26 minutes | Nov 30, 2020

The Hint Line

The phone rang at around three in the afternoon. I stared at it for a long time–the beige rotary antiquity sitting far back on my desk next to a scrambled Rubik’s cube and a book of chess puzzles. I had almost forgotten the thing even existed, despite the fact that it had directed the flow of my entire life for the last three decades. Its ring was loud and tactile–like those old alarm clocks with a hammer that physically pounds back and forth against two bells. The sound gave me goosebumps. I guess for you to understand why something as innocuous as a ringing phone could cause me such trepidation, I had better start from the beginning. When I was in high school, I was a gaming fanatic who was blessed with wealthy parents and a generous allowance. I owned every home console available in North America, as well as a couple that weren’t, and every penny that didn’t go towards expanding my game collection got converted to quarters at the arcade on a regular basis. An obsession with video games was certainly not an uncommon condition among boys my age–I merely took it to a level that few others could even dream of. I started my freshman year at university in ‘92. My parents kept paying me the same allowance and covered the tuition, but everything else was up to me. It became apparent early on that maintaining my former gaming budget while also paying for the dorm, food, and other living expenses was, to put it mildly, financially untenable. For the first time in my life, the horrifying prospect of needing additional income had dawned on me. Wandering around campus during the day was something I tended to avoid–too many people were out and about; it made me anxious. As such, it wasn’t until well after dark one Friday night that I hit the campus job boards in the hopes of finding something that could ease the burden on my wallet while minimizing the burden on me. I was not an ambitious kid–I wanted to earn just enough cash to keep a roof over my head and feed my stomach and gaming addiction while doing as little work as possible in the process. My prospects were grim. The postings on the board were all volunteer positions or part-time retail gigs. The retail jobs would have paid enough, and bagging groceries probably wouldn’t have been too mentally taxing, but the thought of wearing a fake smile and dealing face-to-face with an unending stream of people every day made me dry heave. There was one posting for a data entry job, but all the dangling tabs with the phone number to call had already been torn off. Data entry sounded like it could be up my alley, so I decided to visit the smaller job board outside the computer lab in the hopes of finding more. To my dismay, the cork board hanging in the dimly-lit hall outside the computer lab displayed a smaller selection of the same jobs I had already seen. I was about to head back to the dorms to lament over my poor luck, when something white jutting out from behind the board caught my eye–the slightest hint of a sheet of paper someone had slipped between the wall and the cork board. My first ham-fisted attempts at fishing it out with my fingernail failed miserably. I pulled out my student ID card and pressed the edge of it against the sliver of paper, then dragged it along the wall. The sheet of paper slid right into my hand. Grinning at my cleverness, I looked the paper over. There were two lines typed out in all caps at its center: DO YOU LIKE VIDEO GAMES?CALL FOR MORE INFO There was a phone number printed at the bottom of the sheet. My heart rate amped up a notch. Could this be the Holy Grail that it appeared to be? I would have given my left arm for a paying job that involved video games, and that seemed to be what I had stumbled upon. I felt absurdly protective of that little piece of paper. In my mind it was a divine treasure, hidden there for me to find. I glanced down the hallway in both directions. There was a couple down at one end who were plainly too interested in each other to pay me any notice, and I thought I saw a man standing in the shadows at the other end of the hall–but when I blinked and squinted to get a better look there was nothing there. Probably my sudden paranoia playing tricks on me. I looked back at the job posting in my hands, folded it into my pocket, then practically sprinted all the way back to the dorms. Expecting it to go to a machine so late at night, my fear over even the slightest possibility that I may miss out if I waited too long drove me to call the number that night. To my surprise, a woman answered. “Hello?” said the woman. She sounded alert, not like someone who had been awaken by a phone call in the middle of the night. That was promising. “Hi, I hope it’s not too late. I’m calling about the, uh, video game job?” I said. There was a pregnant pause, and for a moment I feared that I had lost the connection, or the woman had hung up. Maybe the message I had found was a joke, and I had unwittingly prank-called some poor lady in the middle of the night. “I’m assuming you