Randal left his team trying to replicate his bug and went in search of food. Free pizza was still well over half an hour away, but he was hungry now, and a good old-fashioned food raid on the upper levels would be a nice distraction. He already knew there wasn’t anything new or good in the cafeteria fridge on his floor, but he swung through long enough to grab a can of Coke before heading upstairs. He took the stairs instead of the elevator so he wouldn’t have to go through the main cubicle farm, but could instead come in from behind and raid the art department’s break room with a minimum of contact. He passed one of the artists coming out as he was going in. Randal couldn’t remember his name, but thought he was an animator. He just thought of him as Brace Guy because he always had one or the other of his knees in a thick, black plastic brace and yet always seemed to be wandering the halls. They nodded to each other as always, and then Randal had the break room to himself. He finished his Coke and tossed the can in the recycling bin before opening the fridge. Ahhh, cupcakes. A yellow box with a half-dozen left in it, five vanilla, one chocolate. Judging from the slight crust on the frosting and the dried out crumbs, they could be two days old, but he was betting only one. He took the chocolate and one vanilla along with a second can of Coke and sat down at one of the tables.
The QA Department on the ground floor didn’t have its own break room. They only had the company’s main cafeteria that served everyone in the building and thus there was seldom much in the way of outside goodies up for grabs in the fridge there. Leftover pizza was usually as good as you could hope for, but that tended to disappear by midnight, and what was left always became someone’s breakfast. Plus, his floor was all game testers, community relations flunkies, marketing goons, and contract workers. At 29, he was one of the older guys on the floor, but he shared a lot more in common with his first floor co-workers than he did with the artists up here or the programmers and designers up above. He wasn’t married, and didn’t have a steady girlfriend. He wasn’t from this area originally and so didn’t have many friends outside of work. The downside of working alongside a whole floor full of younger versions of himself was that there weren’t homemade brownies from a spouse or leftovers from a big dinner party or special cupcakes brought in for anyone’s birthday. Upstairs in the design and programming break room the fridge pickings would be even better, but this was a simple foray to clear his mind, not a 4 AM quest for vital sustenance. Low-hanging cupcakes suited him just fine.
He picked at the chocolate cupcake and idly leafed through a two month old copy of Game Informer magazine that featured another new Mario golf game on the cover. He wondered how many times Mario had been on the cover over the years? At 29, he couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t own something made by Nintendo that had the name “Mario” on it. The adventurous, surprisingly athletic plumber continuously featured in his life as the years rolled along. With dad working full time, mom working part time, and the only sibling a much older half-brother who was out of the house by the time Randal turned 5, Mario was almost like family.
He’d had plenty of real friends too of course. He’d been close with the guys he grew up with in Modesto right up until the moment they weren’t physically close. Some disappeared into the gaping social maw of the state university system. Others got jobs and wives and kids. Randal’s ties to them only went as deep as their shared experiences, which soon receded in the face of new experiences that didn’t involve him. Randal thought he’d been a popular kid in school, somewhere between a class clown and part of the cool, slightly edgy crowd that snuck out behind the bleachers and smoked between classes. They wore a lot of t-shirts for bands no one had heard of and kept cautious but close ties with a set of shiftless twenty-somethings who would buy them beer and sell them pot without asking to come along to the high-school parties so they could mack on teenage girls. They skated a little, or at least had skate boards. They worked part-time jobs busing tables at Applebee’s or standing behind the counter at McDonald’s, but had parents middle-class enough that all of their income was disposable.
Their default behavior in any leisure situation where drinking wasn’t an option (which most of the time it wasn’t), was to play video games. After school he’d go to Nathan Corey’s big house with the three yappie dogs, or maybe Mike Bartow’s apartment where they could smoke without getting in trouble, and play games together – mostly fighting and racing. Late weeknights or all day long on a Saturday or Sunday he more often played alone, working through 40 hours of Mario 64 or Final Fantasy or Zelda or some other adventure game. This was all before the days of seriously popular online gaming, and none of his friends played much in the way of PC games. It was all consoles. His gaming preferences were formed by sharing the same experiences with friends, not by exploring and creating much on his own. He never played text-based online Multi-User Dungeons or built his own maps and levels for Doom and Quake. He didn’t get sucked into the hardcore online clans of Team Fortress or Tribes 2. For him games were polished, finished products meant to be enjoyed and experienced as given, not tools for innovation or self-expression.
