You want to know where this ends?
It ends in a lime green fast-food establishment called Let’s Yoghurt. This place, it was a shitty place to end anything. Let’s drop you into this scene: you’re high up on a stool, getting steadily blasted by interrogatory halogen lighting, the sugar’s taking over and you’re hanging with your second favourite girlfriend. She’s chirruping into a mobile phone, and you’re wondering what she’d look like without any clothes on.
See me now, coiled in a corner, alone, steadily tipping a bottle of vodka into my affordable choice of yoghurt. For the last few days I’d been resembled a sad apothecary, forever mixing with leathery tongue and smashing with pestle teeth, searching for the cure. Yoghurt- it’s food for people who’ve given up, isn’t it. And I’d just about given up on this adventure.
I watched the vodka pool on top of the yoghurt, creating a boozy reservoir. I buried it with my spoon. I was thinking about my father.
He was a real adventurer, you know. Not like me. He spent his life riding hot air balloons, discovering new species, and seducing fragile, wealthy women. Women who’d crash landed- widows and the like.
The best story he’s got came out of an early hot air balloon flight across Africa. So, the only way you can make fast adjustments to the downward momentum of a hot air balloon (something that has to be done each time you come in for a landing) is to throw sand out of your balloon’s attached sandbags. As much as a handful of sand can make all the difference to your velocity. Two hands of sand are for desperate times.
On one occasion my Dad and his crew made a fatal miscalculation. They threw out far too much sand, and ended up not just slowing down, but rising upwards again. When they let the heat of the balloon drop further so they could come in for a second landing, they found themselves dropping like a stone. They quickly dropped the little sand they had left, but it barely dented their terrible downward acceleration. What then, for these crazy bastards who chose to travel the skies in a wicker basket attached to a bag of gas? Simple. They started throwing their belongings out of the balloon.
Shoes, first. Then notebooks. Pens. Hats. Maps. Letters, All of it was tossed carelessly overboard as the realities and priorities of these men shifted unbearably, but they were still coming in too fast.
Without a second thought my Dad dropped his binoculars over the side, and the photographer threw out his exquisitely expensive camera and all of its lenses, and all the men hastily undid their watches and chucked them overboard too. In this new dimension they’d been transported to, items lost their history and purpose, and only weight was left. Finally the men came crashing to the Earth, the basket tumbling end over end, but they survived. The rest of the day was spent hiking in a very straight line, where every hundred yards they went picking through a less important collection of belongings.
I feel like there’s a lifetime’s worth of wisdom contained in that story. At the time though, in Let’s Yoghurt, I was just thinking: I’m out of sand. I’m crashing.
“Listen,” I told the adventure as I screwed the metal cap back on the vodka, enjoying the rasping noise. “You and me? It’s been real. You tought me some stuff, about games and whatever else, and I got knocked around a bit. It doesn’t get any more real than that. But my shoulder is still killing me after that fourth guy bounced me off a wall, I’ve got a galaxy of insect bites, and I’ve developed this killer ear infection that means I can’t keep my balance and keep leaning to one side, and frequently it’ll happen when I’m taking a piss and I’ll only notice I’m doing it when my head touches another guy’s chin.”
I heaped a spoonful of booze yoghurt into my mouth. Not bad! Actually, it was pretty bad. Shit, what was /wrong/ with me?
“So, I think it’s for the best if we part ways,” I said. “I’ll go back home, and you can stay here and wait for the next videogame enthusiast to show up. I cannot be fucked to spend another week in this country, just to find out that the Citizen Kane of Videogames is fucking Tetris. We cool? Cool.”
I finished the yoghurt, winced as I stood up, and was just about to leave the shop when I recognised someone. It was the man from my first night out in Language City, with his oversized beige suit and extension cable for a belt. The man who gave me the HD cigarettes and set me on my way. This guy. He was queueing for yoghurt. This fucking guy.
I went over and tapped him on the shoulder. If double-takes could make money, the look he gave me would’ve sent an explosion of coins clattering around the room.
“You back!” he cried.
“Yeah,” I said. “I beat the Masters.”
“Oh wow!” the man said, his face curling in awe. “You met the first Master in Holy Money Temple, and gave him back his soul?”
“Yeah, he’d lost his confidence,” I said. “I gave him a pep talk.”
“You met the second Master in Da Ja, and helped him ascend to his chosen heaven?”
