Now that that’s out of the way.
Abby mentioned that Brian Oliu + a crew of four University of Alabama undergrads came and read for us. How cool, right, when Muncie is a slush puddle of ice, Wild Irish Rose, and debilitating seasonal affective disorder. Which is why the happiness of good words is a high five for our hearts.
But I feel like maybe especially for mine. Elysia sat next to me during the reading. She can attest. She can TESTIFY. Because thing is, Oliu has these lovely, lovely lyric essays based on 8-bit video games. I raised my hand AMEN-style when he talked about the feeling of shooting a silver arrow into Ganon. I said “Yes, exactly” at least twice while he discussed how Super Mario 2 came into being. I nearly flipped my shit when he said he had a Zelda essay published on the web.
Part of my enthusiasm results from playing and knowing the games, understanding references, etc. etc. etc. The “you’re such a nerd; of course you love this,” part, which is fine by me. I claim it wholeheartedly; I still love reading articles about cheats and glitches, game previews with screenshots, so on. All of that trivia is tons of fun for me. I will talk with you all day about Zelda if you want. (Really.)
Another part resides in my opinion that video games provide a lot of potential narrative material: the plots that undergird most games, archetypal heroes, notoriously hard levels/worlds/dungeons/bosses/challenges that have to be dealt with before progress can be made, items that indicate life, death, overcoming certain obstacles, and so on. To see that material get noticed and taken advantage of is cool, which is a lot of why I loved Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Audio and visual video game references weren’t cheaply geeky cinematic fist-pumps, but story elements of real significance, “nursery rhymes to a generation.”
But I know that’s not all (or really even most) of why hearing the essays was so affecting to me. Art of any kind that allows video games to engage a reader/listener/viewer as serious subject matter seems pretty rare. For people like me who have had experiences of emotional weight with games in one way or another, to find art that does allow video games to speak beyond “look how nerdy we are” deprecating humor (self or otherwise) is affirmation and relief, like whew, these things mean something to somebody else too.
When we were little my brother Dustin and I played Marios 1-3 on the NES in our basement. One corner was taken over by posters that came folded Nintendo Power magazines, the NES, and a dull pink video game chair Dustin won for getting second or third in this contest where he beat Mario faster than kids twice (or more) his preschool age. (Yeah, a Mario contest. Our parents indulged our nerdiness, bless them.) We would take turns playing. His always lasted longer. He was way better at dodging spinning pillars of fire and bouncing from one Goomba head to the next without dying, without using the mushroom lives he built up after I ran into Piranha Plants eating the sky from their pipes, going too fast, puppy-dog eager to prove to him I could get to the green flag of a level’s end and jump to it, reaching the very top.
Dustin was good at other things too. We were both in piano lessons (again, bless our parents) and it became painfully apparent to me early on how slow my recoveries were in comparison, how often I could not remember where I was in the middle of a piece. And he was not just better; turns out, he was exceptionally talented, gifted for music. He coaxed note-for-note Beatles transcriptions from our Acrosonic lean-up before we were teenagers. Drums, guitar, and bass would follow, similarly impressive on all three. It seemed to me like a glow family and friends could feel from him that, much as I wanted, I would never have. I knew I could never equal him, and felt too much love for resentment, so I idolized.
As we grew up, we graduated through Nintendo consoles – NES, Super NES, Nintendo 64, Gamecube. (Mom got a Wii around the time Dustin graduated college.) We saved up for games together, fought it out over Mario Kart, Starfox, Super Smash Bros. He usually won. I relished when I got the better of him with power slides and barrel rolls and Falcon Punches. Beating someone I considered near-perfect at anything carried more weight for me than I liked to think about; small victories mean more when you’re not counting on many at all. But when he won it seemed right, like my most trivial victories in anything were usurpations. For years, I felt like a sidekick tagged onto a hero, a Luigi who wasn’t even taller or skinnier than Mario, confusing and belittling myself to a weird, ill-conceived place where I felt the need to earn the privilege of an identity.
I say “felt” as though somehow none of this still applies, and heaven knows that isn’t true. Because I remember the day Dustin finished Ocarina of Time. Because Mario Kart with Mom and Dustin when we’re all actually home for the first time in months feels sacrosanct. Because being able to beat guys in multiplayer on Starfox 64 after not playing for three years still carries a weird kind of affirmation for me, for someone who saw her brother as better at Nintendo, music, and everything else.
And so, to see video games treated like they can and do factor into life experiences in Oliu’s essays was a big deal for me and got me thinking about why they’ve never appeared in my own writing, knowing they’ve been a big part of nearly every stage of my life. (I’m fairly convinced now it’s inevitable that I’ll write about Ocarina of Time.) That train of thought, I think though, is for another day.