Chapter 2:

Chapter 2 - Two Years Ago, Part 2

Zero-Sum Game | ゼロ和ゲーム

We put our thinking caps on and started discussing ideas, jotting them down in our notebooks. We always just blurt out any game idea that comes to mind. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense or not, we can just discuss that later.Bookmark here

“Uh, monkeys swinging around in a forest collecting bananas!” Chinatsu screamed out, raising her hand like she was answering a question in class.Bookmark here

“Isn’t that ‘jungle’?” Mitsuo asks out loud.Bookmark here

“Huh?”Bookmark here

“Don’t monkeys swing around in jungles, not forests?”Bookmark here

Chinatsu tilted her head, her brows furrowed as she processed what he’s saying in her mind. “There’s a difference?”Bookmark here

“Yes, but it doesn’t matter,” I said as I jotted down monkeys swinging in forest collecting bananas on my notebook. We’d probably cross it out later. “We just say whatever comes to mind for now.”Bookmark here

Ideas came one after another, until my notebook was filled with ideas of what sort of game we were going to make. The obviously impossible ideas we immediately crossed out. Chinatsu made an expression with puppy dog eyes as we crossed out her monkeys idea.Bookmark here

We finally settled on an idea: a tower defense game where you play as Mother Nature and must defend your forest from waves of lumberjacks from the Kaishin Corporation using trees and plants you have at your disposal. Your task is to guard the ‘Heart of the Forest’ by placing lots of different types of trees and other plants that you can use to either block or slow down the lumberjacks.Bookmark here

Our idea clear, each of us got to work. Keisuke, Shinichi, and I discussed the details of the gameplay: the types of trees and plants, the controls, the exact values of the health of the ‘Heart of the Forest’, the waves of lumberjacks, their speed and health. Keisuke and I made notes all the while, designing the system as we went. Chinatsu got to work on her tablet for some concept art of the forest, the Heart, the lumberjacks, and the menus. Mitsuo put on his headphones and started playing away on his portable keyboard, trying to get the right feel and sound for the sound effects and background music.Bookmark here

I wrote down all the art assets we were going to need: character and plant sprites and their animations, UI elements, tiles for the ground, background art, and the like. I ripped the pages and handed them over to Chinatsu.Bookmark here

“Asset list.”Bookmark here

Taking off her headphones, she took the sheaf of papers with both her hands and flipped through them. With each flip, her eyes and mouth opened wider.Bookmark here

“This many?!” she shouted at me, her eyes asking for an answer. Her loud voice caught the attention of a few other teams around us.Bookmark here

I cleared my throat. “Yeah, and keep it down, will you? Everybody’s looking at you.”Bookmark here

“Oh, sorry.” She shrank back into her seat as her cheeks turned red. “But, Ken-chan, this is a lot…”Bookmark here

“Can’t do it?” Keisuke asked her, smiling smugly and edging her on.Bookmark here

Chinatsu turned to Keisuke with a gaze as sharp as knives. But it quickly disappeared. She looked down and bit her lip.Bookmark here

“If you think you can’t do it, then tell me which ones you think are way too heavy for you,” I said to her.Bookmark here

She looked at me with unsure eyes, but she waved her hands in front of her and shook her head.Bookmark here

“I can do it.”Bookmark here

“I know you can,” I said, smiling at her. “But don’t force yourself, okay? Take proper breaks.”Bookmark here

Her cheeks grew red and she turned away her head, avoiding my eyes. “S-s-sure. Who do you think I am?”Bookmark here

“Is there something wrong, Chinatsu?”Bookmark here

“Nothing!” she shouted as she put her headphones back on and hid her face behind her laptop. “I got a lot of work to do so I’m starting now.”Bookmark here

“Do your best,” I told her, before turning to Mitsuo and handing him the list of sound effects and background music pieces we needed. Unlike Chinatsu, he just took it, smiled, gave me a thumbs up, and went back to his keyboard.Bookmark here

As Shinichi started writing the text and scripts for the presentation, Keisuke and I started working on the code. I started typing like there was no tomorrow, lines and lines of code appear on the screen almost as fast as the movement of my fingers. Even though music was blasting in my headphones, all I could hear was the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard.Bookmark here