And while games were the default activity, they didn’t rule Randal’s life. Gaming was what he did when he wasn’t doing something else. He enjoyed games, really loved some of them, but, unless it was the release date for some hot new title, he wasn’t going to give up going out with friends to a party or going out on a date just to play some game. And Randal did go out on a lot of dates. He was undeniably a good looking (or at least decent looking, right?) guy. People seemed to agree with him that he was funny, and despite his carefully cultivated edginess, by nature he was a pretty polite, decent person. Girls liked him once they got to know him, and kept on liking him until he managed to squirm out of their grasp. He liked the girls, really liked the sex, but never found anyone who came close to “capturing his heart” (whatever that means). He always broke it off, thinking there was something better out there somewhere, someone more interesting, more compelling. But he always ended up with someone like Lisa Kim who was sweet, girly in a jeans and t-shirt kind of way, and passive. Someone happy to just go along with whatever he suggested as long as he didn’t suggest anything she didn’t expect.
After graduation came community college. The part-time jobs became full time jobs: retail and service work, including a couple stints at the Game Stop in the mall. From eighteen to twenty-two he languished in this early adult limbo, taking a few credits a semester to appease his parents so they’d let him live at home, and working full time for crap money to buy gas, beer, and games. And he was happy more often than not these years. In the back of his mind he knew he was just spinning his wheels, but up front and down below the belt everything was just fine, and so he went on along with, well, whatever.
Without realizing it at the time, Randal became the twenty-something guy who buys the high school kids beer on weekends, and once or twice he even invited himself along to their parties. And yeah, a few of those times he’d ended up in some bathroom or some stranger’s bedroom or in his car with a high school girl. The last one was Lindsey, who at first seemed to have the potential to be something new and maybe different for him. He pixie-punk attitude was far from passive, and Randal felt himself being the one who agreed with whatever she suggested, even when it was – as was often the case – something he didn’t expect. But then that situation got really complicated really quickly, and Randal decided he needed to find a way out of that relationship as fast as he could without causing more trouble for himself. Six years later he was still living with the consequences of course, and shit with Lindsey had really woken Randal up to just how dead-end his life had become. It was the final push that got him to get out of the dead-end job market of his home town, and well away from his old circle of friends and bad habits.
When his former classmate Carlos mentioned at a party that he was trying to move to San Jose but his roommate situation had fallen through, Randal offered to move with him. They weren’t even really friends, just two guys trying to get out of town for different reasons. Two weeks later they were in a South San Jose apartment. Brawny, thickset Carlos already had a cousin who’d set him up with a construction job, Randal went looking. He couldn’t believe his luck at first. Namco was hiring video game testers. Getting paid to play video games! Randal drove up to Sunny Vale, applied, passed the half-hour basic reading comprehension interview, and started the next day. He was right to suspect it was too easy to be a great job. He was thrown into the nasty, deep end of game testing, where turnover was high and rewards low. The job sucked, but it was also easy to game the system and slack off when you wanted to (and boy did he want to). Sometimes it was even kind of fun, for an hour or two when a new game or even just a new level got thrown into the mix, and he mostly liked the other people he worked with.
A year later, Carlos kicked him out when he met a girl at a San Jose Sharks game. By that time Randal had plenty of tester friends who needed third or fourth roomies in Silicon Valley’s exorbitant housing market, so finding a place to crash wasn’t a problem. And slowly but surely he worked his way up the ladder. He was good at his job, mostly because his own game-play style varied so much from the standard player’s. He’d go snooping around all the corners, jumping into weird places, trying unorthodox tactics. As a result he found lots of strange, corner-case bugs, and his productivity numbers soared. He was never laid off, although he quit several places in frustration or disgust, always finding a slightly better, slightly higher paying job within a couple weeks. It no longer even occurred to him to be afraid of being unemployed. He might not make programmer money, but he knew he had skills that would always be in demand in the games industry.
