The Nix(5)

Written By: Nathan Hill



One reason he never tells anybody in the real world that he plays Elfscape is that they might ask what the point of the game is. And what could he say? To slay dragons and kill orcs.

Or you can play the game as an orc, in which case the point is to slay dragons and kill elves.

But that’s it, that’s the tableau, the fundamental premise, this basic yin and yang.

He began as a level-one elf and worked his way up to a level-ninety elf and this took roughly ten months. Along the way, he had adventures. He traveled continents. He met people. He found treasure. He completed quests. Then, at level ninety, he found a guild and teamed up with his new guild mates to kill dragons and demons and most especially orcs. He’s killed so many orcs. And when he stabs an orc in one of the vital places, in the neck or head or heart, the game flashes CRITICAL HIT! and there’s a little noise that goes off, a little orcish cry of terror. He’s come to love that noise. He drools over that noise. His character class is thief, which means his special abilities include pickpocketing and bomb-making and invisibility, and one of his favorite things is to sneak into orc-heavy territory and plant dynamite on the road for orcs to ride over and get killed by. Then he loots the bodies of his enemies and collects their weapons and money and clothes and leaves them naked and defeated and dead.

Why this has become so compelling he isn’t really sure.

Tonight it’s twenty elves armed and armored against this one dragon because it is a very large dragon. With razor-sharp teeth. Plus it breathes fire. Plus it’s covered in scales the thickness of sheet metal, which is something they can see if their graphics card is good enough. The dragon appears to be asleep. It is curled catlike on the floor of its magma-rich lair, which is set inside a hollowed-out volcano, naturally. The ceiling of the lair is high enough to allow for sustained dragon flight because during the battle’s second phase the dragon will launch into the air and circle them from above and shoot fiery bombs onto their heads. This will be the fourth time they’ve tried to kill this dragon; they have never made it past phase two. They want to kill it because the dragon guards a heap of treasure and weapons and armor at the far end of the lair, the looting of which will be sweet vis-à-vis their war against the orcs. Veins of bright-red magma glow just under the ground’s rocky surface. They will break open during the third and final phase of the fight, a phase they have not yet seen because they just cannot get the hang of the fireball-dodging thing.

“Did you all watch the videos I sent?” asks their raid leader, an elf warrior named Pwnage. Several players’ avatars nod their heads. He had e-mailed them tutorials showing how to defeat this dragon. What Pwnage wanted them to pay attention to was how to manage phase two, the secret to which seems to be to keep moving and avoid getting bunched up.

LETS GO!!! writes Axman, whose avatar is currently dry-humping a rock wall. Several elves dance in place while Pwnage explains the fight to them, again.

Samuel plays Elfscape from his office computer because of the faster internet connection, which can increase his damage output in a raid like this by up to two percent, usually, unless there’s some bandwidth-traffic problems, like when students are registering for classes. He teaches literature at a small university northwest of Chicago, in a suburb where all the great freeways split apart and end at giant department stores and corporate office parks and three-lane roads clogged with vehicles driven by the parents who send their children to Samuel’s school.

Children like Laura Pottsdam—blond, lightly freckled, dressed sloppily in logoed tank tops and sweatshorts with various words written across the butt, majoring in business marketing and communication, and who, this very day, showed up to Samuel’s Introduction to Literature course, handed in a plagiarized paper, and promptly asked if she could leave.

“If we’re having a quiz,” she said, “I won’t leave. But if we’re not having a quiz, I really need to leave.”

“Is there an emergency?” Samuel said.

“No. It’s just that I don’t want to miss any points. Are we doing anything today worth points?”

“We’re discussing the reading. It’s information you’ll probably want to know.”

“But is it worth points?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“Then, okay, I really have to leave.”

They were reading Hamlet, and Samuel knew from experience that today would be a struggle. The students would be spent, worn down by all that language. The paper he had assigned was about identifying logical fallacies in Hamlet’s thinking, which even Samuel had to admit was sort of a bullshit exercise. They would ask why they had to do this, read this old play. They would ask, When are we ever going to need to know about this in real life?

He was not looking forward to this class.

What Samuel thinks about in these moments is how he used to be a pretty big deal. When he was twenty-four years old a magazine published one of his stories. And not just any magazine, but the magazine. They did a special on young writers. “Five Under Twenty-Five,” they called it. “The next generation of great American authors.” And he was one of them. It was the first thing he ever published. It was the only thing he ever published, as it turned out. There was his picture, and his bio, and his great literature. He had about fifty calls the next day from big-shot book people. They wanted more work. He didn’t have more work. They didn’t care. He signed a contract and was paid a lot of money for a book he hadn’t even written yet. This was ten years ago, back before America’s current financial bleakness, before the crises in housing and banking left the world economy pretty much shattered. It sometimes occurs to Samuel that his career has followed roughly the same trajectory as global finance: The good times of summer 2001 seem now, in hindsight, like a pleasant and whimsical daydream.

Nathan Hill's Books