What happens to people who play realistic fighting games in full-immersion? Would they build those skills for themselves? Would it spill over into the real world? What if it went a step beyond that even?
(This story is unrelated to Forever Fantasy Online)
In the not-too-far-away future, in a world mostly ike ours...
Avery taking a swing at me was, in hindsight, the natural foregone conclusion of all the shit that had been going down between us in-game. It summed up everything from the mutual griefing, to the trolling, the competitiveness, to our sharing a first name, and culminating with his ultimate "screw you" to me back at Hell's Cauldron. The only real surprises were that I wasn't the one throwing the first punch and that he'd chosen the school cafeteria as the place to boil over.
He pulled back to slug me--sloppy--which was a sure sign of how mad he was. The punch was so telegraphed that it was easy for me to bring up my guard for a bare-armed block. The glancing impact stung, but a year of playing The Seven Realms of Steel in full VR with a broken pain filter made it too trivial to value.
As I was also mad as hell--he'd shoved me into lava last night knowing my pain filter was broken-- so I didn't stop to think that maybe the school cafeteria was not the place to settle our differences. The amount of trouble a brawl would land me in didn't register. Nor did the thought of running away and letting Avery eat all the blame.
Instead, I put two years of High Kung-Fu Fantasy VR gaming to use as I popped him in the mouth with a hard left. His head snapped back and returned with surprise in place of anger in his eyes. I came in with a right hook and his form suddenly got a lot better--I wasn't the only one who'd played obsessively all this time. He ducked my punch neatly and took a shot at my gut.
Our classmates all abandoned their lunches either to get out of our way, or to get a better look. A circle of our peers amassed around us in an instant. Everyone shouting fight! fight! fight!" as ring of phone-aiming juniors and seniors fired off their flashes or held steady to record video. Some stood with their lunch trays in hand, watching and eating.
I stopped the incoming gut-punch with a cross-block over my abs but took his left to my face. That really hurt--spots popped in my eyes. Ooh yeah! As always, real pain energized me. It triggered something that, until a year ago, I'd never known was there deep down. The thrill of combat filled me with life and my senses honed themselves to razor clarity.
This was why I'd never gotten the pain filter fixed nor filed a report ticket in the game. It was why I played the Weapon Master class and threw myself into giant melees all the time in-game. Pain was life and now a greedy grin spread across my face as I circled my opponent while throwing out rapid-fire lefts.
The crowd's oohs and ah's became "holy shit!" as Avery and I heated up. We traded blows, blocks, feints, and then graduated to combos. Kicks started coming out, and then spins and flips. We stopped boxing as he settled into hard Praying Mantis style and I fell into my habit of using Tiger Claw style.
The crowd really started freaking its shit at that.
For all I hated him, I had to admire the guy's form. His attacks were tight, quick, and polished. He'd already stopped falling for simple feints. The crowd swayed back and forth with us as we both started using our footwork against the other in a battle to control the range of the fight along with our fists and feet.
The bruises mounted quickly, but I couldn't stop grinning like a damn maniac as his fist scored my cheek with burning force. Fighting in real life was better than I'd ever dreamed! Being in my own body was on a whole new level of excitement. The crispness of the pain made all the risks so much more real. My breath hammered along with my heart in my chest as I vied for a winning strike.
Then Avery over-extended on a long right straight and I caught his wrist in a lock. Heaving hard, I went for the big throw. I cackled in glee as Avery's feet left the ground and I put my back into getting him over my shoulder.
As he flew overhead, I relished the decision to stick to "chicken and vegetables" diet this last year. I'd had a theory about VR-induced micro-muscle movements and a weightlifter's diet plus thousands of hours of playing Seven Realms of Steel had really gotten results. People had commented about the tons of muscle I'd put on, but they had no idea about the muscle memory which came with the game-play as well. Nor the reflexes and battle experience.
I savored the power as Avery sailed through the scattering crowd. Until things got...crazy.
Mid-air he twisted, managing to land on his feet on a cafeteria table like the goddamn ninja he played online. As he came out of his landing, Avery flung a plastic food tray at me like a missile. It spun with deadly precision towards my head. Reflexes forged in endless battles saved me as I bent backward, the tray passing my face by inches to smash into the school's cinderblock wall.