Randal was proud of what he liked to think of as his keen sense for what makes games great and where they’re most likely to fail. This kind of analysis was a real calling for him and where he felt at home. Almost everyone else in QA looked at it as a stepping stone to something else – they wanted to be a designer or an artist or even a programmer. Failing all that, they wanted to go into management in some capacity. Randal didn’t want any of those things. When asked, he told people he was shooting for the position of QA lead, but really that would be more management and less actual game testing than he wanted from life, at least right now. For the moment, being a senior tester who got to write his own test plans and show others how it’s done seemed just about perfect.
Certainly much more perfect than that Mario golf game looked like it was going to be. He was glad he didn’t have to test that stinker. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the green LED on his phone blinking and unsnapped it from his belt to check his e-mail. He didn’t recognize the sender’s address, someone named WarriorWomanXXX at a Hotmail account. It looked like spam, especially since the subject line said, “Randal, we need to meet.” The only reason he opened it was because he was frustrated to see that somehow the spam bot had managed to connect his real first name with what was supposed to be an anonymous web mail account. Maybe it was one of his old flames, although he didn’t remember any of them using the name Warrior Woman. If they had, maybe he’d have stayed with whoever it was.
To his frustration, there wasn’t anything to the e-mail besides the subject line. Not even a link to follow. Knowing better than to answer a strange e-mail and thus confirm to whatever spam bot that sent it that it had found a working address, he erased it. When he looked up from the tiny screen he almost jumped. Theresa was standing there, looking at him.
“It was Ken’s birthday yesterday,” she said, gesturing to the cupcake in his hand and advancing towards either him or the fridge behind him, he wasn’t sure. Early thirties, sensible brown hair, fashionable glasses, and the tech-industry typical couple extra pounds, she was one of Excelsior’s many producers. The producers’ main job was to make sure everyone else was doing their job, meeting their milestones, and staying on task. Randal felt they generally got in the way of getting things done, although his own QA Lead, Eli, was technically a producer and yet still pretty cool. Theresa, on the other hand, was kind of a pain in the ass, or at least that was the word around the office.
“They’re good,” Randal said, although the cupcakes really weren’t. Maybe when they’d been fresh. “Ken’s in animation, right?”
“Yep,” she moved past him and pulled out an iced tea for herself, then leaned against the counter so he had to twist around if he wanted to keep talking to her. He didn’t.
He started paging through the magazine a second time, listening to her slurp her drink behind him. The inevitable question came thirty or so seconds later. “What’re you working on?” she asked. It was the first question all producers asked whenever they talked to you. It carried behind it an army of spreadsheets, Microsoft Project work-flow charts, milestone checklists, and of course bug tracking reports. He couldn’t quite detect anything accusatory in her tone, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
“Oh, I’ve got a nasty new bug we’re hunting down,” he said, turning to her and smiling. “A game freezer. Nasty, nasty, nasty.”
“What is it?” she asked, putting the tea on the counter and leaning towards him. Now he had Theresa worried.
“I logged it in bug tracker,” he said, pausing just long enough to make her open her mouth to ask for more details before continuing. “On Dreadrock my character totally froze and became unresponsive. Even re-booting didn’t bring her back. I couldn’t do anything. I kept restarting and then, well, there’s good news and bad news.”
“What?” Theresa asked, staring right into his eyes. He didn’t think she was losing patience with him quite yet.
“Well, I got back control of my squad and could return them to base, but my primary character was just gone. Couldn’t load her. Couldn’t find her anywhere.”
“Completely gone from your avatar list? Have you been able to repeat the bug?” she asked.
“My team’s trying right now. I didn’t have another character that could run Dreadrock. Once I get Lea restored, I’ll take another run at it.”
Theresa kept staring at him right in the eyes, and he knew she was looking for some way to say, “Stop eating cupcakes and find the bug!” but he wasn’t anywhere near her management tree. She worked with the designers and the programmers. Come to think of it, he wasn’t sure why she was down here with the artists either. Maybe they were out of tea upstairs for once. In the end she said, “OK, well, drop me an e-mail on this and keep me in the loop, will you?”
“Sure thing,” Randal said, turning back to the magazine and flipping pages randomly. “It’s all in the bug tracker, so you can follow it there.”
