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.

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Journey of Saga, pt. 4

I’m sure you’ve heard one or both of the reports of an Asian man dying during a marathon gaming session. There was 2005’s Mr. Seungseob Lee, who failed to survive some kind of devastating heartsizzle or brainburp after 50 hours of StarCraft. Then in 2007 we had Xu Yan, whose body lost interest after three continuous days of MMO grinding. Never forget this, readers. Never forget that your body has an attention span, too.

The thought of these unfortunates haunted me for my entire stay in Da Ja Mountain Town. Eating and drinking are not high on anybody’s priorities here. Priorities aren’t high on anybody’s priorities here. While you’d be hard-pressed to find any locals that admit it, Da Ja exports drugs like the Middle East exports crude oil. The stepped hills surrounding this town contain endless fields of unassuming flowers and bushes, all of which happen to boast some “medicinal” quality.

The extent of this secret agriculture is hidden by mists that drown the whole mountaintop. Da Ja is 2,000 metres above sea level. The air is thinner, but chewy and noxious from the drug crop. People come here, braving the bends and plunges and murder-jokes of the solitary road. They get up here, they get high, and they get… confused.

You’d never notice the effect of the air at first, but if you’re sharp you might realise after a couple of days. You’ll be sat there, sober as a priest, casually pouring your coffee into the kettle and admiring how very long and straight your forearm is, and you’ll stop, and think to yourself: Was my brain always this uncooperative?

The real danger of Da Ja occurs only rarely, when a thunderstorm or careless minority tribe starts a fire during a dry spell, and the ground starts coughing up vast plumes of mind-altering smoke. An alarm is sent out; gongs made of truck hubcaps start twanging all over town and everybody barricades themselves in basements and cupboards, breathing through wet rags in case the wind changes and the whole town gets gassed. The gongs were set up following a particularly heavy gassing in 1981. When the fumes cleared everybody who’d been on the streets was dead, with the exception of a single tourist who now communicated only in giggles, screeches and by banging his face against the wall. Memory serves, he managed to get a job at Bullfrog and is now Lead Game Designer at Lionhead.

I’d been in town for 48 hours and could feel my grip on this greased reality slipping. In my search for the second Master I’d hiked around the few farms near town and spent an entire night making myself conspicious in a local bar with some sun-dried Australian expatriates. I’d deliberately gotten lost, only to find myself back on recognisable streets again. I’d even visited the town’s crumbling pagoda and taken wordless tea with the toothless occupant among his overflowing windowboxes. It was a strange brew, and sent me into a deep sleep right there on his floor. I dreamt I was in one of those repeating forest mazes featured in Legend of Zelda and Brave Fencer Musashi and knew that if I could just remember the trick to beating them, I’d be onto something. For some reason I absolutely could not take this. I woke up with tears in my eyes, but when I saw my host looking at me some residual Britishness made me immediately flash him a bent smile and a shaky thumbs up.

I had nothing to show for any of this. Nothing, except a waning memory of what I was even here for. I bought a marker pen and wrote ‘FIND MASTER’ on the back of my left hand. I spotted the letters an hour later, completely unable to remember whether I had written the letters or someone else had done it. After half an hour of heavy contemplation I decided that someone else must have done it, because if I’d used my right hand to write on my left hand then the letters would be mirrored, or backwards, or something. I then became ashamed because no-one else’s hands had been written on, and bought a single wooly glove to cover the writing. During a moment of foresight I decided I might forget why I was here, and took my marker pen and wrote ‘FIND MASTER’ on the glove. Then, after a moment of thought, I wrote ‘QUICKLY’.

In time my nervous wandering took me to the oddest structure in Da Ja, Da Xi Mansion.

A natural school of thought would be that dreaminess and architecture go together about as well as fingertips and a blender, but Da Xi Mansion would be the place to make you change your mind. It’s wonderful, having been constructed around the basic tenet of breaking as many architectural norms as possible. Concrete has been sculpted into trees, trees are sculpted into precarious walkways and walkways never take you where you’d expect, making navigating the place something of a game. It’s also unfinished, but it’s already such a dramatic piece of work that the enigmatic Mr. Xi funds further construction by renting rooms.

