Zero-Sum Game | ゼロ和ゲーム
I unlock the door and we enter my apartment. It’s still a horrible mess. I wish I could’ve had time to tidy things up a bit… We take off our shoes and step into the room.
“Sorry for the mess…” I say to her as I scramble to tidy up the sheets and put everything in their place so that it looks at least presentable. While I do that, she makes herself at home and sits in front of the low table in the centre of the room. She carefully pulls out the food we bought and put it on the table, mine across from hers.
“So this is where you live, huh?” she says, looking around the room.
“Yeah. It’s a pretty nice place. And not that far from campus.”
“I can see why.”
“What about you?”
“Me? I live with my parents. They’re near so.”
“Ah, mine too.”
“Really? Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to just live with them?”
“Wanted to try living by myself. Have some freedom, you know?”
“Right, I totally get you.”
I sit down in front of my meal. Simultaneously, we bring our hands together and say itadakimasu before opening the lunchbox. In the end, I went with a simple chicken cutlet bento.
“You wake up pretty late, Hoshino,” she says in between bites. “Do you always wake up like this?”
“Nah, I was up late last night.”
“What were you doing?”
“…Waiting for Mitsuo.”
“Mitsuo came here last night?”
“No, I mean I was waiting for him to send something. A song for the game, to be exact.”
“Oh, I see! Can I have a listen?”
She slides up closer to me. I hand her the earphone buds as I press the play button on my phone. She listens to it for a while, sometimes shaking her head and letting her eyes wander. Then, she takes off the earbuds and returns them to me.
“Well, how do I put this…”
“It doesn’t fully fit the vibe of the game, does it?”
“Exactly! I wasn’t sure how to say it,” she giggles. “Glad you said it first.” She slides back to where she was sitting and continues eating. “So, did you say that to Mitsuo-san?”
“Yeah, I did.” I check my phone to see if he’s replied. There are no notifications, so I open the chat only to find that he hasn’t even read it. “He hasn’t replied yet, though.”
“What did you say?”
In lieu of an answer, I show her the message I sent Mitsuo. After reading it, she nods.
“I totally agree with what you said.” She squints her eyes at the chat and stops eating. “He sent it in the morning?”
“Oh, yeah, he did.”
“So you waited until late at night, and then he didn’t send it?”
“That’s about it yeah.”
“Did he say it was going to be yesterday?”
“Yeah, he said so in the clubroom two days ago, remember?”
“Right. That’s terrible. You should give him a piece of your mind.”
“What good would that do? He’s always been like this. He’s not exactly the type to stick to deadlines, you know. Over time, I got used to it. Though, it has been a bit worse lately.”
“Well, the deadline for the song was actually Wednesday.”
“Huh?! He sent it almost a week late?”
“Actually, it was the Wednesday before that…”
Moriyama jumps up and slams her hands on the table.
“What?! That’s insane! Did you say anything to him?”
“Yeah, I did. Last Friday.”
“And what did he say?”
“He said he was working on it.”
“Well, he said he’d send it to me Saturday. I waited until late on Saturday too, but nothing came. Then I talked to him about it yesterday, and so he sent it to me today.”
“Did you say anything on Saturday? Or Sunday?”
“I didn’t want to be too accusatory.”
“Seriously?” she says with a tone of disbelief. “Honestly, that’s stupid.”
Wow, okay. Harsh. That really hurt. Didn’t think Moriyama could be this sharp.
“What should I have done?”
“Like, say something?”
“But if he felt like I was accusing him, he might’ve been offended and stopped working altogether.”
“That’s his problem.”
“But we need his music.”
“Yeah, but one, he has a responsibility. He signed on to this. He can’t just do whatever he pleases. And two, he’s your friend. He can’t do something like this to you, and you can’t just let him and not trust him like that.”
“Yeah, you say that he’ll just be offended and stop working. Do you have that little faith in him?”
“I’ve been friends with him since middle school. I know what he’s like.”
“So, you’re just going to leave it like this? He’ll keep being late and you’ll never get to the bottom of it. Doesn’t this make you feel frustrated?”
“Of course it does! I’ve set the deadline, he misses it. That’s not the worst part. It seems like he’s missing it on purpose. So of course it’s frustrating! I hate it so much. I stay up late, wait for him to finish his work, but nothing comes. How could I not be?”
My voice is rising. Without realising, I’d pent up all this anger towards Mitsuo inside me. And now I’m not lashing out at him, I’m lashing out at Moriyama who has nothing to do with this. But despite that, Moriyama is undeterred. When my voice rises, her voice rises even more.
“All the more reason to say something! If you just stay quiet, then nothing will ever change!”
“What should I have said?”
“Something like ‘where’s the recording? You said today’ and stuff like that! How often has he missed his deadlines?”
She hits my head with a karate chop.
“Ow!” I blurt out in pain.
“That’s all the more reason to say something. You should have a long, serious talk about this. I don’t think it’s just laziness. You said it yourself. This is worse than before. You need to get to the bottom of this. You’re the team leader, aren’t you?”
