Zero-Sum Game | ゼロ和ゲーム
Keisuke is standing a few steps in front of me. We haven’t met since the end of high school. But even then, we hadn’t talked for a while ever since he left the team. Despite all that, he’s talking to me so naturally. Meanwhile, I’m the one who’s at a loss. I think about how to act and how to talk to him as confusion, hurt, and anger all mix together and boil up inside me. But in the end, all of that only made me silent.
“What are you doing here?” I ask. My tone is sharper than I intended.
“Me?” He looks around while smiling – no, smirking. “That’s an odd question. This is my campus. I’m a student here.”
We didn’t talk at all in our last year of high school, so naturally I didn’t know where he decided to enroll in. Realising how stupid my question is, I look away.
“What about you?” He glances into the room where we worked on our game. “Don’t tell me you joined the competition?”
He’s not chuckling but I can feel his chuckle.
He laughs as if it’s the most amusing thing he’s heard all week. “Of course you did. I heard you went to… What was your university again?”
Begrudgingly, I mention my university’s name.
“Ah, yeah. Sorry, it’s so easy to forget. It’s not really well-known for its game dev programme, is it?”
“It doesn’t have one.”
“Oh? So, what are you taking?”
He nods a couple of times, making him look like a bobblehead. “I see.”
“What about you? What are you majoring in?”
“Same, actually.” He walks towards me and stands right in front of me. “But the club here is quite famous. They’ve got some pretty high up alumni. Including some game dev people. Of course, their IT department itself is already strong. If I want to become the best game developer this country – no, the world has ever seen, I can’t do something half-hearted.”
I don’t say anything. What’s your business telling me all this? That’s what I think, but I don’t say it.
“Wasn’t that your dream too?”
“Might as well be was. You’re wasting your time, just like I said back then. How can you improve, doing the same thing all the time? Not to mention, it’s something completely useless.”
That last word felt like it cut straight into my heart.
“Glad I’m not part of Team Silverstorm or whatever anymore. Would’ve held me back. Look at me now. I joined Forsaken Enigma. You know them, don’t you? The circle that’s made popular games the last few years. Some of the graduated members have gone on to become up-and-coming game developers. I’m a part of that, and we’re releasing a new game at this summer’s Artfes event.
“Of course, you can keep playing game developer as you were. But if you wanna see what serious people do, you should come and see us.”
For a moment, we don’t say anything to each other. I don’t want to look at him, so I look out the window, but I don’t know where he’s looking. Finally, he turns around and starts to walk away without a word. But he stops and looks back at me.
“Out of curiosity, did you win?”
“Figures. That girl?”
I don’t say a word.
“Kind of guessed it from your expression. Don’t worry, you’ll beat her next time. I’m sure of it.”
“He just might.” Suddenly Moriyama comes up the stairs. Her eyes are aimed straight at Keisuke, glaring at him.
Keisuke’s eyes widen. He looks like he’s surprised, and for a while he opens and closes his mouth like a fish, trying to say something but not sure what to say.
“Moriyama-san. Long time no see.”
“Long time no see indeed. What was your name again?” She smiles widely. But somehow that smile feels like it’ll stab you right in the chest.
Keisuke is unfazed, at least he seems to be fine. “Yoshino Keisuke.” He smiles back at her.
“We were just having a little friendly chat for old times’ sake. It’s been a while, you see.”
“A little friendly chat, you say? That’s not what it sounded like to me, Yoshino-san.”
“How did it sound to you then, Moriyama-san?”
“Like you’re trying really hard to bring him down to your level.”
Keisuke’s expression turns sour for a moment, but he recovers his sarcastic smile.
“I’m just telling him the truth. He’s been at this for two years, and three before that too. Not once has he ever beaten you. And what’s the point of all this? So, I’m just giving him just friendly advice.”
“So, if that’s the case then what should he do?”
“Something more productive and useful for his future. Winning these proves nothing.”
“So, what do you do?”
“I joined a circle – the Forsaken Enigma.” He smiles proudly. “Now that’s something useful.”
“I see, I see.” She rubs her chin with her hand as she nods lightly, looking like Keisuke’s words gave her something to think about.
“But there’s one important thing you’re missing I think, Yoshino-san.”
“And what might that be?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“What he does right now, in the past, or in the future. Frankly, it’s none of your business.”
His mouth slightly agape, he just stands there, not sure what to say. Even I’m not sure what to say. He sneers and then continues talking.