It was late when I came stumbling into reception. Nobody was there, so with my eyes darting left and right like a spy I slid the guest book across the desk and around to face me. Overshooting a little bit, I picked the book up off the floor and started slapping angrily at the pages to get back to today’s date. Da Xi Mansion only had four guests at present- Janet Ching, Yakov Rodionov, Wakle Skade and Wo Hung.

I almost dropped the book again. Wakle Skade? Jesus Christ! That was the name of the default player character from Gungage on the PSX! Scanning the page, I saw that this guy was staying in the Phoenix Room, wherever that was. I slid the book back into place just as a grey drizzle of a receptionist blew in through the back door, and she happily warbled out directions to The Phoenix Room in her slurred mimickry of English.

But I’d been dragging my frame around Da Ja for too long, and now I was too excited. That was the problem. I was just too excited. After running facefirst into some clothesline of a ceiling-beam I reflexively covered my face with my hands. Neglecting to come to a complete stop after this, I then went ambling off the lip of an unseen staircase. Oh, it’s a terrible feeling to be sliding down stairs, thumping out a tune on that monotone xylophone. It’s hard to feel quite so stupid making any other mistake, because the stairs still get you where you want to go. Falling down stairs, it’s like you just haven’t got them figured out yet. Maybe next time.

The closed door to The Phoenix Room was located at the end of a long concrete tube lit by bare lightbulbs, and I stared at it through my one puffy eye and its twitching twin. The tunnel seemed to be contracting around me. I tried the door handle, which rotated smoothly. The door opened five inches, but then it stopped, stuck on something. Soft smoke came pouring out of the gap. The ceiling was too low for me to get in a proper kick, so I had to settle for repeated Quasimodo assaults that nudged it open an inch at a time.

Finally, bringing with me a filled consciousness of headspin and faceache, I slid through the gap and into the hotboxed room.

The door hadn’t opened because of a layer of takeout food boxes and discarded plastic that covered the floor like dirty water from a burst pipe. The rest of the room was a den, with a minimum of straight lines or cold colours, and right in the centre a terrible statue of a phoenix flared its wings above the single most horizontal man I’ve ever seen.

I watched as him nervously toss and turn in the bed, mantis-thin in baggy black clothing. He looked like a puddle of oil trying to find its centre of gravity. Beside him an ash tray was smoking like a brazier, and on the floor an open suitcase held a wealth of drugs. At a glance I saw bags of green herbs and yellow mushrooms, and small pile of syringes containing a bright red substance. Brighter than blood. This was bad. What was this? This was–

“Gay!” shouted the man on the bed, sending me stumbling backwards through the trash before I fell bodily on my tailbone. On the way down I neatly inserted one of my hands into a box of worms. No, God, noodles. They were just noodles.

“Gay… gay…” said the man again, his eyes open now, but unfocused. I went lurching back onto my feet (how long would I stay on them this time?), and I listened.

“Gay… gay… muh. Gaymuh. Gayyyymuh Geeaaaar.” And then the scream- “GAAME GEEAR!”

I clenched my teeth, sharing in the man’s terror. Game Gear! Jesus Christ! With trembling hands I started fishing for the HD cigarettes in my pocket.

“Get it away,” said the second master, clutching at the sheets with his hands. “Get it away! It’s so big! It’s too BIG! GET IT AWAY!”

“Relax, pal. Take it easy,” I said, slotting an HD cigarette between my teeth and patting myself down for the lighter. “Maybe it’ll run out of battery, eh?”

“I DON’T WANT TO BE A CARTRIDGE,” howled the man in black. This poor, poor guy.

“It’s okay, pal,” I said. “I’m coming for you. Quinns is coming.” Locating the lighter in my other trouser pocket, I zipped out a flame and sucked it up, letting the smoke in.

