A Weekend in April

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  • The following is a reprint from Unwinnable Weekly Issue Forty-Two (it is much prettier in the magazine). If you enjoy what you read, please consider purchasing the issue or subscribing

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    UW42-SmallStu Horvath: On Friday night, I went to ArtCade, a gaming event organized by my friend Davis Cox for the non-profit Manhattan art space CultureHub. The first thing I see upon entering the room isn’t the games, though. It’s the bar. Naturally.

    We load up on three-dollar beers and press on into the dimly lit room. The crowd is thickest in the middle, pushed into a slender cluster of nerds clutching their beer cans close while forgetting they are wearing gigantic backpacks. It isn’t horrifically crowded, but pushing through to the back is difficult – you need a fair amount of space between the game and the players, which creates large patches of enticing but necessarily empty floor in front of the screens. We balance at these invisible borders as we sweat, drink, tap, excuse me pal can I just get by, scootch, scootch, scootch.

    There are six games, three on either wall. To the left are:

    ROCKETSROCKETSROCKETS allows up to four players to attempt to kill each other in the most beautiful way possible. The core game isn’t too different from Samurai Gunn or Towerfall: Ascension, except with ships that glide through space like figure skaters. This is the only game I had the chance to play and I died about 15 seconds into the match while I was figuring out how to fire by neon cannon thing.

    Axiom Verge, which you have probably heard about by now, is a metroidvania riff designed by a one-man team that, in all honesty, looks heavy on the original NES Metroid with no –vania visible at all. This doesn’t bother me the way it seems to bother some other folks. An actor I was speaking to described it as a Game of Thrones rip-off. I asked what she meant and she looked at me like I had one head too many. “Can you see the screen? It looks just like Game of Thrones!” [Editor’s Note – I’ve been playing Axiom Verge every spare moment I can get since ArtCade and love it to tiny pieces]

    VA-11 HALL-A is a curious game set in a cyberpunk dystopia. Instead of fighting evil corporations and saving the word, though, you play a bartender. You make drinks. You chat with patrons. I am not a huge fan of the waifu aesthetic, but how often do you get to be the bartender?

    To the right are:

    Starwhal is a neon-drenched duel for up to four players who take the role of deadly spacefaring narwhals in customizable costumes and do their best to stab each other to death. Another dueling game in the same vein as ROCKETSROCKETSROCKETS, the narwhals themselves appear to be difficult to control – they flop around in a slightly disturbing way that reminds me of the ragdoll runner QWOP.

    Someone told me that the original name of the game was Starwhal: Just the Tip. I am glad they changed that.

    Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is a game I’ve wanted to own and play with my friends since I first saw it two or three GDCs ago. Two players co-pilot a pink spaceship that looks a bit like an old Polly Pocket toy set, dash around the control consoles scattered about the ship – navigation, shields, various weapons, etc. – and do their best to survive waves of attacking aliens. Lovers is the rare game that looks lovely and feels good to play, even when you’re fucking everything up.

    Strafe is a throwback to first person shooter of the 90s like Doom and Quake. I mostly know of the game from it sharply satirical trailer but I am not sure what to make of the game itself. Like Axiom Verge, Strafe looks so much like its predecessor it is difficult to tell them apart. Unlike Axiom Verge, I was never a huge fan of Doom and Quake, so I doubt this is more-of-the-same that I will sit down and play. This probably makes me a hypocrite of some stripe.

    I spoke to quite a number of people. There was a photographer who told me his theory that free access to online pornography is contributing to the increase in toxic behavior online. There was the game developer who congratulated me on my engagement and followed up by telling me about his divorce. There was the fellow in the cardigan who said I looked like “the coolest professor ever” because I was wearing a tweed blazer and a skull ring. There was the Australian writer who was delighted that I pronounced Brisbane right (“briz-ben”) and even more delighted when I called Tony Abbott a fascist asshole.

    A lot of people said nice things about Unwinnable once they learned who I was. This is always disarming – and very charitable of them.

    These kinds of events are the best part of conferences like E3 and GDC. They’re small. They’re quiet enough that you can have a chat at a reasonable volume. There are cool games to see and play. Conversations are always engaging and unexpected. People, even complete strangers, are welcoming. To have something like this happening a short train ride from my house is a gift.

