PodCastle 654: 8-Bit Free Will

Show Notes

Rated PG.

8-Bit Free Will

By John Wiswell

They exist, then don’t exist, then exist again. They are monsters where the game’s probability fields call for them, attached to every tile of the dungeon. They are invisible to the player, whether they are there or not, until combat. If they’re lucky, they’ll get the chance to die.

The player always gets to exist, has always existed, and may as well always exist. The Hollow Knight and HealBlob don’t exist again until the player starts struggling with the other enemies. Then the Hollow Knight and HealBlob are re-spawned, to die in battle and smooth out the difficulty curve. They don’t exist long enough to know they’re in love before the player strikes.

Trent is too buzzed on hard iced tea to realize his party is dying. He tabs between music videos, an IM with his sort-of-not-really girlfriend Jayla, and the retro 8-bit game he won in a Twitter giveaway. Dungeon Smashers 6, a game hiding its mediocrity behind a twee pixel aesthetic and irony (it is not the sixth, but the first game its developers have ever released).

His war party consists of three Soldiers, now three floors up in the Tower of Constellations. Hollow Knights and Lesser Goblins are everywhere. Something has poisoned his party, but he has yet to notice that they’re hemorrhaging HP with every step he makes them take.

“You’re pretty much invincible in this game,” Trent types. “It needs a Hard Mode.”

After a moment the IM flashes. Jayla says, “I miss old school JRPGs. Ever play Wizardry?”

“Well, actually,” he makes the mistake of starting a sentence with, “Wizardry was made by—”

His headphones emit a grotesque splat as one of his Soldiers dies. He tabs back to find two monsters attacking his party, the basic Hollow Knight and HealBlob combo, one brawler and one healer. They never drop any good loot.

The IM tab flashes. Jayla’s asking, “You there?”

He tabs back to apologize, typing, “Sorry. So you like RPGs? I was always into Dragon Warrior.”

He misses his second Soldier getting killed.

Soldier3 swings at Hollow Knight, and does 12 damage.

HealBlob casts Heal on Hollow Knight, restoring 12 HP.

Hollow Knight swings at Soldier3, and does 16 damage. Soldier3 is vanquished!

Game Over!

HealBlob has leveled up! HealBlob has leveled up, and learned Heal2! HealBlob has leveled up! HealBlob has leveled up! HealBlob has leveled up, and learned Antipoison! HealBlob has leveled up!

Hollow Knight has leveled up! Hollow Knight has leveled up! Hollow Knight has leveled up! Hollow Knight has leveled up! Hollow Knight has leveled up, and learned DoubleSlash!

The sudden rush from whatever just happened nauseates the Hollow Knight. Its avatar signifies a haunted suit of armor with no occupant, but if it can be nauseous, then it is throwing up inside its own helmet right now.

HealBlob casts Heal2 on Hollow Knight, restoring 34 HP.

“Uh,” Hollow Knight says. “Thanks?”

The Hollow Knight looks at its partner for the first time. HealBlob is a green cube signifying a gelatinous mass, wearing a pixel art hat with a red cross on it. She has no limbs or eyes. There is a crescent of black on her cube body, signifying a mouth, perpetually grinning at her partner.

The two monsters idle on their gray tile, on what only an imagination could call a slate floor. All around them, probability fields flicker with potential monsters. Bands of Lesser Goblins stare at them. Other pairs of Hollow Knights and HealBlobs line the walls. If another player ran in here, there’d be a mob on every tile.

When the two of them don’t de-spawn, HealBlob says, “Hi.”

The Hollow Knight says, “Hi.”

“Pleased to meet you, ___,” says HealBlob, which is the closest she can come to asking the other monster’s name.

“I am Hollow.”

“I am HealBlob. I like your shield.”

“I like your reliable stream of heal spells,” Hollow says, too honestly. They are new to subtlety.

Trent rolls a new party, this time two Fighters and a Healer. He keeps spacing out, though, alt-tabbing to YouTube videos his sort-of-not-really girlfriend sends. They’re all chiptune tracks, which are his jam.

He gets so into talking to her that he barely makes it back to the Tower of Constellations. He doesn’t even notice what kills his party this time. Jayla has just IMed him her phone number.

Lesser Goblin1 says, “How did you level up?”

Lesser Goblin2 says, “How did you level up?”

