by Jonathan Hayes
The arrival of autumn has put me in a mood of mellow introspection. I think I’m going to go ahead and launch a project I’ve had in the back of my mind for some time: The Bestiary of Death. Bestiary will be a monthly 5 minute or so audio podcast (maybe video, eventually) about a forensic topic – rigor mortis, say, or Jonathan’s sense of blood. It’ll be factual, but it’ll also be impressionistic, tinted by my own reactions and experiences. It’ll showcase my delightful speaking voice, plus feature groovy cover designs. I’ll let you know more about it as my plan solidifies.
Someone asked me the other day what I’ve learned from my time as an M.E. – actually a fairly pointless thing to ask a resolutely non-spiritual person. I do think that Warren Zevon’s answer to Letterman asking him what he’d learned from life (“Enjoy every sandwich”) covers it nicely, but I also have been thinking lately about achievement.
Objectively, human endeavor has delivered many astonishing achievements – the elucidation of the structure of DNA, putting a man on the moon, Sofia Vergara – but most of these things seem like almost inevitable byproducts of history. Sooner or later, we’d have figured out the wheel, and iron, and the Butterfinger bar. I feel the same way about personal achievement. Maybe because I have a doting mother and a competitive father, most of the things I’ve done with my life – becoming a doctor, becoming a forensic pathologist, writing for magazines and newspapers, becoming a novelist – don’t feel like achievements so much as they feel like stages of a life.
But Xevious? Xevious was an achievement.
I first encountered Xevious, an early 16 bit Namco videogame, in a Leicester Square coin arcade in the early 1980’s, while I was in medical school at the University of London. It’s a vertical scrolling spacecraft game in which you pilot a craft over a foreign terrain, bombing structures on the ground below while fighting off ferocious air attacks. The graphics – risible in the age of the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 – just blew me away. To play Xevious in1983 was to really embrace the cutting edge of technology, to experience the joy of becoming cyborg, part man, part machine. At least, for as long as you could make your ten pence last.
At first, I was mediocre – much as I love them, I’m not intrinsically a good videogame player. But over countless hours of gameplay, I got better, and eventually I edged my way onto the leaderboard, and finally experienced the satisfaction of using the joystick to type out JAH into a Top 10 slot. Gradually, other arcade players gathered to watch me fly my solvalou spacecraft through the Baculon resistor shields, a barrage of slowly rotating metal slabs the size of skyscrapers you have to dodge to strafe and bomb the buildings below. It was an exhilarating experience, for I’d always been the admiring onlooker, never before the admired player.
The summer of my Year of Xevious, I traveled a lot. After finally entering my initials at the very top of the Xevious leaderboard in London, I flew home to Boston, where I sought out an arcade, and found Xevious. I banged out my initials there, too, and again, in Philly. Now I had my name right at the top on Xevious games in three major cities; I also had calluses on my knuckles from repeatedly smashing them against the smooth bolts that held the joystick to the cabinet.
A week later, I went on to Bangkok. I knew Bangkok quite well, but wasn’t sure if I’d find a Xevious there. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered one in my hotel lobby. But it wasn’t the upright arcade cabinet I was used to: the BKK incarnation was a bar table version, played seated at a video screen covered with a sheet of glass.
Watching the young Thai dudes play, I experienced the rush of derision known only to the superb player – these guys were pathetic, dying off while they were still around the 40,000 mark! My top scores? Well, they were in the high 180’s, low 190,000’s – enough to justify that blast of disdain for lesser players, a fresh and exciting sensation for me.
They pretended not to see me waiting my turn for a long while, but ultimately they could ignore my hulking presence no more; finally, the crowd parted, and I got my shot at the machine.
I didn’t know how I’d fare on this low screen – I’d never played sitting, the way these kids were doing it. And I wasn’t about to start: I grabbed the chair, and shoved it away. I accidentally pushed it harder than I needed, and it shot a good fifteen feet across the lobby.
Immediately I was someone to be reckoned with. When I stepped close to the table, the throng closed in around me. When it became apparent that I was going to play the game standing, the hum of excited conversation grew loud. Would this unlikely-looking, chair-flinging farang be any good at the game?
Well, yes, actually. I played calmly and aggressively, piloting that spaceship like no one there had ever piloted itbefore. Waves of sparkly diamond rockets fell to my guns, I reduced the missile and fort installations hidden in the woods below to charred pits. None of the players there had ever even seen the second wave of Baculon resistor shields, let alone the ancient Aztec-style carvings on the plains beyond.
