Terminus

by Matthew Seiji Burns
art by Thomas Scholes

The day was so bright it hurt Madeleine’s eyes. All of the trees along the street were glowing green, self-illuminated, and the sky was such a pure shade of blue she imagined Hubert calling it B-255 blue. Even though it was before noon it was already warm and the bicyclists, smelling summer, were crowding into the roads.

The apartment complex she sought turned out to be an older one, crammed into the side of a hill far from the center of town, and vaguely run down. Farther along the way there was a group of young men loading kayaks into the back of a truck.

K. did not look healthy. His arms and legs were stick-like and his wispy gray hair was matted to a shining layer of perspiration on his face. A fading technology t-shirt hung loosely from his hunched shoulders.

“Hi. You’re Madeleine?” he said, not as a question so much as a way to place her, to locate her in his world. She nodded and pushed a lock of lavender hair from over her eye as he motioned her inside.

Madeleine stepped into the apartment and closed the door, her feet sinking into a discolored plush carpet. A folding mattress was spread out on the floor of the living room and tower computers conferred at angles askew near the wall. A heater was running. It was way too warm.

“I wanted to talk to you about your engine,” she began, and moved an empty plastic bag in order to sit on the floor across from K. with some distance.

“How do you like it?”

“It’s definitely unique.”

K. stared at something on one of his monitors. “When did you start?”

“Around three months ago.”

“And you work with Hubert?”

“He’s my boss.”

K. pursed his lips but didn’t turn around. “You like him? As a boss.”

“He’s fine. He’s a boss.”

“Hubert wants everyone’s code to be easy to read. Straightforward and simple. Document everything.”

Madeleine looked at the way the sunlight was sliced into patterns by the window-blinds and splashed across the walls.

“My code was always fast and compact, but he hated that he couldn’t understand it. ‘What if someone has to fix a bug and you aren’t here,’ is what he’d say. But that was just his excuse. Really, he was jealous. This was during First Terminus, way before your time.”

“They never changed it.”

“Of course they didn’t. Hubert doesn’t have the balls to start wading in there. None of them do. That team thinks they’re a lot better than they really are. No offense.”

K. turned and looked at Madeleine directly for the first time. His eyes were sunken. “How old are you? Certain things– they’re for the young.”

“Twenty-six,” she said.

“Then you still have time. Somehow you get older and it just stops working. Twenty years from now you’ll be so slow at it. You’ll forget things; wonder where they’ve gone. You’ll move into management and lose it forever. So think about how to spend those young cycles your brain has left, okay? There’s no excuse. Time is always ticking.”

Madeleine frowned. “Time for what?”

“The time to build the scaffolding of your life’s work, of course,” K. answered, his deflated frame appearing to quiver inside of its cloth sheath. “You’re the only person who’s ever come to ask me about the Terminus engine, you know.”


Why don’t we start with you telling me what your favorite game is, and why you like it. What aspects of it stuck with you.

Madeleine pretends as though she is thinking for a moment, then says, This is going to be weird but I actually really liked Terminus. Which startles him.

You played it? For real?

Of course. I loved it. It’s why I wanted to get into games. It’s why I wanted to work here, she says, meaning it. Hubert is looking right at her. I loved the idea so much, this little secret garden of the imagination. Nobody’s done anything like that before. Nobody’s ever done anything like it since. I always thought it was so sad that the sequel never saw the light of day.

They look at each other. There is so much to get past. The subject trips something in him, sets a train in motion. He glances to the upper-left and recalls ancient history.

The sequel was in trouble from the start. We were too ambitious at the beginning and– well, history repeats itself. Second Terminus just wasn’t meant to be. Not in this decade, anyway.

Hubert tells her a long story. He says it was not that the goal itself was wrong. The desire for it had been born out of the most sincere of intentions, close to ten years ago now, when he and K. had sensed the existential crisis looming on the horizon of games: that if the medium is the message, then the message of games was a great postmodern shrug. It was vague equivocation: this could happen or that could happen– we don’t care, it’s up to you. It was a treadmill to nowhere: fight, get stronger, fight more. It was abstraction ad absurdum: none of this carries any realness, it’s virtual, it’s just a game. Narrative was a dead end. Obstacles meant to be cleared were cleared perfunctorily, great plots resolved themselves into the tiny trivialities they always were. And simulation, the other great hope, only ever proved the assumptions that informed its design in the first place. It offered illusory freedom, a world where where the largest surprises always came paired with infuriatingly logical explanations. Surely there was something more out there, waiting to be seized like fire from the gods: a transcendent work that obliterated the old definitions and embodied something new. The game that was necessary. The game that was more than itself.