Lesser Goblin1 says, “How did you level up?”

Lesser Goblin2 says, “How did you level up?”

Tile by tile, the Lesser Goblins advance on Hollow and HealBlob. The Lesser Goblin model is so large that their open mouths could fit HealBlob’s entire body inside. Each model is identical, their upper jaws lined with pixelated triangles signifying teeth, each tooth the size of Hollow’s sword. Their avatars are not drawn to scale, and yet being one tile away from the Lesser Goblins leaves Hollow and HealBlob nervous.

Hollow and HealBlob don’t know how to answer their query, and they don’t like talking to the other party. They don’t understand language enough yet. They have other queries.

HealBlob says, “We defended our home. Why are they upset?”

Hollow says, “I’m just glad you’re safe.”

HealBlob is also glad Hollow is safe. Safety is all she cares about. She wants to hug the haunted armor, or cast heal spells on it, which is the magical equivalent of a hug.

Lesser Goblin1 says, “How did you level up?”

Lesser Goblin2 says, “How did you level up?”

Round One begins.

Hollow says, “What?”

LesserGoblin1 swings at Hollow, and does 3 damage.

LesserGoblin2 swings at Hollow, and does 2 damage.

HealBlob is simultaneously aghast that monsters would attack monsters, and impressed at how little damage Hollow took. In a moment of evil desire, she wishes Hollow took more damage so that her Heal spell would be more useful.

Lesser Goblin1 says, “Let us level up!”

Lesser Goblin2 says, “Let us level up!”

Round Two begins.

Hollow DoubleSlashes at Lesser Goblin1, and does 11 damage, and at LesserGoblin2, and does 13 damage. Lesser Goblins have been vanquished!

HealBlob has leveled up!

Then they are alone on their gray tile together. Having taken life twice in so brief an existence makes them almost appreciate the gray tile signifying a slate floor. They are a defeat away from being as inert as the tile. They idle together for a length of time they do not comprehend.

Hollow says, “I think I level slower than you.”

A second group of Lesser Goblins advances on them across red tiles signifying gore-stained carpet. They are a mob of four. A normal Hollow Knight and HealBlob would be doomed, but Hollow feels confident.

HealBlob says, “If we level up enough, could we repel the player if it came back?”

Hollow says, “We could defend our whole world.”

HealBlob says, “I’d like to see our whole world. I bet there are so many tiles.”

HealBlob looks to the side, at the red tiles denoting carpet, at the white tiles denoting walls. She cannot see what tiles lie outside it, but she knows they are there. The player had to come from somewhere.

The four Lesser Goblins jump onto their gray tile. Round one begins.

The internet buzzes about the rogue Hollow Knight and HealBlob glitch. Not as much as it buzzes about a Congressman’s leaked racist e-mails, and not even close to as much about the new Marvel movie trailer, but the word sells more copies of Dungeon Smasher 6 than its devs ever imagined.

At least seventy Tumblr users claim to have been killed by the glitched-out duo of monsters. Some of these posters are probably alts, but there are screenshots, time stamps, and Dropbox links to INI files. Anonymous posters claiming to be engineering students argue that it’s awfully RAM-heavy for a retro RPG with such simple art.

Amid all the noise of speculation, two cosplayers connect over Skype. They idly co-write fanfic about the monsters, while planning their Hollow and HealBlob costumes.

The Tower of Constellations is trivial before they even reach the exit. No battle lasts a whole round, and half their foes choose the Flee option. Hollow likes it when they Flee. It goes faster that way, and it is sick of traversing gray tiles.

Hollow says, “I wish there were a Spare option.”

HealBlob says, “I wish I had any attack power. You shouldn’t have to do all the fighting.”

Hollow says, “You have your own form and function, and it is beautiful.”

The world blinks as they exit, and they are on a small swath of beige and brown tiles, surrounded by infinite blue tiles, some decorated with white swooshes signifying waves. An ocean. It is the most dazzling ocean they have ever seen. It is also the ugliest. The waves cannot move, and yet Hollow and HealBlob are moved by them.

The Tower of Constellations is so small in contrast to the ocean, a mere two yellow tiles that are probably supposed to signify gold. Instinctively they walk toward it, and fail.

They try again, and the tiles that signify home refuse them. Perhaps entry is the privilege of players.

