The continuous hum of conversation emanated around the boardroom. The sound of each voice would briefly elevate before being awarded with a spattering of laughter, which would then lead to yet another anecdote. It was the same thing every Tuesday. Senior Leadership Management Strategy meetings. They were the bane of Quentin’s existence.
Tapping the surface of the meeting room table, he was rewarded with a quick loading bar before his personal folders and documents appeared in front of him.
He had managed to revolutionize the gaming industry. Yet any ideas of being able to spend his days playing within his Virtual Reality World were dashed very quickly. Actually, it would probably be fairer to say that most of his dreams died when his company became publicly traded. What started out as a few venture capitalists that were going to inject funds into his company, turned into a group of vulture funds that wanted to change the nature of his creation entirely.
“... The focus groups suggest that another raid in ‘Lamria’ would be really popular with the 14-18 female demographics, especially if Ethan is leading the charge.”
A raspy voice sounded out from across the room. Quentin winced at the noise, it was a voice that was always able to snap him out of any daydream. It belonged to one of the many, many corporate representatives in the room.
“It’s pronounced ‘Lameria’, not ‘Lamria’...” Quentin muttered, but to no avail. They had already moved onto the next topic. This was what the meetings had devolved into, a bunch of agents trying to get their company products placed in the game or making sure that their sponsored ‘Heroes’ were given the best quest-lines.
Quentin tried to zone out, but every so often a distinctive voice would manage to pierce through his defenses and he’d hear their requests.
“... So JeffX dropped his new album recently. He’s used one of the Southern Islands in Abidden as the backdrop for his music videos. We’ve gotten a push from his record label that we need to move more content in his direction for publicity. So, we need a Unicorn because his album cover has him with a Unicorn. Can you make sure that gets put in, Quentin?”
“Unicorns don’t exist in Abidden.” Quentin responded flatly.
“Then create one, this is JeffX we’re talking about! He alone accounts for 4% of our market share. If he moves to a different platform because we couldn’t get him a Unicorn...”
“Then I’ll sleep better at night. No Unicorns, now or ever.”
Quentin was adamant.
At the thought of Heroes, Quentin glanced past the group of faces and regarded the moving images across the back wall of the boardroom. Most of the Heroes displayed were of the new generation, all S-Class Celebrities or A-Class Citizens. There was one face amongst the group that brought a warm smile to his face.
Quentin said with a smile. She was one of the first people he had managed to sign to be a contender in his virtual reality game, Abidden.
“Actually, yes! Thank you for bringing that topic up, Quentin!”
The CEO snapped his attention back to who was speaking to him. Quentin couldn’t stop the involuntary shudder as he looked at one of his least favorite people.
While most people had a casual attire, this individual always made a special effort to wear a full suit. His hair would always be slicked back, with so much product that you would think he dunked his head into a barrel of oil prior to the meeting. The worst though was the shit-eating grin that he seemed to always sport on his face. It was like he was constantly gloating over information that only he knew.
“What is it now, Victor?” Quentin sighed as he forced himself to make eye contact with the detestable man.
“You mentioned Helena, so I thought we could actually just skip ahead to that part of the meeting. I know how these sessions can be somewhat tiring for yourself! I think we’d all prefer if you were squirreled away, working on the game while we take care of the business!”
Victor laughed as he looked around the room. Practically everyone in the room nodded and returned his smile, some almost looking as though they were suppressing laughter.
Quentin felt his heart-rate elevate, and he wasn’t sure if it was through rage or if it was just apprehension of what was to follow.
“Go on...” He urged, thankful that his voice didn’t crack or show any signs of his turbulent emotions.
“Well, you see, the thing with Helena is... well. I don’t know how to say this. I guess I should probably just come out with what everyone here is thinking.” Victor continued with another look around the room, once again getting various nods of support.
Quentin continued to stare at the man, waiting for the eventual punchline.
“She’s not as popular as our other Heroes. So we’ve decided to cut her.” Victor said with the sickly grin once again plastered across his face.
It felt as though Quentin’s stomach had just fallen to the floor. Whatever he had expected, this was most certainly not it. Before he could stop himself, he was on his feet and his two palms had slammed onto the table.
All the images reflected on its monitor surface flickered at the impact before settling back into place. Almost as though it knew what was happening, the picture that rested on the screen between Quentin’s palms was that of Helena in her trademark archery pose.
“You can’t cut her! I signed her to Abidden, she’s mine. Not one of your celebrity puppets!” Quentin snarled venomously.
“Well... actually...” Victor took a breath and spread his hands out wide in a placating gesture.
“... I checked with our legal team, and you’ll find that we all get a vote on this. Sorry, Quentin. The focus groups have shown us that a younger and more attractive model would boost our ratings significantly.”
