This is Francis Bacall.
He is a professional video game streamer on the website Y-Cast. He has been one for almost four years, after he dropped out of university and moved back home. He started off playing obscure Japanese role-playing games, but expanded just as his audience did. He still specialized in playing single-player, story-heavy games and providing a deep, insightful, well-educated commentary on each of them, but he has recently begun to receive much more attention with his latest endeavor: Role-playing multiplayer battle arena royale games.
Royals of Foreign Lands, the latest craze in the battle arena royale genre, is his biggest hit yet. Francis plays the game almost every single night. He loves his fans. He loves the fact his yearly income has tripled in the past year and he is now making nearly as much as his parents combined. He loves playing games and winning and being known for being good.
But that doesn’t mean anything when he feels that knot in his stomach that simply won’t go away.
It’s been in there inside him for years. Since he was a teenager. Maybe even younger. Since he can remember, he’s had a feeling deep inside of him that he isn’t doing enough. That, for all the successes he has had in his life, he hasn’t found his true calling, and everything else he does is simply holding him back.
Francis Bacall is a success story in every respect. He has thousands of devoted fans, entire Discord servers filled with friends and acquaintances that love to be around him, digital or not. He earns lots of money, even if his social media numbers somehow aren’t enough to justify that one really big sponorship deal he keeps asking around for. And he does it all by being himself. Or, an extension of his real self, at least.
So if he’s a success story, then why won’t that knot go away?
Why does he feel like he is falling down when he’s moving upwards? Why in his life, his privileged time as a straight white young man in an affluent neighborhood of one of the nicest cities in the United States, has he always felt this underlying current that he’s facing a mountain of opposition at every turn?
As he stares at his phone, recording himself making a video message to all his devoted fans, he can’t shake the feeling that everything he is doing is small-time, that everyone downplaying his successes is right, and he’s just a tiny fish in a big ocean pretending to be someone.
“Hey, Bac-Nation!” he greets with as much energy as he can muster. “I’m pleased to report that I’m in the lovely city of Paso Robles for the day. It’s got a lot of olive oil, a lot of wine, and...—” he giggles before he makes his joke— “I got a real good feeling about the wine. If I make another video message tonight, just know I’m toked the hell up.”
He looks over to an arcade machine of Donkey Kong III, his favorite of the trilogy, and moves to position himself in front of it. “Here you have one of the finest arcade games of all time, the ultimate Nintendo machine. Stanley the Bug Man fights the giant gorilla trying to destroy his beehive, or, uh, whatever the plot is. The gameplay’s fast, Stanley’s got great controls, and the whole thing’s like Galaga on friggin’ crack and it’s great. You ever play a game like this, and you’re gonna cry out in pain from just how fun it is. Wanna watch me play it? Just kidding. I can’t play this with one hand, so I can’t film it for you.” He pauses, gives a sly smirk, and then adds, “But... maybe if I get enough retweets while I’m still in the arcade, I’ll do it anyway. See you later, Bac-Nation. Francis signing off.”
He breathes a sigh of relief.
He’s still got it.
Francis isn’t feeling himself as much these days. He doesn’t know how much it has to do with Eryk entering his life and changing everything in such a big way, or how much it has just been a culmination of everything up to this point.
His parents’ constant nagging at him to get a real job, their complete lack of understanding what it means to be a streamer... it’s done real wonders for his self-esteem, he knows. But he’s an adult, and he isn’t someone who is easily dissuaded by the discouragement of others, and certainly not the high level of difficulty that faces him at every turn.
But then, why does he still feel this knot in his stomach?
He stares at Donkey Kong III. It was a game that gave him such pleasure as a kid. He still loves to play it now, and is fully willing to accept the challenge of filming himself in selfie mode as he attempts to play it one-handed. But he suddenly begins to question everything about it. Is this even actually a good game, or is it nostalgia that clouds his vision? Is anything Francis thinks about himself real, or is it biased because he is unable to view himself objectively?