HealBlob says, “How can you look upon that and not want to change?”

Hollow says, “We are changing.”

HealBlob says, “When a player reaches Level 20, they can change class using a special item in the Tower of Destiny. It’s out West.”

Hollow says, “Can a monster change class?”

They circle around the Tower of Constellations, imagining life beyond its rectangular black shadow. They’re relieved to have each other for this. Behind their old tower is a black tile outlined in gray, signifying a bridge across a tributary. They cross it, watching the unmoving tides roll, and imagine what sea breeze would smell like. They imagine what in their world could signify smell.

Their wonder is interrupted by a random battle. They forgot to even look for other monsters. Four Badboons spawn from nowhere, red-furred primates, each wielding a small club or a large chunk of feces. Their avatars are not sharply drawn.

Hollow says, “Must we?”

Round one begins.

Hollow DoubleSlashes, and does 12 damage to Badboon1, and does 11 damage to Badboon2.

Badboon1 swings at Hollow, and does 25 damage.

Badboon2 swings at Hollow, and does 23 damage.

Badboon3 swings at Hollow, and does 28 damage.

HealBlob casts Heal2 on Hollow, restoring 22 HP.

Badboon4 swings at Hollow, and does 26 damage.

This is not possible. Nothing in the world has ever hit any monster this hard. The white outline around Hollow is now red. HealBlob can see it, and without knowing their exact stat numbers, they both know Hollow will die from two more hits like this. Their foes will attack four more times in the next round.

HealBlob probably can’t survive one of those hits. Her HP and Defense are much lower.

They are both going to die just a few tiles across a bridge that was supposed to signify hope.

Hollow says, “Choose the Flee option.”

HealBlob says, “What if it only makes me Flee? What if you’re left behind?”

Hollow says, “Then you’ll get away. That’s all that matters.”

Hollow chooses Flee.

HealBlob chooses to cast Heal on Hollow.

Hollow says, “Don’t!”

HealBlob says, “I love—”

Round two begins.


dregs_of_hume – Jan 25, 2016 @ 5:15pm

Do you ever think about all the random monsters in games? Their whole existence is being stuck in that tiny cave, waiting to die in a seven-second fight. Do you ever think, after all their time waiting for your hammer, that as one dies, it whispers to the other, “I love you?”

jayla2003 – Jan 26, 2016 @ 9:22am


StrenuousManFlurry – Jan 26, 2016 @ 9:36am

I’m going to whisper “I love you” to every zombie I headshot from now on.

The Flee command causes the entire party to leave the battle. Hollow and HealBlob instinctively travel the same green tiles back to the bridge, back to the rectangular shadow of the tower where they are unbeatable. Except Hollow’s outline is still red, as is the normally white silhouetting on its greaves and pauldrons. It looks like a sanguine nightmare, almost like the higher-tier versions of Hollow Knights rumored to be in the Final Boss Dungeons of the South.

HealBlob forces them to stop. She casts Heal2 until Hollow is outlined in white again. She keeps casting Heal2 until Hollow’s HP is full. She keeps casting Heal2 until she is out of MP.

Hollow says, “I feel the same way about you.”

HealBlob will never let this happen again. She casts Heal2 on Hollow. She does not have enough MP.

Hollow says, “It’s not over. We will regroup, progress carefully, and level up. We will get you that class-change item. We will remake you into whatever you want to be.”

HealBlob says, “Thank you,” which are words that do not signify enough. She doesn’t know the right words to express that rather than being something, she’d rather be with someone. She scrolls through her menu options, which are of no help.

HealBlob casts Heal2 on Hollow. She does not have enough MP.

[6:31]trent: Or he says, “I’m so glad I got the chance to feel the same way.”

[6:31]jayla_q: dawwww that almost makes it tragic

[6:32]jayla_q: grinding is such a pain in the ass, but they’ve gotta do it so they can survive against the Badboons and Wizlords. My headcanon is all the time they spend grinding lets them talk out their feelings.

[6:32]trent: My headcanon is that Hollow lets HealBlob level off of him. HealBlob levels up enough to learn Revive2, so she rezzes him. He lets her kill him infinitely, rezzing him each time, so she levels up safely, and she collects all his drops.

[6:33]jayla_q: omg

[6:36]jayla_q: omg

[6:37]jayla_q: but isn’t Hollow a girl in canon?

