by: Tristan Kneschke
Competition, compulsion, and companionship – a story told in 8 bits…
Trinidad checks her crumpled shopping list. She’s just picked up the bouquet of flowers. That’s everything.
The drive home is quick despite intermittent traffic. Trinidad slips through the front door with grocery bags hooked over her arms, especially careful with the bouquet. Streeter hunches over a worn cardboard box in the living room, wrestling with a cluster of wires inside. “Tachyon” is scribbled on the box’s side in black.
Streeter plucks an ancient video game console out of the box and hooks it up to his 70-inch television. Trinidad smiles, realizing he has no idea she’s there. A brown-haired Swede, over the years she’s developed a hunched spine that betrays her thin body and lean face.
Computerized, simplistic beeps flow through the television’s speakers when Streeter switches on the console. The pixelated title screen is absurdly magnified on such a large display. Trinidad sets the bags down and comes into the living room with the bouquet. “I leave you alone for five minutes,” she says matter of factly.
Streeter whips around in surprise, his boyish slate-blue eyes peeking out from unkempt chestnut hair. “You’re back. Thought I’d play a quickie.”
“So, only a two-hour game?”
“I used to be so much worse.”
Trinidad shows him the bouquet. “How’s this by the way?”
Streeter shrugs. “That’s fine.”
“They had silk too, but I didn’t think you wanted that.”
Streeter unravels a clunky controller from its black wiring. “Real’s better.”
The uncomplicated, insistent game music draws Trinidad in. Small pixelated ships move around the screen in staccato animation. “Wow. This game’s ghetto.”
“Hey. Your boyfriend holds the world record in this ‘ghetto’ game. Show some respect.”
“Another online dating miracle.”
“Nine months of pure bliss, baby. And counting.”
The game makes a sound like a pitched-down kick drum run through a distortion pedal.
Streeter’s ship floats alone in space, until a wireframe tube comes out of nowhere. Enemy ships run along the perimeter, shooting at Streeter, who retaliates. His movements are graceful, like a master chef’s unwasted strokes; each serves a function. The gameplay is fast, even by today’s standards.
Trinidad’s gaze drifts to the cardboard box. Several crinkled 35mm photographs of Streeter rest on the mess of wires. She flicks through them. “These photos are amazing. Look at these corny t-shirts!” She studies one of Streeter with an older man resembling him. “Is this him?”
Streeter is silent, either from game focus or from memories.
Trinidad pulls out her phone and scrolls through her newsfeed. “I’ve been following BitPixel like you said. Someone tweeted the other day about beating your high score.”
“Whoa, really? All the more reason to practice.”
“You’ll beat him.” She reads from her phone. “This kid got a high score finding a glitch on level twenty-five. It shows you how on the site.”
Trinidad shows him the phone but he doesn’t look. Already the game’s tougher; enemy ships are firing homing missiles and triple-burst shots.
“Twenty-five….let’s see when I get there.”
“So wait. How’s that not cheating?”
“Yeah, it’s allowed if it’s in the programming. Obviously cheat codes, stuff like that, that’s not allowed.”
“Can’t believe people still play this game.”
“It’s big.” The game rewards Streeter with a shrill, klaxon sound for grabbing a bonus orb. “You’re coming to BitPixel this year, right? Maybe you’ll like it.”
Streeter doesn’t see her reluctant expression. “Yeah, I’ll check it out.” She watches him destroy three enemy ships with sniper-like precision. “You want to get going?”
“I already started a game.”
“This came out prior to pause.'”
An hour and a half later, Streeter runs out of lives, but he finds the level twenty-five glitch.
Training for the BitPixel competition coincides with Streeter’s annual cemetery pilgrimage, the one day of the year he drags himself out to visit his father’s grave. The March air is brisk, but it no longer slices at exposed skin.
The cemetery is near the pizzeria he and his father frequented when Streeter was little. It was on the way back from school, and on Fridays, his father took him for pizza to ring in the weekend. Streeter ate greasy pepperoni slices and listened to the owner and his father talk about off-track betting, their weekly poker nights, the shitty weather and most often, trouble with the misses.