What? I took pause. “I, yeah.” I said, getting a bit nervous. “Maybe. He was kind of a dick though.”
“You met the third Master in Makka Minority Village, and tought him the lake could never be crossed?”
“Sure, whatever,” I said.
“You met the fourth Master on the road, and taught him to channel his violent energies into art?”
“Yes,” I said. “That is exactly what happened.” Then I did my best to assemble all of my remaining sand, my sulk and pepper, into a grave form. “Listen, I took on your challenges. I want what’s mine. Give me the Citizen Kane of videogames.”
For the first time he looked straight at me, and his eyes were nothing but reptilian glaze. Was he blind? He turned and went slouching off into the shop’s toilet, and at the last moment before he disappeared he turned back and fluttered his hand at me. After a moment of indecision, I followed. When I got in there he’d turned on all the taps, and was standing in front of a closed toilet cubicle with his hands pressed together in prayer. “Smoke,” he said, indicating the cubicle door with one hand, “and enter.”
I fumbled the last HD cigarette from the pack. It was bent like a finger, and the paper was maroon where it had taken on a speck of blood. Delicately, I took it in two hands and straightened it out. I was taken by surprise when a tiny flame clicked into existence in front of me. The beige suited man was holding out a lighter with Mario on it. I lit up.
For the final time, I took in a great gulp of smoke. It stretched out inside me and straightened me right out, then bent me like a finger. I was too heavy. I could feel it- I wouldn’t lift off. Nervously, I took my blood in two hands and tipped it overboard, out of my mouth. That was enough. I went up in smoke.
I landed on the other side of the door in a heap. I was in a throne room, and I remember it well. A beautiful, beautiful throne room, all hard and marvellous in sea-green ceramic. On the throne was an Asian man in a splendid black blade of a suit and a pointed white shirt. His hair was cropped short, his eyes and nose were as small and as hard as marbles and he had an exclamation mark on his pocket square. He was a perfume advertisement of a human, and I was ashamed to look at him. But shame is like money- you can run out, and then what? And then nothing. Lucky for me, I’d run out of shame weeks back.
“Sir,” I said, dipping into an exaggerated bow, before coming back up and pointing my cigarette at him. “Give me my fucking videogame.”
“No introductions first?” said the man. His voice didn’t arrive as words- I saw his lips move and I heard what he meant, but the sound was a prolonged synthesiser hum, like voices in a PSX era JRPG. Bvvvmb. Bvvvmb bvvvmb bvvvmb.
“Introductions,” I said. “OK. My name is Quinns. I enjoy videogames, except for when I hate them, which is most of the time. I have been known to wear makeup. My favourite guitar effects pedal is fuzz. I wish I was capable of getting angrier. I also wish I knew how electricity worked, and have tried to read about it several times. I completed your challenges. I’m your man. Give me the game.”
The man stood up and began walking down the steps of the throne towards me. The heels of his shoes didn’t produce a click, but a beep. This didn’t faze me. I was just happy I was taller than him, at least. “Why the rush?” he buzzed.
“Well,” I said, “I’ve only got the one cigarette left, and I don’t want to go home with nothing after coming this close. I need that like I need another Dynasty Warriors game.”
The man smiled, took an unopened pack of HD cigarettes from his pocket and threw it to me. I caught it, but only just. The way he threw the pack to me- it was off. And the arm of his suit seems altogether too sharp. As he got closer, I realised that I was looking at the jagged lines of un-antialiased pixels.
“Do I get to find out who you are?” I asked.
“I’m just a player,” he hummed. Idly, he smoothed down his jacket. “This is a bit less climactic than I was hoping. So be it. Would you like to know what the Citizen Kane of videogames is?”
“Yes,” I said. There was a moment of stillness. It felt like something was loading. I held my breath, but I’m not sure I could have breathed if I wanted to.
“The Citizen Kane of videogames is… Tetris.”
“Bollocks,” I said, so fast the hum of his voice was still filling the room.