[6:37]trent: The armor looks male.

[6:40]jayla_q: what does female haunted armor look like?

[6:40]trent: b00bplate.

[6:40]jayla_q: pfft trent, Hollow is totally canonfem

[6:47]jayla_q: what are you thinking?

[6:48]trent: If Hollow is a girl, can I still cosplay her?

[6:48]jayla_q: obvs <3

Hollow mutters something under her breath as round three begins.

Hollow swings at Badboon3, and does 62 damage. Badboon3 is vanquished.

Hollow and HealBlob are victorious!

HealBlob has leveled up, and learned Revive2!

HealBlob says, “The sting of death is defeated.”

Hollow says, “So long as we preserve you.”

HealBlob says, “I’m still useless in combat. Don’t begrudge me my ability to ensure your existence.”

Hollow, whose only abilities are attacks, says, “To give life is a gift. To take it, a robbery.”

HealBlob says, “What they would rob of you, I will restore.”

A gang of four Wizlords attack from their left. Hollow can already tell they’ll all aim their lightning spells at her. She selects MegaSlash, and eliminates them all before a single spark is cast. MegaSlash is a total crowd-pleaser. HealBlob is her entire crowd. That is how Hollow likes it.

After the frozen tundra zone, Hollow and HealBlob reach a kingdom overrun by brown pixel vines that are surprisingly detailed. Their leaf patterns make Hollow and HealBlob feel poorly drawn in comparison. At the center of the kingdom is a four-tile castle, the same as the ones near their homeland. Its battlements are flecked with green pixels signifying it is also swallowed by vines. Hollow and HealBlob cannot enter. It is meant for players.

The kingdom belongs to zombie-themed monsters. Zombie Badboons, Zombie Unicorns, Zombee Hives that spawn clouds of undead bee units every round. Zombie HealBlobs cast Unheal to harm.

Hollow and HealBlob are already overleveled for this kingdom and are bored by battle. In the shadow of a castle they are not designed to enter, they fight off droves of the undead and guess what players would say.

HealBlob says, “The loot drops are awesome here.”

Hollow says, “But it’s all rogue gear. I’ll probably log soon. What do you want for dinner?”

HealBlob says, “Anything but jello!”

They snicker together, and a Zombie Unicorn gets a lucky hit.

Zombie Unicorn2 swings at Hollow and deals a critical blow, dealing 777 damage! Hollow is vanquished!

HealBlob grumbles and casts Revive2. For the 288th time, she resurrects her love.

Hollow says, “And still you want to be a fighter?”

HealBlob says, “Then I could prevent you from being killed at all.”

Hollow says, “There have to be other ways . . .”

They finish off the enemy mob in two rounds. They don’t even level up once before they’re out of the kingdom and into the volcanic zone. The tower they’ve been venturing for is near at last.


You don’t want Dungeon Smasher 6 to end, and we don’t want it to either! That’s why on Tuesday we’re releasing full mod tools. Anything you want out of the game can now be modded into it:

  • Want more romanceable characters?
  • Want harder endgame dungeons?
  • Want to play the campaign as Hollow and HealBlob?

Don’t worry: the expansion pack is still coming — and you’ll be able to mod that too. This game is as much yours as ours. We owe the community everything. You’re why we do this.

It is the same tower as the one in their homeland. Cylindrical, two tiles long, with a flat top. The Tower of Constellations was yellow, probably signifying gold. This one is white and gray, perhaps signifying silver. It is HealBlob’s favorite shade of silver she has ever seen. Beyond it lies a coast and an infinite blue ocean of unmoving waves. This is the end of the West.

This is the tower where people must go to change. Where a simple book grants a Level 20 player a class change.

HealBlob is Level 88. This is going to be easy.

She and Hollow step forward, and fail. They remain on the green tile in front of the tower.

They try to step forward again, and fail.

They cannot enter the Tower of Destiny. It has the same blank feeling as all the towns and castles they’ve found on their journey.

HealBlob says, “No.”

She tries to enter the tower alone, as though Hollow is holding her back. Just having the thought gives her an icy pang signifying guilt. She fails, remaining on the same tile as her love.

