An aspiring reporter investigates a deserted seaside town and a haunted video game.
The sharp knocking at the door scattered Simon Latimer's concentration on his article to the four winds. He got up, went to the door and opened it, ready to chew the salesman out - amazing how many of them failed to read the "No Solicitors" notice on the building's atrium windows. Fortunately, it was simply a package man from the Postal Service, holding a package the size of a shoebox. He handed it to Simon, saying,
"This came for you today, sir. Have a good day."
"Do I need to sign for it?" asked Simon.
"Not this one," said the package man. "Have yourself a good day, sir!"
"Thanks, you too," said Simon absentmindedly as he accepted the package. As he took it into his apartment, he examined it. It was addressed to him, but that was all it had. No return address that he could find. He sat down at his kitchen table, checking for any ticking or vibrating. To his intense relief, the package did neither. Sucking in a deep breath, he tore into the package to find a clamshell cell phone, as was popular in the 90's. A few seconds after he pulled it out of the box, it started ringing.
Simon cautiously opened the phone and put it to his ear.
"Hello?" he asked.
"Simon Latimer of Coast City?" asked a deep voice, sounding like it was Autotuned.
"Speaking," said Simon, guardedly.
"Go to Haven Bay, twenty miles north of Coast City on the beach. When you get there, check out Vandelli's Video Arcade. You will find what you were looking for," replied the voice.
"What was I looking for?" asked Simon, interested now in spite of himself.
"Only you know the answer." The reply followed by the line going dead. Simon shut the phone and stared at it. What was he looking for? And why did the name Haven Bay sound so familiar?
Common sense dictated that Simon needed to throw the phone away and continue his article on "Light Beer and the Collegiate Response". But a gut feeling told him he needed to pursue this, at the very least, on the Internet. He got on his computer and researched Haven Bay. To his surprise, he found very little about it. He was able to gather that it was a tourist trap until 1996, when a new video arcade opened and the townspeople mysteriously disappeared, just right off the face of the earth. The town eventually shut down with no one to run it, and had been deserted for about twenty years. Simon decided right then and there that this was worth pursuing. Who knows, this might even be the subject for the book he had always wanted to write. His article wasn't due for three or four days anyway. What could it hurt?
The drive up the seashore had been very pleasant and sunny, the kind of day you toasted with champagne. The destination looked like many ghost towns on the Oregon Coast, run-down and in disrepair. Dust covered most of the buildings, as did graffiti and other desecrations. Simon had little trouble finding Vandelli's Video Arcade, but what surprised him was that it had been broken into, probably by curiosity seekers. He eased the door open, stepped inside and looked around. The arcade had most of the fare that arcades of the era had, such as Daytona USA, Mortal Kombat, Time Crisis and the like. Naturally, none of them were working...except one. The title was one that Simon had never seen before or heard of, Gunslinger. Simon decided to give it a try, pulling a quarter from his pocket and pulling the six-shooter light gun from its rack. It played like Time Crisis, duck and shoot and reload, until the game on the screen was replaced by a face, that spoke with the voice Simon had heard on the phone.
"Ahh, the younger Latimer brother. The puzzle is complete, or almost so."
Before Simon could respond, he began to feel a sensation of being pulled down a small hole, while being surrounded by white light. Sort of what the Terminator characters must have felt being pulled through time. Painful. It was definitely that.
When the light faded, he was surrounded by a sixteen-bit drawn atmosphere, in a western town. Like he had been digitized and put inside the game. He stepped forward, and from out of nowhere, four cowboys appeared, all shooting at him. One of the rounds hit Simon in the leg. He felt a stinging sensation, but wasn't wounded. Drawing a six-gun which had somehow appeared at his belt, he shot the offending cowboy. The cowboy fell to the ground, blinked a few times, and then disappeared. The other three cowboys ignored him, continuing to shoot. Simon took them all out, suffering no further damage. When the cowboys were gone, Simon noticed a digitized chicken. He reached out to touch it, and instantly felt the stinging go away as it disappeared.
"If you can hear us, James Barton has us trapped at the end of the game. Please help!"
The voice was faint, but it made Simon snap to attention. The only way out was to beat the game, apparently. Simon shot upwards, somehow knowing his gun had reloaded. Who was James Barton? What did the face mean by his being the "younger" Latimer brother? So many questions, but he was a reporter. Questions were his business.
Simon continued to go forward, shooting cowboys as they appeared, and somehow managing to avoid damage until the end of the digitized town, where he saw a seven foot tall digitized man in a long coat stuffed with dynamite. The end-level boss, or so Simon surmised. The tall one threw dynamite in an arc, hitting Simon a number of times until he fell over...and felt himself come back. Apparently he had five lives, like the game he played in the real world...well, four now, anyway.
He had little time to reflect on this, however, as the tall man opened his coat, revealing a chest any bodybuilder would be proud of. Simon unloaded the six shooter into the man's chest, causing him to alternate between his normal colors and an orange glow. Simon reloaded his gun as the man closed his coat and continued to throw dynamite at him. After a while, he reopened his coat, and Simon emptied the six-shooter into his chest, causing him to fall over, blink a few times, and disappear.
