FAQ v. 0.99 / City Animals

Short story by Melos Han-Tani (4/1/2022)

An FAQ for a 3D, Suburban Souls-like, and a story of a person searching for their roommate in a futuristic, towering version of the midwestern suburb "Vernon Hills"

CW for some brief explicit violence.

FAQ v. 0.991

... and if you ever forget the controls, you can consult them from the Pause Menu in-game.

Gameplay Outline

If you've played the ever popular Dark Souls, then you may have some sense of what you're getting into when playing this game. While in some ways it's not innovative mechanically, it is, however, the first major indie "Soulslike" set in an American-style city/town. Narratively it's closer to FromSoftware's character-driven games like 2019's Sekiro or 2025's Galatea.

In this game you control Royal, the 'Chosen NEET', a 9th-generation Taiwanese-American living in the vertical and suburban city of Vernon Hills, Illinois. After choosing your face, gender, and other appearance values, you'll be spawned into Royal's bedroom for the tutorial.

City Animals (1)

No one should be awake at 4:10 AM. The A/C unit, home to spiders, awkwardly jammed into my window, reluctantly chugging along. This year it'll turn 8.

In 5 hours I'll have to don my disguise as a freelance media worker, scouring the internet for IP violations of the next installment in the Frozen franchise, escalating the 'worst' transgressions up to the legal team.

I fall eight inches off of my floor mattress, glancing at my mirror, my lanky legs scouring the laundry piles for a clean-enough pair of underwear.

I find one, a pair of Nostalgic Underwear,

All-cotton and star-patterned underwear. A long-loved piece from Royal's collection. It's rumored that an old thrift store deep in the Lower Layer of Vernon Hills would source their underwear (such as this) from recently evicted homes.

...and deftly fling it on.

My room is mostly white, no decorations worth mentioning as I don't see the point. If I want to see something I look at my phone. The bedroom window radiates navy blue, a sign I ought to sleep again. But instead I gaze outdoors.

Far, far, downwards: the 45 River, extending a few miles to the left and right. I see little shipping boats meandering about. Straight across from my window: a dim, rocky cliff face, featureless from mechanical excavation. Upwards: a sliver of night sky. As unexciting as it is, I hear I am lucky to have this view.

I think about the saucer-eared bastard I pledge allegiance to at my job. Doesn't he market himself? ...Not according to our CEO. Like me, she's some mix of East Asian, although evidently much more successful, as she became CEO by the age of 35. A real go-getter, the type of Asian whose neuroses sublimated themselves into a bloodlust for helping our company shit out its share of plastic merchandise, yearly movies and copyright lawsuits.

I consider what anime to pass the time with, stumbling out of my room. The living room feels more spacious. A few posters are missing. The TV, the sofa. There is a measure presence of bare, beach-sand-colored carpet.

Jim Johnson, my longtime roommate and college friend who is actually mostly Chinese (and also eternally single) has always been very neat, but this goes beyond his usual cleaning routine. Was he selling things? I don't remember agreeing to that. I check my LINE messages, but our chat is gone.

I walk over and bang on his door, thinking of my First Meeting with Jim.

A chance first encounter between two close friends. At a cafe, Royal noticed Jim playing an obscure game about the complicated moral decisions of killing or not killing goblins. All it took were Royal's words "Hey, I like that game too," for Jim to spill out his aspirations to make games.

But there's no response. He must be out. I soon notice the router is gone. I can't work today. I need to find a router, need to find Jim, but I don't know which to do first.

So I go to get my belongings from my room, but it, too, is empty, except for a small, worn out flash drive, which I carefully tuck into my pockets.

I return to the living room, which is now empty.

I leave my husk of a home and the locked door, in search of Jim, no longer in this apartment, this one unit of one building of one district of Vernon Hills's Middle Layer.

FAQ v. 0.992

After exploring the apartment room you can finally enter the APARTMENT HALLWAY. It's a little mazelike, but if you follow the apartment numbers in descending order you'll eventually reach the end. Don't bother trying any of the doors, they're all locked (with the same message.)

