It wasn’t a trap. I found it, I found him, and he showed me the Citizen Kane of games. But you know what? I’m still not sure it wasn’t a prank.
What follows is my account of everything that happened on this dumbass quest, as written two weeks ago when I was on one of the boats home.
You ready? I wasn’t ready. Oh, I thought I was, but I wasn’t. Maybe you are.
Brother, am I tired. The sun out here is something else. I mean, literally; it’s not the same sun that you guys get. Look up at that pale lightbulb in your sky, because I can’t. I won’t be under it for at least another week.
Oh, the sun at home illuminates, sure. But does it heat? No. Every day back home is like the sun’s first day on the job. Look at it nervously buzzing under the watchful eye of the boss sun, the sun out here. It cooks you out here. My skin isn’t just darker now. It’s thicker.
But you want the story and I want to tell it. So, let’s go.
I hate traveling, which is kind of the point. When I was younger, traveling was my reflex response whenever I noticed 6 or 7 months had crept away without trace. I’d spend a night walking around town, pale-faced with a strange terror, and the next morning I’d book a flight somewhere shit. Within two weeks you’d inevitably be able to find me, a sweating, sickly ghost in some gas oven of a toilet, pooping out what felt like my entire skeletal structure.
As I saw it, being tired, ill, lonely, horny, hungry, hot, damp and angry was better than being ‘fine’, because when you’re miserable, months don’t go anywhere. They become cloying, sticky and friendly. They have all the time in the world for you.
It’s a desperate move, sure, but it works in the same way that drinking heavily “works” if you want time to fuck off and leave you alone. Traveling “works” if you want time’s attention; want to spend some quality time with time.
(In case you’re wondering, there’s very little to be discovered from the grand elastic experiment of traveling while drinking heavily, except for the depth of human ingenuity when it comes to throwing up in a minivan so overcrowded that you’ve got a local child on your lap.)
So, yeah. I hate travelling. I also hate the Far East. And I especially hate Language City. Understand my dedication, then, that I went back there for this trip.
Problem was, it was such an obvious place to start. The facts, scarce they were, were all in the letter: if I wanted to find gaming’s Citizen Kane I was to travel East and I’d be “found”. The blocky, careful handwriting implied the author grew up with Asian characters, and if you need to find (or lose) anything on this continent, Language City is the place to do it.
Maybe you don’t know about Language City. If not, don’t look it up. Your life doesn’t need it. Nobody needs it.
In brief, the story goes that a thousand years ago Language City was the biggest merchant caravan in Asia, and that it became a settlement when the caravan’s renown meant people came to it instead of the other way around. Today it’s a city of millions, but it’s said that Language City still creeps some twenty miles every year, sliding across borders and up mountains, away from war and disease, and that the shadowy progeny of the merchants who run the city do it by frequenting brown-outs and sewage backlogs on one side of town.
Problems of this sort are not what you’d call unexpected.
I don’t know about the creeping-city thing, but I believe some of the more lightweight stuff. Like that the city’s legendary garbage landfills all exist on sites where a particularly optimistic warren of homes once collapsed, because it was easier than rebuilding. And I’ve actually seen firemen negotiating fees and hazard pay with maddened city residents whose homes are burning thirty feet away.
Within hours of my flight arriving on this miserable quest I’d already made several classic mistakes, including “pursuing basic hygiene”. The shower I took when I found a guesthouse made me smell like a hushed-up industrial accident, and there was hair on my soap underneath the packaging.
At least the guesthouse I found was cool. The owner didn’t seem to have grasped the nuances of his job yet (“You want a room? For money?” And the milky eyes would roll completely around, like watching the sudsy contents of two washing machines), but the sheets were clean and the Eastern European man I shared a room with had a size and demeanor which broadcast that he ate thieves like breadsticks. This guy cracked his knuckles in his sleep. Three times I woke up from a dream that I was a chicken being boned.
But I couldn’t stay in the hostel, cosy as I was. I’d come hear for a reason, and after my first night I headed out to get myself found.
And found was what I got. Thank Christ for that, because the air pollution was already getting to me. Breathing wouldn’t have been so bad if I could have just gotten the air back out again. No word of a lie, I blew my nose on the bus out of Language City and what I left on the tissue was black. I’m still not recovered. My lungs need acid irrigation. My sinuses need an hour of Super Mario Kart on the easiest setting.
So, the night I got found: First, I went out and snared the first taxi-bike driver I saw who wasn’t talking to himself. You don’t drive around yourself in Language City. You just don’t do it. It’s just not done. You leave it to the taxi drivers, who are, to a man, exhaust pipe-huffers and seatbelt-chewers.
