Eyes open. There is … soft? Fog. A morass of fuzz. A pillow, so inviting. There is … “I”. Me. I am. I am … awake.
Dawn is breaking; it is my day off. Should I get up? What hour is this? Do people exist yet? Surely not.
I find my phone within a tangle of bed sheets. I wrestle it open, stare at the alien symbols until they form into familiar numbers. It’s midday.
Shit. Days off aren’t for wasting. Days off are precious and waiting to be filled with video games and music and John Updike novels; with guitars and bacon and above all writing, so much writing. Seize the day. Seize the moment. Seize the … seize … the … pillow.
Eyes open. There is … cloud? Haze. I am. Am I? What is … what is “I”? Pillow. I am pillow. So soft.
I find my phone within a tangle of bed sheets. 2:15 in the afternoon.
Shit. I wrench myself up from the quagmire and stumble to the bathroom. I stand under the shower and go “Nnuuurg” until the lichen clogging my mind begins to come loose. Just five or nine black coffees now, and I’ll be back on speaking terms with reality.
One day. One short day, a quarter used up, to get a post onto my blog. Too many empty dates, too little content. Letting my hopes ebb away, vaguely, inexorably. I’m not going to become a games journalist. I’ll be serving bad Australian lagers to media students my whole life.
What to do? I have no ideas for articles. No stories. I’ve not been playing enough games; discs everywhere and Steam library overflowing and no time to play. I need a new post on the blog tonight. I have nothing to say. Shitting shit.
I eat some cereal and calm down. Things are always better after cereal.
I decide to play Crysis. I’ve already done the Gaming Education for it, but I want it completed, I figure seeing it off will close a loop and give me a sense of accomplishment to steady my nerves.
Not long to go. I’ve escaped the island the whole game has been set on and reached a US aircraft carrier. But the aliens are after us. There’s a mega beast chewing up our ship, giving us hell. Ten minutes, I predict, and I’ll be leaping in slow motion onto a drop ship piloted by my burly squad-mate as the aircraft carrier goes down in a ball of flames. It’s been that sort of game.
Urg, except my save file won’t load. I plod around on Google, browse forums, and eventually figure out my file is corrupted. I rummage in the Crysis folder, find the offending file, and delete it. Now the game will load, but I have to start from a checkpoint further back, and kill all the Matrix-esque aliens I’d already killed. PC gaming, eh?
Chick-boom goes my shotgun, over and over, and I’m back at the mega beast. Not to ruin the surprising denouement, but I shoot a tactical nuke up its woopsie, it crashes onto the aircraft carrier, and I leap to freedom, in slow motion, onto my burly squad-mate’s drop ship. Flames lick out at us as we escape.
Someone should tell developers to stop ending their games like this.
The day is getting on. I still don’t have an article to write. I open a blank document and stare at the dark screen. I type “I don’t know what to write”, to see what happens. Nothing much happens. I start typing out my thoughts as they come to my head, then get depressed how stupid my thoughts are, and delete them. Pretending it’s just to create a mood advantageous to writing, I alt+tab away from the word processor and open Spotify. I listen to Daniel Johnston sing beautiful songs, lyrics full of hope yet so fragile you fear they’ll be wrenched apart, like spiders on the breeze. It isn’t advantageous to writing.
I listen to more songs, then watch videos for songs on Youtube, then scroll up and down my Facebook feed aimlessly. My head feels heavy and dull, like a swinging ham. Frank Turner comes on Spotify and sings about how you shouldn’t waste your life away. Shut up Frank Turner, I think.
I start watching a developer video for upcoming jock-shooter Bulletstorm, all smash cuts and obnoxious swearing and producers calling their characters the “premier badasses of motherfuck town”. It flushes me with embarrassment that this is the image of our industry we’re presenting to the world. Non-gamers don’t get to see Dinner Date and Digital: A Love Story and The Dream Machine. They just see brash videos for games containing “sweet badassery” and the ability to rip aliens’ assholes out of their bodies.
No wonder we’re not taken seriously.
I get glum. I’ve no idea what to write about for my article. I can see the word processor icon staring at me from the taskbar. I imagine it with glasses, looking over them at me, its head cocked, like a disapproving teacher.
I let out a deep sigh, muster my reserves and do the only sensible thing: I go downstairs and make crumpets.
Twenty buttery minutes later, I’m sat on my sofa absorbed in Super Mario Galaxy 2. I’ve not played it enough for a Gaming Education, so it won’t help me write my article, but the general effervescence is curing my mean reds. It’s loony and madcap and inspired, and even after Crysis it looks gorgeous. The objects have a real solidity to them, and they’re brimming with character and humour — the way the trees wiggle when you climb them, the soft grass coating the asteroids, the lo-fi beauty of the water. Crysis was lifelike, sure, but this is goddamn dreamlike.
And yet, as with the first game, it never quite makes me thump. Thing is, Mario games have had two arcs. The first arc reached its zenith with Super Mario World (or perhaps Bros. 3, with a plateau to World) — the challenge, the pacing, the level design perfected in those few years. Jumping from one platform to the next was raised to a religious experience.
But then along came Mario 64, and the rules changed. Although ostensibly you still played to overcome obstacles, beat challenges, receive rewards, there was something deeper at work. It was the first game I played — and perhaps the most significant barring Ocarina of Time — where the main draw was the fundamental experience of existing in a virtual world. Sure, I still wanted all 120 power stars, but more than that I desired to run around, to swim in the water, to climb the hills and jump about. The time limit was gone, the march from left to right had been abandoned; you were no longer a shark who moved forwards or died, but rather a stranger in a strange land — free to explore the mountains and valleys of a digital realm.
Mario 64 was the moment I stopped seeing games as electronic tests of skill, and instead understood their potential as waking dreams.
So, however imaginative Mario Galaxy and its sequel are, I can’t help but miss the sense of exploration Mario 64 gave me. The reigned-in nuggets of challenge the Galaxies provide are terrific, but they aren’t as tight as those in World or Bros. 3. How could they be, with that clumsy third dimension added? 2D means accuracy, 3D means adventure; and to my mind you play to your strengths. I enjoy what the Galaxy games give, but I can’t help gazing out into their star-flecked firmaments and wishing for more.
All of which is interesting, but doesn’t give me an article. The day is almost over. I have a heap of scattered thoughts and opinions, but nothing strong enough to lead a post on its own. If only there was a way to lash the thoughts together, some structure I could use to drape the day’s potterings across.
I stare at my PC screen. I listen to a Rock, Paper, Shotgun podcast. I drink gin and tonic. The earth continues its celestial pirouetting around the sun, and darkness falls.
I give up. I don’t have the answer. Not all battles can be won. I climb into bed — the pillows plump, inviting — and set my alarm for work tomorrow. My brain not quite ready for sleep, still clinging to this reality, I put a DVD in the player. Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman.
What will I post to my blog? I don’t know. I just need a spark, anything. Adaptation plays on.
I get tired. Maybe I’ll think of something in the morning.