Saturday, June 8, 2013

Part 13: The Warning

How?

How did The Princess take control of our message board, if only for a few seconds?  It didn't make any sense.  Our message board wasn't a video game.  Our message board pulled all its information from the internet.  The Princess was already inhabiting a game at the same time.  All the rules we thought we knew, all the things we thought kept us safe had failed us.  Could she have done this at any time?  Could she do it again?  Were there any real limits to what she was capable of?

We looked through all the data we'd collected.  We tried to find some common thread we'd been missing.  There must have been some way we could have known.  There had to be more answers than what we were seeing.  And there were.

We finally realized the truth.  It was so obvious.  The Princess had been in our message board the whole time.  She was on every page.  She was on every forum list.  She'd been staring at us, watching us for years and we never even saw it.  She was the banner at the top of the forum.  She was every screenshot we'd posted, every video we'd uploaded and every piece of fanart we'd drawn.

Every image of her is her.  Every image of her, when observed, gives her power.  She's not a ghost.  She's not a computer virus.  She's an idea.  "Living fiction."  She lives off our observation and thoughts of her.  When we all watched that stream, banded together and gave her all of our attention all at once, we made her more powerful than she'd ever been before.  We made her strong enough to manifest through the images we'd posted on our message board and speak directly to us.

We took down all the images.  From what we speculate, it's enough to simply never look at them again, but we deleted them all just to be certain.  However, it may already be too late for us.  I've been losing contact with other members of the society.  I can't tell if something's happened to them or if they've simply gone into hiding, but at this point only a fool wouldn't consider the worst-case scenario.

I'm not completely heartless.  I know she's fighting for her survival, now.  For her, being forgotten is death.  She does what she does in the hopes of keeping her memory alive.  To that end, perhaps my telling her story to the world is a small act of mercy.  Maybe the thoughts I've lent her will ease her pain somewhat.  I don't know, but either way that isn't why I wrote all this.

What I've told you could put you in great danger, but it could also save your life.  You're a target now, and in the months and years ahead she may well come for you, but I've also given you all the knowledge you need to keep yourself safe.

Do not try to fight her.

Do not try to talk to her.

Do not try to outsmart or trap her.

Don't investigate.

Don't try to understand.

Don't try to be a hero.

Don't try to be her savior.

It is my sincere hope that I've given you all the answers you want, so you won't make our mistake and try to investigate further.  There is one and only one thing you need to do to be safe:

IF YOU SEE HER, TURN OFF THE GAME!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Part 12: The Stream


I’m not entirely certain, in retrospect, what any of us expected.

What could we possibly accomplish, here?  We still didn’t know how to hurt her.  We still didn’t know how to reason with her.  An experiment like this, willfully calling The Princess, hadn’t been attempted in years and for good reason.  For all of our shared knowledge and all of Dan’s secret research, we hardly knew any more about The Princess than we did when we started.  So, why did we go along with it?  Why did we all tune in to that stream?

I guess we just wanted evidence.  We knew we were going to watch a man die that night, but if we could just get it recorded on stream, maybe we’d finally have something to show for our years of huddled anxiety.  Maybe, just once, we could finally see how The Princess kills people.  And, if we could see it happen, maybe we could work out some way to truly defend against her.

Dan knew going into this that he was a sacrifice.  I just wonder how many members of the Society also knew.

Of course, the stream’s chat window certainly didn’t help ease anxieties about what was going to happen.  It was an even mix of terrified pleas for Dan not to go through with it and trolling jackasses shouting “YOU GONNA DIE, SON!  XD”  I wanted to smack those jokers, but really, I think that’s just how some people deal with fear and stress.  It’s probably more healthy than just watching in silence, like I did.

Dan, for his part, had made a show of the whole affair.  He had his webcam pointed at a huge television set on the far wall of what I assume was his bedroom.  Below it, that little Gamecube, whirring away.  Dan himself looked about as unkempt as one might expect for a man who had devoted so many years of his life chasing a digital boogeyman .  Every time he’d look at the webcam, the light from his computer monitor would shine off his glasses and cover his face in bloom.  I couldn’t help but think he’d set this up on purpose, thinking it looked cool.  It certainly took the focus off the rest of him, which was welcome.

I’m delaying, of course.  You want to know what happened when he turned on that television.  At least, you think you do.  You’ve been shouting at me to finish this story, convinced the revelation at the end will be something affirmative and grand.  If that’s what you want, I suggest you stop reading now.  Like I said when we began, I’m not here to entertain you.  I’m here to give context to a warning.  What we’d learned up to this point was enough to make a stirring enough anecdote, but what we learned after this stream is what compelled me to tell this story.

Against all protest, Dan turned on the television.  I will explain what we saw as best I can.

It was Ocarina of Time…ostensibly, but warped and glitched beyond all recognition.  The HUD was gone, replaced by some random, shifting textures.  Link himself was twisted, with polygons jutting out of his arms at odd angles.  The environment was highly altered, still recognizable as Hyrule Field but with certain polygons stretched and various objects and models lodged in the ground.  The sky was blood red with a solid white circle of a sun.  And the music…the music was perhaps the most unnerving part, if only for how damn CHEERFUL it was.  It certainly wasn’t a track from the game, and sounded like a collection of instruments playing upbeat, happy note progressions at complete random.

There was also a sign right in front of Link.  Approaching the sign proved difficult, as any movement at all sent the game’s framerate into single digits, causing the happy music to hitch and distort.  With no HUD, it was hard to tell when Link was in place to interact with anything.  Eventually, though, Link was maneuvered into place to read the sign.

“TURN BACK BUDDY!  You shouldn’t be here!  Love and kisses, Daniel!”

I don’t have to tell you the stream chat erupted immediately upon seeing Dan’s name appear in the game.  What was more interesting was Dan’s reaction.  While he’s said very little up to this point, upon reading this text, he immediately began laughing.  It started as a chuckle, but it quickly grew into mocking laughter.  It took us a second to realize who he would be laughing at.

“Are you serious?”  he shouted at the screen, “Wha-…Why this?  Why now?”  There’s still some debate as to what Dan meant by this.  Throughout the whole stream, we got the sense Dan knew something more about the things we were seeing that we did.  He was playing quite far away from his computer monitor, so our shouting at him in the stream chat to explain himself was to no avail.

