May 31, 2009

Game Development And Other Excuses

When the team was crunching, the developer worked weekends and twelve-hour days. His wife was usually asleep by the time he got home, and his absences became a point of contention with her. One morning as he left for the office, she pointed out how they never saw each other anymore and that these long hours had ceased to be acceptable and were now totally ridiculous and a strain on their marriage. The designer acknowledged her points, but knowing she was unfamiliar with the game industry, explained the concept of crunch mode. Eighty-hour work weeks were necessary to meet milestones and ship dates, and besides, they were part of the culture. It's how the industry works, he said, crunching is the only way that you can make a video game. She grudgingly accepted his argument.

Two weeks later, the designer packed his bags for E3. His wife stood in the hallway, and mentioned again how uncomfortable it made her that he was going to be hanging out with 20-year-old lingerie models. She knew they would be sharing a booth all day, maybe going out for drinks afterward, and they were probably going to be all flirty. He said patiently that he got where she was coming from, and if it was up to him things would be different, but the booth babes were simply one of those game industry traditions. They'd actually tried not having the girls last year, and it didn't work. She sighed. The spectacle and the glitz are important, he said, it's the only way you can sell a game.

Three weeks later, his wife awoke at three a.m. to the screech of metal tearing through metal. Outside, she saw, their car had plowed into the side of their neighbours' SUV. The designer's wife hurried to the window, where she saw a brick of cocaine in the passenger seat and a cheerleader passed out across the back seat. The designer looked up at her with wired, bloodshot eyes. Let me explain this, he said, all this stuff is just part of the game industry. This is literally the only way you can make a video game.

May 29, 2009

Rise Of The Machines

[This post contains ending spoilers for Grand Theft Auto IV.]

Death is permanent and, in all works of fiction, predetermined. Except in video games, where most of the time it is neither. Niko Bellic probably never felt so bad as when, hours after resolving to abstain from a lifestyle of crime and extreme violence, his would-be girlfriend/chance at a more fulfilling existence Kate McReary is gunned down in a mafia drive-by. As Niko emphasizes loudly and often to her killers, Kate never did anything to hurt anyone. Where's the meaning in her death? What's Niko Bellic to do but exact revenge and move on?

Then again, Grand Theft Auto IV being a video game, Niko could also send himself back in time to try and prevent Kate's death. He does this -- or you, the player do it -- by reloading a save game, erasing recent events so you can reevaluate your options and pursue the optimal outcome with mechanical efficiency.

Niko knows what death is. He's died a hundred times in the last 50 hours, and after each death he is resurrected outside a nearby hospital. How can death have any meaning when it's so trivial and reversible? Niko doesn't have time to consider the theological implications, though, because he's trying to save a girlfriend.

Kate's death traces back to a decision made at a narrative intersection. Take Mission B over Mission A, and this sets in motion a chain of events that lead to Kate's death. Easily solved, then: take Mission A instead. What happens now, however, is that cousin Roman Bellic takes Kate's place. Roman is murdered in the exact same scene and in the exact same manner.

From there, Niko's story turns out to be remarkably similar and imbued with the same measure of grief as if Kate had died. Nothing really changes and Niko feels just as bad. What meaning can Roman's death possibly have if it's functionally interchangeable with Kate's? Is this an indicator of the inescapable karmic retribution that Niko has coming to him? Maybe it's a sobering lesson about the consequences of messing with the time stream. Obviously it's neither.

When Niko is before this crossroads, Kate and Roman are pulling him in opposite directions. Roman wants him to take Mission A because it'll make Niko a wealthy man and help Roman provide for his new wife, thus bringing them both closer to the American dream. Kate urges Niko against that same mission because it would compromise his principles. Whichever mission Niko picks, he'll gain favour with a certain character over the other and then watch them die. What's happening here, really, what this rare moment of narrative branching is all about, is polling the player as to which character they feel more strongly about so they can be killed for the maximum emotional effect. A random spray of gunfire just so happens to kill the person the player recently indicated that they cared about more.

It's a choice rendered meaningless. The identity of the murder victim might not be predetermined but the future is set either way: whatever happens, the player will arrive at a moment where they're supposed ot feel sad and aggrieved. What appeared to be human tragedy is really total calculation. If Niko was searching for the meaning in Kate's death -- well, there it is, precisely. Kate and Roman aren't people, but robots built by Tragedy Systems.

Grand Theft Auto IV tells its story through a linear and non-interactive instance that is separate from a wide, unguided sandbox. Essentially, it's like a movie stapled to a video game. Unsurprisingly this is not an airtight approach.

The player has sporadic moments of agency in what is otherwise an extremely controlled and authored story. Every moment is the choice whether to kill a character or not, or kill one character over another. Some of these deaths, when they concern relatively important characters, certainly seem like they should have more of an impact than they actually do.

Your choice of who lives and who dies creates an alternate reality, but that choice was carefully set up so that the outcome would only be marginally different no matter what you pick. Some dialogue is altered but it's all essentially the same. When you kill one of the McReary brothers, Kate and Packie McReary will refer to their dead "brother" as often as possible without ever mentioning his name, and the McReary you let live barely shows up again.

The game doesn't actually have the bandwidth to support and maintain alternate realities. It can't sustain the level of fidelity and production that it wants if it's going to be truly reactive to the player's choices. No matter which mission you take and at which time, you always begin and end in the same place. No matter whether Kate or Roman dies, it all ends up the same. And if that was always going to be the case you wonder what was the point of ever pretending that the player could influence the story otherwise.

The power of the story is diminished when every consequence is marginalized and ignored for practical reasons. Rockstar's carefully crafted and strictly controlled mobster epic becomes a soap opera where it isn't important to the story whether or not two major characters live or die. When you see your input briefly recognised and then whitewashed, all it does is highlight the limitations. The story of Grand Theft Auto IV is like a robot that rapidly dismantles and assimilates your choices into the pre-written and unchanging framework.

The human player is granted, in this virtual world, effective immortality and time-traveling ability. Video games train players to think like this. Setbacks and deaths do not matter because you can rewind the clock in search for the path through the game most to your liking. You're looking for efficiencies, but this time, so is the machine, and you can't beat it at its own game.

May 23, 2009

Over and Under


JACKSON, WYOMING
DECEMBER 1986


FRIDAY NIGHT

Donna Kelly had forgotten her gloves. Keeping her hands in her pockets, she couldn’t get at the plastic cup of vodka pinned between her knees, and this in turn meant she wasn’t able to move her legs. She was huddled in the back of her boyfriend’s parked truck and pretty much trapped there. Twenty feet away, Ellie Marshall struggled to light a cigarette, which was harder than usual in the snow and while wearing mittens.
   “Get ready for this, Donna. This is a great idea.”
   Todd was referring to her current assignment for Journalism class and not getting drunk in a forest in the middle of winter, although that was his idea too. Donna smiled encouragingly.
   “I think this is really ambitious. You could interview the guys on our football team, and ask them, you know, what it’s like being in the team. And if they’re excited about their next game. Maybe even talk to the coach, find out what their strategies are.”
   “I don’t know if I have it in me to be that ambitious.”
   Todd shrugged and returned to the ad hoc circle formed by the two cars. In the center, Eric stoked the diminishing fire with a stick, and then lost interest and retired to a deck chair with Maggie. Ellie was still not having any luck with her cigarette.
   Donna shifted her weight as much as she could without spilling all over herself. “Do you guys know Tim Hathaway?”
   Maggie lifted her head from Eric’s chest. “That guy?”
   Todd asked who Tim Hathaway was.
   “Some dork,” said Maggie.
   “He seems weird,” Ellie added, slipping the unlit cigarette back into her pocket. “He like never talks to anyone. He’s a creep.”
   Donna winced. “We got assigned together. That’s my partner.”
   “For Journalism class?” asked Ellie. Donna nodded. “Oh, sucks.”
   “Yeah, we have to write something together.”
   Maggie laughed. “What are you and Tim Hathaway going to write about?”
   “You know what, actually? I guess he really wants us to interview some guy who makes computer games.”
   “Oh, lame,” said Ellie, who was giving the cigarette another try.
   “No way, that’s totally awesome,” said Eric, suddenly coming to life. “The Robotron at the bowling alley, I have the high score on that.” Maggie looked at Eric as if she never knew this side of him existed. “Honestly, that’s actually a really difficult thing.”
   “I don’t even know what I’m going to do,” said Donna. “This just sounds so dumb.”
   “It isn’t a big deal, it’s just one assignment,” Ellie said, cupping her hands around her mouth and flicking the lighter repeatedly.
   “The thing that’s so hard about Robotron is how fast those tank waves get.”
   “Nobody cares.” Ellie breathed out smoke.
   “You’re probably right,” said Donna. “I mean, we’ll see.” She locked eyes with Todd and nodded at her legs. “Can you get this?”
   Todd pried the cup from her knees. Braving the cold, Donna removed a bare hand from her jacket pocket and took the vodka back from Todd.
   “This is for computer games,” she intoned with mock gravity, and downed it in one shot.


SATURDAY

“Guess what, Todd,” said Donna, reading aloud in the passenger seat, “the President says that Lieutenant Colonel North is a national hero and that this whole thing boils down to a great irresponsibility on the part of the press!” Donna rolled the magazine up tight and waved it at Todd’s face. “Bull-shit, bullshit!” she sang.
   Tim Hathaway’s house was far enough away that Donna wanted a ride. It was also below freezing outdoors. Todd was leaning forward and squinting down the road.
   “You need glasses,” Donna said.
   “I don’t want glasses.”
   “What can you see right now?”
   Todd inched his face closer to the windshield. “The mountains.”
   “Whatever.”
   “I see fine.”
   Donna nodded. “Todd, look out!
   Todd jumped and the truck swerved.
   “Just kidding,” Donna said quickly.
   She unwrapped her issue of Time, with its ominous-looking photo of the White House on the cover, and flipped back through the pages.
   “God, can I tell you that I am so excited to finally get to vote? I don’t think I even know what a polling booth looks like. It’s exciting, you know?”
   “Yeah, cool.”
   “The best thing about getting to live in New York is that my first vote is actually going to matter. Whether it ends up being Senator Biden or Gary Hart, whoever wins the primary, if I vote and help volunteer then I really might turn the state for them, you know? No way could I do that here.”
   “Yeah.”
   Donna glanced over her shoulder. “Do you know who you’re going to vote for yet? I mean personally I want Biden.”
   “What happens next time, does George Bush run for president?”
   “Yes.”
   “Yeah… maybe that guy.”
   Donna read over another article for several minutes in silence, then tilted her head at the ceiling. “I like Biden ‘cause you get the sense that he really cares about the issues, like, when he was arguing with Shultz about apartheid. That’s what you want to be doing. Apartheid, civil rights,” and she waved the magazine again, “this thing… you know? Hey, pull over, it’s up here.
   “Anyway,” and she stopped to laugh, “I have to go write about Dungeons and Dragons or whatever.”
   “This is a nice place,” said Todd, parking outside Tim Hathaway’s house and squinting out at the two-story building that was already adorned with Christmas lights.
   “I guess,” said Donna, not looking as she took off her seatbelt. “Kiss.” They leaned over the handbrake and kissed briefly, then Donna flashed a smile at Todd and hopped out of the truck.
   “Have a good time,” Todd called after her.
   “As if.”

