Journey of Saga, pt. final

You want to know where this ends?

It ends in a lime green fast-food establishment called Let’s Yoghurt. This place, it was a shitty place to end anything. Let’s drop you into this scene: you’re high up on a stool, getting steadily blasted by interrogatory halogen lighting, the sugar’s taking over and you’re hanging with your second favourite girlfriend. She’s chirruping into a mobile phone, and you’re wondering what she’d look like without any clothes on.

See me now, coiled in a corner, alone, steadily tipping a bottle of vodka into my affordable choice of yoghurt. For the last few days I’d been resembled a sad apothecary, forever mixing with leathery tongue and smashing with pestle teeth, searching for the cure. Yoghurt- it’s food for people who’ve given up, isn’t it. And I’d just about given up on this adventure.

I watched the vodka pool on top of the yoghurt, creating a boozy reservoir. I buried it with my spoon. I was thinking about my father.

He was a real adventurer, you know. Not like me. He spent his life riding hot air balloons, discovering new species, and seducing fragile, wealthy women. Women who’d crash landed- widows and the like.

The best story he’s got came out of an early hot air balloon flight across Africa. So, the only way you can make fast adjustments to the downward momentum of a hot air balloon (something that has to be done each time you come in for a landing) is to throw sand out of your balloon’s attached sandbags. As much as a handful of sand can make all the difference to your velocity. Two hands of sand are for desperate times.

On one occasion my Dad and his crew made a fatal miscalculation. They threw out far too much sand, and ended up not just slowing down, but rising upwards again. When they let the heat of the balloon drop further so they could come in for a second landing, they found themselves dropping like a stone. They quickly dropped the little sand they had left, but it barely dented their terrible downward acceleration. What then, for these crazy bastards who chose to travel the skies in a wicker basket attached to a bag of gas? Simple. They started throwing their belongings out of the balloon.

Shoes, first. Then notebooks. Pens. Hats. Maps. Letters, All of it was tossed carelessly overboard as the realities and priorities of these men shifted unbearably, but they were still coming in too fast.

Without a second thought my Dad dropped his binoculars over the side, and the photographer threw out his exquisitely expensive camera and all of its lenses, and all the men hastily undid their watches and chucked them overboard too. In this new dimension they’d been transported to, items lost their history and purpose, and only weight was left. Finally the men came crashing to the Earth, the basket tumbling end over end, but they survived. The rest of the day was spent hiking in a very straight line, where every hundred yards they went picking through a less important collection of belongings.

I feel like there’s a lifetime’s worth of wisdom contained in that story. At the time though, in Let’s Yoghurt, I was just thinking: I’m out of sand. I’m crashing.

“Listen,” I told the adventure as I screwed the metal cap back on the vodka, enjoying the rasping noise. “You and me? It’s been real. You tought me some stuff, about games and whatever else, and I got knocked around a bit. It doesn’t get any more real than that. But my shoulder is still killing me after that fourth guy bounced me off a wall, I’ve got a galaxy of insect bites, and I’ve developed this killer ear infection that means I can’t keep my balance and keep leaning to one side, and frequently it’ll happen when I’m taking a piss and I’ll only notice I’m doing it when my head touches another guy’s chin.”

I heaped a spoonful of booze yoghurt into my mouth. Not bad! Actually, it was pretty bad. Shit, what was /wrong/ with me?

“So, I think it’s for the best if we part ways,” I said. “I’ll go back home, and you can stay here and wait for the next videogame enthusiast to show up. I cannot be fucked to spend another week in this country, just to find out that the Citizen Kane of Videogames is fucking Tetris. We cool? Cool.”

I finished the yoghurt, winced as I stood up, and was just about to leave the shop when I recognised someone. It was the man from my first night out in Language City, with his oversized beige suit and extension cable for a belt. The man who gave me the HD cigarettes and set me on my way. This guy. He was queueing for yoghurt. This fucking guy.

I went over and tapped him on the shoulder. If double-takes could make money, the look he gave me would’ve sent an explosion of coins clattering around the room.

“You back!” he cried.

“Yeah,” I said. “I beat the Masters.”

“Oh wow!” the man said, his face curling in awe. “You met the first Master in Holy Money Temple, and gave him back his soul?”

“Yeah, he’d lost his confidence,” I said. “I gave him a pep talk.”

“You met the second Master in Da Ja, and helped him ascend to his chosen heaven?”

What? I took pause. “I, yeah.” I said, getting a bit nervous. “Maybe. He was kind of a dick though.”

“You met the third Master in Makka Minority Village, and tought him the lake could never be crossed?”

“Sure, whatever,” I said.

“You met the fourth Master on the road, and taught him to channel his violent energies into art?”

“Yes,” I said. “That is exactly what happened.” Then I did my best to assemble all of my remaining sand, my sulk and pepper, into a grave form. “Listen, I took on your challenges. I want what’s mine. Give me the Citizen Kane of videogames.”

For the first time he looked straight at me, and his eyes were nothing but reptilian glaze. Was he blind? He turned and went slouching off into the shop’s toilet, and at the last moment before he disappeared he turned back and fluttered his hand at me. After a moment of indecision, I followed. When I got in there he’d turned on all the taps, and was standing in front of a closed toilet cubicle with his hands pressed together in prayer. “Smoke,” he said, indicating the cubicle door with one hand, “and enter.”

I fumbled the last HD cigarette from the pack. It was bent like a finger, and the paper was maroon where it had taken on a speck of blood. Delicately, I took it in two hands and straightened it out. I was taken by surprise when a tiny flame clicked into existence in front of me. The beige suited man was holding out a lighter with Mario on it. I lit up.

