Standing in the parking lot at night.
I look up at the sign.
I can’t remember when.
I am a child.
We are between my parents’ separations.
A pleasant evening and I am happy.
I smell the warmth of the asphalt. We walk to the front entrance.
We are going to eat pie. I look at the sign again.
I smile at its brightness.
We step inside. The lounge is full.
It smells like smoke and baked carpet.
I hear the piano music. I run towards it.
I watch the piano play itself.
I try to read its scroll.
The piano is in a frenzy: Pedals and keys pumping like thighs and pistons.
Like an oil derrick throbbing alone in the hills.
I imagine the ghost at the machine.
A hollowness swallows my stomach. I step back.
It feels almost alive. It seems confident.
I imagine the thing filled with bones and gears.
I imagine little fingers wrenching the keys from the inside.
I love this piano.
I am horrified by it.
Our name is called. I run back.
We are escorted to our table.
My father orders a pot pie. My brother orders one also.
He doesn’t know what it is.
Our food comes. My brother hates it.
He thought it would be sweet.
We finish. We sit around awhile.
We get up.
I walk to the piano again. I watch it again.
I place a finger on a key and wait.
It collapses. I jump back.
My father takes my hand.
We walk out.
The door closes.
The piano dies.
The wind picks up.
We walk to the car in silence.
I think about the pot pie.
I think about the piano.
Why would someone make a pie that isn’t sweet?
Why would someone want a piano to play itself?
I stare out the window on the ride home.
I watch the street lights flare by.
Full and confused.
On a road outside LA.
I fall asleep.
A lot of games passed by me.
I was blind to them.
The PlayStation pulled me back in.
My mother gave away our NES and SNES to a poor Palestinian family.
It was where games were then that set me off to reexamine where they came from.
In high school I dove into emulation. I sought out what was necessary.
A friend mentions Ogre Battle.
I download it.
I am frustrated.
Expecting a battle system of total player control, I couldn’t understand the value of the game.
I couldn’t choose my character.
I couldn’t micromanage my army.
Watching my soldiers lose without my direct involvement was awful.
Strategic target prioritization was all I was allowed.
I couldn’t accept it.
I wanted what FFVII promised: Strategic action.
In 2006, my interest in games collapsed again.
I was caught up with games and I was bored.
Final Fantasy XII released.
I was uninterested. I ignored it.
I visit a friend’s house.
He loves it. He hates FFVII and VIII.
I ask him why he likes XII so much:
“Because it feels like real fantasy, not that weird science/technology stuff in those other games. . .Also, I maxed out my characters in a couple nights. . .”
“The Gambit System. . .I set macros in the game and rubber-band the analog stick. The party runs around and fights and heals itself and I don’t really have to do anything.”
“What’s the point of that? Is it fun for you?”
“Better than me wasting my game time grinding. . .”
I am stunned.
I am flooded with implication:
The first time I think about a game playing itself.
The first time I see the emptiness behind the systems.
The first time I understand games as inconvenience.
Xenoblade Chronicles asked a lot of me.
Christmas 2012 I bought myself a WiiU.
It was the first Nintendo home console I’d owned since the SNES.
The Wii’s library was stagnant.
Again, I sought out the necessary:
Xenoblade Chronicles is difficult to digest.
The characters skim across the world.
No weight. No friction. No density.
The weapons are half-inflated balloons.
The battle system is auto-attacks and positioning.
It’s watching what your party is doing while controlling one character.
Xenoblade is the evolution of Ogre Battle translated for the MMO generation.
It is uncomfortable.
It’s a game in which the player is marginal.
It’s a game of strategic depth and tactical hollowness.
A beautiful game with no body.
A cavernous game with no bones.
It is the modern predecessor to the ‘game-that-plays-itself.’
Mountain: The player watches a procedurally-generated mountain form and float in space.
The player only controls the camera as text from the mountain types itself across the screen.
Dreeps: The player sets an alarm which determines when an android wakes to go on an adventure.
It gains experience and defeats bosses on its own.
Neko Atsume: The player sets out toys and food for cats. The player takes pictures of the cats.
The player cannot interact with the cats directly.
They are all mobile games.
They are all about convenience and voyeurism.
About watching and filling empty time with something a little less empty.
The convenience and horror of FFXII’s Gambit as a design philosophy.
As a genre.
The self-playing game is a multi-level perversion.
Fetishization. Voyeurism. Bondage. Power. Dissociation.
Cold and sexual:
A dying fish glistening in the sunlight.
Intriguing and quiet.
Reflective and Sorrowful.
The self-playing game rests in the chasm between my finger and the piano key.
It is the glass between ourselves and our spaces.
It is falling asleep in the ruins of a feeling.
It is endlessly witnessing the confusion of a rotting memory pushing itself into every experience a person has ever loved.
A hole inside a hole.
A new dawn.
A broken sky.
A sea of cameras.
A fury of nostalgia.
A graveyard of pixels.