Once you reach ATRIUM 3F (wow, check out that lighting), you can take the stairs down. The stairs zigzag back and forth for a bit but end up at ATRIUM 1F.

Taking the stairs up just takes you to ATRIUM 4F, but there are no apartments here, just a small telescope. If you take a look you'll be able to see a bit more of the Middle Layer, as well as some of the places you'll go later. Cool.

After that, if you want you can explore ATRIUM 2F a bit. It's actually a copy paste of ATRIUM 3F, with the dead end doors and all, but if you go to the room directly below Royal's (221) you'll find a "Fragment of a Curious Passage (Blue 1)".

Talk to the few NPCs in Atrium 1F if you want, and when you're ready, head out of the exit to HOME VESTIBULE SOUTH (make sure to save, though!) and get ready for...

BOSS 1 - Someone's Dog

It's not too tough, but still, be careful... Try using Wide Attack Mode so you can sprint past and skim the boss with your shockwaves. When he rockets towards you it'll always be where you were a few frames ago, so if you just keep moving you'll be fine. Take the time to get comfortable with the controls, but in any case, the fight will be over and you'll end up outside of the apartment.

City Animals (2)

I said I live in the Middle Layer.

That's because the city I live in is shaped like a tall slice of wedding cake. Vernon Hills, a Midwestern, affluent American suburb, was once flat as could be. One day, it dug up the three surrounding highways (Route 45, Illinois Route 60, and Illinois Route 21). Deep, deep down, hundreds of stories, deeper than perhaps, made sense, but because it could be done, because it had to be done, a bizarre solution against extreme floods. A gambit to preserve a way of life.

Already vibrant, with highly-ranked education and lucrative careers, how could this town continue to grow with such limited space? Merging with nearby towns fell out of favor, and soon people focused towards the "depth solution."

And so a town once so flat and serene grew denser, deeper, adding schools, hospitals, even universities. Layer after layer appeared, below the Surface. The Upper Layer, Middle Layer, Lower Layer. Not distinct places, but a rough division of the many layers below the Surface.

And I live somewhere in that Middle Layer, where we can still get a glimpse of the natural sun, but only during the warmer months.

My apartment's entryway leads to a typical entrance garden. A brick path slightly curves through some ornamental grasses and planters, ending at a curb where cars drop off passengers. The streets are mostly empty, as now, only the occasional delivery car pulls up to the curve to refill our building's vending and snack machines.

The building is close enough to the outer windows, these building-high panes of transparent, glass-like material. They separate the interior of the Middle Layer from the actual, outdoors.

That is, when I leave my apartment, I'm still technically "Indoors", although with realistic sky lighting and climate control, it's at times easy to forget. At certain points along the perimeter of the outer windows, you can enjoy some green spaces, some parks.

The trees here are still young, scraggly. The ground is flat. It lacks the charm of a forest, but it's as good as it gets here.

I sit under the no smoking sign and light up, watching a few elderly Tai-chi practitioners. Soon the park will fill with commuters, nursery toddlers, lunch breakers... people on their way up, people on their way down, birds who've lost their way.

I consider what it is I'd ask Jim if I could. I look at my Emerald Mobile Phone.

A mid-cost phone from a Chinese brand. After a data leak, the city of Vernon Hills placed strict security checks are placed upon all imported phones.

I only use the texting apps. It's been years since I've done anything else with this thing, and it feels better that way.

Should I ask Jim: "What was wrong with living in the Middle Layer?" No, that's too direct.

"How's it going? Been so quiet since you left..."

No, too passive aggressive, although maybe that's my style.

"My job's been the same! You know. Looking for those online violations! Actually the other day I got told by my boss how good of a job I was doing, and I felt good, somehow."

No, too long, rambling, who wants to be put under pressure to respond to something so long?

I try to remember, try to remember the good times, tracing our friendship to the moment that our living situation seemed to show its first signs of tension -

A phenomenon that rings out in the history of one's life... "You're still playing that trendy laundry-washing game, huh?" Jim asked. He wondered why he choose such an aggressive phrase, walking back to his room to chip away at making his game.

that wear and tear, impossible to tape back up.

