Chapter 1:

Chapter 1 - Two Years Ago, Part 1

Zero-Sum Game | ゼロ和ゲーム

In game theory, there is something called a “zero-sum game.” Simply put, it’s a game where if one side gains, the other side loses. Any advantage one side gains is an advantage lost by the enemy. Games like chess, poker, and bridge are all zero-sum games. Whenever you gain something, the enemy loses it.

Life is a zero-sum game.

Your gain is someone else’s loss, and your loss is someone else’s gain. And if you want to win, you have to gain. And to gain, you need to beat other people. That’s how I see life, how I’ve always seen it since childhood. And that’s why I had never lost. Never. Not even once.

Until that day.

I was in my second year of high school. I didn’t have many friends, but I wasn’t alone. It’s true that I didn’t have friends in my class, but I had enough friends in the Game Development Club. That’s where I spent most of my time, being the president, lead designer, and programmer of our team. And they were all I needed. Because we were the best out there.

We made many games over the years, releasing it on the internet and showcasing it during the Cultural Festival. But we also joined a lot of game jams. In a game jam, you have to make a game from scratch within the time limit. Usually there’s a theme that you have to follow. And we joined a lot of them, and in every single one we took first place.

On one hot summer day, the five of us in the Game Dev Club arrived at a local university with our laptops and other equipment in our backpacks. They were holding their annual game jam, one which we had entered and won three years in a row ever since the second year of middle school. Our spirits high and hearts light, we entered the campus grounds and made our way to the hall on the third floor where they always held it. There were signs all along the path, but we didn’t need them.

“Ah, it’s so hot, why does it have to be so far in the campus?” moaned Chinatsu. Chinatsu was our artist. She could draw the most beautiful and amazing pieces of art out of anyone I knew personally. She was also my childhood and best friend.

“You say that everywhere, Chi-chan,” said Keisuke, laughing as he wiped sweat off his brow. Like me, Keisuke was a programmer and designer, and he was my partner-in-crime. Chinatsu, Keisuke, and I had been best friends since we were kids, and we were inseparable.

Shinichi didn’t say a word. He’s our writer, and he’s also a designer and tester. He’s always got his eyes fixed on a book, and that’s what he was doing too as he lugged around his backpack. Mitsuo probably seemed the least concerned out of all of us, even though he was carrying that comparatively huge portable keyboard on his back. He was listening to some music with his earphones, so he didn’t hear Chinatsu’s complaining.

In front of the hall, there were already dozens of people standing around. We made our way through the crowd and reached the reception desk just beside the doors. At the desk sat Imada-san, a member of the university’s Game Development Club who always handled the registration. She wasn’t pretty, but she was friendly and always stood out with her short, bob cut hair and black clothes. She was typing furiously on her phone when we arrived. I cleared my throat to get her attention.

“Well,” she looked up and smiled at me. “If it isn’t Hoshino-kun.” She stood up and pushed the registration book towards me.

I bend down and start writing down our names and personal information.

“I heard you were participating again this year. Aiming to win again?”

“Of course. There’s no point in competing if you don’t win.”

“Wow, you’re confident, aren’t you? Ah, but this is so boring. I’m already in my fourth year, and in my entire college life I don’t get to see anybody else win the annual game jam,” she said as she leaned back onto her plastic chair. She sighed exaggeratedly.

“Are you graduating this year, Imada-san?”

“Yep!” She straightened herself and smiled widely, her bright eyes looking right at me. “If things go right at least. You’re in your… second year of high school?”

I nodded. I stood up and push the registration book towards her.

“That must be nice. High schoolers have it so easy! Are you going to come here? This university?”

“I’m not sure.” The thought of my future education had completely slipped my mind. “Maybe.”

“I’m sure everyone at the club would be thrilled if you did, since you’d probably join the club.” She pulled the registration book towards her and checked our information. Nodding, she sifted through the nametags sitting in a box on the desk and took out five of them. She smiled as she handed them over to me. “Good luck. Though, I don’t think you need it.”

I go back to my team and made our way into the hall with the nametags stuck to our shirts. As we walked past the occupied tables, the members of the club and the other competitors kept calling out to us.

