I was having the best game of my life. This was it. I could feel it. Everything was finally falling in to place. I had the glow.
There was a spot in each maze, just above the starting position, where it was possible to “hide” Pac-Man for up to fifteen minutes. In that location, the ghosts couldn’t find him. Using this trick, I’d been able to take two quick food and bathroom breaks during the past six hours.
As I chomped my way through the 255th screen, the song “Pac-Man Fever” began to blast out of the game room stereo. A smile crept onto my face. I knew this had to be a small tip-of-the-hat from Halliday.
Sticking to my tried-and-true pattern one last time, I whipped the joystick right, slid into the secret door, then out the opposite side and straight down to snag the last few remaining dots, clearing the board. I took a deep breath as the outline of the blue maze began to pulse white. And then I saw it, staring me in the face. The fabled split-screen. The end of the game.
Then, in the worst case of bad timing imaginable, a Scoreboard alert flashed on my display, just a few seconds after I began to play through the final screen.
The top ten rankings appeared, superimposed over my view of the Pac-Man screen, and I glanced at them just long enough to see that Aech had now become the second person to find the Jade Key. His score had just jumped 19,000 points, putting him in second place and knocking me into third.
By some miracle, I managed not to flip out. I stayed focused on my Pac-Man game.
I gripped the joystick tighter, refusing to let this wreck my concentration. I was nearly finished! I only had to milk the final 6,760 possible points from this last garbled maze and then I would finally have the high score.
My heart pounded in time with the music as I cleared the unblemished left half of the maze. Then I ventured into the twisted terrain of the right half, guiding Pac-Man through the pixelated on-screen refuse of the game’s depleted memory. Hidden underneath all of those junk sprites and garbled graphics were nine more dots, worth ten points each. I couldn’t see them, but I had their locations memorized. I quickly found and ate all nine, gaining 90 more points. Then I turned and ran into the nearest ghost—Clyde—and committed Pacicide, dying for the first time in the game. Pac-Man froze and withered into nothingness with an extended beeewup.
Each time Pac-Man died on this final maze, the nine hidden dots reappeared on the deformed right half of the screen. So to achieve the game’s maximum possible score, I had to find and eat each of those dots five more times, once with each of my five remaining lives.
I did my best not to think about Aech, who I knew must be holding the Jade Key at that very moment. Right now, he was probably reading whatever clue was etched into its surface.
I pulled the joystick to the right, weaving through the digital debris one final time. I could have done it blindfolded by now. I fish-hooked around Pinky to grab the two dots near the bottom, then another three in the center, and then the last four near the top.
I’d done it. I had the new high score: 3,333,360 points. A perfect game.
I took my hands off the controls and watched as all four ghosts converged on Pac-Man. GAME OVER flashed in the center of the maze.
I waited. Nothing happened. After a few seconds, the game’s attract screen came back up, showing the four ghosts, their names, and their nicknames.
My gaze shot to the quarter sitting on the edge of the marquee brace. Earlier it had been welded in place, unmovable. But now it tumbled forward and fell end-over-end, landing directly in the palm of my avatar’s hand. Then it vanished, and a message flashed on my display informing me that the quarter had automatically been added to my inventory. When I tried to take it back out and examine it, I found that I couldn’t. The quarter icon remained in my inventory. I couldn’t take it out or drop it.
If the quarter had any magical properties, they weren’t revealed in its item description, which was completely empty. To learn anything more about the quarter, I would have to cast a series of high-level divination spells on it. That would take days and require a lot of expensive spell components, and even then there was no guarantee the spells would tell me anything.
But at the moment, I was having a hard time caring all that much about the mystery of the undroppable quarter. All I could think about was that Aech and Art3mis had now both beaten me to the Jade Key. And getting the high score on this Pac-Man game on Archaide obviously hadn’t gotten me any closer to finding it myself. I really had been wasting my time here.