“It’s true,” he continued. “It’s true, and very simple. No game has matched what Tetris managed to do. Accessibility and tension, married together like–”
I cut in, and let that cold, machine part of me, the part that gets me paid, take over. “No, that’s bollocks. Stop talking, forever. Citizen Kane was a preposterously ambitious project in which Orson Welles pionered more film-making techniques than the genre might have seen in a decade. Non-linear narratives, method acting, the lighting, the camerawork, everything right down to the special effects was new and exciting. When that movie premiered, people were crawling out of the theatre on their hands and knees. They’d seen the future. When people talk about the Citizen Kane of videogames, that’s what they’re asking after. They’re asking, where’s our atom bomb?
“Tetris is not an atom bomb. Tetris is vaudeville. You put blocks in a line and music plays and the “drama” is encapsulated entirely in you really needing a long, thin block and not getting one. Unless you intend to blow my mind with some laserbeam of an argument about how the long, thin block is a metaphor for Rosebud, I’m done listening to you. Timelessness does not equal brilliance. If I was in a good mood, I’d let you have Tetris being the Citizen Kane of puzzle games, but I’m not in a good mood. Fuck you and fuck Tetris, and fuck the little dance that the little Russian men perform if you do really well.”
Again, the world was still. Loading.
The man smiled, and returned to his throne. I tore the foil off the second pack of cigarettes and hastily lit one. “Very good,” he said. “Tetris is not at all the Citizen Kane of videogames. That was simply your final test.”
“Oh my god are you serious,” I said. I looked over my shoulder to see if all four of the masters were there, in case I was going to have to beat them all again, one after another.
“Are you ready to know what the real Citizen Kane of games is?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. (I wasn’t ready.)
“There is no Citizen Kane of games.”
“Bol… bollocks,” I ventured.
“I liked your rant about Tetris,” said the man, “But now you listen to me.” I took the bottle of vodka from my pocket and began sipping from it.
“I want you to be my messenger to the Western games press. Tell them to stop looking for the Citizen Kane of videogames, and stop asking about it, because it doesn’t exist. And I’ll tell you why.
“Citizen Kane was created in a time when cinema wasn’t necessarily stagnant, but it was certainly comfortable. In 1940 directors had no need to break rules in order to make a profit. A big reason why Citizen Kane went down in history is because it was able to stand out from its peers. Orson Welles, aside from being creative and ambitious himself, had never made a movie before. His mind wasn’t polluted by preconceptions about how things ‘should be done’. More than that, RKO Pictures gave him total control over the project. All of this came together in a time when few other people were daring to be different. But we’re getting off topic.
“Videogames do not yet have this context. We’ve never had a moment where the developers and gamers all stop and take a breath, and that’s when we’ll have the opportunity to get blown away by a Citizen Kane. From their genesis in the 70s right through to this very day, videogames have thrived on forward-thinking ideas. Not only does the industry reward whoever’s prettier and whoever uses the technology of existing platforms to the best effect, but we also reward ideas and innovation. Every single videogame tries to do something different, even if it’s something small. In a market like that, where we get a dozen truly spectacularly inventive games every year, how can we possibly have your ‘atomic bomb’?
“Perhaps don’t look at it like videogames don’t have a Citizen Kane. Look at it like, we have dozens of them. Gauntlet, Head Over Heels, Civilization, Super Mario 3, Outrun, Wing Commander, Elite, Doom, Half-Life, Deus Ex, Planescape, Ocarina of Time, Super Metroid, Super Mario 64, Goldeneye, Halo, Civilization, Portal, Braid. All of them landing in their respective genres like little depth charges, blowing apart preconceptions. I want you to go back to your peers, make them realise how good they’ve got it, and stop these ‘Citizen Kane’ articles. They’re getting on my nerves.”
Well. What do you say to that? I took a long drag on my HD cigarette, and used it to light another. I looked at this man, him with hair and his throne, and I tucked up my mouth real tight, and I said:
“Excuse me?” he said.
“You wouldn’t have dragged me out here with that cryptic letter, and sent me up against four psychotic videogame enthusiasts before you were willing to hand out that grubby pearl of wisdom.”
“I would,” he said. “I did. I don’t accept just anybody as my envoy. I wanted to make sure you had stamina, and smarts, and were in this for the long haul. It wasn’t any bother. I have people doing my admin for me.”
“And that’s why you chose me?” I asked. “You thought I had potential?”
“Not as such. We chose you because Kieron Gillen never responded to our letter. He probably had better things to be getting on with. And now, so do you.”
So that was it. I felt like a beer can with a pinprick in the side. How much of my purpose and fizz had I already lost? I felt like going to sleep under a table.
