Love; the iconic sculpture, originally designed by Robert Indiana, was made of four, giant, red, block letters stacked on top of each other: the L and O on top, the V and E on the bottom, the O tilted on an angle. The sculpture was a selfie hotspot located in a commercial district of Tokyo, the world’s biggest city with over thirty-seven million people, not far from the world’s busiest train station: Shinjuku.
The night sky was dark purple, but the night sparkled, not above in the heavens, but from the myriad lights that make Tokyo seem like a city of stars at night, from the many skyscrapers with offices and apartments still alight at this late hour, to the streetlights and signal lights and passing trains and even garlands of white, Christmas-style lights on the trees behind the LOVE sculpture, despite it being summer.
Many couples and groups of friends, enjoying the Friday night, stood in front of the sculpture or even climbed up onto it for their pictures. There were plenty of smiling faces, more than a few tinted red after an evening of dinner and drinking parties. Thousands more people walked up and down the streets. In Tokyo, you were rarely alone. At least physically.
Emotionally, it was another matter entirely.
Quill Bennet was only here in Tokyo on business for a couple of days, visiting government offices. His home city, for the moment, was Osaka, one of the world’s second biggest cities with a ‘mere’ twenty million people, southwest in the Kansai region. In Osaka, he served as a liaison for foreign workers in the area, from bankers to businessmen, from import-exporters to teachers. He was a government bureaucrat, and his job was very dull.
It was also lonely.
Being a foreigner in Japan was incredibly fun in many ways. Just being here, his brain felt stimulated in a way it never was back in his home country. Everything was just slightly different and it was a real pleasure to walk these streets, even after a very long day of boring meetings where nothing important ever happened, and hours of formal dining and drinking with other over-worked bureaucrats.
He very much enjoyed the company of many Japanese people, but no matter how long he lived in this country, no matter how hard he worked to speak the language, no matter how well he got along with people at work, he was always gaijin, always on the outside. People were friendly and polite, but developing real, intimate relationships here was nearly impossible for many foreigners, except with a romantic partner, but he’d broken up with the last one six months ago and hadn’t felt a connection with anyone since.
There were other foreigners in Japan, of course. Not many, as the country was still extremely homogenous, with foreigners and mixed-ancestry Japanese together accounting for three percent or less of the population. Most foreigners who came didn’t stay; they returned home after a year or two. So while it was interesting meeting so many new and varied people all the time, it was difficult to form deeper, lasting relationships and much of a social-support network. He was also of an age when many of his friends were starting families and choosing to stay home rather than meet up.
And so, after four years in Japan, watching so many good friends move on and having such a challenging time forming deep friendships with locals, Quill was feeling lonely.
Looking around at the ever-present Shinjuku crowd, always around no matter the hour of the day or night, he made a sad smile. He couldn’t decide if being around so many people made the loneliness easier or worse.
Briefcase in hand, he leisurely strolled down the street in the general direction of his hotel, in no rush, happy to walk off some of the too-many calories he’d consumed that evening. Luckily, living in Japan meant a lot of daily walking and bicycle riding, which helped to stave off becoming overweight. Although, while he might say that now at thirty two years of age, it might be a different story once he hit forty. It was hard to lay off the all-you-can-eat and drink here in Japan, though. The food was so damned good.
Many stores were still open, as it wasn’t quite last train yet. He passed large, brilliantly glowing windows of convenience stores and fast food restaurants. He passed a darkish alley with a drunk salaryman pissing on a trashcan; it was odd how often you saw that in an otherwise very well-behaved country. Coming across an electronics store, he saw that the window was plastered with huge game ads. One particular brand dominated them all:
World of Fantasy
A pang of nostalgia coursed through Quill and he came to a halt, causing a ripple in those suddenly forced to go around him.
World of Fantasy (WoF) was the original MMO, the first to really grow massive, and it had dominated the market for much of the past twenty-some years. In terms of tech and gaming, that was basically like saying they’d held their own from the stone age to the modern era: it was very impressive.
Quill had first played World of Fantasy in the earliest days. Back then, the game had been a wonder. The vast, open world really had felt like an adventure. It hadn’t been something people would just grind and move on from; the exploring and questing had been the point of the game itself.
He remembered with much fondness how he’d started out solo but had gradually made friends in the game, teaming up to complete quests, hang out, and do the occasional dungeon. For almost two years, he’d spent his days anticipating nights with those friends in that amazing world.