“Ratings?! It’s a Video Game! Stop treating it like a Sitcom! This new girl, what sport does she do? Has she competed in athletics or done any form of martial arts? What is her background?” Quentin shouted each question and stared down different members of the board as he did so.
The raspy voice from the corner coughed before answering. “She’s come highly recommended from-”
“If you say, ‘from one of our investors’, I will put your head through that wall.” Quentin threatened as he stared down the speaker.
The raspy-voiced man opened his mouth and closed it before looking back down to his hands.
“Quentin, Quentin, you need to relax. This type of stress isn’t good for you.” Victor remarked playfully.
“As I already told you, legal has allowed us to make a vote on this. You can check the bylaws. Everything in our agreements over the years has allowed us the right to control everything to do with the Heroes in Abidden. Your role, as always, is to keep making quest-lines and challenges for our Heroes. Don’t forget that.”
Quentin looked directly at the legal representative in the room who shrugged weakly before gesturing towards the virtual documents in front of her.
Sitting back down, the CEO cupped his head in his hands and tried to make sense of everything that was happening. Yes, his company was being taken over by its investors. His shares within the organisation didn’t give him much of a say either. All of his friends that he had built the company with had cashed out and sold their stocks to the highest bidder.
“In addition to that, we’ll need you to focus on some new challenges for our Heroes. We’ve gotten some reports that the current quests are too long-winded and boring. Make some big monsters or something that will really be a spectacle.”
This time it was a female voice. Quentin was in no mood to entertain their whims and fancies right now. He couldn’t concentrate at all.
“... but they can’t lose! It would be terrible for their brand if they were to be defeated in a battle. So don’t make any of the big monsters too hard to beat.”
The meeting continued along these lines, as though nothing had happened. Quentin was bombarded with requests for additional content, ways to increase publicity for certain Heroes and to play down others that weren’t as profitable. When the topics of product placement came up, Quentin just gave up.
“Quentin, are you listening?” Victor asked. He had apparently been speaking the whole time that the CEO was reminiscing.
Victor smiled before putting the final nail in the coffin.
“You need to write Helena out of the next quest conclusion. Make her get eaten by a Dragon or something. We’ll then replace her character with the new Archer. Oh, Devin, have you seen the outfits for our new girl? I can’t speak for the entire male demographic, but I think they’re going to be a hit!” Victor laughed, completely ignoring the CEO now that the news had been delivered.
Quentin sat in his chair quietly for the remainder of the meeting.
”It’s not our scheduled meeting time, so I can only assume that there’s something troubling you.”
The voice came from everywhere at once in the room. Quentin sat alone with a grimace on his face, trying to find the right words to convey his emotions.
“... okay, if it’s the silent treatment, I’ll just take a wild guess. Victor?”
Tilting his head ever so slightly, Quentin gritted his teeth. The CEO brought his hands up to his face and rubbed it vigorously before pulling at his hair in frustration.
“So it’s definitely Victor. What more could he possibly take from you? Let’s check the meeting recording.”
Quentin bit his lip as he waited for Locke to complete her analysis. In the briefest moment of silence between them he ventured a question.
“How is everything in the game?”
The reply was immediate.
“You could have pretended to think about it.”
Quentin laughed humorlessly as he looked around his office. The walls constantly flickered as they showed highlight reels of the best moments of Abidden. The reveal clips were always his favorites. It was a highlight of each Hero when they first unlocked their specialist class. His eyes moved across the walls to where his gaze usually settled.
The clip was of Helena falling from the Sky Palace, shooting every winged demon around her. It was the moment she unlocked her class of Celestial Archer. At the very end of the fall, just before impact, she exploded in light and was saved by her angel wings.
“They’re killing off Helena.”
Locke’s voice sounded the same to everyone. She controlled it to remind everyone that she was an AI system and not a person. When she was speaking with Quentin, she dropped that illusion and added emotion to her words to convey her feelings. That feeling right now was rage.
“What should we do?”
Quentin ventured aimlessly. He was at a complete loss and knew that this whole situation was his own fault. He should never have taken on those investors in the first place. For his own ambitions of bringing the game to new heights, he instead stunted it to become a shell of its former self.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself for a start.”
Locke’s voice cut through him instantly and Quentin merely blinked, not sure he had just heard that correctly.
“They’re going to kill off the only challenger in the whole game?”
Quentin sat up properly in the chair as he looked around the room. One of the many problems with talking to Locke was that he had no idea where to look when speaking with her. Her voice was in all of the speakers as she had full access to their entire system.
“So what is your solution? I can’t think of anything that gets us what we want!”
Locke’s voice became calm once more.
“Let’s search for solutions. What is it that you want most?”
“Come on! We’ve been having these conversations for months and years! You know everything that’s driving me insane!”