For the final time, I took in a great gulp of smoke. It stretched out inside me and straightened me right out, then bent me like a finger. I was too heavy. I could feel it- I wouldn’t lift off. Nervously, I took my blood in two hands and tipped it overboard, out of my mouth. That was enough. I went up in smoke.

I landed on the other side of the door in a heap. I was in a throne room, and I remember it well. A beautiful, beautiful throne room, all hard and marvellous in sea-green ceramic. On the throne was an Asian man in a splendid black blade of a suit and a pointed white shirt. His hair was cropped short, his eyes and nose were as small and as hard as marbles and he had an exclamation mark on his pocket square. He was a perfume advertisement of a human, and I was ashamed to look at him. But shame is like money- you can run out, and then what? And then nothing. Lucky for me, I’d run out of shame weeks back.

“Sir,” I said, dipping into an exaggerated bow, before coming back up and pointing my cigarette at him. “Give me my fucking videogame.”

“No introductions first?” said the man. His voice didn’t arrive as words- I saw his lips move and I heard what he meant, but the sound was a prolonged synthesiser hum, like voices in a PSX era JRPG. Bvvvmb. Bvvvmb bvvvmb bvvvmb.

“Introductions,” I said. “OK. My name is Quinns. I enjoy videogames, except for when I hate them, which is most of the time. I have been known to wear makeup. My favourite guitar effects pedal is fuzz. I wish I was capable of getting angrier. I also wish I knew how electricity worked, and have tried to read about it several times. I completed your challenges. I’m your man. Give me the game.”

The man stood up and began walking down the steps of the throne towards me. The heels of his shoes didn’t produce a click, but a beep. This didn’t faze me. I was just happy I was taller than him, at least. “Why the rush?” he buzzed.

“Well,” I said, “I’ve only got the one cigarette left, and I don’t want to go home with nothing after coming this close. I need that like I need another Dynasty Warriors game.”

The man smiled, took an unopened pack of HD cigarettes from his pocket and threw it to me. I caught it, but only just. The way he threw the pack to me- it was off. And the arm of his suit seems altogether too sharp. As he got closer, I realised that I was looking at the jagged lines of un-antialiased pixels.

“Do I get to find out who you are?” I asked.

“I’m just a player,” he hummed. Idly, he smoothed down his jacket. “This is a bit less climactic than I was hoping. So be it. Would you like to know what the Citizen Kane of videogames is?”

“Yes,” I said. There was a moment of stillness. It felt like something was loading. I held my breath, but I’m not sure I could have breathed if I wanted to.

“The Citizen Kane of videogames is… Tetris.”

“Bollocks,” I said, so fast the hum of his voice was still filling the room.

“It’s true,” he continued. “It’s true, and very simple. No game has matched what Tetris managed to do. Accessibility and tension, married together like–”

I cut in, and let that cold, machine part of me, the part that gets me paid, take over. “No, that’s bollocks. Stop talking, forever. Citizen Kane was a preposterously ambitious project in which Orson Welles pionered more film-making techniques than the genre might have seen in a decade. Non-linear narratives, method acting, the lighting, the camerawork, everything right down to the special effects was new and exciting. When that movie premiered, people were crawling out of the theatre on their hands and knees. They’d seen the future. When people talk about the Citizen Kane of videogames, that’s what they’re asking after. They’re asking, where’s our atom bomb?

“Tetris is not an atom bomb. Tetris is vaudeville. You put blocks in a line and music plays and the “drama” is encapsulated entirely in you really needing a long, thin block and not getting one. Unless you intend to blow my mind with some laserbeam of an argument about how the long, thin block is a metaphor for Rosebud, I’m done listening to you. Timelessness does not equal brilliance. If I was in a good mood, I’d let you have Tetris being the Citizen Kane of puzzle games, but I’m not in a good mood. Fuck you and fuck Tetris, and fuck the little dance that the little Russian men perform if you do really well.”

Again, the world was still. Loading.

The man smiled, and returned to his throne. I tore the foil off the second pack of cigarettes and hastily lit one. “Very good,” he said. “Tetris is not at all the Citizen Kane of videogames. That was simply your final test.”

“Oh my god are you serious,” I said. I looked over my shoulder to see if all four of the masters were there, in case I was going to have to beat them all again, one after another.

“Are you ready to know what the real Citizen Kane of games is?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. (I wasn’t ready.)

“There is no Citizen Kane of games.”

“Bol… bollocks,” I ventured.

“I liked your rant about Tetris,” said the man, “But now you listen to me.” I took the bottle of vodka from my pocket and began sipping from it.

“I want you to be my messenger to the Western games press. Tell them to stop looking for the Citizen Kane of videogames, and stop asking about it, because it doesn’t exist. And I’ll tell you why.

“Citizen Kane was created in a time when cinema wasn’t necessarily stagnant, but it was certainly comfortable. In 1940 directors had no need to break rules in order to make a profit. A big reason why Citizen Kane went down in history is because it was able to stand out from its peers. Orson Welles, aside from being creative and ambitious himself, had never made a movie before. His mind wasn’t polluted by preconceptions about how things ‘should be done’. More than that, RKO Pictures gave him total control over the project. All of this came together in a time when few other people were daring to be different. But we’re getting off topic.

“Videogames do not yet have this context. We’ve never had a moment where the developers and gamers all stop and take a breath, and that’s when we’ll have the opportunity to get blown away by a Citizen Kane. From their genesis in the 70s right through to this very day, videogames have thrived on forward-thinking ideas. Not only does the industry reward whoever’s prettier and whoever uses the technology of existing platforms to the best effect, but we also reward ideas and innovation. Every single videogame tries to do something different, even if it’s something small. In a market like that, where we get a dozen truly spectacularly inventive games every year, how can we possibly have your ‘atomic bomb’?