Career changes and a girlfriend had led him to eventually quit the game for a long time. He’d come back, about eight or ten years later for another go. But he hadn’t lasted long. The open world had been dumbed down to nothing and nobody teamed up for it anymore. They would just grind it as fast as possible until they were high enough to get to the next dungeon and then run dungeons over and over for the best gear. A dungeon-finder system had been introduced, allowing people to instantly find others to party with, removing any need to talk to others or build relationships. And people didn’t explore dungeons anymore or take their time to do every mini boss. People just signed up with the dungeon finder to get on a team, and then speed ran the best bosses for the best loot and quit, only to repeat the process endlessly. They didn’t even talk to each other during runs.
Quill had been incredibly disappointed in the lack of adventure, the advent of grinding, and the brutal loss of community. When he did talk to people in the game, it felt like they were now all hard-core gamers and had zero tolerance for anyone new and toxicity, a rarity in the past, was everywhere. He’d quit the game after only a couple of weeks, too heartbroken to stick around any longer.
Standing outside that store window with his briefcase in hand, bathed in florescent light as a crowd flowed around him, it wasn’t the heartbreak he recalled, but the golden days of yore. And that was exactly what NOVizionWizard was promoting with this new game.
World of Fantasy, Golden Impact was their first foray into the recent explosion of full-dive MMOs. Unlike their original game, played on a computer, full-dive games were one hundred percent immersive. You plugged your brain directly into the game machine and entered a whole new world that felt just as real to you as the every-day world did, interacting with all your senses. Needless to say, once the tech had progressed to the point where full dives now felt realistic instead of pixel-like, the genre had taken over.
Other games had been very successful in releasing full dive games, but NOVisionWizard had, by far, the biggest historical brand name and a legion of fans who probably missed the game as much as Quill now found himself missing it. The company also had vast coffers to invest and had vowed to pull out all the stops to become the best again.
Banking on player nostalgia and a name that had once been grand, and investing everything into creating a game that catered to players even more than it had in the old days, they’d created an experience that had caused beta players to rave with excitement. It had lit a firestorm of passion on the internet.
Quill glanced towards the front doors of the store. Impulsively slipping back into the flow of pedestrians, he made his way to the automatic doors, which slid aside as he and others approached. Leaving the summer evening behind, he entered and cool air washed over him.
Inside the bright, main lobby, World of Fantasy had set up shop with a huge display showing wicked-cool, movie-style previews. Guys in top-of-the-line cosplay posed behind a row of cute girls with big grins and micro-mini skirts. The latter handed out flyers and packs of tissue with ads inserted in them. Well-dressed store staff stood by with polite smiles, ready to help interested people sign up.
Seeing the big World of Fantasy logo overhead felt like a punch in the heart. It was difficult to recall all the negatives that had driven the previous MMO to eventual ruin, yet so easy to recall the incredible game it had been. More than that, for Quill, was that feeling he’d had of making those great friends and having so many laughs and adventures together. It seemed to slice right through his loneliness, making him even more aware of it, and more eager than ever to banish it. He wanted people he could hang out with again. He wanted to feel excited about a game again. He wanted to be in a party with people who cared about him, rather than ‘the foreign guy’ drifting in a sea of locals who never fully accepted him.
He let himself drift up to one of the staff.
She beamed up at him. “Welcome! Are you interested in signing up for World of Fantasy, Golden Impact? Only one million slots will be open for new players at this time. And they’re filling up very fast.”
“Oh?” Quill accepted a flyer from the woman.
“Registration started an hour ago—”
“An hour ago?” he interrupted. “But it’s so late.”
“We’re thirteen hours ahead of New York,” she explained. “Globally, we’re already at more than nine hundred thousand new players.”
“Nine hundred!” Quill marvelled. Apparently whatever difficulties the company had faced before, evidently the public was eager to put the past behind and to trust them once more.
She gestured to the tablet in her hand and half turned to stand closer to him, showing him the registration screen. “Shall we sign you up for a new unit before space runs out?”
Quill hesitated. Full-dive machines were stand-alone devices, the games far too massive to fit on a standard computer. Plus, headgear and an integration system were involved. He looked at a 3D cutout of the machine standing in front of them. The price tag on it made him cringe. This was really a lot more than he should spend on a video game.
A bell dinged.
The saleswoman checked the tablet in her hands. “Ah. Nine hundred and fifty thousand players now. Better hurry or you’ll miss out.”
Quill folded. The lure of the game, the nostalgia and desire for friendship, even the crowd and the cosplayers and the cute girls all overcame whatever weak defences he had in place to protect his slender bank account. He nodded.
She grinned and punched something into her tablet, then began taking his information.
Quill mentally tried to hold back a powerful, childish sense of anticipation for the game and fear over the money he was spending. But the game wouldn’t launch for another three weeks while full-dive systems were delivered. He’d just stay home every night and subsist on cup ramen to save money. A silly grin crept over his lips and he felt like an idiot in front of the saleswoman, but, after all, he really was excited.