Okay. So of course it wasn't actually Anna. Anna was back in Brooklyn, making a name for herself performing music at Puppet Playlist and at the Bushwick Book Club and waiting tables to get by. I think I'd spoken to her just a couple weeks before leaving for Cupertino; I don't remember what it was about. And that's significant. It was a forgettable encounter, an ordinary conversation with a friend. I don't freak out when I see Anna the way I did when I met Diana Sherman.
In order to explain exactly why I freaked out, it may be useful if I provide a little context. Exhibit A: this silly little video from Cracked.com--a clip from the pilot for a comedy show called Summer of Tears:
The Second Most Embarrassing Thing to Die Doing -- powered by Cracked.com
Did you watch the clip? Were you entertained? Are you absolutely flummoxed as to what it had to do with my predicament? Well, as silly as it was, it does illustrate an interesting point.
The trope of a herald or guardian taking the form of what one desires most is so well-worn that its contemporary use almost invariably transforms its containing work into satire, intentional or not. It's a silly, bizarre idea, yet saccharinely endearing enough to worm its way into dozens of Lifetime Original Movies and parodies of Lifetime Original Movies--as over-the-top as meeting your dead wife, grandfather, or Golden Retriever just inside the pearly gates.
Far newer, and by many measures more ingenious, is the joke about being embarrassed by the form your guiding spirit takes. Imagine going up to Heaven--not the bizarre, cryptic Kingdom actually mentioned in the New Testament, but the absurdly naive Heaven of American popular culture--and finding an enormous orchard of bacon double cheeseburgers, planted just for you. Or the set of an awful reality TV show. Or an angelic variant on the sparkly little boy from Twilight. The kind of things that, if you still had hands--or a face, for that matter--would make you facepalm for all of eternity.
In the pilot this clip is from, the protagonist wakes up on the floor, his hilariously embarrassing death having been little more than an oxygen-deprived hallucination, and goes to town with a profound new understanding of his misspent life. No more will he waste his youth hunting for temp work and watching shitty '90s action movies! No more will he blow his parents' money on Chee-tos and video games! He's got an almost useful college degree, he's got his whole future ahead of him, and economy be damned, he's going to go out into the world, he's going to rally his friends and contacts, and he's going to make something of his pathetic, useless self! Even if he has no fucking clue what that is!
My post-undergrad years, I have come to understand, have been following the same trajectory in reverse. I spent most of 2007 and 2008 in a state of nihilistic languor, in part because of the whole Anna thing and in part because I felt I had completely lost control of where my life was headed. Through most of my final semester at Oberlin I had seen commencement as a cliff--a sudden ending of the sidewalk, tufts of grass spilling over the curb, into a vast horizonless abyss. I hadn't the faintest idea what was waiting for me on the other side of the cap and gown.
And after I had crossed over that threshold, I still had no idea. There was no invisible footing, no distant oasis. I took the leap of faith over the edge and fell straight down. I found an apartment, an unlit, cockroach-infested one-bedroom in Washington Heights that flooded whenever it rained, and a sustainable, Asphodelian cubicle farm job writing server plugins for a Wall Street news wire. I had no friends but the memories of friends, their words flickering moment to moment in blog posts and IMs, the only light in a massive living room filled with Lovecraftian darkness, silent except for the occasional skittering creature. I went to work, I came home, I slept. I spent hours, days, entire weekends, lying on my bed in the dark. Weeks passed. Months. Years. I was still in the abyss.
At some point it occurred to me I should do something. Anything to pass the time, other than sit alone in the dark. So I played video games.
Killer 7. Shadow of the Colossus. Devil May Cry. Black, surreal games, games about sorrow and loss and journeys into the unfathomable, odysseys into the terrible. I bought a copy of Danielewszcki's House of Leaves, too, which sat on the dust-caked glass coffee table like some dark ritual tome; thumbing through it informed the experience of playing these games with bizarre waking nightmares.
Strange, isn't it--I prayed at all hours to God to keep my demons at bay, and yet I invited them in at every opportunity. I played for hours upon hours, eight or nine hours at a time, stopping only to eat or sleep. It wasn't a healthy coping mechanism, and it was one that, were there anyone to check up on me, would have left him concerned for my sanity. But it was a familiar comfort. One I'd known longer than any human friend. A simple pleasure that defined me better, at the time, than I could have hoped to know.
