James

James rubbed his eyes as input the last copy for the night. It had been a long shift and he’d have to get an early start to make deadline tomorrow.

He rifted through the stacks of paper on his desk. Among them were maps and notes from the game guide he was currently working on.

The developers had sent him a tonne of images to work with along with the team’s guide to the game, but it hadn’t made the process of writing the book any easier.

He groaned looking through the red-marked papers that they had sent back showing where he had made mistakes in his strategies and how he could guide players better. There was a lot of red and not a lot of time to meet all of their demands.

The game he was working was called Mirror. It was a third-person survival horror game and the game developer’s first shot at the genre.

They had found themselves a pretty good writer to take on the project too, except for the fact that he died halfway through development. The news had actually boosted preorders with some people saying that the game was cursed.

So they were left with an interesting script, but not a lot of direction on where to take the game. The developers decided to take the customization route.

James stood, stretched, and walked over to his sofa where he flopped down.

Based on a few sample questions, a biometric reading, and a short tutorial, the game generated horrors tailored to the player.

This, of course, made writing the guide hell, but the structure of the game was overall the same for all players.

It also helped that the game’s story was actually kind of good:

On the other side of the mirrors within Xander Nada’s home is another world filled with monsters from his past. His home transform growing larger and stranger as time goes by. He now has to confront the memories of his dead girlfriend, his abusive father, and a mysterious boy who appears throughout the story.

James had beaten the game on every difficulty and had to sort through every bit of lore to get a good overview of the game.

If he was a reviewer would have the given it a resounding 3 out of 10, which was a little harsh. The game ripped off several other series and the customizable bits only seemed to work half of the time.

He yawned as he looked over his introduction to the game guide on his desk, which would become the 200 page tome meant for the Collector’s Edition.

He’d run Xander through the motions so many times. The character probably hated him for that.

James’s cellphone rang. It was Henry from the publishing house and the main contact with the developer.

“Hey, bud! How’s the game guide going? Think you’re still going to be able to meet deadline tomorrow night? The pre-press guys are starting to get a little antsy.”

“Should be able to meet it. I’m having trouble finding a good way to describe the strategy to beat Rachel. I ran it past Stephen and he said it was fine, but just from my experience I don’t think the reader will get it.”

“Hmmm, well feel free to change it up just a little bit if you want to. Anyway, we’ll be having a conference call tomorrow morning to discuss some the details for print. Once we get your final drafts, we should be a-ok.”

“Yeah, I’ll talk to you guys in the morning.”

“Sounds good, you have a good—“

“Wait, sorry I forgot to ask,” James said as he riffled through some papers. He found a small handwritten note. “I was wondering if you might be able to ask the developers something. I encountered a little bug in the game. On the hardest difficulty, the final mirror doesn’t open. It just hard crashes. Might be a good thing to mention.”

“Ok, I’ll make sure they get a note about it tomorrow. Could be the game is just getting sick of you playing, e-heh.”

“Could be, anyway.”

“Right, I’ll send them an email off soon. You have a good night, James.”

“Night, Henry.”

James tossed his phone onto his bed and leaned back in his chair. Six months of work would come to an end tomorrow.

Over to his left, his television gleamed in the dark apartment. The main menu screen blinked away with its title stylishly displayed.

He sighed.

In the bathroom, James brushed his teeth. The game had helped him develop a slightly anxiety in the presence of mirrors and reflective surfaces, which was an interesting development. He avoided his doppelganger’s gaze opposite of him as he rinsed.

He would only be able to get about four hours of sleep at this rate, so he’d have to make them count.

But on the other hand, he could spend a few more minutes with the game in the dead of night.

It was actually suggested by the developers that you play at night. He picked up the controller and checked his save files. The file he was working on was saved right before the game had crashed. He started it up.

***

Xander stood in the foyer of his home.

The game was set in England, so the décor was a mixed bag of ornate furniture and striped wallpaper.

The entire experience was based around looking into the mirrors located throughout the home, and it, along with the main character, changed based on your choices.

