Zero-Sum Game | ゼロ和ゲーム
I’m standing in the hallway in front of the room. There’s a lot of people here; coming, going, chatting. Everyone seems like they belong here, except me. I feel like a fish out of water. I don’t know where to look, what to do. All I can do is just stand here and wait for Moriyama. As if on cue, I hear her sweet voice calling me from behind.
“Hoshino, over here!”
Turning around, I head to her just as Chinatsu returns from the bathroom. The technical meeting only requires one person from each participating team. As the team leader, it’s a given that I’m attending. Moriyama too has a reason to be here: she’s our point of contact with this event.
But Chinatsu… She basically demanded to be here. Something about not wanting me to be alone together with Moriyama. Just what sort of monster does she think Moriyama is…?
“Let’s go,” she says. She turns around and leads us down the hallway, towards the entrance into the conference room.
We’ve managed to get this far, to actually take part in the technical meeting. It feels kind of surreal that just a few months ago, we were still just joining game jams and doing nothing more than that. But now, we’re here at the technical meeting, preparing to show our game to the public. It feels unreal.
The conference room isn’t as big as I imagined it to be. It’s a pretty spacious room. I’d say it could hold up to 800 people, maybe even a thousand. Lines of uniform, turquoise-coloured chairs are neatly arranged. They’re all facing front, where a sheet-covered desk and a projector screen have already been prepared.
We sit down not too far from the front and wait for it to begin. Not long after that, people start flooding into the room and the committee members take their seats at the desk in front. Once everybody was assembled, one of the committee members stands up and announces the start of the technical meeting. They introduce themselves and proceed to start the presentation.
There isn’t much to talk about from that presentation. It’s just a bunch of directions, instructions, important information, and rules. Chinatsu’s taking pictures of each slide. I guess she’s actually doing something here.
It ends quicker than I thought it would. Just like how we entered, people start streaming out of the room in a more or less naturally occurring line. And then we would go out, eat, and go home. That was how it was supposed to end. If it weren’t for a single, instantly recognisable voice that called us over from the hallway.
“Hoshino! And Chinatsu?”
Keisuke makes his way towards us with a confident stride, his shoulders high. You don’t have to come over here. It’s completely fine if you stay over there, I keep thinking to myself, but of course he can’t hear that.
He stops in front of the three of us. I’m standing firm. I don’t want to seem like I’m cowering before him, so I make sure I stand my ground. Chinatsu’s looking at him with eyes that are showing how hard she’s concealing her fury. But Moriyama looks at Keisuke as if he were a bug that she’d like to crush under her heel. I think Moriyama’s scarier than Keisuke right now…
“Hey, Chicchan, it’s been a while.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Come on, what’s with you two and those hostile looks?”
His gaze turns to Moriyama. His smug expression quickly turns into one of annoyance.
“And what are you doing here?”
“Hm? Oh that. I think the answer is it’s none of your fricking business.” Moriyama’s smile is so pure, but I’m not feeling any purity.
“Huh, so you finally gave up and joined with Moriyama? Realised you weren’t going anywhere with that team, huh,” he says, casting his attention back onto us.
“Just for your information, I asked to join them,” Moriyama says.
“Oh, I thought that it’s ‘none of my fricking business’?”
“You made it my business when you started talking like that.”
“Well, Moriyama or no Moriyama I doubt you can improve that much,” he says, smirking. “So, what sort of mediocre game have you got lined up for Artfes?”
“Just you wait. We’re going to sweep you off your feet. We’re going to blow you up.”
Uh, you mean blow you away? Chinatsu’s weird phrasing aside, this conversation isn’t going anywhere. It’s time to leave.
“Come on, let’s just leave. There’s no point talking to him,” I say before turning around and walking towards the exit.
Chinatsu and Moriyama follow my lead. As we’re walking, he calls out again after us.
“Good luck with that mediocre team of yours. It’ll be good entertainment at least to have you appear.” He’s laughing at his own joke.
As we get farther away from Keisuke, I start speaking to the two behind me without turning.
“Let’s destroy them. Let’s make this the best damn game those people at Artfes have ever seen.”
With that determination in mind, I walk out of the building and go straight back to continue our work. With this team, we can definitely do it.