I look up from the park. A column of huge windows, dotted with wide slabs of concrete, rises upwards 500 meters, all the way past the Upper Layer, to the Surface, where I know Jim must be, where Jim wants to be.

FAQ v. 0.993

When you've cleared the last section of the playground, look to the right to see another small hill (the one with some balls at the bottom.) If you run to the top and hop onto the tree branches, you'll be able to open a shortcut to the start of the area. From here, use the Playground Key to unlock the gate out of this place, leading to a fire-escape staircase that will take you to a section going up the wall.

At the rest area partway up the wall, you can finally use the Fragment of a Curious Passage (Blue 2) on its corresponding door. If you've been following this guide then you'll have already used the Blue 1 fragment, so you'll be able to enter the "Blue Hallway", which eventually leads to a place that's important to Royal's story.

You can go in, but you'll be stopped pretty quickly by a Yellow Door which you can't open till way later. That being said, the Blue Hallway is a good farming spot if you feel you're a bit low on levels.

Step out onto the plaza, but get ready, because...

BOSS 7 - Raging Guards

Despite that intro, it's a relatively simple fight. You can get one of them stuck on the flower beds. Stick to plunge attacks on the larger one after his jumps, and go in for bumps on the tall one when he rolls into a wall. You'll get two Aspirations of a Security Guard and be able to access the Mall Tower. Don't forget to check the side of the arena for a little path where you can find the Morning Jogger Set.

City Animals (3)

The elevator from the Upper Layer finally reaches the Surface. From the bottom of the 45 River, we're about a kilometer up. Of course, the sense of height only registers if you've made a journey upwards - travel into Vernon Hills from another city and you won't notice anything.

Up here, it still looks like a classical, Midwestern suburb. Wide roads and sparse sidewalks, strip malls and winding subdivisions. Time frozen in the early 2000s. The more thinkpiece-y people like to say it's Surface residents who want to live eternally in a nostalgic past, but... most people just recognize it as the result of systematically shifting attention towards building the Layers. Or, more generously, a clever marketing trick.

Kept the same way for decades, IHOPs, McDonalds and all, it has a threefold comfort. One for a particular lineage of peoples who have called the Surface (Old Vernon Hills) their home for years, a tourist appeal for out-of-town-ers wanting to see an old city (much like how people used to visit the "Great American Cities" of old), or even a day trip for those living on the Lower Layers of Vernon Hills.

Anyways... I peer down the ledge near the elevator, trying to spot my home's park on the Middle Layer. Across the chasm of the 45 River (Or, the 45 Canyon, as it's called up here), I can see swampland and lightweight transport boats ferrying people to the border of the town.

The layout of the Surface hasn't changed much since the subterranean layers of Vernon Hills were built. You have a bit of forest preserve, some corporate business parks, patches of woodland, gentle hills, a few golf courses, plenty of roads, hospitals, some school districts. I've heard it's entirely possible to live entirely up here, without visiting the deeper layers of the town. Likewise, it's possible to live a happy existence in the Middle Layer without much interaction with the Surface. It feels weird until you realize most residents of big cities traditionally never visit every neighborhood of their city.

Still, we're all residents of the same town, so you can technically go from any layer to another, whenever you want, so long as the time fits into your schedule.

At first there was some discussion of whether the layers should be separate towns, but then it was argued that it's no different from how sprawling cities like Chicago used to be, and that was that.

Perhaps the one biggest change to the Surface would be Hawthorn Mall (traditionally one of the biggest malls in the midwestern State of Illinois), which added numerous stories, corporate offices, even landing strips. Due to worry over affecting the Old Vernon Hills landscapes, at some point in the 2040s, new development (such as luxury apartments) was restricted to the Mall itself, or to the Layers.


Jim always had aspirations to work at the Mall (or more precisely, the companies that called the upper level of the Mall home). As far as I can tell this dream hadn't changed since I met him in college.

But it wasn't any company he wanted to work at - he never gave up on that dream of running a game studio, as tricky as that seemed to be. One day he decided what he needed was expansion, growth, and he claimed one couldn't find that living in the Middle Layer.