“I have no idea what my life’s work will be at this point,” Madeleine said. “Besides, these days there are plenty of games that try to deconstruct what it means to be a game, or question and dismantle our expectations.”

K. stiffened. “Sure. There’s the artsy stuff. People have been playing with the form for as long as it’s been around. It’s nothing special.”

Then, something inside of him seemed to awaken. “Even the most subversive games are made out of math and logic. That’s what they are, at the bottom of it. Games are Euclidean, Cartesian, deterministic. Sure, they can pretend they aren’t. They can pretend to be unknowable. But every strange thing you’ve seen in a game comes from a traceable, understandable set of causes. You could traverse the entire state space of most games in polynomial time. The rules are right there in the code.”

“Is that what Second Terminus was going to be about?”

“There was no Second Terminus, so it doesn’t matter. Now all Hubert wants to do is make shooters, and he does, and they sell, and he’s happy.”

“I don’t know if he’s happy.”

“And he makes them using the technology that I created and that he doesn’t even understand. It’s wonderful.”

Madeleine felt a bead of sweat trickle down the side of her head. Her dampened top was starting to cling annoyingly. Was the heater really still on?

“There were plans,” K. added, “for a Third Terminus, too, after the Second.”

“Really? I never heard about that.”

“They were my plans. Mine only. Not even Hubert knew much about it.”

“And those were…”

“First Terminus, before it became the exploration game you and maybe six other people liked, was a method for representation of space and objects in logical relation to one another. What everyone today would call the basis of a ‘game engine’.

“Second Terminus, as you probably heard, was about obliterating those local world spaces and local timelines and placing them in a universal space, a universal timeline. Nothing built in the Second Terminus engine couldn’t somehow affect another part of it, even something a billion kilometers away. It was intractable, obviously. Almost put us out of business.”

Madeleine nodded.

“The Third, though. Third Terminus was–”

He paused, as if he had hit a wall.

“You don’t have to say,” said Madeleine. “Not if you don’t want to.”

“I was trying to reconcile myself with the infinite,” K. said.


It’s before the start of combat, so we want let the player to survey the territory first, so he knows what he’ll be dealing with. Or I should say what she’ll be dealing with, as the case may be…

Madeleine smiles briefly, for Hubert’s benefit.

As you can see here [his finger smearing the screen] I’ve given you the opportunity to do that with this vista. This is where you take a good look at the enemies, their patrol patterns, and the surrounding territory before you go in and engage. Really, the only reason this spot is here is because I want you to feel like you’re in control of the situation. We wouldn’t have an overlook like this later in the game when we’re trying to push tension or fear. This is the first level, though, so we want to let the player become comfortable with things. All good?

She nods.

Right. So after the survey opportunity we have our encounter space. You can see it’s set up for combat with cover spots and a couple natural enemy lines. Most of the time we try to offer at least two different routes, usually one head-on and one flanking. Sometimes three, but more than that is too many. Two is good. It says “choice” without being too overwhelming, too confusing. Hold on, [his typing at the debug console] I’m turning on invincibility.

“You’re cheating,” Madeleine says, teasingly, hoping he’ll turn his face away from the screen for a moment.

Just for right now, just to show this to you. See the enemy distance here. If everyone’s too far away, it gets annoying to try to aim at guys who are all really small in the distance, unless you have a sniper rifle. At the same time, you don’t want everyone too close, either– that’ll make things feel crowded and jammed in. You want your enemies spaced out evenly in waves along appropriate distances, so the player has the opportunity to kill the first couple of guys, the forward guys, and press in from there.

“That guy’s running into a wall, right there.”

Yeah, that’s happening because I’ve got the debug camera on and he’s trying to path towards where I am now but he doesn’t have the nodes. It doesn’t happen in the retail version. Anyway, around halfway through the encounter, you should get the sense of having broken the enemy formation [his eyes flicking as he plays]. The remaining guys might fall back to the next cover point, or abandon their positions to flee. It’s a problem if the player doesn’t get this sense because it means they won’t feel like they’re making progress, even if they’re killing a ton of people. So every encounter has to have a certain breaking point. After that you just have to mop up the stragglers. Then it becomes about the pleasure of clearing out the space. Of course we still try to keep things interesting and put in a measure of unpredictability in there– like there might be a suicide guy hiding around the corner, waiting for you to think it’s safe. But the encounter is basically over at this point. Any questions so far?