***

“Your mom is nice.” Donna was sitting in a dining room chair that had been temporarily relocated to Tim Hathaway’s bedroom, where she was extremely surprised to have one day ended up. Tim’s mother had answered the front door and in the spirit of hospitality had immediately shoved a glass of Coke into Donna’s hands.
   Donna had been aware of Tim Hathaway’s existence for three years but she had never even spoken to him until Friday. His room was covered in movie posters and Star Wars action figures posed in extravagant battle scenes and his bookshelves were overflowing with fantasy and science fiction paperbacks. Donna noted that, unsettlingly, both Tim and Todd had a poster hanging in the exact same position over their bed. Todd’s poster was of Debbie Harry; Tim, Harrison Ford.
   “Whatever, I guess so,” said Tim. “Do you want me to tell you about this guy?”
   “Yeah. Why not.”
   “Okay, so his name is Peter Bissette, he’s a programmer and he makes these like, role-playing-games. They’re like these huge adventures. He’s done this whole series, and they’re really awesome games and they’re really successful. He’s really successful, they sell really well. He has made hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
   “How successful can he be if he still lives in Jackson?”
   “What’s so great about these games is….” Tim thought it over. “Their stories are so good. They’re influential; they’re like the best stories in any game. What you do is start as this hero character, you can pick a fighter or a mage, and you explore this huge world that has dungeons and caves and stores, and you collect equipment and weapons and you can upgrade your character. The point is to defeat this really evil guy, you know, like kind of a scourge, and you can talk to some townspeople and in the end you win the game by killing the bad guy.”
   Tim seemed not to appreciate Donna’s absent expression.
   “Well, okay, look, it’s hard to explain, because you don’t play games. These are like epic… stories. You get to escape from real life. You get to be this hero who fights monsters and saves people and saves the world because he vanquishes this ultimate evil. It’s like, uh, Lord of the Rings, like this epic fantasy thing. Like Arthurian mythology. The legends of King Arthur. Do you know that?”
   Donna laughed sharply. “How stupid do you think I am?”
   “You don’t know computer games. You don’t play them.”
   “I still know what a story is. Jesus. It just sounds, like, generic.”
   “Yeah, if it’s so generic why is it so successful?” Tim grabbed a Ziploc bag from his desk and held it up for Donna. It contained a page of cardboard with an illustration of a dragon and the word ‘Darkforge’ printed on it in large Gothic lettering. In smaller type, it said ‘A Fantasy Role-Playing Game by Peter Bissette.’
   “This is the first Darkforge game.” Tim carefully put it back on the desk and identified to the left his greater collection; alphabetically-arranged boxes on his his bookshelf. “Darkforge II: Return to Castle Keep, Darkforge III: The Wizard of the West, Darkforge IV: Winds of Chaos. Darkforge V: Battlemage.”
   “They sound stunning.”
   “He has his own company. Omega Software. Peter Bissette is rich from making all these games. He’s been doing this for years. He’s a veteran of computer games. He makes more money than my dad. It’s a big deal.”
   “Yeahhh….” Donna nodded slowly.
   “Just because you don’t get it, because you don’t understand… I’m not making this up! He is really popular. Okay, read this.”
   Tim pulled a magazine from the top of a precipitously balanced stack on his desk and handed it to Donna. She looked at the cover. ‘Computer Gaming World: The Journal of Computer Gaming.’ It boasted the second dragon illustration she had seen that day.
   “What page am I looking for?” she said, flicking through the black and white magazine.
   “I don’t know what page number. The page about Darkforge.”
   Donna flipped through the magazine until she spotted her third dragon picture. “‘Darkforge IV: Winds of Chaos.’” She gave Tim a look and kept reading. “‘As you begin your quest, you are merely an ordinary blacksmith, who assumes the mantle of a great destiny.’ I’m going to skip ahead here. ‘Be warned: Darkforge IV is indeed an arduous journey, fraught with peril and diabolical traps. Make sure you’re well prepared with healing potions, and stack your party with spellcasters. The dungeons are often treacherous. While there may be a lot to take in, all you need to know can be discovered in the game’s three manuals.’ Last paragraph. ‘In conclusion, Darkforge IV is a triumph that proves once and for all that the magic of Darkforge I was no fluke. As far as we’re concerned, Peter Bissette’s tales of valor keep getting better and bissetter.’ Fuck off.”
   Donna threw the magazine at Tim’s bed sheet, which was decorated with cartoon and comic book characters. She was reluctant to discover exactly which intellectual property.
   “The address of Omega Software, on the game box,” said Tim, “is in Jackson. And I looked in the phone book and there’s a Peter Bissette in Teton Pines. He is a legend and he lives right here! We could talk to him!”
   Donna sunk her head into her hands, pinning strands of hair back from her face. “I want a good grade, Tim,” she mumbled through her fingers, “I want to go to college so bad. Are we really going to write a profile on someone who makes computer games in his garage? Who would care?”
   “I love these games,” said Tim. “I want to meet this guy.”
   Donna leaned back in resignation. “Whatever. It’s only high school. Do whatever you want.”

***

“Oh, man. It’s ringing!” This was the happiest Donna had ever seen Tim Hathaway, not that she had many points of reference.
   “Okay,” said Donna, clasping her hands together as if in prayer, “don’t say that you’re excited to talk to him. Don’t say that this is your first interview ever. Don’t say you’re nervous. Don’t say how big a fan you are. Please don’t try and pitch him any game ideas.”
   “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Tim was almost giddy. He started wrapping the phone cord around his finger.
   “Oh my God.”
   “It’s – hello? Can I speak to Mr. Bissette?”
   “Oh my God.”
   “Peter Bissette? From Darkforge? Oh my God!
   Donna threw her hands over her eyes. “Tim, I am mortified.”
   “My name is Tim Hathaway, I’m a senior at Jackson Hole High School. I really love all your games; I’ve played all of them. Even Sorcerer’s Skies.”
   Donna mouthed the words ‘what the fuck’.
   “Yeah, they’re great. I’m studying Journalism at high school and I was calling because I have an assignment to interview somebody and I’d really like to interview you about your company and your games. Right. Yeah, just for class. That’s right.” Tim laughed. “Yeah. Like I said, I’m a big fan. That would be so great. Yeah? Okay, thank you so much. Thank you, Mr. Bissette. Thanks. I’ll talk to you soon. Okay, bye.”
   After hanging up, Tim launched his arms in the air, triumphant. “Yes! Oh, wow, I’ve never been that nervous!”
   “Alright,” said Donna, “you handled that decently. When are we going to talk to him?”
   “Oh,” Tim’s arms fell, “I forgot to ask that. I’ll call him back.”

***

“My guy is made up of nine… nine blocks. He’s like a Lego man. What is this?”
   Donna was playing Darkforge – II, III or IV, she had no idea which – and the game consisted of nothing but squares arranged into shapes that only vaguely resembled castles and forests. By pressing the arrow keys, she could move a little stick figure around the screen like a piece on a chess board.
   “Where’s the story part?”
   Tim was on the couch, reading a Computer Gaming World issue. “Go to the village, talk to some merchants.”
   “What village? Wait! Tim! Someone’s attacking me! How do I fight this guy?”
   “You type, you type.”
   “Type what?”
   An amorphous creature rammed into Donna’s character repeatedly until the screen went black. YOU HAVE DIED, it told her in capital letters.
   “Okay, so I got killed by something that looks like my guy, but green.”
   “Yeah, probably an orc, they can be trouble.”
   “This said it was a goblin.”
   Tim looked over the pages of his magazine. “You got killed by a goblin?”
   “I don’t understand this at all.”
   “Reload a game; it takes some practice.”
   “Fine.” Donna loaded one of Tim’s save games, and her character was standing on a beach. When she pressed the right arrow key, the man on the screen moved into the water and was eaten by a crocodile. “What!”
   YOU HAVE DIED.
   “Oh, you’re gonna kill me, huh?” Donna ejected the floppy disk and pulled it out by its edge. “I’m going to take this disk and put it in the microwave! What do you think about that?”
   “Don’t do that!”
   Donna threw the disk at Tim, who dropped the magazine and tipped off the couch to catch it.
   “This costs like fifty bucks!”
   “No it doesn’t.” Donna got up and retrieved her jacket. “Anyway, you’re right, I definitely see now how fun that game is. Say bye to your mom for me, I gotta go.”
   Tim got back up and secured the disk safely away in its box. “See you on Monday.”
   “You have any plans tonight?”
   “Not really.”
   “SNL is on tonight, do you ever watch that show?”
   “Is that the show with the fat guy who killed himself?
   “Yeah, that was a couple of years ago, actually.”
   “Well, enjoy that.”
   “I think I will.”