"Excellent, Simon," came the voice again. "If you hadn't figured it out, you're inside the game, in my world. You just beat Level 1, but there are three more levels. If you can beat them and defeat me, I will free you and the townspeople from my world. If you lose, you join them. You have four lives left. Use them wisely."
"You're James Barton, aren't you?" asked Simon, putting two and two together in his mind.
"Catches on quick, doesn't he?" said Barton's voice, in a mocking tone. Just then, the surrounding area faded to blackness.
When the light returned, Simon found himself in a digitized desert area. He drew his six shooter, advancing forward when he heard a cry from above, like that of a hawk. When the bird materialized, it tried to pounce on him, only to be taken out by someone else's bullet. Simon looked forward to see the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, digitized or not. She was a redhead, with green eyes and a cowboy outfit.
"New meat, I suppose," she said nonchalantly. "Welcome to the rest of your existence."
"Who are you?" Simon managed to ask.
"Trish Ryan, and you are..."
"Simon Latimer. I'm a reporter for the Coast City Herald."
Trish's expression went from malaise to shock in no time flat.
"Latimer...I know your brother!" she cried.
"My brother?" asked Simon, feeling slightly confused.
"He and James Barton created this game," said Trish. "But your brother got all the recognition, so James used some sort of magic to make the game absorb anyone who played it. Peter Latimer was the first, followed by everyone in Haven Bay. No one's been able to beat Barton and free the town. But you...you're a Latimer. You could do it, with my help."
"So what do we do now?" asked Simon.
The screen started to shake, all of a sudden. Trish cried out,
"Stampede coming! Get ready to jump and run!"
The cows appeared, running full tilt towards them. Trish and Simon leapt above the herd and ran on top of them, and a few minutes later, the stampede ended outside Simon's head...but a million thoughts were racing through his mind as he stopped and took breaths. Peter...had this been where he'd disappeared to all those years ago?
The level was pretty uneventful, if you don't count two more stampedes, a bunch more generic enemies and a saber-swinging boss as eventful. Simon and Trish watched the level boss blink out of existence, when they heard the voice Simon was beginning to hate.
"Latimer...I see you found help. Miss Ryan, you escaped my prison somehow, but you'll be back. As for Simon, he is the other half of the key to this prison. He will free me...he will FREE me!"
"I will...free you?" asked Simon. "What are you talking about?"
Only silence answered him. He looked over to Trish, who looked lost in thought.
"Trish?" asked Simon. "Any idea what he means by that?"
"Dunno," said Trish. "Could be leverage against your brother."
"How?" asked Simon.
"Barton thinks somehow Peter Latimer can free him from this game. When he turned to magic, he literally put his soul inside this game, and now he thinks that Peter, being the other programmer, has the key to getting him out. Peter kept insisting 'I don't know how, I don't know how' to Barton. Barton wants you as a bargaining chip, it seems."
The desert area dematerialized to a level where they were on running horses, alongside a fast train. With more generic enemies shooting at them, both from the train and on horseback as well. Vowing internally never to play video games of any kind again, Simon pulled out his six-gun and started laying waste to the enemies. Slowly he and Trish rode up the length of the train to the engine, where they climbed aboard. It was at that point that the train stopped completely and a large woman came out, carrying a whip. Simon and Trish made short work of her, and then Barton suddenly materialized in front of them.
"That's pretty good for a couple cubs," he remarked. "Now come back to town, and see if you can beat me!"
The town rematerialized, and Simon and Trish found themselves in a nighttime setting. Barton - a much shorter man than Simon had thought - was standing in the street, packing a six gun and wearing a dark brown duster. Without warning, he drew the gun and shot Trish full in the chest, all six rounds. Trish fell down facefirst, blinking away. Simon angrily drew his weapon and fired two rounds at Barton, and there followed a gunfight between the two. Simon managed to get Barton blinking before he lost another life, and when he was blinking, Barton threw down the six shooter and proceeded to try punching and charging Simon. Simon kept firing when he could, and when Barton finally went down, his chest opened via a beam of white light shooting to the sky. Along with the light came cries of rapturous joy...
When the light faded, Simon found himself back in the arcade, surrounded by people. All of whom looked happy as a king to be free. Even Trish had somehow come back, for she came up to Simon and wrapped him in a bear-hug.
"My hero," she said. "Our hero!"
This was followed by a bunch of Haven Bay's people coming up and patting him on the back or shaking his hand. Simon went through the crowd and found the door to the arcade, seeing a sunny sky. The event had taken very little time at all.
"Hey, little brother!" cried a voice Simon never thought he'd hear again. He turned to see Peter, looking very tired but happy as a deer seeing the first green of spring. Simon and Peter wrapped in a warm embrace.
"So what happens now?" asked Simon.
"We'll pick up where we left off. It'll be interesting, to say the least."