This failure to communicate would become more of a problem later.

Moving past the sign, Dan delved deeper into this twisted landscape.  It was hard to discern any sort of meaning from what The Princess had done to the place.  Objects and NPCs were all arranged in strange ways.  There were three people standing, arms out and feet together, atop a sideways house embedded halfway into the ground.  There were textureless NPCs standing in a circle around an open treasure chest.  Enemies would spawn out of nowhere, and then disappear just as quickly in the middle of combat.  At the far end of the field, Dan spent several minutes manipulating a series of switches which caused nearby platforms to hover around him in ways we eventually determined to be completely random.

Then we headed to Lake Hylia.

At least, Dan took the exit to Lake Hylia.  He ended up standing in a large cave chamber, staring at a wall.  Turning around, we immediately saw a massive pair of eyes on us.  After the initial shock, we realized that in the center of the room was a…creature of sorts, composed out of many different models from the game jammed together.  I was mostly just a large boulder, and it had arms, legs, and other appendages from various monsters and enemies sticking out of it.  The eyes were from a large head mounted atop the boulder, which was that of the Great Fairy model.

Dan, on sight of this thing, put down his controller.

“Are you kidding me?  Are you fucking kidding me?  This is what you were doing this whole time?”

We impotently shouted at Dan in the chat to explain himself.  He couldn’t see us.

“Is this why you did it?  Is this all you want?  You petty, fucking…Argh!  It’s over!  Don’t you understand?  It’s over!”

A scream erupted from the television speakers.  The textures on the walls of the cave began to flicker and flash.  Dan looked unphased.

“No!  Fuck you!  It’s dead.  You’re dead.  You don’t exist anymore.  You really think this…thing is going to change anything?  The hell even is this?  It’s a joke!  You don’t even remember what it looked like!  You just glued a bunch of arms together!”

Unceremoniously, The Princess appeared in the room in front of Link.  The screams continued.  We were all shouting at Dan to stop.  He wouldn’t.

“You deserve to be forgotten!”

Flickering, and then blackness.  Not just the game, but the stream itself flickered to blackness.  This was it, we thought.  He’d done it.  He’d goaded The Princess into killing him.  He was going to turn up dead, and this stream recording would barely even suffice as proof of what had happened.

But then, to our amazement, the stream came back.  Dan was still playing.  In fact, he didn’t even seem aware that the stream had gone down.  There was one change to the stream window, though.  In the upper left, a small bit of white text in a black box had appeared.

THIS

Dan himself didn’t appear to notice anything had happened, and was now guiding Link through a new area.  It appeared to be a black void with a white floor, stretching infinitely.  It wasn’t featureless, though.  The ground would rise and dip on occasion.  Sometimes Link would pass strange white obelisks.  After a minute of running, he encountered a line of NPCs, all standing arms-out.  At sight of this, a new word of white text appeared below the first one in the stream window.

IS

The NPCs couldn’t speak, and in fact Link ran right through them.  He was now in what appeared to be a rudimentary town.  The white polygons were now arranged in the crude formation of houses.  It was at this point that the droning noise in the background finally registered as being some sort of heavily-distorted music.

WHERE

Dan was weirdly silent through all this.  It’s unclear what The Princess might have said or done to him during the time the stream cut out.  The times he leaned in far enough that we could see his face, he looked rather disgruntled.  Upon seeing the town, he let out an annoyed sigh.  After wandering around for a while he finally spoke up again, saying “What?  What am I supposed to be seeing?”

YOU

Dan moved the camera around to reveal there was now that same row of NPCs standing behind him.  They still couldn’t be interacted with.  Turning around, another group of NPCs was on the other side.  He was surrounded.  We hadn't stopped trying to get his attention and tell him there was a message appearing in the stream.  He hadn't taken his focus off the game.

LEFT

With one final turn, The Princess was standing right next to Link.

ME

Dan, in as enraged a voice as I’ve ever heard, shouted “FUCK YOU!”  At that moment, the stream cut to black.  In its place, the screen was filled with that white text.


LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME

LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME

LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME

LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME

LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME

LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME

LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME

LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME

But the stream wasn’t down.  The audio was still running.  We could hear noises coming from Dan’s room.  Crashes, bangs, things falling over…and then finally, screams.  There were sickening sounds of flesh being impacted over and over, and Dan screaming in panic “GET OFF ME!  GET THE FUCK OFF ME!”  Whatever was attacking him, it didn’t make any noise itself.  It did its grim work in silence and, eventually, Dan fell silent as well.

But that wasn’t it.

Immediately, we returned to the Society message board to discuss what had happened…but she was there already.  The banners were glitched and broken.  The forum names were strings of random characters.  The background was a corrupted image, of what, I’m still not certain.

And in every forum, a flood of new topics, angry and rambling…

LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME LEFT ME



ALL LEFT YOU LEFT HE LEFT GONE BROKEN DARK WANTED CAN’T WON’T NEED PLEASE NEED



HURTING HURTING HURTING ALWAYS SAY IT CAN’T STOP ANGER ANGER ANGER



HAD TO WATCH HIM COULDN’T STOP HIM SCREAMED AND REACHED BUT STUCK



WHY JUST WANT TO STOP JUST WANT TO BE AND BE AND NOT GO BACK



YOU ALL WATCHED MY PAIN PLEASE WATCH MY PAIN PLEASE STOP LEAVING



NEVER WANTED TO KILL ANYONE PLEASE



WHAT IS IT WHAT IS IT WHAT IS IT WHAT IS IT WHAT IS IT WHAT AM I

And that brings us to today...

Monday, August 6, 2012

Part 11: The Plan

Dan was a bit of an oddball.

As you can imagine, his story made him a bit of a superstar within the Princess Society.  He'd been there to witness the start of it all.  If there were any answers about The Princess' true identity, we knew they had to lie in those few strange years Hero and Princess was in development.

Dan, however, kept to himself a lot more than you would expect for someone with information as relevant as his.  He would answer questions when asked, but he never seemed to want to volunteer it.  If you think my update schedule is bad, it took Dan a full year to tell his story.