The crowd of high-schoolers around us stopped jeering and dove for cover as dust and shards of plastic flew everywhere from the impact. Then the phones popped back up from around corners or from behind over-turned cafeteria folding tables.
He clearly liked how well that had gone, for Avery started running across the top of his cafeteria table, snatching trays and hurling them at me. They weren't even straight shots, which would have been amazing in and of themselves. No, they came in on different damn arcs no less, striking from many angles.
I barely avoided the first three and then my back hit the wall. Staring up, there was a tray coming right for my face. But I'd noticed the janitor had abandoned his mop on the floor here at the start of our altercation. I stomped my foot on the square wooden head and caught the handle as it levered up, just in time to deflect the heavy plastic tray destined for my nose.
I grinned with satisfaction. The mop wasn't a bad weapon. I whirled it's heavy wooden handle and smashed the stupid cloth end off, leaving a jagged point in its place. Then I spun it dramatically before charging at Avery.
The crowd roared in approval. Their cheers fueling my adrenaline high. This was the best. I was the best. I dashed after Avery with a maniac's smile on my face.
His eyes went wide at the sight of a weapon and he leaped to another table for more trays. I jumped up and ran from chair to chair with bounds. More spinning lunch trays came in at me in a deadly barrage. This time though, I stopped atop a lunchroom chair and...
I wondered... Seven Realms's big claim to fame was how all it's fighting was supposedly authentic. Albeit with ki and magic added to make it fantasy. So far, that claim was holding water. I had to know how far it went.
Experimentally, I spun the staff in the Nine-point Vitals Defense pattern. The technique lacked ki cause this was IRL, not the game, but it felt natural to my arms and I moved just as I did in-game. The mop perfectly deflected the first tray. Weaving it faster, I danced from chair to chair deflecting incoming the rectangles of thick plastic. Avery threw a dozen at me before stopping.
"Out of ammo?" I said. "Looks like it wasn't working anyway."
"Screw you," he snarled. "Try this instead." He then back-flipped off the table and landed by the cafeteria's flag poles. With one kick, he broke an empty seven-foot pole and took a spear-user's stance with it. Pointy metal end towards me.
"Let's dance," I said with perhaps a more relish than I should have--considering getting punctured by Avery might get me killed or hospitalized. But my adrenaline was pumping at max and the thrill of IRL combat was more than I could resist. I wanted to fight. I wanted to try out more moves from the game with my actual life on the line.
To hell with the consequences and dangers! I leaped clear over a white folding table and landed in front of him.
He responded with a rapid series of jabs with his 'spear'. I defended with the Whirling Demon Defense technique. Avery's eyes flashed with recognition of the skill. He seemed to get what I was doing and threw a high strike at me. As I ducked, he leaped and brought a Crushing Thunder Strike down. It was sans actual thunder but the cafeteria echoed with the resounded crack of wood handles as I blocked it across my mop. The crowd went wild.
I responded by trying out the Thousand Needles Barrage, my mop-spear becoming a blur of jabs.
Avery barely danced out of the way of that storm. The jagged tip of my broken mop flashed close to wounding him several times, slicing his shirt in a few places and even drawing a spec of blood from his shoulder. Like me, the pain didn't seem to bother him. Quit the opposite, the acrid scent made his eyes wilder.
To the side, I noticed teachers had rushed to the scene. But they stood either slack-jawed among the cheering students or they tried to dial their phones in shaking terror. The gym teacher was yelling something at me. Probably "stop" or whatever. I couldn't hear much beyond the pounding of blood in my ears and the rush of air that preceded Avery's next assault.
He came at me with his own Thousand Needles Barrage and so I kept mine up to meet him. Our improvised spears became of blur of blows and parries. The crowd stopped cheering as we poured it on. They went silent, holding their phones high to capture our duel.
Faster and faster we struck, both pushing the Thousand Needles Barrage technique to its limits. Neither of us could get the edge on the other, however. The clacking of our spears roared like a drum-roll.
Someone was laughing like a lunatic. Was that me? Was it Avery? I didn't care. Fighting was what mattered. Fighting was putting air into my lungs and blood into my muscles. It was making me live like never before. I wanted to fight like this for forever.
It couldn't last forever of course. Fatigue was rapidly setting in, my arms screaming, my breath coming in ragged gulps. But just as my arms began to feel watery, Avery missed a parry. In that split second, I smashed his hand causing him to lose control of his weapon. The flag pole flew from his grasp as he staggered back into the wall.