“So, act like one and lead!” She points at me as if all her energy is focused on that point of her finger, urging me to take action. We stay in that position for a while, as I’m too speechless to respond. Then her phone rings.
She sits back down and picks it up.
“Yeah, hello? I’m at a friend’s place. You’re here? Alright, I’m on my way.”
She puts the phone back in her pocket and stands up, taking her nearly empty lunch box with her.
“Alright, I gotta go, Hoshino. Thanks for letting me hang out here.”
She heads towards the door. As the host, I see to it that I accompany her there and wait for her to leave. She ties her shoelaces and stand up. With a hop, she turns back round to me.
“Alright, I’m off.”
“Alright, take care.”
She opens the door. As she stands in the doorway, she turns around and points her finger at me once again.
“Don’t forget what I said. You need to take care of this.”
With that, she leaves. Once again, I’m left alone in my apartment, with a half-finished bento box and her words to think about.
We’re all waiting in the clubroom: Shinichi, Miura, Moriyama, and me. The reason? Today I’ve called a meeting of the entire team. I told them it’s mostly to discuss the progress and schedule of the project, but I also want to address that. After thinking about it, what Moriyama said was right. I need to confront this. I can’t just let it simmer. Eventually it’ll boil, and the lid will come blasting off when it’s become too hot.
Chinatsu and Mitsuo are late, so we’ve been lazing around. There hasn’t been much conversation. Most of us have just been on our phones in our seats, waiting for those two to come. After waiting for a while, both of them burst rushing into the room together.
“Sorry we’re late!” shouts Chinatsu as she runs towards her seat.
Mitsuo comes in right behind her at a more leisurely pace. He waves at us and closes the door behind him. While making his apologies, he walks towards his seat.
“Alright, since everyone’s here,” I begin as I stand up. “Shall we begin?”
With nods signaling approval, I stand next to the whiteboard and open my phone where I already made a list of things to talk about.
First, I begin with myself. I list out all the work I’ve done so far, and what’s left. I also talk about my plans on finishing the rest. When I’m done, I prompt someone else to do exactly the same. Sometimes I ask more questions if I think it’s necessary. We go like this until every single person in the room has had a turn. This sort of thing is important so that everyone knows how we’re progressing, and it’s doubly important so that we can keep an eye on each other’s progress.
Besides that, there are some other discussions. Mostly about design choices, logistical information for the actual day, and a bunch more. They’re mostly minor, but they do need the group to decide together. Once that’s done, my eyes fall on the final item on the list:
I clear my throat and take a deep breath to calm myself down.
“Alright, we’re almost done,” I say, looking at each of them in turn. “There’s only one more thing on the list…”
My eyes unwittingly go to Mitsuo. Luckily, he’s not paying attention. But that pisses me off too. How can he be not listening to something as important as this? Using that annoyance, I force myself to start the topic.
“Mitsuo,” I call out to him.
He looks up, flustered. “Oh, me? Yeah?”
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk about…”
“It’s about your work.”
“My work? Like, my music?”
“Is it about those changes you asked me to do? I’ll get around to them as soon as I can.”
“That’s not it,” I say. Say it, come on. You’ve got this far. “It’s about you missing your deadlines.”
Silence. He doesn’t say anything, and his expression doesn’t change. It’s a vague expression I can’t put my finger on. Wide eyes, no smile, not tense, but not relaxed. If I had to choose a word to describe it, I’d say it’s neutral. Completely and utterly neutral.
“You’ve missed most of your deadlines,” I continue. “The last song, for example. I asked for you to finish it two weeks ago. You only sent it two days ago. And now there are changes needed, so we have to push back the next one further. This messes up the schedule. You know that, right?”
“Yeah,” he says, nodding. At least this time his attention is completely on the matter at hand.
“So, I’m just wondering. Everyone else is working really hard to make this game a reality. But every single part is important, including the music. I just want to know the problem so we can solve it. Am I giving you too much work? Is there something else going on in your life that’s taking your attention away? Schoolwork, maybe? If you could tell us, that’d be great. We could all solve it together.”
Depending on who’s talking right now, everyone’s attention flits from me to Mitsuo and back again. They’re not saying anything, but when their eyes are on me, I feel a certain pressure. A pressure that’s saying hey, you’re the leader. You have to see this through. I can’t know for certain, but I think something similar is pressing Mitsuo to pay attention and to answer.
“No, you’re not giving me too much work or anything.”
“Is there nothing else?”
“Then, why did you miss the deadlines? You didn’t say anything to me, so I don’t know if you realised that you missed it. Did you?”
“I did,” he nods without hesitation. He did? If that’s so, why was he so nonchalant about it?
“So, you let it go past the deadline on purpose?”
“You didn’t even try to rush it?”
Silence. I appreciate his honesty. But honestly, it’s making me really angry. How could he know he had passed the deadlines and still did nothing? It’s so irresponsible. It’s like he’s treating this project like trash.
“Can you tell us the reason why?”
He doesn’t say anything for a while. Finally, he stretches out his arms and leans forward, his eyes serious and determined.
“I don’t want to do this anymore.”
