Zero-Sum Game | ゼロ和ゲーム
I’m hungover. I would’ve loved to stay at home and just sleep it off. But unfortunately, I have classes. The first class has ended, and now I’m passing the time before my second one begins. I’m hungry, but I don’t feel like eating lunch where a lot of other people are eating. And somehow nothing looks appetising.
That’s why I’m here, sitting on a bench by the small pond in one of the campus’ parks. It’s not exactly empty, but it’s never crowded. There are a couple of students sitting around on mats, having fun with their lives while eating sandwiches and snacks. Nobody seems to notice me, the lone guy sitting on the bench eating convenience store bread with a face that screams hangover.
I’m not looking forward to club. I go there every day after classes, but now I wish I could do anything but that. If I go there, then I’d need to face the issue that is Mitsuo. But I don’t even want to think about it. I haven’t even opened my phone since I went home yesterday. I’ve just been lost in my thoughts, and now I just feel empty.
To take my mind off those thoughts, I look around. Observing people can be quite fun. You get to see how different people are. The way they talk, the way they walk. A guy with a unkempt hair and a slight hunch in a navy blue sweater, walking with a girl in a bright, yellow blouse and a pair of white jeans. They seem to be having fun. Lovers? No, they don’t seem to be that comfortable with each other yet. Most likely, they’re on their way towards that.
A girl across the pond with a confident stride. She’s wearing sneakers, black jeans, and a grey jacket over a light blue shirt. Her long, black hair is slightly curly, and she turns her head this way and that, as if looking for something. Then her gaze falls on me, straight across the pond from her. Why is she looking at me? When she raises her hand and points at me, I realise why she seems so familiar.
Moriyama runs around the pond towards me and reaches me as I take a bite out of the bread. She’s heaving as she arrives. I look at her but say nothing. She recovers, looks me straight in the eyes, and hits me square on the head.
“Ouch!” I scream out. The bread almost falls. “What was that for?”
“You haven’t been answering your phone.”
“Yeah, so what?”
“Chinatsu-chan was really scared. She thought something happened to you!”
Ah, of course. It’s always Chinatsu. “Wait, Chinatsu-chan?”
She nods. Since when did she call her chan?
“Well, you two have got close.”
She turns beet red. “N-not really. It just feels, you know, more natural to call her that. She’s so feminine and cute after all. And like, we’re in the same team. San is a bit too formal?” She’s avoiding my eyes. But then the colour comes back to her face and she turns back towards me. “Wait, that’s not what we’re talking about. Don’t try to change the subject.”
“I wasn’t trying to…” I really wasn’t. “Anyway, you’ve found me. You can go ahead and tell Chinatsu I’m fine.”
“Why don’t you tell her yourself?”
“She’s really worried about you.”
“But I’m fine, aren’t I?” I open my arms to show her that there’s nothing wrong with me.
“What’s with your face?”
“You look like you slept in the dumpster last night or something.”
“I might’ve drunk some beer.”
“Did you get drunk?”
“So what if I did?” It doesn’t concern her at all if I did.
She sighs and stands in front of the bench. I look up at her, not sure of her intentions.
“Scoot over,” she says while pointing her finger.
I slide over and she takes a seat next to me. She hasn’t said anything about what her intentions are, and it’s not my problem. I continue eating the bread I bought without saying a word or looking in her direction.
“Wanna talk about it?”
“Not really.” I’m not in the mood to talk about what’s happened. Besides, what would talking do anyway? It’s not going to solve the problem. It’s not going to make Mitsuo stay. Not just stay in the club, but also stay motivated. He could very well remain in the club and still work with us. But he wouldn’t have any motivation. He’d slack and look miserable. I’d hate seeing that even more.
“Why did you get drunk? If you don’t talk about it, nobody will know the problem. Mitsuo too. And if we don’t know the problem, we can’t solve it. You’re the team leader, aren’t you? Aren’t you supposed to be the one moving things and making decisions at times like these?”
That’s true. That’s my job. But I’m so tired of it. The decisions I made always end up being the wrong ones. Keisuke, and now Mitsuo. Whatever decision I make this time will probably end up the same. Knowing all that, I don’t answer.
“So, you’re just going to sulk and ignore people, and let the entire project fail? Just because of one event like this? You want to allow Keisuke to believe he was right?”
I stop eating. Deep down, I knew. I already knew everything she’s saying. But when she says it out loud, it really hurts. It’s like I’ve been caught red-handed, like a spear’s been plunged right through my armour, and there’s nothing guarding me anymore, nothing to keep me safe.
“It’s like Keisuke,” I start saying through gritted teeth. “Really, all I wanted was just to have a team that would stick by me all the way until we reach the end.”
