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Past worlds and other places

August 1, 2014


I moved house a year ago, almost exactly, and this is the story of how I nearly wrote something about it, and then didn’t.

Preparing to leave the house we’d occupied for six years made me think about the other buildings in which I’d lived – flats and terraces, rooms and walls – and about the way a home embeds itself in memory. As I was packing and laying bare the hard geometry of the house, it seemed obvious that a home is more than just the location in which the things you remember unfold, that there’s something in the physicality of lived-in space and the textured processes of recall that make those rooms and walls part of the fabric of remembrance.

One of the things that interests me about games is their use of location. Not just the construction of virtual realities, but how these other places (to steal Andy Kelly’s dead-on phrase) can be as real and important to us as the solid ones outside the screen. There have always been unreal locations that are as familiar to me as any of the physical ones I pass through on my to access them, locations I can explore mentally in the same way I remember old schools or bedrooms. And so I came up with an idea for something to write that would explore these things.

The idea was that in moving house I was finally clearing out a lot of things I didn’t need (it’s glib, but Palahniuk’s line from Fight Club about the way the things you own end up owning you does describe the tug of illogical reticence at tossing clinging objects). One of these things was my Mega Drive – or rather, our Mega Drive, as I shared it with my brother – and I would give it an appropriate send-off by playing through the same games and exploring the same places with my children as my dad did with my brother and me. I was (and am) struck by the image of my Mega Drive and its games packed and ready to move: a series of virtual worlds collapsed into plastic cases, crammed and stacked into one of the many boxes that were themselves crammed and stacked in the non-virtual world of my house. An excerpt from the vague but upbeat pitch.

As an industry we talk about how games are still a young form, but it struck me that, in my family at least, they’ve touched three generations, helped bond and shape relationships, form memories.

The piece would be about those memories – about revisiting the locations of the most important ones from my childhood with my kids to see what they think and how we enjoy it together.

It’s about how games can be positive, shared, imaginative experiences, and about how there’s more permanence to the medium than the arms race of consoles and PCs would have us believe. It’s a sign of an established culture that games from 20 years ago – the good ones, anyway – can still inspire and bring a family together.

The response was a yes and then, thanks to work needed to un-vague the ideas and the issue of me having overlooked the fact that moving house is more stressful than performing eye surgery on yourself, I didn’t write it. Although that’s not quite true – I wrote some of it, I just didn’t finish. It went like this.

“Shall I set it up? Does it have HDMI?”

My son is peering quizzically at the back of the Mega Drive that I’ve had, it strikes me suddenly, for twice as long as I’ve had him. I tell him that, no, it doesn’t have HDMI, or even a SCART connection, “Just, well, an aerial.” He looks dubious until I switch the power on and NHL 94 announces itself with the abrupt, grunting EA Sports intro that he recognises from FIFA. “S’IN THE GAME”

We’re on the verge of moving house, and in my current state of mind this kind of consistency seems impressive. Twenty years of the same bulldozing branding, a connecting thread between my son’s childhood and my own.

Moving house has made me reflective. I’ve been thinking about space, and the time we spend in it. I’ve also been thinking that the next space I move into won’t be big enough for the Mega Drive, and that after all these years, it’s time to pass it along.

Which is fine. Maybe it would have been fine. But I felt it was getting away from the things I really wanted to write about. It was only after a recent visit to some of the homes and houses from my very early childhood that I felt the urge to take another look.

What were the things I really wanted to write about? One of them was about playing Doom for the first time in over a decade, and how the fluent thrill of running automatically through corridors and killboxes impressed on my memory through endless repetition was interrupted by a sudden, wordless urge not to approach a specific doorway. As the memory was excavated and solidified, as surrounding shapes and landmarks oriented themselves into forgotten familiarity, I knew there was something hidden behind the door. The feeling stayed with me because, I thought, it seemed so much like walking into a real childhood scene, a once-inherent geography that lights up dormant corners of memory and belonging. And that’s exactly how it did feel, when we reached my grandma’s old flat in the Stockwell Park Estate: it wasn’t clear which block was hers, and then it suddenly was, it was this way, under this bridge and above this car park. (An aside: the walkways and mazey levels of the Stockwell Park Estate would make for a bastard good custom Doom WAD).

md02I also wanted to write about the fact I found a PS2 memory card during the move, and how the game saves trapped inside struck me as a series of interrupted lives taking place in different imagined worlds that I would probably never visit again. And how opening the black plastic boxes containing my Mega Drive cartridges I’d found slips of paper with long strings of numbers written on them. Most Mega Drive games didn’t have a regular save function (they were, my replays with my increasingly inattentive children showed, so short – that shifting scale of age which makes the looming environments of youth impossibly small seems also to extend to time) and so as an alternative games would often generate complex passwords which would recreate the game exactly as you left it. There is a code written in my dad’s angular blue handwriting which unlocks a game of Battlemaster that one day, over 20 years ago, we played together for the last time.

And maybe that is why when my son and I started to play one of my old favourite games, Arcus Odyssey – an action RPG none of my friends owned, an American import bought from Software Plus on Gillingham high street – I was so determined to get to the end. We wrote down codes at the end of each level just like the ones we found in the box. We played for hours, because it was longer than Sonic, longer than Streets Of Rage II. During the later levels I had to convince him to carry on, to leave FIFA for a few more hours and see this through. And eventually we did – the boss fell, the credits rolled, and I realised I had seen this before, after all. I’d just forgotten.


P.S. I did not get rid of the Mega Drive. Of course I didn’t. I’ve still never completed The Immortal.

P.P.S. You should probably listen to the intro music from Streets Of Rage II, it’s timeless.


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