THAT NIGHT

Over the last year, the forest by the Palisades Reservoir had emerged as the favorite drinking hangout for Donna and her friends. Todd claimed that since part of the Palisades was technically in Idaho, it was outside the jurisdiction of the town and county police. Regardless, Donna had never been too enamored of it: it was dark, it was dirty, and in the winter, one would think, it would be prohibitively cold. She was not happy to be back there that night.
   “Come on,” Todd urged her, “this is our spot.”
   “This is our spot in summer.”
   “Eric seems fine.”
   “Eric doesn’t even know where he is.”  
   Eric, Maggie and Ellie were sitting in his car with the doors open, sorting through cassette tapes.
   “Donna,” Ellie called from the backseat, “which would you rather hear, Van Halen or Devo?”
   “I don’t care!”
   “She said Van Halen.”
   “No she didn’t; overruled,” said Eric, and stuck in a Devo tape.
   Ellie groaned. “I wish I had a boyfriend who could beat the shit out of you. And then would take me to a Van Halen show, and get the guys in Van Halen to beat the shit out of you.”
   “You should have a boyfriend,” said Maggie, addressing Ellie from over the shoulder of the passenger seat. “It’s about time already. Tell me who you want to go out with, seriously, name anybody. I will make them ask you out.”
   “God, I don’t know. Shane is cute.”
   “Oh please. Shane is afraid of girls.”
   “You should go out with Tim Hathaway,” Donna suggested. “I think he has a crush on you.”
   Ellie rolled her eyes. “Okay, yeah, oh, Tim, Tim Hathaway, I’m so hot for you right now. Show me what you look like behind those… glasses. Oh, God, Tim.” Donna cracked up.
   “Tim Hathaway,” Maggie laughed. “‘Sorry, I can’t fuck you, Ellie, cause I’m a total faggot!’ Tim Hathaway, please.”
   Donna shifted her gaze down to her boots. The woods truly were awful sometimes.

***

When it got too cold for Donna and Ellie, they climbed into the back seat of Eric’s car and closed the doors. Ellie kept a hand over her half-empty bottle of Miller Lite to stop it from spilling over. Donna was laughing hysterically, mostly because she knew she was out of control, and this was funnier than whatever joke had caused her to laugh in the first place.
   “Ellie! I am fucking wasted! I’m writing about video games! Holy shit!” Donna collapsed in a fit of giggles and fell over onto Ellie’s lap.
   “Come on, get off,” said Ellie, gently prying her head off her legs and restoring Donna to an upright position. “This is important, I have to sell you tomething. I mean tell you something.”
   Donna fell back into her seat, and pointed at Ellie’s beer. “Are you going to finish that?”
   “Donna.”
   “I’m just saying. I’m ready to go all night.”
   “Donna, Todd wants to marry you.”
   She didn’t say anything for a second. “What?”
   Ellie nodded, and Donna’s buzz died instantly.
   “No, no, no,” Donna said, “I’m going to New York.”
   “Not yet. Not for sure.”
   Donna watched Ellie closely, hoping for any indication of insincerity.    “Seriously? What? Did he say something to you?”
   “You cannot say I told.”
   Donna broke off her stare and pressed her temple against the ice-cold window. Ellie lowered her voice to a whisper despite the two of them being the only ones in the car.
   “Are you pregnant?”
   “No!
   “I think he’s really serious,” Ellie said, “he says he wants to propose to you with his class ring.”
   “Nnnnghhh.” Donna rubbed her eyes with her palms. “Oh, God, he would do that.” She lowered her head between her knees and ran her hands through her hair. “I can’t get married, Ellie.” She looked up and shook her head. “Ellie, I absolutely can’t.”
   “Okay.”
   “I need that,” Donna said, taking Ellie’s beer and emptying it in one gulp.
   “Do you want to talk about it?”
   After a while, she said, “You know what? He says I don’t know video games. Well, I know Atari Football, and that thing doesn’t look like anything. It’s random lines and blobs on a screen and it could literally be anything they say it is. You can’t tell what’s going on. That’s supposed to be football? Who would want to play that?”


SUNDAY

The best part of getting back home was that Donna wouldn’t run into any of her friends while wearing her church clothes. The combination of pressed white blouse and gray blazer and skirt had been bought and chosen for Donna by her parents, without any consultation. Normally, Donna dressed as casually as she could, and wearing this around her friends made her feel stiff. In church, she diligently avoided eye contact with anyone she might care about.
   In private, Donna had to admit that this outfit gave her a thrill. On Sundays, she got to look like a lawyer. Alone in her bedroom in front of the mirror, she felt ready to testify before the Supreme Court or deliver a national security briefing to the President. If Donna kept the company of smart and stylish thirty-year-olds who were deeply dedicated to their important jobs, then she might not feel so out of place all dressed up.
   Donna’s father knocked on her bedroom door to tell her she had a phone call downstairs. Dreading Todd’s voice on the other line, Donna answered the phone in a falsetto that she hoped could be mistaken for her pre-pubescent brother.
   “Hello…”  
   “Hey, Donna, it’s Tim.”
   “Tim? How did you get my number?”
   “The phone book.”
   “Oh, well aren’t you just the, the, the king of the phone book?”
   “I was calling all day.”
   “It’s Sunday. I was at church.”
   “Oh, you do that?”
   “Well, you know, my parents are. Catholic.”
   “Okay. Whatever.”
   Whatever. She rolled her eyes.
   Tim asked if she wanted to go over some questions for Peter Bissette, and Donna declined. Hanging up on Tim, she decided that she was already spending way too much time thinking about computer games than she really should.


MONDAY

Donna had told her journalism teacher it was imperative that she and her assignment partner Tim Hathaway did some research over at the school library, but this was a lie to get out of class. In reality, Donna and Tim were sitting outside the school building on a park bench. It was colder outside, but Donna adamantly preferred the prettiness of snow falling on concrete to the oil heaters and chewing gum-embedded carpet of her classroom.
   As Tim scribbled on notepaper, Donna was reading her paperback copy of The Final Days. The book was Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s follow-up to All the President’s Men; a reconstruction of the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency, stitched together from hundreds of first-person interviews. Donna was envious of books like this.
   After twenty pages, Donna peered at Tim’s work. What he was writing on his sheet of lined paper was not a list of questions for Peter Bissette but a top-down drawing of an elaborate fantasy dungeon.
   “What are you doing?” Donna threw the book down on the table. “You’re supposed to be writing questions!”
   “I’m the only one who has to write questions?”
   “Well, what the hell am I going to ask about? I don’t know anything about games. Is that gonna be your question? ‘What do you think of this map I drew?’”
   Tim sighed. “Fine, I didn’t know I was supposed to write questions.”
   Donna watched Tim turn over a new page and write ‘QUESTIONS FOR PETER BISSETTE’ and then nothing else.
   “Can I ask you something personal?” she said.
   “Uh-huh.”
   “I don’t know you very well. Do you get picked on here?”
   Tim hesitated before saying yes.
   “Don’t you at least have friends who like the same games that you do?”
   “I don’t know anyone who wants to make games.” Tim flipped back to his dungeon picture. “I want to do this. But I don’t know anyone else who actually cares.”
   Donna lowered her voice to a whisper even though there was nothing else around other than elk. “You want to know a secret? I don’t like it here either.”
   “Yeah?”
   “I have an application in to Columbia University, in New York. I want to get a journalism degree.”
   “When do you hear back from them?”
   “In March, maybe February.” Donna wound the cross around her neck, twisting the silver chain around itself. “If I don’t get accepted, Tim, I don’t even know. I can’t do the kind of writing that I want to do here. I want to do investigative stuff, human dramas, go to war zones… who would even pay me to do that in Jackson? The war zone here is a basketball player pushing you into a locker.” She released her grip on the necklace and sent it spinning in a circle.
   Tim gave her a guidance counselor-esque once-over. “I don’t know; I don’t know you very well. I think there are probably some things you could do here, but you could also marry somebody rich and not have to worry about anything.”
   “You know what I’m finding out? You’re really kind of mean sometimes.”

***

Since learning about Todd’s intended proposal, Donna had become extremely reluctant to hang out with him so much, but on the other hand he owned a car and would give her a ride home from school. Todd watched Donna get in the passenger seat and dig through her bag past The Final Days and issues of Time magazine until she found her scarf and tied it around her neck.
   “You are so smart,” he said.
   Donna smiled warmly but not as confidently as she once might have.
   “You’re the smartest girl I know,” said Todd, “I think after you graduate you could work at the paper or something.”
   She giggled. “Oh, gosh, don’t say that unless you really mean it,” she deadpanned.
   “I’m serious, I think you are that good.”  
   Donna turned to Todd, expecting him to try and kiss her, but instead he met her eyes with an unusual intensity that was less lustful than it was brutally earnest. For the first time, she saw what was fundamentally sweet and decent about her boyfriend, and it made her look away.


THAT NIGHT

After having dinner, Donna was watching television in the living room when the phone rang. She reached over the arm of the couch to pick up the receiver.
   “Hello?”
   “‘What an exciting time to be playing computer games! With one spectacular game after the next, Peter Bissette has proven himself one of the most vivid and vital storytellers in computer games today. His Darkforge series continuously reinvents the fantasy role-playing genre in surprising and compelling ways. Each entry features a host of unprecedented technical and creative innovations. As games enter the new decade there should be no doubt that it’ll be the likes of Peter Bissette at the reins of change. Yonder, to the city of Darkforge!’”
   “Who is this?”
   “Hi, Donna, it’s Tim.”
   “Is that something from Computer Gaming World?”
   “Yeah, it’s a letter to the editor.”
   “Who wrote it, you?”
   “Yes.”
   “What do you want, Tim?”
   “Do you understand that I’m not making this up? That Peter Bissette is really talented and successful?”
   Donna sighed. “Whatever. I believe you. Read me some more fake quotes.”
   “More and more people are playing games. You don’t think so, but games are going to end up being so popular. They’re going to be so important and you are going to look so stupid just because you don’t see it now. This guy is at the forefront of all this. He’s already done so much to influence the way that games are made, and he’s going be incredibly important in the future. I want to make games because of Peter Bissette. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to talk to a guy like that just because it’s games.”
   Donna played with the phone cord. “Tim, I’m going to talk to him. I’m going to be there with you. But can you understand why I’m not as excited about it as you?
   “Fine. See you tomorrow.”
   “Bye, Tim.”