Locke’s voice remained steady which was a stark parallel to Quentin who was now actively trying to pull his hair out with frustration.
“Humor me. What is it that you want most?”
Quentin stood up from his chair and paced around the room. His breathing was haggard and his mind was a flurry of thoughts and memories.
“I want Abidden to be fun again.”
His voice was quiet as he extended his hand to almost caress the walls around him. The smiling faces, excited Heroes that took on quests for the challenge and glory.
“I want the original Paragons back too.”
Locke’s voice this time sounded amused. Quentin was too engrossed to notice.
“I want to take control of my company back.”
“Is that all?”
Locke was borderline teasing him at this point which finally dawned on Quentin. His smile became rueful as he looked back to his desk, imagining that Locke was sitting there.
“I’d also like to ruin Victor’s career, just as a bonus.”
Laughing to himself Quentin shook his head as he thought of it all. It was good to vent every so often and put his thoughts in order. Locke was great at putting him in a better mood.
Quentin froze on the spot at those words. Was Locke actually taking this as a calculation? There were times he forgot about her incredible processing power. She was the key component for Abidden’s success. Seeing her grow and develop over the years to become the market leader in Gaming AI was phenomenal.
Locke’s voice resumed in a teasing tone.
“I know for a fact that you’re just withholding the results. You’ve never said ‘processing complete’ before!”
Quentin accused her as he pointed his finger and waved it around the room jovially. The walls that he had just been fawning over suddenly changed to show a causality matrix with potential outcomes. His eyes darted around each outcome, seeing familiar words from his requests and his excitement grew as he looked for the origin point.
“Come on, stop teasing me... show me what it is that starts all of this!”
“You’re no fun.”
Locke’s voice stated before a different audio sounded out around him. It was Victor’s voice. It was a clip of the previous meeting that he had just attended.
“... our agreements over the years have allowed us the right to control everything to do with the Heroes in Abidden.”
“Yes, I was there. I remember. What’s the relevance?”
Quentin was frustrated with himself for not being able to follow Locke’s conclusion. He was looking around the walls to see if there was an obvious clue, but he was missing something.
“Let me make it a bit easier for you. If Victor and the board control all the Heroes...”
Locke added a laugh as she was genuinely happy with the solution she created and excited for Quentin’s eventual discovery. With that in mind, she decided to put him out of his misery and put up the start point up on the walls. For dramatic effect, she created it like the status screens in Abidden.
Quentin’s eyes widened.
|“Paragons Return to Abidden as Villains!”|
“They’d be back... but they’d absolutely destroy the current Heroes. It would be too one sided and wouldn’t make Abidden fun in the long term. Don’t get me wrong, I would love this outcome, but it’s not sustainable.”
The words on the walls flickered and moved sideways, leading to the next development in the causality matrix. It showed one of the eventual outcomes that would stem from it.
|“Abidden implements Nemesis system.”|
Quentin was in absolute shock. The concepts that Locke was throwing at him were incredible. He would be able to create a new division of players that could actively engage with the storyline of the world. They could have completely new classes and systems for the Villains.
“Antagonists give so much more range for the storytelling in Abidden.”
Locke added as Quentin paced around the office. The words on the walls started to make more sense to him now that he had context. The main excitement in his head was the Nemesis system.
“By implementing Nemesis, we would be enabling all NPC characters, monsters and creatures the ability to level and evolve. The difficulty of missions would rise... the political structure of the various kingdoms would be overturned...”
Quentin laughed as he listed out all the positive outcomes that could happen from implementing that system.
“The game would become fun again. I’ve wanted to do this for such a long time, Quentin.”
“Why didn’t we implement this before?”
Locke took a moment before responding.
“I don’t have the capability to implement the system yet.”
It felt like the balloon of excitement that had been welling up inside of the CEO had just been deflated. If Locke didn’t have the technical capability of launching the system then there was no alternative available.
“You said yet.”
Quentin picked up on the last word.
“Does that mean you could do it if you had more time?”
Locke paused for a moment.
“I would likely be able to have everything in place in the next two months. As it stands, almost all of my resources are devoted to game performance. I don’t have much processing power left to work on a new system. I have the basic framework complete but it will take time.”
Quentin furrowed his brow before looking down at his wrist. Taking a breath he looked around the room once more, seeing all the possibilities that lay before them. Helena’s face once again caught his attention. In that moment, he became resolute and pressed a contact name on the interface projected from his wrist.
After a few moments, a gruff voice answered the call.
“Quentin?! I’m pretty sure you have the wrong number.”
“Dario, I need your help. There’s a way we can bring the Paragon’s back.”
“All of them?”
Quentin smiled as the gruff tone softened over the call. He was able to hear the hope that crept into the engineer’s voice.
“Yes, Dario, all of them! You have my word.”
“...I’m on my way.”