Then the eighties arcade game explosion hit, and businesses were eager to cash in. The pizzeria owner installed a Tachyon arcade cabinet when Streeter was ten. Long after slices and idle conversation became stale, his father sat marveling at Streeter’s early gaming skills.
By twelve, the game transfixed Streeter. By fourteen he had the highest score on the leaderboard.
By sixteen he’d mastered the game, his score hundreds of thousands higher than second place. A friend told him about the world high score rankings; Streeter had a new goal.
By eighteen, he’d made out with a few girls and had gotten to second base with one, but, more importantly, he held the world’s highest score in Tachyon, having shattered the previous record holder by over a million points.
His goal achieved, Streeter turned to his college studies, largely forgetting about video games. But video games wouldn’t forget him. A few years after he finished college, BitPixel was formed.
b. 1942 – d. 2007
Trinidad gives Streeter space in front of the tombstone. He crouches over the grave and reads the inscription, once again doing the math in his head. Sixty-three. Trinidad squeezes his shoulder. He rises and hugs her in prolonged embrace, allowing the tears to flow.
For the next two months Trinidad has front-row seats to Streeter’s intense training. He wakes at six for a couple of hours of play before work, and hits the console immediately after, breaking only to eat a few protein bars and fill a water bottle to stay hydrated.
By week two, Streeter tapes a printout of the new high score in large type near the television, a visualization technique he picked up from a sports documentary. Streeter and Trinidad go to bed together at first, but by week four she’s jolted awake nightly by the trebly sounds signaling the game’s beginning. In his absence she discovers the comfort of keeping in touch with friends digitally, from commenting on friends’ vacation posts to joining interest groups to building boards and sharing those with her growing followers.
Streeter’s unwavering discipline is that of an athlete or a drug addict, depending on the day. Streeter’s ritualized discipline is one of his strong traits, but it pushes out other aspects of a well-rounded life. In these months he sacrifices human pleasures in service of the greater objective. Sex with Trinidad decreases, his sleep patterns are affected, and his posture becomes hunched. Before the start of the tournament he takes vacation days to train.
Three days before BitPixel, Trinidad comes home and, to her surprise, finds him in the kitchen slicing up a block of pungent Stilton cheese, her favorite.
He puts a crumb of cheese in her mouth. “Good right? Hey, let’s go out tonight. Patti’s? I got first round.”
“Done and done. I want to dish about work anyway,” She goes to kiss him and senses an odor. “When was the last time you brushed your teeth? Actually, don’t tell me.”
Patti’s, the craft beer bar with an eighties punk soundtrack, is their dimmer, stickier home. People-watching by the window compliments well with a pair of seasonal IPAs.
“So work is getting in on this social media kick. They want me to live-tweet. How annoying is that? They suggested it could be good for me.”
“Right. Like read the writing on the wall.”
“Exactly. The one partner’s like twenty-five which tells you everything.”
“It really does.” They watch a couple in matching gym suits walk by.
“I’m timing how fast I can finish all ninety-nine levels. The game’s kind of random so you can’t keep doing the same thing. That first kill’s such a rush.”
She took a big swig of her pint. “I’ll stick with Bikram.”
“I have the original circular joystick so you can rotate on the tunnel walls. A directional pad makes no sense. It doesn’t correspond to the game.”
“What happens when you get the high score again? Then what?”
“Well, BitPixel’s not about getting high scores. Mine took nine hours to get. Who knows how long the new one took. No one’s going to sit through that. It’s more about fun, crazy challenges. Like last year we played one-handed.” Streeter blinks several times and rubs his eyes with his forefingers.
“I saw the video game behind you just now.”
He rises for the bathroom and the sound of his cracking joints is impossible to ignore.
Ladies and gentlemen, we’re beginning our descent – chhhkk – backs and tray tables in their upright position – chhsh – outside are nice….ahhhh….looking at about seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit….twenty-four Celsius – pssshhh – team wants to thank you for flying – tsshchhkh – great day.
Trinidad flicks through television channels on the tiny screen in front of her. Streeter plays a game on his phone.
A stewardess patrols the aisles. “Stow the phone.”
“I’m on airplane mode.”
“No electronics during landing.”
Streeter shoves the phone in his pocket and puts his arm around Trinidad. They watch half of episode seven of a show they’ve never seen.