“Hey, Hoshino!” shouted one club member with dyed blonde hair whose name I couldn’t remember. “Participating again this year, huh? Victory’s basically all yours then.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” I smiled at him. “But we’ll try our best.”

“Look, it’s Team Silverstorm,” whispered one participant we passed.

“Who?” His clueless friend asked.

“Team Silverstorm. They won the last three competitions, and they won a lot of competitions outside of this one too. They’re practically unbeatable. That’s their leader, Hoshino Kenji.”

I smiled to myself, and I couldn’t wait to start. A fire was burning inside me. Look at these amateurs. They don’t know the first thing about game jams or game development. I’m gonna crush them all.

We found an empty table with six seats and took it as our own. Putting down our bags, we pulled out all our equipment. Each of us pulled out our laptops. Keisuke, Shinichi, and I pulled out our pencil boxes and notebooks to jot down ideas and notes. Chinatsu took out her drawing tablet. We set up our equipment as we waited for the competition to start.

“Attention, please!” shouted one of the committee members on the stage. Her voice reached the end of the room, grabbing the attention of those seated at the far back. “We’re going to start the briefing now!”

She stepped back and looked to the side. She whispered something I couldn’t catch before Takashima walked onto the stage. Takashima was the current president of the club in his third year of college. I knew him well since I first met him as a new club member when we first joined the game jam.

He smiled at the committee member who had been speaking and took the mic from her. He turned around and stood above us in his cyan collared shirt and beige-coloured trousers. Unlike many members of the club, he looked well-knit. He wasn’t scrawny. In fact, he was pretty tall. His broad shoulders, upright posture, and short, well-kempt hair made him look more like a member of a sports club than the game development club.

“Good morning, everyone! I’m Takashima Sawao, president of the game development club here. Thank you all for participating!”

He paused for applause before continuing.

“Looks like we have a lot of old and new faces here.” His eyes met mine and he smiled. He gave a small nod which I returned likewise. “Whether this is your first time in a game jam or you’ve been in too many to count, remember to have fun!”

He paused again. Before continuing, the projector hanging from the ceiling turned on and cast its light onto the wall behind him.

“Now I’m going to briefly explain again what we’re going to do here. You will have three days starting from 11 am today to make a game from scratch based on the theme we’ll be giving you. You can make the game using any programming language, framework, or game engine you want. But everything you use for the game has to be made here. And you can’t use something you’ve made before. You can’t enter a game you’ve finished, and you can’t use art or music you’ve made before. Are there any questions up to this point?”

Several participants raised their hands, but our team remained silent. The rules hadn’t changed from last year, so we knew well what to expect.

After answering the questions, Takashima continued with information regarding food and rest. As the previous years, they would provide us with three meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Probably convenience store boxed lunches. Besides that, there’s always a snack table filled with all sorts of crackers, cookies, and sweets. We’re allowed to go to the campus cafeteria and buy food and he explained using a simple map how to get there. However, the map is misleading, since it was much farther than how close he made it sound. Anyone smart enough to realise that wouldn’t waste time going to and from there – time that could be used to work on the game.

Turning off the projector, he introduced the three judges for this year’s competition. They step onto the stage and each one is introduced in turn.

The first one was Professor Naito, the head of the game development programme in the university. He’s the one I know best out of all the judges. He was probably the oldest of the three judges. He was thin, and his back was bent a bit. But he had a kind and reassuring smile that hid the wisdom and knowledge he had, something I also missed when I first saw him three years ago. The only thing I noticed back then was his age and his bald head.

The second one was another lecturer, Professor Nagasawa. He was much younger than Professor Naito, with a head full of unkempt hair and thick black glasses. He wore a dark brown leather jacket over a white dress shirt with black trousers. As he was being introduced, his eyes kept darting left to right and he avoided the crowd. His hands were twitching too.

And finally, Takashima introduced the guest judge, Sugano Hideki. At the mention of his name, almost everyone in the hall started cheering. Even I clapped. To think they could get somebody like the Sugano Hideki, I was just a tiny bit impressed.

“I see you all know who Sugano-san is. He is the creator of the famous Sonic Man series of side-scrolling platformer games known all over the world. He has kindly agreed to help us judge this year’s competition.”