Once again the whole world rocketed into my lungs with a sickening crispness and speed. Holding it there like a gangly, sweating Kirby, my chest feeling like snakeskin rubbed the wrong way, I blew out a different one, one that was far more real with a noticeable thickness of friction. The process was easier this time around. Beating the Da Ja odds, I stumbled, but I didn’t fall.

A straining in my gut told me I had no air left to breathe out. The Phoenix Room had shrunk into a bare cell with claustropobic speed. The walls, ceiling and floor were no longer an earthy maroon, but that nothing-blue-grey of English skies. And nothing was here. Nothing but me, and a closed metal door directly opposite me.

I tried to lift the HD cigarette to my mouth and the resulting clang caused me to drop the thing. Looking straight down, I saw that my right hand was handcuffed to a heavy-looking desk. Just behind me was a chair.

I was crouched and twisting around to pick up the cigarette with my free hand when I heard the echoing footsteps. Heavy and regulated. The boots of a bastard.

The door to the cell– the first person possessive pronoun could, and still can, go fuck itself– swung open, and in walked the second master. Hhe was wearing a kind of black military uniform. Silver buttons shone out from his chest like rivets. Polished black boots nosed out from under ironed black slacks. He was still a ruin of a man, eyes set in shell craters, sheltering under rumpled tarpaulin skin. But drawn up to his full height and in these hard clothes, his insectoid body showed nothing but strength.

He looked at me with indignance. My mind was racing. But racing to where? My mind was holding a private NASCAR event and I was the only person in the stands, waving my little flag which read “Fuuuck!”

I stood up awkwardly and my wrist twisted painfully against the handcuffs. “Why am I chained to this desk?” I asked. I only realised how panicked I was when I heard myself speak.

“I don’t know,” said the master in a voice that had eaten more smoke than a chimney. “Let’s see if we can figure it out.” His voice was actually so full of rockstar rasp that I couldn’t tell if he had an accent.

“Sit down,” he said. “Go on. Good. Now tell me something, because I’m a little confused. What are weird games to you?”

The first master hadn’t had this menace. I didn’t like this at all. I took a drag on the cigarette (now in my left hand) and gave an experimental yank on the handcuff before answering.

“Weird games are everything to me,” I said. I looked up at this hollow soldier and looked into those bombed-out eyes. “Games which dare to be surreal or favour more abstract forms of expression are often signing away any hope of commercial success in favour of experimenting with game design. That makes them some of the most important games in the world. And from a personal perspective, I’ve played so many games that the stranger a game is and the greater its capacity to surprise me, the more I enjoy it. If I had my way there would be global recognition for the Pathologics, the Vangers, the Psychonauts and the Shenmues of the world.”

As I spoke I noticed my HD cigarette was almost finished. I moved it to my cuffed hand and used my free hand to put the box of cigarettes on the desk, then put the cigarette in my mouth and used both hands to take a new fag from the box. It was like a point’n’click puzzle.

“Go on,” the master said.

“There’s no justice in this industry,” I continued. “None at all. Broadly, people buy what they know. The braver a development team is, the less likely their game is to sell. And so it is that the most talented, forward-thinking studios, like Looking Glass, can go bubbling under the tar pit. This is also why publishers will neglect to bankroll an interesting game in favour of a safe one. Studios the world over make shitloads of money simply aping successful titles. Sure, all this can be found in any other creative industry. But usually the horror of mainstream entertainment is lessened by the existence of niche, underground and art-house scenes, which the videogames industry doesn’t have, not in the same way. Games cost so, so much more to develop, and need to recuperate more cash in sales as a result.”

He didn’t respond. He just stared. For lack of anything better to do, I kept talking.

“In all likelihood this is just a dark age we’re going through due to this cost clashing with–”

“No,” said the master, turning away from me to face a wall. “God. Shut up. Just shut up.”

I stared at him, incredulously. “Then let me GO,” I shouted, wrenching my hand against the cuffs.