“Okay, okay, you’re right, but I’m just worried about his future, you know. I’m his best friend. If he keeps doing stuff like this, what will become of him?”
“Was his best friend, seems more correct to me, no? And if he wants to keep doing this, what does it matter to you?”
“Don’t you think it’s ridiculous? Working hard doing something that he’s basically guaranteed he won’t win. It’s crazy. He expects to get different results doing it over and over again. It’s crystal clear – he’s just not capable. Shouldn’t he just give up?”
“Give up? Like you?”
“I didn’t give up.” Keisuke clenches his fists.
“Seems to me like you did. You couldn’t win, so you just stopped trying and found something else. But it’s never you, is it? You couldn’t win by yourself. You needed the rest of Silverstorm. When Silverstorm seemed not good enough for you, I bet you just left. And now, you’re part of Forsaken Enigma. But again, you’re being carried up. It’s not like it’s what you did. Isn’t that what’s called being a… What was it again? A burden?”
“Why, you b–”
“If you have nothing else to say, then I’ll be taking Hoshino-san.”
“Whatever.” Keisuke says as he stomps off.
“What do you need?”
She sighs and leans on the wall. “Nothing, really. Let’s go outside. I need some fresh air, and I think you do too.”
Together, we go down the stairs and walk out of the building. With no particular destination in mind, we walk around the campus. To anyone who sees us, we were like any student making their way to their next class.
“Thanks,” I say without looking at her. “For what happened earlier.”
“You don’t need to thank me. I didn’t do it purely because of you. I just really hated how he said those things.”
“I thought you already left?”
“Yeah, but I was chatting with some people downstairs. Then I heard you two, and I just couldn’t ignore it.”
“He sounds like a total jerk. And you were friends with him?”
“Yeah. He was my best friend from grade school. At least, I thought he was.”
“What happened with him anyway? You just told me he left.”
“It’s a long story.”
“I don’t have anything after this. Do you?”
“Not really. Why would you care about this anyway? It’s not like it affects you. In the best way possible of course.”
“I don’t think you can just say that and make that phrase less attacking.” She smoothens her long, black hair. “I’m just curious.”
“Well, okay.” I don’t want to really talk about it. Honestly, I’d rather just forget it. But she did help me, and I suppose there’s no harm in telling her. And somehow, I feel like I want to tell her.
“You remember the very first game jam we met?”
“Of course. That was also one of my first wins, you know.”
“Yeah, so– wait what, that was one of your first wins?”
“Uh-huh,” she nods.
“Did you have any experience before that?”
“I joined one game jam before that, but that’s it.”
“You’ve made games before though?”
“What?” I thought my loss was bad, but I didn’t think it was this bad. I basically lost to an amateur.
“Yeah. And anyway, aren’t we supposed to be talking about you?”
“Right.” I clear my throat before starting. “That game jam was our first loss. We were all disappointed by it, but Keisuke was the most frustrated. He was in a sour mood for the next few days. We swore that we wouldn’t let it happen again.
“But as you obviously know, it did happen again. And again. And again. And eventually, Keisuke got fed up. He started acting more hostile towards the rest of us, especially the others. He only confided in me. He told me that the team was lazy and wasn’t trying enough. That’s honestly something I agreed with. But he started talking about how he could do way better outside of the team and how it might just be holding him back. I tried to talk him into staying, and for the first few times it worked.”
I gulp. As I talk about this, I feel my heart sink. The fresh, cool breeze now feels like a cold, unforgiving wind and the colours don’t shine as brightly as they did.
“And then one day, he went over to my desk in class and told me he was leaving the team. I was just silent for a moment because I couldn’t believe what he was saying. I thought he was joking, because he was smiling a bit as he said it. But as he kept his gaze straight, I realised he was completely serious. So, I asked him why.
“’Because the team doesn’t take this seriously enough. I could do way better with others.’ That’s what he said, and he left before I could even get a word in. He gradually stopped talking to us after that and I didn’t talk to him again until earlier today.”
We kept walking aimlessly around the campus. Moriyama hasn’t said a word, and it seems like she’s deep in thought. That makes the both of us. Retelling this story brings up a lot of unpleasant memories I’d rather forget. Suddenly, all those depressing thoughts come back to my mind, and it feels as though my heart has darkened.
“But he was only one of your two programmers, right? The other one being you?”
“So, technically it didn’t affect your team that much? Or was his part really big?”
