The Starless Sea

By the time the tea and the multiple trays of cookies are arranged the class has filtered in, about a dozen students, though it feels like more with all the coats and scarves flung over the backs of chairs and couches. Zachary settles into an ancient armchair by the window that Kat directs him to with a cup of Earl Grey and an oversize chocolate chip cookie.

“Hi everyone,” Kat says, pulling the attention in the room away from baked goods and chatter. “Thanks for coming. I think we have some newbies who missed last week, so how about we do quick intros around the room, starting with our guest moderator.” Kat turns and looks at Zachary expectantly.

“Okay…um…I’m Zachary,” he manages between chews before swallowing the rest of his cookie. “I’m a second-year Emerging Media grad student, I mostly study video-game design with a focus on psychology and gender issues.”

And I found a book in the library yesterday that someone wrote my childhood into, how’s that for innovative storytelling? he thinks but does not say aloud.

The introductions continue and Zachary retains identifying details and areas of interest better than names. Several are theater majors, including a girl with impressive multicolored dreadlocks and a blond boy with his feet propped up on a guitar case. The girl with cat-eye glasses who looks vaguely familiar is an English major, as is the girl who continues to knit but barely glances down at her work. The rest are mostly Emerging Media undergrads, some of them he recognizes (the guy in the blue hoodie, the girl with the tattooed vines peeking out of the cuffs of her sweater, ponytail guy) but no one he knows as well as Kat.

“And I’m Kat Hawkins, senior Emerging Media and theater double major and I mostly spend my time trying to turn games into theater and theater into games. And also baking. Tonight we’re going to discuss video games specifically, I know we have a lot of gamers here but if you’re not please ask if you need terminology clarification or anything like that.”

“How are we defining ‘gamer’?” the guy in the blue hoodie asks with enough of an edge in his voice that Kat’s bright expression darkens almost imperceptibly.

“I follow the Gertrude Stein definition: a gamer is a gamer is a gamer,” Zachary jumps in, adjusting his glasses and hating himself for the pretentiousness but hating the guy who needs to define everything a little bit more.

“As far as how we’re defining ‘game’ in this context,” Kat continues, “let’s keep along the lines of narrative games, role-playing games aka RPGs, etcetera. Everything should come back to story.”

Kat prompts Zachary into sharing some of his standard primers on game narrative, character agency, choices, and consequences, points he’s made in so many papers and projects that it’s a pleasant change to relate them to a group that hasn’t heard them all a thousand times before.

Kat jumps in here and there and it doesn’t take long for the discussion to take off organically, questions becoming debates and points volleying between sips of tea and cookie crumbs.

The conversation veers into immersive theater which was last week’s topic and then back to video games, from the collaborative nature of massive multiplayer back to single-player narratives and virtual reality with a brief stopover on tabletop games.

Eventually the question of why a player plays a story-based game and what makes it compelling comes up to be examined and dismantled.

“Isn’t that what anyone wants, though?” the girl with the cat-eye glasses asks in response. “To be able to make your own choices and decisions but to have it be part of a story? You want that narrative there to trust in, even if you want to maintain your own free will.”

“You want to decide where to go and what to do and which door to open but you still want to win the game,” ponytail guy adds.

“Even if winning the game is just ending the story.”

“Especially if a game allows for multiple possible endings,” Zachary says, touching on the subject of a paper he’d written two years previously. “Wanting to co-write the story, not dictate it yourself, so it’s collaborative.”

“It’ll work in games better than anything,” one of the Emerging Media guys muses. “And maybe avant-garde theater,” he adds when one of the theater majors starts to object.

“Choose Your Own Adventure digital novels?” the knitting English major throws out.

“No, commit to being a full-blown game if you’re going to go through all the decision-making option trees, all the if-thens,” the girl with the vine tattoos argues, talking with her hands so the vines help emphasize her points. “Proper text stories are preexisting narratives to fall into, games unfold as you go. If I get to choose what’s going to happen in a story I want to be a mage. Or at least have a fancy gun.”

“We’re veering off topic,” Kat says. “Sort of. What makes a story compelling? Any story. In basic terms.”

“Change.”

“Mystery.”

“High stakes.”

“Character growth.”

“Romance,” the guy in the blue hoodie chimes in. “What? It’s true,” he adds when several raised eyebrows turn in his direction. “Sexual tension, is that better? Also true.”

“Obstacles to overcome.”

“Surprises.”

“Meaning.”

“But who decides what the meaning is?” Zachary wonders aloud.

“The reader. The player. The audience. That’s what you bring to it, even if you don’t make the choices along the way, you decide what it means to you.” The knitting girl pauses to catch a slipped stitch and then continues. “A game or a book that has meaning to me might be boring to you, or vice versa. Stories are personal, you relate or you don’t.”

“Like I said, everyone wants to be part of a story.”

“Everyone is a part of a story, what they want is to be part of something worth recording. It’s that fear of mortality, ‘I Was Here and I Mattered’ mind-set.”

Zachary’s thoughts begin to wander. He feels old, not certain if he was ever so enthusiastic as an underclassman and wondering if he seemed as young to the grad students then as this group seems to him now. He thinks back to the book in his bag, turning over ideas about what it is to be in a story, wondering why he has spent so much of his time propelling narratives forward and trying to figure out how to do the same with this one.

“Isn’t it easier to have words on a page and leave everything up to the imagination?” another of the English majors asks, a girl in a fuzzy red sweater.

“The words on the page are never easy,” the girl in the cat-eye glasses points out and several people nod.

“Simpler, then.” Red-sweater girl holds up a pen. “I can create a whole world with this, it may not be innovative but it’s effective.”

“It is until you run out of ink,” someone retorts.

Someone else points out that it’s nine already and more than one person jumps up, apologizes, and rushes off. The rest of them continue to chat in fractured groups and pairs and a couple of the Emerging Media students hover over Zachary, inquiring about class recommendations and professors as they put the room more or less back in order.

“That was so great, thank you,” Kat says once she’s gotten his attention again. “I owe you one, and I’m going to get started on your scarf this weekend, I promise you’ll have it while it’s still cold enough to wear it.”

“You don’t have to but thanks, Kat. I had a good time.”

“Me too. And oh, Elena’s waiting in the hall. She wanted to catch you before you left but didn’t want to interrupt while you were talking to people.”

“Oh, okay,” Zachary says, trying to remember which one was Elena.

Kat gives him another hug and whispers in his ear, “She’s not trying to pick you up, I forewarned her that you are orientationally unavailable.”

“Thanks, Kat,” Zachary says, trying not to roll his eyes and knowing she probably used that exact phrase instead of simply saying that he’s gay because Kat hates labels.

Elena turns out to be the one in the cat-eye glasses, leaning against the wall and reading a Raymond Chandler novel Zachary can now identify as The Long Goodbye and he realizes why she looks familiar. He probably would have placed her if her hair had been in a bun.

“Hey,” Zachary says and she looks up from her book with a dazed expression he’s used to wearing himself, the disorientation of being pulled out of one world and back into another.

“Hi,” Elena says, coming out of the fiction fog and tucking the Chandler in her bag. “I don’t know if you remember me from the library yesterday. You checked out that weird book that wouldn’t scan.”

“I remember,” Zachary says. “I haven’t read it yet,” he adds, not sure why the lie is necessary.

“Well after you left I got curious,” Elena says. “The library’s awfully quiet and I’ve been on a mystery kick so I decided to do some investigating.”

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