***

Donna sat at the kitchen table across from her parents, who were reviewing the financial aid forms that she’d procured for Columbia. Her father held a lit cigarette in his hand, and without moving her head Donna surreptitiously breathed in the smoke while trying to hide it beneath a veneer of vague repulsion.
   “I don’t know, Donna,” said Elaine Kelly, who was perusing her daughter’s admission paperwork, “there are going to be so many tests, and living in New York, by yourself...”
   Her parents had called the meeting. Donna bit at her nails and shrugged. “I’m not worried about the difficulty,” she said, “this is where I want to go.”
   “You need to understand how much money is involved,” said Robert Kelly. “We’re going to help you pay for it where we can, but if you go then you’re going to be in debt for a long time.”
   “I know, Dad, but this is really what I want to do. It gives me so many more opportunities than if I go to UW.”
   “Donna,” said Elaine, “it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if you don’t get in. It would be so much work.”  
   “Before you make up your mind,” said Robert, “I want you to think carefully about your future. You need to know that this is really what you want.”
   Donna could not believe her parents. She threw up her hands in exasperation. “I have made up my mind! I know that this is what I want! New York!” she said, tapping the paper on the table, “this is what I want!”
   Her parents looked back at her with clearly evident reservations. “Why do you think that I can’t do this?” she said. “What do you think is wrong with me?”

***

An hour later, sprawled out on the living room couch cradling the phone against her head and examining her backlit toes against the ceiling light, Donna called Tim Hathaway.
   “Everything I know about games,” she said, “everything that you’ve shown me, tells me that they are really stupid.”
   “Donna, why are you calling me?”
   “Let me finish my point, jackass. I think games are dumb. Honestly, there it is. But maybe, okay, maybe I am wrong. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I am not seeing it, and they are actually better or smarter than I think.”
   “They definitely are. Do you want to try Darkforge III?”
   “No, I’m not going to try Darkforge III, Tim, it’s idiotic. I’m trying to tell you that I am giving you the benefit of the doubt. I’m giving games the benefit of the doubt, or at least trusting you that they might go somewhere worthwhile one day. Like even appeal to someone like me.”
   “Like, what, a game where you shop for clothes?”
   “No, I mean a game with a story that isn’t horrible.”
   “Darkforge is an epic saga, Donna.”
   “But,” said Donna, ignoring him, “even right now, when games are really juvenile, there’s still a person behind them. I think that could be something. If he genuinely is a pioneer and is actually talented in his field, then that’s interesting to me.”
   “Good. I’m glad you get it.”
   “Have you come up with any questions yet?”
   “Uh, technically no.”
   “I have one.” There was a single sentence written in Donna’s notebook. “‘Where do you see yourself in ten years?’”


TUESDAY

When she woke up, Donna Kelly had it all figured out. This was the story of a self-made man, who fought against expectations and circumstances to become an important voice in a field that attracted little attention, for various reasons fair and unfair. He persevered despite being largely unrecognized and changed the way things were done in his business. When Donna saw Tim at school that day, she greeted him with a warm smile that made Tim suspect that she was high. Donna thought that she might be too.

***

Donna and Tim didn’t have journalism period on Tuesdays. They did have English class together, though their seats were diagonally opposite and therefore not conducive to private conversations. Donna threw an eraser at Tim’s head.
   Tim looked back angrily, but of course it was Donna, and his face softened.
   Donna leaned over her desk as far as she could and whispered urgently. “I still don’t know anything about video games.”
   Tim glanced over each shoulder then hissed back, “Computer games or cartridge games?”
   “Either one, Tim; it doesn’t matter.”
   “Okay, so what?”
   “So let’s hang out soon, ‘cause I think I need like a crash course in games before the interview.”
   Tim was a little taken aback. “Sure.”
   “Tomorrow, okay? I’m busy today.”
   “Yeah, we’ll do something tomorrow.”
   “Cool.” Donna returned to the correct posture. The girl sitting to her left was looking Donna over with a raised eyebrow. “Get over yourself,” Donna said to her.


THAT NIGHT

There was nothing exceptional about Barbara Marshall’s cooking – she had prepared spaghetti and meatballs – but Donna was always happy to be the guest of Ellie’s family. It meant sitting at a dinner table with Ellie, for one thing, rather then with Donna’s younger brother who liked to fart loudly.
   Barbara watched Donna stir the sauce on her plate. “I hear that you’re reading The Great Gatsby for English.”
   “Mom,” Ellie pleaded.
   “What, honey? I’m just asking Donna a question.”
   “Yeah,” said Donna, “we are, sure. We just started.”
   “Tell me, what do you think?”
   “It’s really great,” said Donna, who was trying to obscure the fact that she had a mouthful of food. “I’m only halfway through but it’s one of my favorite books so far.”
   “Eleanor won’t even read it. She says it’s boring.” Barbara let the point rest and returned to her dinner.
   “Mom!”
   “You do, honey.”
   “Mom, it’s so old.”
   “Well, Donna doesn’t seem to mind it.”
   “You haven’t even read it, Mom.’’
   “It wasn’t assigned to me, honey.”
   Donna glanced back and forth between mother and daughter. “Oh, uh, we’re in different classes, so we have different teachers, maybe that might be important.”
   “You might be right,” said Barbara, and they ate for a minute in silence. “You know, I think it’s very impressive that you’ve applied to Columbia.”
   “Thank you, Mrs. Marshall.”
   “That’s magnificent. Have you decided what you’re going to major in?”
   “Oh, I’m really interested in journalism.”
   “Good for you. You want to be on TV, I bet?”
   “No, actually, I want to be the editor-in-chief of Time. Or Newsweek.”
   “Oh, my.” Barbara smiled. “That’s great. What a wonderful goal.”
   Donna nodded, and, after a moment without conversation, Barbara laid down her fork and leaned towards Donna again. “What are you girls studying at the moment? Eleanor hardly lets me know about anything that she’s up to.”
   “Uh,” said Donna, sipping a glass of water, “I’m doing this interview for journalism class. With a guy, who, uh, makes computer games.”
   “Oh, really? As in… Richard, what is that game called? Space Invaders?”
   “Sort of,” said Donna, “sort of like Space Invaders, except there’s supposed to be this real story behind them.”
   “Interesting; what kind of story?”
   “I mean… you select a character, and you’re supposed to go around killing the minions of a dark lord, going through dungeons and collecting treasure, you know. And I think that you have to find a magic orb through which the ghost of wizard is cursing the land. Then you destroy it and save the world.”
   Donna swallowed her food to a silent dining room.
   “It’s like a really dynamic art form, you know?”

***

Donna sat cross-legged on Ellie’s bedroom floor, writing furiously in her notebook while Ellie flipped through her record collection. “What do you want to listen to?”
   “Hmm?” Donna slowly drew her gaze away from the page. “Oh, nothing, actually. I can’t write when music is playing. I get distracted.”
   “Are you doing your homework?”
   “It’s going really well. I’m like so engaged right now.”
   “What-ever.” Ellie dropped backwards onto her bed. “What am I supposed to do?” Donna made no sign that she’d even heard. “Maybe I could read the Great Gatsby, which you love so much.”
   Donna kept writing.
   “No, that’s fine,” said Ellie. “Because we can definitely still hang out and listen to music when you leave and go to New York City.”
   “Tell me what you think of this,” said Donna, holding up her notepad before her face and reading aloud. “‘Imagine what it’s like to aspire to artistic success in a field that nobody you know even knows exists. What is it like to be enraptured by a singular creative vision? What’s it like to pursue your dream so doggedly because the only thing that will persuade the world of the value of your life’s work is to see the final result? What’s it like to be a genius, what’s it like to be ignored? Peter Bissette has the answers.’”
   “Who is Peter Bissette?”
   “Ex – exactly.”


WEDNESDAY

It was still weird for her to see Tim Hathaway outside of school and outside of school hours. It was like he had no existence apart from the context of her experience. Donna realized she had conceived of a philosophical puzzle, and quickly discarded it.
   “Come on, do it already,” he said.
   Donna critically examined her reflection in the storefront window of Valley Books, and adjusted her headband by a quarter-inch.
   “I’m gonna do it. Calm down.”
   “I don’t see you doing it.”
   Donna flipped Tim the finger and walked into the bookstore. She was the only customer and the eyes of the store clerk, who was, under these circumstances, heartbreakingly cute, made her feel extremely self-conscious. Her legs grew heavier and made her uncomfortably aware of her own movements.
   She reached the magazine section and went back and forth between Computer Gaming World and PC Magazine. Finally, she chose the former; the devil she knew. The cover promised ‘100 Games Rated’ and had a picture of a human head that was attached to wires or something. Donna felt it was pretty embarrassing on its own, and felt worse when she took it to the counter. She expected the guy to eye her suspiciously and ask to see her geek ID.
   As she placed the magazine on the counter and the clerk rang it up, she realized she was about to make an idiot out of herself, but that was slightly better than chickening out in front of Tim Hathaway.
   “This is my favorite magazine, I buy it every month,” she announced. “I love playing games on my Atari 5200. I think this magazine has all the best strategies and tips. I can’t wait to get back home and raid an awesome dungeon. I think I want to kill the big dinosaur.”
   Tim had been watching through the window. After leaving the store, Donna smacked him with the magazine. “You owe me two bucks for that at least.”
   “That was good.” Tim cracked up.
   “You take this fucking thing,” said Donna, handing him her purchase in its paper bag. “I don’t want it.”
   “You keep it. You earned it.”
   “It’s my turn now. I dare you to… kick that car.” Donna pointed at the silver Chevrolet Citation parked beside them.
   “What? No.”
   While Tim’s head was turned, Donna shoved him into the car and the alarm began to wail. Tim panicked, and Donna laughed, seized his hand, and ran.