can read,” the woman stated. She hadn’t said it like a question, but I felt like she was waiting for some kind of response. “Huh?” I asked. “Are you literate? Capable of comprehending the written English language?” “Uh, yeah,” I said. I looked at the creased paper in my hand. Was the woman angry? Had I missed something in the job posting? Had I somehow misread those two simple sentences? “Do you live alone? And do you rent or own your current residence?” “I’m living out of the dorms at the U,” I answered. “Perfect,” said the lady. “The job pays one twenty. Give me your name and address. You’ll receive more information on Monday.” My brain tried to process the number she had said as I rattled off my personal information. One twenty? What, per hour? That didn’t seem like much. Perhaps she meant a hundred and twenty? Per week that might be manageable, per month probably not. I hoped it would become more clear when they sent more details after the weekend. Monday morning rolled around and a loud thud woke me up before the sun was even up. I tip-toed to the door, trying not to wake my roommate, and checked the hallway outside our dorm. There wasn’t a soul in any direction, but there at my feet was a large sealed cardboard box with my name written on it. I picked it up and brought it to my bed, ripped the tape off, and looked inside. There was a note and an envelope inside the box, sitting on top of a stack of papers bound together by a coiled spine. I snatched the note and read it. The letter explained that my new employer was a software company on the cusp of releasing a new video game, and that my duties would consist entirely of manning an evening-hours telephone hint line for that game. People would call with questions, and my job was to consult the included hint book and read out the answers. It explained that my salary would be a hundred twenty thousand per year, plus benefits and annual raises to match inflation, and that in the envelope I would find the keys to my employer-provided apartment and home office, into which they expected me to move at once. My roommate must have woken up suspecting that I had gone crazy, laughing and rolling around as I was. Like a madman who believed the whole of existence was some big joke, and he had just learned the punchline. It was a modest two-bedroom apartment. One of the rooms was furnished with a desk, bare but for a rotary telephone at its center–an amusingly outdated prop even for the time. I spent that first day moving my video game collection and other belongings from my dorm room and my parents’ house to the apartment. That evening passed without any calls on the telephone. The next evening, too. Soon two weeks had gone by, still without a single call, and I woke up to find an unmarked envelope someone had slid under the apartment’s door. It contained my first paycheck. My parents practically disowned me when I dropped out of university after receiving a few more checks. They couldn’t understand why I would “jeopardize my future” over what they called a “lousy help desk” job. I couldn’t understand how anyone would want to waste time going to school when they’re already earning a six figure salary doing exactly what they love to do–which in my case was absolutely nothing at all. Times changed. The internet went from AOL keywords and web directories to search engines and social media; cell phones got cheaper and thinner; computers got cheaper and faster; cell phones turned into computers that fit in your pocket; printers went three-dimensional; cars went electric and started driving themselves; Super Nintendos made way for Playstations, Xboxes, and Switches. The world outside marched on, but little changed inside my apartment. The phone remained silent, and I kept getting paid to do nothing. The company name on the paychecks changed a handful of times over the years. Searching them on the internet turned up generic press releases about acquisitions, mergers, and splits. Each time I braced myself–surely someone would discover that the payroll for the company they just acquired or merged with included an employee manning a hint line that nobody called for a game that was never released on a video game console that had been obsolete for years. Maybe I would receive a call; or maybe they’d simply “fix the glitch” and the checks would stop appearing under my door, and my rent would no longer be paid. The prospect of having to find a real job was perhaps the most terrifying to me–I had grown accustomed to living on the periphery of real-life. At first I ventured out on occasion to buy food, clothes, liquor, and other necessities–but with the advent of one-day shipping and delivery services for every product imaginable, my trips outside the apartment gradually diminished to the point where my only interaction with the outside world was accidentally answering the door too quickly and having to nod at a delivery person as they walked away. The idea of having to one day go out there into the world, hunt for a job, interview, commute, socialize–it made me