“I don’t think so. That’s about as good a rundown of the basic formula that I could hope for.”

I mean, it’s a formula but it also isn’t. You know? Formulas exist because they work. When you’re making a game like this it’s really important to keep in mind what games are still really bad at, otherwise you’re going to run into a lot of trouble. Like a lot of games count on the idea that they’ll create emotional resonance out of their characters, but when you see them they end up not convincing you at all, and then those characters become more annoying than anything. Innovation is key, yes, but you have to know where you can innovate and where you can’t. If the tech just isn’t there yet, why struggle with it?


The stage lights bear down on Madeleine so blindingly that she cannot see any audience even though she knows they are there. They are waiting for her to start. She blinks and attempts to find her notes. Did she have notes?

“Today I am introducing a new method of constructing games,” she begins. She looks down. There is a laptop with slides. She reaches out and presses an arrow. A picture of an egg appears on the screen. It resembles a cartoon quail egg, spotted and colorful. The audience laughs politely.

What am I doing with an egg? Madeleine thinks. Egg– EGG. It must stand for something.

“This is the Engine for Games,” she says, before catching herself and realizing she missed a G. “I mean the Engine for Game Generation, or EGG for short.”

She is not doing too badly, she thinks, considering she had no idea she was going to give this talk until it was sprung upon her. She hadn’t even prepared these slides. Someone gave them to her.

“EGG doesn’t work like the engines you know,” she continues. “Currently, all of you work with rule-sets. Transformations of symbols. Transitions between states.”

She pauses.

“EGG is the first video game technology to repudiate this. To abandon logic and discursive reason. The EGG is an engine in which no data is knowable with total certainty. It creates an entirely subjective world.”

Madeleine brushes the hair out of her face and continues, her heart pounding. She can feel the audience getting upset with her. “EGG does not feature predefined concepts of time and space. It does not measure distances in units. It does not advance the simulation tick by tick. No, EGG does nothing in the way modeling reality– it has no use for that.”

The people in the seats are looking restive and uncomfortable. They begin to talk to each other. Who is she?, they’re saying. What right does she have? She understands they hate her. They’re realizing their careers and lives are obsolete, ruined.

“Listen,” Madeleine tries to say, but the words catch in her throat. She expels the sounds forcefully, fighting her own leaden mouth to get them out: “This is what makes EGG more powerful than any other engine! Don’t you see? You can do things you’ve never done before!”

The audience starts shouting at her, their cacophonous dissent growing louder and louder and threatening to drown everything in noise. Someone raises a hand and this, however improbably, creates total silence. Madeleine still can’t see anything but she knows it is K. in the audience. She points at him.

K. stands and, with a dramatic flourish, says, “So then, Madeleine, how does one make a game in EGG?”

“That’s easy. EGG does not wait for your instructions. It does not wait for your permission.”

“I see,” K. says, and smiles. He takes a look around the auditorium, at his fellow audience members. “It sounds to me like EGG is a set of easily extensible technologies designed to absorb your being into its own.”

Madeleine nods soberly. “That’s one way to look at it, yes.”


“You okay?”

Lori was on her stomach on the bed, pillow tucked under her chest, swiping at her phone. “You tossed and turned and mumbled a lot. I couldn’t make out what you were saying.”

“Weird dream,” said Madeleine. “Very weird dream. I was giving a talk at a conference or something.”

“Ha. Sounds like a nightmare.”

“Not really. It was just strange. I was introducing a new game engine. Made by me.”

Lori rolled over onto her back and pulled the blanket away from her chest. “That sounds like something you’d do. A flash forward, then?”

“I don’t know. Maybe in ten years or something.”

“You’re already well on your way,” Lori said, yawning. “You’ll be running that place in a few years, I bet.”

“Like I’d want to. Did I tell you Hubert gave me the big level design principles speech the other day? It was so boring.”

“What? Come on. You’re learning all the secrets!”

Madeleine shrugged. “They’re boring secrets.”

“You can’t always judge which secrets are boring and which are interesting the moment you learn them. Sometimes the pieces you pick up stay with you and stew around and combine at the right moment, and pow!– something new comes out of nowhere. But it’s not from nowhere at all, it only seems like that from the outside, when you don’t know what led to it.”

“Maybe. I just wish that would happen to me sooner rather than later.”

“I have a feeling,” said Lori, “that you’re not as far away from that as you think you are.”

“I hope so,” said Madeleine, as she observed a triangle of morning light on the ceiling.

It was going to be another bright day.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Matthew Seiji’s story.