Feb. 18, 2009 - Issue #696: 7 and 7 Is ... Una Vez Por La Vida
Infinite Lives: Experience Transcendence
Late night in the hospital, sleepless amid the intermittent beeping of monitors, the sleep-moans of my wardmates, the half-hourly bathroom calls of the elderly man behind the curtain to my left. I would have sprung the extra bucks for a semi-private, but I figured anaesthetic fatigue and the blissful codeine snuggle of Tylenol 3 would give me adequate “chemical privacy.” I figured wrong; not only can I not sleep, but the ache and disorientation are making my backup plan—whiling away the IV hours with laptop Dwarf Fortress—impossible. I can’t focus on the details of a game that’s all detail. I fade back and forth across the line between dream and discomfort until I conk out for real; when the student nurse comes to take my vitals at 5 am, I find my fortress catastrophically flooded, the only survivors a forlorn ox and a pack of feral cats hunting vermin in the standing water. Strangely relieved, I nap peacefully until I’m discharged.
Recovery from surgery ought to be a perfect time for games-playing, one of the few times (hiding from snipers is another) when near-immobility is considered good for you. It hasn’t really worked out that way, so far; aching, irritable and mildly narcotized, I found I’d rather watch videos or read books than dick around with keyboards and controllers. Too lazy to play video games, if you can believe it.
Friends, I was getting desperate. Laptop perched on cozy blankets, gauze dressing muffling my face (it was sinus surgery; super gross), I started powering through freeware downloads like some kind of Afterschool Special pill-freak rampaging through a pharmacy, trying to find the right prescription to kill the craving. I kept having to clear off my desktop as it overflowed with .zip archives and unzipped folders and multiple setup.exe applications, electronic debris like so many digital bottles and vials and needles: strange role-playing games, atrociously written fan-made JRPGs with misshapen “anime” graphics straight offa some Grade 9 math binder, arty platform games and epic side-scrolling adventures, obstinate interactive fiction, puzzlers, shmups, board games, card games, dungeon-crawls, remakes, de-makes (archaic-style riffs on modern titles), management sims, dating sims ... I lost count of how many. I’d just take a taste of each one and then toss it over my shoulder, a la Friar Tuck. My recovery-daze and the not-yet-worn-off novelty of having a functional Windows machine combined into an unsatisfiable mania. I wondered if I’d ever truly enjoy a game again.
And then, last night, the fever broke. Pawing dejectedly through one last magpie-pile of miscellaneous downloads I hit upon something that wasn’t perfect, but was just good enough to soothe me ... a painkiller that works. It even has a name like they’d give to a fictional superdrug in some bad piece of near-future science fiction: Transcendence. “Hey, citizen ... you need a hit of T? Transcendence, prole! Shit’ll zork you up real good ... it’s like ... like NetHack meets Star Control II, you grok me?”
Ugh. Sorry about that Marvel 2099 shit, but that’s kind of what it was like when I saw that description: NetHack meets Star Control II. The every-game-different random-adventure appeal of a NetHack-type roguelike hybridized with top-down, space-opera, shooting-looting-and-trading action/adventure. Hop in your freighter, fighter or yacht ... gather resources ... upgrade ... explore ... progress ... die horribly ... start all over, repeat, relearn. That’s too many hyphens and ellipses, I know, but that’s what it’s like; a fever dream. Like all good space operas, Transcendence makes you feel kind of like an astro-badass, so you care enough to get into it; like all good roguelikes, Transcendence is abstract and repetitive enough that you don’t get too attached to any one astro-badass. You gladly repeat until your sleepy hands go slack on the keys. It’s soothing in a strangely homeopathic way—its benign fever dream supplanted the sweating mental loop of the sickbed.
So, yeah ... I recommended recovery-room gaming, kids; just say “No!” to prescription narcotics, and try blowing up some space pirates instead! The best part is when you play for long enough, get into the hypno-zone that lets you X-ray-view straight through the sci-fi surface and down into pure, universal mechanics: when you look at a “stargate” and see a “dungeon stairway,” a “ROM upgrade” and see a “magic scroll,” a “barrel labelled NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION” and see a “potion,” you’re seeing through the illusion, not “suspending disbelief” but building up disbelief to such a degree that you’re not just playing a game, you’re playing all games ... moving through the times and worlds and realities of ... of ... you know, on second thought, don’t say “No!” to narcotic drugs. V
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