She left without another word and Randal smiled. A few minutes later he found an empty paper bag in a drawer and took three more cupcakes for his team and decided to swing by upstairs and see if the programmers had restored Lea for him. He wandered out through the grid of artist cubicles, headed for the elevators. He hummed quietly to himself, knowing from the tinny, faint sounds of headphones attached to ears that most of the developers here were in their own private auditory worlds. More than anywhere else in the building, the artists liked to work in low light, so half of the overhead fluorescents were turned off, and those that were on seemed dimmer than the ones down in QA. Each double occupancy cubicle emitted a different pattern of lights and shadows depending on the individual ratio of screen size to desk lamps to toy collections. A few lava lamps, a number of strands of Christmas lights (including a string of Homer Simpson heads that stretched along the length of three cubicle walls), and other odd light sources created a muted, prismatic chaos. Every available vertical surface had some poster, print-out, or doodle-coated white board on it, the contents based on each individual’s particular fetishes. As he walked by one, he was embarrassed on behalf whoever it was with the Dragonball Z obsession. On the other hand, the guy across the hall with the precisely arranged display of framed Warner Brothers’ cartoon stills at least showed some old-school class. He knew that one cubicle on the other side of the room was papered with posters of boy bands from the 90’s that had been put up as a joke one late night and had since become a canvas for artistic re-interpretation of ‘N Sync’s terrifying true nature. Mostly though, they were posters for other games from other companies along with a few Fear and Loading promo pieces (like the cool, 5 year old Metropolis 2.0 poster featuring art from the comic book it was based on) scattered throughout. The riot of light and weird, contrasting imagery all blended together in a mélange of geekdom that had been the typical backdrop for most of Randal’s adult professional life.
Glancing at screens as he strolled along, he saw mostly familiar alien faces mixed in with some new stuff that was already being planned for the first expansion pack, set for release six months after Excelsior’s impending launch. The artists were usually happy to show off the new stuff because they were still excited about it, but Randal was on a mission now and decided not to linger. He and Lea and the rest of the QA department would be tangling with these new monstrosities soon enough. The elevator took him up one floor to the Programming Department, which was laid out exactly like the floor he’d just left. This was of course the main programming floor, where all the grunt work got done. The elite, cutting edge programmers like his lunch buddy PB worked upstairs with the designers, close to the watchful eyes of the CEO, CCO, and CTO. Down here it was all data bases, bug fixes, and straight forward implementation work.
Randal headed towards the back corner, opposite from the break room. This floor had standard lighting, just like in his domain, and there were about one third as many toys and posters. One would have thought this would make the work space seem less geeky, but somehow it had the opposite effect. Where the artists generally chose and arranged their lights, posters, and action figures in, well, artistic ways that came across as kind of cool, the programmers had a random Star Wars toy here and an old, torn computer game poster there. The haphazard, neglected décor made those little touches of individuality jump out even more, and seemed to indicate a deep-seated geekiness that most of the programmers had in their DNA. They were all busy too of course, some with earphones, some just focused on the screens (invariably they had at least two) mounted in front of them. These screens held nothing that Randal either understood or got excited by; it was all code and compilers and database fields.
He found Oliver’s cubicle in the back, right where it had always been. The heavyset software engineer slouched in his chair, bare feet propped on his trash can and keyboard resting on his stomach. He didn’t look up and pretended not to notice Randal standing there, even though he was in his direct line of sight. Or maybe he really didn’t notice him. Programmers were like that sometimes.
“Hey, Oliver,” said Randal, louder than necessary. “What’s going on?”
Oliver finished whatever he was typing before looking up and responding to a question Randal hadn’t asked. “I’m fine. What do you need?”
“I was wondering if you’d had a chance to look at that new bug I reported. I sent you an e-mail about it.”
“No you haven’t seen it?”
Oliver nodded and looked back to his screen and started typing again. “I’m not looking at new bugs today, I’m fixing old bugs. When I get to yours you’ll see it in the bug tracker.”
“This is a crash bug though. A pretty weird one too. My entire character froze up and then kind of vanished. It seems like a database thing to me.”
“Is that right?” Oliver asked, still typing. “Seems like a database thing to you? Well, that would make it my responsibility, so I’ll undoubtedly get to it when I work through my list.” He typed some more.