As it turned out, there was a good reason for this.  Dan...kinda had his own thing going on.  A little over half a year ago, completely out of the blue, Dan created a new thread on the Society's main discussion board.  It was just titled "Endgame."  It would lead to an event which would change The Princess Society forever.

The following is an exact copy-paste from the OP.  Again, forgive the spelling errors, as they aren't mine.

Hello.  My name is Daniel.  You know me as the lead tester of Hero and Princess, the first person to see The Princess manifest.  You know this because it's what I've told you, but it isn't the full story.  It's time to tell you the rest, because if I don't get it out now, there's a good chance I'll never have the chance again.

Testing a video game is a very clinical process.  You're not just getting paid to play games.  You're getting paid to break them, push at the edges and find the cracks.  You methodically try everything you can think of, then you do it again, and again.  You get really good at lateral thinking, the manipulation of disparate mechanics and recognizing subtle flaws that can completely crack a game in half with the right application.  I've heard, for some, the testing process can slowly drain your ability to enjoy playing games for leisure.  You become so focused on breaking games that you lose your ability to play them as a consumer.  You want to explore every mechanic, push everything as far as it will go and experience that perverse little rush you get when the whole thing snaps in half between your fingers.

When it all started, The Princess was just one glitch of many.  An incomplete character model loading in the wrong place was nothing incredible.  There were several similar glitches in that build of the game, actually.  The difference was that those glitches, however slowly, were fixed.  The Princess would not be fixed.  Every time we thought we found her, thought we'd reached the root of the problem, she'd pop up elsewhere even weirder and more nonsensical.

Maybe it was something about me.  She almost never manifested when I wasn't in the office.  I was the first to see her, and throughout Hero and Princess' dev cycle I was by far the one to whom she appeared the most.  I think she knew I was the lead tester, and was getting a kick out of messing with my head.  After all, I was the one pushing hardest to get her out of the damn game.  I told you about those times she would look directly at the camera.  That was during times I was testing.  She was staring at ME!  She wanted ME to know she could see us!

I hated her.  I hated her blank face.  I hated that she did that stupid T-pose just to drive home what an embarrassment she was.  And when Hero and Princess was canceled, I hated her for putting me out of a job.  The best job of my life.  Why did she do this to me?  What the fuck was she?  Why couldn't she just disappear like a good little mistake?  It wasn't enough for her to break our game.  She had to break us.  She had to break me and Gina and all the other people who just wanted to make a great game.  Then when it was done, she had to go break every other game out there.  It wasn't enough for her to be a black mark on our game, she had to go become an unsolved glitch in every game in the world.

I'm a tester.  It's my job to experiment and suss out the root cause of glitches and aberrations in video games.  Perhaps The Princess thought putting me out of a job would force me to give up, but I didn't, and I still haven't.

Over the past decade I've had over two hundred encounters with The Princess.  I've played a wide variety of games at least 40 hours a week, often running multiple consoles at once to maximize my chances.  I've conducted all manner of experiments to determine her precise capabilities, methods of operation and (most important of all) potential weaknesses.  As I write this, I'm surrounded by pages of handwritten notes which I hope are readable enough to be useful to others if I don't survive.  There's too much here to type in the short time I have. 

I haven't learned much.  I've only learned fragments of things.  Whatever she is, she's not a part of the game, at least not exactly.  When she infiltrates a game, dumping the ROM shows nothing out of the ordinary.  Saving the state (via emulator) does not guarantee she will be there when that same state is loaded.  She's interceding somewhere as an extra packet of data not readily traceable.  I think the increased load times have something to do with this, but I'm not sure.  It's all so damn cryptic, or maybe she's just changing the readings to fuck with me.

I've tried to talk to her.  Voice, text, binary.  I get reactions sometimes, but none of it makes sense.  It's all just more cryptic shit.  I think sometimes that she wants to talk but can't, or doesn't know how, or doesn't know what talking is.  Other times I think she says mysterious things to keep me going.  She likes toying with me because it keeps me coming back.  It keeps me asking questions.  She doesn't want me to find answers because she doesn't want me to stop.  She's a problem, and she doesn't want to be solved.

I've tried to kill her.  My closest attempt to success was when I shocked my N64 with a stun gun as she stood before me in Super Mario 64.  Speakers let out the most ungodly, pleading scream I'd ever heard as the screen flickered to black.  It was beautiful.  I thought I'd really done it, really beaten her.  In the end, the only casualty was the console.  I still think I was on to something there, though.  Maybe another time.

However, there's one very important thing I've learned.  It's vital.  It blows this whole thing wide open.  If I die, I want to at least make sure I pass this along.

She HAS a weakness.  I found it.  It's tiny, subtle, almost impossible to catch but she has it.  It's what I've been looking for for years, that one tiny exploit I can push on and push on until she snaps in half.  It was staring me in the face this whole time.  It's been staring all of you in the face this whole time.

She can enter games, but she can't leave them.

Has anyone ever seen her leave a game without it being turned off by the player?  No.  That's because she can't.  It's the one thing she can't do.  It's the one bit of power WE have over her.  Me, you, everyone.  We can use this.  It's our weapon.  I've already used it against her, personally, and that's why I'm writing this.  That's why I've come to you all.

I've trapped her.

I booted up her favorite game, Ocarina of Time (the Gamecube port, mind).  I knew she'd come.  She always does.  She loves me.  That's another weakness.  When she showed up I did the one thing I'd never tried before, the one thing no one's tried.  I didn't turn off the game.  I turned off the screen.

It worked.  It totally worked.  She's in there, now, and she can't get out.  She hasn't tried to kill me.  However that works, I think the screen is involved.  Without it, she can't do anything to you.  It's like turning off the game, but better.  She can't get you, and she can't get away.  Brilliant.  So glad I thought of it.

I'd leave her in there forever, but I can't.  I keep hearing these...noises coming from the Gamecube.  Grinding, buzzing, screeching.  I think she's trying to overload the console, destroy it from the inside so she can get out.  If she does burn it out, she'll be free again.  Clearly mine is only a temporary solution. 

She experienced such pain when I zapped my N64 with that stun gun.  With the way she's slowly frying that Gamecube's chips, I imagine it must be like Hell for her in there right now.  Maybe I should leave her in there for a few more days.  Of course, I know I can't risk it.  I can't take the chance she'd get out.  Now that she knows I know how to catch her, she may not come back again.