    Davis Cox: Gaming is an industry rooted in and ruled by nostalgia, now more than ever. Mention games to anyone outside of the regular attendees of GDCs and Wild Rumpuses and Babycastlers or any other “hip” enclave of game aficionados and you’ll likely be met with wide-eyed tales of how much somebody loved Mario 3, or Final Fantasy changed their life, or yeah dude, I do remember Goldeneye multiplayer (i.e., I was someone in elementary school in the ‘90s with a pulse), too. I’ve been told multiple times to read Ready Player One, a novel so navel-gazing it creates a world full of characters living decades from now that are somehow just as in love with childhood in the ‘80s as we all are now.

    As I type this, co-workers are breathlessly sending around info about the latest Banjo-Kazooie successor from former Rare staffers.

    And there’s nothing inherently wrong with nostalgia, but when the entire games medium is coated in this thick layer of yesteryear, nothing can stand on its own without leaning on ideas that we’re all overly familiar with. Barcades feel like museums dedicated to our childhood, even just as there’s something of a rebirth of games demanding to be played with your best buddy next to you.

    With that in mind, I started doing gaming events last year under the name This Near Future, partially at David Wolinsky’s suggestion and partially because my visit to GDC in 2014 got me kicked out of a band that was taking too much of my time anyway. I had an itch to scratch; I like showing people a good time but hate hogging the spotlight (is it any surprise I was the bass player in said band?) so inviting strangers to crowd around a room and play videogames that I’ve picked out felt like a great fit.

    This is the most I’ve even talked about my little pet project, but I want to showcase how vital and fresh the idea of the arcade can be in 2015. Put someone who’s never read Polygon or bought a game console in years in front of Nidhogg and a crowd, and I guarantee they will have fun. Show Hohokum to a haute artiste and watch her mouth hang open at a beautiful dance of color and music. Put an Oculus Rift on a 8-year-old girl and watch her grab onto her seat and laugh.

    So, when I invited Stu out to my little event at CultureHub and David flew in because it’s been months since we hung out, it wasn’t to get it written up in a publication I really love and respect, it was because I wanted to hang out with some buddies and, for the lack of a better word, just see something cool.

    David Wolinsky: I’m not sure how to feel about videogames anymore. I certainly have opinions about them. But these days? I just prefer to listen to other people talk about them.

    That is, unless we are close friends. In that case, you cannot get me to shut up about the reasons why Hideo Kojima is a brilliant media manipulator who is praised for all the things he’s worst at (storytelling) and under appreciated for the other things he’s best at (getting stories written about him), conspiracy theories on Konami and what’s going on with Silent Hills, and, well, I’ll can it – but this has been a Konami-centric week for a variety of reasons.

    The one that matters least to you but most to me is that my longtime college bestie Davis forced me the night before – my first night in town – to play PT. He doesn’t do well with horror games. The tension they force upon you, how they coerce you to do things you really don’t want to do.

    PT is amazing, and I know it has been written about at great length elsewhere previously. I care not to add to that pile but will just say here: It was really nice to sit next to a close friend and play something that was new to us, together. This is a game that’s particularly great at listening to and honoring your choices, and then twisting them against you in service of a legitimate scare.

    So it was good to just sit there and listen, soak in the game.

    And it was great the next night to stand around, to listen to games going on around us and talk to welcoming strangers.

    It was a pleasant surprise to run into Stu and others from the Unwinnable crew at ArtCade. I knew me and Davis would be hanging out with Stu on Saturday, but when he said he was doing something Friday night, I did not know it would be the same thing I planned on doing: standing around, drinking and shooting the shit with other nerds at Davis’ event.

    The last time I had seen Stu was at E3 2014, where we walked Spanish around the showroom floor, being grumps, bemoaning the lack of magic in what was being presented as the best from the brightest in the industry in a convention center that felt gray no matter where you looked. I think in the end we vowed to stay away from each other from completing – and I’m paraphrasing here – what Stu so colorfully described as “a negative circuit.”

