Part One: Just Outside Of Your Front Door
My friend Trevor doesn’t understand.
“It’s a two hundred dollar game,” I explain over the phone. “I’m not getting it.”
“Why aren’t they sending you a copy? Are you sure they aren’t? It seems like they send you every other game.”
“Well, they’re apparently not sending me this one. I’m pretty sure press people who are getting it already have their copies.” One of my editors won’t shut up about how cool it is. He keeps emailing me about how everyone in the office is playing the advance copy, and even the guys from the insurance company upstairs have been coming down at lunch to play it. But whatever. I’ve got plenty of games to play for work. I’m doing a strategy guide for Assassin’s Creed, trying to list the location of as many flags as I can find. My Kane & Lynch review is due in three days. I’m reviewing Pinkie Pie’s Party Parade for FamilyGamer.com. The Beowulf game just came in. It’s a busy time of year. I can do without Rock Band.
“You should tell them you’re doing an article on it,” Trevor suggests. “I bet they’d send you one then.”
“But I’m not doing an article on it. I can’t very well just make up articles I’m doing.”
“Hey, you write that thing about Shoot Club. You should tell them you’re doing one of those on Rock Band and I bet they’d send it to you.”
“But I’m not doing one on Rock Band. How can I? I’ve never played it.”
“Exactly. Tell them that and they might send you one.”
“Besides, I’m already writing Shoot Club about something else this month.”
“What could you be writing about that’s more important than Rock Band?”
“I’m doing my next column on BioShock.”
“It’s a different topic this time. It’s about the audio diaries and how the supporting characters are-“
“Okay, whatever. Dude, how old is that game?”
“Do you even know who McDonagh is? He was the engineer who starts to question the whole thing after Ryan nationalizes Fontaine Futuristics. You find his body strung up outside Ryan’s office. It’s a story of loyalty and betrayal. And it’s not even the main plot. BioShock has more story in a half dozen audio diaries than most games have in their whole game.”
“Would you get over it already? BioShock is over. It’s single player, you played through it twice, you got the achievements, and now you’re done. There’s nothing more to be said. Let it go.”
“Do you even know who Diane McClintock is?”
“If you really were a big shot games writer, we would be playing Rock Band by now. But no, you won’t shut up about BioShock and it’s still just stinky old Guitar Hero for us. If I have to play Welcome to the Jungle one more time, I’m going to scream. Look, if you’re not going to buy Rock Band, I am.”
“I’m not trying to stop you.”
“Hey, can I set it up at your house? We can’t play it at my place because of my mom.”
“Yeah, sure, come on over after you get it tomorrow. We can play it at Shoot Club.”
“No, not tomorrow. Tonight.”
“It doesn’t come out until tomorrow.”
“Midnight sales, dude.”
“I have to finish Crysis for a review.”
“That’s okay, I’ll handle it. I’ll set it up and play it myself while you finish Crysis. Want to come with me? It’ll be midnight in a half hour.”
“I just said I have to finish Crysis for a review.”
“We don’t have to wait in line at Best Buy or anything. That’s for losers. We can just go to a 24-hour Wal-Mart.”
“There are 24-hour Wal-Marts?”
“Duh. But they’re all outside city limits. I’ll drive”
We live in a city that hates Wal-Mart. I can’t really blame them. I’ve been to a Wal-Mart Supercenter. It has everything. All other businesses within a fifty mile radius might as well close down. So the city passed whatever laws are necessary to keep the Wal-Marts at bay. But that doesn’t stop the Wal-Marts from pressing up against the edges of the city on all sides, like armies laying siege. They know it’s just a matter of time. Wal-Mart is as patient and enormous as Cthulhu.
“How long will it take?” I ask, intending to use his answer as an excuse for not going.
“Look up the closest one and I’ll be right over. Check Google maps for directions.”
“I have to finish Crysis,” I protest, but he’s already hung up. I check the store locator and find a 24-hour Wal-Mart about twenty miles north. It’s someplace I’ve never heard of. Redwood Hills? A quick look at the directions and I’m good to go. This interstate to that exit, right on this street for four miles, left on that avenue, and then a right on this street, followed by another four miles and you’re there. It’s way out in the sticks. But we’ll pick up Rock Band and I’ll be back on the aircraft carrier at the end of Crysis within the hour.
Wait, what if they’re sold out?
“Wal-Mart. How may I help you?” Nearly midnight and they’re still answering their phones. Crazy. I wonder whose job that is.
“Yeah, I’m calling to see if you have a videogame called Rock Band and if I can pick it up after midnight.”
“Please hold and I’ll connect you to electronics.”
I nose around the aircraft carrier for a bit while I’m on hold. I have to admit: new songs will be cool. And drumming. Drumming could be cool. How would that work?
“Hi, do you have a game called Rock Band, and can I pick it up tonight?”
“Yeah, we got it.”
“Is there, like, a crazy line or anything? Are you going to sell out?”
“Yeah, it’s a crazy line, but you should be able to get it no problem.”
I noodle around on the stupid aircraft carrier while waiting for Trevor to show up. It’s official. Now I’m excited. Rock Band. Drumming, singing, guitaring, new songs, a new campaign mode, online stuff. Yeah, this should be pretty cool.
“How’s Crysis?” Trevor asks when he picks me up.
“I thought you liked it.”
“But then I got to the end.”
“Another one of those, huh?”
As we merge onto the empty highway, he puts in a tape.
“Check this out.”
“You going through a Nirvana phase?” I ask as Kurt Cobain intones nonsense lyrics. It’s the song about nature is a whore. He’ll yell soon.
“This is in Rock Band.” He fast forwards and the tape squeals ahead to some elaborate instrumental intro to a song. I totally know this. I can anticipate each note a few beats before it plays.