Two years of in-game battle experiences screamed at me to go through that opening for the kill. I bellowed my character's war cry and put my all into the final attack. The sharp end of my mop handle raced towards Avery's unprotected carotid artery and I could feel the rising surge of victory.
Oh God no! What was I doing?!
Someone in the crowd screamed. I pulled the strike sideways desperately, slicing a thin red line along Avery's neck. My mop struck the wall behind him with shattering force. Avery danced away, unaware of his near-demise.
I just stood there, shaking in horror at what I'd been about to do. This was always how it was in-game too. I'd gone crazy again. Only this time the foe wasn't digital. Behind me, something jingled as Avery found a new weapon.
The sound snapped me out of it. I meant to wheel around to face my foe and find a way to finish this battle of a lifetime. Only to stop as I caught sight of the wall where my weapon had struck. There wasn't just a hole in the cinderblock, but a three-foot wide crater which punctured all the way through it to the hallway on the other side.
"What the?" was all I got to say, for two bad things happened at the same time. One was the school's security guard, known as Mr. Hunter, shoving his way out of the crowd behind me. Pulling his gun on my back he shrieked "stop!" at us in a high-pitched voice full of panic.
The other was Avery coming at me with a basket of metal forks. I saw his hand move like a flash as he rolled out the Storm of Steel Leaves technique. Two-dozen gleaming forks rocketed forth at me from as many different angles. Some straight, some high, some low, some curving from the left, while others came in from the top or rebounded from the floor. All converging on my position.
Standing here was a bad idea. Yet dodging would mean that Mr. Hunter would eat the potentially lethal attack. Ignoring the gun and the order to stop, I held my ground and pushed my tired arms for one last burst of movement.
The 9-Points Vitals Defense wouldn't be fast enough for this though. It relied on attacks aimed at the nine-vital points as was its name. The incoming attack was going to pepper me head-to-toe. I needed something better, but without ki, I was stuck using techniques from the very mortal, Earthly realms. This was do-or-die time though, so I tried anyway.
"Howling Vortex Defense!" I shouted, terror bringing out a habit the game's activation requirements had given me, and spun the mop handle so fast it hummed through the air like the blades on a prop-plane engine. The air around me even seemed to pull in towards the center of my spinning weapon--just a bit like the real technique did.
Missile-like forks rained destruction as the angry swarm of converging projectiles plowed into my defense. Sparks flew, wood shattered on impact, forks deflected and speared linoleum tiles. A fork was knocked up and it obliterated the drop ceiling panels and carved a metal air duct in half. Students dove for cover as the projectiles scattered throughout the cafeteria. One even sundered a tipped over table as it passed through.
A single fork made it past my defense. Fiery pain blossomed in my shoulder and raced down my arm. I dropped the splintered remains of my mop as I staggered backwards, clutching the fork that was buried up to its tines in my skin.
The last words I heard were "AAhhhh!" as Mr. Hunter exceeded his already thin limit of keeping it cool, freaked out, and shot me from behind. It was all black from there.
I dazed in and out after that. I think I went on an ambulance ride and some blood transfusions happened. Something about a leg wound and "lucky" was said at some point.
I woke up three days later and was promptly treated to the best and worst life had to offer.
The worst included a rest-of-the-year suspension from school, ten thousand dollars in damages to the school, a fierce hospital bill, a judge sentencing me to 100 hours of community service, and my very very angry parents.
Nothing made me feel more guilty than how hurt they looked. I'd gotten so damn carried away and just thinking about it was shameful. All that time spent playing a Realms' warrior and my own discipline was shit when it had mattered. I'd turned out to be every bit the pain-loving adrenaline junkie my girlfriend Julia had accused me of being back when she'd dumped me.
At least 'the good' was fantastic. The good made all the sun-baked road-side community service and lost summer wages worth it. First, the videos taken by my schoolmates took the internet by storm. Someone made a heavy metal music video that combined all the best footage into this rocking sequence of ultimate ass-kicking.
It racked up 120 million views and the creator saved my bacon by sending me five-grand to help pay the school with. That reduced my burden to merely "one entire summer of minimum-wage work." Down from two.
I couldn't help but stare at the hole I'd made in the wall though. It was super cool, but I found it haunting at the same time. It was...wrong. Not like I disapproved beyond paying for it, but it felt like I was seeing an error in the world through that breach.