I got the motorbike to stop at the first conspicuous place I saw, somewhere with a fat bit of frontage called the Apsara Bar. Methodically screwing the letters of the sign were a half a dozen neon female silhouettes, jerkily bucking back and forth, up and down in two frame animations. Blown tubes meant the girls were missing an arm here, a leg there, appearing as sad yet dutiful amputees.
The bar itself felt like the inside’s of a gay giant’s closet, and the seat I chose was covered in a kind of dirty red acrylic and rasped disgustingly as I tried to get comfortable. There was a cleaner-looking furry sofa available, but that was closer to a table of European sex tourists who I could see were itching for an excuse to mistake me for a prostitute. During a silence between songs I swore I could actually hear their assorted venereal diseases. It sounded like someone pouring warm milk on Rice Krispies, and contrasted unpleasantly with my cold, flat beer.
Every sip of my drink caused the jetlag to press down on me harder, and depressing thoughts formed in the crush. What was I doing here? Looking for the Citizen Kane of videogames. Was that really such a desirable thing? Well, obviously. But I had so many games back home, games I could be sat with right now.
Games like- God, what could I be playing? Deception on the PSX, or Katamari Damacy on the PS2, or The Outfoxies on a MAME emulator. Wait, why was I on such a Namco kick? What else could I be playing… Dragon Age? No, no more Dragon Age. Red Dead Redemption? That had come out on the day I’d left.
Hours passed with me sat in this tired pit, the bar’s bass jiggling the humid air and making me feel like I was in a crowded dancefloor, even though I was sat alone. More beers appeared, and as the bar filled up I actually started to feel grateful for my horrid seat.
In time I noticed an Asian guy staring straight at me. He was unlike everyone else in the bar, meaning he wasn’t a prostitute or a visible fan of protitutes. He was still a sleazeball though, with all the charm of a yeast infection. His stained, beige suit was far too big for him and his mossy tie hung too low, almost obscuring the length of black extension cord he used as a belt.
Was this it? He began walking towards me. For all the beer, my mouth dried up.
“You are Mr. Quinns?” he asked. His accent was thick, and he was uncomfortable with hard constanants. “Also known as Quintin Smith. You write for the Rock Paper Shotgun. You have a column on Game Set Watch.”
I flinched, my mind racing. If it would just slow down for a second… The letter had talked about tests, or being tested, or something. Was this a test? If this guy had the Citizen Kane of games, I needed it.
I rolled my tongue over my teeth. I knew games. I could do this.
“How are you gentlemen?” I said, staring him down.
“Y-es,” he said with a nervousness and solidity of expression. He was good. Icy-cool.
“What can change the nature of a man?” I said, and stayed watching him as I dropped my glass of beer onto the table. “The day he stops smiling is the day we remember his smile.”
The man seemed taken aback. “I just give you message,” he said. Was he bluffing? I turned up my stare as much as I could, tensing my entire face. He was getting uncomfortable, I could tell, but I wasn’t going to let him off my hook that easily.
“I know what you are,” I began, whispering as harshly as I could manage. “You’re the right man in the wrong place. You’re the master of unlocking. And I’m a bad-enough dude to rescue the president. I’m the legendary Solid Snake. So would you kindly tell me about this Citizen Kane of videogames.”
I watched him, not letting myself blink. Sweat was beading on my forehead, but I was getting through to this man. I could feel it. “It’s dark, man,” I hissed. “And you’re about to be eaten by a grue.” Still keeping my eyes locked on his, I began humming the Noby Noby Boy theme, slow and steady.
I watched as he weakly held up a plastic convenience store bag, hoisting it up to eye level. “I was paid to give you this!” he said. “I don’t know about solid snakes!”
Huh. Perhaps this wasn’t a test. I took the bag and the man began working his way back into the crowd. On the other side of the bar a prostitute vomited onto the floor, and when I looked back the man was gone.
Inside the bag were two things. The first was a note, which read as follows: “The first Master of four is waiting for you. Find him at Holy Money Temple.”
I knew Holy Money Temple. It was the biggest tourist trap of a temple in all of Asia, which is basically a continent of tourist trap temples. I’d always avoided it on principle. But what was all this shit about masters? Masters of what, exactly? Bullshit? Waiting around in scenic places?
The other thing in the bag was these:
“High Definition cigarettes”, apparently. And there was something inside them, too.
Something very strange and a little sexy was happening. If I wanted the Citizen Kane of Games, I was going to have to fight for it.
Well, fuck it. I was ready.