Journey of Saga, pt. 3

Clanking and bumping down through the gears like a horse descending a staircase, my driver and I came to a stop outside Holy Money Temple. The midday heat caught up with us instantly, searing away the everyday clarity of the ride. I swung myself out of the machine and handed the driver a crumpled $70,000 note.

If you’re travelling through enough developing countries with enough different currencies, I find it’s not worth memorising exchange rates. You hand over a note or two at random and walk away like a cowboy from a completed shootout. Half the time this means you’ll be a generous exoticism, half the time a iron haggler (or perhaps some strange modern breed of mega-bastard). In the end your bank balance is about the same and you’re saved a crisp infinity of mental arithmetic.

The mob of salesmonks the driver and I were immediately rushed by meant I couldn’t even see the temple at first. Unusually thick and vicious for this time of year, the crowd sent me reeling backwards as I slapped imported woodcarvings and bundles of postcards from my face. I remember a wet blast of panic as my legs clipped the front of the car- if I fell down it was all over and a month from now I’d be trying to spell “souvenierectomy” on my insurance claim form. Boy, do I hate filling out forms. I’d only just gotten my balance back when the crowd changed direction, surging forwards with even greater force.

Finally I managed to get one of my arms free from the press. With my body tilted at a 45 degree angle I reached into my pocket a flung a fistful of pre-prepared $15,000,000 origami darts up through the air. Sure enough, the crowd immediately thinned as half the monks went surging off in the direction of the money. I turned to face where the mob was least dense, tucked myself into a low, heavy shape and came barging out of the crowd in a spray of prayer beads.

Keen to preserve momentum I proceeded at a slow jog, wheeling myself around in a large circle until I found myself face to face with the temple itself. It was sat squat and snug between the jungle’s off-green grass and a low, clouded sky. At that point, lukewarm sweat already dripping into my eyes, I began running.

Holy Money Temple might be the most functional temple in the world. Some 400 years ago the impoverished locals built it as an offering to their God of Commerce, hoping for some monetary boon. Ever since then, strange, wealthy folk from all over the world have been arriving, tugged here by what the locals still perceive as some celestial magnetism. The locals quickly decided that manna from Heaven was there to be eaten, so the monks began charging entrance fees, the children began to practice keening and hobbling and so on.

Nothing holy about it, course, but tourism isn’t the easiest concept to explain. You know the word ‘travel’ has the same root word as travail? Both come from the old French verb travailler, to work hard. It’s only recently travel has come to mean something closer to ‘holidaying’, even though the Romans used to take holidays to recover from travelling.

My jog slowed to a fast walk with the temple proper still a ways away. The heat was horrible and my shirt was already clinging to my back, recoiling from the terror-sun. Keen for anything to take my mind off how gross I looked, I considered my mission for the 100th time.

So I had to satisfy, or perhaps defeat, four masters if I was going to receive the Citizen Kane of videogames.

Again: Masters of what, exactly? Game design? This didn’t seem the place to find a developer, except perhaps one who’d been driven insane by too many crunch cycles or by seeing his dream design document, the love of his life, twisted into a boring release by publisher pressure or bad luck. How could you comfort such a man? How could you destroy him?

People who turn their back on videogames are always harder to intrigue than anyone who’s never played them in the first place. Shamed as you might be to have abandoned, say, poetry or indie film-making, people who’ve left games behind tend to view them as they might view the long-abandoned skateboard in their garage, the one under the tool bench next to the new Renault Clio.

With someone new to videogames, it’s wonderfully easy to intrigue them with nothing more than a lurid, articulate description of something they had no idea was possible. In doing so, in proving to them that their mental categorisation of something is factually as well as philosophically incorrect, you poke a hole in their world, and they then attempt to fill it. “Really? What else can games do?” “Could I play one of these games?”

But old gamers have already been there, wherever it is you’re talking about, and as you talk the images you describe will have the other guy’s experiences and disappointments drawn over them like a massive white bedsheet. They’ll nod at your excitement, share in it, whatever it is, whatever you say, and then they’ll cooly dismiss it by telling you why games aren’t for them.

I came hurtling up the crooked steps past the temple’s entrance, two at a time, two, four, six, eight, sweat dripping off my nose with each leap. Holy Money Temple is beautiful, of course, as all immense stone structures are. Ten, twelve, fourteen. Despite being some of the most immutable buildings in the world, the natural materials they’re built from grant animism. Sixteen, eighteen, urgh, twenty. Standing at the gaping 12 ton entranceway to some hill-sized monument, the reptilian bit of your brain starts hissing that you’re going to be eaten up. That same lizard will croak that each crack in the wall is a scar, that every draft is a breath. Thirty-two, fuck, thirty-four, mother, thirty-six, fuck, thirty-eight, mother, forty, fuck.