Maybe it was being around me. Maybe that's why he moved out, I can't say - or blame him. The coagulating muck that has been my life for the past few years, watching my bank balance oscillate around the same low number.

There was only one game company big enough for Jim, the one he would casually toss around as "maybe I'd be able to make my way to the top, if I had ten years." It was Analgesic, more precisely, their USA branch, still turning out new mobile games, year after year. Once a humble, small studio, a change of events and a string of hit games caused them to begin to grow in size until reaching their state today.

Jim would always joke that Analgesic really understood games - he'd sometimes link this to him and Analgesic both having roots in being Asian, although I always wondered the extent that meant anything at this point. It felt like justifying what some industry magnate did simply because he grew up from poverty.

Jim would say he could change games, change entertainment, if only he had the kind of resources Analgesic did. I would sometimes nod, or if I felt less agreeable, ask why Analgesic hadn't changed anything about our world or lives in the decades they've been around. Jim would ignore me. He felt like someone trying to win an arms race, a military specialist.

Sometimes I wish I had the kinds of aspirations Jim did. To not be content to just wade in the same cycles of anime seasons and amnesiac political discourse.


Before I knew it I had entered the Mall. I walked one hundred steps to the directory. I found the floor for Analgesic's reception. It was high up, near the landing strip. I walked another 50 steps, admiring the sprawling, interior architecture, fanciful yet mundane. I hit "up".

I waited, and I waited, and eventually, I entered the elevator, and went to Analgesic's floor. I talked to the secretary. I asked for Jim. The secretary looked at me all funny, regained his composure, then said that would be impossible.

FAQ v. 0.994

Now, you're almost done with The Surface and finally where you've set out to reach. That huge building in the distance sure looked enticing, right?

With the first Ringtone of Awakening from the Buried Military Site and the second from the Playground Ruins, you can get through the security checkpoint at the end of Route 60 and reach the road to the mall.

The Mall is actually a huge dungeon, and not really a mall. It's more like one of those giant JRPG towers, broken into multiple, interconnected layers. In a way, it forms an entire game itself. The entrance of its circular structure is at the bottom of a stepped basin. You can run around the edge of the basin to find some items (including the Sandwich Artist Set), or just beeline for the entrance. Either way, there are no any enemies in this area, so it's a good place to relax.

While there's no rest mechanic in the game, maybe take a load off in real life. You've been playing the game a while, right? What do you think of the setting? Remind you of anything? It's nice to take a break now and then.

Well, when you're ready to keep going, the terrain in this area is well-shaped too, so it's a good time to spawn those harder Enemy Capsules and try to rack up some extra Aspiration.

There's a bit of light (and tedious) platforming needed to reach the entrance, but the next part is SO good that I won't spoil the rest for now.


Okay, done with that? Once you finish that scene, you'll be at the Central Mall Elevator. You can go to only two floors right now, pick either to start off.

City Animals (4)

I always wondered what it was like inside the upper levels of the Mall. Ungoogleable companies, growing and dying like yearly harvests, rising and falling with the market trends of the time, lottery tickets for the aspirant.

The Mall's shopping areas, and even elevator areas, were free to travel through, with glimpses of its corporations' interiors only given by brief, marketing-friendly YouTube videos or the occasional picture. A black box, inputting people, outputting services, content.

And here I was, standing in the interior of Analgesic, past the secretary's check-in desk.

Just a moment ago I was about to give up on visiting Jim, but I received a text from the president himself. "4 PM."

I could feel the fatigue of living, being here, slowly catching up to me, or... maybe it was watching all these hopeful, fresh graduates, youthful 20 and 30-year-olds running about through the staircase-laden guts of the multi-floor complex, holding lattes and teas and energy drinks. Whether they were gearing up for nights out or nights in was beyond me.

I took the downtime to explore a bit, considering how it'd be unlikely for me to return here in the future. The videos of game studios Jim showed me were always rows of computers, low ceilings, fluorescent lighting, a bizarre image against the vibrant worlds that games tended to have. I always felt it had the vibes of a factory, but Jim's mood would always be more bubbly than average when showing me these videos.

The space here felt like a mix between the biggest malls of the early 2000s, the gigantic Google complexes, all melted into an office for games.

