game called Tyranny, developed by one of the studios that rose from the ashes of Black Isle. Black Isle was shut down in the year 2003 and Fallout franchise was sold to Bethesda, which — what I’m about to say may disgust you — subsequently turned the game into a house-builder game.”

She slid against the wall and sat on the floor, where she chewed a bit. “That makes you from another reality.”

“Yes,” he sat beside her. “Each night the shop appears for a while, and vanishes after that. The time window is getting shorter, and that’s why I’m coming later and later.”

She didn’t reply.

“That means I won’t be seeing you anymore.” He said.

She nodded, “I was thinking about that.”

For a few minutes they just sat there.

“I ought to go.” He stood up.

She dragged his arm, and then let go. “Can’t you stay?”

“I wouldn’t know what to do. I don’t know how much different your world is. I had no identity. And remember those Monopoly money I tried to used that night? I’ll be impoverished there. I’d love to, but I probably can’t survive a totally new world.”

She just sat in silence. He looked at her, and at the clock. Time to go.

“It’s nice meeting you — all these nights, they were just marvelous. I won’t forget about you. And the games, of course. And our concurring love towards them.” As he pulled the door open, he said. And the misfit doorbell jingled. It was smooth, because he tried this monologue for quite a few times on his way here. “I’ll miss you, and all those nights here, days waiting to be here.”

“Thank you, Masayoshi. I’m going to miss you.”

“Um. By the way, that’s my online alias.” And he told her his real name.

“I think I’ll stick to Masayoshi. That’s the name I first knew.”

“Okay. Ah, don’t forget to eat. And try not to starve too much.”

“Yeah. Will do.”

“So long. Olivia.” He calmly stepped out of Cow Level and gently closed the door behind him and at that instant, the store vanished. Then he remembered, he was going to recite something from Grim Fandango — for her name was, too, Olivia. But he was too devastated at the time.

R. Masayoshi didn’t come back to Cow Level the next night. Last night was a proper farewell. Besides, he probably didn’t have time this time and might be caught in the shop, never able to come back. He counted the times he had been there, and told himself that Wirt must have been an octopus, that he had run out of legs now. And he laughed a bit at that. And he felt really bad.

At 10 He finally decided to drop by the place. One last time, he thought to himself, just to see that vacant shop. And perhaps one day, if he made enough money, buy the place and open a Cow Level there. Then he realized how childish the idea sounded. Miracle happened once to him, for a few days, that was gracious enough. Hoping for more would be greedy, would it not?

In between an auto repair shop and a run down record shop, in front of an empty, dusty shop looking to be rent, the miracle did happen to him, for the one last time. There stood Olivia and she waved at him as soon as she saw him coming. She had his backpack on her, and a suitcase stood idle beside her. At first he blinked, not believing what he saw. Then he started running towards her as fast as one nerd could possibly do.

“Olivia! What are you doing here?”

“Welp, there are so many games to play in your world, so few you’ve given me. So I figure it would only be fair if I come over to your side.”

“But.. You’ll be stuck here forever!”

“That’s fine. My life already sucks, reckon it wouldn’t be any worse than that.” She waved dismissively. R. Masayoshi was about to argue, but she asked first. “Hey, what’s that studio you mentioned once? That made decent but buggy RPGs? So good that the fans are still making community patches a decade later?”


“Yeah, I guess. How can I sleep on a laptop without their games? What about that Sid Meier guy’s strategic games?”

“Um, deleted them. Too time consuming.”

“Show me the strategic games of your world!”

He sighed and suddenly he felt like to smile. But instead, he acted serious. “You do realize my reality isn’t perfect, right? Black Isle died, Square merged with Enix and is now becoming a no-good major publisher. Hideo Kojima was dumped. EA killed tons of good studios. Are you okay with that?”

“Um… At least I can get rid of that Medal of Honor stuff, right?”

“True. But we do have Call of Duty here.”

“Oh no. Guess there’ll always be some logical progressions of Pong would end up being one of those series.”

“That’s multi-universally true, young miss.”

“Ah, but I guess it’s too late.”

“Yep. Let me ease your burden.” He took over the backpack and the suitcase. “You ate anything tonight?”


They started walking, away from the shop.

“Got anything special on mind?”

“What about the place you work? The food is charming.”

Oh no. One way or another, she’ll know I fabricated that. “Um, the place is under renovation. How about Chinese?”

“Sounds good enough.”

They walked.

“Um. You know I’m literally homeless, right?”

And they walked.

“Yeah. So um, Mr. Masayoshi, are you looking for a roommate?”

And they walked away.

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