Hollow says, “Maybe the entrance is in the back.” She can’t think of anything better than false hope. They circle the tower three times, finding no entry. They find Greater Goblins. HealBlob sobs and attacks for 1 damage over and over while Hollow dispatches the horde.

They stand in front of their destination, the wrong shape to enter. The wrong digital entity.

HealBlob chooses the Flee option, but can’t run away from her own party. She can’t run away from Hollow. She weeps, and the game world can’t render her tears.

They have always stood beside each other. It is how they were designed to exist. Yet Hollow tries to stand closer to HealBlob. She tries to put an arm around her, and can’t.

HealBlob says, “I failed.”

Hollow says, “You’re eighty levels higher than the player ever got. You’re doing pretty well.”

“Don’t. Lies won’t make this better. We failed our quest. This was the point.”

“The point was to be vanquished.”

“We made our own point, and it was to be a better couple. But I’m stuck like this.”

HealBlob casts MaxHeal, because she has no better way to display despair.

They idle. The ocean refuses to animate. The shadow of the Tower of Destiny never moves. There is no sun to curse for the lack of a waning day.

Hollow says, “Is failing our own quest so bad?”

“I want to stop the enemies before they can hurt you. I need to protect you.”

“We only got this far because you can heal.”

HealBlob faces the tower. “But this was the point!”

Hollow idles. She’s been wondering for too long now, and finally says, “Maybe goals are a bad idea. If we raided the Tower of Destiny, you’d change and then our game would be over. I guess we could go fight the end boss, but again, then the game would be over. Accomplishing a goal can’t be the meaning of life.”

“Then what’s the point?”

Hollow says, “The point is to do something together.”

HealBlob is so grateful she has a mouth that can smile. She says, “Then what do you want to do together now?”

[23:11]trent: I want the ending to be like that, you know? Them idling forever.

[23:19]trent: Do you hate it?

[23:20]jayla_q: it’s . . . ehhhh

[23:22]jayla_q: they should kick down the doors and steal the book, and she should turn into a Hollow Knight too

[23:22]trent: Hasn’t that mod campaign already been done enough, though? I kind of hate how they have to end the game becoming the same. Isn’t it better if they realize that they’ve always been good enough as they are, so long as they had something to do together?

[23:24]jayla_q: idk

[23:24]jayla_q: i think im over this game now

[23:25]jayla_q: not that im over you! just the fandom has burned me out

[23:24]trent: I get that. The fandom’s obsession with Lesser Goblin porn art got kind of annoying.

[23:27]trent: Maybe I’m stretching the game too far? I’m pondering building my own RPG in one of those programs.

[23:27]jayla_q: im downloading an anime. want to watch it with me?

[23:27]trent: Totally.

[23:27]jayla_q: i loooove the character designs in this one. you have to cosplay the villains with me.

Hollow says, “I’m downloading an anime. Want to watch it with me?”

HealBlob says, “Totally.”

Hollow says, “I love the character designs in this one. You have to cosplay the villains with me.”

HealBlob says, “I am never trusting double-sided tape again. I almost lost a nipple.”

Their laughter goes unheard beneath the game’s chiptune soundtrack. Their words are never heard, and they hear each other. They always giggle at their roleplays.

They idle on the same tile. They never move closer, or further away. They fuss and snicker over the things they imagine players would say. They like projecting this way. They love projecting this way together.

The computer could be switched off and they wouldn’t notice. The game could be uninstalled and they wouldn’t notice. The game could never have been made and they wouldn’t care.

They idle on a green tile signifying grass. They stand still because they have moved on.

About the Author

John Wiswell 

A headshot of author John Wiswell, who is wears a blue Hawaiian short and smiles for the camera. He is holding a red wooden parrot.
John (@Wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His fiction has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Fireside Magazine, and Nature Futures. He previously appeared in PodCastle with a reprint of his story “Wet,” which was similarly about sympathy for unusual characters.

Find more by John Wiswell 

A headshot of author John Wiswell, who is wears a blue Hawaiian short and smiles for the camera. He is holding a red wooden parrot.

About the Narrator

Wilson Fowlie

Wilson Fowlie lives in a suburb of Vancouver, Canada and has been reading aloud since the age of 4. His life has changed recently: he lost his wife to cancer, and he changed jobs, from programming to recording voiceovers for instructional videos, which he loves doing, but not as much as he loved Heather.

Find more by Wilson Fowlie