    This was a more positive outing for so many reasons. Games curated in an environment conducive to enjoying yourself – the polar opposite what E3 is if you’re a seasoned, mangled vet of the industry. The room was big but not too big. The drinks were cheap but not too cheap. Nobody’s self was too self-serious. I struggle to come up with individual details possibly because Stu mentioned most of my favorite ones already, but also because the night melted together in the best way possible.

    It was one of those nights where you’ve been laughing and joking around and engaging in just enough meaningful conversation that the levity keeps things buoyant and blurry even though you’ve only had two beers unless you count the other one or two you had at dinner just before. One of those nights where you check your watch and even though you just got there, it’s already after midnight and it’s time to go somewhere else.

    It was a good night. I played a bit of Lovers with Davis before the event and again towards the end with Unwinnable’s own intrepid audio producer Ken Lucas. I hadn’t seen Ken since GDC the year before, out on the UnHaus’ deck where everyone was staring out against San Francisco’s skyline, pensive and hopeful over the impending Kickstarter launch a few hours away.

    Again, this reunion was much more lighthearted. Ken watched over my shoulder as I played Strafe and I dumbly narrated the onscreen action – something I did as a kid, I think, dating back to Dr. Mario. Ken and I laughed as I spouted not-quite-Christopher Guest-ready lines like, “Dogs have been a particular problem for me. Dogs and spores.” I think I thought everything I was shooting in the game was either a dog or a spore. I don’t know. It was stupid. It was fun.

    That’s what videogames are to me. Lovers is awesome for exactly that same reason, but is perhaps better: Even when you’re losing, you’re having a blast, and you’re doing it with someone else. Even when nobody’s winning, everyone’s winning. How many things in life can you say that about?

    * * *

    Stu Horvath: Saturday afternoon, Davis and David braved the PATH train and my terrible directions to meet me in Jersey City. David was in town from wherever he is living these days and he had concocted a scheme to hang out with me, get Davis out of the house (he’s a recent dad) and check out what the promised land of New Jersey had to offer. The plan was simple: hit one record store, one comic shop and one game store of my choosing, a kind of nerd media consumer safari in my own backyard.

    Iris Records
    Our first stop was only a short car ride away from the Journal Square PATH station. I turned onto Brunswick Street and parked across the street from a mural of a barbershop painted on a rolling steel storefront gate. I have no idea what is behind the gate. I have never seen it open.

    I discovered Iris Records a couple years ago when I first started buying vinyl. If there is one thing the West Coast does definitively better than the East Coast, it is selling vinyl, both used and new. From massive stores like Rasputin in the Bay Area to specialty shops like Vacation in Los Angeles, California is vinyl heaven. The over-priced, malnourished platter pushers in New York City can’t begin to compete.

    Record stores are all but extinct in New Jersey, but Iris is a great example of what they used to be like – slightly cluttered, huge selection, filled with interesting characters. The place is in what used to be a pharmacy in the 1930s – through some miracle, a lot of that ancient signage and beautiful woodwork remain.

    The stock at Iris turns over fast and the sections migrate around the store like drunken cats. The first time I was at the store, I asked if there was a Heavy Metal section and the guy behind the counter said there usually was, but the owner had brought it to a record fair. The next time I came in, it was next to Indie Rock, near the front of the store. Then it flittered, bit by bit, in a clockwise direction, until it landed on the shelf next to Disco [Editor’s Note: I dropped by Iris again today and Metal had returned to its perch next to Indie Rock].

    This time, the used CDs were all gone and Metal was on the floor where they used to be stacked, leaning somewhat precariously against the mirrored wall. That might seem like a downgrade, but it was the deepest the stack has ever been. Better: Metallica, Black Sabbath, AC/DC and Hard Rock all have their own sections now.

    When we arrived, the place was packed. A pair of DJs were in the back, spinning old soul songs and scratching in hip hop beats and callouts. People stood in the narrow aisles, bobbing their heads to the beat, the groove infectious. Iris isn’t exactly roomy at the best of times so, like ArtCade the night before, movement require a lot of ‘scuse me scootch scootch thanks. Unlike ArtCade, Iris smelled like old paper instead of warm beer.

    The vibe was cool. People applauded after every song. There was energy here. The afternoon was off to a good start.