“I know this,” I say. “What is it?”
The music is boogieing up and down the scales. It’s funky, with a driving bass beat and the drummer snapping at the cymbals. What is this? Then the song starts and it’s that Boston song from a long time ago.
“Ah, yeah, this song. That’s in Rock Band?”
“Yep. Check this out.”
I couldn’t tell you who’s playing the next song on the tape, or what it is, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it before. I’ve never listened to it, but I’ve heard it. There’s a distinction.
“You don’t like this?”
“It’s okay. Who is it?”
“That’s the Foo Fighters, dude.”
“Well, they can’t all be winners.”
“You suck. Okay, here.” The tape squeals ahead and stops at a beat so familiar I am instantly transported. I don’t even really like the song, but some music transcends whether or not you like it. It’s almost painful. Rush. Tom Sawyer.
“This is in Rock Band?”
“That’s pretty cool.”
He fast forwards to a Who song. I don’t really care for the Who. In fact, my association with The Who is David Caruso whipping off his sunglasses. The whole thing is kind of ruined for me.
“Go back to Rush. Let’s hear that. Crank it.”
He rewinds the tape to the beginning of Tom Sawyer and turns it way up. Trevor’s the only guy I know who still has a tape player. He actually had an 8-track when we were in high school. Listening to Uriah Heep, Foghat, and Rush on an 8-track in Trevor’s Ford Pinto, making a Taco Bell run at 2am on a Friday night that consisted of playing D&D until dawn. That was my youth. And here it is again as we’re hurtling down the freeway in Trevor’s Honda, the muffler sputtering furiously, the speakers distorting. But we don’t care.
“So you made a tape with all the Rock Band songs?” I yell over the music.
He turns the volume down a little so we can talk. It’s just a token turning down, so we still have to yell. “I don’t know about all of them. Most of them. I downloaded them, burned them onto a CD, then recorded them onto the tape. I figure it’s not really pirating since I’m about to buy the game. You know? Gimme your iPod and I’ll put them on there for you. Oh, hey, what exit do I get off at?”
I tell him.
“Didn’t we already pass it?”
“No I think it’s up here in just a little bit.”
“Actually, are you sure we’re on the right freeway?” Trevor asks. “I thought the new Wal-Mart was off the 117.”
“It’s a new Wal-Mart? You might be right. Is there a Benson Parkway exit on the 117?”
“Isn’t there? I don’t think we can get to Benson Parkway from here. Which highway did it say to take?
“Well, I assumed it was this one.”
“Let me see the directions.”
“I didn’t print them out.”
He shoots me a look.
“What? They’re easy enough to remember.”
“Always print them out. Remember ComiCon last year?”
“Just exit here. We can work our way east to the 117. I think we’ll hit Benson Parkway anyway. It’s between us and the 117.”
We leave the freeway and drive east down a dark road. The buildings fall away and soon there are only occasional houses. The road goes from four lanes to two.
“This can’t be right,” Trevor says. “Call the Wal-Mart, ask for directions.”
“I don’t have my cell phone. Where’s yours?”
“I forgot it. I remembered the tape though.” Now we’ve turned the volume way down because we’re in navigation mode. Gimme Shelter plays softly under our conversation. “What street are we on?”
“There are lights up here. That must be Redwood Hills.”
“There’s an old map in the glove compartment. What street is Wal-Mart on?”
“Never heard of it. Find it on the map.”
“This map is ten years old.”
“Yes, literally ten years old. So there’s just empty space where Benson Parkway is supposed to be. There isn’t even a Redwood Hills. No Glenwood.”
“Are we at least headed in that direction?”
“Oooh, R.E.M. Is that in Rock Band? Yeah, keep going straight. It looks like we’ll hit the 117 in about five miles. Then we can work our way up until we hit Benson Parkway.”
“I should probably get gas.”
I lean over and look at his gas gauge. It’s nestled against the E. “That looks dire.”
“We’ve got at least twenty miles. It’s calibrated for an emergency reserve. All Hondas are.”
“You just made that up.”
“It’s in Wikipedia. Under Honda.”
The lights in the distance turn out to be street lights, burning bright yellow along row after row of dark houses with no cars in front of them. There are unfinished walls in progress between the houses and the streets. Occasionally we’ll see a construction site where a house will eventually be. We pass signs with ominous names like Shadow Hills, Crows Landing, and Whispering Pines. There’s a billboard for Eternal Hills Memorial Park.
“Friendly Parkway?” Trevor notes. “You’d remember that name. Was that on the directions?”
“I don’t think so.”
“What a terrible name.”
“Yeah. It’s exactly what the mutant cannibals would name the place where they ambush passers-by.”
“This can’t be right, dude. There’s nothing out here. Why would they build a Wal-Mart out here?”
“They’re getting ready. That’s what Wal-Mart does.”
To our left and right, behind the dark houses, there are no lights. Just black hills barely visible against a distant glare. If we weren’t borderline lost, this would be the sort of place to pull over and look up at the stars.
“I wish we had an iPhone,” Trevor says, noting a passing street sign. “They didn’t send you one of those?”
“I don’t do gadgets.”
Trevor’s Honda gurgles and slows. It coasts to a stop.
“Your car sucks.”
“Would it help if I got out and pushed?” he calls.
I don’t respond, “It might.” I just sigh loud enough to make sure he can hear I’m pissed off.
To be continued…
Tom Chick has been writing about videogames for fifteen years. His work appears in Games for Windows Magazine, Yahoo, Gamespy, Sci-Fi, and Variety. He lives in Los Angeles. Shoot Club appears in this space every Thursday.