Unlike most games, life doesn’t have a pause button. We’re constantly traveling forward through time whether we like it or not. And with advancing age comes a creeping personal inflexibility, a calcification of body and soul, a curdling belief that the world is failing to live up to its end of the bargain. If you’re a noir detective, this would come across as a seductive world-weariness. In real life, it’s more like plain grouchiness. The thrill is gone.

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As is the case with many people dragged callously into their 30s by the implacable march of time, videogames remain a significant part of my life. But even as I propel the latest meathead avatar through the aftermath of yet another apocalyptic event on Planet Beige – hands loosely cradling the controller, fingers working from muscle memory alone, eyes coolly processing on-screen information like an airline pilot mid-flight – there’s a gnawing sense that here in 2009, I’m just going through the motions. I still play videogames because, y’know, I like ’em. I’m that guy who likes videogames. But hang on – didn’t I used to love videogames? When did I wander off the shining path?

With apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald and David Fincher, I decided to follow the example of Benjamin Button and relive my gaming life backwards. Think of it as a walkthrough in reverse: By casting around for some of my most intense videogame-related memories, I’ll remember what made those experiences so formative and rekindle my once-pure love. I hope.

The Year 2002 (Age 24)

There’s only one other person in the waiting room, and they don’t even look ill, so it’ll probably be my turn soon. I shift my weight onto the other buttock. These chairs are too hard. Is it too much to hope the problem has gone away by itself? I gingerly close my eyes. Instead of the usual reddish black void, there’s a disorienting sensation of forward movement, like I’m riding a ghostly, amniotic rollercoaster. I open my eyes again and the waiting room warps. So it’s definitely still there, then. What am I going to tell the doctor? Will he even have heard of Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader?

Well, doc, it’s like this: I recently bought a Nintendo GameCube … I know, I know, I’m too old for videogames. To be honest, I’d given them up for a few years. But I played this one game in the store and I … I had to own it. It was like someone had finally built the Star Wars experience my 9-year-old self had daydreamed about. So I used the money from my grown-up, nine-to-five job to buy a silly, plasticky GameCube. And once I got it home, I couldn’t stop playing it. I’ve flown hundreds of missions, won a thousand zero-gravity dogfights and defeated the Empire countless times. The rush of piloting an X-Wing – the vivid sights, the transportive sounds – is narcotic. I feel like I was destined to do this.

But now the game is locked in my head, doc. The starfield – that endless, scrolling starfield, a blank, black canvas illuminated by laser bolts and proton torpedoes – is imprinted on my brainpan like a broken screensaver. Even when I close my eyes, it’s there, pulling me forward past constellations of imaginary stars. I can’t sleep, I can’t work, I can’t do anything. You’ve got to do something, doc. You’ve got to give me something to make it stop. I’m starting to get really scared …

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The receptionist sticks her head around the waiting room door. “Mr Virtue?”

… scared that I’ll never be able to play the game again.

The Year 1997 (Age 19)

Juggling two women is harder than I thought it would be. But that’s the point of college, right? To experiment, try new things? I just never expected to fall for them both. One of them drinks, wears black PVC trousers and smokes Lucky Strike cigarettes. She looks pretty severe, but I can make her laugh. The other is a fitness fanatic, wears the most impractical tight shorts and dual-wields pistols. She does whatever I tell her, even when it’s quite obviously the wrong thing to do.

I like to go out and hit the bars and clubs with Miss Lucky Strike. See and be seen, be an ace face on campus. But I also like to schedule the odd night in with Miss Tight Shorts, the better to figure out how the hell to get through the Sanctuary Of The Scion level. It’s weird – I never thought I’d be weighing the advantages of a real-life girlfriend against a videogame. What would my 9-year-old geek self think? I guess he’d be too busy playing games on that busted-up old Spectrum with the rubber keys, waiting for those goddamn tapes to load. My dorm-mate’s PlayStation is fast and smooth. And it plays CDs, too.

Don’t get me wrong: I like drinking and chaos, girls and loud music, dancing and oblivion. But I treasure those times when it’s just Lara and me, sealed together in a silent tomb, padding across sand and stone trying to suss out the right way forward. I’d pretty much given up on games since I came to college – home computers should be left at home. But this woman has got her hooks into me. My dorm-mate is starting to grumble at how much time we spend together. And my next student loan is due soon. Maybe I should earmark some of that dough for my very own PlayStation. Just for a little while … just until things are over between Lara and me.

The Year 1987 (Age 9)

Today the teacher said we had to write a story about someone who was our hero and my hero is Monty Mole who stars in the Spectrum 48k computer game Monty Mole On The Run. Monty is a white mole who does not live under the ground he lives in a house but it is not a safe house because there are baddies there who want to stop Monty going on holiday. I have to help Monty pick up all the things he needs to go on holiday and they are things like cake and money and medicine. (Don’t pick up the dynamite, if you pick up the dynamite Monty explodes!)

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I like Monty because he is brave. The game is very hard but it is my favorite game and I have 32 games for my Spectrum 48k. The only thing I do not like about Monty Mole On The Run is that it takes 10 minutes to load on tape and sometimes it does not work and you have to start again. Most nights my mum says I have to stop because I have been playing Monty Mole too long. My friend Craig says that Monty can get a jetpack but I have never seen a jetpack. Monty does not speak but if he did I think he would say “Try again, Graeme!” I also like the music at the start.

The Year It All Began

Grandfather’s house. Alone. Watching videos on the big telly. The American man loves the nurse and cries when he turns into a wolf. Lying on the carpet, close to the screen. Rolling over so the picture’s upside down, waiting for the bad soldiers and Kermit the Frog. Uncle comes in. Uncle stops the video. The telly picture flickers. The telly picture goes black.

Now spaceships are on the telly, bright spaceships humming and creeping. They shoot down at a little base. There are lots of spaceships. There is only one base. Uncle gives me a plastic box . The box has lots of buttons. I press the black buttons. Nothing happens. I press the red buttons. The little base shoots.

“Kill the spaceships!” says Uncle. “Shoot them!” Red buttons. Hard plastic. My thumb hurts. “Look out!” says Uncle. The spaceships shoot the base. “Get out of the way!” says Uncle. I have to move the base. I scrape sideways across the carpet on my knees. The base won’t move. “Move!” I shout. I scrape back across the carpet on my knees. “MOVE!” The spaceships shoot the base again.

“Use this,” says Uncle, pushing the stick at the top of the box. The base floats across screen. I look at the stick. The stick flies the base. I am the base. Red buttons shoot. I must shoot the spaceships.

“Again?” asks Uncle.

“Yes,” I say, scraping forward on my knees, closer to the screen. “YES!”

Graeme Virtue is a freelance writer based in Scotland. You can attempt to follow his spicy eating habits at Trampy And The Tramp’s Glasgow Of Curry.

Stolen Pixels #119: After Curfew

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