Flood the Zone (2/2)

She gets the sense the raft build is from an early edition of the game. While its component pieces are generic items that are readily available on the map, the crafting instructions feel unintuitive and clunky, like a relic of a time before a UX professional was paid the big bucks to iron out the user experience. She even notes, with abject horror, a typo: 12 wod logs.

She places the crafting blueprint on the ground: a rectangular grid divided into twelve strips, with interlacing lines where the ropes are meant to wrap and bind. She has to position the logs exactly on the gridlines before they slot into place with a wet-sounding click, requiring considerable finesse with the arrow keys. A recommended step includes flax thread for a makeshift sail, but there’s no flax to be found in the game. Pouring over a fan archive of Apocalyptica press releases, she finds stray mention of iridescent flax flower in an Apocalyptica beta test that was patched out by the mid 2000s.

Tying the ropes is a million times more maddening that wrangling the logs. A wrong knot and the rope wiggles out of her grasp, like a snake; too many of these abortive maneuvers and it disintegrates in her hands entirely. She considers giving up, but there’s something charming about the challenge, and anyway she already has a purpose in mind for the raft. She’s going to position it next to the FLOOD THE ZONE graffiti, as a kind of ironic art display. She hasn’t been able to figure out how to remove the graffiti, which is unusual in a sandbox game that prizes user freedom like Apocalyptica. Even the wall itself seems rooted in place now, invulnerable to her trusty pickaxe. Hey, if you can’t beat them, join them, right?

She watches four hours of DewEyed add the finishing touches to her grain silo. It has red brick trim at the bottom and a little flag at the top with a teary, oversized cartoon eye. DewEyed plants a digital garden at the silo’s feet: one perfectly formed yellow rose for each new stream follower. She plays a sappy ballad in the background, her lights a rainbow of alternating colors that illuminate her made-up face in pink, blue, red, and green. By the time the stream ends, there are fifty roses growing in a waveform pattern around the silo. DewEyed blows kisses at the camera.

An unknown user—an anthropomorphic wolf wielding a gem-encrusted hammer—comes across her unfinished temple-on-the-sea and its attendant raft; they circle the complex once and then drift away, unimpressed. She considers scrapping the raft and repurposing the materials for a flashier, more mainstream build. A neon-green construction crane, or a traditional yurt made of stretched, dyed hide. A silver-plated wind turbine, or a spacious condo with an open-kitchen layout and a breakfast nook. A mausoleum, a Pizza Hut.

On an overcast afternoon, she finds the temple vandal has returned and underlined the initial message. The new black line is thick, hastily drawn, and scary to behold. Does it mean the flood is coming? Or at least that something is coming? Her stomach drops out of her body, replaced with a lake of gooey, messy emotions. She positions her avatar on the raft, face burning. She’s always suspected this may be a practical joke at her expense concocted for a stream; she’s watched and laughed at the prank compilations herself. Users induced to join a pulsing human pyramid, then knocked over with a bulldozer. A flooring glitch exploited to transform a tiled bathroom into a sinkhole. Red blocks placed at a specific distance to create the impression of a huge, blood-drenched angel emerging over the horizon. Elaborate, cryptic messages left at spawn points. Still, she holds fast to her position on the raft. If she must be a punchline, at least she’ll get screen time.

When the wave starts, choppily at first, a jagged edge of pixels angled sharply off the ocean’s surface, she doesn’t trust what she is seeing. She blinks rapidly, then wipes haphazardly at her screen. The wave remains, and immediately grows in height. A misty rain begins to fall. The water accumulates unnaturally fast, sweeping the raft off the ground. She doesn’t need to press down on her mouse to keep her avatar from falling off, but nonetheless fear keeps her pointer finger clamped to the left mouse trigger. Her line of sight moves rapidly across the screen, fogged now with the wash of digital rain.

The temple is halfway filled with rainwater when the wave makes landfall, splashing loudly against the cliffside and pushing her raft forward. She spins out, flowing down the hill frictionlessly. She pans the camera around with the arrow keys; the valley at the base of the incline is submerged in water, and the flood is traveling even farther afield, at a wickedly quick pace.

DewEyed is still planting roses on her corner of the map. She casts a glance at her stream chat and frowns.

“Yo, what’s going on? Why’s everyone freaking out?” she says. Then, she sees the wave at a distance.

On the raft, she passes a hundred builds, now half-submerged and ruined. A hand in the water, then a head. Dead avatars are supposed to respawn fully formed, but, caught now in the wave, users come to confused life before immediately being trampled by the churn of water. Some have clambered onto taller builds—cathedrals, mega-malls—and they signal towards her with the games’ limited menu of physical social interactions—a peace sign, a hip-twist, a casual salute that entirely belies the severity of the situation. But without a sail she cannot direct the raft and must watch, helplessly, as the water climbs and catches up.

Now, DewEyed is standing at the top of her grain silo, clutching the flagpole, and her chat is going wild. The most vocal are screaming in all-caps for her to get down, to succumb, purely for entertainment value. Who knows where the wave could take her? But DewEyed, usually so attentive to her audience, is not responding to any entreaties. Her wide eyes, fringed in sparkly purple rhinestones, are glued to the rising water. Other streamers are posting about the flood, too. The dead ones have been soft-locked out of their own games, and already there are calls to sue the developers. “For what?” someone replies sarcastically.

Based on the submerged monuments around her, she is nearing the far edge of the map. She can see the seam of pixels that separates the game world from the digital nothing. In lieu of blankness, the developers have chosen to blur the distant landscape in the area beyond, as though the unprogrammed universe were a place possible to enter, with the right visual acuity. In normal times, a user will bounce off the invisible wall painlessly. Today, propelled by the wave, she shoots right on through.

The area beyond the game map is huge, white, impossible; no reference points, no sense of depth or breadth. Her avatar hovers in the middle, still caught in the crouching animation though her raft is now gone. A garland of feelings flowers inside her, crowned by shock, at her salvation. For the first time ever, the dopamine recedes, and she feels at peace. For a second, she feels chosen. Then she blips out of existence. With a groan, the game collapses.

She stares at her computer screen. Her background image—a grinning anime girl standing in front of The Great Wave off Kanagawa—stares back. She looks down at her hands, noting how veiny and mottled they look in the blue light. The game won’t let her log back in, and idly she wonders how much of her profile will be lost, how many of her builds will be recoverable. She shoulders past the anxiety and opens up a random stream, looking for a new game.


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