I'm not going to let her get away.  We're ending this.  Now.

Below is a link.  At 11:00PM EST I'm going to begin streaming my webcam at that link.  I want everyone on this board to be there and watch.  We're going to confront The Princess, all of us, together.  You'll also see my home address and cell number included below.  If, or perhaps I should say WHEN The Princess inevitably tries to kill me, I want you all to call 911 and get every available law enforcement officer to my location.  I don't hold any delusions that I can fight her off, but if there's a remote possibility I can hold her off long enough to get people, WITNESSES here to see her, I'm willing to take it.

I will solve this.  I will fix this problem I've been working on for over a decade.  I need your help.  Please.  We need to do this.


Indeed the link, address and cell number were all included.  I was wary about this, but the temptation to see what might happen was too great.  That night I clicked the link.

I shouldn't have.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Part 10: The Glitch


For five months after his death, development of Hero and Princess went on without incident.  The working title was a relic at this point, as there was no “Princess” in the game anymore, but you can’t tell your investors you’re working on a game that’s just called “Hero.”

At least, officially there was no Princess in the game.

The AI and graphical data for The Princess, rough concepts through they were, remained in the game code many months into development.  It was only when bug reports started coming in that the developers even considered deleting her entirely.  According to testers, on rare occasions the game was loading the unfinished model of a girl with red hair and a white dress in place of various NPCs.  This girl would always have no AI, collision or any method of interaction, and if she replaced a quest-critical NPC she immediately made continuing impossible.  Somehow the graphical data of The Princess was still being called and the developers tried a number of fixes for this. 

But nothing worked.  As time went on, reports of The Princess’ appearances in-game became more elaborate and, to the dismay of the development team, more frequent.  She was starting to spawn with NPC AI routines, sometimes even offering random dialogue options from other points in the game.  Additionally, she would occasionally behave in ways that didn’t directly match any known AI routines.  One common note was that she would turn and face the camera no matter where it was moved, rather than looking at the player avatar.  There was also one recorded instance of her displaying a line of text that did not appear anywhere in the game.

The text read “Please.”

After three months of this, development was slowing to a crawl.  The “Princess Glitch” was making it very difficult to get actual work done, as it would frequently disrupt any attempts to test if game elements were working properly.  Even test areas with no NPCs weren’t safe from the occasional manifestation of this glitch.  Around the office, with the testers in particular, rumors were starting to spread about The Princess and the idea that their game might be haunted by the spirit of Mr. Carver.  Apparently one such conversation occurred during testing, and resulted in the test build immediately hard locking with an image of The Princess front and center.  The testers decided not to report that one.

The problem came to a head when the development team came in one morning to find their chief character modeler, who we’ll call Gina, passed out on the floor of the office with a crumpled piece of paper in her hand.  The staff, completely unsuited for such a crisis situation, proceeded to poke at her until she awoke.  At first, she claimed to have no memory of the events of that evening.   She had been working all night, but remembered nothing after midnight passed.

When her co-workers unfolded the paper that has been in her hand, they realized it was an image of The Princess, hastily scribbled in felt-tipped pen.  Upon seeing this, Gina immediately reacted in panic and attempted to flee the building.  The staff’s attempts to calm her down were met with cryptic cries of “You don’t know her!” and “We can’t stay here!”  Gina left the office and returned home, calling to turn in her resignation the very next day.  Apparently, she and the Executive Producer had a very long and very heated talk over the phone.  At its conclusion, he ordered any and all data pertaining to the “Princess Feature” to be removed from the game entirely.  All the models, all the scripting, everything.

The problem was…the dev team already had, weeks ago.

After two years of development, Hero and Princess was canceled.  Ever since the incident with Gina, people had been leaving the project steadily, many under similarly cryptic circumstances.  Testers, in particular, had a high turnover rate, and the bugs they were reporting often failed to make much sense at all.  The project had been deemed a money-sink by company investors, and the decision was made to cut their losses and move on to something else.

Two years later, the Executive Producer of the project committed suicide by jumping from his second story window.  No one knew why he’d done so.  He’d moved on to a new project and was actually doing quite well for himself.  However, despite a thorough search, no signs of foul play were discovered, nor any signs that anyone else had been in the house at the time.  The only unusual element was that he’d left Ocarina of Time running on his television while he went upstairs to do it.  It wasn’t even paused.

------------------------------

And that’s the story Dan told us.  He had been a tester during the development of Hero and Princess, one of the few who had stayed from the project’s early stages all the way to its collapse.  He himself had many tales of The Princess’ exploits during the development of the game, but that wasn’t why he came to the Society, and that isn’t why I’ve posted his story here.

What Dan wanted was a record.  He wanted the history of The Princess to be known.  He was the only one willing to talk about it, and he didn’t want it to die with him.

Why might he die?  Dan had decided he was going to confront The Princess, and he needed the Society’s help.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Part 9: The Game

I apologize for the delay.

I’ve been having some difficulty deciding how to properly contextualize what you’re about to read. It is, arguably, the most important part of the story, and as such I have made a solid effort to ensure all the information is as accurate as possible. My attempts to further research the events about which you are about to read have largely met with failure. All related data on the subject has been either lost or destroyed, and those personally involved have shown no interest in discussing the matter with me. Indeed, the man from whom I and the rest of The Princess Society heard this story is the only one who has ever willingly come forward on the matter, and unfortunately he is now dead.

As such, I have decided to abandon context and simply present this story to you as it was relayed to us by a man we will call Dan.

----------------------

It was the late 90s. The initial shock of 3D graphics on consoles was wearing down, and game companies were just starting to truly explore what was possible with the Nintendo 64 and Playstation hardware. Ocarina of Time was on the horizon, and the hype for it was giving gamers a hankering for fantasy, adventure, swords and sorcery.

In response, an up-and-coming game company began work on a title that would never see the light of day. This title, known internally as “Hero and Princess” was a very ambitious project for such a small team. Set in a never-named fantasy kingdom, the game would follow closely the Legend of Zelda progression formula, with gameplay beats divided by dungeons and the collection of new items and abilities to progress. However, the game’s claim to fame was going to be the helper who would accompany the player throughout the adventure. Never given a name, she was known during development only as “The Princess.” The idea was that The Princess would be the player’s constant AI companion. She would fight alongside you, help you solve puzzles, give hints when you were lost and provide charming, contextual banter with the hero. An important element was that she would be “full AI,” with no actions completely scripted. Indeed, there were plans for relationship and mood mechanics which would influence how effective and helpful an ally The Princess would be. In response to your actions, she could be a loyal ally eager to see the quest through with you or a grudging companion only following you to suit her own goals.

