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?”
“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!”
“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.