I FIRST CAME ACROSS THE GAME IN 1983. My game theory professor took me to visit the site of the original Laundromat in Seattle. The Laundromat is no longer there, of course, but if you ask the manager of the restaurant that currently occupies the space, she might take you into the office in the back and let you see part of the original room. And, if you order a big meal and tip the waitstaff well, she might even remove the large modernist painting that hangs above the fireplace and show you the graphic of the rabbit on the wall.
Some true stories are easier to accept if you can convince yourself that at least part of them are fictional. This is one of those stories.
—SHALINI ADAMS-PRESCOTT, 2021
THE SCENE IN THE MAGICIAN'S ARCADE
"WHAT DO YOU KNOW about the game?"
The smiles vanished from the assembled collection of conspiracy hounds and deep Web curiosity seekers, their private conversations stopped mid- sentence, their phones quickly stashed into a variety of backpacks and pockets, each of them doing their best to look cool and disaffected while unconsciously leaning forward, ears straining, eyes bright with anxious anticipation.
This was, after all, why they were here.
This was what they came for, what they always came for. This was the thing they spoke about in inelegant lengthy rambles in their first Tor Browser Web forum experience, the thing they'd first stumbled upon in a private subreddit, or a deep-Web blog run by a lunatic specializing in underground conspiracies both unusual and rare.
This was the thing that itched your skull, that gnawed at the part of your brain that desperately wanted to believe in something more. This was the thing that made you venture out in the middle of the night in the pouring rain to visit a pizza joint-slash-video arcade that probably would have been condemned decades ago had anybody cared enough to inspect it.
You came because this mysterious "something" felt different. This was that one inexplicable experience in your life: the UFO you and your cousin saw from that canoe on the lake that summer, the apparition you'd seen standing at the foot of your bed when you woke in the middle of the night on your eighth birthday. This was the electric shiver up your spine just after your older brother locked you in the basement and turned out the light. This was the wild hare up your ass, as my grandfather used to say.
"I know that it's supposed to be some kind of recruitment test—NSA, CIA maybe," said a young woman in her early twenties. She'd been here last week. She didn't ask any questions during that presentation, but after, in the parking lot, she'd stopped me and asked about fractals, and if I thought they might be related to sacred geometry (I did), or the elaborate conspiracy work of John Lilly (I did not).
She didn't ask me anything about the thing directly.
It was always like this.
Questions about the game were most often received as whispers online, or delivered in a crowd of like-minded conspiracy nuts, in safe spaces like comic shops or the arcade. Out in the real world, talking about it made you feel exposed, like you were standing too close to something dangerous, leaning out just a bit too far on the platform while listening to the rumble of the approaching train.
The game was the train.
"Thousands of people have died while playing," said a thin redheaded man in his early thirties. "They sweep these things under the fucking rug, like they never happened."
"There are a number of theories," I said, like I'd said a thousand times before, "and yes, some people do believe that there have been deaths related to the game."