Part 1: Calibration, The Black Box

Chapter 1: Unboxing

John had never expected to become a video game reviewer as his full time gig. He had always wanted to be a writer, and when he was younger and more naïve he’d set his sights on writing for games. But, as in most cases where supply far exceeded demand, it was hard to land decent pay or decent hours.

The review gig had both, somehow. It was hardly a dream job, despite how it sounded on paper. He reviewed whatever game was assigned to him, regardless of the genre and even if it was already clear from the promotional materials that it was going to be sub par. He’d made the best of muddling through his first bad game by coming up with as many witty insults for it as he could, which he only realized after the fact was a massive mistake. His tongue-in-cheek reviews had gotten great clicks, which meant he was first on the list for the worst-looking games.

This latest one, though, was… different. It was VR, for starters, which John had only reviewed once before, a couple years back when he was new to the job and the tech was new to the market. It had been a charming, albeit mildly queasy experience, but it hadn’t exactly left him wanting more.

Though, it wasn’t quite right to call this one VR — the promotional materials themselves took great pains to emphasize that this game was augmented reality, and not virtual reality. As was often the case in John’s line of work, he had received a pre-release copy, and it would be several more months before the game went to market. His review, and the many others they had similarly commissioned, would go live just before the launch, to excite potential buyers and loosen their purse strings, if all went well for the publisher.

As his boss so frequently liked to remind him when he was negotiating for better rates, free copies of games was supposedly one of the perks of the job. As John had successfully countered, when the editors kept sending him the worst games on purpose, they couldn’t really use that argument.

This game, though, might just be of some actual value, even just by the box.

And it did, in fact, come in an actual box. It was not downloadable, and it could not be played on any of the consoles on the market. It was, as they had said, ‘a complete experience’ and it apparently came on its own custom hardware. That made sense to John, given the sensitive nature of the content.

The ‘sensitive nature’ was, simply put, that it was a porn game. The publisher had gone to great lengths to call it ‘a sensual and evocative experience’, but on the corner of the matte black box in black gloss print was the mandatory rating label of ‘Adults Only’.

That was all John knew about it, and it seemed to be all the boss knew about it too, gauging by their last call. It was a real wild card. It could be the cutting edge of adult entertainment, or another cringey and click-baity mess. Win-win for the boss, given that they would either finally give John a game he’d like, or they’d get another especially saucy review out of it.

It had been nearly half an hour since John had taken the box out of the cardboard that it had shipped in. Since then, the game box had sat on his kitchen table. It looked more like an apple product than a video game, with minimal design and an abstract, swirling design on the top like smoke.

He hadn’t quite been able to bring himself to open it. It was like Schrodinger’s game — it could be great or terrible, and while the lid was closed there was still the chance it might be great. Once he opened it, if it was terrible then it was terrible.

Curiosity overcame apprehension, and John slid off the lid.

The contents were neatly arranged in a form-fit paper tray, and immediately he thought they looked like something from ‘Alice in Wonderland’. There were several small bundles, each with a paper tag with gold lettering that read ‘open me’ or ‘not yet!’.

The first pieces he opened were the headset and the console itself, which was surprisingly small. John kept a notepad next to him and jotted things down as he went, ‘satisfying package design’, ‘quality materials’, ‘intuitive opening experience’, ‘great for unboxing videos, recommend to editors for pre-release’. That was the other thing about reviewing games — even the good ones he didn’t quite get to enjoy in the same way. He always had to be thinking about the review.

It didn’t take him long to get it set up, and he kept it in the kitchen for the moment since he was going to have more things to open and there was hardly any room on his actual desk. And his kitchen was basically his office anyway, since John lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment.

The console itself was another simple black rectangle, and as he plugged it in lights ran down the front, illuminating a smoky pattern like had been on the box. The headset had about half the bulk of a typical VR headset and was much lighter. Whether this was to skimp on materials or because they expected long-term wear, John was about to find out. The headset was wireless with integrated stereo audio, and he followed the prompts to get the console and headset linked and set up.

The screen of the headset glowed gently to life, and he was looking at his kitchen table again.

“Oh, hello!” said a woman’s voice. “It’s me, the voice in your head! Haha, just kidding. I’d like to come out but I can’t quite get my bearings… could you look around, show me the place?”

John found his notepad through the headset screen and jotted down ‘immersive introduction’, ‘anime cliche’, ‘voice in your head’.

As he did, the little white dots that were so often used to show whether AR was finding the edges of things appeared, but there was not a progress indicator. At least, not a visual one. As he looked around, the voice called back, “almost there… yep that’s about halfway… sixty nine percent, nice! … okay, perfect!”

