Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Digital Disquiet: How 8- and 16-bit games taught me the power of dread

(in case you missed it when I tweeted it all over the place a couple weeks ago)

"For those who grew up with them, those late 1980s/early-1990s golden-age console and PC games can represent a great many things. They can still evoke long-lost affective states, emotive chords that have never been struck by any other medium. I’m an avid reader and a part-time cinephile, but books and movies have never done to me what Castlevania and many of its 8- and 16-bit peers did. There is a special sense of dread and anticipation, a special experience of the sublime, that belongs uniquely to those games, and that will be forever captured in my earliest memories like a solution in a jar, waiting to be occasionally stirred up by a passing remark, a news story, or a train ride.

That sense of dread is unique to those particular video games, that unrepeatable phase of gaming history that lingered for a few years and then vanished into the slipstream of forward progress. Within a decade, that style of gameplay was entirely lost, crowded out by cinematics and back-story and sensationalism. I’m glad I got to live it at that receptive stage of my life, because it’s not coming back."

- from my essay, published in Berfrois on June 1, 2012

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

RIP Ray Bradbury, architect of my empty spaces

I don't know how much of this memory is true, and how much is made up, or assembled from bits and pieces of other memories, but I remember being very young -- 9, 10, 12 maybe -- and being with my dad in a car. He was a fan of stories on audio tape, and on this particular day, he decided to listen to one with me: a story called The Wind. It was about a scientist who had spent his whole life studying the weather and advising people on weather safety, and who had recently come to an understanding that the wind was actually a sentient entity with a dangerous vindictive streak.

I was young, and I didn't always catch the point of things, especially when they were slow-burning and atmospheric. But my dad managed to explain the end of the story to me in approximately a single sentence, and I was suddenly aware: aware of how you could feel a great, fearful powerlessness in the face of absolutely nothing... aware of how, even in the absence of anything unusual, you could make yourself scared, simply by virtue of being alone and at the mercy of the world.

I've always associated that feeling of insignificance and vulnerability with late-night car rides. That subtle story had the power to reconfigure that experience for the whole rest of my life. How crazy is that?

A number of years later, when I had decided I wanted to write fiction, I picked up a book of short stories called The October Country. That's when I made the connection: that old story, the one about the phone call and the howling wind, was written by this Ray Bradbury guy... a writer I knew only by name, as one of those famous "classic" science fiction authors.

For me, Bradbury's name will always be synonymous with a feeling of smallness in the face of the infinite. In The October Country, he captured the anxiety and soul-sickness that can result from this feeling of insignificance, but that's not the only face of that figure.

It was a number of years later than I read The Martian Chronicles, amid my studies at college, which included a fair amount of postmodern and Eastern philosophy. And in The Martian Chronicles, I found another facet of the crystal I had glimpsed in The October Country. Again, here was this sense of vastness and emptiness, this sense that life is barely a wisp of smoke in the infinite cosmos. Here was a human race, glimpsing its own far future: a barren landscape with just a few traces of culture, a few scraps of memory, an occasional resonance where there was once life and love and prosperity. The Martian Chronicles is about the black hole of the universe swallowing up the Martians, with the human race slipping into the same abyss, only a few steps behind.

But the strange thing about The Martian Chronicles is that it wasn't terrifying, or tragic, like The October Country. In a way, it was strangely comforting, as though emptiness and insignificance were a release from the turmoil of the world of the living. Mars was a warm embrace, a receptive womb of mortality at the center of a tranquil void. It was sad, but it was also luminous and peaceful, reminding us that our ghosts would always populate this particular place and time, and that the rest of existence and nothingness would go on fine without us.

Only an author as great as the late Ray Bradbury could step into my emotional geography and inhabit these amorphous territories, giving them such specifity and definition. Existence in the face of the infinite is strange and uncertain, pregnant with the beauty and anxiety of the sublime, and Bradbury got to struggle with that for 91 years. I hope, now that he's moved on, that mortality is as tranquil and receptive as Bradbury imagined it to be.