He makes a whole lot of money streaming based off his knowledge of obscure and unknown gaming, and off his boisterous internet persona. But couldn’t he be doing so much more with that? Surely there was something better out there than streaming that would net him even more fans, that would make better use of his natural ability to project friendliness to millions of online viewers. Maybe if he had chosen a better path, he’d be on his way to landing his first gig editing a feature film in Hollywood. Maybe he could have become a better advocate for LGBT rights online, even though he himself is perfectly straight. Maybe Royals of Foreign Lands would have hired him to do voice acting for a DLC character if he had just jumped on the bandwagon a bit sooner.
There is so much out there that he COULD do or COULD HAVE done, that it feels like he can’t think at all about the things he is actually doing. It makes him feel like an impostor.
Even if he had all these success stories, even if he basically singlehandedly revived interest in the long-running but long-obsure Dungeon Core Saga Series, is it really what he wants to accomplish in life?
That’s the real question, isn’t it?
What does Francis even want in this life?
He looks over to Eryk, who has gone away to a different part of the arcade to play a video game, one that Francis is pretty sure is Street Combat Warriors III: Parrying Edition. That game is incredibly unfriendly to new players, and he is ninety percent sure that Eryk has never played a fighting game to begin with, let alone one where defense is so much more important than offense that competitive players usually run out the clock rather than KO each other. Eryk is probably going to run out of the few quarters he probably has in his pocket if he tries a game like that, Francis thinks, even if he picks one of the easy-to-master characters like Tina the Cowgirl or Bojack Hound. But Francis won’t say anything. It’s better to learn from experience, to put your feet right in the fire.
And... maybe that’s a reflection of what Francis is doing right now by taking this guy he’s only just met and going on a legitimate, actual adventure with him. More than trying to intentionally aggravate his doting parents or trying to pull a marketing stunt to get more social media followers, Francis thinks he’s doing this just to be bold. Just to do something that might give him the purpose he has always desired. Because here with Eryk, he is accomplishing something much greater than himself.
Eryk is a great, great guy. He’s smart and perceptive, but he keeps that hidden behind a half-fake layer of ignorance and hard-headedness. He’s bold and decisive, but he doesn’t showboat. He always has a story to tell, and he’s always honest. Francis really likes that about him.
With Eryk, at least Francis has a concrete goal that’s always plainly obvious; if Eryk doesn’t grind up Destiny Points for his [Adventurer] class, he’ll eventually die. He came pretty close to dying just one night ago, when they were still in San Fransisco and escaping the Persian Mob. Eryk had been so powerful physically thanks to destiny’s own min-maxing his [Strength] and [Power] stats that every single person who faced him had gone down in just one or two shots. He knocked out Bonesaw McGee, one of the most famous underground fight club wrestlers like, ever, in like fifteen seconds! But he also nearly died, and it was a little truamatic for Francis to see someone so strong, so cool, be taken down like that after a few bullets and too much exhaustion. It made Eryk feel all too human, something that until then Francis hadn’t been able to fully reconcile.
Francis touches his cheek and continues to look at Eryk as he continue he fumbles around in his pocket trying to figure out which coin in his pocket qualifies as a quarter. This guy’s so funny. So smart. So strong... and yet completely helpless.
If Francis were more foolish, he would make some bold declaration right now that he would stay by Eryk Solbourne’s side the rest of his life, devoting himself to be the trusty sidekick to someone who will soon become Earth’s greatest hero.
He’s not that stupid, but... for some reason... it doesn’t feel like the wrong thing to do. It doesn’t make that knot in his stomach tighten to think about helping Eryk become a hero and to protect him from all the unfamiliar perils of this scary modern-day world.
If he makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year off being a video game streamer and he still feels like a fake who isn’t good enough, what does it say about him that traveling around with Eryk and getting into mishaps and comically absurd danger makes him feel perfectly fine?
Francis isn’t sure.
He isn’t sure at all.
