Tearing a gap in the silence, slicing a path through the dark, I was blasting the night on an empty road. The night just couldn’t do its thing while I was around, but I could sense that this was a bad night, one with no smile and a grab-bag of misfortunes, and I wasn’t going to take it lying down.
The motorbike between my thighs kicked and pulsed like a metal wrestler I’d pinned to the tarmac. It was late, and I’d long since become numb to the fear that my driving would cause some vital nut or bolt (or rubber band or pea of chewing gum) to come loose, reducing my situation to an 80kph tumble in a spray of scalding-hot machine parts. Rather, I’d developed a new fear; that this part had already come loose, and the only thing keeping the bike in one piece was my taught, ropelike hands on the handlebars.
This was without doubt a terrible machine I was riding, and perhaps the worst machine. As I shot onwards I distracted myself by running this theory through my head. What could be a worse machine… one of those 1950s Microwave ovens that still functioned if the door fell off? Maybe. That first wave of GameBoy Advances without the backlit screen? I drove on, and on.
There is a phrase in the language English that is very important:”The middle of nowhere”.
There’s something profoundly unsettling about places with no sense of place. You know the kind- houses that have sprung up around a motorway service station, or villages where everbody grew up snorting great handfuls of drugs because oblivion is less scary than boredom. Sallow, silent, unthinking sinkholes that never want anybody to leave, never want anything to change, never want anything at all. Places where the weight and breadth of the mind in your skull can make you feel like a vampire facing down a cross.
The itchy reality of these places is that they are no place at all, they are nowhere. There’s a sleeping monster in nowhere, and it is older and bigger than you, it is island-sized, and it has never known happiness. If you’re ever nowhere at all, and you do think about it, and you can hardly think about anything else, and you can hardly breathe, and oh, God, it is awake, it is that grand realisation which nobody can speak. Don’t speak it! What would you say?
But all is not lost, because in our language we have this phrase. We never have to be nowhere at all, we only ever have to be in the middle of nowhere, which is a softer, funnier place to be. Do you see? The phrase makes nowhere a place, with boundaries and a centre, and if there are boundaries then you can leave this place, you can travel in any direction and “nowhere” will cease to be, and this whole experience will be something you can laugh about.
Pride was what had done me in, back at the bike rental place. I think they’d only given me this ancient, rust-sucked vehicle in the hope that I’d immediately crash into a wall so they could claim exorbitant damage fees. When I actually returned unscathed from my hair-raising test drive, the looks on their faces told me I had to keep surprising these chancers, whatever the cost.
After 9 hours on the road the “cost” was largely being deducted from my nerves, which had been washed and shredded like iceberg lettuce, and my buttocks, which I knew to be permanently dented. Was this the worst machine since… the Hindenburg? No, of course not. That had been a beautiful machine.
A bug pinged into my eye as I wondered at how much further I’d have to go. I’d been told to head North, and that the fourth and final master was out here somewhere. What a hick he must be. I pictured him, chewing on a cicada, his eyes two knife-slits in a crumpled paper bag.
The terrible motorcycle burped beneath me, a sound unlike all the shrieks and shouts it had made before, and I was filled with quiet dread. I teased open the throttle, bringing the knuckles of my right hand up to face the stars. The machine hissed, twisted and weakly shunted the two of us forward, now an altogether different creature from the deranged cock-rocket I had rented that morning. The road continued to whip past us as I idly fingered the hollow on the dashboard where the fuel indicator had, perhaps, once been. I would have to stop and refill the tank.
Tired and sore as a slave, I cautiously slowed the bike, punching out with the crooked handlebars to keep us from falling. As we stopped, the inpenetrable black landscape around us became a reality. I brought out the kickstand and rested my feet on the floor. There was perhaps a two second silence, leaving me half-way through my first deep breath in hours, when the kickstand snapped clean off and the bike collapsed to one side. With one smooth move, the wrestler I’d been keeping trapped for hours upped and faceplanted me into the road.
I lay there for a minute, first swearing, then resting, until I felt the first mosquitos brave the dust cloud I’d raised. I wriggled out from under the bike, then with a kind of point’n’click step-by-step mentality, I got the plastic bottle of petrol from my backpack, hoisted up the bike (with a sound like this- “HNNNNFUCK-BIKE”), took the fuel cap off the bike, took the cap off the fuel bottle with my teeth, poured the fuel into the bike, dropped the bottle, put the fuel cap back on the bike, got on the bike and kickstarted it gently, for fear rust would claim the lever too.