“This is another test, isn’t it,” I heard myself saying.
“No, it’s not,” said the man. “Actually, alright yes it is.”
“What?!” I screamed. “Quit with the tests! Give me the game! Give it to me, now!”
The man grinned, giving me a glimpse of his yellowed and expensive mouth. He reached behind his chair and threw a thick black suitcase down to me. I caught it in two curled arms and it almost floored me. The case was a heavy thing.
I popped the catches, opened it and found myself looking at an old games console, or maybe a computer system. It was from before my time and was therefore an object of embarrassment and reverence, but it was a sad thing to have to worship. A fat, awkward keyboard was built into one half of the open briefcase, and the opposite half held a chubby monitor with a screen the colour of dishwasher water. It was laptop, of sorts.
Carefully, I set it on the floor, becoming aware of the gently malicious odour of cleaning products. After a moment on my knees spent staring into the abyss of the lifeless monitor, I found a thick power button and clicked it in. The machine thrummed to life, and an alarming cracking sound came from behind the screen. I looked up at the man on the throne with a child’s poverty of confidence.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It does that.”
I took a drag on my cigarette. As the smoke cleared, I saw sluggish light had begun creeping onto the screen, etching out the sad logos of companies I’d never heard of. This was it, then. I hovered my hands over the keyboard like a rockstar pianist. I was still frozen like this 20 seconds later, as the machine knocked and fussed over its task.
God, these logos were taking their time. I used my tongue to shift the cigarette to the far side of my mouth, where it would be out of the way.
Finally, there was the title screen, accompanied by a slow, sweeping soundtrack rendered as a series of undersea burps by the machine’s ancient chipset.
This is where it starts to get embarrassing, because I can’t remember that title, nor can I remember any of the companies that flashed up before it. It was just… forgettable, somehow. If you and I ever meet, I could hum the theme tune for you. I could do that. But I couldn’t tell you this game’s name.
I tapped my way into the menu option that read ‘Begin your Saga’, and the game dropped away into another grumbling loading screen.
“Nobody knows about this game,” explained the man on the throne. “It’s very likely the rarest game of all time. The Californian developers were so scared of anybody copying one of their ideas that they developed the game in absolute secrecy. Then, tragically, during the office party that they held when development was finished, a fire started and quickly gutted the building. The next day a fireman found the studio’s only surviving master disk clenched in the fists of one of the dead, and he passed this on to his son, who didn’t understand the value of it for a decade. Eventually, and at a phenomenal expense, it came into my possession and became the jewel of my electric game collection. Ever since that day I’ve jealously hoarded it, but I can’t keep this game quiet any longer. It’s the most wonderful game every made, and I need to share it.
“As you can see, the game casts you as a nameless astronaut in the distant future, taking a long trip through outer space. However, the deep sleep machine has strange effects on this man’s psyche. It forces his mind through a series of lucid dreams in a manner not unlike trying to squeeze a grape through a wedding ring. The dreams are based solely around the spaceman’s obsession with classical literature, and your astronaut takes on the roles of certain well-known figures in various pivotal scenes. He becomes Odysseus, Mr. Darcy, even Queen Cleopatra, to name a few. But the stories warp and snap in accordance to your character’s personality; his past, and his perception of the past. It’s a beautiful character portrait drawn with all the speed and love you’d expect to see in Chinese water torture.”
Silently, I continued playing the game.
“The game’s message,” he went on, “is a simple one. The only element of our existence that we can truly say is real is, of course, our own thoughts. Therefore, we are all alone. We’re all solitary astronauts, floating through a void that we paint over with our perceptions.”
“I think you’re confused,” I said, not taking my eyes off the screen.
“Maybe,” he said. “I suppose it could also be read as a screed on the inherent superiority of an interactive art form over classical literature. A kind of declaration of war.”
“No, I mean, I think you’re confused,” I said. “This game sucks. You seem to know a lot about it- did the guy who designed the interface actually have, you know, hands? Was he a human being? I’m not believing these controls- to move you have to go into the menu, select the “Move” action, leave the menu, activate the floor you’re standing on and then activate the tile where you want to go? Was that really the best they could come up with?”