Sometime around my freshman year of college I had developed a habit of associating video games I'd completed with the heartbreaks they got me through. It wasn't my only coping mechanism--if only heartbreak was so easy!--but it was one of the big ones. Heather was Metal Gear Solid. Lisa was Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. Anna (the first time) was Avernum 3. Lisa (the second time) was Knights of the Old Republic. Anna (the second and final time) was Metal Gear Solid 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, NetHack, Final Fantasy X, God Hand...
That was the point in which such a classification ceased to be meaningful. For no matter how many video games I played, the quiet emptiness of knowing--she had told me to my face--that the woman I had come to love more than any other woman I had ever known would never love me back. Not now. Not ever. I don't know what kind of catharsis I was looking for in all these games, and in the movies I watched and the concerts I went to and the dozens of literary novels I read on the subway, but I never found it. Video games--popular entertainment in general, as well--are great for taking your mind off things, for taking you briefly away to another place, but they can't cure what ails you.
Games are not therapy. If you've been utterly convinced that you'll never be able to tell the difference between a girlfriend and someone who just wishes you would leave her the fuck alone, that it's either a lifetime of solitude or a lifetime of stalking for you, unlocking that shiny new special attack in Devil May Cry is not going to make a difference. Spending sixty hours beating Disgaea isn't going to magically formulate an exit strategy for your shitty job. Killing the giants in Shadow of the Colossus, realizing at the end of Metal Gear Solid 2 that you will never be Solid Snake, will only convince you further that all aspirations are tragically misguided or comically futile.
I knew this. I wasn't angry. I wasn't sulking in my room listening to Sunset Rubdown's "I Am Dreaming" and Johnny Cash's "Hurt" and Radiohead's "Exit Music (For A Film)" and Franz Ferdinand's "Auf Achse," feeling sorry for myself like an overwhelmed teen. I'd already done all that, senior year, and the time for such histrionics had come and passed. I was just tired, eventually exhausted, after months and months and months of just not being able to cope. Tired, and worn out, and apathetic, and perpetually on the verge of giving up.
It wasn't just Anna, really. A year or so after Oberlin, the heartbreak had become the least of my problems. My job, while well-paying, had gone from banal to mind-numbing to Kafkaesque. My social life, and by extension my love life, was still dead in the water--all my close friends lived far away, and my only form of social interaction involved being the outsider at parties where I felt less and less welcome. My writing was getting nowhere, my resumes were getting nowhere, my attempts to work out the bugs in my Pong clone, the simplest fucking game possible, were getting nowhere. (Mostly because I was using Allegro, a software library originally developed for the Atari ST that requires more knowledge than I had of cathode ray timing and hardware synchronization, problems so thoroughly solved they are virtually irrelevant to modern game development on modern hardware. But I didn't know that.) Women would smirk at each other and say, "Really? Is this guy fucking serious?" when I tried to chat them up. Folks just five or six years past me in my career trajectory would stand around the water cooler talking about all the things they once wanted to be when they grew up, firemen, astronauts, superheroes, video game programmers; childish fantasies they had to leave behind when reality set in and they resigned themselves to careers as accountants and salespeople and marketers. Real people jobs, that real people do, not the wild Disney fantasies reserved exclusively for people with drive, money, privilege, and connections.
It's not that I didn't try to make my life better, to try to have something, anything, to give it meaning--I attended church activities, I joined concert and party mailing lists, I tried making conversation with strangers at shows, I went on epic all-day expeditions down Seventh Avenue from water to water. All for naught. Anything that didn't depress me, bring me down, or remind me of Anna reminded me just how far I'd ever be from being happy.
It felt like I had already made all the wrong choices, like I had failed right out the starting gate. Standing in a brownstone living room full of bright-eyed, dirt-poor musicians and restaurateurs and publishing interns, clad in my tie and my collared shirt from work, I'd think, who am I kidding. How the fuck did I think I'd ever fit in with these people I liked so much. Deep inside, I was my father. I'd become the kind of douchebag who projects his voice in every conversation, who uses the phrases "synergy" and "market-driven" in casual speech, who talks to women as if they were commodity dealers, who embraces the boring by virtue of being too cowardly for the exciting. I was born a smug tool with no backbone and I was becoming a smug tool with no backbone and I would die a smug tool with no backbone, so I might as well accept who I was.