But he’s got to get his mind off all this, he knows. He turns around and thinks about playing Donkey Kong III for old time’s sake—but he knows that will make him think too much about his job. Instead, he goes around elsewhere in the arcade looking for a different video game to try out and play.
He sees Delta, his childhood friend, his closest companion in the whole world, texting her wife a message and smirking about something. He can tell whenever she is texting her wife because she’s always got that same look on her face. She’s so satisfied with herself, so confident in everything she does when she’s with Julie. Francis isn’t the biggest fan of Julie, but Delta is madly in love, and that makes Francis happy.
All that stuff about deciding secretly to have a child... It still makes Francis a little mad. His very best friend in the world is having issues with her wife, with the decision on whether or not to have a child when she is merely twenty-two years old, and she didn’t even think to consult with him even a little bit. She claims it’s because it would just worry him with stuff that is completely out of his control, but he doesn’t buy that excuse. He thinks there’s a much simpler explanation, and it is honestly the exact same explanation that his parents suggested to him so many days ago: Francis isn’t mature enough to help.
That’s maybe what that knot in his stomach is all about. He wants to be a grown-up who lives an adult life with adult responsibilities, and yet his career is playing video games and talking to people on the internet. Even Delta sees this, even if she can’t bring herself to admit it. Francis isn’t ready to bear the kinds of secrets that Delta needed someone to confide in, so she told his own parents over him himself.
He loves her more than anything, but he can’t agree with a decision like that... Or, maybe he can. Ugh.
He really needs to stop thinking about all this stuff. He needs to get his mind off it long enough to forget all his worries for the next... let’s say, six hours. Enough that he can lay awake at night thinking about it rather than space out in the middle of an arcade. With all these flashing lights and colorful graphics, it’s just plain stupid that he is going to stand here and do nothing while so much fun is going on around him.
So with getting his fears and worries off his mind for now as his main priority, Francis paces around the arcade looking for video games that might serve as extremely effective distraction machines. He needs something intense, something fast-paced, and something that is just so difficult it’s begging you to feed a dozen quarters a minute just to beat the first level. When he’s faced with those kinds of odds, he tends to find himself coming out on top.
And in his eyesight is the perfect example of what he’s looking for: a tall, slender, rainbow-colored machine with three human heads pasted on top of cartoon bodies making silly poses.
It’s the ultimate arcade game experience, Kero Kero Bonito: The Game.
It came out a couple years ago as part of a PR stunt to promote a new album, but the video game proved much more popular than the album it was created to give press for, and the game ended up being released at arcades across the United States.
It’s a top-down puzzle-platformer type game where you have to control the member of Kero Kero Bonito simultaneously with three separate sticks that are bunched together on the arcade cabinet just close enough together that it’s nearly impossible to play the game multiplayer without being uncomfortably close together. It’s meant to be played with only one player, and the single action button that works for all three characters at the same time only reinforces that.
The game has puzzles, and it has frantic three-controller action as you have to make sure that the enemies roaming around the action grid don’t collide with any of the heroes at all. Along with the absolutely bopping soundtrack, it’s a very acclaimed game, and one that sadly can’t be replicated on home console without fundamentally altering the experience.
But... Even though Francis knows all these things, he hasn’t actually played the game before. Weird, isn’t it? Bizarre, isn’t it? Someone knowing everything about a video game he hasn’t even played a single time. He hasn’t watched a Let’s Play for it, he hasn’t heard a friend describing it, and he hasn’t even done much more than read reviews for it back when it first came out. And yet he still knows all these facts and has all these opinions on its design.
Normal people don’t feel that way, do they?
Francis starts to— No. He won’t let himself be dragged into the pit of his stomach and be consumed by the acidic power of self-doubt. He is going to enjoy this video game all by himself and nobody in the whole wide world is ever going to stop him.
He rustles through his pocket to find a quarter, but realizes that he has no change. In a world where everyone uses credit cards and debit cards for everything, actually having cash on you is a pretty rare feat. He’s a little annoyed that he has to go get some change at the cash machine in the middle of the arcade just because the arcade owners won’t convert the machines to be able to accept card.
