Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Game Saved: Performance Theatre

This is Game Saved. I’m Daniel Ness.

(orchestra tune-up)

The lights come down. The curtains open.

The actors take to the stage

* * *

We went to the amusement arcade, my family, myself, in a beach town full of buckets and spades, sticks of rock, fish and chips.

And in this arcade was a game in a cabinet that let four people, four players play side by side.

And its name was Teenaged Mutant Hero Turtles.

(turtles music)

I’d played it before. Donatello was my turtle of choice: the technical geek, not because he was my favourite in the cartoon--that would be Leonardo--or my favourite in the comic--that would be Raphael--but because he of all the turtles, with his staff, his bo, had the longest reach. Donatello dispatched enemies from half a screen away, shoving bo in their guts and lifting them over his head, smashing them down behind him. The Foot Clan fell when I played Donatello.

But that day, I wasn’t playing at all.

Two other kids were. Rich kids, I’m assuming, or kids with rich grandparents, who stood in the background like senile bodyguards, watching their grandchildren pump coin after coin into the machine. They hammered that coin slot, feeding it ten pences and twenty pence pieces, pound coins. At twenty pence a credit each had, what, twenty lives? More?

They played poorly, just the two of them, waggling joysticks, slapping buttons. Their frantic actions didn’t match what they were doing on the screen. They were hit and grappled, and when they couldn’t break free the Foot clan punched them, Mousers bit them, robots electrocuted them, and when their lives dipped too far they’d reach back behind, half-turned, never looking from the screen.

And Granny and Granddad would give them more money to feed to the machine.

They thumbed it in so clumsily coins spilled onto the carpet; arthritic Granddad stooped, his back cracking, to pick them back up.

The kids didn’t notice. They hit the buttons, jump, attack, both together, and when they accidentally hit the Start buttons bringing the two other turtles to life they alternated hitting all buttons and yanking all joysticks, two players, four turtles, everything spiralling out of control.

A crowd of us gathered: kids in bermuda shorts, coin holders hanging from our necks, eyes half popping out, watching the two boys lose it. Granny and Granddad were pushed behind the semicircle of onlookers: an audience, watching from the stalls. The kids were sweating. They’d beaten Rocksteady but Bebop, Bebop’s too much.

And one of them--without tearing his eyes from the screen--says to me:

“Could you help us out?”

And I step onto the stage.

I’m Leonardo this time, not Donatello. Not a role I’m familiar with but I’m doing better than the other kids. Another boy steps from the audience, takes on Michaelangelo, and then there are four of us, playing the way it’s supposed to be played.

We are so much better than the rich kids. We are the senseis and they are our pupils. We school them, scores rising, racking up body counts as more kids join the audience. Older kids, bigger kids try to muscle us out but we stand tough, holding our ground and kicking Baxter Stockman to the sewer floor.

Reaching through the crowd Granddad taps the rich kids on the shoulder. “It’s time to go,” he says. The kids don’t want to--we’re almost to the Technodrome!--but they do. Neither Michaelangelo nor I spare them a second glance as they leave the arcade, and the crowd heals around them, two more kids stepping to the machine as our benefactors are forgotten. There are still more than thirty credits, more than enough to go around. Whenever we want extra lives we need only hit the Start button.

We save Splinter. We beat General Traag. We’ve never got this far before, never been inside the Technodrome. We take on Krang, eyebeams sizzling at our heels, a flurry of amphibian skin, leaping, fighting, kicking his ass.

And then: the Shredder.

The tension’s on. Our audience is so big, half the arcade is watching, not cheering, just watching, staring, waiting for us to slip up, waiting for their turn.

The Shredder is tough. We’re having a hard time, getting knocked on our asses, and though we still have lots of credits our lives are falling fast. We’re so caught up in the final battle we forget to top them up. One of us dies--he runs out of lives--and in the time it takes to buy a few more another turtle falls. The crowd gets restless. We’re not going to make it.

And the kid playing Donatello looks at me from the screen. “Do you want to swap?” he says.

Do I want to swap?!  We switch places so gracefully, if Teenaged Mutant Hero Turtles was at the Olympic Games we’d get ten, ten ten. Suddenly he’s Leonardo . . .

. . . and I’m Donatello.

And I don’t care that he has my score. I don’t care that he’s the one putting his initials into the leaderboard when we blow up the Technodrome and beat the game. All I care about is that bo staff, that reach. I go to town on the Shredder and together, we take him down.

(Turtles sound effects)

There is no applause. There are no cheers. There are only the end credits and a machine still pumped full of coins.

But for a second the four of us, all breathless and flushed, step back from the machine and look at one another, grinning. We did it. We beat the whole damned game.

And the other kids watching, though they all want a turn at Teenaged Mutant Hero Turtles, they don’t rush forward elbowing us out of the way but stand respectfully to one side, watching us go.

Already the crowd is dissipating. Once the spaces at the game are filled, there’s no reason for anyone to hang around. The show is over.

And we take a bow--not physically, of course, but every time we think about it. Every time we see a crowd gathered around an arcade game, we remember what it was like to be in the spotlight and what it was like to be stars of the stage.

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