Pitch: The total immersion virtual fantasy world of Valhalla is under attack by a virus. Unknown to the players, the evil NPC isn’t a computer program but instead a girl trying to save her impoverished family.
I’m not proud of it, but late at night after everyone had left the virtual reality center, I snuck back in. A thousand excuses sat easy on my lips as I slid my key in: I forgot my cell phone; I accidentally walked out with the check-in clipboard; I thought I saw a light and went in to turn it off like a good employee. Admittedly, if anyone caught me inside a VR capsule, I had no idea what I would say.
Turning on the lights might get me caught, so I brought a flashlight. Once inside, I let the beam of light trail across the concrete floor, white-grey walls, and the receptionist’s desk in the middle. Finding another key on the ring, I opened the door to the capsule room. The ceiling was high, my flashlight lighting up exposed pipes and beams overhead. Six hundred dentist-style horizontal chairs covered by glass capsules were packed together in twenty rows.
Keeping the flashlight tucked under my arm, I fiddled with the control panel and got the glass capsule to slide open. I placed the shiny silver helmet over my head and settled myself inside, lying back on the reclining chair. The blood pressure cuff around my wrist would alert the machine if I started moving while in the trance state. There were buttons on the chair’s arm to close the capsule from the inside. It was possible to operate a VR capsule alone, although not recommended by Cederstorm Inc.: the company disclaimed all liability in the event of a fire or other accident during a VR trance. I’m surprised they didn’t ask me to hand over my first-born child and my immortal soul somewhere in that fifty-page waiver.
I pressed my back against the hard seat cushion. The helmet covered my face and a screen fell in front of my eyes.
My solitary voice sounded weak and embarrassed as I spoke into the deserted building: “Activate the Game.”
Lights flashed across my vision, reds and greens, combined with a high-pitched humming noise, to place me in a trance. I shuddered when my vision went black.
With a sudden jolt, I was no longer lying on a hard chair with a helmet covering my face. I floated in a dark, empty abyss. My head spun from the lack of objects around me to orient myself. Hands! Where were my hands?
A voice spoke in my ear: young, female, soothing, and discomfortingly close. “Your retinal scan indicates that you are a new player. Please enter your payment information.”
Though I’d known total immersion virtual reality would feel like being transported to another world, I hadn’t been prepared for it to feel quite this real. I sucked in deep, shuddering breaths until my heart rate slowed. Then I recited the code my college had given me. Each Berkeley freshman gets one free character. As a student employee at the Haines Virtual Reality Center, my main job is dealing with people banging on their capsules because they can’t remember their code.
“Welcome to the Game. Please snap your fingers to activate your menu.”