But the moment I walk into the clubroom, my confidence begins to waver. Mitsuo is sitting there, strumming his guitar and humming a melody. I hope he’s working on the song. Today’s Friday. His deadline was Wednesday. Of last week. His work has been excruciatingly slow. Mitsuo’s always been slow, but he was never this slow before. I approach him as Chinatsu and Moriyama get to work.
“Hey,” I greet him.
“Hey, Kenji,” he says, turning around. “Technical meeting all done?”
“Not really. Anyway, how’s that song coming along? Are you working on it right now?” I point to the guitar.
I’m trying to prod him in the right direction without coming off as too accusatory. If Mitsuo feels he’s being accused of not working so straight to his face, he might dig in his heels and decide I’m not gonna do it. I can’t have that. We need that song, and he committed to making that song for the team.
“Oh, that? Nah, that was just me having some fun.”
“So… what about the song?”
“Don’t worry, I’m working on it. It’s going along nicely.”
“It was supposed to be last Wednesday… but if you need the time, I guess… Can you finish it by today?”
“Ah, that’s a little tight. Tell you what, I’ll finish it by tomorrow.”
We don’t go to campus tomorrow though.
“I’ll send you a recording so you can hear it at home.”
“Sure, I’ll wait for it.”
The next day. I’ve been waiting for it since morning. Now it’s 10 pm, and I’ve just finished some work. The recording didn’t come.
It’s Monday, and I go in the clubroom like usual, still recording-less. When I open the door, Mitsuo’s not here yet, but everybody else is. We say our greetings before I take my usual seat.
“Has Mitsuo been here yet?” I ask.
“No,” Chinatsu says as she squints her eyes at her screen. “He hasn’t said anything on the chat too.”
“Is something wrong, Ken-chan?” Her head pops out from behind the screen, her big eyes staring right at me.
“No, nothing. Just something to do with the music.”
I decide to just wait. This isn’t really something I can talk about with the others. One of them might say something to him, and he might get offended. Or maybe the others think like him: that this is completely fine. It’s not, I confirm to myself. We’re not just making this game for fun, and he’s completely disregarding his responsibilities.
It takes another half an hour before Mitsuo finally shows up. I’ve been filling the time with working on the game. Finally, the door opens and Mitsuo enters, a guitar case on his back.
“’Sup, guys?” he says as he enters and closes the door behind him.
He brings his hands together and bows comically.
“Sorry I’m late! I was talking with some friends from class and totally forgot the time.”
As everyone replies, he calmly makes his way to his seat while he hums a melody I don’t know. After waiting a while, I stand up and walk over to him.
“Hey, Mitsuo,” I say, trying to stay as calm, normal, and friendly as possible.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“So, I was waiting for the recording on Saturday, did something happen?”
Mitsuo’s eyes widen. Rubbing his neck, he sighs.
“Right… I was supposed to do that.”
“Well, what’s done is done. So, is the song finished?” I’m hoping he just forgot to send it and that the recording is somewhere within his phone or laptop, ready to be heard.
“Ah, not yet” he says. “But don’t worry, I’ll definitely finish it by today.”
“Are you sure?”
“Because that’s what you said last week too, but it still isn’t finished by now.”
“I promise you. It’ll definitely be finished by today.”
“Well, if you say so,” I say, trying to believe his words. “Since this one’s got pretty late, you’d need to finish the next one quicker than anticipated. I’ll move it back a bit, but I don’t think we can move it back that far. Is that doable? You should just tell me now if it isn’t.”
“When might that be?”
“Around two weeks before Artfes, at the latest.”
“I’m sure I can finish everything by then.”
“Alright. Please don’t be late like this again. It’s going to throw off our schedule, you know?”
With that, I go back to my seat and continue my work. I still don’t fully trust his word, but there’s nothing else I can do. At least, this time he’s said his commitment in front of everybody, so I have everyone to back me up if things come to shove.
It’s one hour past midnight, and I’m sitting next to my bed looking at my phone. I have my chat with Mitsuo open.
How’s the song coming along? I ask.
It’s the only message from yesterday, which ended an hour ago. So far, there’s no reply. He hasn’t even read it. I send him another message.
Mitsuo, how’s the song?