After a short lunchbreak at 1 p.m., we worked almost non-stop until dinner break. Keisuke and I got the first prototype with programmer art – basically just horribly drawn doodles we made in Paint – working and showed it to the team, primarily to Mitsuo.Bookmark here

“The controls here aren’t comfortable,” he said as he dragged a tree onto a tile. “Maybe move the tree panel to the top?”Bookmark here

“Isn’t that foo far?” I asked. The tree panel was on the left right now.Bookmark here

“This would work fine if it was a mobile game where you could easily access the trees on the left side, but I think putting it on the top is more comfortable. The top covers the entire width of the screen, so you can easily bring it down to the tiles wherever they are.”Bookmark here

“Hmm…” He’s got a point. “Alright, can you change it, Keisuke?”Bookmark here

“Sure.” He went back to his seat and got back to work.Bookmark here

As I was about to do the same, Chinatsu called out to me.Bookmark here

“Ken-chan! Come here.”Bookmark here

“What is it?”Bookmark here

She turned her screen to the side slightly as I came to her seat.Bookmark here

“I finished the concept art for the ‘Heart of the Forest’.”Bookmark here

I looked at the screen in front of her. On a plain grey background was a large, shining orb. There were spots of light all over it, like a jar filled with captured fireflies. It was held together by strong wooden roots that stretched out like fingers grasping the orb. It was beautifully drawn, as expected of Chinatsu, but it didn’t really give off that forest vibe.Bookmark here

“How is it…?” she asked me, her voice trailing off.Bookmark here

“It’s great, but I think it’s a bit lacking.”Bookmark here

“Lacking?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, it doesn’t give enough of a forest vibe, you know?”Bookmark here

“I see…” She turned back to the laptop and brought her hand to the chin, striking up a thinking pose. “No, actually, I don’t see. What do you mean?”Bookmark here

“It feels empty. Maybe instead of just the roots grasping the orb, it’s in a tree? Like a shining orb wedged inside a tree, like it’s the heart of the tree, which is the heart of the forest.”Bookmark here

Her eyes opened wide as the image came to her head. “Ah, I get what you mean! Okay, just leave it to me!” With that, she went back to drawing and I went back to my work.Bookmark here

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For three days and three nights, we worked with as little as two hours of sleep a day. Those who wanted to sleep could sleep at the back, where they had prepared a bunch of futons and pillows. We always had somebody working. There was never a point in those three days when at least two of us weren’t working.Bookmark here

At 3 a.m. on the last day, exactly 8 hours before the end of the competition, the entire team gathered around me as I prepared to run the first finished build of Heart of the Forest.Bookmark here

“I’m so nervous!” Chinatsu said in a whisper. A lot of people were still sleeping in the back. She was holding tightly onto my shoulder, and it actually hurt a bit, but I let her keep doing it if it meant she wouldn’t scream.Bookmark here

“The build’s done, Kenji,” Keisuke told me as the progress bar reached 100% on my screen and the folder containing the build automatically opened. I brought the cursor to hover above the build, heart_of_the_forest.exe.Bookmark here

“Alright, here we go. 1.. 2… 3…”Bookmark here

I double-clicked the build and the screen turned to black, before displaying the team name: Silverstorm. We reached the main menu, and I checked every single thing. I made sure the buttons lit up when I hovered above them, that the sound effect for it played when I did. I made sure that the background music wasn’t too loud, that the background art moved, that everything was in its right position.Bookmark here

Then I clicked the ‘New Game’ button and started playing. Everyone held their breath as I played through the levels, beating back the waves of lumberjacks as they invaded my forest. When I reached the final level and everything worked fine, everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief. There were no major bugs or issues, and the ones that were there were pretty easy to fix.Bookmark here

I wrote down lists of them categorised by who was going to fix them. They were mostly minor bugs like a sound looping twice, or sprites that appeared in front when they should’ve been in the back. I hand out everybody their tasks and they got to work.Bookmark here

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When the clock struck 11, Takashima blew a whistle to signal the end of the game jam. Some people sighed and fell back into their chairs exhausted, others buried their heads between their hands, agonising over things they couldn’t finish or fix. Only the five of us were sitting relaxedly, eating snacks and drinking tea. Chinatsu was even still asleep in her seat. How she could sleep through that loud whistle blow was beyond me.Bookmark here