Randal leaned over and looked at the screen, but none of it made any sense to him. Database stuff was its own weird world. “You know what’s great about being in QA?” Randal asked.
“I can’t imagine. What?”
“We spend all our time finding problems, right? We play the same level over and over again looking for the slightest defect.”
“That doesn’t sound great at all.” Oliver kept on typing, although it looked to Randal like he was typing and then erasing the same thing over and over again just so he could better ignore him.
“No, I’m getting to the great part. The great part is this: when we find a problem, it’s never our fault. Me finding a problem means someone else screwed up. Me finding an obscure but big, game busting problem a few weeks before launch makes me look great, like I’m really good at my job. I might even get a raise if I do it often enough. But the person who made the mistake, who uploaded the buggy-ass code? They end up looking bad. Maybe they’ll just be the butt of some jokes. Maybe their manager will give them a stern talking to. Maybe they won’t get the promotion.”
“Yeah, that sounds pretty great for you,” Oliver said, his voice was dismissive, but he’d also stopped typing and once again looked up at Randal. “I’m sure it makes up for everything else.”
By “everything else,” Randal assumed Oliver meant either his significantly lower pay check or the general disregard most of the development team had towards the QA department. Randal pressed on. “You know, Theresa was just asking me about this bug. She’s very concerned about it, this being so close to launch and all. I’ll have her go ahead and check in with you directly on this, OK? Then she can let me know when it’s fixed.”
“Fine, whatever.” Oliver turned back to his screen. “I’ll get to it when I get to it.”
“Great!” Once Randal heard the simple word of concession “fine,” he knew he’d won. No one wanted a producer hovering over their shoulder. Even though Oliver wouldn’t admit it to his face, he’d bet good money that he’d start working on the bug as soon as he left. “And one other thing. I need you to load me up an archived version of the character your bug zapped so I can keep testing.”
“Fine. What’s the character’s name?”
Randal turned to leave, saying over his shoulder, “It’s in the bug report.”
After returning to QA, passing out the cupcakes and ascertaining that no one had yet repeated his bug, Randal sat in his own cubicle once again. His chair offered him no support as he leaned back, and he almost flipped over backwards. He stifled a scream, refusing to give the others the satisfaction. Everyone in the company had the same kind of chair, and they were pretty nice, but there was one chair in QA that was broken. The slightest pressure against the back support caused it to recline to a 45 degree angle. Whenever anyone left their cubicle alone for a while, there was a good chance whoever was currently stuck with the Back Breaker would seize the chance to switch it out. Last time he’d checked, Markos had it. “I licked all those cupcakes,” Randal called out to the room, remembering how Markos had bit into his right away when Randal had given it to him a few moments earlier. No one replied, probably because they knew he was lying. His chance for revenge would come.
He settled onto the forward edge of the chair and leaned towards his desk. He hadn’t brought in much to personalize his space. No toys or posters or pictures of loved ones pinned to the cubicle’s fabric walls. In those rare moments when he wasn’t looking at his monitor or his gaming screen, his gaze settled upon one of the many printouts he’d made of the original concept art for Excelsior. He had sketches of some of his favorite levels, like Starfall Fields and Flesh Grinder, along with designs for assault cannons, rocket launchers, and battle armor. There were the original conceptions for the many different enemies in the game, along with the impossible, gravity defying cliff side fortresses, crater-strewn fields, and black and gray rock tunnels of the alien world where Excelsior’s battles played out. And there were sample character sketches as well, most of them burly looking space marine types with heavy armor and grizzled features. In the center of them all was a color printout of a female warrior in a form-fitting yellow and black jumpsuit holding a delicate but deadly looking power lance. Although in his version the hair was different (short and black, like Sandra’s, back in high school) and she wore yellow armor instead of a jumpsuit, this sketch had been the original inspiration when he created Lea.
Randal liked surrounding himself with these concept pieces because he felt they most accurately represented what the game was supposed to be. They were pure design, unhindered by texture and polygon restraints or the man hours required to bring them to digital life. They represented what Excelsior was striving to be as a game. By surrounding himself with such imagery, Randal believed it made him a better tester because he’d so internalized the feel of what the game should be that when something in the game was out of place, he knew it immediately at a gut level. He switched out some of the sketches every couple of weeks, especially as new levels and enemies came online, but the color portrait of the proto-Lea always remained in the center. Asked by Philip one day why he chose a female as his main avatar, Randal had given his stock answer: “If I’m going to sit around watching somebody’s butt all day while playing the game, it might as well be a nice looking butt.” As he sat again staring at the image he reached out and adjusted it, making sure it wasn’t hanging crooked. It wasn’t.
