I walked past the playground, and heard the kids playing, as I did every day. Same route, each morning, sure as if it was programmed into me. But this time, something about the sound was different, and it caught me by the ear like a fisherman’s hook and made me stop still.
There was this laugh – a child’s laugh, playful like. Three short peaks, each higher than the last, then a sort of jumbled chuckle. Now how often do you stop and take the time to memorise every note of something as commonplace as a laugh? You don’t. But this one called out to me because I’d heard it before. It was more than familiar; it was one of those noises that are ingrained in your memory, so deep down that you’ve no idea when or where you first heard it. You only know you’ve heard it often, countless times on repeat. I stood there for seconds, which is a long time by morning-walk-to-work standards, ‘til it clicked. It was a stock sound.
That odd but spritely laugh was one I’d heard a thousand times before through my television’s speakers, supposedly coming from crowds of kids behind a glass screen. It was a sound effect from an extensive library, used over and over again by everyone from movie producer to videogame designers, all because it was generously royalty-free. There are thousands of them, and I’m willing to bet you’d recognise more than you think. There was no mistaking it, that chortle of children. It was one hundred percent recycled amusement. You might say that I could have misheard, and I’d admit that’s a possibility, were it not for the fact that in the two minutes I stood at the fence, I heard that exact laugh repeated three times.
As I walked further into town I opened my ears. You’d be surprised how much more you hear when you really listen out for it. And what I heard, hidden behind the mundane, was disturbing. It wasn’t just the laugh. There were generic sound effects everywhere. A dog barked with the voice of a completely different breed. The birdsong in the park played on loop, as did the background noise of the day, which I imagine had a file name like ‘citycrowds5’. But I didn’t really start to lose it until I witnessed some hapless cyclist misjudge the height of the kerb and fall to the street. Because I swear to God, as that man flew clean over his handlebars, I heard the Wilhelm scream.
So this is where the inevitable existential crisis set it. These were stock sounds, they came from a database. How did they get from the database into the real world? Somebody put them there. But who, and how? The real world isn’t managed, or edited, or crea- oh. Perhaps ‘real’ was the word to challenge here. What if it’s an illusion, right? What if we’re all unknowingly part of some great film set, acting out our parts, oblivious to the truth? Because we’ve seen this before, haven’t we? Truman show, right? Or worse, the Matrix. Plato’s analogy of the cave, for Christ’s sake.
This was all getting a bit too much. I was starting to sweat through my suit. I took myself to the nearest bench and struggled with my tie. We’ve seen it before, said the so-far subdued rational part of my brain, and that’s exactly the point. Come on, man, have some originality. This has been done, there are books and books and movies about it. Real world masked by a generated illusion. We’re all pawns in some dystopian ploy to mess with our minds and meld our movements. Snap out of it.
I got to work with my mind just about intact, determined to work away the delusions. Because, I said to myself, there’s no point worrying that we’re all part of some grandiose illusion. There’s nothing we can do about it. We just go on living, we keep on playing the game, even if the game isn’t ours.
I sat at my desk. I never even mentioned what I do, did I? Trust me to get carried away. I’m a Negotiable Project Commissioner. You know, an NPC. Don’t ask me what that means, I barely know myself. Work for a big firm, do what I’m told over and over, wait for someone more important to step in and set things in motion. It’s depressing, really. Sometimes I think I’m only here to make up numbers.
You may need to be vaguely familiar with videogames to fully ‘get’ this one. If not, try googling ‘NPC’, and all shall be revealed.
More doodles soon, methinks…