As soon as the plane’s wheels touch tarmac, Trinidad takes her phone out of airplane mode. She’s gained several more “likes” on her status update about attending BitPixel. Another sixty people have given a “thumbs up” to her photo of her and Streeter at the departure gate, with thirty retweets and hundreds of media impressions. She snags a photo of them at baggage claim and another in the cab on the way to the hotel. She filters the image through forty possibilities, arriving at Galicia for the upload. She creates a calendar reminder to compare this week’s analytics against last week’s.
The hotel is modest, the perfect place for unassuming gamers. Their room’s on the penthouse level. A complimentary bottle of champagne greets their entry.
Great to have you with us again. Break an eight-bit leg! A picture of some Japanese video game character giving a thumbs up greets them.
“That’s pretty cool. You’re a celebrity. Or something.”
Streeter crashes on the bed and Trinidad snuggles up next to him. He’s asleep within minutes. She flicks through her phone to make sure no one else has liked, retweeted, commented, or shared one of her posts before falling asleep herself.
The tournament kicks off the next morning in a large event space across the street from the hotel. Scores of patient people wait in lines that wrap around the building. Some dress up as their favorite video game characters and bask in the glory of photo-ops. Streeter and Trinidad bypass the scene, waving VIP badges at the gatekeepers for speedy access inside.
The tournament hall is reminiscent of a small airport terminal. The digital screen is omnipresent with billboard-sized advertisements, informational marquees, televisions looping exciting video game highlights, laptops, and of course smartphones everywhere. Thumping electronic music belches from speakers, manned by a DJ in oversized spectacles and a green mohawk. Trinidad expected nerds with repellant social skills, body odor and a faulty fashion sense, and is pleased the crowd encapsulates a variety of groups and factions, including a decent feminine presence.
Besides rooms showcasing the games, there are vendor areas for hawking video game memorabilia and a full cafeteria complete with vegetarian options. Various panels about gaming comprise another wing. Trinidad thinks she might attend one on Feminism in Gaming that dissects the damsel-in-distress trope found in first-generation console games.
A tinny voice rises amid microphone feedback. “Alrighty! Good morning and welcome to the fourteenth annual BitPixel tournament! Check out bitpixel.org for full game schedules, follow us at bitpixel, instagram dot com slash bitpixel and friend us on facebook dot com slash bitpixel. Do all that! Okay. Fun and games is one thing, but it wouldn’t be worth it if we weren’t playing for something. Last year, BitPixel raised over a million dollars towards leukemia research, and I’m psyched about beating the record this year! Download the free BitPixel app to contribute throughout the weekend!”
The last bit surprises Trinidad. The seeming frivolity of this event, reshaped to raise money towards cancer research, casts everything in a different light.
The announcer turns the proceedings over to a panel of shoutcasters in oversized hoodies to provide live commentary. The first game up is Demonseeder 3 from 2003, a perennial favorite. Aside from the initial flurry of applause when the players jack in, there’s little commotion. The crowd resembles a golf audience, though an occasional collective “Oohhh!” ripples through the crowd when a player executes a particularly tricky move.
The players flawlessly conduct the black canvas, video’s tabula rasa. The canvas is their field, their arena, their court. These kids are better than good; their hours dedicated to gaming show. They just don’t make mistakes.
Streeter and Trinidad sample the array of gaming events and styles. Speed runs comprise many of the events, where the object is to beat the game as fast as possible. Other games are gauged by achieving the highest scores. There are also trickier events, like one just before the lunch break where someone plays two games simultaneously with one controller. Not to be eclipsed, another player beats an entire game blindfolded.
Trinidad’s phone buzzes a reminder an hour before Streeter’s event at three.
“It’s two already? I have to get in the zone.”
“Okay, quarterback, I get it. I’ll see you at three. I’ll be in the front row.”
Trinidad wanders the halls. Before long her phone vibrates. Her friend has sent her a video, a short selfie underneath which is written a line of text.
Have you joined the dark side? Get back from the nerd world soon ;(
This is a respite, a window into a more familiar world. Trinidad mugs the camera with a ridiculously sad face and sends it to her friend.
Lol miss you!!
Her friend sends back a picture of a stereotypical nerd complete with acne, braces, and oversized spectacles.
