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Castle of Illusion

I am going to try something new—just this once, I promise.

I’ve been thinking about Austin all wrong.

I grew up in Texas, so Austin makes me panic. I’ve long thought of the state’s best city as my Other Andersonville, a fantasy wonderland where my high school classmates are hiding behind trees on street corners, waiting to ambush and humiliate me. And ditto to you, hometown H-E-B.

But recent events conspired to position me an hour away from Austin, so I packed my two duffels and my laptop bag and hopped into my car. I drove northward to my friend MC’s house: I think we used to call it the Trash House, or if we didn’t and I just made that up, I guess I’ve offended some people. No, I think we called it that. I performed a rap there once, in German, to the third-largest audience of my life. I was about 21 then.

Brandon Boyer, the writer, recommended that I time my long Austin weekend to Venn itself with an indie games developer get-together he organizes. I thought the beer part sounded pretty good, so I parked across the street from the bar and meandered in, maybe a couple hours late.

At that hour the bar was desolate, because everyone was already in the backyard. I got directions to the now-obvious EXIT sign and stepped outside. Brandon waved me over. Then he nudged his friend, who made space at the picnic table. I wedged myself between them.

“This looks like that place in San Francisco!” I said to Brandon, feeling homesickness and something else.

“Zeitgeist?” he said.

“Yeah!” I said. Yeah, that was what.

“Yeah, it’s the one place out there that looks like Austin.”

He explained everyone’s Thing in a hurry. The get-togethers are successful in that a lot of artists and developers show up, so if you think I remember any names or projects I didn’t write down in the moment, you are kidding yourself. I was way out of my element. I explained to Brandon that Indie City Games in Chicago was more like a symposium, with demonstrations and a projector and playtesting.

What I do remember talking about, with Wiley Wiggins and artist Amanda Williams, is what is required to make a character look alive. We talked about rotoscoping. I mentioned the Polar Express thing to Amanda. She said she’d refused to watch the movie on principle. Me, too, I said. Wiley cited straight mo-cap, devoid of any animated license, as a factor in character deadening. I named sfumato, the shadows in the corners of the eyes and mouth (“in the places that crease, where we give away our age”) as a crucial and oft-missing component.

“Or when you can see all the teeth,” Wiley agreed. “It’s like, no, you can’t see the teeth in the back of the mouth.”

That’s true. Or when, inexplicably, there’s a light source in a 3D object’s nostril, illuminating the whole thing. No one gave that example specifically, but it’s another one.

By the time we’d become party dregs, a fledgling student of game design not part of the get-together seated himself across from us. He wanted, he told us, to work for a huuuuuuge video game company, make bank, maybe get health and dental out of the deal.

Brandon became animated. Do you want to be a cog? No! No one does! You can carve your own path! You can do whatever you want! You don’t need to make games about killing people! We need your vision!

I said to the kid, who seemed alarmed, Yes, Brandon is moving his arms around a lot, but he’s right:

How many hours do you want to work?

On the bottom rung?

On something you’ll enjoy working on if you’re fortunate?

Do you want to sell your soul?

We are not shitting on your dreams; we want to remind you that you can live your own dream.

Then I patted Brandon on the arm, undermining him.

“This guy is on your side,” I said to the young hopeful. “He’s a pro. He champions independent game design for a living. He really means it, too.”

“You guys make games?” the young kid’s young kid friend asked us.

I choked on beer. “Noooo, no, no. He’s a writer.”

“Ohhhh, like a, uhhh, video game Hunter S. Thompson,” the kid said, nodding.

I choked again. I coughed.

I spent the next day at the Trash House, where a dog vomited on one of my duffel bags. And the next next day, I couldn’t find my phone. Or my eyeglasses.

“I can’t see anything!” I said, panicked. “How am I supposed to drive anywhere! Without my phone. My phooo-oooone.”

I dug around in my purse for my phooo-oooone, and I came up instead with a pair of $500 prescription sunglasses. They are: pearl horn-rims, with lenses that are a deep, ruby salmon color. I checked myself out in the mirror. I was an idiot. I perched the glasses high on my head like a movie starlet and squinted at my reflection. Ah, much better.

I said good morning to the three new people in the Trash House living room.

“Who’s this?” Yee asked MC, pointing at me.

I needed to get to my mother’s hospital. But I couldn’t just leave without my phone, my eyeglasses, and with all this dog vomit on my stuff.

“Well, uh,” MC said. “We’re about to go on this scavenger hunt. Why don’t you come along?”

“Blind?” I asked him. We crossed the street to Brian’s. We asked Brian if he’d seen my eyeglasses around. I went back to the car, still blind and unhappy. I shrugged. I got in. We all barely fit.

Money had become an issue, so I spent the first half of Beer Fest / Scavenger Hunt holding water in a plastic Dixie. I couldn’t see anything. I admitted to Missus Dondi that things were beginning to feel unreal, that everything was a vague haze. I was living in the uncanny valley. I was playing in my own Alternate Reality. I swilled some water, then, and squinted at Missus Dondi.

MC and Mister Dondi had already collaborated on the scavenger hunt clues. They had an itinerary and corresponding battle plan already drawn up between them. Victory was surefire.

Missus Dondi photographed her husband and his friend Yee in front of their first target. Then Mister and Missus Dondi left to shave.

What?

“Where are we going?” I asked Yee. I threw away my plastic cup.

“What’s-her-name owns that,” Yee said, pointing at something across the street.

“Who,” I asked him.

“Sandra Bullock.”

“Where,” I said. I pulled my sunglasses down onto my face and whirled around.

“There,” Yee said, pointing harder.

