24 June 2011

The Notebook

In the mid 1990's my friend John Galvin and I made frequent pilgrimages to one another's city--me to visit him in Boston; he to New York to visit me--to partake in 72-hour--and sometimes longer--gaming marathons. This is how the visits would go: early on a Friday morning, I would board the Fung-Wah Transport, known informally as the Chinatown shuttle--by far the most frugal way to travel between Boston and New York (tickets were usually in the $10 range), and settle in with the incongruous crowd of horny college students and aged Chinese people, who for some reason always seemed to be carrying a million plastic bags filled with beets.

Once I arrived, John and I would gather supplies--groceries, beer, more beer, etc.--then stop at the game store and rent a stack of videogames. Then we'd go home, bolt the door, draw the blinds, and not emerge until we'd exhausted our supplies, ourselves, or both.

At the time, I was still trying to resist the gravity of videogames, still trying to become a serious writer, and still trying to be an adult member of society. John, bless his heart, was the one who made it OK for me to openly love videogames, if only for those 72-hour time periods. In fact, it was from the primordial ooze of those indulgent weekends--the escape from my then semi-hellish existence (bad jobs, broken hearts, many hours spent staring at blank sheets of paper, etc.)--that the current me would eventually emerge.

Ah, Current Me. You are so vastly superior to Original Me.

During one particular visit to New York, John noticed a heap of scrap papers that had gathered next to my TV. He began to leaf through the scraps. What he saw looked something like this:

B. BEAN 3RD 2:22
B. BEAN 1ST 1:14
B. BEAN 6TH 2:52
B. BEAN 4TH 0:49

What John was looking at, as I'm sure you've deduced, were notes I had taken while gaming. I was playing Knockout Kings at the time on the original PlayStation--EA's boxing franchise that pre-dated the Fight Night series--and I was keeping careful records of my progress.

"B. BEAN," of course, is Butter Bean, the rotund novelty opponent who was featured prominently in the game. As you can see from my notes, I was obsessed with knocking out Butter Bean. After each bout, with Butter Bean's mountainous body prone on the virtual canvas, I'd pick up a pencil, and with my hand quivering with my victory adrenaline, I'd scratch down the round I knocked him out in, and the time that had elapsed in that round.

I was in the habit of taking copious notes while gaming back then. I always had a pencil and pad of paper nearby. I'd write down everything--the location of power-ups, inscrutable clues from NPC's, secrets, etc. Sometimes I'd even draw up crude maps of DOOM levels, complete with the locations of monsters and when and where I could expect that pair of Hell Barons to appear. I'd create a narrative in my head for these moments, something along the lines of this: "Approximately 15 Imps will attack from the West"--draw arrow towards center--"but ignore them for the time being and deal with the flaming, flying skulls that float up out of the well at the center of the room. After the skulls have been eliminated, that's the cue for the Hell Barons to appear from the large descending platform in the East. Try to get the group of Imps to inadvertently strike the Hell Barons with their fireballs. The Imps and Hell Barons will ostensibly fight, tearing the asses out of one another. Whoever remains after this battle--Imps or Hell Barons--will be severely weakened. Go in with the chain gun and mop up the mess. Everyone clear? Alright, let's get out there, people. Stay sharp."

A bit of note-taking was absolutely necessary back then. Ten years ago, games didn't have the same obsessive-compulsive level of stat-tracking features that we now take for granted as gamers. Example: the image at the top of this post features actual notes that I scratched down while trying to puzzle my way through The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask a few months back. Getting through that game without notes? It's borderline impossible.

Other note-taking, like the maps and enemy locations for DOOM that I drew up, while not always necessary, were an effective way to let a game bleed over into the rest of my life. Making these maps gave me cause to think about it, and consider it, and feed my obsession for it--and boy, was DOOM an obsession--during the few non-DOOM-ing hours each day when I had to deal with less-compelling issues like paying bills, or working at my terrible waitering job at that terrible restaurant, or wondering why some cute girl didn't phone me back.

While my B. BEAN notes are gone now, lost during one of the four apartment changes I've endured since then, I can still recall John's reaction to discovering them: 1. hysterical laughter for several minutes, 2. ten year's worth of playful insults.

To this day, without fail, John will make a reference to the B. BEAN Incident almost every time I see him.

I don't resent John's insults in the least. He's right to poke fun at me. Those notes are a physical manifestation of my love, passion, and yes, oftentimes outright obsession for videogames. These papers are the smoking gun; they are tangible proof--Exhibit A--in the court trial convicting me on no less than six counts of unbridled nerdery.

And while I might have been red-faced at first--I snatched the notes out of John's hands and tried to futilely deny what they were for a few minutes--I realized that beyond the gentle ribbing he was giving me over the B. BEAN notes, there was also acceptance and understanding. What John was also saying to me was this: I see you for exactly what you are.

I'm certain that I experienced a cosmic sense of relief in that moment. I learned that though there might be ribbing involved, there's almost always love and real understanding on the far side of that ribbing.

Our 72-hour gaming binges? They're a thing of the past now. John's married with a child and a good career. I live on the west coast now, and I can't drink like I used to.

But he and I, of course, remain the most excellent of friends.


  1. Excellent writing as usual sir

  2. Great post, Scott!

    A true motivational piece for those of us seeking a job in the video game biz that have to deal with people asking why we don't pursue a "real job".

    - Jeff

  3. I read all of your blog posts and as per usual it is excellent!

  4. You are an excellent writer scott.. Somehow after reading your blogs I manage to come away feeling as though I've just read a wonderful book.. The kind you force yourself to put down often near the end because you just don't want it to end...

  5. Excellent article Scott! You are one of my favorite people in the videogame industry - always compelling as well as entertaining. You're also flat out hilarious! It's so funny watching Victor Lucas trying his best not to laugh at some of the things you say on Reviews on the Run :) Keep up the good work!

  6. Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice, once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind. ~ Catherine Drinker Bowen. Your writing always inspires and intrigues me each time I read a new entry.

  7. Now I don't feel so silly: I still have my instruction manuals all the way back to the early 80s in which I wrote my notes and maps (and save codes!). I even held on to a map of the Faery Tale Adventures realm that I hand drew and coloured after the original was ruined. I might still have my DOOM and Wolfenstein maps somewhere, too. ;)

    And then there were the many hours I would spend pouring over my Nintendo Power mags analyzing games, often before I even played them. I never wanted to sully my own magazines, so I would redraw and take notes on separate sheets of paper and slide them in as reference points.

    Ah, good, good times.