Somehow, I found myself walking north along the I-80 wearing my shirt as a makeshift kilt, drinking a sort of coconut liquor out of a hollowed out pineapple through a krazy-straw and a matchbook from the Lucky Drunk Diner and casino. I have no idea how I got the any of them, perhaps it was the strange cactus I was eating. Whatever, the details don’t seem to be important now. Luckily, a trucker was kind enough to overlook my heat- and/or cactus-induced dementia and give me a ride.
I opened the door and got into the cab of the 18-wheeler. Howie, as I came to know the trucker, was in his mid-40s, balding with a graying goatee that was badly in need of a trim. Not that I was one to talk, my face hadn’t seen a razor in a week and a half. Mercifully, he let me sleep for a good while in the back of the cab. I woke to the sounds of Johnny Cash and the strange aroma of Howie’s odd-smelling herbal cigarettes.
The smoke fogged the windows of the cab and I suddenly became very chatty. We (mostly I) talked about how I had wound up in the middle of nowhere. I described how I’d been abandoned in the desert by my friends. But it wasn’t until I stopped talking that I heard his own story.
Howie told me that he once worked for a big company and had a hand in the several big projects. His wife grew tired of his obsession with his work. Much to his dismay she eventually left him for a C# programmer who would tell jokes like “Why do programmers always mix up Halloween and Christmas? Because Oct 31 equals Dec 25.” When Howie’s industry failed he tried his hand at writing books, then making films, and in a final act of desperation, he appeared on G4TV. Beaten and bruised by the industry he’d helped create, he resigned himself to a life transporting chicken entrails across the nation for a public school food program, a job only made bearable by the copious amounts of marijuana he smoked to cover the putrid smell.
“But I am sure there are still a lot of opportunities for someone of your qualifications,” I asked.
He snorted, “It’s too dangerous to get back in the industry now, what with Nintendo trying to crash the videogame industry.”
“Wait, what?” I must have sounded more confused than I actually was, as his tone became more patronizing.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t heard about Nintendo’s plans to crash the videogame market again? Next thing you’re going to tell me is that you don’t know that the government is regulating the quality of MMOs to ensure that Activision’s baby World of Warcraft is popular enough to subdue the masses and make it easier for the government to introduce the Amero currency. Gamer’s will be too busy grinding their level 99 druid hunter to care.”
“So, you’re saying that World of Warcraft is actually a tool for world domination?”
He took a long puff off his strange smelling cigarette and blew the smoke in my direction. He then offered it to me. I declined as I wasn’t one to share smokes with other men.
After the pause in conversation, his tone changed, continuing in a more relaxed manner, “I’m not saying anything kid, it’s a known fact. The truth is all out there on the internet. It makes me wonder what they teach in school these days. I bet you don’t even know that the multinational conglomerates like Pepsico are sabotaging the game industry by injecting cash into the independent game market.”
The desert had given way to mountains and we drove in silence while I inhaled the smoke, this was really starting to make sense. “You mean promotions like Games Fueled by Mountain Dew and the Xbox Live Independent developer’s contest sponsored by Doritos? But aren’t games made by small companies good for the gaming industry?”
He looked serious, “Funny thing, perception. To you, Abraham Lincoln is just a dude in a top hat who freed the slaves, right? But, if you look deeper into the history books, you’d know that he was cruel father. He made his three daughters pull a dogsled to and from their log cabin burdened by barrels of moonshine he needed to fuel his death ray. Thank god for John Wilkes Booth!”
I hesitated, unsure that I fully understood, “Lincoln … um, but aren’t people still buying AAA titles?” My thoughts seemed harder to form than usual.
His scowl told me I was mistaken. “The problem with indie games is that they subvert the natural order of game development. Sure, consumers benefit right now, but eventually shovelware crap will put the big boys out of business. Don’t believe me? Just look at the crash of 1983.”
“The crash of ’83,” I parroted, taking special interest in how it was pronounced. “Eighty-Three,” I repeated, drawing the vowels out. “Eighteeee Threeee.”
He seemed to ignore my exploration into sound as he was busy explaining something.
“In 1982, personal computers got a lot cheaper and our software was cunningly subverted by the Japanese. You see, they secretly plotted to release really, really awful games for every conceivable console so the market became so saturated that games lost all value. At one point, we were selling games for one-seventh their original value. We couldn’t compete and eventually went out of business.”
“Nineteen eighty two,” I drawled, musing over how the lack of the “e” sound at the end of the word seemed to make it less friendly.
“I was a part of a special team that was supposed to be working on the big name titles of the day,” Howie continued. “But, in truth, our team was actually part of a plan to sabotage the gaming industry. The Japanese had collaborated with a very famous movie producer to make a game so repugnant that not only would people not play it, they would actually recoil from games entirely. A few months after the game was released in North America and a few months later the entire games industry crashed.
A bell sounded in my head. “That sounds like E.T. Hey, did you work on that?”
He went on as if he hadn’t even heard me and moments later I forgot I’d even asked the question. “Of course, not everyone failed, the Japanese had won without us even knowing. Two years later, the NES made its debut in the US. And if you look at the signs now, you’ll see that another doomsday is right around the corner.”
Howie shook his head, “Don’t tell me you haven’t read about the Mayan calendar predicting the videogame crash of 2012?”
“Twenty-twelve,” I muttered. That was definitely not as fun to say ’83 or even ’82. “No, I guess I missed that issue of EGM. Hey, wait a second, doesn’t that calendar predict the end of the world?”
“It’s not that simple,” Howie said. “The prophecy states that a brilliant independent game designer will work on a game that inspires an entire generation of children to pursue platonic relationships with emotionally unavailable loners. They will turn into forty-something adults who have forgone sex to take care of their multiple cats, causing a great depopulation and eventually the human race will dwindle and die leaving only massive cat colonies and bad vampire poetry as only surviving human legacy. There are many theories on the specific game, but I suspect it’s going to be based on a wildly popular movie.”
“Sounds like a Twilight MMOG, or something,” I mused.
He shook his head solemnly and didn’t say a word. Something about driving through the wasteland of the Nevada desert seemed to emphasize his point. Maybe he was a kook, but driving through the desert, I couldn’t help but feel the vast emptiness of a world dominated by the iron rule of domesticated cats.
We drove in silence as I mulled over his words. Was he a lunatic living in a world of self-created fear, or did he have a point? Could there be forces beyond my comprehension directing the game market? Were we headed for another videogame crash in 2012? The signs were there: economy in the shitter, industry giants like EA scrambling to salvage their failing businesses. Even a giant franchise like Madden selling poorly for the third straight year in a row while more and more developers turn to flash games to make money.
A few hours later, he let me out in a small border town of Utah without a word. He had shared his story with me, that was good enough, he didn’t need to say more. He pulled out of the parking lot and blew his horn twice – a sign of respect amongst truckers. “Good luck, Howie,” I said. I watched his truck filled with chicken hearts turn into a speck amongst the snow capped mountains of Utah.
Overhead, a shooting star lit up the sky, leaving a fiery trail. Man, E.T. was a really crappy game.
Marion Cox always cheated at Choose Your Own Adventure books.