Life was taking away all my meaningful choices one by one, frogboiling me into doing all sorts of terrible things I didn't have the integrity to resist, until I was approaching a checkmate, a state in which there was no option but to resign. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror each morning without wanting to clobber myself. It's hard to move on, perhaps even impossible, when you have nowhere left to go.
So what did I do. I had no real options. I had no choices left. My remaining life choices boiled down to a) drinking, or b) playing video games. I chose b).
All night, every night. Just to have something that wasn't a poem or a gentle acoustic folk song or an improv theater show or a fire escape or a vegan brownie or a lonely, inviting side street. Something she and I had never shared, that wasn't one of the million things she and I had in common that she wasn't thinking of when she said we had nothing in common. At some point she moved to New York and we hung out a little bit and yelled at each other for no reason, and I just went home and turned on my little secondhand TV and played Devil May Cry for eight hours. I played and I played and I played, just to pass the time.
And in the midst of that otherworldly stupor, somewhere in the middle of the frighteningly huge stack of $10 used PlayStation 2 games I've been accumulating since I graduated, I remembered something. I remembered why I had come to Oberlin all along, long before I'd ever met Anna or completely lost faith in myself, and struggled through a computer science major, and taught myself C++ from a heavy textbook I'd found and bought myself at the age of fifteen. I remembered what I'd gradually accepted I'd never be any good at, at least never as good at as the other kids in my high school class or the math/compsci double majors at Oberlin, that I'd gone as far to tell myself I didn't have to resign myself to being.
Up until then video games were things I did instead of the things I really wanted to do, frivolous entertainments that got in the way of having a life and meeting people and meeting goals, and for my first couple months in New York I treated them as such. But the more I did it, the more I realized they weren't a waste of time. They were just what I did. What I was used to doing. Fuck, it's not like I had anything better to do with my time.
And in these many hours of binge gaming an old dream awoke. That ancient, naive, childish dream I'd been embarrassed about, that I'd written off as a fantasy I'd had before I discovered theater and magical realism novels and acoustic guitar and other meaningful things, which nonetheless somehow guided me through four years at Oberlin and some amazing memories volunteering at SIGGRAPH and GDC mere days after Anna tore away the veil of my self-delusion and told me, no, Kevin, get over yourself, I'm not actually your girlfriend, fuck off.
Kevin, I asked myself, sometime in 2008. What have you been doing all this time. Shouldn't you be making video games? Like you've always wanted, since you were a little boy?
Fuck you, I answered. You can't even code up a working implementation of Pong. Have you seen how all the resumes you've been sending out end up? You read that douchey game industry article on thetriforce.com, about the shitheaded wannabe who wanted so badly to be a fireman but never bothered to learn how to put out a fucking fire. You struggled through key CS courses. You've never done as much a Quake mod, and you're up against people who won IGF awards before they even graduated. You went to the wrong school, hung out with the wrong people, and did all the wrong extracurriculars to be a career track game developer. Out there, there are thousands of people clamoring to break in to the game industry--thousands of other new grads who are more skilled, more experienced, and more motivated than you. No, you don't regret spending your time going to church retreats, hanging out with improv comedy people, and attending a capella concerts instead, and if you had the choice you wouldn't change a second of it. But...that's just not you, anymore. You're like a 98-pound weakling with fantasies of joining the army.
No, fuck you, I responded. FUCK YOU. I am tired of resigning myself to mediocrity. Experiments with a software library older than I am, that I taught myself with incomplete documentation older than I am, prove nothing. It's not about being a game developer, it's about developing games. And I have everything I need to develop games. I have a hard-won degree in computer science and I can find my way around C. I have a laptop and access to the free devkitARM toolchain. I am going to buy a Nintendo DS, I am going to buy a flash cart, and I am going to make a game. I don't care if it isn't professional quality, I don't care if it doesn't get me a job, I don't care if it doesn't make any money, I don't even care if I never finish. I am just going to make a game. Because I can. Because, all along, it's what I wanted. And I'm going to do it, be it my swansong or my white whale. I am going to make a fucking video game.