sick to my stomach. Time passes quickly when every day is the same as the last. My routine never varied, to the point where I couldn’t have told you what day of the week it was, let alone what month. Years passed by in the blink of an eye, then turned to decades. One day I noticed some gray hairs in the mirror, and realized that I had lived more of my life inside that apartment than outside, and I was older than my parents had been when I first moved in. I had lived the majority of my life as a forgotten cog in a broken machine, and that was fine with me. I was playing computer games last week when the phone rang for that first time. I had panicked, unsure of where the unfamiliar sound was coming from. Once my brain caught up with the rest of my nervous system and I could comprehend what was happening, I reached for the phone. My whole body jerked each time its harsh ring brayed out. I picked up the handset and brought it to my ear. “Hello?” I said hesitantly. “Is this the hint line?” asked a man. I cleared my throat. “Uh, yes?” I said. “How do I get past the seventh topaz gate?” asked the man. I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts. For the phone to ring after all these years made no sense–I had always assumed the game that the hint line was for had never been released; that the company had abandoned the project at some point during the acquisitions and mergers and that somehow my job had slipped through the cracks during the bureaucratic shuffle. “Seventh topaz… huh?” I asked. “The seventh gate. Topaz. What’s the key?” said the man. I moved the handset away from my ear and looked at it. My eyes followed the spiraled cord across my desk and under the corner of my monitor to the phone’s base. Then I spied the coil-bound stack of papers the phone was sitting on. The hint book. I grabbed the book and slid it out from under the phone, then flipped the pages open as I returned the handset to my ear. “Hold on,” I told the man. I flipped through the pages until I found a table of contents. I ran my finger down the page, reading the sections it listed. Characters, enemies, vehicles, weapons, spells, and there at the bottom was gates. I flipped to the listed page and thumbed through tables of information until I found what he had asked for. Seventh gate, topaz. It was listed in a table alongside a ten digit number. “I’ve got it,” I said into the phone. “Ready?” “Mmm hmm,” the man breathed. I read the ten digit number to him. “Thank you,” said the man. There was a click, and then a dial tone. I stared at the handset for a while longer before hanging it up, then returned my attention to the hint book. Flipping through the pages revealed dozens of similar tables, listing words or phrases in one column associated with a ten digit number in the other. None of it made any sense to me. What kind of video game needs ten digit numbers to progress? And why had that game surfaced now after almost thirty years? When I closed the hint book, I noticed that my hands were shaking. I stumbled out of the office to my kitchen and opened my liquor cabinet. I grabbed a half-empty bottle and took a swig. Soon the half-empty bottle had turned completely empty, and I passed out on my couch. The phone rang again the next day. And then twice the day after that, and again the day after that. Each call went the same–the caller would ask about some word or phrase, I would look it up in the hint book and read them a ten digit number, then they would hang up. The following Friday night, the phone started ringing again and I decided to try to get some answers. I picked up the phone. “Hello?” I said. “Hello, is this the hint line?” It was a woman’s voice on the other end this time. “Yeah,” I said. “What game are you calling about?” The woman didn’t reply. “I’m happy to provide you with a hint, but I need to know what game you’re calling about,” I pressed further. “I don’t, uh…” the woman started hesitantly. “I mean, it’s for the Crash Loop ARG, is that what you…” There was a click on the line, and then a dial tone. The abruptness with which the call ended startled me, but I had the information I wanted. I pulled up a search engine on my computer and typed “Crash Loop ARG,” not sure what to expect. Perhaps some long-lost console game prototype, recently discovered or leaked to the public. Instead, the single relevant link I found was to a discussion on an obscure message board. I scrolled through pages of cryptic messages, audio clips, and strange images and videos. The members of the forum discussed the content as though that was the game–like the images, videos, and audio clips were a puzzle to be solved. Messages translated into ciphers, images and audio spectrograms contained hidden clues, and videos were dissected frame by frame for hidden meaning. I clicked my way through to the last page of the thread and scrolled down. One of the most recent posts was a link to a video, posted anonymously about a week earlier. The video showed an old CRT television set in a dark room displaying static. After a moment, the