“Perhaps don’t look at it like videogames don’t have a Citizen Kane. Look at it like, we have dozens of them. Gauntlet, Head Over Heels, Civilization, Super Mario 3, Outrun, Wing Commander, Elite, Doom, Half-Life, Deus Ex, Planescape, Ocarina of Time, Super Metroid, Super Mario 64, Goldeneye, Halo, Civilization, Portal, Braid. All of them landing in their respective genres like little depth charges, blowing apart preconceptions. I want you to go back to your peers, make them realise how good they’ve got it, and stop these ‘Citizen Kane’ articles. They’re getting on my nerves.”

Well. What do you say to that? I took a long drag on my HD cigarette, and used it to light another. I looked at this man, him with hair and his throne, and I tucked up my mouth real tight, and I said:

“Bollocks.”

“Excuse me?” he said.

“You wouldn’t have dragged me out here with that cryptic letter, and sent me up against four psychotic videogame enthusiasts before you were willing to hand out that grubby pearl of wisdom.”

“I would,” he said. “I did. I don’t accept just anybody as my envoy. I wanted to make sure you had stamina, and smarts, and were in this for the long haul. It wasn’t any bother. I have people doing my admin for me.”

“And that’s why you chose me?” I asked. “You thought I had potential?”

“Not as such. We chose you because Kieron Gillen never responded to our letter. He probably had better things to be getting on with. And now, so do you.”

So that was it. I felt like a beer can with a pinprick in the side. How much of my purpose and fizz had I already lost? I felt like going to sleep under a table.

“This is another test, isn’t it,” I heard myself saying.

“No, it’s not,” said the man. “Actually, alright yes it is.”

“What?!” I screamed. “Quit with the tests! Give me the game! Give it to me, now!”

The man grinned, giving me a glimpse of his yellowed and expensive mouth. He reached behind his chair and threw a thick black suitcase down to me. I caught it in two curled arms and it almost floored me. The case was a heavy thing.

I popped the catches, opened it and found myself looking at an old games console, or maybe a computer system. It was from before my time and was therefore an object of embarrassment and reverence, but it was a sad thing to have to worship. A fat, awkward keyboard was built into one half of the open briefcase, and the opposite half held a chubby monitor with a screen the colour of dishwasher water. It was laptop, of sorts.

Carefully, I set it on the floor, becoming aware of the gently malicious odour of cleaning products. After a moment on my knees spent staring into the abyss of the lifeless monitor, I found a thick power button and clicked it in. The machine thrummed to life, and an alarming cracking sound came from behind the screen. I looked up at the man on the throne with a child’s poverty of confidence.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “It does that.”

I took a drag on my cigarette. As the smoke cleared, I saw sluggish light had begun creeping onto the screen, etching out the sad logos of companies I’d never heard of. This was it, then. I hovered my hands over the keyboard like a rockstar pianist. I was still frozen like this 20 seconds later, as the machine knocked and fussed over its task.

God, these logos were taking their time. I used my tongue to shift the cigarette to the far side of my mouth, where it would be out of the way.

Finally, there was the title screen, accompanied by a slow, sweeping soundtrack rendered as a series of undersea burps by the machine’s ancient chipset.

This is where it starts to get embarrassing, because I can’t remember that title, nor can I remember any of the companies that flashed up before it. It was just… forgettable, somehow. If you and I ever meet, I could hum the theme tune for you. I could do that. But I couldn’t tell you this game’s name.

I tapped my way into the menu option that read ‘Begin your Saga’, and the game dropped away into another grumbling loading screen.

“Nobody knows about this game,” explained the man on the throne. “It’s very likely the rarest game of all time. The Californian developers were so scared of anybody copying one of their ideas that they developed the game in absolute secrecy. Then, tragically, during the office party that they held when development was finished, a fire started and quickly gutted the building. The next day a fireman found the studio’s only surviving master disk clenched in the fists of one of the dead, and he passed this on to his son, who didn’t understand the value of it for a decade. Eventually, and at a phenomenal expense, it came into my possession and became the jewel of my electric game collection. Ever since that day I’ve jealously hoarded it, but I can’t keep this game quiet any longer. It’s the most wonderful game every made, and I need to share it.

“As you can see, the game casts you as a nameless astronaut in the distant future, taking a long trip through outer space. However, the deep sleep machine has strange effects on this man’s psyche. It forces his mind through a series of lucid dreams in a manner not unlike trying to squeeze a grape through a wedding ring. The dreams are based solely around the spaceman’s obsession with classical literature, and your astronaut takes on the roles of certain well-known figures in various pivotal scenes. He becomes Odysseus, Mr. Darcy, even Queen Cleopatra, to name a few. But the stories warp and snap in accordance to your character’s personality; his past, and his perception of the past. It’s a beautiful character portrait drawn with all the speed and love you’d expect to see in Chinese water torture.”

Silently, I continued playing the game.

“The game’s message,” he went on, “is a simple one. The only element of our existence that we can truly say is real is, of course, our own thoughts. Therefore, we are all alone. We’re all solitary astronauts, floating through a void that we paint over with our perceptions.”

“I think you’re confused,” I said, not taking my eyes off the screen.

“Maybe,” he said. “I suppose it could also be read as a screed on the inherent superiority of an interactive art form over classical literature. A kind of declaration of war.”

“No, I mean, I think you’re confused,” I said. “This game sucks. You seem to know a lot about it- did the guy who designed the interface actually have, you know, hands? Was he a human being? I’m not believing these controls- to move you have to go into the menu, select the “Move” action, leave the menu, activate the floor you’re standing on and then activate the tile where you want to go? Was that really the best they could come up with?”