    Items Purchased: The Warning LP by Queensrÿche

    Davis Cox: Ironically, I’d been to Iris once before with the aforementioned former rock band. For as much as I rail against nostalgia, I kept running into things that reminded me of where I’d been before. Whether it was Strafe’s Quake-esque polygons or a dusty room full of vinyl, you can’t outrun the past, I guess.

    A good record store should be immensely overwhelming the minute you walk in the door. There needs to be way too many bins you need to dig through – and you need to dig right now because everybody else in the room might get That One Thing You Wanted before you do. Your fellow shoppers are also your bitter enemies.

    Where to start? I headed straight for the box of post-punk right in front of the door: the markers for Mission of Burma, the Cramps and Richard Hell seemed just as good a place as any to start looking. By the end of the visit I’d picked up and dropped albums by The Feelies, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris before my aching bank account convinced me to settle on a $3 7” by the Thermals, a band I only moderately like. Besides the price, the deciding factor was a price sticker from my now-shuttered former favorite record store in Brooklyn.

    Call it giving in to nostalgia, I guess.

    Items Purchased: And Now We Can See 7” by The Thermals

    David Wolinsky: I was among the head bobbers Stu mentioned, largely because I don’t own a turntable and was slightly bummed we were literally in a record store versus, say, something that also stocked CDs. Not that I’d buy a CD in 2015, but you know what I mean. Still, I’m always determined to have fun no matter the circumstances, and not having a turntable didn’t deter me from still spotting stuff I’d totally want to buy.

    I don’t even know how to describe my music tastes these days. I feel my age most in my music tastes: I find myself being less curious about bands “these days” and very aware that I am clinging to my formative years. The most exciting music I got this year was via stumbling upon a YouTube video whose soundtrack was a compilation of outtakes from a mid-’90s emo (which meant something different in those days, you kids) band I loved called triplefastaction.

    The Internet used to be my record store. I’m all about the hunt and finding stuff, but I never bought vinyl. I always feel out of place in a record store, but that’s only because I’m missing the requisite gear to fully embrace the pursuit. I have a lot of respect for people who buy records and actively support bands with their dollars, but I listen to music now through the Internet. I don’t steal it, I just try to force myself to stay current by listening to podcasts or let Spotify lead me somewhere new.

    So I was among the head bobbers and eventually just to give my neck a rest I rifled through the bins and found a few albums to plop onto the turntable at the listening station and feel like I was part of this tribe. I exhumed some curiosities – sound effect records from the ‘60s and ‘70s that seem so bizarrely antiquated and narrowly appealing that they made me grin just laying eyes on them. The name escapes me, but there was an album of different sports cars at different speeds veering into different turns.

    I remember an entire passage explaining why the Y-shaped intersection was particularly conducive to appealing acoustics. It’s hard to imagine stuff like this being produced or needed nowadays. It’s fun to think of who would have wanted this back in the day.

    I laid fingers on another record that sought to document every possible sound effect a burgeoning filmmaker might want to use in their works. It fails in this pursuit, and the liner notes included an apology from the album’s producer, who realized they might have been a touch too ambitious and so they had to make several compromises.

    You can’t make this stuff up.

    A book caught my eye: Check the Technique: Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies, but I didn’t nab it. I was incredibly tempted to buy this one album Stu and I both noticed at our feet, The Evidence by Evidence. Don’t be fooled by the straightforward name: It’s nothing like you imagine.

    Its cover depicts a naked woman standing in front of shrieking mandrills. It gets crazier: She holds a laser sword, and off in the distance is an Easter Island head on a floating island. Below them is either the ocean or space. Stu and I vowed to check it out on Spotify – but of course it doesn’t exist there.

    The Internet can’t handle such things.

    Items purchased: N/A

    Comic Explosion
    Stu Horvath: Next stop was my regular comic shop, three towns away in Nutley. Scott, the owner, was unusually chatty – he had just won a citizen ship award from the Elks, where he sometimes works as a janitor. He showed off the framed certificate with curmudgeonly pride, grousing that they could have given him a raise instead.

    Scott’s been around forever. I used to know Comic Explosion as the indie store, the spot where I was sure to find whatever weird ass autobiographical comics I was reading in the late ‘90s. I got out of comics for a while – when I got back around 2005, Explosion had moved, Scott was divorced, his store cat Zabu had died and there were a lot more superhero books on the shelves. I’ve been going just about every Wednesday since.