As I got to the top I looked back down through a smearing of sweat. None of the monks had bothered keeping pace with me, and were instead crowding either side of a minivan that had just arrived, stuffed with a rich bounty of tourists. The monks were rocking the van back and forth on its wheels, each time tilting it a little further. I felt a pang of sympathy for the tourists. A year or two ago I might even have tried to help. Wiping sweat from my face with the entire length of my forearm, I turned and went stumbling into the temple. As I took my first steps into the shade I heard a crash followed by a chorus of cheers as the minivan tipped onto its side.

With no idea what I was looking for I found myself drifting down through the mausoleums instead of up around the spires and crenellations, just to keep out of the sun. It was nice. I seemed to have the place to myself, and could let the drafts of this enormous building blow softly on animal embers deep in my belly. I produced a can of Winter Melon drink from my pack, a beverage I’d bought for $800 in the last town on the way here. I discovered then that despite the appealing name, it was jelly-thick and tasted like wet cigars. I resolved to stick to unappealing-sounding drinks for the rest of the journey.

I emerged at the top of another huge staircase on the opposite side of the building. It was a more noble view this time, looking out across the top of an endless, sodden jungle. There was only one person around, a single monk in brown robes tending to a balustrade halfway down the staircase. Flicking a pair of tiny spiders from my shirt, I dropped down onto the stairs above him and dragged some more Winter Melon drink down my throat.

“Fixing that balustrade, there?” I ventured. Even my voice sounded sweaty. Do vocal chords sweat? The monk turned to address me.

Now, an aside: I remember my proudest moment playing Demon’s Souls. It wasn’t defeating a particular demon or sending my character’s heavy frame hurtling from some devious trap at the last second. It was using the character creator to make someone who looked religious. I was playing a priest (I usually do when given the option, not sure why) and I’d managed to make a character who actually looked like a believer- tall, but with a narrow enough face that his height seemed awkward rather than strong. Then sheared brown hair, a protruding chin and nose, hooded, bovine eyes and a softness and stubbornness of expression. Obviously I’ve met more than enough real-life holy rollers to know that they have no features in common whatsoever, and yet this character unquestionably looked like a manchild of God, a real living stone.

That’s what this monk looked like. The resemblance was uncanny, in fact, except for his Asian features and shaved head. He spoke perfect, heavily accented English.

“Bitter melons are not bitter,” he said,  “As I have fully tasted the bitterest of the bitter.” Then he turned back to his work.

I glanced at the can of Winter Melon in my hand, then back at him. “You want some?”

Again, he turned to face me bodily. “Bitter melons are not bitter,” he repeated, “as I have fully tasted the bitterest of the bitter.” And again he turned back to his work.

Something was up. His intonation had been identical, both times, and I thought I’d seen something. So again, I spoke. “You just repeat the same thing over and over, don’t you?”

He turned. “Bitter melons are not bitter,” he said, and I found myself wishing I could hammer a button to get him to speed up. “As I have fully tasted the bitterest of the bitter.”

I saw it clearly this time. Stitched in a thread of a slightly different brown to the rest of his robe was the old Playstation logo, stretching proudly across his chest. Then he turned back around.

I reached into my bag and opened the foil on the pack of HD cigarettes. Discarding the shed skin, I carefully eased one cigarette from the massed ranks and lit it, hastily blowing any smoke whatsoever from my mouth. The taste alone! I held the lit stick and stared at it in awe. My mouth felt gooier, and my teeth felt as hard and eager as the pins on a plug.

All the time I kept one eye on the monk’s back. He wasn’t going anywhere. At last, with the kind of meticulously blank expresion only ever seen on people doing something they know to be really, really stupid, I lifted the cigarette to my mouth and took a drag. It was unspeakably gorgeous. Problem was, I sucked the whole world away too.

Inside me the throbbing, thudding smoke spread outwards from my lungs like a floor rushing up to catch someone taking a tumble. And the person falling was me, I was falling into my own mouth. Every part of me, from my ears to my guts, registered an unbearable wash of red, and then-

I was sat on my ass, reclined yet keeping my back off the floor with both hands. The cigarette was still between my lips. I could feel its heat, its plumpness. I was also still in the grounds of the vast temple, but it had changed. For one thing it wasn’t a ruin anymore, but seemed newly constructed. And the sky! It had become a livid, seductive purple, with the biggest fucking moon I’ve ever seen. It was only after I’d voided a few seconds staring at the monstrous thing in damp terror to make sure it wasn’t careening towards me that I stood up and started noticing the statues.