***

Teton Bowl, the bowling alley, would have been of little appeal to Donna and Tim today if not for the fact that it also housed a dozen arcade cabinets in the alcove by the front doors. Donna was holding a plastic handgun that was plugged in to the cabinet and whose movements registered on the screen. She was playing called something called ‘Duck Hunt’, and as ducks flew from left to right, she depressed the trigger rapidly. Eventually she hit something and the virtual duck exploded in an array of bright red dots.
   "Oh, Tim, this is really gross."
   Tim was watching over her shoulder, silently evaluating her performance. "What would you rather shoot?"
   "I guess monsters… or Nazis."
   "Sorry, you can only shoot ducks."
   "Or you, I would rather shoot you." With a smile, Donna turned the gun at Tim’s temple. “Boom.”
   After her patience wore thin with duck hunting, Donna shuffled over to the neighboring cabinet, Robotron, and put in her quarters. Robotron had two joysticks, which puzzled her. The game began with about fifty objects on screen. Donna yanked around the joysticks wildly.
   “Tim, which one am I?”
   Icons started exploding independent of Donna’s action and the cabinet shrieked at her.
   “Tim, which one am I?”
   Tim appeared to examine the screen deeply, but Donna was met with a GAME OVER screen. “Whatever. Fuck that.”
   “Look at that,” said Tim, dripping with contempt and indicating the list of Robotron high scores. “Check out the idiot who has the high score on this.” Whoever had secured the number one score had entered his name as A-S-S.
   “Yeah…” said Donna, “how immature, right?”

***

Tim – or, more often, his parents – bought all his games from a department store, the same store to which he had now brought Donna. Tim had referred to the trip as a pilgrimage and Donna had threatened to punch him. Standing together in the computer game aisle, Tim traced his finger across the shelves and identified each title’s own historic achievement in the gaming medium. Each title seemed to be a milestone, or a sequel to a milestone. From left to right, Tim narrated: color graphics, musical score, interactive dialogue, party system, real-time combat, first-person viewpoint, 3D objects, text parser, mouse interface, isometric view.
   “So all you need to do to be revolutionary is to tilt the camera on its side?”
   Tim snorted. “There’s a lot more to it than that.”
   “Oh, gosh,” said Donna, “imagine a game where, uh, you could push around objects and they would bounce around like they do in real life. You could drop boxes on… seesaws, or something. Look at me: I innovated.”
   Tim shook his head. “You don’t get it.”
   “Sorry, okay. I do want to know about all this. Tell me more about some games.”
   “No, I don’t want to now.”
   She grabbed his shoulder and with all the theatrical huskiness she could manage, whispered: “Please, Tim, I have to know. I have to know all about computer games.”
   He sighed. “Well, this one is Space Quest. It’s new and it’s supposed to be amazing. I put it on my Christmas list.”
   “Space Quest? What is that, like King’s Quest in space?”
   Tim paused. “Yeah. I guess so.”
   Donna considered this by herself for a minute. “I think I’m ready to interview this guy.”


THURSDAY

Peter Bissette lived in Teton Pines, which was about a thirty-minute drive from Tim Hathaway’s house near the hospital. It was after school and Donna sat in the car with her father, waiting for Tim to appear.
   “I don’t like the idea of you hanging out with him,” said Robert Kelly. “You know what happens to those Dungeons and Dragons freaks.”
   “No, tell me all about it, Dad,” said Donna, checking her watch. Tim was five minutes late, and the interview was supposed to start at four thirty.
   “That one kid in Michigan crawled into a sewer tunnel and blew his brains out. These kids get so messed up by elves and fairies that they kill themselves, Donna.”
   “Yeah, is that what happens?”
   “Don’t get smart with me.”
   “Sorry.”
   “I don’t want you getting mixed up in the occult. It feels like I’m the only one who cares enough to look out for you.”
   “Dad, Tim is… he is a sweet, normal, quiet guy who just is into some geeky things. He is literally like the furthest thing from dangerous. I know you don’t believe me, but he does not dress up and worship Satan.”
   The rear door opened and Tim slid into the backseat. He was wearing a green hooded cloak over a black raincoat and brown tunic, and knee-high leather boots that looked like they belonged to a prostitute.
   “Hi, Donna.”
   Donna, her neck craned, could not collect herself enough to shut her gaping mouth.
   “What are you wearing.”
   “This is my Strider costume.”
   Donna stared.
   “From Lord of the Rings?” he added.
   “Is that what you are wearing?”
   Tim nodded casually. “Are we going or what?”
   Donna sputtered and pointed out the window. “Tim – get back in your house and get dressed!”
   “No, he’ll love this!”
   Donna spun back to her seat. Her father looked at her with more silent judgment than she had ever seen him summon in a single expression. She realized she was blushing. “Oh my God.”
   “Okay then,” said Robert, “let’s go.” He started the car and pulled onto the road.
   Tim threw a fist in the air. “Excelsior!”
   Donna sank down as far as she could below her window. “Oh my God.”


***

Peter Bissette’s house was less of a palace than Donna had been expecting. It was a decent, two-story, one-garage thing that certainly didn’t scream ‘game programmer’; whatever that screamed. Robert Kelly seemed underwhelmed by it too, and even Tim looked momentarily disappointed. Probably, Donna thought, Tim was hoping for a Scottish castle replete with moat and family crest.
   All three of them got out of the car at once, to Donna’s sudden alarm. “Dad, it’s really okay,” she said, “you don’t have to walk us to the door. You can wait in the car.”
   “Absolutely not.”
   Tim skipped up the driveway steps, his cloak flapping in the breeze, and rang the doorbell.
   “Are you gonna take notes?” he asked Donna.
   “What?”
   “We don’t have a tape recorder, are you taking notes?”
   “Uh…”
   “Come on, he’s about to answer the door!”
   “I’ll take notes if you make sure to ask the questions that I prepared…”
   “Yeah yeah yeah. Fine. I will.”
   Donna gave him a look and then the door opened. When she saw Peter Bissette her first thought – based on his patchy, almost invisible stubble – was that he had not shaved in a couple of days. It then occurred to her that it was more like he hadn’t shaved in a couple of months and this was the best he could do. Peter Bissette was young. Donna had a fake driver’s license on which she claimed to be twenty-two, and at seventeen years old she could pass for older than Peter Bissette looked.
   Bissette was a skinny guy in jeans and a sweater. His hair came down to his shoulders and he wore glasses and a necklace with some unidentifiable fantasy thing on the end of it.
   “Hey, are you Tim?” He spoke in a kind of nasal register, to Donna’s utter lack of surprise.
   “Yeah,” Tim said, and shook Bissette’s hand. “It’s so awesome to meet you.”
   “You too, man.”
   “Oh,” said Tim, “this is my friend Donna.” Donna gave him a wary half-smile and Bissette nodded enthusiastically.
   “I’m Donna’s father. Robert Kelly.” Donna wanted to die.
   “Cool, nice to meet you, man.” They shook hands.
   “How old are you?” asked Robert.
   “I’m twenty-four.”
   Donna was stunned. “Twenty-four?”
   “Well, come on in, let’s get started.” Bissette held open the door and Tim leapt inside. Robert Kelly put a hand on Donna’s shoulder and whispered: “I will be right outside if you need me.”
   Donna, who was beginning to doubt the entire enterprise, nodded and then cautiously stepped inside the Bissette house.