“Good work, everyone! I hope you finished everything. And if you didn’t, don’t beat yourselves up. What matters is that you tried your best.” Takashima smiled warmly as he said those words that rang hollow. If trying your best was all that mattered, there wouldn’t be any competitions. People who came here came to win, and if they didn’t, then they didn’t deserve to win.Bookmark here

“We’ll take a break now. After lunch, we’ll begin the presentations. I will randomly call out the names of teams so you better be prepared to get called at any time! Remember, you will be presenting in front of the judges, so do your best! Come out of the hall and follow us to the judging room when we call out your team name.”Bookmark here

When we entered the judges’ room, the department head Professor Naito smiled at us, no doubt recognising us from the previous years. Naturally, I did the presentation. And throughout it all, the two professors were nodding and smiling along. The guest judge Sugano Hideki didn’t, but he was paying close attention to my presentation, and occasionally I saw him taking notes.Bookmark here

After the presentation finished, including bits we added about how we were inspired by deforestation around the globe, we showed them the game itself. Their eyes opened wide in amazement at what we managed to accomplish in just three days. Even Sugano Hideki started nodding, impressed.Bookmark here

At the end of our presentation and demo, we bowed in unison as they clapped.Bookmark here

“Well done once again, everyone. You never disappoint,” said Professor Naoto as he clapped.Bookmark here

With that, we went out. As we were leaving the room, I heard the judges whisper among themselves, and I was sure that they said that was the best game we’ve seen today so far.Bookmark here

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“We will now announce the winner and the three runner-ups of this year’s game jam, as chosen by the judges!” Takashima announced on stage. He let the applause die down before he continued on.Bookmark here

“For third runner-up, Team Red Canary with their game Forest Asylum!”Bookmark here

A video of their game appeared on the screen as their leader came up to the stage, wearing a red jersey true to their name. From his height and way of carrying himself, he must’ve been a college student. He was beaming as he stood on stage, excited to have won the lowest runner-up position.Bookmark here

“And for the second runner-up, Team Thunderpixel, with their game Evil Island!”Bookmark here

As before, a video of their game appeared on the screen. Their leader, a young man with a buzz cut, a stubble, and black, square glasses ran up onto the stage in a Nyan Cat T-shirt. He was waving, and his team were cheering loudly a few tables in front of us.Bookmark here

“And for the first runner-up, Team Silverstorm, with their game Heart of the Forest!Bookmark here

There was applause, but nobody stood up and came up to the stage. I looked around, trying to find the team when I realised my teammates were all staring at the screen, their mouths agape. When I looked back, I saw our game.Bookmark here

Wait, did he just say Silverstorm? Heart of the Forest?Bookmark here

As the video played, Takashima scans the crowd and locks eyes with me.Bookmark here

“Team Silverstorm, come up to the stage! What are you doing, Hoshino?”Bookmark here

I stayed in my seat, frozen. First runner-up? There must’ve been a mistake. That’s what I kept thinking. But the video kept playing, and when it ended, the name Heart of the Forest came up in big, stylised letters in the shape of tree trunks and leaves on the screen. I felt somebody pull my shoulder.Bookmark here

“Kenji,” Shinichi whispered to me. “Stand up. To the stage. Now.”Bookmark here

He pushed me up. I felt everybody’s stares on me as I staggered towards the stage. Everything was spinning, and my head felt as light as air as I stood under the blinding light of the projector. Both my hands were numb, and all I could do was stare at Takashima, waiting for him to announce the winner. Who could possibly beat us? Who could possibly beat me?Bookmark here

“And finally, the winner is…”Bookmark here

The light of the projector turned dark as the video began to play on the screen behind me.Bookmark here

“Team Firetale, with their game, Art of War!”Bookmark here

The other runner-up leaders on stage turned their heads around to see the video, but I kept my eyes on the crowd. Someone stood up from a desk near ours, but in the dark I couldn’t make out anything about them. The leader moved slowly and relaxedly towards the stage, until finally she was bathed in the light of the projector.Bookmark here