The engine didn’t catch. I kicked again, worryingly terribly, oddly aware that I was making the only noise for ten miles in any direction. It was useless. After a minute of kicking I’d thrown caution to the dogs, and was forcing my entire bodyweight down through my leg and accompanying it with a different swearword each time. Soon I had no kick left and simply stumbled away, letting the bike collapse again. I sat by the side of the road and got my breath back for a time. On a whim I went over and sniffed the bottle of fuel I’d paid so much for. It didn’t smell like fuel at all. It smelled like Winter Melon Drink.
I might have sat for hours, feeling sorry for myself and waiting to flag down the next person to pass, but the mosquitos were something awful. They’d gotten bigger as I’d travelled North, and had recently transcended from being insects into being a shit time with wings. Enormous, angry and yellow striped, you’d catch one of them with a direct slap only for them to fly away when you lifted your hand.
So I walked. Under a small piece of moon and a carbon sky, I picked up the bike and began walking it down the road. I didn’t remember driving past any towns in the last half hour, so I chose to go forwards. Onwards. For all of its passive-aggression, the bike was at least light, and walking it wasn’t too much trouble.
After something between an hour and an eternity I saw a sign in the distance, faded by decades and lit by a malarial yellow floodlight. I couldn’t read the writing, but as I got closer and saw a couple of bike husks and a low, squat building with a garage door, I realised I was looking at a mechanic’s shop. A rare shard of luck.
With a shove I took the bike off the road and onto the Earth, and I wheeled it up to the building and banged on the door. I waited with mosquitos hustling and chancing around the hot property of my face. The door rolled upwards with a clatter, and I smiled warmly as the garage owner did a double-take at me, me with my foreignness, my sweat-soaked clothes, my Motorbike from the Black Lagoon. Immediately he started shaking his head and pulling the shutters down again. I’d expected this. Still hanging onto the bike with one hand, I stabbed into my pocket, grabbed a fistful of money, dropped to one knee and rammed the cash under the door just as it was closing. With both hands thus occupied, I felt a mosquito thud onto the back of my neck for a taste.
With reluctance, the door ascended again, revealing first the exploded shoes, then the oil-rag clothes, and finally the cartoon frown of the mechanic. He had a face like bad pornography; lifeless, inviting eyes and big wet lips surrounded by a nest of wiry black hair.
I rolled inside and left the bike leaning against the wall like a drunk. Miming out my situation of having a beverage in the gas tank, the mechanic warmed instantly, and released a laugh that filled the room like a fuel-air explosive and soaked me with adrenaline. It took at least four or five seconds before I could assemble a reciprocal grin.
I watched as he sluggishly detached the tank and placed it upside-down on the floor, where the drink first poured and then trickled out of it. Still, I knew it’d be some time before it was drained completely. With this done the porno mechanic turned to face me, gestured casually at this completed task, then produced a couple of warm beers from a box in the corner. He opened one bottle with the other, then opened the other by banging its lid vertically against a table. I thanked him and we drank. Lowering myself onto one of his workbenches, I felt like the whitest of whiteboards, wiped clean of all teachings, bearing only the powdery, illegible scratch of forgotten lessons and rapid pranks.
I was so tired, in fact, that when I spotted the little black tattoo of the Mercenary from The Chaos Engine on the back of the mechanic’s hand I covered my face with my hands and groaned.
“Oh God. You’re one of the masters.”
The mechanic narrowed his eyes and suckled his beer quizzically in response. Ignoring him, I swung my protesting body off the bench and took the HD cigarettes from my backpack. As I lit up, I turned to face him and jabbed an accusing finger in his direction. “At least you’re the last fucking one.”
I took a drag. I exhaled. Besides an ozone taste in my mouth, nothing changed. Where was my new reality? I couldn’t have looked harder at the cigarette if it had started speaking.
“Relax, friend, relax,” said the mechanic, who did at least seem to have learned English. “Don’t worry. You’re in the right place. Hey! Let’s move to something a little stronger than beer, eh?” Without bothering to stand up, he leaned and reached under a table he was sitting on, producing a small, perfectly spherical red bottle with a short neck ending in a cork. “This is the shit, man. It’s a Potion. A real one. It causes Berserk.”
“I don’t know if we should be -” I began, as the master unstoppered the bottle and drained half of it without hesitation. After he was finished he let out a gasp like piss on hot coals. Being a sucker for horrible drinks, this piqued my interest. Besides, I didn’t like the prospect of being the only man in the room who wasn’t Berserk. I made my way over to him and took the potion, finishing it in two professional gulps. It tasted sweet and only a little alcoholic, but furiously spicy. I immediately started hiccuping.
