The discarnate voice offers no more explanation. The words it spoke create more questions as they rattle around your mind: Is this really a game? It seems so real. How did you get here? Can you leave? Most games let you choose to play. How many more ‘levels’ are there going to be?
The woman’s accusatory voice jolts you from your confusion, “Hey! I get that you’re new, but it’d be a shame if you got shot again, wouldn’t you say?” She pushes her chin upwards, gesturing to the wall behind you, “Get up there and watch the back door. Think you can manage that, bru?”
She turns away from you, shouldering her shotgun and jogging back to the doorway. She and the skinny guy take up the same spots they defended earlier. The world outside is still unfeasibly quiet. You remind yourself of the fire exit in wall behind you and turn to face it. With your new pistol held gingerly out towards the metal door, you turn your gaze to the place where the woman had gestured.
There is a ladder screwed into the corrugated, steel wall. You hadn’t seen this earlier, even though you had been crouched just a few strides from it. You now notice that the ladder leads up to a walkway, painted in the same bright red as the ladder. With half your attention focused on the fire exit, you scramble up the ladder, the hilt of your sidearm clinking against each rung.
You reach the top and lever yourself onto the walkway. A single person can traverse the outside of the room on this narrow platform; a mesh, waist-high fence prevents you from tumbling out onto the concrete floor, and a continuous handrail above the fence offers support. You have a clear view of your two new ‘friends’ from here, still waiting for the next wave of bad-guys to show up.
You realise that you can’t see the back door from here; you’re standing right above it and if the door was to open now it would be obscured by the metal walkway under your feet. You step carefully along the walkway, around one corner, until you are able to look directly down on the door. If someone walked in now, the door would open towards you – you are in a good spot.
It’s at this point that the ridiculousness of the situation tumbles into the back of your mind. Are you really ready to shoot whoever comes through that door? You don’t know where you are; you have no idea who’s attacking you. You remember the pain of being shot just a few minutes a go, but there was no bullet, no wound left by the shooting.
Your own pistol doesn’t even look like a real gun. It looks… sort of like a pistol, but it’s way too chunky and feels too light in your hands. If you asked a child to draw a handgun, and then built a weapon based on their doodles, you would have a second version of this pistol. Until you pull the trigger, you can’t be sure it even works.
But it does work. You know it does. It has thirteen rounds in the clip.
You can’t fathom how you know… but you are fully aware that this pistol has thirteen bullets in it. You also know that you have thirteen bullets spare. The numbers sit in your mind, steady and unquestionable.
You are dragged out of your daydreaming by swift, rasping gunfire. The twitch your head round to see the man at the warehouse entrance has fired his stubby weapon, which must be some kind of sub-machinegun. He raises the weapon in both hands and lets loose another brisk burst of bullets, then drops back against the warehouse wall. From the very opposite point in the building, his voice rattles off the walls: “Here they come!”
You focus your attention on the fire exit. You can hear distant gunfire from the direction your colleague was aiming, but your spot remains deathly silent. You hold the pistol out at arm’s length, towards the door. Then you let your arms fold slightly, trying to remember how you’ve seen guns held by professionals. You try kneeling. People aim better when they are kneeling. There isn’t really enough room to need on the platform, and the handrail is in your eye-line, so you stand up again. You put your left foot forwards, and then your right, trying to work out which stance feels better. You can’t decide if aiming with one eye open is best.
Both your new partners are firing now, and without much pause. Their gunfire jangles the metal walls and makes your ear drums whine. They clearly have the harder job. From what you saw, most of the compound stretches away in that direction. No one could get round to your fire exit unless they were really sneaky. Maybe you should go and help them?
You take an uncertain step in the direction of the warehouse entrance, and the fire exit moves. The door opens just a fraction at first, pushing a small wedge of light into the back of the warehouse. The black-clad figure pushes the door cautiously with one hand and holds his pistol with another, never letting the door shift too quickly. He helps the door to shut slowly and silently, and then skulks towards the unknowing duo.
You realise that this enemy is doing the exact same thing as the one that shot you in ‘level 1’. He/she is trying to sneak attack, prowling the space between the large shelf and the wall. This time though, you are right above; even if they saw you, you would have the advantage.
You lean over the handrail, pressing your knees into the mesh barrier, and point your pistol straight down. The figure in black is unaware, but you hesitate. Can I kill someone? You remember how the last enemy hadn’t killed you. It was pretend pain. Maybe this is just a game after all.
You pull the trigger.
The pistol hops in your fingers and barks once. There’s a flash of red, and for a gut-wrenching second you think the enemy’s head has exploded. Then, something weirder happens: the flash of red snaps into the shape of a two-digit number. You see the number thirty-six hover over the figure’s head like the light bulb above a cartoon character with a new idea.
The number vanishes, and the figure slumps lazily onto the ground. They fall on their back with a clatter. You can’t be certain if they are dead - their upward gaze is masked behind a black visor – but they are completely still. You think you have killed them. To your surprise, you don’t feel shocked or guilty.