I looked up at the man on the throne. His mouth was open, yet narrow, like a letterbox, and while there was no droning voice sound effect I was aware of him saying something. He was saying “…”

I shrugged, and pressed on. “This is abysmal interface design, no matter how old this game is. They’ve got a whole keyboard here. Did they consider making a hotkey or two? Did they also consider exhuming and eating one of your dead relatives each time you expressed a desire to move? Because either one of those would have been less painful.”

I’d reached yet another loading screen, so I took my hands off the keyboard and sat down.

“And Jesus, these loading screens. This is awful. This must be what narcolepsy feels like. Except each time you wake up you’re having a different nightmare. And this audio! Was there really a time when all games sounded like this? It’s like having your ears groped by a drunk pocket calculator. Oh, brother, time has not been kind to this game.”

“That’s irrelevant!” shouted the man on the throne.

“I dunno, dude. I think it’s pretty relevant. Why does Odysseus walk like he’s carrying something between his knees? And why won’t this other guy talk to me? God, there’s no telegraphing at all. I have no idea what I’m meant to be doing.”

“Listen to me, LISTEN,” the man cried. I looked up. The jaggies around his silhouette seemed to be flaring and spiking. “This is the BEST GAME EVER MADE.”

And then I understood. I looked back at the computer, taking in its new gravitas, its new position at the centre of everything. On the monitor my flickering spaceman was awaiting his orders.

Slowly, I stood up, battling spectres of backache and brainache. I reached down, hit the power switch and closed the machine back into its portable form. The leather case was warm from the computer’s exertion. Then I approached the foot of the throne looking like an immigrant, with fag in mouth and thick briefcase in hand.

I looked up at the man, at his clothes that promised immortality, at his face, his awful face. This man’s face was the moon, barren and untroubled, in the night sky of his suit. I realised that I was looking at a man who’d finished his journey long ago.

“No,” I told him. “This is your best game ever made. It’s your Citizen Kane. I still need to find mine.”

And I left the briefcase at the foot of those steps.

When I returned my gaze to the man on the throne, he was as jagged and wrong to look at as a broken mirror. The polygons that he was made of had swelled disgustingly, so that he was only made up of a few dozen of them. His head was a monster stump, his arms were stiff weapons, his torso a lumpen bulge, and the texture that covered him gave only the barest hint of eyes.

He stood suddenly and began floating down towards me, his legs pumping out of time with the steps he was descending. I don’t remember much. Terror, and falling. Always falling. He talked as he attacked, but I couldn’t understand his voice anymore. The worst part was that his kicks clipped straight through me. I couldn’t deal with that. Eventually, I woke up.

*  *  *

And that’s my story. Pretty unbelievable, right? Well, the best stories always are.

The trip home was easier than expected. I have a dim memory of coming to in a toilet stall with another man, surrounded by police. I let them hoist me up, cuff me and what have you. I think I even said encouraging things like “Sure, OK”, as if they were signing me up for their mail-order catalogue.

When my senses fully returned to me I was face down on the floor of a cop car, mumbling “Fucker” each time we went over a speed bump. Then together the police and I took on all that deadly admin, and after 48 hours in custody they deported me back to England. They never did tell me what I’d been arrested for and I was very careful not to ask.

As for the rest of the HD cigarettes, I handed those out among my cellmates back at the police station. I’ll tell you now, if you get put in a cramped cell with six men who all look they got brought in on charges of Being A Right Proper Bastard, you don’t tell them that no, they can’t have a cigarette because your cigarettes were made to bring on videogame-related vision quests. You give them however many cigarettes they ask for, and then when they start thinking they’re an analog stick and scream to be spun around, you put your hands on their bony shoulders and spin them.

On the flight home I made a list of all the games I’d play when I arrived. It was a long list, as you might imagine. Was I upset about going home empty-handed? No, not me. Utter exhaustion is its own reward. And besides, as a gamer, you learn the value of escapism. You learn the value of escape. Even if it’s just for a while.

Back in England, I picked my way back home under a sky the colour of stony ground, and a flooded ground that showed only sky. Recovering my keys from under the mat, I found my flat was as I’d left it. Sparse, tangled.

I dropped my bag, entered the kitchen and scraped the forgotten insides of an espresso pot into the bin. Once I’d set some new coffee brewing, I returned to the living room and turned on the PS3 and the TV. This is how you survive in England. Your four food groups are heat, flavour, noise and colour.

I picked up the gamepad, feeling the memories of the thing. Then I got back to work.

Journey of Saga, pt. 6

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.

Journey of Saga, pt. 5

By the third master, I was a little more ready for him.

Feeling firm and lucky under a blue Sega sky, I was tramping my way down an earthen beach towards an array wooden jetties that stuck out into the lake like sunburned fingers. Fastened to them was a herd of small boats, all jostling and clunking together in the wash. This was Makka Minority Village. A floating village, as it turned out.

I don’t like water much, not these days. It reminds me of that error on my 22nd birthday, when my friend from Manchester arrived with his tracksuit pockets full of some new alligator tranquilisers or horse steroids or cat antidepressants, and I found myself very much out of my depth. I can see myself now- gripping the floor for dear life as I was spun out of existence. I felt like water, you see. I felt like the ocean. Endless, bottomless, speechless, wet, stranger than fiction, green, then blue, then black, then transparent, pulsing weakly to some secret lunar tempo. Let me tell you what sucks: What sucks is when the motion of your own heart brings on motion sickness.

But yeah, on the day of the third master I felt good. Around me a populace of toy-like birds were picking through the mud, and in front of me Makka Minority Village seemed straightforwad compared to the mazes where I’d found the other masters. This would take no time.

