I met both versions of Caroline at the start of my degree course. I know I met the first one at the freshers’ party, though I was too drunk to remember it well. I remember odd moments, but not the connections between them. I remember sitting with Carol after most people had gone. I remember kissing her. After that, all I remember is waking up in her bed with a splitting headache. She was sweet and gave me an aspirin. We decided to meet later and see if we liked each other when we were sober.
I managed to get to my first lecture, and I sat at the back of the room trying not to look at any bright lights. The head of department, Professor Lynton, said he was delighted to have us studying video game design. He told us details about the course, and I wondered if it was safe to take paracetamol and aspirin at the same time. But then he said that the department was working on the ultimate computer game, called the Paradise Engine, and they needed volunteers to try it out. No hangover would stop me volunteering for that, so I blundered my way to the front of the room and signed up.
The Paradise Engine didn’t have a screen. Instead, you put a helmet over your head, someone threw a switch, and suddenly you would find yourself in, well, Paradise. Paradise turned out to be very similar to the real world. In fact, I’d played for nearly an hour before I noticed the first difference. I ran into Carol, and it was obvious that she didn’t really know me. Presumably we hadn’t slept together in the Paradise world. This Carol was also more confident and, I thought, prettier.
Apparently it wasn’t safe to use the Paradise Engine for more than one hour per day, so just after this I was pulled out of the game and back into the real world. By now my headache was almost gone, and I hurried off for my date with the real Carol.
We sat in a corner of the union bar, and I told her about my bizarre experience with the Paradise Engine. I told her that she was in the game, but I didn’t tell her about the Paradise Carol being more confident and attractive. I didn’t tell her that I wanted to go out with both Carols. While I wasn’t telling Carol things, she was telling me about her first day. Normally I would have been interested, but I was so distracted by the Paradise Engine that I was just nodding my head every time she paused.
Carol told me about something that had upset her slightly. I put my arm round her. She moved closer, so our legs were touching, and she smiled adoringly. I had no idea what she’d been talking about but I realised that, somehow, I’d got away with it. I felt guilty as I kissed her but I still did it.
Every day I spent as much time in the Paradise Engine as I could. Over time, I noticed other differences between Paradise and the real world. It was perfectly possible, for example, to go to lectures in Paradise. If I did, I found that the hard lectures were slightly easier, and the easy lectures were slightly harder. Life in Paradise was the perfect challenge.
At the time I didn’t realise, but of course the Paradise Engine did the same thing with Paradise Carol. It was programmed to create challenges, so Paradise Carol became a sexy and confident flirt. She virtually drove me crazy. One day she would flirt with me, the next with someone else.
About half way through my first term, it was late evening in Paradise, and Carol fell off her bike in front of me. I helped her up, then asked if she wanted to go for a drink. Rather to my surprise, she agreed. Over drinks, she said she was sorry for teasing but it was too much fun, and then she kissed me. I tried to get her to come back to my room, but she said she wasn’t ready for that.
Real world Carol had had a boyfriend at school, but Paradise Carol hadn’t. I was her first, which made our relationship extra special. If I thought of the Carols as one person, she was my first too.
I broke up with the real Carol at about the time I married Paradise Carol. I felt it wasn’t right to marry Paradise Carol without telling the real Carol. I tried to say that it was just a computer game, but she got upset—understandably I suppose—and eventually insisted that I choose. To my great shame I chose the fake Carol.
At the start of my third university year, Paradise Carol was pregnant with our first child. I went to the computer suite to see her, but something had changed. Professor Lynton was waiting to see the volunteers. He thanked us for volunteering and said that the grant which paid for the Paradise Engine had run out.
I was distraught. I shouted, sobbed, and pleaded, but nothing could bring Paradise Carol back. It wasn’t even possible to say goodbye, as the computers had been sold to a hedge fund for playing the stock market.
I managed to put this out of my mind enough to get my degree, and I’ve now been working in the game industry for five years. Carol is married to someone else, and I miss her. Her perfect twin sometimes made her look bad, but that’s only because she is real. Fantasies always beat reality.
I’m deeply ashamed of falling for Paradise Carol, and I’ve tried to keep this story secret for the last six years. Now, though, it must be told. People want to make the Paradise Engine technology part of the PlayStation 6, and they must be stopped before millions of lives are ruined.