I didn't get to ponder it long through as there were also dozens of interviews, and only two were of the police kind. The rest were news channels, MMO video channels, self-defense groups, and more. I ran the gambit that's for sure.
Lastly was the fan mail. Avery and I had a following now. All my social media and email filled up with people saying how bad-ass we were. Some even asked me to be their master. I wanted to say, "yes", cause how cool would that be? But the very first guy went from zero to "cult" on me before we even did anything. I bailed so hard on the whole sensei bit after that.
The company which ran The Seven Realms of Steel didn't seem to know what to make of us though. At first, it decried the violence people were blaming it for creating. But it's marketing team also wanted to buddy up with Avery and me for promotions because we were super-popular. In the end, it's public condemnations quietly stopped because the game was picking up millions of new subscribers thanks to us. Whether or not the hordes of new players--all hoping for amazing kung-fu skills--were a good thing.
I wish I could've seen that crazy rush of newbs, but I couldn't log in due to a court order. At least I noticed someone had upgraded my account to founder's rank, aka "Free for Life", somewhere along the line. It was a nice gesture and one I looked forward to once I could play again. I was worse than broke so having my sub paid for was a true blessing.
I ran into Avery almost immediately once the interviews started rolling. We met at a News station's backstage. I was nervously combing my hair for the hundredth time when I saw him quietly approaching from the corner of my eye.
Avery walked right up to me, his shoulders tense.
"Hey Avery," he said. (I've mentioned we have the same first name right? and that we compete over who is the true Avery around here. Anyway...)
"Hi Avery..." I replied, cautiously.
He got even closer. "I've been wanting to talk to you for a week and no one will let me," he grumped. "So I'm gonna say it now."
I braced for impact.
"That was so flipping awesome!" he said, grinning. "Have you seen the video of us?! Holy shit dude! Best. Fight. Ever!"
Relieved, I offered him my hand. "That fight was literally the greatest thing I've ever done in my life. But I'm sorry I almost killed you, I got carried away."
Avery accepted my handshake vigorously. "I saw that part of the video where you could have gotten me. Thanks for pulling the hit." Then he ran a hand through his hair. "I was out of control too dude. What was I thinking trying to use the Storm of Steel Leaves? I'm really sorry about that."
"Thanks," I said with a laugh. "We lived through it though and it was awesome!"
"Heck yeah!" Avery laughed too. Then he put his hand on the back of his neck. "So, um... you're banned from VR for a while right?"
I frowned. "Yeah," I replied. "The judge locked me out for three months. I'm honestly amazed it wasn't for life. Yay for being a minor right?"
Avery nodded. "For real. Same here."
"Why do you ask?" I said since he seemed to have more to say.
"Wanna come over to my house sometime?" he said sheepishly. "Since we're not mortal enemies anymore."
That was surprising. "Yeah man, I'd love to. Gotta do something to fill the time until I can log in again. I don't have a lot of IRL hobbies though. What do you want to do?"
Avery looked left, then right. He leaned in and hid his mouth with a hand to whisper, "wanna try sparring? You know, fighting without trying to kill each other?"
My eyes grew wide and I too looked around to make sure no one in the new station had overheard. "I want to, but my parents will kill me if they find out," I whispered back. Then I pointed the crutch I had to use to walk with. "And the bullet hole in my leg is still healing."
"I think we should anyway," Avery said. "I'm not suggesting this just for fun. Remember the hole you made in the wall with a mop? Or how forks wrecked the cafeteria?"
I had been thinking about those things. A lot. I wanted to explain them as us properly executing the techniques as taught in the game, but it never sat right. The game's lore said that Storm of Steel Leaves and Howling Vortex Defense were both sky-realm skills. That was a place that only characters who'd unlocked their ki-- by transcending Cloud-rank-- could go to. Which meant they were the "Ki absolutely required."
The physics were definitely wonky on this. I knew the shit we were throwing around shouldn't have worked as advertised IRL, if at all. The why and how had been keeping me up at night and it'd been driving me to keep working out and practicing my forms even without VR.
"Good point. You aren't alone in that either. I've got a lot of questions," I said, in all seriousness. "Sign me up and let's hope we don't get caught."
If you like my short fiction, please check out my book Forever Fantasy Online.