***

There was an actual sword hanging over the archway before Peter Bissette’s living room. If it fell, it would kill somebody.
   “Whoa,” said Tim, “a sword!”
   “That’s a replica of a twelfth-century French crusader sword,” said Bissette with pride, “it’s the type that the Order of the Knights Templar would carry as they went into battle, or protected pilgrims.”
   “Outstanding,” said Tim.
   Donna watched the sword carefully as she passed under it. “This guy is a fucking dork,” she muttered to herself.
   The living room was adorned with medieval tapestries and paintings. Donna knew that the details of these could make for cute journalistic details if only she could bring herself to look at any of them. The surroundings were of an entirely different, embarrassing culture, and her only touchstone was Tim Hathaway, who was completely enraptured by the setting. Tim seemed orgasmic. The whole thing was making Donna’s skin crawl.
   Peter Bissette flopped down on one of his couches; Tim and Donna sat on another.
   “I bought this house in ’83,” said Bissette. “I have some office space in town as well; that’s Omega Software, technically. We’ve got about four guys working out of there at the moment.”
   “We didn’t have to interview you at home,” said Donna. “That would have been interesting, seeing you at work.”
   “I usually don’t go into the office until later. I get in at maybe seven, eight.” Donna thought this was awfully slack.
   “We might as well start getting into some questions,” said Tim. “Donna is going to take notes.” Donna took out her notepad and pen slowly.
   “Sounds good. Do you two want anything to drink?”
   “No, we’re okay,” said Tim. He had a sheet of paper prepared with his questions. “Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into making games?”
   “Oh, wow. Well, I always loved computers. I learned how to program in BASIC, if you can believe that, that really dates me, but I learned how to program in BASIC when I was in high school. I grew up in Idaho and our high school had one computer in it, and I would stay after school and learn how to use that machine. I taught myself how to program in BASIC on that computer. Finally I convinced my parents to buy an Apple II and I would learn how to program games that I could play on that. My goal was pretty much to try and get a Dungeons & Dragons game running on the Apple II, looking to my own D&D campaign for inspiration. I made a couple prototypes before arriving at something that better resembled a full-length game.
   “Eventually I got the attention of a publisher in California and they liked what I had done, and so they ended up putting out what became Darkforge I.”
   Donna’s wrist was already starting to cramp. “Wait,” she said, “how old were you when this happened?”
   “Darkforge I was published in 1981, I would have been nineteen.”
   “That seems extremely young.”
   “Mm, it’s about normal, I think.”
   “Something I’ve always wanted to ask,” said Tim, “is about why the name of the series is still Darkforge when you only actually get to go to the principality of Darkforge in the first game.”
   Bissette laughed. “That’s a good question. I couldn’t use it as a location anymore since in the first game Darkforge was obviously obliterated.”
   “Obviously,” Tim said.
   “Obviously,” Donna said.
   “Darkforge itself is the product of a dark magic blight upon the valley, so once you vanquish that in the first game, it disappears and you can’t set foot there again. It was something of a dilemma whether to keep titling the subsequent games as Darkforge or not, but I think that many of the themes of Darkforge I transfer to those later games, so there is a sense of continuity. The theme of good versus evil is very important in the Darkforge universe, for instance. And I really wanted to keep working in that world. I love the mythology. You’ll see that many of the elements and characters of Darkforge I are present in the later games: altars, teleportation orbs, centaurs, the darkspawn, you know.”
   Donna raised her hand. “How do you spell ‘centaur’?”
   “C-E-N-T-A-U-R,” Tim recited a little impatiently.
   “I really think of the Darkforge series occurring as three separate trilogies,” said Bisette, “culminating in a cycle of nine games. And all trilogies are circular, I believe, and perhaps towards the end of the cycle you will see a return to Darkforge.”
   “Awesome,” said Tim.
   “But for now the Darkforge series will probably continue to be set in the land of Kiera Anlokh, which – “
   “How do you spell that.”
   “K-I-E-R-A, A-N-L-O-K-H.”
   “Plus, you’ll know this, Tim, but there are certain dark sorcerers and nemeses which continue to plague your hero across games.”
   “Of course: Mordach.”
   “That’s right. And expect his bastard scion, Aduln’ric, to make a return appearance.”
   “How do you spell the name of the bastard scion?”
   Tim audibly sighed. “It’s A-D-U-L-N – apostrophe – R-I-C.”
   Donna nodded dutifully and wrote down F-U-C-K, Y-O-U.
   “While I have you here,” said Tim, “I really should ask you about some strategies or tips for keeping your characters alive.”
   Donna looked at them both and to her horror they were completely engaged.
   “Well, you should be mapping the dungeons on graph paper, if you aren’t doing that already. Also remember to stock up with supplies before you head out, or carry one or two teleportation potions at all times. If you do that you shouldn’t be in much danger of exhaustion.”
   “But sometimes it’s the combat itself that is so difficult. If you come across a pack of two or more lizardfolk – which you did in Darkforge III, all the time – you’re really in a lot of trouble. I just wanted to know if you could give me any strategies on getting the most out of those encounters.”
   “That ties into something I implemented in Darkforge IV, namely the ability to reason with monsters and talk your way out of a fight. Even lizardfolk. There’s no dishonor in retreating from a fight, or parting with a little bit of gold, to avoid a battle you’re not sure you can win.”
   “Okay, and what about improving your stats? I mean, talking to enemies will only work if you have a high enough charisma, and in the Darkforge games, it’s strength that is so important. What’s the smartest balance to go for there?”
   Left behind at the word ‘lizardfolk’, Donna switched from the lines of the paper to a marginalia drawing of a stick figure being run down by a car.
   “You definitely have to be smart about what you’re putting character points into, no question, or you'll be torn apart by the lizardfolk. But there are a few unique items in each game which I consciously put in there as a stat booster, that might help even things out somewhat.”
   Bissette continued. “In one of the dungeons in Darkforge III – if memory serves, right off the Valhalla Coast – there’s a magic amulet which is permanent plus-three charisma. That’s a great help in resisting the harpies, especially.”
   “I found that! I did.”
   “What else… I suppose there’s the enchanted bow of Illrath, that’s in Darkforge III also. It’s only of help if you’re playing as a ranger, of course, but it’s a great help. Plus-two dexterity, I believe.”
   “I found that one, too! It’s in the Black Forest.”
   “That’s right,” Bissette smiled, “you’re quite the adventurer.”
   “Gosh.”
   Donna, who had stopped taking notes, looked at Bissette brightly and expectantly like he was supposed to call on her with her question next.
   “There’s also – and this is in Darkforge IV now – a mystic dagger that once belonged to Mordach himself which is found near the end of the game in Castle Nyella. That dagger is worth about plus-three agility.”
   “I didn’t know about that! Can you make sure you write that down, Donna?”
   Donna drew a picture of a stick figure being hanged.
   “I’m interested to hear that you think it’s too hard, though,” said Bissette. “I’ve received some letters that are expressing some of the same sentiments. I’m always interested to hear what players are thinking, and I definitely want to keep those thoughts in mind when making Darkforge VI.”
   “Darkforge VI?!”
   “‘Stronghold of the Fallen’. We should be putting that out in about September of next year. I’m really excited about it, there’s a lot of advancements we’re making that should be really interesting to see. We’re hoping to implement a real-time clock in there that will move between day and night, and there’s going to be a system to travel across the world using faster transportation, perhaps a series of teleportation gates or caravan. The key to a good Darkforge game, I think, is taking advantage of new technologies and really pushing the envelope.”
   Donna checked her watch. It had to be wrong, she thought.
   “Can I ask you one more question?” Tim retrieved a sheet of paper from his pocket and unfolded it on Bissette’s coffee table. “What do you think of my map?” It was the same elaborate dungeon that Tim had been drawing days ago.
   “Hmm…” Bissette leaned in closer, examined it. “Interesting loot placement.”
   Tim was delighted. “Really?”
   “I would reroute this corridor here,” said Bissette, indicating a point on the map, “so that it leads directly into this monster room you have. You don’t want to deplete players’ resources too much.”
   “Can I ask a question?” Both men looked at Donna. “Where do you see yourself in ten years?”
   “Which one of us are you talking to?” asked Tim. “Oh, right.”
   “In ten years? I hope still making these games, doing what I love.”
   “Fantastic,” said Donna, and slammed her notebook shut.

***

It had taken ten minutes to pry Tim away from the Bissette house. He had concealed a copy of the first Darkforge game in his backpack and insisted on getting Peter Bissette to sign and personalize it. When he finally returned to the car, he was insatiable.
   “I can’t believe I have a signed copy of Darkforge. Oh, wow.”
   “Did it go well?” Robert Kelly asked his daughter.
   “It went so well!” said Tim. “Oh, wow.”
   Donna stared out her window and did not respond. Robert started the car and when they reached Tim Hathaway’s home, thirty minutes later, Donna hadn’t said a word.

***

Tim thanked Donna’s father for the ride, left the car and braved the chill back to his house. Tapping her fingers on the dashboard in silence, she yanked open her door, asked her father to wait and followed Tim up the steps. She slipped inside right after Tim and she closed the door.
   “What’s going on?” he asked. “Do you want to go upstairs?”
   “I fucking do not. Tim, I am so pissed at you right now. You totally steamrolled me. You didn’t ask a single one of my questions.”
   Tim was looking a little rattled and started to say something.
   “But – but!” interrupted Donna, “who even cares, because what a boring guy that was! That was so fucking stupid! You lied to me; you made me think he was interesting. God help you if that’s the closest thing you have to a pioneer.”
   “I didn’t like your questions,” snapped Tim, “nobody cares about this bleeding heart, human drama thing, it’s pretentious. I like his games, it’s not important what his childhood was like. Maybe you want to know about that, but the questions I asked are what’s interesting to people like me who actually play games!”
   “That’s what you want to talk about? How to find the secret dungeons?”
   “Yes, because that actually means something to me.”
   “Oh, good.” Donna pulled her notebook from her coat pocket, tore out her aborted transcript and dropped the pages on the floor. “Here’s your investigative exposé. Shove it up your ass.”
   Donna opened the door, then stopped, turned back around and jabbed a finger at Tim. “This guy just copied Dungeons & Dragons and then kept doing it for six years. How can you even be inspired by something that lazy? Computer games are not going to be as successful as you think they are if they’re going to be stories about, what, what, fucking monsters with magic powers? But you don’t even care, do you? I was wrong. It’s not that games are misunderstood, it’s not that they’re really going somewhere, it’s not that people don’t take them seriously; they’re just bad. They’re actually no good. Do you have any idea how discouraging that is?”
   Tim crossed his arms and looked away.
   “Jesus!” said Donna as she stepped outside, “you think you know somebody.”


FRIDAY

School was a blur. At every desk and in every classroom, Donna never wrote a single thing down and was lucky never to have a teacher call on her once. At the end of the day, she slumped at a table by the parking lot opposite Eric. He was absorbed in a magazine and she watched him turn the pages and marveled at how easy it was to lose oneself in something.
   “Can I ask you a question?” she said. Her head was resting on the table and she looked up at him with curiosity.
   “Okay,” he said, “if I get to ask you a question after that. This magazine has a quiz that tells you whether you are a ‘wild girl.’”
   “If you could ask any question to the person who designed Robotron, what would it be?”
   “I don’t know who made Robotron.”
   “Well, if you knew.”
   “I guess…” Eric put down the magazine and seemed to think about it.
   “What have you always wanted to know?”
   “I guess… I’d like to know why he made the grunt waves so difficult.”
   “Really. Anything else?”
   “Hmm. No, that’s it.”
   Donna let her head roll sideways on the table, and she felt as though she could fall asleep right there in the snow. “I’ll give this to you, you are an idiot, but you definitely have the high score on Robotron.”  
   Eric was about to refer back to the quiz and inquire as to Donna’s body piercing proclivities when Todd slid into the seat next to him.
   “Hey. Hey. Are we doing anything tonight?”
   “Yeah, we’re going out to the woods again.”
   “Awesome. Are you coming, Donna?”
   Donna pushed back from the table. “No! I will go out with you in the cold and in the snow and I will get drunk on your shitty beer but I refuse to keep doing it in a goddamn forest! For once in my life let me keep some of my fucking dignity and get trashed in an actual house. Just for one night and then, then, Eric, you can go back to tipping cows or whatever it is you do.”
   Eric looked thoughtful again. “Did you know that it’s basically impossible to tip a cow? I mean I’ve tried. Even sober I’ve tried. More than once.”
   Donna glared at him. “Don’t talk to me anymore.”

***

This was not necessarily the classier option. Dance music sounded horribly distorted when heard via a cassette deck and then through the walls of Maggie’s house. Donna and Ellie had ended up outside, leaning against the wall and sitting in what had until recently been a flowerbed. Donna swung a beer back and forth in her gloved hands. It was her sixth.
   “Am I a bad person if I hate being from here?” She took another swig. Ellie had fallen asleep – or was close to it – on her shoulder.
   “I hate that this place is going to be identified with me forever. I’m already thinking like I live in New York. I care more about what happens there. I can tell you the names of every New York senator and I don’t even know who represents me.
   “And you look at me like New York is beneath you, like it’s pretentious and it’s full of drug addicts or whatever. But I would rather die in New York with a needle in my arm than live here for the rest of my life.
   “I don’t know if there’s a typical kind of Jackson person, but whoever that is, I don’t like them. If I talk about Columbia or politics or editing Time, they look at me so patronizingly. No one gives a shit. People think I have dreams and that’s just something you do when you’re young. They act like it’s idealistic to be ambitious. They act like I owe this town something. Fuck them. Give me someone or somewhere that does believe in me. I don’t want to stay here. What do I get if I do?
   “I have all these ideas but there isn’t the money or the resources to do them here. And nobody will ever pay attention to them because there are only ten people here who will ever read it! No one in the world would ever think to care because nothing worthwhile ever came out of Jackson. If I stay here, then I get forgotten. Ellie, I am so scared.”
   Ellie drowsily lifted her head from Donna’s shoulder. Staring at Donna with tired, glassy eyes, she parted her lips slightly. Donna waited for her to speak, and then Ellie turned sharply and threw up in the bushes.
   Donna brushed the hair back from her eyes as Ellie continued to puke. “Fair enough.”


