This was the logical culmination of his father’s theory of The Navigator. In games, where it was so often so easy to lose perspective, but also in life. When Joshua played their game, it was his father’s job to keep watch, tell him when he was doubling back, to remind him where he meant to go, and how. When Joshua’s father had the controller, these were Joshua’s jobs.
For the second year in a row, BASS has included a gamer story. And like last year’s “The Dungeon Master,” this one was very successful at using a computer game to map some scary territory in the human heart.
I think this story was more subtle; you really have to pay attention to pick up on the information being conveyed about Joshua and his father as they pursue their video game addiction following the departure of Joshua’s mother for friendlier climes. There’s a lot I was left wondering, like, first and foremost: did she leave because of the obsession with games, or was that more of a result? I strongly suspect the former. But I also suspect that without what might have been her mediating influence, things have declined.
The game in the story, Legend of Silence, is fictitious, though Meginnis says it’s loosely based on an existing game, Metroid, described in detail in Hobart:
[I]t could be said that the narrative of Metroid is ultimately, like that of Zelda, the oldest: You Get Better. This narrative is satisfying and unsatisfying for the same reason. It isn’t true. While to children it makes at least a little sense, as we grow up the idea of improvement becomes less and less convincing, even as we need more and more to believe it. The best fiction tends to show at least some of its characters learning and growing, but in ways that better match our experience of life. Perhaps they learn something new, but at great cost. Perhaps they grow, but only after a harrowing experience that will haunt them forever…. In Metroid, improvement is still the goal and the ultimate arc of the game, but it’s never easy, and death is never conquered. You never feel safe…. It is possible, up to the very last second, to lose, even after having won.
Meginnis started with that, then created his fictitious Legend of Silence on the foundation: You Get Worse. Instead of a character who gains power from artifacts, Alicia (Joshua named her that as, after Trudy, it’s his second-favorite name in the world; what do you want to bet his mother’s name is Trudy?) loses power. Her sword breaks; boots weigh her down. It’s amazing how touching it can be to see a video game character lose her wings:
They couldn’t tell what the metal boots were supposed to do. Joshua’s father let Alicia out of the room, and he made her jump out into the emptiness of the very tall room. She fell to the floor, flapping her wings without effect. The weight of her boots was too much. Her wings would slowly atrophy from disuse, shrinking, curling inward, dropping feathers in clots for the rest of the game, until there was nothing left. These feathers being pixels, of course – two each, twisting and angling this way and so on, so that the viewer could see what they were meant to be. Then father and son understood the game. Joshua’s father said, “This is a REAL game.”
It’s touching, of course, because it’s not a story about a video game. It’s a story about a little boy devastated not only by his mother’s absence but by his father’s inability to compensate and provide the basics of life. They Get Worse. The gas is shut off. They have to move to a smaller apartment (“None of his father’s friends could make it to help”). In a stunning role reversal echoing the one alluded to in the lead quote above, Dad asks Joshua if he should have an allowance, and Joshua points out, “I don’t think you can afford to give me one.” Joshua is dealing with the real-life equivalent of metal boots and a broken sword.
It goes way beyond a shortage of money, of course:
Joshua examined their clothes – his father’s, his own. Both were crusted with cheese-puff dust and stained with cranberry juice cocktail. It had been nearly a month since they’d done the laundry. Joshua did not like folding the clothes, but he didn’t like it when people looked at him either, at school or anywhere. His jeans were wearing thin in the knees and the groin, and the cuffs were already ragged. He paused the game and went to the kitchen for something to eat.
The sink was full of dishes slick with grime. The table was piled with pop cans, some empty, some half-full. There were coupons on the table for Gold’s Gym and LA Fitness, fanned out like playing cards. The cupboard was empty except for macaroni and pumpkin pie filling.
He’s getting weaker, Joshua is, with every artifact he finds. The question is: what happens when the game ends? Will he attain Nirvana and come out the other side?
Other heartbreaking details emerge as father and son live to play and play to live, a map of the game covering the windows, the colors of the game screens casting its colors on their faces. But Joshua still has a pinky toe in reality. He overhears his father talking to someone on the phone about his mother:
Joshua listened carefully for clues as to where she was, what she was doing. “(Something something) pay phones,” said his father. “(Something something) Atlanta.”
Atlanta was the capital of Georgia. It was a big city. This was not nearly enough. Joshua couldn’t even find his own way through Legend of Silence.
The spare style here hones the edge of the truth: if Joshua thought he had a chance of finding her, he’d leave Alicia and his father and the cheese-puffs right this minute and race to his mother. Which of course raises the question: why did she leave him in the first place? Is she calling Dad from pay phones, and he’s keeping that a secret from Joshua? Just what happened to this family? It’s never completely clear. And I don’t think that’s an accident. As Meginnis explains in his article: “I might talk more about these things, but you can’t know me. You can’t know my father. You can, however, know Metroid.” Similarly, as we read the story, we don’t quite know Joshua or his father, but we do know LoS (and the acronym for the game is also not, I’m pretty sure, an accident).
I loved this story, in spite of the murkiness. I’ve already discussed my own rudimentary gaming history (on a text-based online MUD rather than a video game) when I talked about the Lipsyte story, though I left out the time I spent as a Citizen of Badde Manors, exploring (along with Feldermer, the Slovakian architecture student who took on the persona and accent of the Swedish Chef) the sub-basement (with its maze of twisty little passages, all alike) and constructing a map similar to the one in the story (only to have an earthquake in the Manors shift the sub-basement so we had to start over… ). The puzzle, the quest, the struggle can be a powerful lure, even for casual players.
A lot of people dismiss anything having to do with computer games. A lot of people dismiss a lot of things, like blogging, for instance. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something there worth understanding. It might, however, make this story hard slogging for someone who can’t reach through the gaming to find the heart of this little boy:
His father squeezed him tight. Joshua wondered what they would do now. The need he felt was like when he stepped on the sliver of glass, and his mother pulled out the skin with her tweezers, and pushed them inside, until she found the glass. It was like when she told him to get ready, to squeeze his father’s hand. Clenching his teeth, closing his eyes, waiting.