    There were people in the store, which was a bit unusual. A woman was buying comics for her son/younger brother/nephew; a guy in his mid-20s was scoping out the shelves of trade paperbacks. Comic shops get a bad rap (it’s The Simpsons thing), but I think Explosion has a good vibe. I miss that cat, though.

    Scott handed over my books. I scanned the table for the new stuff he didn’t set aside for me. I do this every week, so it is all business.

    It was actually a little weird to have to stand there after I paid for my books while David and Davis poked around.

    Items Purchased: This week’s comics (Deadly Class, Frankenstein Unbound, Lazarus, Manifest Destiny, Velvet)

    Davis Cox: I don’t really know how to shop for comics. Other than a brief foray into getting way too into the Spider-Man clone series of the mid-‘90s (something I was shocked to discover as an adult that most fans hated?), I’m not too good at knowing what I’m looking for. So much backstory, so much lore to know, it’s exhausting.

    The only books I’ve been able to truly dig into are ones that started recently, so I feel like I’m able to know what’s going on without needing a little bubble from the editor popping up to let us “non-fans” know what the hell is being discussed, and what issues we should’ve already read.

    Stuff like Saga and Sex Criminals, or off-kilter, sporadically updated comics like Madman are my bread and butter. Occasional I’ll find a specific artist or writer and collect too much of their work, which is why I’ll talk your ear off about Brooklyn-based Michel Fiffe and his awesome Copra and Zegas series.

    This is all to say: I have too many hobbies. For those of you keeping track at home, so far that’s: hosting games events, doing some writing (like this), collecting comic books, playing music and buying a lot of vinyl. I have too many distractions and not nearly enough time for all of them. Because of that, I’ve been trying to slow down on acquiring more comics, as I probably know the least about it.

    Items Purchased: Chu’s Day at the Beach by Neil Gaiman and Adam Rex

    Yes, a children’s book. If I’m gonna get carte blanche from my wife to not only throw a giant nerdfest party one night, followed up directly by a nerdtour of New Jersey the next afternoon, I better come home having gotten something for the baby.

    David Wolinsky: I’m the least qualified person in any room to discuss comics, and certainly that’s true in a room with Davis and Stu. I know next to nothing. I stared at an action figure of a stout Batman and recall eyeing an exquisite painting of a bear.

    Mainly I was looking for some manga because I am trying to ease myself either into comics that way or just realizing those are the comics I like best. I’ve barely read any, but a stray purchase years before that I finally got around to reading in 2014 – Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life – and a few other serendipitous hey-these-might-be-cool purchases (Osamu Tezuka’s Adolf series, nabbed after GDC 2014) got me especially excited for the form. As a rule, I just tend to be interested in things that I may not have been the intended audience for. I’m fascinated by things that are lost in translation, or that other people are ignoring.

    I was hoping to find some mangas here. I asked Stu if they had any here, he said nah, and so I was more or less done. I did my best to make chit-chat with my friends who easily outclass me here. I tried to find a copy of Seconds, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s most recent graphic novel – but mention of that to Davis prompted a debate between him and Stu on whether Scott Pilgrim was a jerk.

    I felt like a jerk myself, having still not read the set of the entire series Davis had bought for me a few years prior for my birthday (sorry, Davis, I will read it still!) – so I erred on the side of silence. But, again, I like to listen.

    It was funny to hear Stu’s meticulous reasoning on why Scott is a jerk and why most people in that world are jerks. Stu told another anecdote about Mike Mignola – a name I recognized but know not much about other than, “Hey, the guy who…did something with Hellboy,” – and so I listened again.

    Items purchased: N/A

    Digital Press
    Stu Horvath: Digital Press in Clifton seemed an obvious choice as our game store destination. Aside of the fact that no one wants to go to a Gamestop, Digital Press is a great store. As befits a founder of the Videogame History Museum, owner John Santulli has always kept Digital Press well stocked with vintage gaming curiosities of all sorts. That the store was recently the victim of a swatting attack made it seem all the more appropriate that we visit.