The expanse I now stood in was about the size of a football field in both directions, towering up a few stories, reminiscent of an airport terminal or gymnasium. Crossing it on foot was no simple task, thanks to the stairs and crisscrossing corridors. A sign notified me that a special Google Maps app could be downloaded for getting around the complex.

Indoor small parks were located here and there, reminiscent of what it was like in the interior of the Middle Layer, just outside my apartment. While it was supposed to have a healing effect, I couldn't shake off the feeling of an awkward, indoor hotel atrium garden, fountains circulating with stale penny-wish-water.

I crossed through one of the small parks only to see a group of regular-looking men in their 20s - mostly Asian - come up from the ground in an elevator, carrying photo equipment. To my left was a booth where a few influencer-types - a woman, maybe a teenager? with long, pink hair and a coordinated white outfit, and a man wearing a recent fast-fashion outfit. The two were carefully deliberating over the placement of stuffed plushes, presumably of Analgesic's latest game, although nothing about the plushies felt particularly designed or distinct, for all I knew they could have been promoting some recent Vernon Hills anime.

Up some stairs and through a glass wall I could see engineers deliberating over a whiteboard, mind-map charts planning out the optimal route to extract money from the paying users with some game's latest update. Down the hallway was the storefront operations, where Analgesic sold other developers' games for a cut of profit. It was commendable, not only did they dominate every hardware market, they too controlled the distribution. Everyone bowed to Analgesic, and in a way, Analgesic did control the flow of games beyond just their own.

At least, this was what I assumed, if the games market was anything like the movies market I lived and worked in, day in and day out. And it probably was, for one Serving Size of Entertainment was more or less modular with another.

Beyond a hedge and fountain was a small library of behavioral psychology books, with two young-looking UI designers deliberating over the best placement of a new button.

From the right frame of reference, they were just like me, right? If they don't place the buttons right, engagement drops, the company goes under. If I don't flag IP violations, then less people buy the films legitimately. Or so the arguments go. In reality both Analgesic and my company probably skirt by on name recognition alone. The truth of it is, we could sell rocks and still outgross some of the world's smaller countries' GDP. It doesn't really matter what we sell, so much that we sell something. And it gives someone like me a job, even if it doesn't really matter.

All at once, the fantastical luxury and airiness of this "office palace", the complex work it took to sustain whatever Analgesic was doing, and the concept of leisure itself, seemed to rise into a strange, doughy mess. I wished to return to my sleepy apartment, to curl up on its cold, wooden floors, staring at the ceiling, inhabiting a space that I could, at least, say made some level of sense. But I was too far, too deep into it.

Maps in the office pointed me to more maps. I passed cafeterias, food courts of all kinds, private baristas helping to maximize productivity. I stole a scone, I posed as an employee, I struck up conversation. I, Royal, imagined the life of a "game" developer. Young people dragged 3D objects on screens, dark text editors filled with lines of code. I couldn't imagine doing any of it. And somehow, it must all work, because the office I'm in is a reality.

Floaty glass architecture, the nap rooms and immaculate lemon-clean smell, the friendly signage fonts. It was nice. Jim's dream, I suppose.

But I started to laugh, a strange laugh, echoing off the office walls. Out of place and forgotten. A punctured balloon, a crumpled cardboard protagonist of a Season-1-Cancelled anime.

I sat down on what appeared to be a catgirl bench, and looked up to see Jim staring at me. It felt like I had left the dirty dishes out.

Just like that, those decades spent away from each other, those 20 years it took me to get in here. Those 20 years vanished just like that. It felt as if "Here we were, 30 again, living in the Middle Layer, two bachelors."

FAQ v. 0.995

Bear with me through this section. From the door that says "399":

Left, right at the red tree, forward.

Floor 401: Take a right at the sign. Watch out for the enemies on the right. Climb up the ladder to Floor 402.

Teleporter maze. Right, right, left, up, right, down, up. Floor 404. Uses the same statue puzzle as floor 394. The next five floors are pretty straightforward. If you're really struggling with the Engineer enemies here, try picking them off one at a time with some kind of luring item.