Francis ventures over there, and—
RING RING RING RING.
Francis’s heart sinks a little bit.
He was just seconds away from getting cash, from playing Kero Kero Bonito: The Game, from getting real life off his mind just long enough to feel a bit of anxiety be lifted from his body. All he wants is a reprieve...
And yet, when he checks his phone...
It’s ringing with exactly that special ringtone that reminds him of everything wrong with his life right now.
That’s who’s calling.
“Hello?” he asks when he clicks the green “accept call” button after a few seconds of deliberation.
“France!” a shrill voice shouts from the other end of the line. “That you?”
“Yes, Taylor, it’s me,” he says as curtly as possible. He makes a point of disseminating as little emotion as possible from his voice in this conversation. It’s something he’s trained for a really long time at. If he can be an emotional, excited video game streamer, he can be an emotionless, businesslike person as well. All it takes is practice.
Francis decides to step outside of the arcade so that he can focus on this phone call with all his attention.
If he were a smoker, right now would be the perfect time to light up a cigarette and get his tension off. However, he is not a smoker and cigarettes are gross. So he has only himself and the outside wall of the arcade to lean against.
“France, what’s this I hear about you and some new boy you’ve met?” Taylor asks.
Francis sighs as deeply as he possibly can, but makes sure to hit the mute button before he does so Taylor can’t hear any of it. “Taylor, why are you calling me?” he eventually asks.
“I heard you’re traveling right now. Is that true? With some boy you just met a couple days ago? Is he cute?”
“His name is Eryk,” he says. “Eryk Solbourne. And I can’t say whether or not he’s cute because I don’t like guys. But I’m pretty sure that girls would find him extremely attractive.”
Taylor snickers and makes no attempt to cover it up. “What’s that I hear? It sounds like a fly buzzing around my head. It keeps saying some word... What is that... ‘Dalton?’ What does ‘Dalton’ mean?”
Francis tries very, very hard to keep his emotions in check, to not react to being egged on by Taylor’s caustic conversation.
“Listen here,” Francis says. “I don’t know what Mom and Dad told you, but I’m going on an adventure with a friend because of some very important stuff that I can’t explain right now. I would appreciate not being made fun of or you bringing up shit that is completely irrelevant. Why did you even call me?”
“I just want to know what’s going on in my big brother’s life,” Taylor says. “And I didn’t hear it from Mom and Dad.”
“Then... Who did you hear it from?” Francis looks back through the tinted window of the arcade, wondering if Delta had betrayed him once again for some mysterious, unknown reason. But... Absolutely not. Delta could never stoop so low, because no human could stoop this low.
“I have my resources, France,” Taylor says. Her voice gets a little crackly all of a sudden. “Oh, going through a tunnel. Hang on a sec.”
All Francis can hear for a minute is static and broken up background music that sounds perliously like one of those T-Swift songs from her new album where it’s all about bringing judgment to the sinners and heartbreakers and casting them into divine retribution.
Taylor apparently leaves the tunnel, because her voice returns and the background music fades. “Alright, France, so you and this boy are traveling the country for some reason that has nothing to do with anything your heart is feeling. Where are ya goin’, buddy?”
“It’s not just us two, you know. Delta is here too.”
“I mean, obviously she is here, because somebody needs to babysit your silly self.”
“You are just...”
“Will you be in LA soon?” she asks. “I figure you’re traveling through California right now still, and going north is kinda boring because Portland and Seattle aren’t exactly romantic this time of year. So where are you by now, Santa Barbara?”
“Paso Robles,” he says. “Some mid-sized town in Wine Country.”
“Hmmm... Paso Robles, really? Didn’t you hear about what happened there?”
Francis looks out to the rest of scenic, historic Downtown Paso Robles. It’s quaint and brick and exactly like most other fancy acclaimed downtowns of towns that don’t exactly have a lot going for them. Francis doesn’t care for it all too much, is what he means.