I was too tall for the game table; hunched over, banging and mashing, dodging and decelerating, I took that fighter ship way further than anyone ever had, but, my back fully locked by muscle cramps, I finally crapped out; when my last ship was destroyed, I had earned just over 150,000 points. A loud “OHHHH!” went up from the crowd.
The leaderboard screen came up onto the console, the Number 1 slot occupied by some guy with a measly 47,000. I wasn’t proud of my score, and felt a little awkward in the hot press of bodies, so I straightened with a casual shrug, and pushed my way out of the scrum without entering my initials. There was another roar as the crowd sealed behind me, the players determined to go further now that I’d shown them all what time it was.
I didn’t play Xevious again until I traveled to West Berlin, a few weeks later. In the morning, I crossed through the Wall to visit the East part of the city. I ate venison in a gloomy old restaurant, supposedly the city’s best. But I loathed the oppressive, monochromatic dullness of the East German half of the city, and quickly made my way back through the drab, rainy streets to West Berlin.
Back in the American section, I found a bar near Checkpoint Charlie, and ordered a Coke. The lights were low, the crowd mostly soldiers, and the music was expat-oriented Classic Rock. I sipped my Coke, sitting there happy to be people-watching back in the Capitalist world.
And then I saw it in the corner: a Xevious machine.
I hadn’t played since Bangkok. I finished my Coke, got change for the machine from the barman, then headed over. I slotted in a coin, the screen lit up and the familiar opening chimes sounded.
And I started to play.
It took me a couple of seconds to lock into my groove, but once I did, I was on fire. On fire. Nothing could touch me – not the ground fire, not the crystal rockets, not the Baculon resistor shields, not even the random exploding cannonballs that are the lethal outriders of the Genesis mothership. I played on and on, taking the thing further than I’d ever gone, seeing forests and lakes and Aztec carvings I’d never before seen.
It was amazing. Off-duty soldiers gathered to watch me play; I barely noticed them, for I was now truly fused with the machine, the joystick an extension of my wrist, the BOMB and FIRE buttons my new fingertips.
On and on I went, shattering all my previous records.
And then something magical happened: my favourite song of the era, David Bowie’s “Heroes” came onto the radio. But it wasn’t “Heroes” – it was “Helden”, the German version. And I kept playing and playing in the shadow of Checkpoint Charlie, Bowie screaming in German about the guns going off by the Wall, a crowd of GI’s cheering me on.
My right wrist felt wet; a quick glance showed me I’d played so hard that my knuckles had torn open. Blood was dripping onto the console, smearing down my wrist and arm, flicking up onto my clothes as I slammed the joystick back and forth.
And I just kept going, and going, and going, moving forward slick with blood, tears streaming down my face, Bowie singing that we could steal time (just for one day), the sensation in my heart of escape from oppression while in my head I knew I was still right in the middle of of it, a few yards from the Wall, the barbed wire and spotlights and machine guns that separated freedom from asphyxiating totalitarianism.
And I went on, and on, up past 200,000 and on. I floated up through the tropopause, all the way out into the mesosphere, where around me comets burned up into streaks of pure white light. And still I kept going, on into the thermosphere, surrounded by the shimmering curtains of the aurora borealis, where the 3,000 degree air temperature felt cold against my skin.
I went on and on, and in the end, I never stopped.
There’s a theory that since energy is never destroyed, sound never ends; the sounds of the musicians playing on the deck as the Titanic sank are still echoing around that ship, just infinitely quietly. In the same way, thirty years later, somewhere deep inside, a part of me is still playing Xevious in that bar, still piloting that ship further and further out as David Bowie sings that we could be heroes, if just for one day.
So, yeah, Xevious. Xevious was an achievement.
And that’s what I have to say on the subject of achievement.
Oh, and also: auf Wiedersehen.
And thanks for playing along at home.
Jonathan, I've been learning so much from you — like Xevious. Never heard of it before.
Yeah DNA. The human genome. When I started my neuro classl, the course director said that the human genome map would be completed in 10 years, maybe longer. Before the course was over he nnounced it had been completed. It seems that cooperative computer use (distributed computing) in a program called Folding at Home http://www.stanford.edu/group/pandegroup/folding/education/GAH/gene.html by volunteers who ran gene folding in the background on their computer made this possible . . . I remember teams competing for sequencing hours – for fun. Everywhere you went on campus every public computer not in use was "folding genes."