Boss 27 - Automated Barista

You don't have much time to dodge the attacks, the fastest way is to memorize the icons shown on the indicator, which indicate whether the Barista is going to use a Triple-shot Espresso, a Mocha, or a Cappuccino. You'll have to climb ladders to take down the milk machines, so be sure to only do it if the attack is going to be a Mocha, or else you'll be knocked off and also take fall damage.

Other than that it's a fairly straightforward fight. After taking enough machines, the attacks should get sparse enough to let you get in close. The barista machine will burst open at the end of the fight, dropping a body out. If you look close, you might recognize who it is... so sad...

Loot the body to get FLOOR 500 keycard, then make your way back to the elevator.

City Animals (5)

Royal looked up at Jim. Jim looked down at Royal. The office was at once empty and dark.

Jim: "So here we are at fifty years old, fifty years of age."

Royal: "A question for the president if I may."
Royal: "What are you doing here?"

Jim: "I simply took my Aspirations where they wanted to go, and that's to make video games, to make fun experiences that bring joy to the world. We also promote positive gaming experiences by running the world's largest digital gaming storefront."

Royal: "But along the way you forgot about YOU."

Jim: "Those were naive aspirations, Royal. You and I know that!"
Jim: "The stupid dreams of a stupid kid, passion, doomed to go nowhere."

Royal: "You call them things but they were once so dear." Royal: "I guess that's because you can't even feel anymore."

Jim: "No one wants to play a game about our parents. About Vernon Hills."

Royal: "We LIVE in Vernon Hills. We were born here and we will die here."

Jim: "The world doesn't need that. It wants fantasy. This world - it's all pain, and games help sooth it."

Royal: "Do you remember when you made a game about your parents? About the things you once felt."
Royal: "But now, you are the CEO of this place."
Royal: "Each day you reject the games that a young Jim would have once made. Killing them off, one by one, saying it isn't what your customers want."
Royal: "But it's your fear of yourself that you project onto what you think the customers want. Isn't it?"

Jim: "You don't get it. If I didn't aspire to be here, if I didn't work so hard, if I weren't helping optimize the player experience -"

Royal: "Then what? Where would we be without these 'perfect games'?
Royal: "People would entertain themselves another way."
Royal: "You are a black hole, a singularity of self-annihilation. You take your shortcomings and make up for it by building monstrosities. A walking plague."

Royal: "You are inhuman and beyond help. You are an immeasurable damage to the human race, a devil, a mere boy possessed by his demons."

Royal: "In the name of what's good for humankind, I'll end your lies now, you piece of shit."

I shatter a coffee mug on the bench, it forms a perfect shard, gleaming in the moonlight. Jim can't see or perceive anything, so he sure as shit can't see this. I've stabbed it straight into his throat, jammed it in there through every undeserving layer, slitting a perfect eye shape. He tries to gather one last breath into his body, that pathetic bundle of denial and projection. But he can only look at me, Royal.

Jim, a fountain of blood, looking at me, Royal. Royal, the killer from Middle Layer, ascending to the heights of the Surface and through the gates of the Mall, into the office of Analgesic, piercing a perfect line into the neck of this important man.

The workers seeing their first blood can barely muster a word as I drag Jim's body to the window, breaking it with his skull, then pausing for a second. I stuff his wallet into my pockets and then fling the body out the window until it hits the ground, so silent.

I glance behind me to this marvel of architecture as the content machine grinding to a halt. They say a factory production line can't stop but I've proven otherwise.

A woman with dyed hair calls for 911. I'm restrained by someone half my age, some East Asian kid, his face looks just like a grade school bully, I swear, me, Jim, this kid, archetypal Asian Americans reincarnating throughout time...

FAQ v. 0.996

Section 14.23 - [MALL500]
Recommended level: 50

Past the next set of doors is the point of no return, but this game actually doesn't save after entering there, so you don't need to worry about missing anything.

If you want, refer to Appendix 3.4 (Secret Managers) for info on some challenging bosses you can now face in previous areas.

If you enter, you'll fight the final boss, and -

(Under Construction)

(Check back soon!)