And then I wait again for another half hour. I spend the time reading, but the words leave my head as soon as I read them. My eyes constantly flit to my phone, sitting right next to me with the screen facing up.
My eyes have been getting heavier and heavier. I don’t think I can stay away much longer. I check my phone one last time, but there’s no change. There’s still no news from him.
“Damn it,” I mutter to myself.
I feel my anger and frustration build up inside me. But to keep it all in is too much, so instead I hit my bed really hard once. That way the neighbours can’t complain, but I can release this energy.
With a heart full of anger, frustration, disappointment, and sadness, I go to sleep at 1.30 am.
It’s the next morning. When I open my eyes, light is streaming through the glass door leading to the balcony. Unable to raise myself from the bed, I stay there looking at the ceiling as I adjust my eyes to the brightness. I reach around, trying to find my phone which I left next to my pillow the night before.
Feeling its plastic, rectangular shape, I pick it up and bring it to my face. One tap from my finger and the screen lights up, sending my eyes crawling back behind my eyelids as the brightness threatens to blind me. But when I open my eyes, a sight I have been waiting for has finally arrived.
Mitsuo sent a file.
The excitement and relief pull me up. Sitting on the bed, I rub my eyes and open the chat.
Hey! Sflr, forgot to send it yesterday lol
That message reads 9.34 AM. I check the time and it’s now 10 AM. He’s late again, I think. But better late than never. Before I reply to him, I want to listen to the song first. I click it, and after it finishes downloading, I grab my earphones and listen to it.
I listen to the digitally produced song Mitsuo sent me. It’s 2 minutes and 14 seconds long and is designed for looping. After listening to the entire 2 minutes and 14 seconds, I take off my earphones.
Well… The song isn’t bad. But it doesn’t fully capture what I was asking for. This was expected. That’s why I set the deadline earlier than I actually needed it, so that there’d be time to make changes. But he’s this late so… On the other hand, the song doesn’t fully fit the vibe of the game…
I send him a message.
Hey, thanks. I listened to it. It’s good, but…
I list out several of the issues I thought the song had. But fearing he might be slow again, I add at the end:
How long do you think this’ll take? If it’s too long, then I’d rather not risk it…
I close my phone. It’ll probably take Mitsuo some time to reply. I raise myself from the bed and look in the fridge, but there’s nothing to eat for breakfast. After brushing my teeth, I grab a jacket and a pair of trousers and put it on, then head out to find some food.
When I first came to this apartment, I was looking forward to the freedom and fun. My university is actually close enough to home, but I eventually managed to convince my parents that I wanted to experience and learn how to live alone. Because those words seemed very mature, my parents agreed. Rather childishly, I thought of how I could eat whatever food I wanted for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
But of course, I completely forgot about budget. My first month here, I almost ran out of money. I managed to hold out until the end of the month when I’d get an allowance from my parents, but it was just barely. Ever since then, I’ve tried to eat economically. That mostly consists of onigiri rice balls and convenience store bento lunch boxes. They’re not the best, but they’re good enough for their price.
“Welcome!” shouts the part-timer behind the register.
I immediately head towards the section with onigiri and bento. I don’t know what I should go with today. Maybe salmon or tuna onigiri? Or a simple chicken cutlet bento? I stand still in front of the choices for a while, pondering.
“Hoshino?” asks a soft voice from the side.
I look to my left and to my horror, it’s Moriyama. After the initial surprise passes, I realise that I’m disheveled. I haven’t even taken a shower. My throat becomes dry, and I just barely manage to say something.
“M-moriyama, hi,” I say weakly. That was so lame.
“Oh, it is you. Guess you just woke up, huh?” she smiles. “We seem to accidentally meet a lot. You’re not by any chance stalking me, are you?” She playfully squints her eyes at me.
“Of course not! And just so you know, it’s me who lives around here. So maybe, it’s you that’s stalking?”
“Oh really? Then my bad. I’ve been caught.” She turns to me with a smirk. “Just kidding. I’m going to meet a friend near here, but she’s running late. Are you buying breakfast?”
“I’m hungry too, but not for a full meal. A snack’s enough for me. Let’s eat together. Can I chill at your apartment while I wait?”
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