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.