The Drifter is a psychogeographer of videogames. If you don’t know what that means – dude! Just read the Wikipedia. That’s all he did, and look at where it got him.
Suck it up, bookworms: videogames are officially better than novels. It’s been true since at least the beginning of real-time 3D and maybe even longer. There’s nothing your precious literary fiction does that we can’t render at a higher resolution on a bigger screen with particle effects that my feeble mole eyes can’t even see.
Tell your creative writing tutor that she can keep her on-rails three act structure. We’ve long since moved on. It’s hardly fair to expect a story made chapter by chapter on a word processor – or even worse, paper – to measure up to one forged in the Unreal Engine. You want proof? Imagine what your best guys could have done with our tools. Sure Tolstoy: every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way. But if Anna Karenina was an RPG heroine, she could climb down off her crusty bookshelf, ditch those aristocratic chumps, and find some other companions already levelled up in the art of pleasing a lady, no questions asked. Would have saved everyone a whole heap of trouble.
The same applies to nearly every genre. Spy thriller, crime caper, Great American Novel: you name it, it would be better as a game. In Sid Meier’s Moby Dick, the crew of the Pequod would be able to spend their loot on new weapons load-outs and hull armor plating, because seriously, Cap’n Ahab should not be pursuing an end-level boss as formidable as the White Whale without first climbing the tech tree. Lives are at stake. Don’t come crying to me when Queequeg doesn’t respawn; what part of ‘perma-death’ didn’t you understand?
I know, I know, the limitless possibilities of the written word, yadda yadda yadda. Balls to that. Proust might be good at describing waxed moustaches, but even he can’t offer as diverse an array of facial hair as Fallout 4’s character generation screen. There are more possible combinations of beard in that game than there are atoms in the universe. Hey Marcel! Think you can beat that Science Fact in just seven volumes of scalpel-sharp French prose, do you? Didn’t think so.
I will concede, though, that books are better at showing us the inner lives of their heroes. Even Nvidia can’t rustle up the magic show of conscious experience. I know what it’s like to be Holden Caulfield and Lizzie Bennett. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Master Chief.
For a psychogeographer like me, that’s a real problem. I long to push inside the heads of my avatars – to experience the world not as a disembodied camera floating through polygonal space, crudely rendered by a GPU, but truly through their eyes. Is Marcus Fenix’s arterial red the same as my arterial red? Does Agent 47 dream of hairless sheep? Frozen and erect on an obliterated landscape, huddled together for protection under a tiny speck of dirt, do my squadron of little Worms truly know fear? Soon fire will drop from the skies and exterminate them all. I want to know how that feels.
That’s where my cousin AJ steps in. “Without ‘Super’ Mario, I never would have become a plumber,” he told me as we caught up last week at our grandmother’s smother party. “He’s the Elvis to my Cliff Richard, the Kinks to my Blur – the inspiration for what I always wanted to be.” As our gran thrashed her last under a sea of gorse down pillows, I heard opportunity knocking. Here was a man who knew better than anyone what it was like to eat, sleep and dream like a videogame protagonist. I resolved to accompany him on his day-to-day rounds, and so get a better grasp of the mental life of gaming’s most iconic blue collar hero. Bound together forever by the euthanizing of our beloved family matriarch, he felt no choice but to accept my bizarre request.
The next day we met at the family seat in fashionable North East London. AJ’s white van sat dormant in the driveway like a sleeping terrier. We clambered in and my cousin started the engine. “Here we go!” he cried, in a mock-Italian accent that might have given offense had his passenger been of a more sensitive nature than your correspondent.
“Videogames were a big part of growing up,” AJ told me, as he drove us to our first destination, “but sometimes I wished they weren’t. You probably remember what I was like at 14, jacking cars and driving in street races. Never would have happened without Mario Kart. Every Friday night, sitting atop 50ccs of pure whining power with three balloons tied to our bumpers, my gang of wasted youths set out on a collision course with Johnny Law. Lumbering pedestrians quivered to hear ‘Toad’s Angels’ revving their engines. Kart inspired everything we did. Driving home high on a cocktail of ketamine and cocaine was ‘following the Rainbow Road’; our enemies met with the wrath of ‘Boo the ghost’; and though common decency prohibits me from revealing what it meant to ‘slip the Princess a banana’, suffice to say: I’m deeply ashamed. It was only when I looked into Mario’s origins and found out more about his early work as a hero-plumber that I finally put myself on the right track.”
We parked in the shadow of a Ballardian high rise. The local youth watched my cousin lock up the van with inquisitive eyes. It wasn’t every day a man arrived on the estate in a red onesie and blue dungarees. Smartphones were withdrawn from hoodie pockets. An avalanche of Instagramming began. AJ pretended not to notice. “First call out of the day is always the hardest,” he said. Before I knew it he was leaping up the stairs two at a time with the stamina and enthusiasm of a man half his girth. I wondered if he still kept a lunchbox full of cocaine in the glove-compartment or if this energy came from the sheer joy of working with your hands.