“You’re not comfortable in here?” said the master. “I thought you would be. I thought you liked faceless military compounds, research facilities, detention chambers, bare corridors, all that. You’ve happily shot your way through a lot of them, haven’t you?”

“…Yeah,” I said cautiously.

“Not to mention all those goddamn World War II games, or all the Japanese fantasy RPGs. Or the grind-heavy MMOs, the loveless simulators, the RTS games with their dishwater sci-fi settings. You’ve played a lot of shitty games, boy. Games without a creative bone in their bodies.”

I just looked at him. What was this?

“Well, not every game can be Gitaroo Man,” I said.

“But you did like those shitty games,” said the master. He moved over and leaned on the desk with both hands. “You liked that shit enough to give it decent scores at review. Because that’s your job, isn’t it? You review games. That’s what you do.”

Oh, God. Oh, mercy. I could see where this was going.

“I didn’t like them,” I said.

“YOU DID LIKE THEM,” shouted the master. Terror began drying out my head.

“2004,” said the master. “Medal of Honour: Pacific Assault. What did you give it?”

“7/10.”

“Phantasy Star Universe?”

“I can’t… 6/10.”

“Lemony Snicket’s An Unfortunate Series of Events: The Official Game.”

“…61%,” I croaked.

“Good scores,” said the master. “Now. Let’s try some of these strange games you say you like. What did you give Way of the Samurai?”

I broke our gaze and took a long drag on the cigarette. “5/10.”

“Oh,” he sneered. “Okay. Let’s use one of your examples. If you’d reviewed it for somebody, what would you have given Pathologic?”

“No. I don’t know!”

“No? Well, let me tell you. You would have given it a 6 or a 7, because you’re a fucking COWARD.”

The words threw me open like a chest. I looked inside me. There was nothing there.

“You,” the master went on, straightening up and smoothing down his uniform, “are a hypocrit, and you are the worst fucking part of this industry. You should hear yourself talking about interesting games not getting the recognition they deserve. Which individuals do you think are most able to change that? It’s not the developers. They’re teams of hundreds, making games that big companies will publish. And it’s not the public, either. A guy can buy a game and convince all his friends to do the same, but it’s just a drop in the ocean. But in not factoring creativity into your reviews, you’re the worst of all. You moan about the lack of justice when YOU’RE the fucking JUDGE.”

“That’s not TRUE,” I shouted, standing up as fast as I could, the slack cuffs snatching painfully at me. “What do you think a reviewer does? We’re not critics of design documents. We write buyer’s guides! The games reviewer tells their readers what a game is like and give a sense of whether they’d enjoy it. That’s all. Because games are bigger investments of both time and money than any other medium on the planet. You can tell a gamer why Jet Set Radio or L.O.L. is important, but you don’t give them 10/10 because of what they’re trying to do. You rate a game on how it succeeds as entertainment.”

“So you know what’s best for your readership?” asked the master, his sandy tone hardening, sharpening. “Is that it? You’d better keep the ignorant masses away from Steambot Chronicles and The Void because, while you love these games, they won’t understand them? How in blue fuck do you think gamers are going to start enjoying weird games if they don’t own some of them? You saw the comments on the article where you told everyone to buy Pathologic. Most of the people that went out and bought it didn’t like it. Almost nobody finished it. But nobody said they regretted spending the money.”

“This isn’t fair,” I said. “You’re not being fair. We’re cogs in a machine too. No editor is going to hire a cowboy journalist who causes trouble with PRs by marking down games for lacking originality, or hands out strange 9s and 10s that stand out a mile off. And we do give out good scores to weird games when we can. One of my first reviews was giving God Hand a 9!”

“That’s when you’re most disgusting of all,” he said. “Journalists descending en masse to jerk off over a genuinely brilliant game like God Hand or Katamari Damacy, all of you so proud of yourselves to be supporting the little guy. That’s the kind of support for creativity and bravery that you should be showing all the time. But you don’t. You give brave, smart games the same score as competent rip-offs you’d be embarrassed to have in your game collection.”