It was the normie-looking girl I had seen on the first day. Long, black hair shining in the light, she made her way to stand next to me. She was wearing a grey sweater over a white shirt, with a simple grey skirt that reached just above her knees. She was pretty, and looked neat and bright, in contrast to my own disheveled appearance with my crumpled grey shirt and green jacket.Bookmark here

As the video ended, Takashima went to the middle of the stage.Bookmark here

“And these are our winners this year!”Bookmark here

Applause, but I couldn’t hear anything. It all felt like background noise somewhere in the distance.Bookmark here

Takashima went to each of the third and second runner-ups and gave them a certificate, shook their hand, and took a photo. Then he came to me and gave me the certificate.Bookmark here

“You looked shocked.”Bookmark here

I didn’t answer.Bookmark here

“Cheer up, Hoshino. No one can win all the time. Just take this as a learning experience.”Bookmark here

He shook my hand and turned around to pose for the photo. And then he left me.Bookmark here

“Miss Moriyama, please come to the centre of the stage!”Bookmark here

Moriyama did as Takashima announced. A committee member handed him a small trophy – the same one I held the last three years on this stage.Bookmark here

“Congratulations on being the winner of this year’s game jam!”Bookmark here

Takashima handed her the trophy.Bookmark here

“Thank you, thank you so much!” she bowed slightly to Takashima.Bookmark here

They shook hands and looked at the camera, before Takashima stepped back and left her alone in the spotlight.Bookmark here

“Thank you so much, everyone! We had lots of fun. It might be only me standing up here, but this is a victory for all of us in Team Firetale!”Bookmark here

At that, her teammates began shouting and cheering. The applause hadn’t died down. Chinatsu and Shinichi said nothing as they watched the stage. Keisuke wasn’t even looking at the stage. He was just looking down and playing on his phone.Bookmark here

But I kept staring at her back, my eyes half-blinded by the light. As she waved and bowed, holding the trophy to her chest, I stood in her shadow behind her.Bookmark here

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Silently, we walked out of the hall as people crowded about in front of the stage, taking pictures, talking. We were silent too as we packed our stuff. Keisuke was so upset that he packed his stuff the quickest and left early, leaving only the four of us.Bookmark here

As we dragged ourselves to the door, I stopped and turned around. Moriyama stood in the middle, still holding her trophy. People were crowding around her, talking and complimenting her. She was surrounded by her team, all guys. She was absolutely beaming, her smile wide and her eyes full of joy.Bookmark here

The crowd dispersed as people went home. Her team went back to their table, leaving her and the trophy. She set it down on the stage and looked at it. She was trying to find the best possible position to bring it in. I decided to step forward and approach her.Bookmark here

“Morimiya-san,” I called out to her.Bookmark here

She turned my way. “Yes?” She clearly didn’t recognise me, but she smiled anyway.Bookmark here

“Congratulations.”Bookmark here

“Thank you.” She went back to the trophy.Bookmark here

“I won’t lose next time.”Bookmark here

At those words, she furrowed her eyebrows and looked back at my direction. She stayed silent for a while, but I held my ground and stared back right at her face. She tilted her head left and right, not answering my statement. Finally, she started to speak.Bookmark here

“Who are you again?”Bookmark here

The shock of those words threatened to send me flying into the wall. How could she not know me?! Is this her first time here? Does she live under a rock?!Bookmark here

“Hoshino Kenji! I’m Hoshino Kenji!”Bookmark here

“I see. And who are you?”Bookmark here

This girl… is she actually clueless?Bookmark here

“Huh?! My team and I won the last three game jams. Team Silverstorm! I’m their leader!”Bookmark here

She grinned mischievously. “Sorry, never heard of that name.”Bookmark here

I was flabbergasted. Shocked. In disbelief.Bookmark here

“I won’t lose again,” I repeated. “I’ll make you remember my name!”Bookmark here

With that, I turned around and ran for the door.Bookmark here

This was my lost and her gain. I can’t let her win again. If she wins, that’s my loss. If she gets better and I don’t, that’s my loss too. So, I need to get better. I repeated those words as I went home alone under the night sky.Bookmark here

After all, life is a zero-sum game.Bookmark here

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