I'm going to go back to folding genes and doing distributed computing for SETI in my spare time.
Haha! I participate in the Folding at Home program on my Playstation 3!
You rock, sir. I'll miss your posts.
I only felt that kind of video game-fusion only once, while playing Area 51, which involves shooting aliens with plastic pistols. Originally, I'd bribed a 13-year old to teach me the game, but it eventually got good to me, and one day, I could hit anything I looked at. I don't know if a crowd gathered,exactly, but a few were waiting to play, and kept a running commentary on how soon I'd die.
Twenty minutes later, one of them looked at my husband and said, "Damn. Don't ever get her mad at you." He replied, "It's okay–she can't hit the inside wall of a barn with a real gun."
Which is only the truth. But that day, I played until my arm couldn't hold up five ounces of plastic anymore. I handed the pistol to a young chauvinist who'd kept snarking that the machine was rigged. He died within ten seconds, and his friend shook my aching hand.
I held the record on that machine for almost a year . . . yes, I checked . . . and then my star faded. Oh, well.
Please keep us in the loop for Bestiary — I don't want to miss a word.
Fantastic post, muthafuka!
God, Jonathan – this brings back so many memories. I, too, played Xevious, but I didn't remember the name. I remembered it from your screen-shot of those graphics. I can feel it now in my bloodstream. I can sense the movement of the ship. My big game was Galaxa, and it still is. My kids are pretty much modern day video game freaks and they thought their dad was pretty square until one day we encountered a Galaxa game and they saw me go to work. I totally blew them away. I got my props that day.
Your Bestiary of Death sounds awesome. Sign me up! I'll be an avid listener.
I've loved your blogs, Jonathan. You always inspire me.
Jonathan, you're my hero. Only you could make playing a game sound like the most exciting, riveting, life-altering battle-to-the-end story EVER.
And I love the idea of a podcast. You have a wonderful speaking voice and sometimes you say pretty smart stuff (:
With me it was Rygar… reminded me of Conan and the Beastmaster movie.
At Rocky's pizza in Nutley, it swallowed my quarters….
I've loved your posts here, Jonathan.
Edge of my seat excitement, great post (what was your score??????). Reminds me when I was 20 playing pinball in the early 70's for drinks in Belgium, only turned up, way up and more exciting.
Difference in inner achievement and what the world (or my Dad) thinks of "achievement."
PS: Give us all a heads up if there's going to be a big change so I can go through an print out those blogs I don't want to lose. This is quite the "book" of blogs.
Thanks Jonathan, but. My temporalobes are fighting about it now even as we speak. Bratin rain brainfreeze. And do notgettit.
I got excited reading your post, and I don't even like video games! Most excellent writing. I feel a bit buoyed up myself now. Thanks.
I'm with Lisa. Video games left me cold — because I was so piss poor at them — but this post had me hooked. I am in awe of your command of rhythm, word choice, suspense, pathos, just the general carpentry of writing — always interesting, always unexpected, always deft and sure-handed with the perfect blend of wit and heart and style. I always, always look forward to your posts, and am never disappointed.
Or, as Louise put it much more succinctly: When I die, I want your life to pass before my eyes.
Count me among those who want to be notified of the launch of your Bestiary of Death.
And anything else with your name attached. (Except, perhaps, your headstone. No room in the den for that, I'm afraid.)
Could I just say"ditto" now? It would be so much easier.
"Jonathan's sense of blood"?? I'm there for Bestiary.
You almost lost me at Xevious – the game thing makes my eyes glaze over, too – but totally agree with David, Lisa and Reine, that was so well-written I stayed to the end and even cheered. Wonderful post.
I was a Defender addict myself. If you rolled the machine over (i.e. more than 100,000 points, IIRC) you got unlimited smart bombs.
But Xevious was pretty awesome, too.
PS : Anyone remember Sinistar?
"BEWARE! I LIVE! BEWARE! I LIVE!"
Jonathan, I skimmed the first few paragraphs of your post this morning before work but have only just now had time to read the entire thing and, noting the differences, must say that I rarely comment on your posts because you and I have absolutely nothing in common other than the fact that we're both writers, albeit on opposite ends of any measure of that. But I find your posts fascinating. You are interested in the most far-flung unrelated never before considered by me things — it just blows me away every single time. Your posts pretty much leave me speechless (wordless?), not knowing enough to even respond, feeling as if I've been living under a glass jar my entire life. Really. I don't know when I've ever learned about so many different things from one person. You have an enthusiasm for life that is very appealing, even if I have NO FUCKING IDEA what you're talking about half the time.