For James, the home had more pictures of dogs than cats. The refrigerator was filled with instant meals instead of fresh produce. The selection of books on the game’s bookshelves included a whole host of recognizable authors, which must have cost the developers a bundle to include in the game.

The main character had light-brown eyes, blonde hair, and was very slightly overweight not unlike James, but still resembled the Hollywood actor they had chosen to model him after.

The rest of the custom-fit content appeared in more subtle ways. In one area, dogs were the main enemy. In another, a boss would prey on your with your phobias. Overall, it was kind of a cheesy way to personalize the game.

Xander breathed heavily having just returned from another world. James walked him up the stairs to the bathroom and patched him up.

The previous boss had done a lot of damage leaving his resources depleted and face bloodied. Survival horror games required a lot of item management, but James had never gotten better at it. He always brought Xander to the edge like an amateur player. It helped with writing the guide.

Inside the bathroom, a closet rattled eerily. It held the final mirror in the game. It was in a small pocket watch given to you by your father and brought you back to the memories of the past. You confront the mysterious boy and discover his true origins, which were pretty nasty.

Depending on how you’d played, the ending of the game could go several ways. James had beaten the game on all difficulty levels with every ending possible except for this last one.

It nagged at him daily and refused to look at the developers’ emails that spoiled it.

“Ok Xander,” James whispered. “Let’s see if we can get you to that last level.”

Xander walked toward the closet and opened it up. On the third shelf down, was the pocket watch.

In the short cutscene, Xander opened up the watch, looked inside, and saw the small mirror within.

A bloodshot eye would always appear on its surface and suck him into another world, but the bug cut out the eye replacing it with a strange black void.

The game crashed as an error code appeared on screen. James groaned and leaned back on his sofa. It was getting late, but he had to try one more time.

Xander reappeared on screen and marched his way back upstairs. The wounds he’d suffered from the previous fight disappeared as he readied himself to open up the closet once again.

James’s eyes narrowed. Maybe he could try something different to see if the bug was a bit more than just a small concern.

He turned Xander around to face the bathroom mirror. This one lead to an entirely other world, so maybe if that didn’t work that meant the entire warping system in this part of the game was bugged.

“I don’t want to go there right now,” Xander said after being prompted to interact at the mirror. “I can hear something rattling in the closet.”

It was definitely a new bit of dialogue, so James pulled out his notepad. He tried to get him to use the mirror again.

“I don’t want to go there right now,” Xander said, again. “I should really look into the closet.”

“Huh, the dialogue changes,” James said to himself.

He did it again and again each time receiving a different play on the second dialogue. It was a surprising amount of voice work to have done.

Xander’s facial expression was somehow different now. It was a very strange expression for the character that typically showed very little emotion much like the B-Level actor they had cast.

James cautiously prodded the protagonist to check the mirror again.

“I DON’T WANT TO DO THAT!” Xander shrieked.

James fell off the sofa in panic. He breathed heavily taking a few moments to recover. He looked over his shoulder before taking up his seat.

The panic transformed into laughter. This was one of the first times the game had actually managed to spook him. He looked back at the television. His smile quickly disappeared.

Xander was sitting in the corner of the bathroom with his head on his knees.

“What the hell?”

James turned on some of the lights in the room. The spookiness ebbed away, but the oddity of what he was seeing stuck around. He picked up the controller and waggled the sticks trying to make Xander move. He wouldn’t budge.

The character sat there on the floor of the bathroom almost inert save for a subtle breathing animation. James pressed every button he could, but nothing worked. He took a few notes, but a feeling had crept in on him.

This isn’t how the game is supposed to be.

Kneeling down near to the console, he held its power button for a few moments. This was how he restarted the console when games froze.

Just as the console reset, Xander looked up at the camera. James froze having met eyes with the character for just a moment.

James picked up his phone.

***

“It’s 2 in the ayy emm, what the heck do you want?”

“Henry! We’ve got a problem. I’m not sure what’s going on, but the game is changing. I mean, Xander is changing. It’s like he’s alive or something, you have to come over and see this right—“

“Hold on bud, are you on something?”