“Besides the bigger programming load on me, it didn’t really affect us. Our programming skills were roughly the same. But it really hurt.”
“Because he was my best friend.”
“Wait, he was really your best friend?”
“Yeah. Chinatsu, him, and I met in elementary school. We were almost always in the same class so we always hung out together. I’ve always wanted to become a game developer, and they gladly went along with it. I was the leader of sorts in the group. And when I started to want to do it seriously in middle school, they went along too. We met the other two in middle school.”
“We told ourselves we were going to be the best game developers in the world one day. Together, we were going to make an amazing game, get a lot of money and attention, and then build our own famous studio. I could always count on them being there for me.
“But then that happened. Objectively, maybe, it didn’t change much. But I felt betrayed. I considered him my best friend, and he left and cut me off like that just because of this? It wasn’t just that he left the team, but he also avoided me. Or even worse, he sometimes outright ignored me. I found myself questioning whether our friendship all those years had been fake. Almost a decade of friendship.
“And he left because I couldn’t win.”
Another moment of silence, before Moriyama starts speaking again.
“But you know, Hoshino.”
“Even if you couldn’t win – and I’m not saying you can’t, I think you still have a chance against me –, what would that make him?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like I said to him. You’re struggling, yes. But you’re leading your team. What is he doing? If he was as good as he made himself out to be, wouldn’t he be leading his own team? Why does he need somebody obviously better than him to win? First, it was you and your team. And now, Forsaken Enigma. Don’t you think that makes him the incapable one? He’s only being carried upwards by the stream.”
“I don’t know. But if I’m good, wouldn’t he stay?”
“It’s not as simple as that. I think he’s got an inferiority complex. He feels he’s below others, so he tries to lift himself up. But he only tries to lift himself up above people he thinks he can out do, and he does that by relying on others.
“So, those words he said to you? They’re just there to bring you down. Whether they have weight or not depends on you. But he said that with no basis. It was only what was coming out of his jealous, inferiority-complex-ridden heart.
“So don’t mind them. Don’t entertain them. You’d be giving value to something that has none.”
“Why are you telling me all this? We’re not even close. We’re just rivals.”
She smiles. “That’s exactly why. It’s not fun if your rival goes down because of something like this, isn’t it? If you’re going down, I want to beat you at your best. If I beat you when you’re down, what’s the point in that? It doesn’t show any of your skill or hard work – it only shows that you take advantage of people unfairly.”
She starts walking faster than me. I don’t try to catch up and instead just look at her as she goes.
“And besides,” she says, turning around and walking backwards. “I admire how hard you’ve worked, and how you’ve never given up. And I hate it that somebody said those words to you.”
Hearing those words, I stop and look at her. She stops too and keeps her smile on me.
“I have to go now. Don’t think about what he said. It was just noise. Until we meet again, Hoshino!” She waves and then leaves.
Standing there in the middle of the campus as people walk past me, my head is filled with thoughts. But they aren’t Keisuke’s words, but hers. That is all I can think about. That, and her bright, lively smile. Until we meet again, she said. I wish that’d come sooner than later.
Of course, that’s only because I want to defeat her as soon as possible.
By the time I get back to my apartment, it was dark. Taking off my shoes at the entrance, I go in and turn on the lights. Not even changing my clothes, I sit down in the single room in which I live. There’s no TV, so I just blankly scroll through my phone. But there was nothing funny or interesting, so I turn it off and lay down on the wooden floor and stare at the ceiling.
A thousand different thoughts fly through my mind. The competition. Keisuke. His words. Moriyama Kyoko. Her words. The ceiling. The lamp. My future. Game development. Job prospects. One thing leads to another, and sometimes I go back to previous topics. A thousand different thoughts, but not a single one with a conclusion.
“My future, huh?” I say to myself.
The next day, I limp to my first morning class. I curse whoever decided today’s class was to start at 9 am. I barely got any sleep last night because I was thinking of too many things. So here I am, dragging my feet across the mostly empty campus with my eyes half-closed and yawning all the while.
“Ah!” I accidentally hit into someone. I was yawning and closed my eyes, not seeing my way forward. I move back and force open my eyes. I look towards the person who I had hit to apologise.
“My apologies. I wasn’t watching my way. I’m really–”
My mouth falls agape. When the person in front of me gathers herself and looks back at me, her eyes also widen in surprise.
“Hoshino-san?” exclaims Moriyama Kyoko with her bright smile and pleasantly surprised eyes.