City Animals (6)

It happened fast. The aptly named Mall Police swarmed Analgesic's offices. I was tackled and tied up. Laying on my side, I watched the banners of Analgesic's latest games (mostly gacha) drift by, the wide-eyed anime girls and boys smiling at me. I watched a gigantic 8K TV broadcasting Jim accepting a lifetime achievement award on stage at the industry's GDCA awards. I watched an ad for Analgesic's newest handheld device, the specifics of which I didn't catch but I felt I could somehow predict, advancements as meaningless as the last cycle.

I didn't catch the price point as the elevator closed behind me. Sales records for Analgesic's latest quarterly flew by. There was no competition, because Analgesic won.

We went down many floors, quickly and smoothly as this building uses the latest elevator technology, invented and imported from Malaysia.

We exit the Mall, and are on the Surface, it feels so plain, although I'm still tied down to a stretcher. I see a medical team swarming to a spot nearby the Mall's base where whatever remained of Jim's body must have splattered.

The police are silent. I wonder if I'll be taken to a detention center in the Middle Layer, or detained here. We travel by car, watching the suburban views go by, so typical, like one of those sappy and rosy '10s teenager films, all the landscapes the same except for the towering Mall and the approaching 45 Canyon.

The policeman looks a little like me, or like Jim, or like my friends, it's hard to get a good look at his face in the rearview mirror at this angle, but he radiates obedience and order. Maybe a real go-fer kind of guy, pushed around in school too much without realizing it and now dead set on making sure it never happens again.

The car smells fresh, new leather, likely procured with Vernon Hills's latest community safety budget. Someone could read excess into this choice of materials, another could read ill will.

However we divine the tea leaves of this affluent town makes no difference from what they do. I simply read the situation what it's always been, the town of Vernon Hills being what it is, a comfortable place wanting to remain comfortable, Eden.

We get on the elevator and descend from the Surface. I watch the walls of the 45 Canyon rise into view. Through the parks near the Middle Layer, through the outer windows, back inside, down the roads to my apartment, up the curb and into the atrium and up the elevator and down the hall and we're already home, it always happens so fast.

It's been a while since I've been down here, hasn't it?

It's felt like so long...

They even sell the same flavors of Doritos in the vending machines.

They take me back up to my apartment, with its little view of the outside. Somehow I feel love for it.

Without a word, my guard pushes me into the apartment, laughs out an indeterminate sound, before his phone makes a tiny shriek. I recognize it as the push notification sound for the game I had just seen at Analgesic's offices. The guard seems to forget about me, quickly swipes open his phone to check on it, and walks away, but not before locking the door behind him. I guess I could open it and leave now, but I respect his wishes and leave it locked. I don't want to go, anyways.

My apartment, still empty. Jim's door, still locked, except now I know for sure he'll never return.

The apartment is dark, its awkwardly lit living room looking like fodder for a liminal space novelty account.

I try the door to my room. It is locked. The door to the bathroom is mercifully unlocked. It's hard to say what I'll do about food. I try Jim's room. It's locked. I remember the wallet I took from him and look for his key. It's still there, tucked behind a layer of point cards and platinum credit cards.

I remember when we got these made in the key store down the street, the one near the Subway we used to visit in the summer when it was too hot to walk to the Whole Foods. The first step in our adulthood journeys that would eventually set us apart.

As I unlock his door, I imagine that Jim's locked himself inside and is waiting for me. A simple misunderstanding we'll clear up.

It's exactly as I remember, those years ago, his laptop screen illuminating the room, the generic IKEA sheets, assorted wires and collections of Mountain Dew cans, a value pack of detergent, a whiteboard used so many times that traces of its past writing remain.

A small television propped up on a storage container, connected to a game console. A small hong bao keychain dangles from it, a few novels by Asian authors are scattered on his bed. The room welcomes me in, and I appreciate the familiar sensation, like I can sit here forever and be safe.

To the right of his bookshelf I see another door I hadn't seen before, though I'd been here thousands of times. I'm drawn to it like a player seeking treasure, the next expertly-placed dopamine hit. Naturally, I open it.