    You see, while this afternoon hangout was enjoyable, it was also weighty. It seems that one of the things that happens nowadays when game industry colleagues gather together is that they discuss the state of their industry. Ad nauseum. We can’t help it. We see the stupidity, the shit, the rage on a daily basis online, we discuss it in emails and chats and tweets, but that doesn’t scratch the itch. We need to talk, can’t help it. In person, it is a compulsion. We filled our car rides with conversations about Gamergate, about outlets shuttering, about how there’s no money in writing, about PR horror stories, about why we stick with this self-flagellating career path. We don’t really come up with answers. We just vent. It is an exorcism.

    Unconsciously, I think I saved Digital Press for last on purpose.

    The store was having some kind of swap meet. People hovered over the frayed cardboard boxes of dusty gaming relics that lay on the carpet at their feet. The place was packed.

    No one said hello.

    Many people eyed us suspiciously, as outsiders. That we were not entirely welcome was a physical sensation that pushed us towards the door. To browse the store’s wares, we had to walk into it the same way one might walk into a stiff wind.

    We scattered, scouring the place for objects that would fit in our own collections. I lost Davis completely. Eventually, I ran into David in front of a rack of gaming books. There were old strategy guides, comic books, a few art books. Yellowed. Dog-eared.

    David grabbed How to Win at Nintendo and I picked up Ultimate Unauthorized Nintendo! Game Strategies, a tip book I had as a kid. As I flipped through mine to see if it was worth buying, I came across a preview of Tetris that warranted pointing out. As we chuckled over the not very clever Cold War jokes, a female voice behind us asked, “So, you guys like reading?” That this voice had a Russian accent was an added bit of kismet.

    We turned to see a short, blonde woman holding a cordless phone – obviously an employee. She pointed to a sign to her left and said, “When you are done reading that, you should read this sign.”

    Not wanting to hold myself in suspense, I skipped right to the sign. So did David. It read, “This is not a Library! No Reading!”

    “We’re buying these. The books. That we are reading,” I said. David smiled in what I think was an appeasing way.

    “Oh, OK,” she replied. The doubt in her voice reared up like a snarling guard dog in the space between us. Then she turned and walked to the counter. Part of me wanted to put the book back on the shelf and leave. Part of me wanted to buy the book and throw it at her head.

    Items Purchased: Ultimate Unauthorized Nintendo! Game Strategies

    Davis Cox: Somehow, all the consumerist panic I associate with record stores is completely gone in game stores, replaced with a mutual excitement to get to see these relics of gaming’s past in a playable state.

    It’s not that these objects are gone forever or impossible to purchase anywhere, because eBay and Craigslist of proven that if you dig long enough, you’ll find most anything you want a couple of keystrokes away. Game and record stores provide the magic of discovery for our hobbies. When MP3s are so much more functional than LPs and emulators and ROMs are free, having the physical object gives you a story. You discovered that copy of Sweetheart of the Rodeo in the corner of a dimly-lit flea market. That imported copy of Ni No Kuni’s special edition for the DS was waiting for you on the other side of the country for you to drag home.

    For me, I’m still waiting to find a copy of Skullmonkeys for the PS1. I’ve never even played it, but it’s somehow become the one gaming object of my desire I’ve yet to find.

    I had high hopes walking into the semi-controlled chaos of Digital Press that I might be walking out with my own copy of Doug Tennapel’s side-scrolling spiritual sequel to The Neverhood, so I quickly abandoned David and Stu to begin digging through jewel cases before coming up empty-handed.

    I dodged a man with very few teeth complimenting my vintage Rush T-shirt before resigning myself to look through old PC games. I haggled with myself over whether I really needed a copy of Gabriel Knight 2, because I already have a giant stack of vintage PC games that can barely run and couldn’t convince myself I needed more.

    Items Purchased: Not Skullmonkeys

    There’s a copy out there, waiting. I’ll discover it one day, and then I’ll be able to brag about how I’ve been looking for it forever. I’ll have a story about it.

    David Wolinsky: Normally, when on my own, I would be much more assertive and far less of a pushover than I was in that moment where Stu and I were snapped at. And lest you think that sounds extreme: I still remember the feeling in that moment, now. I was off-guard, the back of my neck blazing from all the blood there exploding after being snarled at by a predator. I felt dumb, small and out of place. I grinned as a defense mechanism.