TV screen flickered and showed what looked like the splash screen for an old 16-bit video game. Less than a second later, the video ended. The TV looked familiar. The media center it was sitting on too. And the wall, the carpet–it all looked identical to how my living area had been furnished when I first moved in. Back on the forum, I read some of the replies to the video. Someone had managed to identify a company name from the splash screen on the TV, and then someone else had traced that company’s assets through a series of acquisitions, mergers, and splits spanning the last thirty years. Someone else managed to link the latest company to a phone number and posted that number in the thread. I felt sweat rolling down my face as I pulled my cell phone from my pocket with a clammy hand. I unlocked the phone and pulled up the dialer. I stared at the phone number on my monitor. I looked at the old rotary phone on my desk. After punching the number into my cell phone, my thumb hovered over the dial button for a moment, and then I pressed it. The old rotary phone clanged out its harsh, visceral ring. Even though I knew to expect it, it still made my muscles seize and my skin crawl. I ended the call on my cell phone and the rotary phone stopped ringing. The forum discussion continued with messages from people who had called the number and used clues from earlier in the thread to ask me specific questions, and had received new phone numbers from me. New phone numbers? I pulled the hint book toward me on the desk, flipped it open, and stared at the tables filled with ten digit numbers. Is that what those were? Were they all phone numbers? I flipped to a random page and selected one of the numbers. I punched it into my cell phone and dialed. After several rings, a man answered. “Hello?” he said. “Is this the hint line?” I asked. The man on the other end cleared his throat. “Uh, yes,” he said. He sounded unsure of himself. I looked back down at my hint book and read the clue that pointed to the number I had dialed. “How do I get past the second golden Minotaur?” I asked. “Second golden… huh?” said the man. “The second Minotaur. Golden,” I repeated. “What’s the key?” “Hold on…” the man said. The faint sound of flipping pages hissed in my ear as I waited. “I’ve got it. Ready?” said the man. “Mmm hmm,” I breathed. I stared at the number for the second golden Minotaur in my hint book as the man read out his answer. The numbers didn’t match. “Thank you,” I said, and hung up. I slammed my hint book shut and shoved it toward the back of my desk. Was that guy hired by the same company that hired me? How long had he waited before his phone rang? My mind reeled. I wasn’t a forgotten cog in a broken machine–the machine was working exactly as designed. It was all part of some twisted internet game. A game in which I was an NPC. One of hundreds, judging from how many phone numbers were in my hint book. The final post in the thread was from less than an hour earlier. The post contained GPS coordinates and a link to a map. I clicked it, and found myself looking at a satellite image of a city block. My heart sank as I read the street names. It was my block. And at the exact center of the map was my apartment building. There was a sudden pounding at my door. “Hey! Is someone there?” I heard a muffled man’s voice come through the door as the pounding continued. “I have some questions about the game! Whats the point? Does it ever end?” There was a loud thud and the pounding stopped, followed by a gravelly hissing noise, like the sound of something heavy dragging over the ground. I sat frozen at my desk as the noise outside my door faded to silence. I couldn’t say whether a minute passed or an hour, but once my fear had abated enough that I could move, I crept to the door of my office and peeked out into my living area. Someone outside had slid something under my apartment door. Holding my breath, I tip-toed out and retrieved two pieces of paper from the floor. The top one looked familiar. DO YOU LIKE VIDEO GAMES?CALL FOR MORE INFO. The second was a hand-written note, messily scribbled in red ink. “Event loop failure,” it read. “Continue from last save point.” The university campus is typically a twenty minute bike ride from my apartment, but the streets were near empty that late at night, so I made it in fifteen. The hallway outside the computer lab looked almost identical to how it did thirty years ago. I slipped the job posting back behind the cork board, being sure to leave a thin sliver peeking out. A giggle drew my attention to the far end of the hallway where a boy and a girl were leaning against the wall and making out. Other than me and them, the hallway was empty. I walked to the opposite end where there were no lights turned on this late at night, and waited in the dark. A minute passed, then I watched a young man come in through the entrance and approach the job board. A fresh cog for the machine. I wonder how long he’ll have to wait for his phone to ring.
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