“No! I’m not on anything.”

“Well, are you off something?”

“Stop messing around, come over here and I’ll show you.”

“James… you need sleep. You’re under a lot of pressure and you’ve been playing that game non-stop for the past few weeks. Best bet, sleep on it and we’ll talk in the morning. Click.”

“Hello? Hello?! Dammit.”

James looked at his television. It was off. He was afraid to turn it on again without someone else there.

His neighbours on either side were elderly couples and the guy across from him in 302 he rarely ever saw.

James bent down to the console and pressed the button to turn it on. Mirror’s main menu appeared and James selected his save file.

The house was empty. Xander wasn’t there. James was still in control within the game, but his player character was invisible. It walked with silent feet. It cast no shadow.

He looked around the main floor and saw nothing but the eerily silent home. He walked up the stairs and entered into the bedroom. The mirror above the bed was shattered as it had been in a previous chapter.

Outside the bathroom, James stopped his character.

In the real world, James looked to his own bathroom just feet away from him. The door to it was closed, but he resisted the urge to open it up to check inside.

Back in the game, he walked into the bathroom. Inside stood Xander facing the mirror above the sink. His face was contorted in that same strange expression except this time his eyes were locked onto the camera.

“Why can’t you leave me alone,” he whispered.

James backed his character off.

“Where are you going? Where are you going? Where are you going? Where are you going? Where are you—“

Xander kept asking the question over and over as if stuck in a loop. His voice grew louder the further away James walked his invisible man. He didn’t know what to do.

Back inside the bathroom, he moved the invisible character behind Xander and tried to interact with him.

“Why can’t you leave me alone,” he whispered again. “You’re in my house.”

“I’m sorry dude,” James said with a nervous smile.

He prompted his character to look into the closet and saw the pocket watch inside.

No matter what he tried in the game, he couldn’t trigger the cutscene. Suddenly, Xander turned around to face the closet.

James watched the protagonist stumble toward his invisible character. It looked like he was in a trance, but it was more unnatural than that.

He was whispering something, something not caught by the subtitles.

At night, James always turned down the sound on his games save his neighbours got on his case.

He turned up the volume step by step until he could hear what he was saying.

“You can’t make me.”

James stood as Xander tackled his invisible character. A prompt would usually appear to kick enemies away, but it didn’t show up this time. He mashed the controller buttons trying to make something happened.

A pulsing, red vignette appeared on the screen. His character was near death. Xander picked up the invisible character and threw him into the mirror above the sink.

Something hit the tile floor inside of James’s bathroom. He dove behind the couch as Xander slinked his way toward the camera. James didn’t dare look up as he scrambled to find something he could use as a weapon.

“I can see you now.”

James looked up to see the character staring back as he slowly entered into the closet and closed the door behind him. James dove for the console and ripped the power cord out of the wall.

James’s heart pounded in his throat as he stumbled backward. The sound from the bathroom scratched at his brain. He picked himself up and crept over.

Inside, thankfully, it was empty, but the mirror above the sink had fallen onto the ground. It had shattered too, the pieces crunched beneath his slippers.

Carefully, he opened up the closet in his bathroom. Nothing except bedsheets and towels.

It was 4 a.m. in the morning.

He could have hallucinated the whole thing, but he couldn’t be sure. James walked back into his living room and looked to the television. The screen reflected the room in dark caricature.

James crept around his apartment gathering up anything he could find that was reflective.

His toaster, an old smartphone, his hand held consoles, a hand mirror, and other objects he put into the closet near the door.

The only thing left was his television, which he unhooked and shoved into the last remaining space of the closet.

He ducked underneath some covers he’d stolen from his bed and sat on his couch. He’d kept his smartphone nearby, but covered the screen with a pillow.

Morning was slow to arrive, but the first glimpses of daylight filtered through the blinds in his apartment.

Henry had texted at 6 a.m. saying that he was on his way over to check up on him. James was finally able to relax a little.

Soon after, there was a knock at the door. James ran over and checked the peephole. There was no one there.

There was another knock… from inside the closet to his left.

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