I headed back up to the planet’s surface. Just as I was sitting down in the Vonnegut’s cockpit, an e-mail from Aech arrived in my inbox. I felt my pulse quicken when I saw its subject line: Payback Time.
Holding my breath, I opened the message and read it:
You and I are officially even now, got that? I consider my debt to you hereby paid in full.
Better hurry. The Sixers must already be on their way there.
Below his signature was an image file he’d attached to the message. It was a high-resolution scan of the instruction manual cover for the text adventure game Zork—the version released in 1980 by Personal Software for the TRS-80 Model III.
I’d played and solved Zork once, a long time ago, back during the first year of the Hunt. But I’d also played hundreds of other classic text adventure games that year, including all of Zork’s sequels, and so most of the details of the game had now faded in my memory. Most old text adventure games were pretty self-explanatory, so I’d never actually bothered to read the Zork instruction manual. I now knew that this had a been a colossal mistake.
On the manual’s cover was a painting depicting a scene from the game. A swashbuckling adventurer wearing armor and a winged helmet stood with a glowing blue sword raised over his head, preparing to strike a troll cowering before him. The adventurer clutched several treasures in his other hand, and more treasures lay at his feet, scattered among human bones. A dark, fanged creature lurked just behind the hero, glowering malevolently.
All of this was in the painting’s foreground, but my eyes had instantly locked on what was in the background: a large white house, with its front door and windows all boarded up.
A dwelling long neglected.
I stared at the image a few more seconds, just long enough to curse myself for not making the connection on my own, months ago. Then I fired the Vonnegut’s engines and set a course for another planet in Sector Seven, not far from Archaide. It was small world called Frobozz that was home to a detailed re-creation of the game Zork.
It was also, I now knew, the hiding place of the Jade Key.
Frobozz was located in a group of several hundred rarely visited worlds known as the XYZZY Cluster. These planets all dated back to the early days of the OASIS, and each one re-created the environment of some classic text adventure game or MUD (multi-user dungeon). Each of these worlds was a kind of shrine—an interactive tribute to the OASIS’s earliest ancestors.
Text adventure games (often referred to as “interactive fiction” by modern scholars) used text to create the virtual environment the player inhabited. The game program provided you with a simple written description of your surroundings, then asked what you wanted to do next. To move around or interact with your virtual surroundings, you keyed in text commands telling the game what you wanted your avatar to do. These instructions had to be very simple, usually composed of just two or three words, such as “go south” or “get sword.” If a command was too complex, the game’s simple parsing engine wouldn’t be able to understand it. By reading and typing text, you made your way through the virtual world, collecting treasure, fighting monsters, avoiding traps, and solving puzzles until you finally reached the end of the game.
The first text adventure game I’d ever played was called Colossal Cave, and initially the text-only interface had seemed incredibly simple and crude to me. But after playing for a few minutes, I quickly became immersed in the reality created by the words on the screen. Somehow, the game’s simple two-sentence room descriptions were able to conjure up vivid images in my mind’s eye.
Zork was one of the earliest and most famous text adventure games. According to my grail diary, I’d played the game through to the end just once, all in one day, over four years ago. Since then, in a shocking display of unforgivable ignorance, I’d somehow forgotten two very important details about the game:
1. Zork began with your character standing outside a shuttered white house.
2. Inside the living room of that white house there was a trophy case.
To complete the game, every treasure you collected had to be returned to the living room and placed inside the trophy case.
Finally, the rest of the Quatrain made sense.
The captain conceals the Jade Key
in a dwelling long neglected
But you can only blow the whistle
once the trophies are all collected
Decades ago, Zork and its sequels had all been licensed and re-created inside the OASIS as stunning three-dimensional immersive simulations all located on the planet Frobozz, which was named after a character in the Zork universe. So the dwelling long neglected—the one I’d been trying to locate for the past six months—had been sitting right out in the open on Frobozz this entire time. Hiding in plain sight.