“What end would that be?”
“I don’t know, our own game studio, maybe?” Even now, I’m still not sure what that end is, but I know it’s there. And whatever it is, it’s my dream. “I don’t know if I did anything wrong to make them lose the will and motivation to keep doing this. Have I been too hard on them? Did I push them so hard that eventually they lost all passion for it? Or maybe I wasn’t passionate enough, that my passion didn’t spread to them too? That’s what I keep thinking.
“Yeah, I’m avoiding things. I know. I’m doing it consciously. I want to avoid dealing with this. Because the moment I deal with this, I might make another bad decision. And that decision will lead me to lose even more. Who’s going to leave next? Chinatsu? Shinichi? If things could just stay the way they were, that’d be nice. That’s all I want really. For things to stop changing like this. I don’t even want that much. Just this. Why can’t I have it? I wish this never happened. Maybe ignorance was better than this.”
“But you couldn’t ignore it,” Moriyama points out. “Remember our conversation? It bothered you. It made you angry and frustrated. You could never just ignore this. You could ignore it if you knew that this was the reason why he’s so unmotivated. But if you knew it, then that’s just where you are now. There was no other way things could’ve happened. And even if you hadn’t done anything, do you really think things were just going to stay the same?”
I think about it for a moment. She’s right. She’s always been right. And I hate the fact that she is. Because now I have no other recourse, no reason to do what I’ve been doing so far – which was exactly not doing anything.
“You have a dream, right?”
“And right now, there’s Chinatsu-chan, Shinichi-kun, Miura-kun. There’s me too.” She points at herself. “Because of one guy who’s thinking of stopping, you’re leaving all four of us hanging here. Right now, none of us has any intention of doing what you’re thinking. None of us are leaving. Nobody can say anything about the future. But if you give up now because of something that hasn’t even happened, isn’t that stupid? And wouldn’t that be unfair to the four of us? We’re ready. We’re still gearing for it. Are you just going to leave things like this, leave us hanging, directionless?”
She’s breaking down every single wall I’ve made, piercing every single shield I’m carrying. There’s nothing left for me to say that I know aren’t stupid or irrational. No, not a single thing left for me like that. I have to move.
“So, what should I do?”
“The question is, what can you do? Can you force Mitsuo to stay?”
“Can you change his feelings so that he becomes motivated again?”
“Maybe I ca–”
“You know you can’t. You know it’s not that simple. Don’t lie to yourself.” She shuts me up with those words, and then continues. “If there is nothing you can do, then the only thing you can do is accept it.”
“Accept it? Accept that he’s just going to leave? Leave behind our dream?”
“It’s no longer our dream to him. It’s your dream now.”
“I don’t want to accept this. I don’t want him to leave the team. I want him to stay as part of Silverstorm, and to always be part of it.” The words come out, but only barely. I realise I’m stuttering, and my voice sounds hoarse. There’s a stringing sensation in my eyes. If I let my guard down, let the pressure flow out, I have no doubt that tears will come.
“You have to, Hoshino,” she says, edging closer to me. “Otherwise, you’re going to let everybody down. Just like how Mitsuo’s let you down. And you know how that feels, don’t you?”
I know it. I know it too well. With no other way, I sit there on that bench, looking at the tranquil, unchanging pond. But even that’s a lie, because within that pond things change too. Eggs hatch new fish, older fish die. Plants die, replaced by new ones. Everything changes. Everything changes. Oh, how wonderful the world would be if it didn’t. Those thoughts just keep ringing in my head.
Moriyama left ahead of me. Eventually, I got up too and went to class. I came in a bit late, but the professor probably saw how much of a mess my face was that he thought it too troublesome to deal with me and just told me to sit down and be quiet. After all classes end, I drag my feet to the clubroom where I have to face my team, face what’s happened straight in the face.
I open the door. Everybody’s already waiting for me. Chinatsu’s in her seat, looking down on the phone on her lap. She’s biting her nails, and her foot keeps tapping the floor. She’s the first to look up when I enter, and a wave of relief flows through her.
“Ken-chan!” she practically shouts. “Where have you been? I was worried sick! You weren't answering your phone or your chat! I thought, I thought…” She doesn’t finish. Instead, water gathers in her eyes, and they seem like they could flow down her cheeks at any moment now.
“Sorry, I had a lot to think about. I’m sorry.” I say that as sincerely as I can. She rubs her eyes.
“It’s okay. Are you okay now?”
“Yeah.” Seeing Chinatsu cry because of how selfish and self-pitying I’ve been, I’ve made up my resolve. I clench my fist as I turn to Mitsuo.