I don't really want to sign up for something called "The Bestiary of Death" — really? Beasts of Death? where do you come up with this stuff? — but I will. Can't wait to hear what you have to say about that. Or anything else.
Sorry, all – a crazy day today. Busy with autopsies, then I went to a long evening session where various volunteers helped us put together our applications for US citizenship. I'm kinda bushed.
Sarah W.: No, YOU rock! I'm afraid to play the online components of my videogames, as I know some trash-talking 12 year old is going to hand me my ass. Kudos to you. And I'll certainly put out the word once I get the Bestiary up and running.
Stephen, thanks. Do you mean Galaga or Galaxians – I'm betting it's Galaga, although I loved both those games. I wasn't particularly *good* at either of them, but I loved them.
Chevy: you'll be the first to hear the first ep of A BESTIARY OF DEATH.
Thomas – I"ve never played Rygar. I'm trying to remember it – I think I'll try Youtubing it. I seem to remember the cabinet, but I could be tripping. (BTW, I have a Nutley connection: I used to be a contributing editor at Martha Stewart Living, and Martha's a Nutley girl. Or is she a *Nutleigh* girl? I could well be confused…)
Louise, thanks. I've loved being here with you, although I've not been as good a participant as I should've, and have only recently got the formatting of blog posts down pat.
Allison: What was that infuriating John Sayles movie which suddenly just stopped? Not FARGO, not YUKON, not ALASKA, but something like that. In any case, this was supposed to be my equivalent – it wasn't about the high score, but about the moment. BUT, since you ask: 227,000, I think. And yes, inner achievement, something for oneself, of no use value for 30 years!
David, Lisa, Alex: as I mentioned, I'm really not a good video game player, but to play video games is to really immerse yourself in the technology, and in the art. I don't know if any of you has looked at videogames for some time, but really, they're extraordinary things now, cinematic and emotionally evocative and involving. BUt then again, they always were. I don't know if you're too young to remember the arrival of PONG – how cool it seemed, batting about a virtual ball with a virtual panel. It was tasting the future. And now it just seems plodding and quaint!
Thomas! I DO remember Rygar – it wasn't my game, though. I just Youtubed it, and it all came back. Now I'm thinking that Xevious is also an 8 Bit game. And JD – YES to Sinistar! I'm going to put a SInistar tribute to you in my Tumblr. I was never much good at Defender, though.
KD James: "You have an enthusiasm for life that is very appealing, even if I have NO FUCKING IDEA what you're talking about half the time." That is perhaps the most flattering thing that anyone has ever said to me. I'm trying to think of how I can work it onto my headstone, so that Corbett can look out and see it in his yard.
You might (then again, you might not) enjoy my tumblr: http://www.afterthetorchlight.tumblr.com . Six times a day (more for special occasions, like the dismal 9/11 anniversary), I post images, music, animated photographs, texts, quotes and links that I've found particularly interesting. Mostly they're beautiful, sometimes they're disturbing or horrible, sometimes odd, sometimes funny, but I think they're always worth a look. I was going over my archive this evening, and was pleased and intrigued by the almost random collision of unusual things. Really, it's my own cabinet of curiosities, and I do love it so. I'm closing in on 1300 posts; I think it may be another example of a near-valueless achievement.
Jonathan – I couldn't have said it any better than KD above. I have that exact same feeling every time I read your blogs. I feel like a little sapling next to you – you are a giant oak of a man, who has lived many, many lives. In many, many strange places. You are definitely a savant of sorts. There aren't many people in this world who are truly fascinating–but you, my friend, are one of them.
I didn't intend it as flattery, Jonathan, but as a compliment. 😉 Here's hoping that headstone is in the far distant future. Then again, if it would irritate Corbett… [KIDDING!]
And yes, I've seen your tumblr (why does that sound dirty?). In fact, it was your post about it that finally cleared up my confusion over just what a tumblr is. It was fascinating but, combined with my "Oh, Something Shiny" syndrome, it was also a bit too much like falling down a rabbit hole. I can't seem to stop before I get to the end.
Stephen, you sir, are a flatterer. I sincerely doubt I've ever said anything better than you could have. Still, thank you.