We reached the penthouse and AJ wrapped on the door. “I love my work, but it would be for nothing without the princess. Sadly she’s stuck in this tower.” The door opened a crack, kept in place with one of those little cords.
“Hello Peach,” AJ said.
“Fuck off, AJ,” a woman answered. Reader, I knew her: it was none other than my cousin’s former girlfriend, Clarissa.
“I’ve come to save you.”
“How many times do I have to tell you: I don’t want to be saved.”
“She’s got Stockholm syndrome,” AJ reassured me.
“How many times, ‘Dre? I wasn’t kidnapped and I’m not a prisoner. You have emotional problems, and until you deal with those, I don’t want to see you.”
“You just want a reptile who treats you like a slave,” AJ said. “Nice guys like me-“
She shut the door in his face.
“The man who brought her here is an ape,” AJ said. Then added as an afterthought: “She’ll come around.”
“Maybe you should try meeting someone else,” I ventured. “Take it from me, cuz: that woman really hates you. Still, plenty more fish in the sea.”
AJ’s bottom lip started to wobble, so I left it there.
I didn’t like to see a blood relative upset, so – harnessing the knowledge of the English working classes I had garnered from my mother’s favorite soap operas – suggested a Full English at the local greasy spoon. “I’m never good enough,” he said, staring into the clouds of milk gathering and dispersing in his polystyrene tea cup. “I’ll never be him. I’ll never be Super. He’s just better than me in every way. Strong while I am weak. Tough while I am scrawny. A qualified plumper while I’m just an interloper, a pretender, a kid with a box full of spanners and a dream.”
Was this truly what it was like to be Mario? Was the world’s most celebrated videogaming hero truly this much of a dweeb? I didn’t want to believe it, but my cousin wasn’t leaving me much choice.
“One time at the Tate Britain, I was stood before this painting of a stormy sea,” AJ said. “You know what comes next: I leapt into it. Ripped the thing clean in half. Luckily it was insured, and I didn’t want to go back to their stupid gallery anyway, but you can see my point. Stuff like that happens to me all the time. Mario can get away with anything, but what do I have? I’m still sleeping in my childhood bedroom. The love of my life hates me. And I’m fat. Not loveably fat. Just clinically obese.”
“Maybe you should become a street cleaner,” I suggested. “Spraying down graffiti. Get some vitamin D. It’ll do you good.”
“Thought about it,” AJ said. “But I’m too sensitive to sunlight. I’d fry like a crisp.”
As we were leaving AJ suggested we leave a tip for the waitress. He turned out his pockets, but they were empty. “Hang on. I know how we can get some coins.” He turned to face the wall. His hands were trembling.
“We can just pay for it on our cards, AJ,” I said, too late. He smashed his head hard against a brick, but nothing came out. He stepped to the left and butted against the next brick. Nothing. Then the next brick. Then the next.
“I can just give you a coin, AJ,” I said, “if that’s what you want. I can give you two.” It was a lie. I didn’t have any change. I hoped it wouldn’t get that far. “Just please stop this now.”
He wasn’t listening. Soon his forehead was moist with blood. I handed him a serviette and watched as he blew his nose into it. The other diners backed away from us and stared. My cousin didn’t like that one little bit, so I waved my Leatherman at them until they dispersed. The glimmer of the six-inch blade did nothing to help his condition.
Was it wrong of me to lace his builder’s tea with psilocybin? I don’t think so. I was determined to get an interview with ‘Super’ Mario. How was I to know that a tincture of magic mushroom oil would transform my sensible, stoical cousin into a crybaby afraid of his own erections? Experience gave me every reason to expect a gigantic mustachioed porn star with the power to shoot fireballs out his ass. I wanted to see him jump on the heads of the homeless and ride a green baby dinosaur bareback through the streets. Imagine the scoop that would have been! Existential Gamer would be lucky if I didn’t jump ship to Edge. Instead, I wrapped AJ in a space blanket and walked him home while concocting a plausible story to tell his mother.
Moments before he passed out, I realized that my cousin had now settled the only gaming debate that ever makes it into the mainstream media. The evidence that videogames influence the emotional development of young men is now incontrovertible, and politicians, journalists, and other parties with our best interests at heart have every reason to be concerned. That night I threw my DS into the recycling in disgust, tore down my limited edition Pokémon Red poster, and smashed my ocarina, vowing to never again place it to my lips. Epona could ride wild through the fields of Hyrule alone for all I cared, unbirched and unloved. This wasn’t just about Mario or Wario, or Link, or Charizard. It was about all of Nintendo, and what it’s doing to the most vulnerable people in society. You want to know why millennials are so anxious? Google ‘childhood’. Google ‘Sigmund Freud’. Google ‘Super Nintendo Entertainment System’. Nothing is left to be said. Miyamoto-san has blood on his hands.