“Yeah?” He snaps his attention to me and straightens his posture.
“I have something to say.”
I sit down across from Mitsuo, who is similarly seated. The others are sitting around us, looking at us. Mitsuo is the tensest I’ve ever seen him. His shoulders are practically stiff, and he’s sitting uncharacteristically straight. I can feel his eyes on me. They’re waiting, expecting me to say something.
“So,” I start to say. But I jump back when everyone starts leaning in. Seeing my reaction, they all back off. I cleay my throat and start again. “So, you said that you’re not interested in game development anymore?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, it’s not that I dislike it. But I don’t think I can take it as seriously as everybody else. It just seems like a little hobby for me.” He lowers his head, as if in apology for what he’s saying.
“Alright, so what do you want to do?”
He looks back up. “What do you mean?”
“Well, since you’re no longer that interested, what will you do now? About this team, about this game.” This is the core of what I need to know. If he leaves now, we’ll have to think up something for the music. Finding another sound engineer would be the best option. We could make music specifically for the game. But I’m not sure we can find one at this late stage. We’re too near Artfes that no one might want to take the job just because of the time limit. And also, they might ask for pay. We don’t have that much money. Another option would be to find free music online. There’s a lot of it on YouTube and other sites. But they can only fit so well…
“To be honest, I’m not so sure.” Mitsuo looks at me with earnest eyes. “I haven’t thought about it. It’s just that I wanted to tell you the reason why I wasn’t working as hard. But it’s not like I want to leave the team immediately or anything. I just don’t know.”
Alright. Now I understand. And now I need to do what I need to do.
“Okay, I get what you mean,” I start. “So, you don’t want to leave the team yet?”
“Yeah, I’m not sure.”
“Okay. I’ll be honest, I’m disappointed. Disappointed at how you didn’t do your job properly. Disappointed at how irresponsible that was. And of course, I’m disappointed that you don’t want to go down this path anymore.” I look at him. His eyes are downcast. Apologetic. “I can’t stop you. I can’t force you. Even if you want to leave.
“But I have one thing to ask. Stay until at least we finish this game.”
There, I’ve said it. The one thing I need from him.
“What you want for yourself is up to you, of course. I have no right to interfere in that. But when you agreed to join, and when you agreed to make this game, you took on a responsibility. A responsbility to work on it. To work on it to the very best of your ability to its end. And that’s something you haven’t been doing.
“All I’m asking is this: stay on the team and do your utmost best until we’re done with this project. Then, I guess…” I have to say it, but the words won’t come out of my mouth. “You can do whatever you want after that. Leave, stay. Whatever you want.”
Now I’m the one avoiding his eyes. Those words that I never wanted to say. I’ve said them now. Because that’s my responsibility. But just because it is, it does’t hurt any less. It doesn’t taste any less bitter in my mouth.
Mitsuo doesn’t reply. He seems to be thinking. His eyebrows are furrowed, and his eyes are serious. Finally, he lifts up his head and looks at me. He smiles, but with a determined look in his eyes.
“Alright, Hoshino. I’ll work as hard as I can to finish what I’ve already started. I’ll stay, and I’ll make the best music I can for this game.”
I nod. I feel my shoulders relaxing. All the tension ever since I decided to confront Mitsuo about his lack of progress dissipates at that exact moment. Finally, I can relax. It’s no less sad for me, but there’s a certain feeling of relief after reaching the end of something, even if that end is not what I hoped for.
“Alright, let’s get back to work.” I stand up first, and everyone follows suit. Everyone goes back to doing their respective jobs. But Moriyama comes and stands in front of me, smiling. She nods at me approvingly, saying with just her look well done.
“Hey, Hoshino,” I hear Mitsuo calling me from behind.
“I just wanna say… I’m sorry.”
This takes me aback. I’m not sure how to respond. But in the end, I go to him, put my hand on his shoulder, and smile at him. Then, without saying a word, I go back to my own work.
What followed all that debacle was a few weeks of frantic development, which sometimes involved some of us staying overnight in the clubroom. All because Artfes is approaching, and we have to finish it soon. Mitsuo started working really quick. He missed deadlines still, but it wasn’t as bad as before. It was mostly because he actually wasn’t finished.
And now, we’re standing in front of the convention centre. It towers above us like a great beast. If it had floors, it’d probably have three to four floors. Wearing my jacket with a cap in spring coming on summer is probably a mistake, because I’m sweltering in the heat as I’m carrying my gear. The entire team is with me. We’ve come here to set up our booth. It’s exactly one week before Artfes begins.
Satisfied that we’ve brought everything, we take a step forward and start walking towards the open doors. Artfes, here we come!