Folks in the game industry are occasionally bewildered by my passion for the craft. (A recent development, if you know me well; I was never this committed in college.) Turns out my nightmares of a horde of obsessed, DigiPen-trained undergrads pounding at the door of the industry, their resumes pressed down to 8pt Arial with Half-Life 2 total conversions and demoscene and IGF Student Showcase awards jangling in garlands from their necks, were just the shiny side of an elaborate job security ruse by jaded game journalists. Making games, as with any other profession, can sometimes be unpleasant (especially around crunch time!), and while you have to love games to make games, a job is a job is a job.
It's fairly rare, I've discovered, for folks my age to be this motivated to do anything, let alone hellbent on breaking into an industry many miles removed from his path of least resistance and then excelling at it beyond all reasonable expectation, knowing full well that he'd have to spend most of his career working long hours and making do with comparatively low pay. No one ever asks me the question, but many imply it: How the fuck do you get a twenty-five-year-old this driven? It's not natural. Maybe not even sane.
The answer, really, is simple.
Step one: Take away everything important to him.
Step two: There is no step two.
There are two ways you could look at my initial motivation for making the jump from playing games all the time to actually making them. One is that it was an incredibly circumlocutious, impotent, immature, passive-aggressive gesture in the general direction of suicide. Don't get me wrong, I was neither seriously considering killing myself nor wanting of the attention it might produce. But life was awful, and still awful, and still awful, year after year, with no signs of ever changing or hoping to change, and I needed to something--even if it was a ridiculous empty gesture, the illusion of action. After all, making a video game worth playing has long been on my checklist of things to do before I die. Why not?
So I put in most of my after-work hours, most of my weekends, and I worked on this thing obsessively. It wasn't the only thing I worked on obsessively, of course--oh no. I wrote about a dozen short stories, about two of which I finished, and half of an epic three-act musical, and some terrible poems, and started teaching myself how to play the guitar. I just kept making stuff, all sorts of stuff. I went on long walks through the city and saw all sorts of bands I'd always wanted to see, and ate foods I'd never tried, and struck up conversations with doomsday evangelists and drunken vagrants. A stranger might have seen me and thought I was happy, that I was living well and enjoying life, but oh no no. It was like I was going away on a long trip, and doing all the one-last-times before the big goodbye. What that goodbye was, I didn't even know. All I knew was that there was no way out and that things just couldn't go on the way they were going forever.
The other way of looking at it is that, when cornered, I have a natural tendency to refuse to admit it. And, shut into a cave with the air running out, I will claw my fingernails against the rock until they bleed. Which is, more or less, what I was doing.
And then, something magical happened, something I honestly never would have expected, something truly impossible in this cold, angry, terrifying worldview I had come to accept as reality: People started paying attention.
Game companies I'd sent resumes to on a lark started scheduling phone interviews with me--even big names, sometimes, like Harmonix. Friends who didn't even play video games got excited about the early screenshots I posted. Publishing people invited me to submit things I'd written and idly posted in mad crazy self-destructive gibberish. College friends moved to New York. Women started noticing me, leaving my job became a real possibility, acquaintances I didn't really know started welcoming me to parties as a friend instead of an obligatory outsider. The lingering ache of heartbreak finally faded and Anna and I reconciled and started hanging out again on amicable but not intimate terms, which is where we've been ever since. It's just...I don't know. It's not like life became substantively any better, considering that I was still trying to jump-start a career in a recession and my prospects of having anything I could genuinely look forward to weren't any better than they were in 2007, but all things in my life improved until it became, somehow, more bearable. It's like God got fed up with my prayers and finally took pity. No favors. But pity.
And, long story short, things had been looking better and better since then, culminating in Cormac flying me out to Cupertino to work on his project--a new milestone on a long, confusing, inexplicable journey. Which is why it was such a shock to walk into Diana's house and see, on another woman, the face of the woman who inadvertently started me down this spiral of insanity and reckless ambition in the first place.
It is sobering, sometimes even darkly funny, to discover what images God will choose to get your attention--be it Anna L., or Nicholas Cage.
(continued tomorrow in part 3)