I sat down heavily and chained another cigarette. I didn’t want to. By this point each drag was scissoring my lungs. I breathed out the smoke then propped my head up on the desk with my free hand.

“I don’t understand this,” I said. “I understood the other guy, the first master. But I don’t get you at all. What do you want from me?”

I didn’t look up. I was close to tears and didn’t want him to see.

“You really don’t know?” he asked.

“No,” I groaned. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m supposed to argue here. I don’t know the lines, the excuses, whatever. Maybe I was meant to have a better track record. But it’s just, no part of the games industry can help weird games. The public tend to avoid them so they can buy bigger releases. That means the developers that want to make them can’t get the financial support. And us journalists… I don’t know. Maybe we are fucking up. But the games media hasn’t yet diversified to the point where any of us can start marking games down for failing to display originality, because that’s not the way our readership thinks.”

“You’re… sorry?” said the master. His upper body began tilting towards me, buttons glinting one by one.

“Yes,” I moaned, turning my face to bury it into my palm. “I’m sorry. My whole life I’ve been talking about all the injustice of the games industry as if I was somehow detached and only an observer. But I’m as bad as a publisher who supports a boring game instead of an insteresting one. We’re both just doing our jobs. And I’m as bad as the gamer who buys that boring game instead of the interesting one, because we’re both just playing it safe. I’m a hypocr–” and I couldn’t finish, because I was choking. I couldn’t breathe anymore. Something hard and cold was forcing its way up my throat.

Instinctively my hands shot to my neck, but one was chained and the other was holding a fag so they both adjusted their course and flattened themselves on the desk instead. From this position, like a mad orator making a point in his own doomsday language, I gagged and spasmed and jostled this intruder in my mouth from the premises. Anybody who’s ever doubted the realism of some huge boss having a tiny weak spot has clearly never experienced something like this. Being laid low by an errant wine gum tends to put bosses into perspective.

Finally the thing came clattering out of my lips and onto the table. I stared at it, wheezing. It was a tiny, wet key. I looked up at the master. He was grinning.

“All you had to do,” he said, plucking the HD cigarette from my hand and popping the top button on his jacket, “was realise that we’re all in this together. The developers and games press are chained by what the public buy. The public are chained by what the developers and games press feed them. No side is devoid of blame. Nobody gets the moral high ground. Especially not you, you prick.

“As for the next master, you can find him in Makka Minority Village. He’s a crazy fucker, man. You’ll have fun.” Then he gave a smiling salute, a wink, and went clomping out of the room smoking my fag.

I listened to him go. The key clicked in the handcuffs, which peeled open. Shakily, I went walking through the door of the cell and found myself standing back in the trash-filled Phoenix Room. Looking back, I saw that the door I’d come through was now the front door that I’d come barging through originally, the one with the concrete tunnel behind it.

The master was still tripping, and still having a really bad time of it.

“I don’t wanna be a soldier,” I heard him mumbling. “I don’t wanna shoot people. I don’t care about the nazis again…”

I watched him for a bit. He was so helpless. Being careful not to step on anything noisy, I picked my way over to him and leaned in close. He smelled unidentifiable, like a multivitamin.

“Please,” he was sobbing. “No more guns.”

“Hey!” I whispered. “Stop talking to that guy. Stop with the guns.”

“Who… who’s that?” said the master, his eyes still closed.

“Why, it’s me!” I cooed. “Ulala from Space Channel 5!”

“Ulala!”

“Yes,” I said. “I have to do some reporting soon, but it’s just you and me for now. Why don’t you help me out of this… uh, space, space clothes. These space clothes.”

“Oh…” came the response, and a smile like the abyss spread across the master’s face. We’re all in this together, I thought.

I was out of Da Ja and waiting for a bus half way down the mountainside when I noticed the glove I was wearing. FIND MASTER QUICKLY, it said. Laughing, I pulled it off, only to shit myself at the words FIND MASTER written on my hand. Did I write those? It was a powerful mystery, and one I pondered all the way to Makka Minority Village.