On the off chance that the bug had sorted itself out (which sometimes happened) or that Oliver had worked faster than he thought he would, Randal fired up the game again. No sign of Lea. Rather than test with another avatar, he turned to his computer and checked e-mail. He slogged through more of the usual corporate stuff and then checked his Facebook page. Someone had left him a message there, maybe the same woman who’d e-mailed him earlier since it was the same text: “We need to meet.” The confusing thing was that, according to Facebook, he’d left the message on his wall himself. Could one of those stupid third party dating apps be forwarding e-mails to his Facebook account? That didn’t make any sense, but maybe. He erased the message and then checked his personal mail on his phone. There it was again, from the self-proclaimed warrior woman. “We need to meet.”
He thumb-typed a reply from his phone. “Who is this? Why do you want to meet?” adding at the last minute before he sent it, “Do you have a pic? Where’s ur profile?” Randal was at this point a veteran of the online dating scene. As much as he worked, as tired as his job made him, he felt he didn’t have time to get out and meet people the old fashioned way. Besides, he wasn’t entirely sure how one actually picked up women in bars. But online he was in his element, and if he could get something going in an e-mail correspondence, he could almost always get a first date. It was rare for women to contact him first like this, and weird for whoever it was to be so coy about introducing themselves properly, but he knew that when the women came on to him first, the chances of things ending up with at least a handjob if not more on the first date were much higher, so he was willing to risk a little to gain a lot.
His computer chimed and he saw an e-mail from Oliver on his corporate account. It was just one line long: “Character name Lea is not in database. Did you fill out bug report accurately or not?” What did he mean? Was he being dense? He knew Lea was gone from the data base, which is why he wanted the data restored from an archived version. He found Oliver’s IM handle in the corporate directory and sent him a message.
RandalK: Oliver, yes the report is accurate. I know Lea’s missing, which is why I need you to restore her data from a backup.
Oliver responded about a minute later, just before Randal was going to pick up the phone and call him.
OliverW: i’ve got nothing in your account that matches
RandalK: In the backups?
RandalK: Check again. I’ve been using her for almost 2 yrs
OliverW: not here. I’ve got AI Joe, Ballbuster, Popgun, RandalTest
RandalK: that’s all?
RandalK: Wtf? I was playing her all day. This is bad.
OliverW: looking into it
How could Lea be gone from the backups too? The bug really was bad. Awful in fact. He brought up bug tracker and added this new wrinkle to the bug description and marked it as critical. If this happened to any paying customers, there’d be hell to pay.
For now though, there was nothing he could do about it but wait. That was the job – find the problems and then make them somebody else’s problems while you went looking for more. He looked at his “To Do” list and saw other levels that needed testing which he could do with some of the other avatars that were still in the database. He loaded up AI Joe on the Twilight Station board and started running through it. But his squadies here were woefully under-trained, and Philip was still using Lea’s guys to test Dreadrock. AI Joe didn’t have Lea’s speed or precision and playing him felt like everything was moving at half speed. He beat the level without any bugs in fifteen minutes and was about to try again with a different weapons load, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Where had Lea gone? How had she just disappeared?
He turned the console off. He wished he could go home. The free pizza should have arrived in the cafeteria by now. He stood up and saw that there was another e-mail on his phone from the warrior woman, this time with a pic attached. She had short, dark hair and a wide smile. She looked petite, friendly, and vaguely familiar. Maybe he’d seen her profile on Adult Friend Finder before at some point. This time the text of the e-mail was slightly different. “Let’s chat online and then meet,” was all it said. Excellent. Online chats were good, and he knew a few gambits that would almost certainly sniff out if this was really a woman or just some dude playing tricks. Not right now though. First some pizza and then a talk with PB. If Oliver had lost his Lea with his stupid bug, Randal would just have to go over his head and talk to PB. PB always knew what to do.