At that, he smiled and waved at the participants. He had a funny, eccentric appearance. His hair was long and grey, and he wore a black fedora hat like the ones gangsters in American movies wear. But the rest of his appearance was nothing like a gangster. He had green round glasses. He wore a plain white T-shirt underneath a black dress shirt with flowers like the typical Hawaiian vacation shirt. He seemed friendly, but I knew from his eyes that he was sharp and that he was probably the hardest judge of the three to impress.

With the introductions over, the judges and Takashima all stepped down from the stage. The theme hadn’t been announced yet. They would announce it right before the competition started. The time on my wristwatch showed 10.35 pm. We still had 25 minutes before the start.

“I’m so nervous!” shouted Chinatsu as she tapped on the table loudly. “There’s a lot of people here…”

“There were many people here too last year. And the year before that. And the year before that too.” Shinichi commented without taking his eyes off the book he was reading.

“I know that much! It’s just that seeing this many people go up against us makes me nervous.”

“Don’t worry,” Keisuke chimed in. He was smiling and playing with a pen in his hand. He seemed the most relaxed and happy out of all of us. “We’re still definitely going to win. We’re the best team after all. Isn’t that right, Kenji?”

“Of course. There’s no way we can lose.”

We had the most experience, the best team, and the best teamwork. There was no way we could lose.

“Wow, you two sure are confident.” Chinatsu looked at us with eyes wide open in admiration. “I wish I had as much confidence as you two do…”

“I can’t really imagine a confident Chinatsu,” Keisuke said while laughing.

“What do you mean by that?!”

As Chinatsu and Keisuke started their daily session of bickering, I felt someone tapping on my shoulder. I looked back and saw standing behind me Takashima.

“Sup, Hoshino?” he said in greeting, smiling down at me.

“Hey, Takashima-san,” I said as I turned around. The others had realised his presence and were all greeting him too.

“Hello, Takashima-senpai!” shouted Chinatsu as she half-stood up.

“Hey, everyone. Looking as lively and confident as ever I see.”

“You ‘betcha.”

“Think you’ll win again this year?”

I pushed up my glasses and looked him straight in the eye, smiling and puffing up my chest.

“I hope so. We’re in an even better shape this year than we were last year. We’ve spent the last year training and building up our skills.” I said I hope so, but deep down there was no doubt for me.

“As confident as ever,” Takashima said, nodding as he did.

He smiled. I thought he was trying to smile kindly, but because of what he was talking about it seemed more ominous than kind to me. “I have to go back. We’re announcing the theme soon, get ready. Good luck!”

I looked left and right, trying to get a sense of the competition. A typical nerd wearing a disheveled white dress shirt and thick glasses. A normie-looking girl with long black hair and a grey sweater. An energetic tall guy with a buzz cut wearing a blue jacket giving an impassioned speech assuring his team of their victory in this competition. No one that seemed to be of immediate concern.

“Let’s do this,” I said out loud. Everyone raised their fists in the air and cheered along.

Keisuke continued playing with the pen like he was doing before Takashima came. “It gets kind of boring having the same team win your competition four years in a row, huh? But we can do this. Right, Kenji?” Keisuke looked at me with expectant eyes.

“Yeah,” I said as I nodded firmly. “We’re going to win this.”

There was no way we were going to lose. We were going to win, we deserved to win. We had to win. I had to win. We had prepared for that day. We didn’t just sit around and do nothing in the clubroom. We were always training, improving our skills. We weren’t stagnant, we weren’t satisfied with our victories and comfortable in them. No, we had to get better, because others would. And we couldn’t let them get one over us.

With those thoughts in mind, we turned our gazes to the stage. Takashima was going up, ready to announce the theme and to begin the competition.

There was only one word projected onto the screen: “Forest.”

“This year’s theme is ‘forest’! How you interpret that is up to you. But make sure you can explain how your game relates to ‘forest’ later!”

Takashima looked at his wristwatch.

“The game jam has officially begun! You can all start now. Good luck, everybody!”

In unison, chairs screeched, and chatter filled the room as the teams began planning.