The game was cursed, that much was obvious. Anyone who played it was found dead by a massive, sudden heart attack three days later — it didn’t take a genius to spot the causal connection. Anyway, the Pentagon had theorized the existence of fatal media for years. The problem for General Douglas Clarkson was that, when one had finally fallen into his lap, it was such a pain in the ass to weaponize. It couldn’t have been a plain old deadly videotape, no, that would have been too simple. Instead, he was stuck with a bootleg game for a decades-old console that nobody but the most hardcore of collectors owned anymore. Even if people wanted to play it — which they didn’t, not when the game was by all accounts boring and paled in comparison even to its contemporaries — they’d have a hard time doing so.
Attempts to dump the game’s code to a ROM had failed, resulting in a file that contained the buggy, lackluster experience without any of the mortal consequences carried by the physical copy, so that was out. Clarkson had been briefly enthused about the possibility of having someone play the game for a remote audience, recalling how his grandson had once shown him his favorite Call of Duty streamer, a purple-haired, reedy little man who pulled in hundreds of thousands of viewers on the daily. But that scheme, too, had been a dead end. Even having someone play the physical copy of the game via a robotic interface while in another room didn’t work.
The damn thing was just so fussy. Hell, playing it on a modern HD television only gave you headaches for a few hours. For it to actually kill you, you had to play it on an authentic version of the old hardware hooked up to a CRT TV. Sure, that was kind of interesting, and the boys in the lab were still trying to figure out the mechanism behind it, but its military applications seemed nonexistent.
And so, the game, alternately called — depending on if you trusted the cheap label on the cartridge or the text on the title screen — Meko’s Journey III or Super Meko Land, and officially described as “Object of Interest 87-J62X” had been kicked around between various agencies, subgroups, and specialists until it ended up on Clarkson’s desk. God knows how it happened. But then, he always had enjoyed a good puzzle, and he had a reputation for being stubborn as hell. He’d been holding out on retirement for years now despite the urgings of his peers, having had a well-regarded but basically uneventful career. Maybe it was just fear in the face of his creeping mortality, but he felt there should be some capstone, some critical achievement which would cement his name in history before he left the service.
Now, his chance had seemingly come. He had an artifact in his possession which induced mortality in anyone who engaged with it on its admittedly very specific terms. It couldn’t be copied, nor could its effects be broadcasted. So what the hell was it good for? He envisioned a scenario in which a politically sensitive target could be captured, forced to play the game for a small amount of time, then released. Here the delayed onset of effect would actually be beneficial, making it difficult to trace the cause of death — there would be no evidence of poisoning or mistreatment. Perhaps subjects could even be drugged so that they didn’t recall the experience. Would it still work if they didn’t remember playing it? He made a note to have that question investigated.
Clarkson sighed, sipping at the glass of neat scotch he held in his right hand. Maybe the research into the game would reveal another promising lead — perhaps they would track down its creators, learn the process by which it was imbued with its deadly payload. He laughed despite himself. Was he really fantasizing about bringing full-on witchcraft and mysticism into the US military? Well, he supposed these sorts of things had always found their way into the upper echelons of intelligence communities. The Nazis had their bizarre occult rituals, and even the CIA had investigated psychic abilities with the Stargate Project back in the 70s. For as long as he had waged war, man had dreamed of using otherworldly powers to surveil and subdue his enemies.
Now, such a power was sitting right in front of him, and he couldn’t come up with a good way of using it. Clarkson scrolled for the dozenth time through the reports on his computer describing the cartridge and the program it contained. The game was a two-dimensional side scroller of the type that was popular back in the mid-80s, where the challenge came from avoiding obstacles and defeating enemies, usually by jumping on them. It appeared to be a bastardized combination of graphics and other elements from a few different well-known titles of the era, assembled by an inept or just plain lazy team for sale as an unlicensed release in Central Asia.
Players reported that the game’s sound would periodically glitch out or stop playing entirely. The collision detection was broken, making it easy to accidentally incur damage or lose a life. And on occasion, the game would lock up, necessitating a hard reset of the console. Even when it was working as intended, it was a dull experience, with unimaginative level design and few variations in gameplay. The player character, Meko, was an off-putting mash-up of a few different mascots. All he could do was jump, unless he grabbed a magic leaf, which would allow him to throw what looked like lollipops at his enemies for a few brief seconds.
Clarkson shook his head in disbelief. It couldn’t be that bad, could it? Why would someone go through the trouble of cursing a game that nobody wanted to play? He’d seen footage before, messed around with the ROM a little, but figured he needed to get closer to the real thing if he wanted to fully understand it. He’d had one of the old consoles brought into his office and carefully placed the game into it, hooking it up to his desktop monitor through the HDMI input with the upscaling device he’d requested. Clarkson topped up his glass and booted up the machine, arriving at the game’s title screen.
He didn’t understand video games, really. They’d always seemed like a meaningless distraction to him. Sure, they had their uses, both as training tools and as PR vehicles, but he’d never been interested in playing them himself, and marveled at the vast number of hours people who did could spend sitting in front of a screen pushing buttons. While he knew, objectively, that the game he was playing now was far from representing the best that the medium could offer, it still only supported his belief that the damned things were a colossal waste of time.
There was nothing of substance to it, just the childish pleasure of manipulating a crudely-drawn character via controller inputs. He sighed as Meko fell into a pit, foiled by the poor responsiveness of the controls. A faint throbbing pain was starting to make itself known at his temples, but he ignored it and restarted the level. Surely there was something he was missing. Had the designers set out to purposefully make a frustrating experience? Or perhaps they were simply overworked and underpaid, rushing out a cobbled-together product to try to satisfy burgeoning demand in a time and place where the real, quality thing had been hard to come by.
He drained the glass, leaning back in his chair. The game was offering no clues as to how it might be weaponized. If only he could crack this, he could revolutionize warfare, make conventional weaponry obsolete. What he needed was more information, a deeper understanding of how the game worked, how it produced its fatal effect.
Maybe if he could see it as it was intended to be played. The alcohol running through his system spurred him on in his fevered imaginings of future glory. He hadn’t gotten this far in his career by playing it safe, he reflected, and there was no reason to start now. After all, was he really afraid of a children’s game? Surely he wouldn’t be affected by it. And even if he was, well… immortality awaited him if he succeeded in his task. He eyed the old CRT television he’d had wheeled into his office and poured himself another glass of scotch.
Three days later, Clarkson collapsed at the opera and was pronounced dead on the scene by paramedics. His heart attack was reported as the consequence of an overindulgence in alcohol and red meat continuing into his advanced age. Object of Interest 87-J62X was placed in secure storage, with reports deeming it to be of no significant military value. It had, however, been of great use to a small faction within the Pentagon who had grown tired of waiting for Clarkson to retire and had decided to take matters into their own hands. The man, everyone knew, always had enjoyed a good puzzle.