How could you feel guilty? This is just a game, isn’t it? You shot at someone, but you didn’t put a bullet in them. The gun fired and then… thirty six happened, whatever that means. You’re pretty sure that’s means that your shot did thirty-six damage. That’s a thing that happens in games, right? You remember now how you had lost health when the first figure shot you. The number seventeen had flashed through your mind.
Seventeen Health, out of one hundred. You went back to full Health when Level 2 started.
And there’s all that too. There’s all this knowledge of what’s happening stored in your head. You don’t know where you are, or what the point of all this is, but you know how much ‘health’ you have and how many ‘bullets’ you are carrying (you have twelve rounds in the pistol now). And…yes… it seems that you even know how to reload the gun. You only found out you were carrying it a few minutes ago, but reloading it is easy… apparently.
With a few expert twists and pulls of the weapon, the numbers in your mind swap over. There are now thirteen rounds in the gun again, and twelve spares. You didn’t see any of these rounds of course. You just tapped the thing a few times and it was fully loaded once more. You know that you’re not actually carrying any bullets; you don’t even have any pockets.
The fire exit moves once more. You allow yourself and inward chuckle – this new enemy, dressed in the same black garb, is sneaking in the exact same way. They hold the door as it closes, and then start sneaking down the warehouse. Again, you lean over the handrail and (with one hand this time) you fire the pistol. The number thirty six flashes red and bold, and the figure ‘dies’.
As you reload the pistol once more, you take notice of the costume you are in. You hadn’t noticed it before, but you are wearing the same outfit as the two people at the warehouse entrance. You look to them, and see that they are firing almost non-stop. Their guns sweep frantically, but their faces remain calm; you can tell that Level 2 isn’t really fazing them either. You and they are wearing the same blue, padded jumpsuit with a long zip at the front. The one-piece costume seems to have been designed to fit you perfectly, but is mercifully far from ‘skin-tight’. You also realise the figures you have killed are wearing jumpsuits, but they have their faces covered and their suits are black.
As you stare down at the two figures slumped on the floor, side-by-side, another fact occurs to you which proves that this is just a game. The figure you killed during Level 1 is gone. The moment the level was done, the body vanished. No doubt these new people… if they are even people… will vanish when Level 2 is done.
A third figure opens the fire exit. You watch nonplussed as they copycat their predecessors, sneaking into your firing line. You don’t let this one close the door. As they step passed the threshold you hold your pistol up and fire a round off at the unsuspecting creep.
This time, the figure doesn’t fall. They recoil as the shot hits their chest, and you see a new number appear in bright red just above their forehead. It’s the number twelve. You aren’t quick enough to react to this new information and the figure thrusts their pistol upwards in both hands. They fire twice, hitting you in the right elbow and shoulder. That same, gnawing pain buries itself into your arm and you stumble backwards. Your back clangs off the walkway as the number seventeen flashes twice across your vision.
You grit your teeth against the pain that continues to drill down to your bones. Game or not, this hurts. You see stars, flashes of light dance across your retinas. But these flashed aren’t caused by the pain; the walk-way is sparking around you. The figure is in the exact same spot, firing into the air around you. Then they drop their arms and begin to palm their pistol. They are reloading.
With the pain burning up and down your arm, you manage to turn onto your side. You put the stout pistol barrel through a gap in the mesh barrier, and hammer the trigger. The first two rounds miss, striking the ground beneath your attacker’s feet. You tilt the pistol and fire three more shots. Each one hits the figure’s stomach in differently places. You see the number twelve flash for the first two hits, but no number shows on the last shot – your enemy is already dropping to their knees.
You lie there for a moment. You wipe a pain-induced tear from your eye and let out a breath that you didn’t realise you were holding in. Your arm still burns in two places, but the pain is beginning to dull, more steadily than your first experience. Your two partners are still fighting. As you sit yourself up, you look over your shoulder through the mesh. They are still firing, but the pace is slowing considerably. The man grumbles something to the woman, and then steps out into the car park, out of sight. You wonder what on earth he could be thinking, but the sudden loss of pain in your side tells you that he has probably just picked off the last of the enemies.
Then that disembodied voice confirms the victory from on high: “Level 2: Complete”.
You hadn’t heard this unseen, robotic announcer formally end Level 1. You were in too much pain at the time. You realise that there must be a brief gap between levels; to give people chance to get ready. You look down over the side and see (just as you expected) bare floor where the bodies had been. However, the pistols they used are still there, on the cold floor. You didn’t have much ammo to begin with. You need some more. As you hop down the ladder you hear the announcer declare the start of Level 3 and the same objective as before.
As you turn away from the ladder, you notice that both the man and woman have gone outside. They’ve probably gone to get ammo too. You step over to the nearest handgun… and it vanishes. The game must be completely resetting, and you haven’t got enough ammunition! You dash for the next weapon, and the third, but each time the weapon pops out of existence. You clench your empty hand into a fist and smack the cold ground.
And then you smile to yourself. In your mind’s eye, your stored ammunition has just increase to ‘50’ rounds. You didn’t pick up the pistols, but you ‘picked-up’ the ammunition. It’s clear that it will take some time to completely understand this game. You slap and tug the pistol in your hand until it’s reloaded, and begin to climb the ladder once more. If you play a little longer, maybe you will learn why any of this is happening.