What’s in a feeling?

“No, it still doesn’t feel like Amsterdam.”

Evi knows that Dirk can’t see her giving him the finger, but she gives it to him anyway.

“It’s not meant to be Amsterdam,” she tells him. Her feet hover over the perfectly-rendered cobblestones and the sun is pleasantly low over the rooftops that surround the pair as they make their way down the street.

“I know it’s not technically Amsterdam, but if we’re using it as a base then this just feels wrong,” Dirk replies.

Dirk’s avatar is much better looking than he is IRL. He’d even uploaded a photoshopped version of Chris Evans so that he could superimpose the jawline onto an already beautifully sculpted form, which was the kind of devotion to detail that he probably should have put into his college applications.

Whenever Evi sees his avatar during their collaborations, she has an almost overwhelming urge to punch him in that chiseled jaw.

“Your feelings are irrelevant,” she says.

His mouth twitches and his hands clench a little in-game. “So you keep telling me.”

There’s a defiant hint to his voice as he says it. She’s been telling him the same thing every day that they’ve worked together for the last five years: your feelings are irrelevant. The only things that are relevant are the needs of the client and the limits of technology.

Dirk hates those speeches. He’s a feelings kind of guy. He keeps Evi human even if his preoccupation with touch-feely shit makes her want to kick him into the sun.

A gentle lapping sound plays through Evi’s headphones. It is so realistic that Evi might not even have realised it was artificial if she couldn’t feel the tiny bits of plastic in her ears: a ghostly reminder of her physical body while her mind wandered the streets that she and Dirk had imagined.

The stream running along her right is the same sick greenish-colour as the canals in Amsterdam, and the trees above their heads are just as straggly and lifeless as Evi would expect to see in February. All of the houses along the side of the canal are squashed together, with different heights and different colours, some leaning heavier towards the pedestrians beneath them than was preferred.

It is a perfect simulation of a fictional city, which is precisely what she and Dirk had been being paid to create.

Together, Evi and Dirk had strapped themselves into their PlayChairs every morning and loaded their conscious minds into the sim world. They can’t add the people yet, but they’ve got the program ready to insert realistic human NPCs, along with the animals and street vermin who will live in the space. They’d gone over every detail to make sure that it could work as a potentially livable environment. They’d even added the little hook thingys to the rooftops so that virtual NPCs can lift their virtual pianos into their tiny virtual living rooms.

And Dirk is right. It’s still not perfect.

Everything in the sim has been rendered exactly to their specs, and it feels wrong.

The longer she walks down these streets, the more she knows it. This doesn’t feel like a real city. It feels like a sim of one.

“We’ve got everything right – down to the disgusting canal with hundreds of years of human shit floating around in it.”

She’s mostly talking to herself at this point. Dirk doesn’t need to be convinced.

“It’s a real shame we don’t have scent receptors,” he says.

“Do you think that would help?” Evi asks, turning her avatar’s head to get a better look at her partner.

Dirk shrugs. “I was actually being sarcastic? I don’t want to smell the canal.”

But Evi’s already running the sims in her head, her physical fingers twitching over the keyboard while her avatar’s fingers remain still. Scent is a powerful psychological force and it could be a major factor in their sim’s believability. Why hadn’t she thought of it before?

“We should see if we can get our hands on a scent file,” she says.

“Or… not?” Dirk says. His face scrunches up at the thought, which does nothing to curb the beauty of Chris Evans’s jaw. “Really, I can do without the smell. Amsterdam smells more like weed than gross canal water, anyway.”

“But this isn’t Amsterdam!”

Evi feels her flesh and bone chest tightening with her frustration. It’s a strange feeling to be simultaneously walking on a canal and lying on her back in a PlayChair. Her leg muscles clench and unclench as her avatar simulates the movement, but there is no tap tap tap of her heels on the cobblestones.

Maybe that’s an element they need to include in the soundtrack? That’s the sort of attention to detail that developers usually reserve for porn bots. But maybe that’s what they’re missing.

“Did you just tap a sim for porn bots?” Dirk asks as her screen info flashes over his eyes.

“It’s a sensory thing, I’m sure of it.”

She can feel him shifting uncomfortably IRL, though his avatar remains perfectly still in front of her eyes. She scrolls through the list of sims in front of her to try and find one with a high-quality sensory file that they can replicate.

“I fail to see how BigBooty5000’s posts are going to help us create a more realistic landscape, Evi.”

Evi sucks on her simulated teeth. She feels her face mask, snug over her jaw, rubbing against her lips and thinks that there’s no way they’ve reached the point where they can sim a cool breeze – hot and cold, yes, but not the sensation of a gentle gust of air that smells and tastes like a place people have lived for years.

“Seriously, Evi, turn that shit off. I’m already above my porn quota for the week.”

“Why doesn’t that shock me?” Evi asks, dutifully flicking her thumb IRL to shut down the offending images.

She notices Dirk’s avatar blushing and wonders, not for the first time, why he’d even bothered to include that function in his specs. The man blushes more than anyone she’s ever known. She once saw him go red in the face IRL over a plateful of food shaped like a phallus.

“What have we overlooked?” she asks. “Physically, it’s all here.”

“You mean virtually?”

“How would you like a virtual foot up your ass?”

Dirk raises his avatar’s hands in a sign of submission, ducking his head down a little so that they’re almost eye-to-eye. “I’m just saying, it’s not all sensation when it comes to places.”

“Not true – you know that sim of Rivendell? That shit was so real I got vertigo looking over the edge of the waterfall.”

“Well, Rivendell’s different, isn’t it?” Dirk says. He kicks a rock with his boot and together they watch as it skips into the canal beside them – the light plunk that plays through the speakers satisfying even Evi’s strict attention to detail. “Rivendell is make-believe, so people came to it willing to suspend their disbelief. This is a sim of Amsterdam. People are going to expect Amsterdam.”

“If you say this is Amsterdam one more time, I am going to shove your beautifully-sculpted ass into the canal.”

“Feel free. I’ve got Level 17 swimming ability.”

Evi thinks about it, then shoves him in anyway.

It’s worth it for the look of surprise on his face, the heavy splash, and his sputtered protests as his IRL body is doused in cold sensation and his breathing briefly cut off.

Evi knows that his PlaySuit is putting pressure on his muscles to simulate swimming through murky, thickened canal water. If only they had a taste receptor on hand – she could have made him carry the taste of their sim canal back into his IRL body, where it would probably stay for the rest of the day.

But there are no taste receptors required for this sim – the client hadn’t asked for them. Evi and Dirk both have them, because no developer worth their salt doesn’t, but that kind of tech is super expensive and only meant for the most decadent of experiences. Usually, building a space only requires the landscape and a cursory soundtrack. The more realistic the visuals, the less effort they put into the rest of the senses.

Usually, at least.

“Stop dicking around and get out of there,” Evi tells Dirk even as he’s hoisting himself out of the canal, his fingers gripping uselessly at thin air and his wet boots scraping on a wall that technically isn’t there. He glowers up at Evi while she surveys the scene around them one last time. “We’ll take it to the client. See what they say.”

“They’ll say it doesn’t feel right,” Dirk says, trying to drive the point home as simulated water drips from his avatar’s bangs.

Evi chews on the tip of her tongue so that she doesn’t have to respond, before clicking her heels together three times and pulling back into the IRL space she shares with her partner.


Author’s note: Inspired by this Vlogbrothers video about how experiences can feel real and at what point we start to substitute the one for the other. Yes, VR reality is pretty good but it’s not that good. Not yet. But will it ever be?


PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂

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