The question caught him off guard– “Are you okay?”– because he was feeling fine, even better than usual.

“You look so pale,” his aunt said.

Dylan felt his cheeks flush. “Well, I’ve been working hard on my game. Making sure it’s great.”

“That’s nice. But don’t forget to go outside once in a while.”

“I won’t. It’s just been– there’s been a lot to do. And you know how they say not to trust a skinny chef? Well, you shouldn’t trust a tanned game developer either. The pasty ones are the ones you know really care about the end product. Right?”

She laughed. “If you say so. Dylan, please take care of yourself. Okay?”

“I will,” he said. “I totally will.”

But Dylan could not let go of that question, so sincere and out of nowhere. He repeated it as he lay in bed: Was he okay? He looked so pale.

He imagined his sickly skin puffy like uncooked dough and felt disgusted. One time, years ago, he decided that he would make a pact with whatever powers there might be to trade his physical form for success within the virtual world. The way he treated his body– in front of his computer as long as he was awake, his muscles inert and wasting away– would be understood as a kind of ascetic practice, a mortification of the flesh where his corporeal form would sublimate into the brilliance of his creation.

But Dylan could not have anticipated what a terrifying prospect it was to become once that atrophied frame of his began to unsettle the people around him. He closed his eyes and imagined the wan glow of his monitors brightening beyond possibility into sunlight, beaming radiant upon his face, restoring the health to his colorless cheeks.

A silly dream. The universe he was working so hard to create would never be bright enough to darken his pallid skin. It would always be limited by the luminosity of the screen that conveyed it. Compare the weakness of those monitors at their brightest to the real sun, a celestial force so powerful that it could even kill those who failed to take precautions against it from a hundred million miles away.

Or to think of the opposite example: the total absence of light. A television screen at its darkest was disappointingly still there: the dust on its surface, the oily spots, the unwelcome reflection of one’s own earthbound face.

Dylan Cassard felt small and powerless. How could anything he create in the closed world of his game compare to the dynamic range of the world itself? The obvious answer was that there was no way at all. His colleagues (he hesitated to call them friends) sometimes laughed at his earnestness, his artistic ambition, his wide-eyed expectations.

“Why would anyone play a game that actually hurts their eyes?” they’d say. “People enjoy games precisely because they’re safe: even the most difficult and punishing game is still an escape from the world– not an evocation of it.”

* * * 

As the clock approached four in the morning, Dylan realized abruptly that what he wanted more than anything was someone with whom he could discuss these things– things like the dynamic range available to games. Someone who could listen to him and guide him from a position of hard-won knowledge and experience. He often felt that there were no true father figures in his line of work; those who possibly qualified were less than a handful, and were too busy in any case still creating their own titles to make the sacrifice necessary to teach others.

Instead, one’s “mentor” was usually someone ten or, if one was lucky, fifteen years older– someone who had shipped three or four big titles and who suddenly knew all about how to make them; someone who would confidently pronounce half-baked, intellectually lazy theories about good design or good production that sounded plausible but did not hold up to the real, searching, scrabbling, desperate scrutiny that Dylan seemed to have made his specialty over the course of his five-year career. He tried to take what he could from these so-called teachers, but he knew he needed more.

Around five, during the first rumblings of the awakening city around him, it occurred to him that he might address the void the same way he had addressed the other blank spaces in his life. Dylan had solved for his parents in this way, and sometimes for his very existence. It was his one real trick, the one he was actually good at, and what had sustained him into the job he had now as a video game designer of moderate success and means. He would summon a creature of his imagination.

Unfortunately, the only thing that came to him that morning was himself. Twenty– no, thirty years into the future. The elder Dylan regarded him with bemusement and sorrow and a little envy. 

“Young creators always run up against the limits of the medium and naturally want to expand beyond them,” his wiser self said. “We always talked about how ‘games can’t do this now, but these problems will be solved once we get better graphics or better machine behavior,’ and talked about the coming day when we could finally make games something that they weren’t… as I got older, though, I started to see that the medium is not what limits you– not at all. All of the great games of the past thirty years, from your time period to mine, have been created with the tools of game design that you already have available to you now. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“No, not really,” said Dylan, feeling the struggle against his own absurdity. 

“What I mean is this: you need to stop thinking that some technical breakthrough is going to solve your artistic problem. Forget about ‘evolving the medium’ and worry instead about how to work within it– how to best use the grammar you already have. You worried about how the power of the sun could be conveyed: well, think about how you would approach the same subject in another medium, like the novel. Books are just words on a page. You cannot hope to compete with the unbelievable power of the sun’s reality on a sheet of pulped wood with ink on it, can you? Well, maybe you can– if you use your symbols to summon its shadow, its ghost, its evocation. The image of the thing instead of the thing itself.”

Dylan Cassard snorted a little half-laugh. “But for all anybody knows,” he thought, “The image of a thing is exactly it.”

Soon after this thought, he fell into an uneasy sleep.