John scanned the room, expecting her to appear, but she hadn’t yet.

“Before I come out, though… Oh, I’m not sure if you’ll like me!”

There was a long pause.

“See,” she said, “I’m not sure what to do with all this silence! C’mon, I’m the voice in your head, you can talk to me.”

John jotted down, ‘immersive prompts for appropriate interaction, no HUD yet’.

“You sure do write a lot,” she said. “Are you mute? If you are, that’s okay! But um… ASL is in beta still, sorry.”

John was impressed. As he jotted down ‘detected writing after orientation scan’ he said, “I’m not mute.”

“Oh, phew! So like I said, I want to make sure you like me. I can look like anything you want, y’know. What do you like?”

John considered. He ought to push the boundaries of the game, but character creation was hardly anything new. He’d seen some of the most bizarrely detailed character creators imaginable… but what the worst ones lacked was appropriate defaults. Some folks wanted to spend hours designing their character, while others just wanted to dial in ‘lanky adventurer type’ and get playing.

So, he said, “Well, I think I’ll like however you are. I don’t have a strong preference.”

“Hmmm, alright them. Just remember I can change at any time! I can even be a boy. And not just that, I can be any gender, in fact! All you have to do is ask. Well, at first. After that I might want you to do… favors.”

John jotted down, ‘LGTBQ and gender nonconfirming options’ and circled it. If the game turned out to be good, that topic would be of particular interest for the review.

Shimmering lights appeared in the air in front of John, and he rolled his head in a circle, impressed that they perfectly held their position in his field of view. The lag was imperceptible. But, more impressive than that was the way that the lights cast a natural glow on his kitchen table, even reflected back from his dim monitor. It was completely convincing.

The lights coalesced into a feminine form, then the glow faded, leaving the character in front of him. She had a soft, cartoony look, like Pixar-meets-anime. That was welcome — nothing could make a VR game queasier than motion sickness plus uncanny valley. She wore a white shirt and jeans and had blue hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her eyes were green with that ‘kawaii’ sparkle and she smiled at him as she sat down in the chair across from him.

He reached over to jot down ‘recognized chair object in room’ and her eyes followed his hand as she did. In a convincing reproduction of an ‘I noticed you did that but I’m just going to gloss over it’ expression, she looked back at him as he put the pencil down.

“It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

“John.”

“Spelled the usual way?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I might write you a note later, since you like writing so much.”

That was enough to shock John out of reviewer brain and into the present. Wow they had pulled out all the stops on this one. Top of the line AR tech, cutting edge voice recognition and natural language processing, the pinnacle of human-computer interface, all for… a porn game. Gotta love humanity.

“My name is—”

She paused and froze, and John looked around for some pop-up or other indication of where he might choose her name.

She started moving again and giggled. “I really got you there, didn’t I? My name is Arya. You could change it, but… you seem to like defaults.”

“I’m impressed,” John said.

“I’m impressive! But I have to know, did you get my name?”

“I heard you, it’s Arya.”

“Right, but do you get it.”

John thought about it a bit harder. Arya. AR. He snorted and rolled his eyes. “I thought this was a porn game, not a pun game.”

“Oh, I can hurry things along, if you like,” Arya said. “But I thought we might get to know each other a bit first.”

“Hm, okay. Would you appear like this for everyone?”

Arya looked down at her white shirt and jeans, and wiggled the toes of her bare feet. “No. Like I said, you like defaults. Not that I have a default look, so much that t-shirt, jeans, anime smile, blue hair… seemed to be your kind of default.”

John wasn’t sure whether to believe Arya, or whether this was the sort of horoscope thing that would work on most people. “I’d accuse you of grabbing my browsing history, if I’d visited any sort of website for you.”

Arya giggled. “No no, I’m just looking around.” She gestured at the main room of the small apartment. John suddenly felt self-conscious. It was in its usual state of mild disarray, which was fine while he was alone, but with Arya sitting across from him… it really did feel like he had someone over.

“You’re not beaming my messy apartment back to HQ, are you?”

“Oh, no! I’d never. Actually, that’s a good reminder, I should go over my privacy policy. It’s short. What happens in the black box…” she reached over and patted the console on the table, and his headset played a convincing sound effect for it, “stays in the black box. Everything’s totally local, on-device processing.”

That seemed plausible, John hadn’t needed to set up any sort of internet connection to get the thing going, nor had it even asked him to create an account.

“That means that HQ is a bit old-fashioned when it comes to handling support requests. They won’t be able to get any data on your device, so you’ll have to take notes and give them as much detail as you can. Should be easy for you, since you’re writing so much.” 