To my left was a twenty-foot tall Harman Smith from Killer 7, wheelchair and all. Facing him across a plaza was a similarly-sized female figure- the spindly form of Aeris, of Final Fantasy VII fame. And beyond them were more statues, far too many, stretching off to the distance. At a glance I recognised Sparkster the Rocket Knight, Neku from The World Ends With You, Samus, even the protagonist of Shadow of the Colossus with his sword held high above his head.

Wheeling like a man under attack, I spun around and looked up at the biggest structure of all. A neat staircase, six feet across and ladder-like in its intensity that went lunging skywards towards a van-sized head of some kind. The head was still covered in scaffolding, but after a couple of shaky steps in its direction I began recognising the eyes, the ears, the beanie. It was Parappa the Rapper.

The monk from before was here too, hugging himself at the bottom of this staircase. He, at least, was the same as before. Perhaps a little stronger in stature, and younger.

“You!” I shouted. My voice and actions seemed heavy and premeditated in this place, like I was controlling myself with fluid keyboard imputs. “You’re one of the Masters! I knew it! Did you build this place?”

He stopped hugging himself and looked over. The Playstation logo on his chest was no longer hard to distinguish, but stitched vividly in bright red thread.

“What of it,” he said.

I looked around, exasperated. How long must this have taken a single man?

“These are all Japanese videogame characters,” I said. “Why?”

“This place is a monument to Japanese game design,” said the master. “All the stones you see, I tore from the Earth. All the statues you see, I carved into shape. Such was my dedication… once. Now, I haunt this place without the strength to finish it. Tell me, traveller. What are Japanese games to you?”

I gawped at him across the plaza. After everything I’d been through, it was finally– I mean, I was here. It was beginning. Okay.

“Japanese games are everything to me,” I said, stalling for time. “Games, as an ever-evolving medium, are built on the successful implementation of ideas, and the Japanese games industry is often characterised by its pursuit of exceptionally far-fetched ideas. This extends further than strange, brightly coloured trips like Um Jammer Lammy, Rakugaki Showtime, Tomena Sanner and the like. That willingness to experiment has also resulted in fourth-wall breaking stuff like Metal Gear Solid and envelope-pushing horror games like Resident Evil or the original Siren, whose deliberate hobbling of the player could never have come from the West. What do we have- Thief? Dead Space? These are games about empowerment, really. You were right to build this place in tribute, Master.”

The Master was staring at me, his gaze as ominous and overloaded as that massive moon. Was that it? Had I proved mysel–

“No,” said the master. “Japanese games are overrated.”

“WHAT?” I screamed.

“I see clearly now,” he continued, gesturing vaguely at Parappa’s bulbous head. “That’s why I cannot rightfully finish my work on this place. Japanese games are a haven of terrible dialogue and outdated mechanics, hoisted up on the shoulders of mindless fanboys. Like myself.” He sniffed, sadly.

“Most Final Fantasy games are terrible,” he went on. “Let’s start with that. And you want to talk ideas? What are the other big-selling series in Japan? Dragon Quest? Dynasty Warriors? Exactly how many ideas are present in those? And let’s not forget that Killer 7 was an accident. You knew that, right? It wasn’t nonsensical because it was art. It was nonsensical because it was disassembled a few times and then thrown together at the last minute to hit a deadline. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.

“There’s an air of reverance surrounding Japanese games that I now know to be misplaced. I was taken in. We were all taken in. And now is the time to start taking these games to task on their failures. The Western games press unifying on the subject of Metal Gear Solid’s mostly-terrible dialogue would be a good start. Or they could begin marking down games for continuing to use turn-based battles, the same way you’d attack a game for not having a decent checkpointing system.”

I stared at him, stunned, until I got a searing pain in my fingers. The HD cigarette had burned all the way to the filter. I picked the stub off the floor and used it to chainsmoke another one. They burned fast, these things.