This dynamic was the brainchild of Mr. Carver, a lead designer on the project. While his area of expertise was providing the art and story direction for the game, he was always the strongest advocate of the AI companion system as a core mechanic. After all, he’d spent many long hours crafting an interesting and dynamic personality for The Princess, someone the player would want to spend a 45-hour game with, and had ended up getting quite attached to the character himself. He’d often spend what spare time he had idly drawing pictures of her, a young girl with red hair and a white dress, often in peaceful scenarios and idyllic landscapes. Strangely, despite creating a complex personality and extensive backstory for the character, he never gave her a name other than "The Princess," her development designation. When asked, he’d say he just hadn’t decided on a name, as nothing seemed to “feel right,” but was sure he would decide on a name by the time the game reached Beta.

The game never reached Beta.

Very early in development, it became clear that the AI companion mechanic as Mr. Carver had envisioned it was impossible to implement. The team was too small, the current console hardware too weak and the idea just too grand and elaborate for the resources available. There were attempts to scale the game back, put more control of The Princess in the hands of the player and other solutions but nothing could stem the incredible amount of feature bloat Mr. Carver’s ideas were causing. Carver himself was extremely indignant over any proposed limitations on The Princess’ fully-AI nature, insisting it was vital not only for the gameplay experience but for the story he was trying to tell and The Princess as a character. Eventually, though, the higher-ups lost their patience with Carver and ordered The Princess feature stripped from the game entirely.

Following this, according to close friends, Carver spiraled into a deep depression. He still performed his duties as story and art director, but became increasingly detached from the project. He began spending more and more time drawing The Princess, to the point where his office walls were becoming covered in concept art for the now-scrapped character. His drawings were also starting to take on a darker tone. He would often draw The Princess simply staring blankly at the viewer or pounding a wall in frustration. There were whispers around the office that Carver would speak to these drawings when he thought no one was around, but never loudly enough for anything specific to be heard.

As the game entered Alpha, Ocarina of Time was released. The Executive Producer of Hero and Princess demanded that work be sped up to ship some kind of product and get this disastrous dev cycle behind them. Mr. Carver began taking more and more days off. He would show up to work late, always looking extremely tired and unshaven. Among company executives, his mental health was called into question. During an evaluation, Mr. Carver apparently had a breakdown, ranting and raving at the Executive Producer about The Princess as though she were a real person. He pleaded to have The Princess put back in the game, but instead Mr. Carver was released from the project altogether. Following the meeting he immediately left the building, (some say in tears,) and returned to his apartment, not even bothering to clean out his office.

That evening, Mr. Carver was found dead in his apartment.

He was lying on the floor in the middle of his living room, blood pouring from his arm. He had taken his own life with a razor blade to the wrist. The walls of his living room were completely covered with drawings of The Princess. In every image, The Princess appeared to be in great distress. She was crying, screaming, reaching out pleadingly towards the viewer. The idyllic fields were replaced with dark, twisted landscapes that often seemed to be on the verge of enveloping her completely in shadow. And on the floor around Mr. Carver’s body there were even more drawings, these just hasty sketches of The Princess with no artistry behind them, as though scribbled in a mad haste. These drawings were little more than her on a blank white background, her limbs spread out, and her face not drawn on.

It is at that moment the Society believes that The Princess, as we would come to know her, was born.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Part 8: The Sisters

Following Adam’s death, The Princess Society changed quite a bit. No longer was The Princess just an idle object of fascination. She was a threat, and they realized their research could be a matter of life or death. Very quickly, The Society transformed into the way I knew it, a secret and close-knit community desperately scouring the internet for any new source of information on The Princess.

It’s reasonable to wonder, of course, why research continued at all. If attempts at negotiating with The Princess had been such a disaster, why try? “Establish communication” had always been one of the main goals of The Society, but trying to talk to such a hostile thing seemed incredibly foolish. It did to me, anyway, and I made sure to say as much. As it turns out, however, there was a reason The Society still believed communication was an option.

Shortly after Adam died, when the search for people with information about The Princess had been most intense, The Society came across someone with a very interesting (and very sad) story to tell. You see, years before Adam and Brian’s fateful misadventure, someone had already succeeded where they would fail. Someone had actually established open communication with The Princess.

She was a ten-year-old girl. She was also the first person The Princess ever killed.

-----------------------

Faye was never particularly into video games. She’d give them a try occasionally, but they just never caught her interest the way her books did. Her primary exposure to video games came from her little sister, Ellie, who had kept a Gameboy on her since she was six. Perhaps it was partly her sister’s influence which kept Faye away from video games. Perhaps she considered them “childish” because she associated them with her baby sister.

She would, in time, come to avoid video games for another reason.

On Ellie’s tenth birthday, their parents bought her a brand new Nintendo 64 console and a copy of Banjo-Kazooie. Faye was more than a little jealous. This was more than their parents had ever spend on her birthday presents. Still, she look of sheer glee on Ellie’s face as she tore the console out of the box made it impossible to stay mad. For all she could be a pest, Ellie was too cute to hate.

Ellie played that game religiously. 3D games were still new to her, so progress through the game was slow, but she didn’t care. She was simply amazed by the atmosphere, getting lost in a big 3D world and meeting new characters. Every now and then Ellie would run to Faye with a story about a new world she’d discovered or a scary enemy she’d narrowly escaped. Faye would generally just nod her head and continue to read. It wasn’t until she saw the drawing that she started to take an interest in her sister’s stories.

See, in addition to telling people about the games she was playing, Ellie liked to draw them. She’d made dozens of drawings of her Pokemon team over the last year, and a series of sketches posted above her closet catalogued her adventures in Link’s Awakening. So, when she started playing Banjo-Kazooie, she naturally had to draw a group shot of all the characters. Just as naturally, when she was done, she had to go bug Faye to look at it.