Why are u there again? Refresh my memory (get it??)
Lololol don’t remind me!
She veers into an area indicated by a banner reading The Startup Sphere. Inside, things are livelier and sweatier, even though there are fewer people. Tables draped with white cloth dominate the area, atop which rest products, books, memorabilia, toys, promotional material, business cards, and the currency of conferences, free stuff. This is the corner of the world obsessed with emerging technologies, site analytics, user experiences, search engine optimization, social media followers and prevailing as the loudest voice in the massively global digital conversation.
A guy in a short-sleeved hoodie and a nametag that reads Magnus stands behind a booth. He looks like someone really into sneaker culture.
“What’s with all the startup stuff?”
“Believe it or not, there’s a lot of overlap between tech startups and video games. We created this app called Involver which pings news sites for really big stories, like tragedy-big. When something happens you get an alert with links to get involved. You can tweet it out, comment on the original article, stuff like that.”
Trinidad plays around with the app. Several tragedies from around the world populate the home screen: a flood in Riga, a genocide in Chad, a new insurgency in Yemen. Who knew?
“So now if you tap the icon, you can, say, add it to your blog or post on Facebook, tweet, whatever.”
“What’s it do besides sharing?” She scrolls through the breaking news. “Like how would I donate to the victims of this plane crash?”
“This keeps the conversation going, pushing the issues through the noise.”
She hands the phone back to Magnus and he hands her a business card. “Thanks for that. I’ll download.” Noncommittal but polite, she moves on, unsure of how to feel about an app that encourages a sense of accomplishment but doesn’t aid in solving the problem.
There is a similar tone at the other tables. DNA|DOA is an app that maps a user’s DNA to predict their death, complete with shareable graphs. GrainGain is an app that donates grains of rice for each hour spent playing the ingame app. FooData is an app whose developers spent thousands of man-hours, according to their literature, entering data on scores of foods, just to inform the user which are giving them a “fat ass” or “juicy pecs.” An achievement trophy accompanies each.
An hour later, Trinidad tosses a pocketful of business cards in the trash.
Helping her law firm with social media for the last few weeks has been an obligation, but she hasn’t realized how normal constantly being on her phone has become. The useless apps bring the digital fruitlessness to a head.
Her phone vibrates with yet another work email.
Why am I still on these threads? Is my vacation auto-responder not set up right? I thought I emailed everyone?
Responding to the email would create the perception that she’s available. Trinidad scrolls through her email’s myriad preferences. They seem correct. She asks a girl at a neighboring booth for help. “Hey, can you send me an email and see if I get it?”
Trinidad refreshes her email. “Okay, I got it, but it’s not alerting me. I’m still getting pinged with work emails though.”
“Let me see?” Sannah scrolls through the phone. “Here we go. The settings are different for people in your domain.”
“Can you fix it?”
Sannah hands her phone back with a grin. “Just did.” She has gorgeous dark skin and the distinctive face of someone with mixed-race parents. Her eyes are far apart, with dimples and a button nose. Her light purple lipstick is intoxicating.
“You’re a lifesaver.”
The brochures at Sannah’s booth are reminiscent of religious propaganda, with titles like Do You Play Too Many Games? Take This Questionnaire; Twelve Levels, Twelve Steps; and YOU Are the Final Boss: Coping with Video Game Impulses. A large colorful banner reads VGA: Video Gamers Anonymous @VidGameAnon www.vidgameanon.org.
“There is such a thing as video game addicts?”
“We say ‘over-compulsive gamers.’ But definitely. We’re here every year. You know the news. Parents playing video games so long their child starves to death. One kid played so long he got dehydrated and passed out. All sorts of people losing their jobs from games.”
Trinidad flips through a brochure. “I didn’t even know this condition existed.”
“You can sign up for our mailing list.”
“I’m up to my elbows in emails. Is there any real way to get involved?”
“We have a volunteer program. You have my address. Send me your resume.”
The Tachyon challenge is in one of the rear rooms. This space resembles an indie rock music hall, and is a bit more DIY, complete with a troubleshooting plumber-crack tech.
A muscular Indian kid approaches Streeter. “Hey, I’m Heavy~Rayne65. I’m playing with you. You came all the way out here for this?”