We found Mister and Missus Dondi shaving in a nearby parking lot. They had found an outdoor power outlet, and Missus Dondi was using an electric trimmer while Mister held still.

The idea was that, in each scavenger hunt victory photograph, Mister Dondi’s outrageously bushy beard would gradually reconfigure itself until he was, at last, cleanly shaven.

“Actually,” Missus Dondi explained, “we’re going to our destinations in reverse order, so that his beard will chronologically grow.”

“This took two years,” Mister Dondi said, indicating his disappearing-before-our-eyes facial hair.

The scavenger hunt was one thing, but the way they were using the outdoor power outlet with the electric shaver, the way they had shopped for Yee’s thriftstore costumes, and the beard, these were all Mister’s ideas.

There are the rules, and then there is what we do inside of the rules. This is what we call “emergent gaming.”

In the car, I put my sunglasses back on.

“How come I can’t see any of this from the highway ever,” I snapped.

“What,” Mister Dondi said.

“All this,” I said.

“All this cool stuff?”

The landscape was whipping past us. It was all one-storey buildings and big green trees, all spread out. Everything was pretty cool.

“Yeah,” I said.

“The highway,” Mister Dondi said, “cuts through the shittiest part of Austin.”

“Okay,” I said.

At the next destination, I bought a sandwich. At the destination after that, I ate half. The next place was our Big Stop. It was part of the Beer Fest, so it was everybody’s Big Stop. I was carrying my half-sandwich in a styrofoam box, in a plastic bag. I looked down at it. I passed it to Yee.

“Here,” I said.

Yee is a cheapskate. “Are you done with that?” he thrilled. He snatched the plastic bag from me.

“Yup,” I said.

I love you,” he said as he dashed away with it. Everybody giggled. Yee was diagnosed with Aspergers in boyhood, so at times he plays the Game of Life by a different ruleset.

We were standing with C and D, and Brian and his two roommates arrived. And here came K and Paul, who I didn’t know from before, but everyone else knew them. I was getting a little nervous. I pulled my sunglasses onto my face long enough to inspect everyone.

I took a book out of my purse.

“Hey,” Paul said. “Where did you get that book?”

“Out of my purse,” I said.

“But I have that book. I’ve never seen anybody else with that book.”

I looked down at it. The book is Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, by James P. Carse.

I felt bad. “I haven’t actually started reading it,” I said to Paul. “I got it in a used bookstore last week. It was misfiled with the books about how to play Poker and Bridge. But I checked the Goodreads reviews. Everyone got it in a used bookstore. Everyone read it in a night, everyone said it changed his life. That put me off. I don’t want my life changed in a single night.

“But,” I said, rifling the pages with my thumb, “I did read the back and the first page. My concentration in school was Slavic literature—”

“I minored in Italian literature,” Paul said.

”—and my Russian literature professor wrote this book I really like, Narrative and Freedom: the Shadows of Time. It’s about determinism and linear time—or the finite game, I guess—versus open time, chance, and possibility. So, the infinite.”

“Oh, you’ll like that book, then,” Paul said.

Then Brian’s roommates and I talked for awhile about time travel.

The next day, I got on my hands and knees to unplug my laptop, and I found my eyeglasses under some furniture.

For lunch, MC took me to two game stores in Austin. First we went to Gamefellas. They had some old stuff, but most of it was new. I saw a lot of newer DS games I wanted. I wanted too many things, so I wanted to leave.

That’s how we ended up at Game Over Videogames. It is amazing, except that their copy of Mountain King for the Atari VCS is $15 instead of $10. I guess they know what they have.

They have 6-foot extension cables for my RetroDuo controllers (ahem).

They have top-loading NESes.

They have handheld NESes.

After a long period of wrenching self-doubt and pacing, I spent a lot of credit on a Hyperkin Gen Mobile, which is a portable SEGA Genesis, styled hamhandedly after the PSP, with a cartridge slot and 20 games built-in and an AV-out. Yes, it’s flimsy. Yes, it is a novelty. But it has a very nice, crisp screen. I am a sucker for retrofitting.

I also went the Disney route with two cartridges, Aladdin and Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse.

When I was getting back into my car—with my laptop, my clean duffel, my dog-vomit duffel, my eyeglasses, my cell phone, my portable Genesis—I watched Brian paint the trim on his house. He turned and waved. I felt a strange, sad pang. I remembered, all of a sudden, what it is like to wave to your neighbors in the morning or after work.

Can you be homesick for a place you aren’t from?

I turned the ignition of my car.

That night, I played Castle of Illusion in my mother’s hospital room.

5 responses to “Castle of Illusion” »

  1. Tom K says:

    I will never lead a life anything remotely like yours, and I’m never quite sure if I’m envious or not. I think that supports my extant feeling that you’re doing really good work here, and I thank you for it

  2. plvhx says:

    jenn let’s not pretend you haven’t written stuff like this before and that there aren’t people who totally love it (hi) so that you can write more bits like this in the future ok

    • Jenn Frank says:

      you really shouldn’t encourage this sort of behavior

      late edit: well. different because it’s so meandering and pointless, i guess. here, i think i was playing a secret game with myself instead of going to hang out with my mom:

      dérive, which really applies in every way, right down to “emotional disorientation” and “possible rendezvous.” i haven’t played this game in a really long time! but don’t you doubt my shame at using a parent’s illness to let myself be carried away on play-days in a strange city, absolving myself with i-can’t-find-my-glasses and letting myself miss 1,000 phone calls.

  3. BurtonDT says:

    “in the places that crease, where we give away our age”

    Interesting quote, but I can’t find the source or anyone else who has quoted it. Where is this from?

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