As I got closer, I began to categorise the boats. There were narrow fishing boats, each a self-contained, merciless universe of nets and hooks, overseen by overcooked men; by underwater undertakers. There were smiling, colourful merchant boats which sat low in the water. And once I reached the jetties I was able to look down into the shadows of the house-boats, and the nervous shadows looked back at me.

I squinted through the lake’s doublesun at this mean collection of gap-toothed boardwalks and wobbly homes. Living close to water is only ever as nice as the water is, and this water was the colour of dirty windows and night-sweats. This was water that spoke of an ecosystem where every link in the food chain was disgusting.

“hello man,” said a voice behind me. I turned around. It was a squat guy, naked except for a kind of candy-striped poncho and a loin cloth, and carrying a huge vase. He must have seen me coming and emerged from his barge with the most expensive thing he could find.

“you bai vas?” he said.

“Oh, no thank you,” I said, backing away. “I don’t want to buy a vase. I’m looking for someone.”

“you bai vas,” he said, shifting the vase so it leaned on his other shoulder. “is authentic

The people of Makka Minority Village were a real minority people, it was true. A local English teacher I’d met at a bus station had given me their story.

Twenty years ago the Makka were like every other minority people. They kept themselves to themselves, spoke their own language, lived in wooden houses, ate dog, treated their women badly and so on. But Makka was also docile enough to be singled out by nearby tourist boards as a great place to see an authentic minority people doing various authentic things, like living in wooden houses, eating dog, treating their women badly and so on.

As money began slouching incorrigibly through Makka Minority Village, the locals developed a taste for various modern luxuries- Red Bull, television, pornography. But in time they discovered that lots of tourists were visiting other, even more strikingly “authentic” minority villages nearby, thus depriving the Makka of a valuable “cultural exchange”.

There was nothing for it, the Makka elders decided. The Makka were going to have to become even more authentic. Colourful traditional tunics and hats came first, imported in bulk from a factory in Australia. Then traditional minority handicrafts were imported from another factory in Russia, items of a superior quality to anything the Makka could make. The elders also came up with a very authentic religious ceremony that the whole village could take part in at sunset. The teacher was hazy on this part, but he’d heard it involved a horse and lots of panpipes.

Tragically, this deception was working. Past a couple of boats I could see a gaggle of foreigners being led down a jetty by a clean-cut Asian guide wearing a white shirt tucked into blue jeans.

Abruptly I felt the surge in personal standards that occurs when you meet another traveller after weeks on the road. I licked my hand and brushed my hair down, then felt something up there. It was with no small degree of horror that I removed from my hair a twig, a beetle and a small plastic wrapper. When had I last looked in a mirror?

“you bai vas mistah,” said the Makka man. “authentic vas. is ver bueatiful.”

“No, man,” I said. “No vase.” I started pacing away from him and moving further into the village. Sod it. So I looked like a monster. The sooner I found the master the sooner I could get out of here. Oh Jesus, were my trousers still tucked into my socks?

“you bai vas! $40 US!”

This booted up my haggling routine, which I do as much for fun as for practise. “$40? You’re joking with me.” The boards squeaked and grunted under my feet, the sun glared. I was looking for videogame symbols as I paced. Listening for game names. Watching for game rules.

“ohkay ohkay,” he said, jogging after me. “$20.”

“Look at the vase, though,” I said, not actually looking at it, not even turning around. “It’s bad quality. What would I want with something like that? I would give you $1 for it, no more.”

“ohkay ohkay,” he said. “$1.”

That was when I saw my cue. There was a very familiar-looking silhouette bobbing up and down a couple of boats away.

Over my shoulder I shouted a “Sorry!” back at the poncho guy, gripped the straps of my backpack, dropped into a run and then leapt off the end of the pier and into an empty boat.

I found my balance, then jumped again from this boat to the next one, where a fat man sat chewing a banana and watching a gutteral pocket TV he’d concealed below the side of the ship. He looked up at me with his mouth full of banana guts as I took a closer look at the next boat along.

It had the same narrow dimensions as all the others, but nailed to the frontmost part of the hull was an amateur woodcarving. I recognised it. It was a recreation of the dragon figurehead from the boat in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

Hunched over next to the dragon was a single figure in a mossy green tunic, with matching floppy green hat. He was sewing something on an immense sheet of white fabric, each intricate movement smoothed by years of practice.

Link from the Legend of Zelda sitting in his dragon boat. Sorted.

Drawing myself back to the full width of the fat man’s boat (about three feet), I took one long stride and jumped. It wasn’t an ideal run-up, and a riot of adrenaline had, perhaps, interfered with my ability to judge the distances between boats. I made it to the Zelda boat with precisely two arms and one leg, with my other leg, my ass and my backpack all dipping into the water and generally letting the side down. For one terrified second I thought I was going to capsise the thing, though when it became apparent I was not some life-changing element but a dirty fern of a man clutching to the side of a boat I rapidly proceeded to an undignified series of grunts and struggles that ended in me rolling bodily to the deck.

My head was next to Link’s bare, leathery feet. I squeezed out a glance through the sun. There was a softness of features to him, a curve in the eyes- shit! He was a woman! ‘And why not?’ I thought to myself. More women are playing games every year. Why shouldn’t one of the masters be a woman?

She’d stopped sewing and was looking at me. I smiled aggressively, then reeled it in as I considered myself, heavy and panting and lying on my backpack. I must have looked like a dishevelled and upended turtle. Without saying a word (which is to say nothing of noises that aren’t words, which I couldn’t stop saying- you can see me, playing whack-a-mole with the silence) I rolled onto my front, propped myself up, turned around and looked at her the right way up.