    Normally I would return in kind – but that’s not really something you should do while out with friends. With children of all ages present.

    And let’s be honest, lady: Look at us. We are grown-ass men, or something like it. We know what Tetris is. The books on sale here aren’t treasures, they’re relics. Curiosities. A time capsule vomited on your shelves and we are curious. Who in this store wouldn’t be?

    My mom is a librarian. Growing up I heard all sorts of stories about the crazy things patrons did. Adults caught masturbating to Internet porn. Homeless people taking dumps in the sink. Sometimes, people were actually borrowing and checking out books. But something I’ve never heard her tell me about is an instance where she had to shoosh people or move them along for loitering.

    Somehow this stereotype got displaced into what people these days vaguely refer to as “game culture”. I don’t know what game culture is, but part of what feels integral to it these days is making sure people feel they don’t belong and know it. I’m not at all intimating that it’s the defining characteristic of that subculture, but I think somehow all the self-consciousness that used to be around videogames is being turned outwards. Somehow the inferiority complex got turned inside-out.

    I’m not even using this woman as a particular example of anything in games, but just representative of an attitude I see increasingly in games. I didn’t know Stu or Davis growing up, but what I’m willing to bet is as kids we felt we didn’t have any place we really fit in. We didn’t find solace in videogames, but because of videogames. They were not a defining part of our deepening existence, just the first notch on many time lines of fandom we were establishing as young, impressionable lads. We wanted to learn how to win at Nintendo because how could we even wrap our minds around what winning at life even looks like or means?

    As adults, there is a tough navigation around videogames that take place: How can we justify spending so much of our waking life seeking out play and knowing we have done this for at least one or two decades before? I don’t think we need to justify: I think it’s important to have fun. Objectively.

    Earlier that day, Davis and I recorded another episode of our podcast. We had spent the last two weeks playing Majora’s Mask. We both had mixed feelings on it for varying reasons, but many of the same ones. I like the game more in concept than practice, and feel some sadness that if only more people liked this game that I don’t like, the series might be more creative, more interesting, more adventurous.

    Davis, as he often does, had this great way of articulating something that’s symptomatic of the problems hounding videogames these days: “Videogames need to kill their idols a little bit for them to move forward.”

    We both laughed, because it’s totally true, but also in anticipation of what he said next: “How many people into videogames have heard the phrase ‘kill your idols?’”

    But this isn’t really about that. We aren’t sneering about things we know that people who primarily only love videogames as entertainment might not. We’re giggling over the silly small view you get when you don’t nerd out on as much stuff as you can. When you’re less curious about more things. When you know little but think you know more.

    The older I get, the more I realize the wiser among us will cop to not knowing much. And so it is very fitting to be told in a videogame store to read less, to just buy something.

    As I grasp for solutions or how to live more at peace with things in that subculture, I, again, just look to my friend Davis. As Stu and I groused about our “mistreatment” and how it tainted our view of the store, Davis just walks up to both of us after we each made our purchases and beams, “Man, this place is great.”

    So, I again try to just listen. I try to remember that you can see problems – or not – and try to keep a positive attitude.

    Items Purchased: How to Win at Nintendo, How to Win at Super NES Games

    Epilogue: Things We Talked About

    David, Davis and I talked a lot over the five hours we hung out, but this story is already running ridiculously long. Instead of fleshing out those conversations, below I am including them in a list. Maybe use them as conversation starters with your pals.

    Did John Wilkes Booth procreate?
    The Atari Firetruck arcade game
    The Jeff Bridges sleep tape
    The Sopranos (we drove by Pizza Land, which is in the opening credit sequence and just up the road from my house – the pizza isn’t as good as it used to be)
    Better Call Saul, compared and contrasted with Breaking Bad
    The new Lightning Bold record, Fantasy Empire
    A lot of bands on my recently made Spotify playlist Electric Night Dance Ritual
    The first female talk radio personalities (We drove by the WMCA radio station out in the Meadowlands and got talking about its history)
    Why we love the things we love and how we can make them better.

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