“No,” I said, exhaling and taking a few strides towards him. “You’ve let doubt into your heart and now you’ve got it backwards. You’re getting tangled up in this. Yes, the biggest games in Japan have terrible problems they might never answer for. But the Japanese games industry isn’t just those big games. And besides, don’t you ever think about how fucked up the West’s big games are? Modern Warfare, Grand Theft Auto, Gears of War, Halo? You know how fucking violent those games are? You know the definitive characteristic of Western games in Japan is that they’re violent? Why aren’t we praising Japan for the more wholesome spread of games which populate its sales charts? No, instead we just talk about how ‘Everyone plays games in Japan! It’s so cool!’ Well, I wonder why. I wonder if it’s because the shelves aren’t almost exclusively full of shit like Dudekiller 3 and Bloodguns: Sordid Edition? You ever go to a videogames shop in the West and count what percentage of the games on one shelf are about killing?”

The Master turned to look up at the Parappa head. Was I getting through to him?

“Yeah, it’s true that a successful series in Japan often won’t change to address issues that companies in the West would try and upgrade,” I said, “And that they instead prefer to put them out again with increasingly ludicrous numbers attached. Tekken 6. Final Fantasy XIII. Resident Evil Fucking Zero. Nintendo have the right idea, not affixing numbers to anything so you don’t know they’ve put out The Legend of Zelda twelve times. So, yeah, the Japanese games industry stalls and farts and falls over when you hinge a great deal of money on a project, and Resident Evil only got rebooted with Resi 4 because nobody was buying the old stuff anymore. But you can’t just look at that, or the porn games, or the shovelware. No country-wide creative scene should be judged by what the public buy in the greatest quantity.”

“You’re telling me,” he said, “that the way to appreciate the Japanese games industry is to judge it selectively. You’re as bad as I was when I built this. You’re a fanboy.”

Oh, that hurt. “I’m not,” I said sadly. “I just like games that put themselves out there. Games that are so concerned with pursuing their original idea that whether the game is frustrating or how long it lasts as entertainment fades into irrelevance. Like the King’s Field games, or Robot Alchemic Drive, or the experimental titles you find in the Simple series.”

“But they’re all terrible,” he said. “Those games you just mentioned. They’re not good videogames.”

“What?! No!” I gasped. “They’re fun! They’re great games! They’re some of the greatest games that nobody’s ever played!”

“You’re lying to yourself,” he said. “You’re so lost. You are just like I was.” The corners of the Master’s mouth tugged downwards after he said this, producing a rigid frown. “If these games were so good, then why didn’t you finish any of them?”

The world seemed to tilt around me. “I didn’t finish any of them? No, I… God. I didn’t. …How did you know that?”

He wasn’t looking at me anymore. He’d gone back to gazing at the acres of statues he’d lovingly crafted. The awful weight of this place was killing me. I chained another cigarette under the purple sky and smoked in silence. Choosing my words carefully, I spoke my last piece.

“Alright. Maybe some cult Japanese games are shit. Okay. And maybe some of them aren’t. Maybe some are really good, like Jumping Flash, Incredible Crisis or Ore no Ryouri. But to question whether these games are fun to play is completely missing the point. What matters is that they exist. What matters is that these are games that don’t just end up on shop shelves because they’ll probably make money or go on to become a successful intellectual property, which is all that happens in the West. These days if you want shelf space in game shops in America or Europe you need to go through a big publisher, and the big publishers won’t touch you unless they think your game will sell.

“Because shelf space is cheaper in Japan and the game-buying public buy a broader range of titles, odd games appear on shelves for no other reason than the developers that made them had faith in them. These games represent a step taken towards the games industry growing up into something more resembling the music industry, with the creators putting stuff out for no other reason than that’s what they want to do. That’s incredible and to be supported. That,” I shouted, with a flourish of my arms, “Is worth building all of this for.”

More silence. The Master turned to face me. Again, he sniffed. “Yeah,” he said. “Alright.”

“Alright what?” I asked.

“Alright, you beat me. I’ll finish the temple.”

“I’ve beaten you? That’s it?”

“That’s it. You can find the next Master in Da Ja Mountain Town.”

I looked at the HD cigarette in my hand. Again, it had sizzled down to nothing. As I neglected to light another a terrible nausea came bubbling over me. The world began spinning and I pressed the heels of my palms into my eyes. When I opened them again I still felt like ass, but the world was back to normal. The monk was skinny and insignificant again, and he was still fiddling with that balustrade.

Careful not to speak in case I set off his bitter melon line again, I walked up and looked around him to see what he was working on. There, on the flat stone surface, was a tiny pile of wet sand no bigger than a small plate of food. It had been flattened and pushed into various towers and ledges, and the monk was stroking it with a toothpick. If you looked closely, you could just make out something that looked like a pea-sized Parappa head.

Clutching my belly I turned back the way I came. It was a long way to Da Ja Mountain Town.