He wasn’t a woman at all. Seemingly bored of me, he returned to his sewing.

I watched him for a minute, then slowly rooted an HD cigarette from its box. Here, Link’s head snapped up to face me, as if I’d appeared from nowhere. I lit up, let the smoke fall deep within me and once again felt an impossible gravity peel away this newly greased existence and send it sluicing down my throat.

For the first time smoking an HD cigarette, I choked. The coughs I let loose were unbearable- I felt the convulsions start at my toes and fingertips, then go racing up my spine to my mouth, where they’d exit with ferocious speed and noise. Something very real was leaving me.

The new world swam into existence, accompanied by the smoke from my mouth like a rockstar making an entrance through a spillage of dry ice. I found myself physically reduced. My first thought on lifting up my thinned arms was of spiders. When I touched my face I felt great, withered hollows where my cheeks had been. But the Link opposite me had grown. He was stronger, harder, taller. Upon his new shelf-like shoulders was a head like a stone bust. I inserted a pair of searching thumbs under my belt. My clothes had, thankfully, shrunk with me, though Link’s hadn’t. I spied one of his nipples poking out from the V of his tunic, like a tent peg.

Maka Minority Village was much improved, too. The house boats were now teetering four-storey constructs, with exaggerated, slanted rooves, and the barrels and crates of the merchant boats were overflowing with gold coins, pineapples, silks and other luxuries. It was a fantasy town.

“Tell me, friend,” said Link, in a voice like a cold drink on a hot day. “What do you think of linear games?”

So he was the third master. Right.

“Linear games,” I began, and then stopped. My voice was reedy and malnourished. This was horrible. I decided to abandon the lengthy speech in my head. “Linear games aren’t really my thing.”

“I love linear games,” said the master. “I love how smooth and exciting a linear game can be. I love how spotless the developer can make the experience and the story. Half-Life 2, Final Fantasy VII, Modern Warfare. Wonderful games.”

“Linear games are boring,” I said. “Non-linear games are where it’s at. Putting yourself out there, getting lost, finding trouble, carving out a story of your very own. That’s exciting.”

A troubled look flashed across the master’s chiseled face. I let my eyes follow his, and on the other side of the lake I saw strings of smoke emanating from the cookfires of a distant village.

“Look,” I said, slapping the boat’s small mast, which (come to think of it) hadn’t been there before. “You’ve got this beautiful boat. Why not do some exploring with me? Let’s go to that other village.”

“No!” said the master, wheeling to face me so fast he set the boat rocking. “I’m the hero of this village. My place is here. And besides, crossing the lake is dangerous. Nobody has done it before.”

I exhaled in his direction. “Nobody’s crossed the lake before? Do you mean everybody who’s tried has failed, or that nobody’s tried?”

“I… I don’t remember anyone trying,” he said.

“Well!” I clapped my hands and leapt to my feet. My backpack evidently hadn’t shrunk, and I ended up clinging to the dragon with both hands to stop myself from walking backwards off the boat. If I was boxing, what weight class would you call this new body of mine? Cornflakeweight. Smokeweight. Weightress. I remembered being told that whenever you see smoke twist and curl into amazing patterns, it’s not the smoke doing that. It’s not the smoke’s fault. It’s just being picked up and bent by the air, which moves like that all the time. Imagine that. The air around us is coiling and stretching into unbearable nets all the time. We just can’t see it.

“I have a proposition. Let’s be the first to cross the lake,” I said to the master. “You and me. Doesn’t that sound nice and heroic, Mr. Hero?”

“…Alright,” said the master, his voice uncertain. “Let’s… go.” Worryingly, he seemed to have trouble untying us from our moorings. After defeating the knots I watched him actually search the boat to find the oars. Eventually, we struck out, and I wondered if I wasn’t taking this challenge in entirely the wrong direction. Ah, who cared? I leaned back against the bow and enjoyed the sunshine.

“It’s like this,” I began, wincing at the added nerdiness of my kazoo voice. “Non-linearity is about more than the thrill of exploration, or the joy of freedom. The more freedom you give to the player, the greater opportunity you provide for highly emotive, emergent situations. Let’s use Morrowind as an example.

“It wasn’t a horror game, but the fact that I could potentially wander out of my depth meant it routinely scared the shit out of me. It wasn’t a character driven experience, but the option I had to explore the world and spend time with whoever I pleased meant I developed attachments to all kinds of NPCs who resonated with me personally. And it wasn’t a-“

A peal of thunder flattened my voice. Sitting up, I saw that the blue sky was being swallowed by a black cloud like a volcanic mudslide. I watched as the sun vanished behind it and a nervous darkness swept in.

The master was still rowing. “I knew we should have stayed put,” he said. “This is pointless, even for an adventure.”

“No!” I squeaked, but again we were blitzed by thunder. That doomsday sky was above us now, and the boat was beginning to bob up and down on newborn waves. But this was a lake. How could there be waves? I fastened my twiggy hands around the bench beneath me as the master kept on with his powerful strokes.

“Non-linear games result in all kinds of stupid situations like this,” he said, despairingly. “When the developer gives up direct control of the player’s experience, the player just gets themselves into trouble. The difficulty curve, the learning curve, the arc of a narrative, all of this careful pacing gives way to confusion, frustration, pointlessness. Look out!”

I looked out, and saw a six-foot wave ripping through the water towards us. I bowed my head under crackling sky as the wave burst downwards onto our vessel with breathtaking force. Breathtaking, and fagtaking. I touched my lips and felt nothing.

