In the latter stages of my partner’s pregnancy the idea that I was going to be a father was increasingly unreal. We had seen pre-release ultrasounds that suggested a very sketchy alpha build and my partner assured me it was non-stop crunch time in the development studio, but if my daughter had been announced by Gearbox Studios I would have assumed she was going to stay in development hell indefinitely. Imagine my surprise when my baby girl finally emerged – completely unfinished.

The basics were there: with five digits at the end of each limb, she could drink milk, poop black tar, and howl blue murder. But there were so many features that hadn’t been implemented. Her internal clock was non-functional. She didn’t know what her own hands and feet were, which I hope is why she kept accidentally hitting herself in the face with them. Her volume control was shot to hell. All this, I was assured, was normal. Newborn babies are incomplete.

“Babies are literally Early Access humans.”

There are good reasons that human spawn emerge so undercooked; there’s a very narrow release window for a baby, and there’s a lot of pressure from head office to get the thing out the door before it becomes unfeasible. Any more time developing and their file size would simply be too much for the download channel. Comparing human infants to other primates ours appear underdeveloped, emerging with less muscle tone, less graphical polish (and hair), lacking dozens of features which are added post-partum. Babies are literally Early Access humans.

I never know when my baby’s next update will arrive, and there are no patch notes, just a brief period of glitching and hard crashes presaging a new feature. Soon enough her new ability – be it lifting her head or standing upright – is integrated seamlessly into the build with no indication that the previous version had ever existed. New animation is always a giggle; every time she attempts something new she seems to be struggling with the controls of Octodad or QWOP, derping around like a poorly strung marionette. When she first picked up a spoon she hit herself repeatedly in the face with it like she was playing Surgeon Simulator. We laughed.

Slowly and surely she has become more sophisticated, and I began to speculate on what other unrevealed talents she had. I wondered if my baby, currently 13 months old, could play videogames.

Twitch-gaming was out of the question. We’re very proud that she can pick up her Cheerios between thumb-and-forefinger, but 360 no-scoping was a nonstarter. But the touch-gaming revolution would surely offer some opportunities for her to engage with the digital interactive medium.

fruitninja3

Fruit Ninja seemed like a good starting point. It only requires a single finger swiped drunkenly across the screen for the player to score points, and the Zen mode has no fail condition, just 180 seconds to bash fruit apart with your fingers. Provided my tiny progeny could find the screen she should be able to play. I presented her with my Android, the app open and running, fruit already launching itself into the air to the rhythm of pseudo-oriental drums. She picked up the phone, looked at the screen, and put the whole thing in her mouth. I gently coaxed the device from between her gums. Her score was twenty seven. I reset the game and returned the phone to her. She hugged it to her chest with both arms and ran away clumsily, burbling. By the time I retrieved it she’d swiped the home button with her tummy and the app had crashed. Then she had a good cry, which was probably unrelated to her low score, but I comforted her nonetheless.

“It’s okay love. Nobody’s judging you for being a scrub.” I was judging her, of course, but I didn’t tell her. That would be Bad Parenting.

“She picked up the phone, looked at the screen, and put the whole thing in her mouth.”

This would be trickier than I had anticipated. She didn’t seem to be able to discern that there was something occurring on the screen, let alone that she could interact with it. I was disappointed. I wasn’t expecting a League of Legends prodigy, exactly, but I had hoped she would have more native talent than an African bullfrog or a small lizard. She had already mastered cuddling, stealing spoons, and calling the bath “bay bay”. Was touch-screen gaming too much to ask?

I started delving through the Google Play store in search of another suitable app, before quickly leaving to take a cold bleach shower. Never had I seen a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Look at this horror show: which of these is the original game? Is any of them an original game? Is it possible that they are all, somehow, clones of each other, an unbroken circle of creative theft? That these are apps self-created, brought forth without author, brought forth in the dark void beyond the veil of the sanity, brought forth to mock and sport at our pitiful dreams of a merciful creation?

ant-smasher

Fortunately I had options. At the local indoor jungle gym (‘The Child Zoo’) there’s a gaudy arcade machine called Dolphin Star. A descendant of the mechanical rocking horses you find outside supermarkets, it features two luminescent neon dolphins in front of two game screens. Once the machine begins rocking the player can tug on their dolphin’s reins to direct a cheerful, PS2-era mascot character around a nautically-themed track in order to collect starfish and power-ups of ill-defined function. Hammering the plastic dolphin’s blow-hole makes their onscreen counterpart do a jolly trick, which according to my friends in the aquarium industry is not how cetacean training works, but I’m willing to accept it as an authorial flourish.

The baby’s first reaction was not positive. Placing her in the saddle of the dolphin she immediately began whimpering as if it was made of acid. I retreated to the refectory and ordered food containing both cheese and carbohydrates to put into the baby’s tummy. This is a parenting hack, roughly the equivalent of validating the local game files to try and shake the bugs out of a Steam installation. Suitably reinforced, the baby and I returned.

dolphin-star-dual

She accepted her position astride her dolphin mount. I positioned myself behind her in the saddle, wondering what the maximum operating load on a novelty dolphin was, and inserted a credit. The dolphin began gyrating back and forth and strobing luridly. On screen the title crawl informed us that the player character, Pobby the dolphin, was pursuing rogue starfish on the orders of Mr Shen. There was no indication who or what Mr Shen was, so I inferred he was a gangland enforcer for the spider-crab mafia.

“I was judging her, of course, but I didn’t tell her. That would be Bad Parenting.”

“Take the reins, dear,” I said to the baby. She immediately pressed herself against the dolphin’s plastic head in a broad hug. “The reins, dear.” I gently encouraged her by pushing them against her nose. She briefly considered my offer, but chose instead to hammer the dolphin’s blowhole button. This was at least interaction with the device, so I took the reins. The game was quite laggy and I found that keeping the single-minded dolphin on track took up most of my attention, leaving just my thigh-reflexes to hold the baby in place on the jerky machine. After acing a tricky section I realised that the onscreen dolphin had not been performing tricks for some time. The baby was now grinning at a child riding the opposite mechanical dolphin. This meant I was playing a children’s arcade game on my own. I nodded to the child’s mother.

“Lovely day,” I said. She said nothing, but silently judged me.

Since then I’ve consistently offered the baby apps to try, and even included an actual literal baby’s game, The Official In the Night Garden App. (Major disappointment – it does not have classically trained actor Derek Jacobi doing the voices. My In the Night Garden bredren know why this is a big deal.) Sometimes she registers that her finger swipes impact the events on the screen, but she quickly loses interest and runs off to drop my phone in the toilet or cry at her shoes or similar.

The baby knows in a vague and abstract way that these games can be played with, but she is more interested in rampaging around the real world than interacting with a digital one, which I suppose demonstrates a level of worldliness that many gamers have yet to achieve.

Even if she is a scrub.

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Timothy Franklin is a secret zone in that game you used to love for that system you don't own anymore. It's all on Youtube now, anyway.

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