This should give you an idea as to just how pitifully out of the geek loop I’ve fallen; I just today heard that the beta for Starcraft 2 is out. Back in the old days, I would’ve been masturbating to the very thought of this date for weeks beforehand, and it’s unlikely that you’d be able to find enough bulldozers on the Eastern seaboard of the United States to plow through the wall of empty Mountain Dew cans I’d assemble in breathless (and sleepless) excitement. Now, as an old person, I find out about this as I do just about everything else in the world: several days late, and from the blogs.

It’s okay, though, because while clearly I’m not the same person I was back then, more importantly, I never had much of a handle on video games in the first place.  They were something that I sort of enjoyed, but mostly took part in because my friends were.  Sure, I loved Sega Genesis as much as the next nerd back between the ages of 9 and 13, but by the time I started hitting high school and the games started involving guns and multiplayer and shit like that, I feel like a subconscious part of me somewhere must have already been saying something along the lines of “Okay.  Cool.  This is something that I’m not going to be able to deal with for much longer.”

This isn’t because of any sort of moral discomfort with the aforementioned gun-centric games; I had some great times playing Counterstrike with my buddies in high school.  However, those times were never really strategic victories.  The times that I can remember, for instance, are general situations in which I would either A) Run blindly into the map where I thought enemies might be, firing blindly with the Parra and screeching, “Covering FIIIIIIIIRE!” or B) Spend 20 or 30 minutes not playing, but instead trying to think of the best possible name for my character.  If I could think of something that made people giggle out loud when my character entered the map, that was a win.  If not, well, again, then it was time for the running-blindly-with-the-Parra-strategy.

I remember those sorts of things fondly, but they reinforce exactly what I’m talking about, which is that the times that I had fun were never based on really sound understandings of the intent of the game I may have been playing; instead, they were generally characterized by me being able to find some sort of unintended loophole in gameplay to exploit so that I looked memorably like a retarded person.  This is both because, again, I am mostly that stupid, and also because I simply cannot keep up with the speed and complexity of your traditional modern game.  Something in me refuses to process it correctly, and I quickly become bored, discouraged, and distracted, and find myself looking for something funny to do instead.

But my friends got a kick out of them (and many still do), so it was the sort of thing I tolerated for the sake of being around them.  At this point I’m actually glad that it was something as innocent as video games that captured my high school friends’ imaginations; it would have been really uncomfortable if I’d had to find some way to generate comedy out of making meth in someone’s basement or ritual sacrifice of small woodland mammals.  At that point, I probably would have suggested we go get some pizza or check out a movie or something, but who knows if they’d have been able to tear themselves away, you know?

Here’s a quick story about my friends and video games.

My friend Alex has lived in this house for his entire life.  It’s his parents’ house, and it’s cavernous.  It’s this way for a reason; he has three brothers and sisters, and so the place that they all grew up in needed to be able to accommodate six people comfortably.  However, the brothers and sisters in questions are significantly older than him, and so by the time I started spending time at his house, sometime around when I was 13 or 14, the siblings had all grown up and moved away.  The house  that suited six people just fine felt endless when it was filled with just three; there were lots of empty rooms, and for some reason that I can’t totally explain, it felt creepy.

Why’s it creepy?  Honestly, I couldn’t tell you the exact reason.  I think that it has something to do with the air, and the rooms.  The house has somewhere around eight rooms, perhaps more, but the thing is that Alex’ s family tends to keep all of the doors in the house shut.  I don’t know why this is – perhaps to make sure that his several dogs didn’t get into places that they shouldn’t, perhaps to trap heat in a particular section of the house, who knows – but I do know, that to me, it made the house feel compartmentalized, all hallways and angles, and still in a strange way, as if the air never moved.  His mother smokes, so there’s a slight hint of cigarettes and staleness, too, and, now that I think about it, the sum total of the feeling that one get is that this is a house in which no one lives, and no one has lived for quite some time.

That’s certainly not the case, and I’m bring overly dramatic here, but to be fair, when you’re 13 and you’ve stayed up all night playing video games and mainlining enough sugary soda to kill a few farm animals, your imagination can tend to run away with you.  You start thinking of things; the heaviness of the silence, the shuffling of the dogs’ paws downstairs, the potentialities that could be hidden behind closed bedroom doors.  Of course I was overthinking, and perhaps dreaming on my feet, but you couldn’t have told me that then.  There were times, simply, when I couldn’t help being creeped out.

I remember one time in particular.  Appropriately enough, it involved Starcraft.  I was at Alex’s house, and as we tended to, we stayed up all night, drinking soda and playing games and recording ourselves saying stupid shit on his computer.  This was pretty standard; we were 13 or 14, not exceedingly popular, had no cell phones or cars, and didn’t really have a whole lot of anything else to do.