“I had to meet the person who’s trying to take the crown. Good find on the glitch. I’ll be using it.”
“You better! Hope you brought your A-game.”
The real stars of the Tachyon run are two enormous flat-screen televisions set side by side for spectators to compare the two champions’ gameplay. Streeter and Heavy are miniscule by comparison, sitting on conference room chairs in near total darkness.
An announcer fumbles with the mic. “Alright kids! The next event up is Tachyon! We’re going to keep things more interesting than just a straight high score run, otherwise these guys would play all night! This year we figured out a way to overclock the console, making it one hundred and fifty percent faster than normal! Saddle up!”
Trinidad arrives just in time and takes a seat behind her boyfriend. Streeter and Heavy jack in. A mild cheer bubbles up from the crowd, then subsides just as fast. Aside from the game’s retro tones, the predominant sounds in the hall are the mashing of plastic controllers and the occasional spectator shuffling in his seat. Trinidad wants to cheer when enemies are killed, levels are cleared, or power-ups are acquired, but doesn’t since nobody else is. At the overclocked speed on the enlarged monitors, the game is downright painful to watch. Trinidad tries for the life of her to fathom this world, to understand the games and the infatuation many have for them. What could make this potentially addictive on any level?
After several levels, the announcer grabs the mic. “Alright, Streeter and Heavy are neck and neck on this one. The new high score set by Heavy took over nine hours to achieve, and he did it without losing a single ship. Super impressive! Both contestants have just passed the first galaxy, which means now might be a good time to take some donations.”
Some of the spectators reach for their phones to donate through the app. The competition persists, lessening some of the audience members. Those remaining watch on with bleary eyes and folded arms like baseball fans waiting for a spike in the action.
Streeter and Heavy manage the escalated speed well. They’re midway through level thirty, where the advancing barrage of enemy ships swell in number.
Then something curious happens. The enemy sprites on-screen distort, then blink out, like a dying neon sign.
Concerned voices burble in the audience. Enemy sprites continue to blink out left and right, making it difficult to hone in on their positions, but the players must keep playing; any mistake means the other competitor would pull ahead.
“Umm, looks like we’re experiencing some technical difficulties,” the announcer says. “I guess it’s probably not a good idea to overclock these old systems. But these are the constraints, so the competitors have to do their best. Unless the building’s burning down or something of that nature it’s against rules to stop the game.”
To underscore this explanation, a trebly, squeaking sound effect plays through the speakers, followed by the eight-bit imitation of an explosion: the death of a ship and the loss of a life.
He has two lives left. Heavy has all three.
Streeter focuses on not making any more mistakes. He clears the level, a minute behind Heavy.
As the levels ascend, the glitches become more intense. The game’s systems are buckling. Streeter finds small comfort in Heavy’s cursing. He’s having a hard time as well.
Heavy’s console belches the sound effect signaling he’s down a ship.
Two to two.
When the screen starts freezing at intermittent intervals, Streeter adjusts his gameplay. It’s now about trying to memorize where the horde of enemy ships are. His heart seems to stop when the screen freezes for four seconds, an eternity in this game. When the game comes back online, he’s surprised that his ship is still intact.
The sound effect of a lost ship rips through the speakers. “This is fucking bullshit!” Heavy screams. He’s down another ship, but still ahead in overall score.
Another glitch: streeter’s ship disappears, only to materialize in another section of the screen.
Right where another enemy ship is.
One ship left for each player.
Streeter steals a glance at his opponent. Heavy’s entranced by the gameplay, unaware of anything else. Streeter sees himself in the kid, how much he must have practiced to play at BitPixel, and how much this must mean to him.
And what does it all mean to Streeter? What’s he holding onto? Is this his way of holding onto his father, those times they shared at the pizzeria? Thirty years later, these consoles have degraded like VHS tapes. The technology wasn’t meant to hold on for this long.
Maybe it’s time to let go.
Streeter navigates his ship on a kamikaze mission, ramming it into the nearest enemy.
Familiar words to anyone who’s ever played a video game blink onto the screen.
Continue? Insert Coin. 10….
Heavy jumps out of his seat and pumps the air with his fists. “Yes! Yeeeessss!” His shouts echo in the arena space, accompanied by light applause.
