I push the ocular lenses into my tear ducts until I hear a faint click. Derek wants me to meet him in VR. I fasten my haptic suit. My vision blacks out; I’m confronted with the loading screen. I quit VR months ago and now I have to go back. I pick a server and I immediately teleport to the roof of an apartment complex. The buildings are all unrendered 3D assets, white and boxy. A generic skyline glitters in the distance. I cannot identify what city it is supposed to be. The skylines of major cities are copyrighted.
I peer into one of the apartment suites voyeuristically, only to find a fully furnished unit with no one inside. There are dishes, half-washed, left in the kitchen sink. A fluorescent light flickers.
Before I can zoom back out, I hear Derek’s disembodied voice.
“Kyle! Hey, is that you?”
I stumble on the edge of the rooftop, until I remember that I am not actually on a rooftop. I hold the button on my controller, shooting back.
“You okay?” Derek asks.
“Yeah, just disoriented. Let me figure out where I am, uhh…” I reconfigure the zoom settings, waving my Muppet hands in front of my face. I usually play as Kermit. “Alright, I can see you.”
He’s yet again using an anime girl model, a pink-haired waif in a sailor uniform. Even as human 3D models were refined to be less creepy, people still opt to play as anime girls – especially the men.
Someone sprints to the edge and does a backflip, jumping up and into the nameless, featureless streets below. Everyone claps and cheers when he instantly respawns.
“He has full-body tracking!” I hear someone say.
“Nah, it’s probably just a script,” another interjects.
Another player approaches the edge, this time it’s Waluigi: “Goodbye, cruel world…waaa!”
And he drops off. An uproar builds in the room.
“Dare you to jump,” Derek remarks to me.
“No. It freaks me out.”
“Everyone’s doing it,” Derek presses. “Wuss.”
I approach the edge again. I look down. Everyone goads me on:
“Jump! Jump! Jump!”
“It’s not easy being green…” I singsong. I inch forward and I fall. It reminds me of a dream that I sometimes have. Although I’m lying in bed, safe, my heart lurches as if I fell from a great height – and I wake up instantly. Like so, I respawn instantly.
“Yes Kermit!” A girl calls out in the crowd. A few people surround me and cheer.
“Go away! Go away!” I yell out in my Kermit voice, running back to Derek. I hide behind him like a shy child.
“Good to see you, man,” Derek laughs.
“We haven’t done this in a while, eh?” I try to say, but it’s drowned out by twelve-year-olds mic-spamming the Soviet anthem, bass-boosted. We’re forced to hop onto another roof, but we can still hear them droning on in the background.
“I said we haven’t done this in a while.”
“Yeah, why haven’t we?” he asks.
“I was busy… I, uh, actually haven’t been doing anything for a while.”
“Oh right, you graduated! Congrats,” Derek says.
My graduating class is the first to complete our entire bachelors’ degree online. In-person classes were more like an occasional treat, something that you’d choose carefully to avoid rush hour.
“Yup, I’m still applying to places. Employers keep contacting me for an interview, and when I say I’m available – they ghost me. I don’t understand it.”
“Have you tried being a mechanical turk? They take anyone.”
“It burns my eyes too much.”
We go server hopping. On one server (“Ecclesiastical Church Of VR”), we witness a baptism in a river. Someone claiming to be a pastor (some are, most aren’t) stands over SpongeBob, preparing to lower him into the water. The shadows hit his face ominously. I think he was meant to stay two-dimensional. I can hear him crying, exalted, into the microphone.
“I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
The pastor, the only player to use a human model, holds him submerged underwater. We stand around him with a few other people. The river water rushes over my feet, hitting my ankles with a strange sensation, that of water without temperature. With the convert, we all look up. The clouds roll, uniformly, across the sky. I count four rivers in total which lead to a massive headwater, some sort of oasis and a fiery silhouette. The red sun lingers on the horizon and cracks form in the barren soil. At the end of days, seven trumpets are supposed to sound. Angels will rise from the river Euphrates, where they’re bound underwater.
I bring it up.
“What always gets to me about the apocalypse is that they’ll play trumpets. What would a divine trumpet even sound like? What kind of trumpet does an angel play?”
“It’s not Chet Baker’s trumpet, that’s for sure,” Derek says.
“Do you think it’s coming?”
“Couldn’t tell you,” Derek replies.
On the next server (Impossible Maze… 😉 If You Dare), we navigate through a corn maze. The sky is a recycled texture from the previous map. There are only three directions to go in: left, right, and middle. Every direction is a dead end and the map creator drew dicks all over the walls. I try to roll my eyes, but the lenses force them in place. I wipe away the discharge collecting in each corner.
We settle in a mall inspired by ‘80s vaporwave aesthetics: escalators lined with neon lights, palm trees on either side, the gaudy storefronts of fast-food joints that no longer exist. We wear bucket hats supplied at the entrance. Blank Banshee, Floral Shoppe, and other oldies play. I’ll meet the odd teenager in a tattoo choker, who wishes they came of age in the mid-2010s.
