Feature image by Alexander Dorn / EyeEm via Getty Images
The game is simple, really. It is marketed as “basically opposite of the Oregon Trail” and an “authentic Native American experience.” The girlies love it. It is farmcore, and cottagecore, and fairycore, and depressioncore, and spritualcore, goblincore, and dudethatissomessedupcore and all the other cores, according to the teens on the TikTok. Your job, then, is simple, too. You are to test the virtual reality capabilities of this game, this game where the premise is only: Befriend the Dark One, become their apprentice.
You shrug and slip your VR glasses on. Seems easy enough. It begins.
On the porch, working over what looks like a cauldron for babies, is what you assume to be the Dark One, who is actually quite pale, and looks more like a tall, broad migraine-y shadow than a person. She glares at you and puts everything behind her, Jesus Christ, she says, looking a little guilty at the sky after she says it. Another one?
The Dark One isn’t wearing any traditional garb but is dressed in a several sizes too large Dallas Cowboys t-shirt and those slides that have the air holes in them. No pants. She doesn’t seem embarrassed by this, nor does she move to welcome you. Why are you here? she asks.
The options roll in front of you, like from the sky. You select the one that says, To learn from you Teacher. She closes her eyes and exhales from her nose, hard. My god, she says. Stop that. And don’t call me that. Ever. Again.
You don’t say anything, you can’t, and resolve to tell the developer that conversations work two ways.
Well, she says. Start raking, bitch.
Then: If you hear my vibrator, don’t be a pervert.
You don’t sleep a wink.
Impossibly, though, the more you look at the Dark One, the more her strange face grows on you. She has a face made for reverence, for being reverent. It’s almost… satisfying, to see her light candles and pray, the only two things you have ever been able to catch her doing. She says, I have enough friends. But no one ever comes to visit, and she doesn’t leave. But you believe her, despite yourself.
The Dark One is many things, but she is pointedly honest in a way you have come to realize her gods require of her. Even when it hurts.
Eventually, breathless, sweaty, hair filled with brambles, you reach the house. The Dark One is sitting in a kitchen chair, perfectly dry, and she is smoking a Camel Crush like there is nothing amiss, like you did not just run for your life. You have never seen her smoke, but before you can ask, she says: Tobacco is a cleansing smoke. And I feel wrong about supporting American Spirits. Ha, ha.
You glare at her but wither under her blank stare. What crawled up your ass? she asks. I thought you finally grew some brains and quit, she says. You rant, you give her a piece of your mind, you really do, but then, she simply blinks, the corner of her mouth lifts, exposing one incongruous dimple. I didn’t invite you to the creek, she says. The creek is actually — she exhales smoke — that way.
She points in the opposite direction. You think you might pass out. When the Dark One laughs, she does so with her whole throat, her whole form. It would warm you if it didn’t make you want to throttle her. That night, like so many nights, no sleep comes. You hear a faint buzzing. At this point, you don’t expect anything different. Asshole.
When she comes back, you do not see where she comes from. She is just suddenly there, apparition-like. She looks different, though you cannot explain how. She takes several shaky steps and collapses heavily to sit. She looks at you with a definite side-eye, and you smile, a little, for at least this is familiar.
She rolls her eyes. Then her face becomes serious. A long time ago, she says I crawled on the ground, deprived of my senses. My Teacher had taken everything but touch from me. I learned how to be again, and slowly they were returned to me. It was agonizing, disorienting. You will never know anything like it, not in any lifetime. She sighs.
Oh my God, you say, are you. I’m so. That must have been hard… is it… is it a true story?
Are you feeling sympathy? For the DARK ONE?
The Dark One looks at you. No dumbass, she says. She looks like a secret. It wasn’t the ground… It was a mountain, she says. When she laughs this time, you grumble, swiping through the menu looking for a response, a map, a lesson, a checkpoint, but there is nothing. There never is. Another note for the developer, you muse. Just that.
Just before your lips touch, she smiles, the first real one you have ever seen. She reaches up and clicks the button she should not be able to see, on the side of your headset. Everything goes dark. The game closes itself.
You come back to awareness in the chair. The clock says you have been playing for an hour and a half. The intern monitoring you won’t make eye contact. You go home. In your bed that night, nothing whispers. Nothing moans. There are no ghosts.