It begins in your friend Dom’s house, when you are five years old. You are together in Dom’s attic bedroom, the details of which you cannot now picture clearly, because your memories have intertwined and fused with images from the first Home Alone film, which you watched many times with Dom during these years.
Friends’ bedrooms are alien worlds, fascinating in their glimpses of other lives, the subtly different moral and aesthetic preferences of your families made incarnate in carpets, bedspreads, the arrangement of bookcases, the variety of toys …
The toys in Dom’s room are great. They have been handed down from his older brother, and as such all lack breastplates or spring-loaded missiles or caterpillar tracks — but in your eyes this just adds to their totemic beauty.
There is the Millenium Falcon, no windshield over the cockpit; a Ninja Turtles action figure: Leonardo, missing katana; even a replica of the fire station base from Ghostbusters, pink flakes peeling from the roof where homemade slime has been poured in and left to dry.
You sit for endless stretches of time arranging the figures into opposing armies, then arguing over which of them are the Good Guys, and who gets to play as the Good Guys, and whether Lion-O could beat He-Man in a fight.
And then one day there is something else. Under Dom’s small television, on a mount halfway up one wall: a robust grey box with the word “Nintendo” written on it in red. Dom calls it his “NES”, which he pronounces “Nez”, not “N-E-S”.
At this age, all toys are magnificent. Anything plastic, with poseable joints or whirring mechanisms or appendages shaped like bazookas, is brilliant. But this NES is a whole new kind of magic.
You sit with Dom on the end of his bed and fall forwards into the mesmerising, primordial worlds of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda and Duck Hunt. You feel like an explorer stepping foot on an undiscovered continent. There is a profound elegance to the archetypal, symbolic lands of pixels you charge through, a deep allure to the evocative bleeps emanating from the television’s speakers.
These afternoons in Dom’s room, in a dimension separated from the rest of the house by six miles of stairs, are your first taste of videogames. You feel, it is fair to say, an instant attraction.
The years that follow see you drift apart from Dom, who is in another class at school and moves in different groups. But you find other friends, other bedrooms.
There is Kev, three doors up from you, whose mother evidently cleans his room when he’s out. It is just too neat. There is a Star Fox poster on the wall, and another poster with something to do with guns and roses, which you don’t understand. There is Kev’s Game Gear, packed pristinely in its carry case, its batteries that you have to take out after each use to prevent them melting and dripping through the floor, like the toxic blood in Alien. And there is a Mega Drive, Fifa International Soccer and NBA Jam and Cool Spot stacked in boxes underneath.
Jim lives on the next street along. He is part of the other gang, your sworn enemies, but one day you have a territorial war and it transpires one of their members has a drive that’s great for footie, and Kev has a Mitre football, so a truce is called for the Greater Good. You play Star Wars with Jim on his Master System, spending whole days on the rubbish Tatooine level, always hoping to reach the fabled bit in the manual where it promises you can fly an X-Wing, always getting killed trying to deactivate the tractor beam on the Death Star, always having to restart again from the very beginning.
In Year 5 there is Flint, captain of your roller hockey team. His room is a marshland of crumpled clothes and VHS tapes and broken axles from Bauer Fx3s. You watch the video of Terminator one morning, then spend the afternoon playing Jurassic Park on his SNES, a low-level anxiety pinning you both to your seats as you anticipate the inevitable moment when a velociraptor will leap out and devour you whole.
Then comes secondary school. You and your friends are eleven, as grown-up as it is possible to get. You wear Lynx deodorant and compare armpit hair in the showers after P.E., and swear with a determination that makes up for in ferocity what it lacks in nuance. You watch the Year 9 girls walking past, their hips undulating hypnotically, the straps of their shoulder bags running between actual, honest-to-goodness breasts, and the world is yours for the taking.
But there is also a floundering, gasping self-doubt, a gnawing fear, a burning desire to belong.
You all have N64s, and weekends bring group sleepovers at your friend Malik’s. They are bitter struggles for acceptance. Your status for the week ahead depends entirely on your performance in Snowboard Kids, Top Gear Rally, Extreme-G, Vigilante 8, Bomberman 64. Play badly and you become a pariah, suffering ritual humiliations, insults so corrosive they threaten to sear through your flesh.
Sometimes a tiny thing within you snaps, faintly, and you put down your controller and go off to read N64 Magazine in the corner, sick of the caterwauling, the venomous jabs. You feel yourself to be separate somehow, disconnected from your friends, and you are hounded by a torturing loneliness.
Other times you stand tall on the top level of Stack, armed only with a PP7, every screen but yours sanguine, and when the timer ticks down you’re awarded Most Professional and Most Deadly in the same round. You drink in the victory, bask in the knowledge that, although you may be distrusted for your idiosyncrasies, you are respected for your prowess with a pistol.
The years pass, and acne arrives, and the botched conversations with girls in your class accumulate. Neither school nor home are happy places. You feel as if you have become dislodged in a way you don’t understand, and are aware of a gradual yet inexorable sensation of slipping downwards. You still game, all the time, except now it feels less like exploration, and more like escape.
Then comes a night in your own bedroom. A friend staying over. Your parents’ conversation rises through the floorboards, muffled, surreptitious. There is an element to the noise you do not like, some note that causes the blood to beat in your ears, yanks tight a knot in your stomach. You’ve got a sixth-sense for it, by now. Your friend is playing Mario Party and hasn’t noticed anything.
The voices raise in pitch, intensity. Hers becomes harried, corybantic; His is Danger. Your friend must know what’s going on now, though you’ve shifted on your top bunk so you can’t see him. On the television screen, Yoshi skips round a path on a giant birthday cake. Showers of coins burst forth.
The screaming reaches a crescendo, breaks. The walls rock with the force of a door slammed almost off its frame. Footsteps outside, fading into the night.
You lie there, skewered. You pretend to be asleep, though there’s no way you could be. Your friend plays a while longer, then turns the N64 off. You lie there for hours, and eventually the house grows silent, and dark. Your friend’s breathing becomes steady. You lie there and you lie there, waiting for returning footsteps, the reassuring fumble of the key in the lock. You decide to stay awake all night.
But then it’s the morning, and you realise you must have slept. Your friend is up already, playing the Frigate level on Goldeneye. You swing your legs over the bunk and jump down. You sit on the floor and watch the game. You don’t know what to say, how to start it off.
But after a while your friend gets lost looking for the engine room, so you tell him to turn around and go back down the stairs. You tell him not to shoot the computers in the engine room, because it’ll detonate the bomb. Then you say that was weird last night wasn’t it, and he says yeah, and you say it happens sometimes, and he says stay at my house anytime you like, the TV in my room is way bigger than this one anyway, and you say cool.
Then your friend shoots a hostage up the bum and the hostage jumps in the air and you both laugh. And you know then that things might be pretty fucked up, but they’ll probably turn out alright in the end.