Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
For the longest time, the sound of my personal happiness was the tinkle of an 8-bit chime.
[In Character Select, we introduce ourselves by our gaming origins.]
The Game Boy was released in 1989. I was born in 1989. Coincidence? Absolutely, but I still can’t help but feel a kind of kinship with the Game Boy. As my first console, it was like my own prepubescent hotrod: cherry red with green tinted windows—a hell of a far cry from those cheapo brickgames sold at suspect sundry tents. It was pretty damn baller. And since it was portable, little baby Job was ballin’ all over town. The playground swing set is currently occupied by snot-covered children? Sit on the grass, boot up some Master Karateka, and watch as your shoddy pattern recognition skills get bested by so many ninjas. The car ride home is interminably long and boring? Get cozy and try to finish that one level of The Lion King where you keep falling off those goddamn giraffes.
But, man, was it a moneysink. Four AAs to make it work? That is crazy talk. Despite my enjoyment, I was still basically a five-year-old who paid a fortune every ten hours. But there is no question that it was worth it. It was a balm. It was a friend who told fantastical stories of encephelatic caveboys, martial artist best friends, and cannibalistic pillow-creatures. It was a gateway drug— my entry-level buy-in into a roiling multiverse of story and sensation.
I retired my Game Boy two years after I got it. In its final days, my Game Boy was unrecognizable from the hotrod I first received. Its faceplate was missing and the adapter jack was borked far beyond use. To compensate, one of my mom’s electrician friends hotwired the device by stripping the adapter wires and soldering them onto the battery plates. It worked, for a time. Looking back, I can’t help but compare it to a Frankenstein’s monster dying of decay, selling parts of itself in a desperate bid to live. Realizations were reached, decisions were made, and an old ride was shoved into a drawer.
I tried to stay away from gaming for a couple of years after that. I read books, watched TV, made some friends, and cobbled experiences together to form a human person. However, being part of my formative development, I could never really quit video games. After school, I went to arcades and PlayStation rental shops. I borrowed friends’ copies of Tips and Tricks and pored over the screenshots, reviews, and cheat codes. It was withdrawal. Video games were an audio-visual heroin, a lucid dream where you enjoy a semblance of control and achievement. To someone so young and powerless, that was so alien. So wonderful. There was pining there, an obsession, between the spaces of review score digits, in the dull ache of practicing thumbs, in the almost Faustian exchange of lunch money for arcade tokens.
As a panicked response to the rapidly increasing sallowness ratio of my malnourished face, my father bought me a second hand Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive, as it was named in Asialand) for my 9th birthday. Serving as a halfway house between my Game Boy and the PlayStation, the Genesis was my first proper console. All hooked up to the television and whatnot. It offered an experience that was completely unlike the Game Boy, with its vast selection of games nestled in those x-in-1 cartridges (x being the number of times a pirate can repeat the exact 20 games over and over again), presenting multiple choices when frustration or boredom started flexing its frigid hold. Lost your last life at an exploding turtle (again?) in Super Mario Land? After prying your Game Boy from the drywall you threw it into, why not boot up some Flipull to cool off? Violently realize that you’re playing Flipull, you filthy casual? There are 30 iterations of Bombjack in your 356-in-1 to help you wash that atrocious taste in your mouth.
The Genesis didn’t offer the same experience for me. What it peddled was this unique paradoxical cocktail of obsession and frustration. The anemic SEGA Genesis gaming scene and my family’s notoriety as cheapskates conspired to limit my choices in titles. But by God, I was playing on a television. In color. That was enough. Nothing else mattered. Not the fact that I was gimped in playing the same titles over and over again, like some kind of twisted, beautiful Purgatory of Sonic games. Not the faulty controllers that randomly activated the Turbo function when I pressed a button. I lived with a kind of desperation that compelled me to play Samurai Shodown through my busted copy’s garbled music. It was a relationship that bordered on abusive, and it was all for that illusion of success—for a combo performed flawlessly through a tearing screen, for kicking a mook in the face for trying to ride your dinosaur with a mace for a tongue at 10 FPS.
Review of Related Literature
My views on gaming reached their puberty by the time I did. With its panoply of cheap video game selections, the PlayStation supercharged my imagination. My munchkin-driven determination gave way to a hunger. I felt a desire to consume the next line of text, the next flotilla of pixels that formed the sting of treachery, the fires of conspiracy, the fate of someone who lived to die. The ludic cycle of achievement and self-satisfaction loosened its grip and, instead, formed a microcosm I could lose myself in.
At around the time I was getting deep into literature, I started thinking about games differently. To remember, I started writing. There’s an annotated copy of Catcher in the Rye somewhere, in which an eager and misguided teenager traced comparisons between the curmudgeonly protagonist and Squall Leonhart. The margins are peppered with “phonies” and “whatevers” and they are the most awful things anyone will ever read. They were juvenile attempts but they were hardly misguided. Writing helps me make sense of things. It helps me understand. And I came to realize that video games are definitely worth understanding. What are the social and sexual dimensions present in males playing female avatars in RPGs? Is Pac-Man a survival horror game masquerading as an idyllic, beep-booping arcade game? Is a man truly just a miserable pile of secrets?
Despite having been left behind in the slow advance of console generations, I still think about video games and their potential to tell stories and induce empathic responses. I still believe, as I always have, that ones and zeroes, pixels and polygons could say something great and heartbreaking and provoking and brilliant. That is why I find all this talk of legitimacy of video games as art to be sort of moot. Its shifting status as an art form doesn’t diminish the range of narratives it could tell, the design breakthroughs it can accomplish, the universe of insights it can tap into. Shove it into the meat grinder of “What is ART?” and it will still come out as video games on the other side. And that is fine. No matter what they are—play or art, product or cultural artifact—they are still important to me. They make me think. They make me forget and remember and continuously wonder.
And I am here to write about them. Starting right now.