“Ladies and gentlemen! What a battle! Streeter’s just lost his last ship, which means Heavy~Rayne65 is the winner and reigning champion!”
Continue? Insert Coin 7….
Heavy mugs for the audience. Smartphone cameras flash in his face.
Continue? Insert Coin 4….
“Good game man.” Streeter shakes Heavy’s hand. They stretch their extremities and backs.
“You want to grab a drink? My girl’s playing an MMORPG. She plays for like twelve hours straight. So I got time.”
The galaxy is still not safe.
Trinidad places a hand on Streeter’s shoulder. “Good game.”
“We were maybe going to get a drink. Want to come?”
“You guys go ahead. I’m going to the hotel. Long day.”
Down the street at a dim Irish pub, it’s like BitPixel never existed. Streeter and Heavy hold a spot down at the bar in front of several empty pint glasses. The bartender hits on a drunk girl at the other end. Heavy tries signaling for another round and fails to catch his eye. “How long you been playing?”
“Since I was a kid.”
Heavy’s eyes go wide. “Wow. Back then the game was pretty rare, right? Like, not a lot of places even had it.”
“Yeah. Probably gave me the edge all these years.”
The bartender hands his phone to the drunk girl. Streeter downs the rest of his pint. “Ah, anyway. I was actually kind of hoping you’d win. I don’t know….every year I play BitPixel. It’s kind of silly don’t you think?”
Heavy shrugs. “I don’t know. Not more than anything else.”
The girl giggles. She hands the phone back to the bartender; he becomes aware of his surroundings. Streeter flags him. “You beat me fair and square, bro. Hey, can we get another round of the IPA’s? Thanks.”
“I got this.” Streeter says.
“Nah man, I got it.”
“I can pay for a round. You won anyways. I insist.”
“It’s all good,” says Heavy. “Yeah I mean, it’s not like video games are my life.”
“Right? I’d rather be outside. Part of me just wanted to let go of the whole thing I guess.”
The pints arrive.
“Cheers man. To you. Congrats.”
Back at home, Streeter packs the wires and console back into the Tachyon box. Trinidad is on the phone in the kitchen talking to Sannah, hoping he’s out of earshot.
“So our director loved your resume. Can you come in Thursday for an interview?”
“Yeah, definitely. Looking forward to it.”
Streeter tries to push the box shut. He hasn’t packed it right.
“Awesome. Just so nobody wastes their time, we wanted to make sure you were in for the time commitment.”
“That won’t be a problem. I put in my two weeks at the law firm.”
Streeter’s figured out the box and carries it to the garage.
“No time like the present for a change right? VGA probably doesn’t pay as much, but it feels so much better. See you Thursday.”
Streeter returns from the garage and collapses on the couch in front of the TV. Trinidad joins him, pressing some buttons on the remote until the cable input displays.
“You put in your two weeks?”
“You heard that? Yeah. I was over that place syphoning the life out of me.”
“When you put it like that….”
“Anyway. BitPixel was kind of exciting for a little bit.”
“Don’t get used to the baller lifestyle.”
“Guess I still have to bring home the bacon. And I was going to retire this year too.”
She hums in agreement, but doesn’t believe him. She queues up a saved show on the DVR, unwatched and backlogged since Streeter’s training. He puts his arm around her.
Heavy’s father is in the converted basement, engrossed in blueprints. Heavy’s sneakers clomp down the wooden steps.
Heavy’s steps quiet down, become less hurried.
“Thought you got back tomorrow?”
“No, tonight. What’re you working on?”
“Tsunami victim housing project.”
“Nice. When do those go up?”
“Two weeks. Very, very busy. Where were you?”
“The video game competition remember?”
“Right. Right. Video games.” His father looks over his glasses at him. “And how was it?”
“I won actually.”
His father considers this, then returns to the diagrams with a creased brow, circling a section in red pen.
“We raised like two million for charity.”
“Mm-hmm.” His father compares two documents. “Good….good….”
Heavy heads upstairs to his room, shutting the door and drawing the blinds. He lifts the winning trophy sandwiched alongside shirts and boxer shorts out of his suitcase and places it on a shelf where a dozen identical others are on display.
Heavy turns on a flat-screen television in the center of his room and fires up a game.