I looked up at the man on the throne. His mouth was open, yet narrow, like a letterbox, and while there was no droning voice sound effect I was aware of him saying something. He was saying “…”
I shrugged, and pressed on. “This is abysmal interface design, no matter how old this game is. They’ve got a whole keyboard here. Did they consider making a hotkey or two? Did they also consider exhuming and eating one of your dead relatives each time you expressed a desire to move? Because either one of those would have been less painful.”
I’d reached yet another loading screen, so I took my hands off the keyboard and sat down.
“And Jesus, these loading screens. This is awful. This must be what narcolepsy feels like. Except each time you wake up you’re having a different nightmare. And this audio! Was there really a time when all games sounded like this? It’s like having your ears groped by a drunk pocket calculator. Oh, brother, time has not been kind to this game.”
“That’s irrelevant!” shouted the man on the throne.
“I dunno, dude. I think it’s pretty relevant. Why does Odysseus walk like he’s carrying something between his knees? And why won’t this other guy talk to me? God, there’s no telegraphing at all. I have no idea what I’m meant to be doing.”
“Listen to me, LISTEN,” the man cried. I looked up. The jaggies around his silhouette seemed to be flaring and spiking. “This is the BEST GAME EVER MADE.”
And then I understood. I looked back at the computer, taking in its new gravitas, its new position at the centre of everything. On the monitor my flickering spaceman was awaiting his orders.
Slowly, I stood up, battling spectres of backache and brainache. I reached down, hit the power switch and closed the machine back into its portable form. The leather case was warm from the computer’s exertion. Then I approached the foot of the throne looking like an immigrant, with fag in mouth and thick briefcase in hand.
I looked up at the man, at his clothes that promised immortality, at his face, his awful face. This man’s face was the moon, barren and untroubled, in the night sky of his suit. I realised that I was looking at a man who’d finished his journey long ago.
“No,” I told him. “This is your best game ever made. It’s your Citizen Kane. I still need to find mine.”
And I left the briefcase at the foot of those steps.
When I returned my gaze to the man on the throne, he was as jagged and wrong to look at as a broken mirror. The polygons that he was made of had swelled disgustingly, so that he was only made up of a few dozen of them. His head was a monster stump, his arms were stiff weapons, his torso a lumpen bulge, and the texture that covered him gave only the barest hint of eyes.
He stood suddenly and began floating down towards me, his legs pumping out of time with the steps he was descending. I don’t remember much. Terror, and falling. Always falling. He talked as he attacked, but I couldn’t understand his voice anymore. The worst part was that his kicks clipped straight through me. I couldn’t deal with that. Eventually, I woke up.
* * *
And that’s my story. Pretty unbelievable, right? Well, the best stories always are.
The trip home was easier than expected. I have a dim memory of coming to in a toilet stall with another man, surrounded by police. I let them hoist me up, cuff me and what have you. I think I even said encouraging things like “Sure, OK”, as if they were signing me up for their mail-order catalogue.
When my senses fully returned to me I was face down on the floor of a cop car, mumbling “Fucker” each time we went over a speed bump. Then together the police and I took on all that deadly admin, and after 48 hours in custody they deported me back to England. They never did tell me what I’d been arrested for and I was very careful not to ask.
As for the rest of the HD cigarettes, I handed those out among my cellmates back at the police station. I’ll tell you now, if you get put in a cramped cell with six men who all look they got brought in on charges of Being A Right Proper Bastard, you don’t tell them that no, they can’t have a cigarette because your cigarettes were made to bring on videogame-related vision quests. You give them however many cigarettes they ask for, and then when they start thinking they’re an analog stick and scream to be spun around, you put your hands on their bony shoulders and spin them.
On the flight home I made a list of all the games I’d play when I arrived. It was a long list, as you might imagine. Was I upset about going home empty-handed? No, not me. Utter exhaustion is its own reward. And besides, as a gamer, you learn the value of escapism. You learn the value of escape. Even if it’s just for a while.
Back in England, I picked my way back home under a sky the colour of stony ground, and a flooded ground that showed only sky. Recovering my keys from under the mat, I found my flat was as I’d left it. Sparse, tangled.
I dropped my bag, entered the kitchen and scraped the forgotten insides of an espresso pot into the bin. Once I’d set some new coffee brewing, I returned to the living room and turned on the PS3 and the TV. This is how you survive in England. Your four food groups are heat, flavour, noise and colour.
I picked up the gamepad, feeling the memories of the thing. Then I got back to work.