Faye glanced at the drawing long enough to seem interested. It matched the stuff she’d seen while watching Ellie play. There was Banjo, Kazooie, skull man, the witch, that other witch, one of those jinjo things…and a character Faye didn’t recognize. While most of the characters were grouped together in the drawing, one character was off to the side, peeking out from behind a tree. It was a girl, with red hair and a white dress, looking rather out of place.

“Who’s that?”

“That? Oh, her? I dunno. She shows up in the game, sometimes. Not sure what she does, yet. I think she’s an angel.”

“Huh.” Seemed strange, but then again Banjo-Kazooie was a strange game. It didn’t seem unreasonable that there would be an angel character somewhere in there.

As the weeks wore on, Ellie played the game more and more, continuing to draw as she went. Faye noticed, however, that the focus of Ellie's drawings was shifting. The other characters were appearing less and less, and the red-haired angel was becoming more and more central. Equally strange was that, no matter how close Ellie drew her, she never had a face.

Eventually, Faye just had to ask. “So, what does the angel do?”

“She’s not an angel, actually. She’s a princess. She told me.”

“Oh. Well, what does ‘the princess” do?”

“She helps me! She makes the bad guys go away. Also, when there’s a tough jumping part, she can make me fly to the other side. Once she gave me eggs, but I think she gave me too many because the numbers turned into letters and everything started buzzing. It was pretty funny.”

Faye’s eyes were starting to glaze as, to her, Ellie seemed to be launching into another one of her recaps. She quickly tried to change the subject. “Why doesn’t she have a face?”

Ellie looked down at the drawing, as though she hadn’t even noticed. She eventually smiled and said “She’s not done, yet.”

“Oh, okay.” The drawing wasn’t finished. That made sense. Faye decided to make her exit before Ellie could begin another story.

Ellie never drew a face on that picture.

More weeks passed and Ellie was playing the game more and more. Faye was amazed Ellie hadn’t beaten it yet. This was more time than she’d ever put into a game. Her drawings had also stopped featuring anyone but the princess character, and her rate of drawing them was increasing. It seemed like there was a new drawing every time Faye came home from school or from hanging out with friends. Whenever Ellie was playing the game, Faye could hear her speaking quietly to the screen, but she’d stop the moment anyone else entered the room. Faye wasn’t the only one who’d noticed her sister’s odd behavior either. Her mother had mentioned a couple times that Ellie may be playing the game too much.

But, of course, her parents never interfered. Ellie was always the spoiled one, after all.

Eventually, Faye was too concerned to keep her mouth shut. She had to ask Ellie for some answers. It was strange, but she was almost nervous to confront her sister about it. She’d never felt scared or intimidated by her sister before, but something about how obsessed she’d become put Faye on edge.

“Why do you draw the princess so much?”

Ellie didn’t look up from her latest sketch-in-progress, “She says if I draw her, she’ll stop hurting me.”

A chill went down Faye’s back. Hurting her? What the hell kind of video game was this? How was it hurting her?

Ellie looked up and saw Faye’s chilled expression. “Hurting me in the game, silly!”

Faye let out a tentative sigh. She was only slightly relieved, but still just as confused. It was time for more questions. “Okay, if she’s a princess, what is she the princess of?”

“Somewhere else.”

“Somewhere else?”

“She doesn’t like to talk about it. It makes her mad, and when she’s mad she starts hurting me again.”

There was a mild twinge of fear in Ellie's voice as she said this. Even if she was only being hurt in the game, Faye could hear that something about this princess character had Ellie on edge.

“Ellie, it’s just a game. Maybe you should give it a rest, eh?”

“But she’ll be lonely!”

“Just stop playing for a little bit.”

“You’re not Mom! You can’t make me!”

“I’m a caring sister! I just think you’re taking the game too seriously. The princess isn’t real.”

“She is! She is real, and you can’t make me stop!” Ellie grabbed her sketch and stormed out of the room.

After this conversation, Ellie didn’t stop playing. If anything, she played the game more, and started playing at odd hours. Faye, chronic heartburn sufferer, would often wake up in the middle of the night only to hear the faint sounds of the N64 from the upstairs playroom. When not playing, Ellie seemed to avoid Faye, undoubtably remembering their last confrontation. Faye, faced with her sister’s obvious decline into madness…decided it was no longer her problem. She’d tried, and Ellie had refused to listen. So she had a crazy sister who talked to video games. So what?

Her sister, however, decided to bring the problem to her.

Faye awoke to her usual heartburn one evening to find Ellie silhouetted in her doorway. Faye was understandably startled at first but, when she flipped on the light, she saw Ellie had tears in her eyes. She looked absolutely terrified.

“I had a nightmare,” she cried.

It had been years since Ellie had done this. When they were both younger, Ellie used to come to Faye for comfort when she’d had a nightmare. At the very least, Faye got a nice scary story out of the deal. She’d always wondered why Ellie never went to their parents, but in the moment it never seemed right to ask.

Just as they’d done years ago, Ellie toddled up to Faye’s bed, sat at the foot of it, and summarized what it had happened.

“In my dream, The Princess…she showed me where she comes from. It was…it’s bad. It’s weird and scary and it makes her mad when she’s there. It’s like a kingdom, but it’s not. Nothing’s right. Everything’s broken. It’s full of people and things that are all blank like she is, but most of them can’t think right because no one gave them brains…or something. There’s no sky, no water, no grass, no…no…”

Ellie started to cry. This was certainly the most elaborate nightmare Ellie had ever described, much better than “There was a mean-looking jack-in-the-box with a gun!” Faye reached out a hand to comfort her. “It’s alright,” she said in as soothing a manner as she could.

But her hand was pushed away. “It’s not alright!”

“It was just a dream.”

“NO! I think…I think when I’m not playing…The Princess has to go back there! When I’m not playing with her or drawing her, she has to go back. It makes her so mad! I don’t know why it makes her so mad to be there!”

Ellie stood up and headed for the door.

“Ellie? Are…are you going to play the game now?”

“I can’t leave her there!”

“She’s not real!”

“Shut up!”

Ellie slammed the door behind her. It seemed Faye had lost another battle for her sister’s sanity. Her heartburn had calmed, at least. She tried to lay down and return to sleep.

But it wasn’t over.

