Having Mad Skills is a huge part of the video game culture mythos. Do you remember the future promised to us in the 1990s, where every TV show had a kid just like you "going in the game," crowned with a giant jutting VR helmet? Remember all the kids in action kneepads, waving power-gloved fingers, conducting the symphony of the future? Competing against wireframe virtual reality threats for fabulous prizes?
In the neon 1990s, the world of The Computer was just about to cross over into the Real World any second now, and we video gamers were going to inherit it.
We watched movies like Hackers and Sneakers and The Net, where we learned that we were all going to grow up to have incredible mohawks and leatherwear, and our ability to press buttons on a keyboard really fast was going to be key to saving the world. We'd be busy making out with attractive people and being cool. There were going to be portals only we could open, threats only one special kid with Incredible Skills would be able to negotiate. Gasp, what if it could be you, right?!
Okay, so I have to tell you something: I'm not super good at most video games.
I mean, I have a high bar. I want to be good like words that roll off the tongue, words for whispering in hushed tones: skillful. Masterful. Oh my god, try saying those words. I want someone to say those words to me. And if I'm not going to be so good that people are going to stand around saying amazing words, I just don't want to try.
Sometimes I won't even play a video game in front of other people unless I'm good at it. I can never play arena-style multiplayers out of sheer terror that I am going to be that person ruining everything. When I go to press events and someone puts a controller in my hand and I am meant to demo something in front of a person who made it—and in front of an eager PR person who keeps on talking about it, and an entire cluster of other journalists waiting their turn—I freak out a little. Performance anxiety.
Like, how am I supposed to know anything about the game under such an artificial circumstance anyway? And it's such early code besides. And can't I just WAIT until, like, a review build arrives at the PRIVACY OF MY OWN APARTMENT and then I can play it? Alone. And then I can invite people over and go, "Look at this," and they will go, "How did you get so good at it when it isn't even out yet," and I will smile coyly, swing my hair around and shrug and go, "Well it's my job, but don't be intimidated, I will teach you."
I want the future promised to me in the neon nineties. I mean, it's not that I'm not good at any video games. I'm fine at them. I mean, dude. I beat everyone there was to beat at Triple Triad in Final Fantasy VIII (hold your applause)! I'm just not a freak. I'm not going to Save the Future.
Unless I have to play Klax. Oh my god, Klax. I was a freak at Klax.
Klax was a widely-ported tile-stacking game I played on the Genesis as a kid (it originated in 1989, but was ported everywhere). Klax makes me want to call a Genesis a MegaDrive because it sounds cooler. The MegaDrive version of Klax opens by saying, "It is the nineties, and there is time for Klax."
And it's all neon and digital twang. There are Warp Zones. There are levels that look like whirling tunnels toward destiny, and levels where legions of tiny cars surround the giant game board, as if, in this imagined Klax Future, going to a drive-in to watch a game of Klax was just something people would do.
When you beat a level there is a round of golf applause, and when you lose, you will hear a chorus of tortured sighs. If you arrange an amazing tile combo, a woman croons, "Ooh!" It's so easy to pretend people are watching. That they care. That I, zoned out and thumbs twitching, eyes beginning to brim and spill from the strain, am doing something important. God, I was so good at Klax.
I imagine: I'm in a jumpsuit and pink braids and moon boots. I have a sidekick. Let's say his name is Brendan. Brendan is a really 1990s name. And the crowd's all, "Leigh! We need you to Klax!" And I step up to the Klax all stoic, flexing my hands, and Brendan is all, "But you swore you'd never Klax again!" But I don't listen, right, because I'm the only one who can do this.
I imagine: there I am, pulling off amazing combos and impossible movements, colored lights flashing off my impassive face.
Brendan would be all saying things like, "She's Klaxing too close to the sun!" and "Holy cats! She's gonna try the impossible Klax!" and "No one's ever pulled off the Reverse VT Without A Stalk before!" Despite the risk of some kind of nonspecific loss or trauma I would persist and accomplish, pressing buttons frenetically, my expression cool under pressure, until I achieved whatever it was I was supposed to achieve by playing Klax for four straight hours in front of a growing and increasingly-impressed audience.
Then I'd drop the pad, and walk away as thunderous applause arose, my face on all these stadium monitors. I'd accept a sports drink from Brendan and put my triangular green sunglasses back on, and then I'd hoverboard back to the real world, shooting like a comet through the virtual reality curtain to the din of overjoyed crowds. Yeah!!
Aw man. That'd be so cool. But the nineties are over. All we can do now is quietly run dramatic sports commentary in our head when we play a game. Feign the roar of success under our breaths when we win.
I mean. We all do that, right? Right?
Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large at Gamasutra, columnist at Edge and Vice Creator's Project, and contributes gaming and culture writing to Thought Catalog and Boing Boing, among others. Her work has appeared in Slate, NYLON, Wired and the AV Club, and she blogs intermittently at Sexy Videogameland.