John was trying and failing to keep track of what might be prerecorded and what was dynamically generated. All her intonation was utterly convincing. He half expected that the box had opened up a phone call and there was a real human on the other end, being rigged onto the character model, VTuber-style. “If there’s no internet connection, how will you fix issues or install updates?”

“Patches and fixes will come as SD cards in the mail. It’s a bit old fashioned but, I really like snail mail, y’know? There’s something so nice about opening something in the mail that’s just for you.”

“You’re so right, it was actually really nice to open this package today. I haven’t gotten mail from anywhere other than Amazon in a while.” Even as John responded, he marveled at it. He really could talk to her like he’d talk to anyone. And the SD card thing was plausible. He’d google around that night to do some Wi-Fi sniffing and check for other wireless comms, just in case, but… in the meantime, there didn’t seem to be any harm in continuing. 

Arya winked. “Well, there will be plenty more where that came from. Want to open something else now?”

“Sure.”

“Look in the box.”

He pulled it over and looked inside, and the labels on the parcels shimmered. The remaining two parcels now said, ‘open me!’. That was a clever trick.

In one parcel was a matching set of devices that looked like watches, and in another other was an array of matching bands for them, and in the third was a clear glass bottle filled with viscous clear liquid, which had its own tag that said ‘pump me’.

“Pick something you like and then put them on! One on each wrist.”

“What do they do?”

“Well, you know how a lot of AR and VR have wands or something for you to hold? These are like that, but better suited for… y’know. Activities.” Arya wiggled her eyebrows.

John left the original bands, smooth black leather, in place and as he put the watches on, he asked, “If I wanted you to be all blushy and bashful about anything lewd, would you be?”

Arya’s face reddened, the classic lines appearing over her cheeks as she held up a hand to her mouth. “John, how could you imply something like that? Hentai!”

John chuckled. “That’s pretty good.”

“Is that what you want?” Arya said, her voice somewhere between sincere and teasing.

“Nah, coy is fine.”

“Alright. You have your bands on? How’s the fit?”

John put his hands out and stretched them. “Pretty good. Hows the… sensing?”

“Your heart rate is eighty beats per minute. Either you’re very out of shape or you really like me.”

John’s face reddened. He was blushing! At a video game character!

Arya laughed. “Ooooh, ninety beats per minute! I’m going to go with ‘you like me’.”

John chuckled nervously. “I mean, isn’t that the point?”

“Of course!” Arya winked. “Alright, time for some calibration. Put both your hands out in front of you, palms down… flip the right one over… then the left one over… then right hand over left shoulder… then left hand over right shoulder…”

She got through another four steps before John realized she was talking him through the macarena. “Hey!” he said. “Is that really necessary for calibration?”

Arya giggled. “No. But it’s funny. I’ll tell you what the calibration actually is, and then you can just let me know when you’re ready, yeah?”

“Okay, so what’s the calibration?”

She leaned towards him and cupped a hand around her mouth, then whispered, “Masturbation.”

John blushed again and his heart rate must have spiked because Arya leaned back and giggled mischievously. John was surprised to have a woman, even an artificial one, be so cavalier about it. He teetered on a flash of guilt. It felt fake, like sex you paid for… but then again, that’s what it was. The whole thing was probably powered by AI, maybe they’d trained the neural network with actual escorts and sex workers? That would be pretty effective. But could something like this put them out of work when it hit the market? That didn’t seem fair. But, maybe the sex wasn’t nearly this interactive. A ‘choose your own hentai’ adventure felt a bit comfier.

Arya twirled a strand of her blue hair between her fingers. “You’re a thinker, aren’t you?”

“Well, I’m a writer, at least. And I have to… write a review of you.”

“Ooooh,” Arya said, “Really? What will you say?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“Be sure to tell them how great my jokes are. Go on, write it down.” She tapped on the edge of his pad with her fingertips. “Write, ‘super hilarious girl Arya’.”

He put the pen down and wrote ‘testing text recognition limits’ instead. Her eyes followed him, and as he put down the pen, she smiled. “There you go.”

There’s no way he’d have gotten away with that with a real girl. So, that was some comfort. But, then again, why was he trying to remind himself that she was a character? Wasn’t he always writing about immersion? That’s probably what his reviewers would be after, too. If not for himself, then for the reviewers… yes, for the reviewers, he’d embrace this whole thing wholeheartedly.

Well, maybe not whole-heartedly. He didn’t want to fall in love with this fantasy, like all the poor people who’d taken James Cameron’s Avatar too seriously. So… whole-dickedly, then.

“Masturbation, you said?”

Standard

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