Apparently, this door slam had been loud enough to wake their mother, who had decided it was finally, finally time for some discipline. At first, Faye just heard some muffled discussion from the playroom. This discussion, however, quickly escalated. Eventually, Faye could hear everything the two of them were saying.

“Elanor-Jane, you go back to bed this instant!”

“Mom, I have to save The Princess!”

“She isn’t real! How many times do I have to tell you video games aren’t real!?”

“But she is real! She’s not just in the game! She’s here! She’s right here! Look!”

“These are just drawings. They aren’t-…Oh…Oh, god. Ellie, did you draw this?”

“See? She’s angry, now! She’s real and you’re making her angry!”

“Ellie, just go to bed.”

“No! I have to help her!”

“Go to bed!”

“Nooo! Nooooooooo!”

The screaming continued down the hall as Ellie was dragged back to her bedroom by her mother. Near as Faye could hear, Ellie was tossed into her room and the door shut behind her. Though faint, she could hear her sister weeping. Occasionally, she would cry out something increasingly incoherent. One particular thing stuck with Faye for years afterwards:

“You’re just like them! They said she wasn’t real! They ruined everything, and you’re just the same!”

-----------------

This last outburst proved too much for Ellie’s parents to ignore. In the following week Ellie was sent to a psychiatric care specialist. When this specialist found himself unable to “cure” Ellie of her “delusions,” he recommended the use of medication to regulate Ellie’s apparent hallucinations. Faye suspected that the recommendation might not have been entirely ethically-motivated, the relationship between psychiatry and the drug companies being what it is, but one couldn’t argue with the results. Within days of beginning her medication, Ellie’s behavior was like that of a completely different person. No longer loud, shrieking and scribbling everywhere, Ellie became very quiet and withdrawn. Most notably, she didn’t pick up her games anymore. Not even her Gameboy.

After a couple weeks, Faye worked up the courage to ask Ellie if she still believed in The Princess. Ellie considered it, calmly, coldly, before looking back up at her sister and replying “She’s not real.”

And then, one Saturday, Ellie was late for dinner.

Faye and her parents searched all over the house for her, calling her, looking out the windows. She was nowhere to be found. That is, until Faye realized no one had checked the playroom. Why should they have? Ellie never went in there, anymore.

Sitting on a couch, in front of a glowing screen, Faye found her sister. She was dead. Covering her body were bruises, cuts and welts. She had been killed in nearly the exact same way as Adam would be years later, but with one key difference. Unlike with Adam, there was no indication she’d tried to fight back.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Part 7: The Fight

As they approached The Princess, all sense of welcome or friendship faded. The music began to distort, the notes becoming more and more drawn out until the soundtrack had become a dull electronic buzz. The textures flickered, and vanished, peeling the walls of the fountain away. The frame rate dropped to what Brian could only assume were single digits. And The Princess herself, once floating majestically above the fountain proper, became tilted at an awkward angle, her left arm vibrating wildly in a way that seemed to mimic the frequency of the horrible, whining music. Sometimes her head would move, too, but in a way Brian found difficult to explain after the fact.

Stepping up onto the pedestal, the game seemed to freeze for a moment. Brian hoped it would. He could tell no good could come of this. He didn’t want to ask The Princess anything. He was ready to pack up and go. Adam, well, Adam had been fairly silent this whole time.

Rather than let them go, the game resumed, presenting them with a text box and a single choice.

>Yes
No

No question. No context. Just a choice. Brian stared at the screen, dumbfounded. Was this their first chance at communication? Was The Princess asking them something? Or no, perhaps they were supposed to ask a question. Perhaps they would ask something and The Princess would move the cursor, like a Ouija board. Yes, that was it. This was the-…

Adam selected “Yes,” almost immediately.

“What the hell, man!?”

Adam didn’t respond. The Princess, however, did.

In an instant, Link was screaming. The Princess had, upon being told “Yes,” slammed into him and propelled him backward, dealing a half-heart of damage in the process. She’d moved so fast neither of them had actually seen the attack. Brian nearly jumped out of his seat, but Adam just grimaced. The moment Link got back to his feet, Adam had him draw his sword and charge The Princess.

Link didn’t get far. The moment he neared The Princess, he became paralyzed. The Princess, now behaving like a Redead (scream and all), slowly advanced on the helpless Link. Adam mashed buttons to no avail, and soon The Princess was latched onto Link’s back, draining the life from him. Much as Adam struggled, The Princess would not let go. Also, in a turn Brian found quite disturbing, Link’s textures slowly disappeared while he was being drained. First his head, then his arms, then his body, down slowly until he was a blank white slate.

And with that, Link’s last heart disappeared. He collapsed to the ground, but there was no Game Over music. The camera just focused on Link’s blank white body, The Princess hovering over him. Adam finally broke his silence, not with words, but just a loud, guttural grunt of frustration.

Then, a couple seconds later, Link was up again.

There was no fairy in a bottle, or even animation. Link just stood back up with full health, though still blank white, and gameplay resumed. The Princess, in this instance, moved a few yards away to her original position above the Fairy Fountain. Adam smiled, charging Link at The Princess yet again.

For the next few minutes, Adam struggled to damage The Princess in any way he could. Any time he got close, she would latch onto him and there would be no escape. Link would die, revive, and the fight would start over. Arrows did nothing, the boomerang did nothing, and Nayru’s Love proved no defense. Close range weapons were out of the question, as unlike a Redead, there was no sneaking up on The Princess.

Adam was becoming progressively angrier and more intense with each death. His breathing became heavy, his face slowly contorting with rage. He began to shout at The Princess, calling her horrible things, describing the ways he would punish her the moment he figured out how to hurt her. By Brian’s count there were at least two inventory items Adam was prepared to shove up The Princess’ ass, neither of which were remotely suitable for such a thing. It has been speculated after the fact that Adam might have had some anger issues, and been the type of person who uses video games as means of venting aggression.

“Dude...”

“No, there has to be something! There has to be! What haven’t I used?”

“We could just…”

“What haven’t I used!?”

“…Bombs?”

At the very least, bombs got a unique reaction. As Adam hurled a bomb at The Princess, she turned and floated out of the blast radius. Immediately Adam chuckled. He tossed bomb after bomb, The Princess scurrying back and forth to get away. Adam’s intense gaze was replaced by a devilish smile as Brian realized he was herding The Princess into a corner, where she couldn’t escape. One final bomb landed at The Princess’ feet. Her model shuddered, spinning desperately to find a way out, and then…

BOOM! The Princess was face down.