Behind it is a party - a party for me, Royal! It's my mother, it's my aunt, it's my four cousins, it's my college classmates and co-workers, all here just for me. A plate with my favorite cheesecake. A box with my favorite game.

"Happy Birthday, Royal!"

Most importantly of all, Jim is standing on the other side, present in hand.

"Thanks, Jim, you didn't have to."

"Maybe it was a bit much, but..."

I open the present. It is a small USB drive. It is a small game, about us, about where we live, the Middle Layer of Vernon Hills, Royal and Jim. I want to care for it until the end.

I look outside of the window of the party and I see the canyon wall, above the 45 River. We're in the Middle Layer, far from the Surface, far from the Mall, and Jim is still here, side by side.

FAQ v. 0.997 FINAL

Actually, I have something to admit. This game was actually a passion project of mine for 10 years. But I can't make it anymore. So I'm sorry if you got to the end and wanted to see what was beyond that door.

Even though I lived in the place this game is about I felt like I didn't understand it at all. Was I caricaturing it? The corrupt mayor, the jaded and possessed artist, the soulless corporate president, the places. No matter what I added, some chance encounter on the street or at a gathering would trump anything from my imagination. I felt I couldn't keep up with the ideas and directions.

The words of players telling me they loved the game began to ring hollow. The millions of dollars that racked up, the cultural phenomenon that the game became felt like too much to bear. Doubt started to fill my mind and before I knew it, I was paralyzed by my name, MY sole name, always being mentioned in articles and social media, that shackle of responsibility it put on me!

Or maybe, no one played it at all. Perhaps I made this myself and sent it to one friend and quit games and that was it. No one saw it, no one cared, not viral enough to get enough eyes on it. Tweeted out into the void, uploaded into the masses of freeware.

Like baking and eating my own bread.

I don't want to go into the reality of this game so I'll leave it open. A choose your own adventure development log.

Well, in any case, the truths are as follows.

The game grew from a tiny, simple idea.

It was once a gesture, a gift between friends.

One day it grew too much.

I never finished it.


Thanks for reading!

This was a bit of a frustrating story to work on. I think it was maybe trying a bit too many things? Not to mention, written during the end of Sephonie's development, ha ha! (We just announced its release date - April 12th!)

Well, trying new things out in writing is always good. I've always wanted to set a story in my hometown of Vernon Hills. This urge to write about one's hometown feels pretty common, because every time you do it it's also a sort of self-reflection exercise (although writing tends to always be that, maybe...) In some ways, maybe it's similar to the urge to model your bedroom in 3D after you pick up Blender for the first time.

Anyways, I've always wanted to write 'suburban slipstream' fiction (I just learned that word 'slipstream' the other day.)

I've wanted to write in a spatial manner that really makes a space in a story feel 'explorable'. Something like Kobo Abe's Ark Sakura or Secret Rendezvous. But actually that takes a lot of work and also commitment to whatever setting something is in. Well, maybe I'll come back to that idea later.

I also wanted to write about a group of Asian Americans... the story originally had four (lol) characters, all roommates, with Royal having to also find the other two roommates, but it felt like too little focus, too big of an idea, so I cut it down to Royal chasing down Jim. I do wonder what it will be like to be Asian American in 100 years, especially amongst the more privileged groups.

The story also plays with the idea of approaching a single 'space' through the lens of a story and a game. Of course, I can't actually make the game, so an FAQ felt like the next best thing. I thought it would be interesting for these two texts to inform each other, filling detail in on the other's world, even if they weren't related. I wonder what the writing styles that game FAQs (or walkthroughs) say about games themselves. Likewise, except for authorial voices slipping in, stories' descriptions of spaces can be so colored by the perceptions of the characters. It would be interesting to play around with that more intentionally than this story did.

Character-wise... it's a bit indistinct as to who Royal and Jim are. In some sense they are ex-roommates, but on the other hand they also feel like the same person somehow split and scattered across time and space, shocked and upset when re-encountering the other. Sometimes when I check in on what people I knew have gone on to do I feel a similar surprise! Usually it's of a positive tone, but there's still that shock of "oh, even though I know more about this person now, maybe there's less I know overall due to this new information and time that has passed."