“No,” I shouted, fingering another HD cigarette from the waterlogged box in my pocket. “This is just the kind of bullshit linear games pull out of their ass to keep you on their own straight and narrow! We’re on the right track!” Could the master even hear me over the water and weather? I struck out with my thumb, but the wheel of my wet lighter revolved soundlessly. I was fagless.

What happened now?

I heard a roaring to my right, and looked up just in time to see an entire bungalow of water crash into us. Since I was no longer gripping the bench but cupping my hand tenderly around a thoroughly fucked procedure, the wave hoisted my arachnid frame up, along, and then down into a world of water. You know the place. You’ve been there, I’m sure- that underwater realm where there is no freedom, no movement, no knowledge, only waterpanic, waterwalls, and the thirsty ghosts of waterdeath. What do they say? A lot of disparaging things about your ability to float, I think.

But this body of mine is not an easy thing to kill. Me? I’m a walkover, I’m popcorn. I might even already be dead, slain by videogames long ago. But this body… I came bursting out of the lake’s surface into a world of light. The sky was blue again. The water was calm. The dragon boat was nowhere to be seen, and I was treading water about fifty metres from Makka Minority Village, which too was back to normal.

For lack of anything better to do, I kicked and gurgled my way back to shore and collapsed onto the mud. God, I was wasted by the time I made it to the shore. I was a writeoff with no gas in the tank, a hard sell with only one careless owner. I lay there in the sun, just breathing, and promptly fell asleep.

It was still daylight when I woke up. Waking up in a proper, nuclear sunbeam is one of the better things in life, no? You feel like a city-sized robot that’s been deactivated for a millennia. Whatever will you do with this new consciousness of yours? Everything! No, nothing. Nothing is best. At times, it’s hard to imagine anything better than an inarguably wasted existence.

The sun had actually dried me and my belongings out completely. I stood up, unsure if the mud would hold my back-to-normal weight, but it did. Feeling firm and lucky under a blue Sega sky, I went tramping down the earthen beach towards an array of wooden jetties that stuck out into the lake like sunburned fingers. Fastened to them was that same herd of small boats, all jostling and clunking together in the wash.

I found myself categorising the boats again as I approached and stepped onto the docks.

“hello man,” said a voice behind me. It was the guy in the candy-striped poncho. “you bai vas?”

“Oh, please, fuck off,” I said. Then I thought about it. “Wait,” I said, which was a bit redundant as he wasn’t going anywhere. “Let me see that.”

I took the vase off him, politely ignored the packing foam inside and tried sticking my hand in the top. It didn’t quite fit. “authentic vas,” said the man. “is ver bueatiful. $40 US.”

I found a $1 bill in my pocket and handed it to him. He took it without a fuss and walked off.

Cradling my new and deeply authentic vase against my chest, I went skipping across to the fat man’s boat, but this time I didn’t stop. I kept momentum from ship to ship, making it cleanly into the master’s dragon boat with my final jump.

He was back to sewing something onto that white sheet and didn’t seem to remember me. I allowed myself a rest. Idly, I sat down, scratched my head, and plucked out a twig, a beetle and a small plastic wrapper.

This was fucked up.

I stared at the master for some time, piecing together my plan. Eventually, I began.

“Right,” I said, igniting my second, or possibly still my first HD cigarette of the day. “Let’s try this again.”

*  *  *

I watched the individual muscles of the master flex and relax as he took his first few strokes with the oars. He really was hero material. On top of his straining face his hat looked ridiculous, like a garnish. I knew he could get us through this if he wanted to.

Everything had gone the same as before up to this point. I’d even coughed away my stature again. But where before I’d slumped against the bow as we’d set off, this time I stayed standing. I thrust a bony finger at the master.

“Listen to me. The one and only defining trait of videogames is that they are interactive. Audience participation is all they’ve got. It’s all that they are.”

I checked the sky. The storm was already on the horizon and racing towards us.

“The idea,” I went on, “of using the full scope of a videogames’ interactivity only to decide whether the player succeeds or fails, and whether the story continues or stops, is blindingly inane. But that’s exactly what linear games do. They might still be entertaining, but from an artistic perspective it’s a total failure to use the medium.”

At this, the master took on a philosophical expression. “But non-linear games result in all kinds of stupid situations. When the developer gives up direct control of the player’s experience, the player just gets themselves into trouble. The difficulty cur–“

“Yeah, yeah”, I said, cutting him off. It wasn’t easy, with this musical greeting card voice of mine. “I know what you’re going to say. Linear games allow for an experience that’s as smooth as a bobsleigh ride. And just as restrictive, I might add. But smoothness isn’t always ideal. It might seem that way, because difficulty spikes and getting stuck in a linear game is always unpleasant, but if a game is non-linear then rough situations actually become less irritating because it’s you who got yourself into hot water and in any case it’s your own personal adventure.

“A Stalker obsessive I know tells an incredible story about night falling when his character was wounded, and he realised he had horrible mutated monsters to both the North and South of him. He spent the entire night hunkered down in a fallen tree, and then made his escape at sunrise. That’s a wonderful story!”

Darkness fell across the boat. I was being too slow. I didn’t have much time left. The first bracing blast of thunder arrived, and I bent down to the master’s ear so I could carry on speaking.

“Listen, you call yourself a hero, defending that village back there! But what’s heroic about doing what you’re told? Somebody who follows the path laid out for them might be noble, and if they make it some ways along that path you could call them gifted, but you wouldn’t say that they’re a hero. Heroism is something else. A hero is somebody who chooses to suffer for what they consider the greater good, or somebody who chooses to stand fast where other men would flee, or somebody who chooses to fight unrealistic odds. Simply put, if you’re never given any choice whatsoever about what you do, you’re not a hero. You’re just riding the rails. You’re an automaton.”

