The Womb, aka SumoSac
All day in the one chair
From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged
In rambling talk with an image of air:
Vague memories, nothing but memories.”
- "Broken Dreams" William Butler Yeats
For most of the last few years my gaming has been in challenge-mode. I've sat at my desk, with its countless plastic chits and an endlessly revolving series of mice (ever searching for the perfect one), playing Sins of a Solar Empire, Chess, Team Fortress 2, Bioshock, WoW and all the rest of the greatness that’s been heaped upon gamers in this nascent second-golden-age of gaming. But they've been focused, intellectual experiences. Even in games like Bioshock, where the story and emotional context have been center stage, I've felt very much present. The burning-away of the flesh hasn't been happening.
I blame my chair.
In the debate between the PC-gamer snobs and the console fanboys, the commonly used paradigm is one of position. PC games are supposedly the lean forward close to the screen experiences, and console games are the reclined, feet up experiences. I have ignored these arguments mostly because until very recently I had three consoles and two computers hooked up to the same screens on my desk, a box of controllers on the shelf to the left, waiting to be grabbed during short bursts of free time or late night Gears of War chainsaw attraction exercises.
Even during the most laconic and social of gaming sessions - say a game of UNO on Xbox Live Arcade - my sole nod of the relaxed nature of the experience has been to put my feet up on the desk and allow the carbon of the black aeron chair to angle back a few degrees. In this twisted and uncomfortable position, I would settle into a bed of nails.
But then we decide that we needed to fix the crack in our bedroom ceiling.
To be fair, the crack in the bedroom ceiling desperately needs fixing. But while I consider myself exceptionally handy, the idea of tarping off our bedroom for a week while I chip away old plaster every evening, hang new drywall, apply goo, sand, swear, sand some more, paint and then stare at the B- workmanship that will haunt me for a decade is too much to bear. So we decide that we would actually hire someone to fix the crack in the ceiling.
Which of course means that my wife starts looking at paint chips. After all, we have to paint the walls too, because the crack carries down the wall. And once the swatches come out, it’s all over. I know it the moment she comes back from the hardware store with a fistful of color.
Three weeks later, we move out of the house so that the painters can have it to themselves. When we return to the smell of fresh paint and the lingering dust, we uncover the furniture and face unfathomable freedom. For the first time since we've had kids, we don't need to worry about anyone climbing up on the bookshelves, yanking wires, or forging a Pollock on the walls. Having subjugated myself entirely to the home redecoration process, I announce my demands: I shall move gaming into the living room.
The move from the basement to the living room had already been progressing before the paint. On cashing in my soul at Best Buy two winters ago, the Wii has always been in the living room, as it is the “family” game console. The emergence of Rock Band as a dominant form of pants-still-on, polite-company, kids-at-grandma’s adult entertainment means that I have been frequently unplugging my Xbox 360 from its wire rack in the basement and lugging it up the stairs, trailing cords like Tesla’s pet octopus. There being no place for it, it sits on the carpet while my wife sings “Maps” and then returns, tired and hot, when the evening is done.
“We're buying furniture,” I inform Jessica.
“What?” She’s exhausted, defenses down. We've just put the kids to bed after a meal of obligatory move-in pizza.
“And a new receiver. And speakers.” The plan has gelled in my head as we stand there looking at the bare, Sherman Williams Friendly Yellow ™ walls. I show her my vision.
“We're going to Ikea. We're getting one of those wall entertainment things. We're putting the TV and all the game stuff flat against the wall, behind doors and drawers.” As I speak, my heart swells in my chest. If I were Julie Andrews, I'd be running across fields and singing. “And couches. These couches suck.”
She’s hated the couches since we bought them, Before Kids. White with blue stripes, or possibly blue with white stripes, they long ago became so uncomfortable that nobody over the age of 10 can sit in them, opting instead to sit on the floor leaning against them.
“The speakers are going on the sides back here,” I explain, showing her the precise location my as-yet unapproved 5.1 madness will occupy. “And I'm getting everything hooked up to one fraking remote.”
She gives up without a fight. One US Stimulus Package check later, the electronics hardware and speakers are sitting boxed in the garage. One weekend trip to Ikea after that, we return home to spend 11 hours putting together the wall unit.
That evening, after wresting with the stereo wiring for an hour, I sit down and played Super Stardust HD on the PlayStation 3. The sound is loud, and in glorious head-turning surround. The room is dark. It is a completely absorbing experience. I fire up Gears of War, and an hour disappears. I play Lumines until 2AM, for no other reason than I am lost in the game.