SATURDAY

When Donna drank, she had a habit of waking up earlier than usual the next morning. Five thirty was a lousy time to feel completely alert, but she couldn’t even pretend to herself that she might fall back into sleep, and decided not to bother.
   While it was still dark outside, Donna washed her hair, got dressed then headed downstairs to make her own breakfast for the first time in six months. Sipping coffee at the kitchen table, watching the sun come up alone, she felt like she owned this house. Donna was unexpectedly proud of having accomplished something before dawn. This, she considered, should be what being an adult is like.
   Donna had nothing to do. She had no plans with either Todd or Ellie, and the only thing that demanded her attention were the scholarship and student loan forms waiting incomplete on her bedroom desk. In the interests of continuing her sudden rush of maturity, Donna chose to put on her coat, gloves and boots, walk outside and run up and down the street.
   In minutes, a dozen houses down, her cheeks were stinging from the cold, but she was okay with it. When she ran, the adrenaline made her loopy and hyped her up about the idea of engaging in an elaborate workout regime. She thought about being a kick boxer, and in the absence of any gym equipment in the street, she kicked somebody’s mailbox.
   It occurred to her now, gloved hands clutching above her knees, crouched over and taking a breath, that she was going to fail her assignment. Failing a journalism assignment – a profile piece, no less – probably would not reflect so well on her considering she was applying to study at a Journalism school. Donna turned back to her house.
   At noon, Donna picked up the phone in the living room.
   “Hello?”
   “Hi, Mr. Bissette, this is Donna Kelly from Jackson Hole High School.”
   “Oh, Donna, hi. How are you?”
   “Yeah, listen, I was hoping that I could do kind of a follow-up interview with you. I’ve got some more questions that I need to ask for our assignment.” She drummed a ballpoint pen on the couch arm.
   “Sure, that’s okay. Do you and Tim want to come over again?”
   “Actually, Tim is away for the weekend with his parents, but he asked if I could do it. And it’d be easier to do it over the phone, if you don’t mind.” She flinched.
   “That’s fine.”
   “Great, what’s a good time for you?”
   “We could do it today. Call me later, will you? Like ten.”
   “P.M.? What time do you get up in the morning, Peter?”
   “Call me back, I’m going to get back to sleep.”
   Donna hung up, and breathed out.

***

The day had gone from being Donna’s to command to seeing her wracked with anxiety and pacing around her living room. Her parents and her brother had left for a Christmas dinner party; to her delight, Donna was able to defer using the finally legitimate excuse that she had homework.
   Donna wrote new questions in her notebook, reviewed them, read them out loud, anticipated an answer, screwed up the pages and started again. She repeated this for most of the day, stopping only for quick meals, and by the evening her nervous energy dissipated. The effects of getting up early took their toll and, lying on her couch surrounded by loose pieces of lined paper, she drifted off.
   The phone rang harshly. Donna woke in the dark and with bleary eyes checked her watch: quarter to ten. Realizing she had fallen asleep, she filed a quick mental note of self-recrimination and made a grab for the phone. In her haste, she didn’t wonder why Peter Bissette would have her phone number.
   “Hello? This is Donna.”
   “Hey, it’s me.”
   Donna sighed. “Hey, Todd.”
   “What are you doing right now?
   “Todd, thanks for calling, but I really need to use the phone.”
   “Come on, I want to take you out tonight. I’ll pick you up in half an hour. Everyone’s Christmas lights are on, we’ll drive past them.”
   “Todd, I appreciate it, I’d do it any other day, but I’m busy right now.”
   “It feels like I’m always asking you to hang out.”
   “Maybe you do. It doesn’t mean anything.”
   “Do you care about being with me at all?”
   Donna rolled her eyes and got up off the couch, the receiver in her hand. “Oh, God, do you really want to talk about this?”
   “Yeah. I think we should.”
   “Honestly, you picked like the worst possible time. Why don’t we make a date, seriously, for tomorrow or something and we can go over your concerns for as long as you like.”
   “Is that a good time? How about after you leave and I can call you long-distance? You know you never even asked me if you should move away. You just said that you were leaving.”
   “Why should I ask you? You don’t own me.”
   “Donna… I love you, you know?”
   Donna was less impressed than she thought she might have been to hear that.
   “I try so hard to make you happy. That’s all I want to do.”
   “Okay, Todd, but I’m obviously not happy here and if you loved me then you would see that. If you’re serious about us why don’t you come to New York with me?”
   “I can’t. You know I can’t. This is where my friends are. This is where my family is.”
   “Well, I am not staying here,” Donna snapped, “and clearly you don’t know what I want. You don’t care that I want to be a journalist. You don’t even think I’m good at it. I want that. I don’t want to be your housewife. I don’t want to spend my twenties drinking in the woods, I don’t want a job here, I don’t want to have kids here, I don’t want to change the things that I want to be with you.”
   “But you are like the only thing that I want. You are important. To me. I don’t know how to make you happy but I want to be with you.”
   She stopped, and didn’t speak. Donna didn’t know why she was angry, and why she was shaking.
   “Well,” she said, “that’s not good enough for me.”
   Todd didn’t respond, and Donna was about to say something else, when he answered, “Okay”, and hung up.
   The skin around her eyes began to burn and she threw herself face-first on the couch and screamed into the cushion.

***

Ten minutes later, she dialed Peter Bissette’s number. It was pitch black out now, and Donna had the living room lit only by the nearby desk lamp.
   “Hi, is this Donna?”
   “Yeah, hi.”
   Donna was sitting on the end of the couch, having hastily composed herself and wiped her eyes. Her notebook was open in her lap and she held a pen in her free hand.
   “Ready when you are,” he said.
   “What are you doing at ten o’clock at night?” she wondered, almost incidentally.
   “Doing some programming.”
   “Really? On a Saturday? Don’t you go off the clock at some point?”
   “I don’t think of it as work so much. I enjoy doing this.”
   “What do you enjoy about programming?”
   “Hmm. I like to put things together. I like assembling all these separate pieces in creative combinations and seeing if they work. I enjoy getting to solve all these little puzzles that come up. Creating things, that’s what I enjoy about it. Being an architect.”
   “Alright. Can I ask you my first question?”
   “Go for it.”
   “Why do you make games?”
   “That’s an interesting question. Part of it has to do with what I just told you about, programming. I like to think that I’d program even if I wasn’t making games. But I also enjoy the creative process, and playing around in fantasy universes. That’s such a rich area to me; I think it’s endlessly fascinating. And I’ve always enjoyed playing games, in the first place, going back to board games, and I’ve found being on this side of things is more fun.”
   “Is that what you were thinking when you made your first game?”
   “No, I don’t think so, necessarily. I never meant to end up doing this. Making games was not my intention when I started out, I didn’t even really appreciate that it was something you could do for a living. When I made my first game it was for myself. I enjoyed doing it but I didn’t expect that people would ever pay attention to it. When they did, I think things started to change and I became more aware of game design as a potential career path. If people didn’t like Darkforge, or didn’t play it, then I don’t think I would have ended up doing games. It just would not have occurred to me. Programming, sure, but this specifically was very much a lucky accident, I believe.”
   “This isn’t meant to be an offensive question,” said Donna, “but can you tell me what was so good about Darkforge?”
   Bissette laughed. “You don’t play computer games at all, do you?”
   “No, I don’t. I’ve seen them, a little bit, but they’re not my thing.”
   “Can I ask you a question, then? Why are you so interested in them?”
   “I’m interested in my subject. It’s important that I know about the things that you care about, or I can’t write the piece well.”
   “This isn’t meant to be an offensive question either, but isn’t this ‘piece’ like a high school assignment?”
   “Yeah, but you know how you love programming? This is what I love. This is what I want to do.”
   “You want to be a journalist?”
   “Absolutely.”
   “What would you write about if you could?”
   “I want to be a reporter. I want to travel and write about everything that happens in the world. I want to report on wars and politics and civil rights and make a record of everything that really mattered. I like interesting personalities. I want to find those people and talk to them and tell their stories because I think they mean something. That’s what I love and I can’t imagine being satisfied doing anything else.”
   “Sounds good.”
   “That’s what I’ve wanted to do ever since I was fifteen. And I think, uh, that I’m really not going to get a chance to do much of it until I move to New York next year. I’m going to Columbia University. Do you like living in Jackson?”
   “Not really.”
   “Jackson is so boring to me. It’s too limited. And this is… I’m frustrated. Do you know? All I want is one opportunity to show that I can do this kind of writing, to show that I am actually talented at this. I need to write something amazing. People don’t believe me when I say I can write that way, or write well. My family doesn’t care about this, and my friends don’t give a shit. If I can’t prove it to them, if I can’t be successful at this, then I don’t think they’re ever going to understand.” She paused. “I’m sorry. Why is Darkforge so good?”
   “I think it was largely the technology. It was, in part, incredibly innovative: it had tiled graphics, separate screens for dialogue and combat, moral alignments that led to varying interactions. It might be hard to understand but nobody was doing that at the time. That was because no one could get that to work on a computer. Do you appreciate that it’s literally something no one has ever seen before? And to know that you created it?”
   “Yes.”
   “That’s what I did. And I was nineteen, so I had a more ambitious vision for the technology than I might have with more experience and a better grasp of how things work.”
   “Then I think it’s good that you got started young.”
   “It might have been. But almost everyone gets into the business around that time. I’m not especially young for a computer game designer. Computer games are a very new thing and there aren’t a lot of rules to getting your foot in the door. It was great to be twenty years old and making as much money and being as famous and highly regarded as I was then.
   “But I think, because technology ages so fast, as soon as I’d done Darkforge, someone else came up with another game that was as revolutionary and certain features would make Darkforge obsolete. Then someone else would come up with another innovation and someone else, and someone else…. I’m still making money, and people are playing my games. I find, however, that I’ve never been able to come up with as important an idea as the ones I had four years ago.
   “I’m trying harder than I ever have. The technology is more challenging. The business is more challenging. I’m working harder. I’m working with other people, and so I get to put together games that would be too big for one person to make. And they look better, and they have more features, but I don’t think that in the future anyone will point to these newer games and say that they’re as meaningful or influential as the first two. I’m trying my best, but I’d have to agree with them. I think that I was more full of purpose when I was twenty.
   “This only occurred to me very recently. I have to admit that because of when I started I might have done the best work of my career when I was twenty. That was when I made my contribution. I suppose I assumed I would have longer than that. Where can I go from here that’s valuable? You asked me where I want to be in ten years. Sometimes I wish I was ten years younger instead.”
   “But... it sucks now.”
   “I think you could become a very talented journalist. You might be one already. But don’t think that when people recognize you that it will be the end of your problems. It doesn’t suddenly get easier after that. You can never know how long you have. Creativity is not predictable.”
   Donna had stopped writing long ago. “I won’t accept that.”
   “You might have to.”
   “No,” she said firmly. “I have hope. I believe in myself. I know that I can be good at this.”
   “Then I wish you the best. I really do.”
   Donna let the pen drop to the floor. “Thank you. I’m gonna go now.”
   “Good luck on your project.”
   “You too,” she said, and put the phone down.
   She flipped backwards through every page of her notebook, accelerating to the beat of her heart and taking in every line. All the questions for Peter Bissette, the pages that were stained by tears, where the interview pages used to be, the notes she’d made on the arcade and the department store, her first pass at an intro, sarcastic commentary on her visit to Tim’s house, where do you see yourself in ten years, and then arrived at the first page: ‘Assignment: write about a local personality. 500 words.’
   Looking at the notebook, she wondered how she could possibly put it all together, and then smacked herself in the forehead with it. It felt like too much work, but that thought made her fiercely want to try.
   Through the window she could see the Christmas lights on her neighbor’s house, which were blinking in time with a tune that wasn’t playing. She lay down on the couch, pulled a blanket around herself and watched the light show until late into the night.


