December 18, 2005

Novel Excerpt: Ultimate Wild Deer Hunter IV

I’ve spent the weekend thinking about Lt. Colonel David Grossman and his killology theory. Wired had an article about it on Friday, but I can’t get my laptop to load the stupid thing. Point is, I think people like Grossman could throttle this fledgling, wonderful medium with some Comics Code-esque government regulation.

There are much more sophisticated people writing and thinking about videogames, and I can’t compete. Myself, I think videogames have changed the way I think, the way I remember things, and the way I tell stories. Since I couldn’t win an argument if my life depended on it, the only way I can contribute is by writing about it. Here’s another excerpt from my nebulous novel

One night I met some friends at a dingy bar on the Lower East Side, the kind of place with no name-plate out front, a neon “Beer” logo outside, and sticky floors inside. We sat too close to a group of college kids celebrating Christmas or the end of school or something else I didn't care about. They were videotaping the party, like that would make the experience more memorable. Amplified by the camera, they hammered the bar every time they took another licorice-smelling shot.

Towards the back of the bar, there was an arcade game called Ultimate Wild Deer Hunter IV. In New York, these videogame oases always draw twenty-year-olds like piglets crowded around mother’s tits. Standing in front of the eight-foot-tall machine, one of the beefy college kids pumped his orange plastic shotgun in midair like an action movie star. I drank a whole whisky watching him shoot pixilated animals, remembering all the cozy hours I spent shooting video game spaceships, zombies, and terrorists as a kid. The game began inside a leafy autumn forest with bucks jumping in and out of the bushes; then moved to a wheat field with brown blob turkeys bobbing through the stalks; and then ended inside the most difficult stage of all, a winter forest with swirling snow and deer zipping too fast to follow.

Every videogame scene made me feel more homesick for the Midwest, and the whisky widened the distance between New York City and Michigan. I felt like John Travolta at the end of the comic-book movie, Punisher. The remake followed the obsessive logic of videogames: as the Punisher killed progressively more difficult bad guys, the gaudy style of each killing also evolved. At the end of the film, John Travolta’s bad-guy character was beat up, shot, chained to a car, dragged down a cement hill, and finally, exploded.

Watching that hipster blast away at a computerized landscape resembling my hometown, I felt like John Travolta—not like John Travolta’s character in Punisher, but like John Travolta the real person. I felt how John Travolta must have felt while watching his stunt double perform that scene on a video screen in some Hollywood sound stage and recording every “Agggggghhh!” and “Oooooh” sound that his dying movie character made in that spectacularly laughable scene. He must have felt like his whole life was a sick joke while he yelled bad dialogue into that microphone, knowing that through a combination of computers, stunts, tricky photography, and editing, it would appear that John Travolta had physically participated in that awful movie.

Still, I felt this gnawing, primal satisfaction as the kid killed successively more creatures in a videogame simulation of the wilderness surrounding my Podunk Michigan hometown. Videogames taught me how to measure life in episodes and videogame levels, expecting mounting difficulty with proportionally increasing rewards. When my turn came to play Ultimate Wild Deer Hunter IV, I hunched close to the grimy glass, trying to find Michigan inside there; to travel backwards ten years to the day I played hide-and-go-seek with my high school girlfriend in an apple orchard. Leaning closer, I remembered chasing my girlfriend Sarah through the leaves. We had stopped and hid in an apple crate, and the air smelled like ripe and rotting fruit. Sarah and I cuddled in the warped wood bottom of the man-sized container, two 17-year-old kids kissing and kissing inside an apple pile; I love you, I told her, lost in an imaginary orchard.

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