He sees that there is a trail of smoke billowing out in the distance, going almost like it’s a smoke signal of some sort. Of course, he can’t undetstand smoke signals at all, so he could be completely wrong. But something about that gives him pause. He can’t quite figure out why.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Francis tells his sister.
“Didn’t you hear about that big shooting recently? It’s definitely not safe at all there,” she says. “Or was that Oakland? I forget. It’s hard to remember stuff in Cali except for LA.”
“Uh, yeah. Whatever.” His professional, calm tone has long ago disappeared, because Taylor simply knows him far too well. She is extremely good at pushing his buttons. So he decides to push back. “You know, Mom and Dad were talking about you recently. I overheard them trying to figure out a vacation to take to go see you.”
“Gosh, if that were true at all, I’d be honored,” she replies. “But you’ll see me, right? Assuming you survive?”
“France! Come on. You haven’t visited me in like a year. Don’t you want to know how Victoria is doing?”
“How is she?” he asks.
“She can finally speak in complete sentences, but now she won’t stop talking. It’s super great for the insta, if you know what I mean.”
“Come on. I bet this’ll be the first time she ever sees Uncle France and actually remembers who you are. Won’t that be hella awesome?”
Francis sighs, and this time does not take the care to mute his phone. “Okay, yeah. If we stop by LA in our trip, I’ll try to find time in my busy schedule to meet you. But it’s not going to be a big thing, alright?”
“Awwww, France, thank you!!!! You’re the best big brother God ever thought to create. Even if you’re a dopey lovestruck puppy who’s trapped in a really dangerous situation.”
“I really hope you can get something better than your current job someday. I really believe in you to do something with your life someday. I super duper love you!”
Before Francis can say anything in respond, he hears a click. The call has ended.
A headache starts to form. Gripping his temples does nothing to stop it.
All of the annoyance and self-doubt rushes back into his mind like a dam breaking and flooding the whole town because some idiotic city planners sold a bunch of housing neighborhood land right in the middle of a historical floodplain.
Francis is nothing like his perfect, amazing sister Taylor, who does everything right despite doing not a single thing for herself. She’s never worked a day in her life and she’s ended up a happy, healthy, physically fit young woman who has a blue verified checkmark on social networks and has been a guest on The View twice. In all of this, it’s positively clear that she isn’t facing the same issues he is. She’s perfectly content with herself, and it fills him with a quiet rage.
Streaming is useless if you can’t compete with someone as lucky and happy as Taylor. Even if Francis got the knot in his stomach surgically removed in some psycho-metaphysical process, he’d still be inferior to her. As much as his parents loathe what she’s done with herself, even they will admit in the quietest of confidence that they are prouder of her than him.
It all sucks. That’s all he can think of.
All this adventuring, all this traveling around to various parts of California and beyond to help Eryk out... it’s all stupid. It’s the only thing keeping Francis from mentally collapsing, though, and he’s got to preserve it the best he can.
That Pablo Rosas jerk who keeps dragging them around to various parts of town and won’t shut the hell up about this irrelevant city... Francis knows he’s got dinner plans made too. Probably something like wine tasting and going to some shitty dive bar that’s supposedly got all the best culture but it’s all a bunch of middle aged people sipping on craft beers or whatever. Craft wines? It doesn’t matter. Francis doesn’t drink much anyway. What matters is that he feels like crap and he doesn’t want to do it.
So he marches back into the arcade and decides to tell Delta and Eryk that he’s done for the day. Maybe they’ll go on without him. Actually, he hopes they will, because if they go back to the hotel with him, he’ll just feel even worse, like he’s dragging everyone down with him.
But... He goes in there.
Pablo’s here too, for some stupid reason.
And for an even stupider reason, Delta and Eryk decide to go along with him back to the hotel.
So much for having a nice evening alone to his thoughts.
One day he’ll feel better about himself, but today certainly isn’t it.