“Tell me, friend,” said the master. “What do think of games?”
“Just *hic* games? Not, like, American games, or *hic* violent games or something?”
“No,” he said, smiling and pulling himself to his feet. “Just games.”
It was a big topic. I tried collecting my thoughts, but these thoughts of mine were big thoughts, thoughts from the wrong side of the tracks, and they clearly wouldn’t stand for being collected together like common conclusions. These thoughts would make an appearance on their terms, not mine. I’d have to just start talking.
“I like games,” I began, still smoking the HD cigarette. “I like *hic* them a lot. Specifically, I like how consistently games can summon up emotions in me. That’s why I play them, I think. The element of *hic* interactivity draws you into the experience, and once you’re in the experience it’s that much easier for you to become elated, excited, wounded or infuriated. When you’re playing a videogame, the successes, discoveries, and *hic* relationships happening on the screen- they’re yours. Failures, losses, enemies- they’re yours too.
“It’s like, we all know how engaging videogames are. A rapt kid with his eyes glued to a screen is still probably the defining image of videogaming. And yet nobody bothers reverse engineering this image- nobody asks why the game is engaging the kid so much. And the answer is, the game isn’t engaging the kid, the kid is engaging the game. The kid’s body seems lifeless because he isn’t in the room, he’s in the game.
“But I’m getting sidetracked. Basically, for me videogames are about their capacity to drag you into their world, and what they do to you, emotionally, once you’re there.”
The master nodded eagerly. “Yes,” he said, “and the videogames that you personally choose to play. They’re the ones that give you the strongest memories, yes? You like the serious games. The fierce games.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s getting to be a problem. A few years ago I started playing games on Hard mode by default, just to eek out that little bit more tension. Some people, they play games to relax. They play safe games. Some people, gaming begins and ends at having fun. These people are my opposite. My favourite games are the ones that scare me, or scar me, or the ones that make me fall in love only to break my heart, or the ones that test me, or surprise me, or fuck with me. I like games that give me enough freedom to develop my own story in the world that they offer, and for anybody, including me, to give a shit about that story, it’s going to need both high points and low points. And the, uh…”
Something bad was happening to the master. He was breathing heavily, and all of his skin had taken on a sunburned tint. “I get you, I get you,” he gasped out. “You like maximalist games. You’re probably one of those guys who think the term “games” is detrimental to the industry as a whole.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said haltingly, taking a couple of steps back from him. “The term ‘games’ automatically makes us think of fun and play, and not of the genre’s more adult potential.”
“THEY SHOULD BE LINED UP AND SHOT,” spat the master. That sunburn of his was getting worse. His old, dappled skin was starting to look like chorizo. How far would half a potion take him? Doing my best to look thoughtful, I leaned my hand against a worktable and began scanning it for a weapon. A hefty looking spanner looked innocently back at me. Okay.
“Who should be shot?” I asked.
“I’m with you, brother,” said the master. “Everybody who chooses to spend their money on casual games, or games that hold their hand, these people are fastening SHACKLES that hold this industry back! We need to DO SOMETHING about it!” He stepped closer, and talked on in a burning whisper. “I know how to make bombs. We could blow up PopCap Games. That would be a start, eh?”
“No, man!” I said. “There’s nothing to be done about this. Accessible games and hardcore games, they’re just the two sides of the gaming coin. There will always be a demand for accessible, casual games, so those games will always be–“
“COWARD,” the master cried. He lunged bodily at me, his meaty hands finding purchase under each of my armpits. I dropped the cigarette only to find I couldn’t grab the wrench because my arms were locked in place, I couldn’t do anything but look down at his throbbing porno face. I felt my feet leave the floor as he hoisted me up like a trophy, then spun and threw me into the corner. It was the hardest I’ve ever been thrown, but in that world of pointed and angled machine parts it wasn’t a bad landing. I was aware of bouncing of a concrete wall and going stumbling back towards the master. My brain had now tagged the area directly around him with “Not a cool place”, so I actioned that by letting my legs go limp and collapsing to the floor still a few feet away from him.
Maybe you’ve received a beatdown before. Maybe you haven’t. If you haven’t, understand that once another human knocks you to the floor using superior speed and strength, you receive an instantaneous telegram from your entire being telling you that the fight’s over, and that you should definitely just lie there and think of the baby Jesus for the duration of whatever happens next. And that’s exactly what you do.