SUNDAY

Hanging in Donna’s bedroom, above her dresser, was a map of the Manhattan subway. She liked, sometimes, to select two random points on the grid and work out the most efficient route between them. It might better prepare her for New York once she got there, but Donna was never thinking ahead like that, she simply liked to immerse herself in the street and station names.
   Donna traced her finger across the glass, as, with her free hand, she blow-dried her hair. Years ago, her father had gone to New York City for a conference and when he returned he found that he still had this map in his luggage, having forgotten to throw it out at the airport. Donna had framed it.
   Donna had slept in and missed her family leave for church, so she had been informed via a terse note written by her mother and left by her sleeping form on the living room couch. They must have assumed that she was drunk or something, and for all her sobriety, Donna somehow felt hungover.
   It was late, she knew, but Donna was still reasonably well put-together; her hair was dry and make-up was thinly applied. If she hurried, she could still make it to the church.
   As soon as this thought came to her, she bolted out of her bedroom, stopping at the door to pull on her winter jacket and tightly fasten her boots. She grabbed her keys from the rack and dashed outside, letting the wind slam the door behind her. She knew that she really didn’t have to expend so much effort on something that she cared about relatively little, but she wanted to do it anyway.

May 19, 2009

Hit Self-Esteem

What is Braid about?

This is a contentious question. The game itself is not clear. It never suggests a particular interpretation or even the existence of a single allegorical meaning. Competing theories abound, and creator Jonathan Blow won't talk about any of them except to imply that these are all somewhat off-base or only partially correct.

It's a contentious game. Some consider the story to be pretentious, some consider the whole thing pretentious, some consider it the wrong kind of pretentious. Additionally, Jonathan Blow appears to read everything that is written about Braid on the internet, so you can imagine him looking over your breakthrough analysis and shaking his head dismissively.

If anyone continues to discuss what Braid might be about, it's because the subject is still largely unresolved. The story in itself is a puzzle, and if Braid does nothing else it reminds you how good it feels to solve the impossible.

Behind two doors is a scrap of a painting that you need to collect. The doors are both locked, and there's only one key in the area. This key will open either door, but you can only use it once. If you do the logical thing and unlock the first door, of course you cannot then progress. How frustrating is this? You can't solve it by dexterity. In fact, you cannot solve this by any realistic method. In Braid, though, our world works differently.

Braid is not a test of reflexes but of your capacity to rewire your brain to think about the rules of time and physics in entirely unfamiliar ways. Every challenge has specific parameters to observe and unique rules to learn, and is solvable only by these special criteria. Braid needs you to narrow your vision and concentrate. It's like a Magic Eye picture if you could only see the image by scientifically deducing the process by which an autostereogram works, instead of just marveling that you made a dolphin appear.

Unlocking both doors is completely beyond normal human ability, but, you think, what if -- and then, in ten seconds, you've mentally rearranged every element and every contradiction of the puzzle into a configuration which briefly made a flash of absolute sense. You've reconstructed time and space to suit your temporary purposes, and who wouldn't feel smart for doing that?

That's your eureka moment -- one of about thirty. This kind of gratification is not a reward for one particularly difficult problem in the game. You get this emotional feedback rationed out in evenly-paced doses. This could probably be addictive if each high wasn't also so hard to achieve. Braid is an emotional pendulum that swings between frustrated worthlessness and being hyper-impressed with your own cleverness.

Braid creates circumstances which facilitate feelings of momentary genius. Playing Braid, I relate to high school dorks who select steroid-abusing vigilantes as their in-game avatars, except I am role-playing as a smart person. The captain of the debate team or something. The game does its absolute best to ensure you get to feel this way about yourself. There are no variable difficulty levels or in-game hint system. You either solve it and feel good, or you don't. Or you cheat, and Jonathan Blow tries to head that impulse off at the pass. "Some of the puzzles will be hard", he writes in his high-concept official walkthrough. "But when you manage to solve those hard puzzles, you will feel very good about it. The game will feel very rewarding. Don't rob yourself of that feeling by reading a walkthrough!"

It's a plea for preserving the sanctity of experience. What would change if you did use a walkthrough? There'd be no such sense of accomplishment, you wouldn't feel smart, and in attempting a solution you would never make a mistake and see the consequences. If you cheat, you miss a lot of what is special about Braid.

All of this is relevant because Braid concerns a character who appears to be an actual genius. It's tricky to say who 'Tim' is, exactly, since that's like answering what the game is about. Here's something that he could be, though, at least in one reality: a scientist on the Manhattan Project and working through a series of epiphanies and micro-discoveries that lead to his creation of the atomic bomb, or whatever Pandora's Box that's supposed to represent.

Tim is tightly focused on this scientific pursuit to the detriment of his relationship. He is so involved with his work that he doesn't see (or can't see, or doesn't care about) the potential harm to others that his invention might incur. Neither does he recognise the adverse effects that his behaviour is already having on his personal life; we see him indirectly push away a loved one. His obsession diminishes his humanity.

I think that there are deliberate reasons why Braid is difficult, why it's a puzzle game, and why it's a game at all. If it's all three, then it can regularly induce in the player the almost vain feeling of exceptional aptitude. Again, it's hard to say too much about what thoughts go through Tim's mind: by all external appearances he's clinical, overly rational and emotionally hollow. Maybe, though, the reason that he fixates on the challenges presented by his work, and accepts the collateral damage to his relationships, is that solving puzzles makes him feel really good. In playing Braid we feel smart too, and we might sympathise.

Developing the atomic bomb must have presented an uncommonly challenging creative exercise. It's as if through the act of playing, you're in Tim's head working through the mental acrobatics and twisting around what we know to be natural and right to arrive at a seemingly impossible conclusion. Tim is probably so divorced from reality that he would abstract nuclear physics and quantum mechanics to the comprehensible immaturity of monsters and keys.

Tim operates in isolation, and if he is a person at all, then this is certainly no good for him. The nature of his work means he is thoroughly consumed. Occasionally he gets tantalizingly close to final confirmation, but, time and again, the Princess is in another castle. He longs to know her at last, and so on. But we understand why he keeps going. He's messing around with things that he shouldn't -- like time -- but he's getting smarter and smarter, so he's fine with this. The sheer intellectual fascination of his task provides him with enough intermittent stimulation for him to continue.

Is that the theme of Braid? The price of obsession is the loss of compassion? Playing the game, you too can obsess over the puzzles. You can easily get zeroed in on forcing a solution to work that you don't register the nearby platform that actually does figure into the answer. Puzzles left unfinished stay with you; even after you turn off the game, they run through your mind. Gamers are trained to overcome all obstacles. At the Game Developers Conference this year, an absent exhibitor at the IGF left behind a hastily-constructed jigsaw puzzle of their company logo, cut into a handful of laminated pieces. I saw it and smirked derisively, thinking I could solve that thing in three seconds. I couldn't do it at all. I am still upset about this.

Still, you can't screw up your life too badly by tormenting yourself over two locked doors in Braid. This is unless you are actually in the situation of ignoring your spouse to play more of the game, but the events of the game might illuminate you as to your own situation. You would have learned more about your relationship with your significant other from an Xbox Live Arcade game than you ever did in conversation with him or her.

Braid's not a long game and the puzzles aren't really impossible. What aspect, then, could you really hone in on, what holy grail could you really torture yourself over? There's the secret constellation: the game's hidden stars, very much out of the way and, comparatively, a real ordeal to find. Would the reward be worth it putting yourself through that? Would you feel smart, or just exceedingly patient?

What if you figured out, conclusively, what Braid was about? What a rush it was to realise the nuclear bomb connection on your own. Imagine that was only the starting point: if you could then produce an absolute interpretation that crystallized every facet of the game into sharp relief. Imagine that it satisfied all questions and met with everyone's approval, even the game's creator. You made Braid make complete sense; you found the Princess. If you were the one to discover the answer, if you were the very first one... God, wouldn't that feel great?