“I think we can sit here,” I point to a bench by the fountain.
Players walking by grasp soda cups, I imagine, just to have something to fidget with. Pennies glimmer from the bottom of the fountain, some of them marked with players’ names.
“Hey, wanna throw one?” Derek suggests.
“I vaguely remember this one movie where like, if you toss a penny into that fountain in Rome, you’ll come back one day,” Derek says. “Maybe the logic applies here.”
“I really hope not,” I laugh. Italy is now a black zone.
I toss the penny in. Another anime girl approaches, trying to strike up conversation. I’m surprised that, when she speaks, it’s actually a woman. Her voice is sugary and nasal, a performative hypersexuality that is in every way sexless. She wears a form-fitting, latex minidress, and thigh-high socks. There’s no life behind the eyes. A link to her OnlyFans hovers above her head in floating text, a demented halo that charges you $20.
“Hey guys, having a good time?” she says, with serious vocal fry.
“We’re good, thanks,” I shut her down immediately. Derek grows uncomfortable and looks off, ignoring her. Some maps disable the blocking function and, as it seems, this is one of them.
“You sure you don’t want company? You two look lonely.”
She sits right between us, and when she moves to stroke the back of my neck, I break away.
“Can you go away? We seriously don’t want your services,” I have to repeat myself to her.
She turns to Derek, trying to cozy up to him, and he kicks her in the shin.
“Ow! What the fuck?” she shrieks, jumping up and away from us. The freak has her pain settings toggled on.
“You don’t know what it’s like for me, asshole,” she hisses. “I got laid off.”
She drops her sultry voice, as well as her model’s initial poise. She slouches, sounding worn out. Her hand massages a knot in her temple in small, tired circles.
Derek finally speaks up. “Yeah, we’re all laid off – why do you think we’re hanging around here? Aren’t there specific rooms for this kind of thing?”
“They’re all full,” she sighs.
We scroll through the server listings and, she’s right, the strip clubs and “private rooms” are at capacity. The woman disappears, and the chatlog in the corner notifies us that she left the room.
“That was…something?” Derek says, trying to lighten the mood. “Did we nearly get assaulted on VR?”
I huff, releasing a long-held breath.
“It’s not funny, and I’m pissed off at you, too.”
Derek pauses, completely dumbstruck. “Wait, what did I do?”
“I don’t know why you wanted me to come on here. The same thing always happens. Someone weird tries to pull something. We watch someone have an epileptic fit, and we’ll have no idea what happens to them.”
“It happens, and it happens offline, too. Get over it,” Derek dismisses me.
“Is that a supposed to be a normal reaction that someone has? Jesus. I hate being here. I hate having to be on here. Everyone’s acting like it’s fun, like it’s all a big joke, but we have to be here, and we’re alone.”
Derek scoffs incredulously. “Oh, that’s what you think being alone means? Socializing in VR, temporarily? No one’s been alone for the past two decades.”
“You see, I don’t think it’s temporary.”
“I’m just saying – Kyle, if this were a century earlier, we wouldn’t see each other again. Is that what you want instead? The good old days?”
“Maybe I do,” I say, fuming. “maybe I do. I could focus on something big, if we were allowed to be bored. I could do something great. You know, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in-”
“VR isn’t stopping you from doing that,” Derek fires back.
A pall casts over the room. The rebuttals I had prepared in my mind fizzle out.
“Okay, fine, I’m an idiot, I’m sorry,” I apologize. I still believe every word that I’m saying.
“Thank you, Kermit.”
“You’re very welcome,” I say with my best Kermit impression possible.
“I saw there’s a rave happening soon, you wanna go? I know it’s not usually your thing,” Derek asks.
“I guess I’ll try it this once. Whatever.”
The rave is more immersive than I expected it to be. I’m able to shake off my inhibitions, drinking some vodka that I have on my shelf. The stage lights and sirens flood my senses; I crank up my volume, I’m okay. There’s a full crowd. We bump up against each other, we flail and jump around. I forget myself; I’m really there, I’m free. I’m surrounded by everything from furries to Hank Hills and Peter Griffins. I have to stop to catch my breath.
But the room freezes. The drum and bass lags on one extended note, repeating ad infinitum, rattling in my ears. The people around me float away. Their models revert to the default T-pose, clipping through the walls, limbs extending and breaking. I reach out, and although I can move, my model does not.
A massive error message looms over me: “CONNECTION DISRUPTED. PLEASE EXIT PROGRAM.”
The only option is OK. Instead of reconnecting, I switch off the haptic suit. My eyes are watering. I grope around for my phone and text Derek.
“sorry had to go. nice seeing you. sorry.”
All of the sensations are gone, and I am playing a game like I used to as a kid, holding a controller, staring at a bright monitor in the dark.
LANA GLOZIC is a student of Classics and Philosophy at the University of Toronto. Her work has previously appeared in Goose Fiction and the Trinity Review.