“HA!” Adam shouted. In a moment, Link was set upon The Princess, hacking away with his sword. Each hit, The Princess flashed red, letting out a horrible series of distorted screams. A shower of blood-red particle effects shot out of her body with each slash of the blade, so many particles that game would slow each time, causing the blade to slowly and agonizingly slice through The Princess’ model.

Adam was laughing. He wouldn’t stop. He hammered the attack button as fast as he could. The Princess’ screams were becoming more distorted, more ear-splitting, and yet somehow more real at the same time. Brian says they didn’t sound like screams he’d heard from the game, but with the level of filtering, he admits they could have been just about anything. Either way, he couldn’t take it anymore. He grabbed Adam’s shoulder.

“Stop!”

Adam violently shrugged Brian’s hand away, looking at him for the first time since they’d started playing.

“NO! DON’T YOU GET IT!? THIS IS WHAT SHE WANTS!”

There was a brief silence, followed by a scream. It was Link screaming. The Princess had stood back up.

Thus began the second “phase” of the fight. The Princess had a new trick this time. If left alone, she would rapidly charge Link and bash him away, as she’d done at the very beginning of the battle. It was still a fairly simple matter for Adam to corral her into a corner with bombs, and then he set upon her again with his sword. Brian just watched in silence, unsure what to think. For all the mystique surrounding The Princess, this was feeling more and more like a standard boss fight.

The third “phase” of the fight caught Adam off guard. Multiple Princesses appeared around Link and formed a close circle around him. While Adam considered which one to attack, one of them rushed Link and knocked him to the ground, taking his last heart away. It was here the two learned that, if Link died and reset, he had to start again from the first phase of the fight. Annoying, but Adam was pumped by now. Brian could see the look of devilish glee on his face. He was loving this.

After a handful of deaths, Adam passed the third phase of the fight. Attacking the “correct” Princess would cause the others to disappear and the Princess to revert to her phase two pattern. How the “correct” Princess was determined seemed random. There was no “tell” or indication, but it seemed like one in every three or so guesses was always correct, even though there were many more doppelgangers.

In the fourth phase, flames began to appear on the ground. The Princess flew in circles around the room, twisting and turning wildly and firing fireballs in all directions. Only a Light Arrow could bring her down, and then there was only a short window to hit her with a bomb before she would take off again.

The fifth phase was like the fourth, only with multiple Princesses. There was no “correct” Princess this time. All of them had to be shot down with Light Arrows and bombed to proceed. On this phase the framerate would begin to suffer and the void surrounding the room would be tinged a flaming red. The music, such as it was, would also become slower and more hitched here.

The sixth phase caused the remaining textures of the room to erupt into a garbled mess of corrupted imagery. The Princess would fly high into the sky and begin dive-bombing Link repeatedly. Between the framerate and the psychedelic textures it was hard for Brian to even see The Princess. Adam remained focused, dodging left and right, finally tricking The Princess into diving into an exploding bomb.

Beyond that, Brian had a very difficult time explaining the phases of the fight to The Society. He recalls there were two more phases after the sixth, or at least two more phases he ever saw Adam reach. In these phases, the framerate and textures were so jumpy that it was impossible for him to tell what was happening. There may have been multiple Princesses, there may have been enemies summoned in at some point, and Brian recalls Adam having to use the Lens of Truth to do…something. This, however, was all he could make out.

As for how Adam could still play, Brian says Adam was in his own little world by this point. He hadn’t said anything since his previous outburst aside from the occasional scream of frustration or chuckle of victory. He was becoming increasingly enraged by his failures and increasingly sadistic in his moments to slash away at The Princess. Adam had figured out, at some point, that The Princess wouldn’t go into her next phase until a certain amount of damage had been dealt to her body, so he’d started purposefully using weaker and weaker weapons on her to draw out these moments as long as possible. He burned her, blew her up, thrashed her with a stick, crushed her with a hammer, and every time she would let out a shriek that sent shivers down Brian’s spine, red particles spraying everywhere.

It was too much.

Brian dove for the Nintendo 64. He couldn’t take it anymore. He had to shut off the game. Fuck the tape recorder. Fuck this whole experiment. If The Princess had anything to reveal, it couldn’t possibly be worth it. As he grabbed the power switch, the room suddenly fell silent. The game hadn’t paused. All noise had just stopped. Brian looked up at the screen. It was The Princess, just The Princess, front-and-center on screen, seeming to stare down at him.

“Don’t turn it off.”

It was Adam who said it. Brian looked back to see a knife leveled at him. Adam’s face was cold and grim.

“Just leave.”

Adam stared at Brian, and Brian had no choice but to obey. He grabbed what games he could quickly shove into his backpack and ran out of the room. As he left, he heard the sounds of battle immediately resume behind him.

-----------------------------

Adam’s mother found Adam, dead, a few hours later, once she’d returned from work. His body was sprawled over the back of the couch, badly brutalized but still chillingly recognizable.

Investigators found indications of blunt force all over his body, with impact points of varying size and shape. The bones in his arms and legs were heavily fractured, shattered in some places. While the breaking of the legs seemed haphazard and indicated a heavy struggle, the breaking of the arms looked systematic, as though he’d been held down.

In addition to the broken bones, numerous bruise marks indicated that nearly every part of him had been battered to some degree. Only his back was largely spared, as he was likely lying on it during most of the attack. There was also relatively little damage to his head and face, leading to speculation that his attacker wanted him to remain conscious.

Cause of death was determined to be brain damage from a combination of blood loss and suffocation. Several heavy blows to Adam’s chest had cracked the ribcage, crippling his heart and lungs. According to experts, none of the damage dealt to Adam’s body would have been immediately fatal, with time of death estimated at several minutes after the attack. The killer had brutalized Adam, then left him to die of his wounds.

Most puzzling to investigators, however, was Adam’s knife. There was not a drop of blood on it, and no fingerprints but Adam’s. The tip and edge, however, were dulled and slightly bent. It seems that, in an attempt to defend himself, Adam was thrusting the knife against something very, very hard.