It is some unholy, cow-milking hour of the morning, and I've just got into the car with my eldest son. We have a thermos of coffee and four hours of highway cruising ahead of us. I reach into the back seat, pull out my iPad, and just hand it to him, figuring he'll be looking for it soon anyway. Neither one of us is really awake yet or wanting to think about the hospital visit waiting for us at the other end of the trip. Once we’re settled into cruise control, he wakes it up and asks me if I have anything new.
I’d just picked up a charmer called Amoebattles the day before. At its core, it's a very small RTS. Small as in scale (it's based on microscopic organisms) and small as in scope (only 25 units at a time, only a few variables between them). But it's extremely well executed, and the art is awesome. I got a couple levels in, and I figure he'll like this as well as he'd liked Goblin Commander back in the original Xbox days.
He kicks it off and does the tutorial level, and pretty soon he is directing his cell-shaded troops like a neon-colored Patton. I'm driving with a shifting blue-green glow reflecting off the dawn-silvered windshield and there’s a constant stream of sotto voce orders next to me. As many of us are prone to when we're very focused, he is directing them verbally as well as with the stylus. Glancing over to see him muttering down into the dark glass plane cradled in his lap was like looking at a reflection of myself playing the game the day before.
I chuckle, thinking yet again that however far the apple may have fallen from the tree, it rolled back toward the trunk a significant distance when it hit the ground.
I'm weird like chicken mittens, as all here know. I do get a fair amount of fond teasing from the gang about it, but along with the jabs about my nerdery, they tell me they are proud of me. And while I doubt any of them will ever end up at Carnegie Hall without a ticket stub in their hand, they are good people whom I am proud to know. And I'm even prouder because now that they’re on their own, they choose to share these parts of their lives with me.
When you're at the diapers-end of the kid-thing, their needs are so overwhelming oftentimes that what spare energy you can muster is invested in just getting away from them for a few minutes. But once they're grown and on their own, you end up spending that same energy trying to keep them with you a little longer. And just like how that necessary nap you got to take with them sleeping on your chest got you through another day, him looking up at me to ask a question or tell me the cool thing he'd just done is precious, necessary evidence of the bond we shared and will continue to share over the years.
Another mile goes by, another mitochondria down, and a very space-constrained victory dance ensues. That's my boy!
The connections and commonalities here are one thing, but there are contrasts as well.
If you had been listening to the orders issued under my breath when I had been playing, you would have heard a "GET OVER HERE!" a la Scorpion from Mortal Kombat, me muttering that those Sharks were trying to pull off a "Kilrathi Gang-Bang" or crowing how I'd pulled off the world's cutest little Zerg rush. When I'd gotten my own swarm of Sharks, the Jaws theme was hummed more than once. Then there was the whole "wakka wakka wakka fruit" bit in that algae field.
From him, it is a constant stream of quotes from a PSOne game called Abe's Oddysee and an equally ancient PC game called The Neverhood, interspersed with a few strings of gibberish that sound like he's trying to order Mandarin Dinner #2 very intently.
If you've never played those games, this bears a little explanation. Abe's Oddysee is a 2D platformer/puzzler with an element of Lemmings that came out for the original Playstation. In a design that was years ahead of its time, our enslaved Abe has to not only negotiate the deadly puzzles of Rupture Farms for his own freedom, he also has to rescue his fellow workers and needs their cooperation and good will to do it. This wasn't optional — if you don’t rescue them and/or you piss them off, the rest of your people won't help you when you face the big ugly thing at the end.
There is a full set of commands for Abe to use when asking his fellow workers to do stuff, like Wait or Follow Me, so they can help solve the puzzles. There’s another set of commands to let you hang with the gang, like laughing at their jokes or making farting noises to make them laugh at you, or an angry noise that reminds me of a bumblebee at 3000 RPMs, for when Abe’s friends need a smackdown.
As my son plays Amoebattles, for every "Wait" or "Follow Me" there are several of the angry noises and strings of mangled Chinese. As he gets used to the game's nuances (and it actually has some), the percentage of angry noises fades and in their place we start to get silly noises from Klaymen, like the rendition of the last line of Pop Goes the Weasel as my son drops an omnivorous hammer on some naughty flagellate or other.
My references come from my gaming roots in arcades and with early PCs. His come from growing up with his own games. Abe and Klaymen hit him (and all my gang) right in that sweet spot to be imprinted into their gaming reference lexicon, the same way Blue Elf's need for food is imprinted in mine.
For all our common ground, we each have our own perspective and make our own connection to the same events in Amoebattles. Over the years we have shared enough of these experiences that I understand most of the jokes he makes, but not all of them. He pulls out a couple pompous pronouncements I bet came out of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, but since I haven't played it yet myself I'm not sure.
Those jarring bits of confusion in this sea of common ground make me think about our experiences as gamers and the gaming industry as a whole. A lot of the conversation about any given game is based on comparison between it and various other games. Take any game and try to talk to someone else about it, and on top of the myriad other differences of perspective and preference involved, we add a different dialect. The very root concepts I am thinking about would be difficult to communicate to someone who never played or didn't click with the other games I’d compare with.
How much rancor and dissention in our common discourse is caused by this sort of basic miscommunication? How much time do we spend talking past each other like Captain Picard trying to talk to Dathon the Tamarian? We're all using the same words, but the base meaning is different. We may not even realize just how different. We think we're being clear, but all too often all we get back is Darmak and Jalad at Tanagra, and we're left nonplussed.
These thoughts occupy me for many miles while he completely drains my iPad battery trying to take over that tiny little world. Yes, I mentioned above I'm weird. And it's amazing the lengths my brain will go to in order to avoid thinking about things it doesn't want to when it's stuck stewing in its own juices on a long drive. And even when this trip is over, I'm going to keep thinking about it. Building connections, and keeping them true and strong, is very important.