These are all games I've played to death. But the change in context makes the experiences entirely different and completely engrossing. These are not games that benefit from my Nostromo or my Microsoft Habu gaming mouse.
But there is still a missing link – the couches. No matter how we work it, getting new couches is going to be a problem. First of all, we hate every couch we see locally. Somewhere there’s a memo circulating amongst the couchmakers union, ensuring that the cartel of ugliness is never broken. The only exception to this seem to reside at Ikea, some two hours away. And while they're not expensive, they're impossible to transport and ridiculous to ship. And even if we could somehow get them in the door, what does one do with old couches? They're so bad I wouldn't wish them on the homeless. Do we rent a dumpster? Douse them in kerosene and burn them in the back field in a kind of New England Burning Man celebration, invoking the Goddess of Septic System Health and smearing ourselves with bear grease to ward off the black flies?
Then the guy from Sumo emailed. For some reason, the guys at Sumo love Gamers With Jobs. Last year, they sent Brennil one, for no particular reason, and she seemed to dig it. This time, they had a hot new thing they wanted to run by us. Like the giant bean bag Brennil reviewed, but bigger.
So here’s the thing. I needed a piece of furniture to game in, on, or around. So I did something I have never, in decades of writing, ever done. I took something for free, and I'm writing about it. Yes, I know you may find it hard to believe, but I've purchased every retail game I have ever written about. I've never taken a piece of hardware, a plane ticket, or a dinner from a PR person. The closest I've come was eating muffin tops at Irrational when interviewing Ken Levine two years ago, and that was only because my 2 hour interview ended up being 5 hours and I was starving. I still have ethical nightmares about the muffin tops.
But this time, I sold my soul for the chair. I hope you forgive me.
It’s a giant bag full of chopped up foam that costs $229, shipped.
Easily the most entertaining thing about it is the birthing process. Before it leaves the factory, Sumo takes, by my calculations, about 100 cubic feet of chopped up mattress foam and sucks all the air out of it. If you order one now, it will apparently come in a cardboard box (which must be held together by Kevlar. My prototype has been crammed into a black nylon duffel bag. The amount of pressure involved is equivalent to shoving an NFL linebacker into Lance Armstrong’s bike shorts. One snip with the scissors and the duffel rips stem to stern and a crinkled eraserhead baby explodes onto the carpet, itself in a vacuum sealed plastic bag.
The instructions, at this point, used the word “fluff” a dozen times. After 10 minutes of vigorous fluffing, what I have is a pleasantly smooshy beanbag, which my kids (and several sets of random other children) spend the a weekend pummeling.
It’s a hit. But then, it’s a giant beanbag, what’s not to love? I am exhorted to fluff my sac (no, that’s not prison slang) several times a day for a week. I'm skeptical that this will make much difference, but I am wrong. It never stops growing.
I'm afraid it’s going to kick me out of the house soon.
At present it is a cube roughly 5 feet on a side – it only stands 4 feet high after a second or two, as the foam compresses slightly. It’s the equivalent of those toys you put in water that expand into giant adult novelty sponges overnight. My children – and every kid they know – think the Sac is the best toy they've ever seen. If you sit dead center it forms a donut suitable for playing baby-bird-in-a-nest for 6 children. Fully fluffed, it can take an eight-year-old at a full leap better than a gymnastics matt. And while I've been trying to discourage it, it will adequately act as a high-fall cushion for a four-year-old leaping off the kitchen table in full Sharkey’s Machine dead-man spread.
But most importantly, it has completed my gaming womb, and ended my journey into console escapism. The first time I sat in it, I overestimated the density of the foam and led with my bottom, catching only the edge of the sac and hitting the floor. My wife laughed so hard she had to leave the room. But now I've got the hang of it. While the company assures me it isn't made out of Tempurpedic memory-foam, it acts like it. If you lie back in it and then rock back and forth into position, it will, after a few seconds, hold its shape. If you've done it right, the shape it holds is perfect, cradling not only your back, but your shoulders, the backs of your knees, and even your elbows.
All it’s missing is a cup holder, but I'm not sure how you could attach it.
And it’s so big that two adults can do this at the same time. My wife and I now watch TV in it while the fading blue-and-white couch looks on in sorrow. Time to buy some kerosene and torch it before it gets any ideas.
The conclusion of this tale which began with the crack in the bedroom ceiling is simple: context matters. Gaming in my giant foam sac in a dark room with good sound is entirely self-robbing. You'd think after decades of playing games I would have come to this conclusion years ago. But I've always been a lean-in gamer. I guess it just took me 30 years to relax.