At one point I took over operation of the computer, and as I was new to the video game arena, at least compared to Alex and the rest of the people that I knew, I was very excited to get access to a machine that had Starcraft on it.  I didn’t have the game, not at that point, and so to be able to play it, even though it meant Alex didn’t really have anything to do, was amazing.

I wasn’t very good (and I’m still not), but I was mesmerized by the game.  I must have played through four or five levels.  Now, Alex, I’m sure. sat behind me in one of the other chairs in his computer room for at least a while.  I don’t know if he said anything (again, I was mesmerized), but I do know that at some point, while I was engrossed, he got up and silently left the room.  This was no big deal, obviously, and I sure as shit didn’t care or notice – I had the computer game that I coveted at my fingertips and nothing else to do but stretch out and move around inside of it.  I was in heaven.

I think after two hours or so I got stuck on a level; I can’t be sure which, but I have some rather vivid memories of the level in which you’re the Terrans and you have to build a base and hold off the Zerg for 30 minutes, until your transport can come and whisk you and the survivors off of the planet to safety.  I’m pretty sure that I lost this same level, in exactly the same way, three or four consecutive times.  Now, as I’ve said, we were up all night, so I probably didn’t start playing until four or five in the morning.  By the time I took a break to stretch and see what Alex was doing, it must have been seven or eight in the morning.  It was the summer and we were off from school; nothing mattered, we had nothing to do, and no place to be.  I wasn’t worried about the time or my lack of sleep.

What I was worried about, however, as I got up from the computer and started walking around, was the silence.  As I mentioned before, Alex’s house has that still silence to it, as if you’re inside of a place that no one else has been inside of for several years, and for some reason, there’s not a whole lot creepier to me than being the one in that position.  I figured he must have wandered off to bed; it was pretty early, after all.  I shuffled from the computer room upstairs, to where the bedrooms are located.  I looked in his, but the bed was empty.

“Huh,” I thought.  “Weird.  He must have passed out in one of the other rooms.”  I went across the hallway from his bedroom to the bathroom and pissed, not yet thinking about anything in particular.  Without really performing the action intentionally, I went from the bathroom down the upstairs hallway to the other bedrooms and slowly, carefully opened the doors to them, too.

Both empty.

At this point, a thick wave of confusion and sleeplessness had fallen over my conscious mind like a fog; I was struggling to understand what was happening.  Again, I was significantly sleep-deprived and I had been absorbed totally in a video game for what must have been three or four hours by that point, so it’s not surprising that I was having trouble putting two and two together.  I knew, even then, that it wouldn’t work out, not the way that I wanted it to, but even so I walked back down the carpeted hallway of Alex’s upstairs, crossed through the bunk room (a large room that splits the layout of his upstairs in two and houses all of the assorted, random, useless shit that the family has accumulated over the years – it looks like a carpeted attic) to where the last bedroom on that level of the house was located.  I knew before I got there that I would find it empty.

Confused, I walked down the spiral staircase that leads from Alex’s upstairs to the kitchen and dining room on the house’s ground floor.  The dogs, at least, were happy to see me, all four of them (I’m struggling with their names – Colby, Sierra, Rocky, and….someone), and their presence alleviated a little of the pervading sense of unease that I was grappling with by that point, but as I investigated the downstairs level, room by room, padding across the tile in bare feet, I was left with the same reality, regardless of the animals’ cheer.

The house was completely empty.

Now, these days,  I recognize that anything at all could have happened, all sorts of normal things.  Anything’s possible.  Alex’s parents may have had early errands to run, family matters to attend to – Hell, maybe they went for a walk.  Alex, on the other hand, could have been doing anything, as well – he was somewhat hard to predict (and still is), and it wouldn’t be out of the question for him either to be outside stacking wood or, alternately, wandering down Route 3 toward Plymouth in his pajamas.  Both have happened.  Both are possible.  However, those potential truths aside, I was 13 at the time, and my ability to soundly and calmly reason my way through an odd situation was not then what it is now.  As I’ve said, I was sleep-deprived and a little zombie-fied from the game I had been transfixed by.  So I panicked a little, at least internally.

I didn’t scream or yell or convince myself that they had been chopped up and killed in the night, but I did convince myself that it was time for me to leave.  Immediately.  And so, in shorts and a t shirt, I put on my sneakers, patted the dogs, took one last inhalation of the smoky silence that felt to my teenaged mind as if it was building, thickening, intensifying in some way, and left.  I walked out of the house, out of the driveway, and up Route 175 to my house, three or four miles away. It was a sunny day and it was early and quiet, so there were not many cars on the road and the walk was pleasant, restorative.  Calming.

I got home and my mother was watering plants in the back of my house.  It was about eighty-thirty by that point, and the summer sun was beginning to burn off the morning dew.  I remember thinking that it was going to be a hot day.  My mother looked up and smiled and said, “Where the Hell have you been?”  I must have been sweating, carrying deep bags under my eyes.

“I don’t know,” I said, and I went in my bedroom and passed out for a long, long time.


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