That didn’t happen to me this time. Instead, I was aware of the master picking up that same wrench off the table that I was eyeballing earlier. The next thing I knew, I was back on my feet. I looked at my hands. They were almost as red as the master’s.
“You know what I really like to play?” said the Master. “I like first person shooters. That’s my thing. Plain, boring, corridor shooters. Oh, and sequels! And I like RTS games played against the AI on the easiest setting.”
“YOU,” I shouted. I snatched the empty potion bottle off the table and marched up to the master. He was grinning, and the spanner lay slack at the end of his arm.
“I like familiar games, where I don’t have to think,” he said, in the same leisurely tone. He might have seemed relaxed if it weren’t for the froth forming around his mouth. “And I like games that let you kill people. Killing people is fun”
I shuffled forward, bringing my face so close to his that I couldn’t recognise it as human. It was just glass eyes, bottomless nostrils, foaming lips. “Say it,” I said. “I fucking dare you.”
“A good game has to be fun,” he said.
I screamed so loud I scared myself, and with one hand brought the potion bottle down hard on that disgusting face, the way you’d slam-dunk a basketball. He collapsed like a soufflé.
My boot was on the master’s throat before he could speak. His face was a road map of cuts, but the blood was the same colour as his skin. “A good game has to be fun?” I asked, my voice all consonants. “You think you know videogames? What have you got? What have you played? I’ll tell you what I’ve played. I’ve played games which use their narrative to turn me into somebody else. Somebody more hardline and more fascist, who I never dreamed existed. I’ve played games where I was wrongly accused by other players of a crime I didn’t commit, and punished for it. I’ve played games where I was a soldier in a hundred-man army, fighting a force of thousands, fighting even though we knew we couldn’t win. I’ve spent my whole life playing the most amazing, fascinating games I could get my hands on. Who are you to tell me what a videogame is? Huh? What the fuck have you played?”
Both of the master’s hands were pushing at my shoe. I lifted the pressure slightly, let him take a breath, then rammed it back down.
“Do you know the worst part about people like you, you people who like to use games to just ‘have fun’? There are so fucking many of you. There are so many more of you than there are of us. So, you guys have most of the planet’s development studios making games that they’re hoping you might like. You people get to play what you want. Us people who want interesting stuff? We don’t.”
My head felt like an overinflated, overheated tire on a truck travelling down a mineshaft at 120mph. I took my foot off the master’s throat and began pacing the room, and wiped away a beard of foam with the back of my hand. Gasping for air, the master spoke.
“You prentious dickhead. Games are toys. Would you listen to yourself?”
And then I was on top of him again, kneeling on his shoulders. He was smiling. Why was he smiling? I hit him twice. Each time, his head bounced off the concrete so hard I could hear it.
“Listen to me,” I said, my spit dripping into his destroyed face. “Games. They are toys, because people like you have made them toys. Because people like you want to have fun, the industry keeps making toys, and people like me, who throw around words like ‘literature’, you make fun of us because all games are toys. Do you see the cycle here? Do you see what you’re doing to me?
“You know what you and I get to live through? The birth of a new art form. The percentage of human beings that get to experience that has got to be so un-fucking-believably small, and we’re all sat around wasting it, we’re all playing trash, because to most gamers ‘interesting’ equals ‘different’, ‘different’ equals ‘strange’, ‘strange’ equals ‘confusing’, and ‘confusing’ equals ‘no fun’, and ‘fun’ is what games are all about, right? Right?”
Something that used to be a smile twitched beneath me. “Right,” it said.
“WRONG!” I lifted my hand to strike him again, and a sharp pain in it made me take pause. I looked- there was a rectangular piece of glass from the potion sticking out of my palm, like Satan’s business card. My skin wasn’t blood-red anymore, either. Before I knew it I was shivering. I was coming down.
“You’re not a Master,” I said to the man underneath me. “What are you?”
I stood up, staggering backwards as I did. A table caught me before I fell over completely.
“Kill me,” the man on the floor said, still not moving.
Then he lifted up his head to look at me, and it wasn’t even a face anymore. Had I done that?
“KILL ME,” the thing screamed.
And then I was out of there, lifting the door with my good hand, grabbing my pack and running, just running, out into that muddied bathwater night. I made it to the road and saw headlights, and I fell to my knees. When I heard the hiss of the car’s brakes, I knew I was saved.
Nothing was worth this. I was going back to Language City, and I was going home. If these people wanted to give me the Citizen Kane of Videogames, this would be their only chance.