The room falls into silence. Not that it wasn’t silent, but now you can feel it in the air. Nobody expected that answer, and nobody knows how to react to it. And I’m no exception. Out of all the possible answers I’d thought of – too much work, just laziness, scheduling conflict – this was something I hadn’t thought of. Not that it’s that unnatural. Everything makes sense now. But I didn’t think of this as a possibility because I didn’t want to. Deep down, that’s what I felt.
Despite knowing full well what he meant, I ask him, “What do you mean?”
“Ah,” he sighs. He closes his eyes and rubs his forehead. “I don’t want to do this game development thing anymore. I don’t have the motivation for it.”
“It’s been a few months, I guess. I just… I don’t see the point of it anymore. I’m not having fun with it like I used to.”
“But you used to say you wanted to do this with us. Back in high school, you said that this was your dream too.”
“Things change, Kenji. People change. I’m just not feeling it anymore. I want to make music. But not for games. You know how I joined up with the band here on campus? When I’m there, jamming with them, I feel like I’m where I belong.”
Silence again. I asked partly out of a desire to lighten the air because the silence was so suffocating, but now I can’t say anything more.
“So, yeah,” he says, his eyes going from person to person.
In the end, we ended without coming to a clear conclusion. It was just too surprising for me that I couldn’t get my thoughts straight. We went out with a heavy mood and with little talk. I headed straight home, but Chinatsu followed me.
“Ken-chan!” she says as she’s running after me.
“What is it?” I don’t even bother to turn around.
“Are you okay?”
Does it look like I’m okay? What a stupid question. I don’t answer and keep walking.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
I pick up my pace and leave Chinatsu behind. At first, she kept following me. But eventually, I stopped hearing her footsteps. When I look back, she’s no longer there. I head to the convenience store near home where I met Moriyama and buy several packs of beers. I don’t drink, but this seems like as good a time as any to drink.
Back in my apartment, I don’t bother changing or doing anything else. I just throw everything on the floor and start opening the beer cans. One or two bottles of beer aren’t going to make me drunk, but several packs might. I’d get something stronger – wine or something – but they don’t sell them at that convenience store, and I really just want to down something without waiting anymore.
By now, I’ve drunk three bottles in less than 15 minutes. My mind begins to wander, and all those thoughts and feelings I repressed so that I could keep it together begin to surface. Why did he suddenly say that? He gave no such indication before this. Back when we were discussing ideas, he seemed so fired up. Granted, the idea we settled on in the end wasn’t the one he wanted, but still.
Or maybe his feelings changed after we started? He’s not saying it, but maybe I pushed him too hard. It wasn’t being pushed too hard that made him want to stop. It was when he was pushed too hard, he started to try and find escape. And then the escape – which is probably not as intense as what we’re doing – started to appeal much more to him.
Is it my fault then? Did I push him too hard? Or maybe, I wasn’t inspiring enough as a leader. As the leader of this team, it should be my responsibility to see these things through. Yet I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t keep the team together. Because he’s most likely leaving the project, right? If he’s already saying these things, then he’s just going to leave, isn’t he?
Why don’t things go my way? That’s the question that keeps popping up at myself. At first, it was just a small whisper at the back of my head. But now, it’s like it’s shouting at me from inside my head.
First, Moriyama appeared. I don’t hate Moriyama, but why did she have to appear? I lost my status as the one that kept winning. And because of that, Keisuke left. I wasn’t good enough. But it seems even now, I’m still not good enough. What am I doing? What do I have to do to become good enough so that people won’t leave?
I just wanted to have a team. A team that would struggle with me. You know all those stories about successful people? Sometimes they’re alone, but more often they’d be with some other people. Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and the other founders of Apple. Bill Gates, Paul Allen, others. That’s what I wanted. A core team who’d struggle with me and in the end, we’d be something great. Something more than just a group of college students playing at game developer.
But instead, the team’s falling apart, one by one. First, it was Keisuke. Now, it’s going to be Mitsuo, isn’t it? Who’s going to leave me next? Shinichi? Moriyama? Miura?
If it’s just going to fall apart, why do anything? I’d be expending energy for something that’s bound to fall. Isn’t that just stupid? Maybe that’s what I am. Just stupid. A stupid college guy who can’t do anything, who can’t keep his team together, who can’t even become the best at a bunch of local game jams, dreaming of becoming something better. Dreaming of becoming someone great, a giant that stands above others. What a joke. What’s that stupid college guy doing right now? Drinking away his problems in his dirty, cheap, little apartment.
I’ve reached my second pack. My head feels dizzy. It feels light. I feel like I’m no longer myself, but a part of the air, just floating in the wind. I can’t change its course; I can’t stop it. I’m just being carried away, despite all my effort to go against it. Well, I’m drunk after all. But is that what I feel? I don’t know. Where am I? Who am I? What am I doing?
With these confusing thoughts in my mind, and with my head spinning in a thousand different directions, I collapse onto my bed. As I fall asleep, it’s not just anger and disappointment that’s haunting me. As the tears start rolling down my cheeks, the words that prompted all this continue to pound in my head:
Why can’t things go my way?