I saw in horror that the master had stopped rowing. “What are you saying,” he said. The boat began bobbing up and down as the small waves began.

I leaned on his shoulder and stuck my finger out in front of him, indicating to the village in the distance. Under this cloud cover you could see the cookfires themselves, glimmering like sequins. “I’m saying, prove that you’re the hero you say you are. Be the first to cross this lake, and get us there!”

A mask of cast-iron determination appeared on the master’s face. I grinned. You could have cracked nuts between those lips and cooked ants with the stare. In preparation for the first big wave I dropped the lighter and the cigarette pack into the vase, then tried squeezing my right hand, the one holding the cigarette, in through the top. Since I was skinnier, I found I could pop it in without too much trouble.

The first big wave slapped into the boat, soaking both of us from the waist down and leaving behind an inch of water. My fag might have been dry, but we’d still have to hurry. Unsteadily I went running up to the front of the ship as the first sheet of rain was dragged over us. Gripping the dragon with one hand while thrusting my rotund Mega Man-like vase arm at the distant village, I screeched out some encouragement. “You have to get us there! You’re the hero!”

“I have to get us there,” boomed the master. He checked to make sure a big wave wasn’t coming, then stood up and reached towards the top of the mast. With a snap of his fingers he undid one knot, then another, and the sail came billowing down into place. With a groan, I saw what he’d been sewing before. In the middle of the sail was stitched an enormous golden triforce. Briefly, I considered letting myself be thrown out of the boat.

But it wasn’t to be. Gripping the rudder with both hands the master began tearing the boat around, and instead crashing into us the next big wave buoyed us up before dropping us like a hot stone. For my part I removed my arm from the vase, took a drag on the HD cigarette, and plugged my hand back in the vase again. The waves grew to the point that I lost sight of both villages. By now I was just clinging onto the figurehead for dear life, doing my best to breathe through whole fingers of spray and rain.

Sheet lightning broke out across the sky, as if the sun were a giant hammer trying to break us free. I looked back at the master. Hunched against this assault of water and blackness, of inhumanity, he seemed scared, but resolute.

“That’s it!” I cried back at him. “You know what we’re doing now? We’re leaving the path! Non-linearity is the only future, man! Do you understand? If all games have going for them is interactivity, then the future of games is one of total interactivity, of total freedom, and total non-linearity!” I opened my mouth to speak more, but an abrupt tipping of the boat sent an explosion of water up my nose and down my throat.

“I understand!” the master screamed. “Linear games are nothing more than prisons!”

“Exactly!” I replied, risking another drag on the HD cigarette. Another quick tipping of the boat caused me to headbutt the dragon, and it took several attempts to get my arm back in the vase with one of my eyes closed in pain. I went on- “There’s not a genre of game on the planet that wouldn’t be improved by more freedom. The only problems we encounter with nonlinearity are those of technology and narrative design, and these are problems that can be overcome! Games will ascend to become the most important art form on the planet, but only if we realise where their potential lies!”

Just then the sun pierced straight through the clouds, and after a few more stomach-churning waves we were left on a comparatively calm sea, with the new village no more than a hundred feet away.

“We made it!” I yelped. I couldn’t believe it. I looked back at the master, stunned. We were two grinning bundles of frayed, wet nerves.

“You’ve convinced me,” said the master with a slap of his extraordinary thighs. “Games exist to give us freedom within fiction. Linear games restrict that freedom. I’ll be taking more of an interest in nonlinear games in future.”

“Alright,” I said. I removed my hand from the vase and recovered my belongings. I felt infinite. And then I saw the village we were approaching.

It was Maka Minority Village, again. I blanched. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the village we’d been trying to get to the whole time was still right there, on the other side of the lake.

“Stop rowing,” I said, in genuine pain. “We got turned around in the storm. We need to turn back.”

But the master didn’t stop rowing. “No, this is the other side of the lake,” he said. “We’ve been travelling straight the whole time.” We neared the exact point where we’d left, then the master took us a little further and moored us to walkway.

“Then how did we get here?” I asked, defeated.

“Think about it,” he said. “Whether an experience is linear or non-linear, we all only ever walk one path. We all only ever have one experience. What you need to understand is the intrinsic futility in striving for freedom for the sake of freedom. If you only play through a game once, there is no difference between a game that offers total freedom and one which only has one path, but puts forward a perfect illusion of freedom. In the former, you choose to do whatever you please. In the latter, you believe you’re choosing to do whatever you please. And what you believe is reality.

“Did you think our crossing the lake was breaking from “the path”? How do you know crossing the lake wasn’t the set path our linear existences? You can’t ever know that. And so, you can’t ever strike out, and you can’t ever change anything, and you never know if you’re truly making a decision or simply following your own rails. In reality, there are no new villages to find. There is only Makka.”

I gaped. I could have hit him. I might have done, if being a bundle of nerves hadn’t started feeling like being an irrecoverable tangle of unwanted power cables. So I just smoked. Or rather, I fumed. In time I realised I was only angry at myself. Briefly, I’d thought I was in control.

“Determinism?” I asked. “Really?”

“The fourth and final master doesn’t live anywhere specific,” said the master, packing up the oars and furling the sales. “Just travel North, and you’ll find him.”

I stood up, taking a single, heavy step up onto the dock, and there I waited, as if this feeling of uselessness would go dripping out of me with all the water.

I flicked my cigarette into the lake and waited for the world to return to normal. Slowly, with the secretive swell of ink in water, it did. Then I walked out of town.

I got to those muddy banks with the wind-up birds, where I took my backpack off. I sank first into a cross-legged position, then down onto my back. The sun felt nice. I decided to let it dry me, and promptly fell asleep.

Journey of Saga, pt. 2

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.

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