Thursday, November 20, 2014

4.15. Same Team

"Gryph vs. Gryph"
Arwork by Ol'ga Bol'shakova

The Sickest Sense

One spring day in 1985 I learned two things about my friend Stephen: that my Coleco Vision's game controllers were compatible with his Commodore 64, and that he was a thief. Before I tell this tale, let me start with an apology. Perhaps I'm being hasty with my labels. "Friend" might be pushing it. Let's agree on something a bit more conservative, say "acquaintance".

This was my first lesson in reading people, and learning that ulterior motives were very real.

Geeks were a rare commodity in the small town of Parksville, so I took what I could get. I invited Stephen over after school, even though I knew I'd be a crummy host. Gaming options were limited. We were one year in on a digital deficit, thanks to the video game crash of '84. It would be a few years before the big N invaded North America, kicking off the 8-bit revolution. These were all minor obstacles in the quest to get a gaming fix. The biggest hurdle was keeping Mom at bay.

She hated video games. Hated the sight of them. Hated the noise. More accurately, she hated what they did to me. Sitting, staring for hours, wide-eyed, rolling games like Zaxxon and Donkey Kong, to the exclusion of everything else: all responsibilities, all homework, all chores. All common sense. Video games had a detrimental effect on me, and Mom read me like a book. She despised them, and so, my game library suffered as a result. I owned the two aforementioned cartridges, and a third: BC's Quest for Tires, based off a Sunday comic strip where the only thing more prehistoric than its setting was its jokes.

Donkey Kong, Zaxxon and BCs Quest for Tires...that was the extent of my video game library for nearly a decade; I wouldn't be allowed to make another video game purchase for six more years.

I wanted to race straight to my room to fire up the Coleco Vision, but manners compelled me to introduce Stephen. Mom smiled, shook his hand, and asked him how he liked our school, the teachers, his classes -- typical small talk one might expect of a mom. He rattled off a mix of "yah", "nah", "I dunno", then excused himself to hit the bathroom. I spun to resume my race to the bedroom, images of spaceships and explosions dancing in my head. A firm grip on my arm stopped me. Before I had a chance to give her a what?, she leaned in and delivered a commanding order under a hushed tone,

"Do not bring him around this house again...ever. He is trouble waiting to happen."

Her words only registered for a split second, quickly erased by images of Mario leaping over barrels. But in that split second in the mind of an 11 year old, I had to wonder one thing: What was it exactly that she sniffed out? He couldn't have been in her presence for more than a couple of minutes. How he spoke? What he wore? Uncombed hair? Or was it something else entirely, something you can't put your finger on, but you know it when you see it. An uneasy feeling in your gut when you look it straight in the eye and you know something isn't right. Mom called it a vibe. And whatever vibes Stephen was giving off, I wasn't getting them. Was it youth? Inexperience?

...or a mad addiction to video games suppressing them?


Three weeks later, Stephen returned the favor, and invited me over to his place for a gaming session. Unlike my sparse options, however, Stephen's bedroom yielded a mother lode of Commodore 64 games. The computer's little details didn't escape my notice: the tan coloring of its plastic casing, the single row of brown "F" keys along the right edge (holding one of them down was a common requirement in loading C-64 games)...and, of course, the two 9-pin connectors engineered into the right wall of the computer case.

Game controllers in the early 80s were pretty much the same. They were either analog or analog/digital hybrids (8-way controllers usually fell into this latter group) but most all shared a common connector: the DE 9 Subminiature or "D-Sub" for short. Forming the shape of a trapezoid, the joystick cable led to a female connector in two rows (5 bottom, 4 top), and the game console provided the male counterpart. D-Sub controllers were prolific, compatible with Atari 2600s, 7800s, the Intellivision II, the ZX Spectrum, the Amstrad and Amiga. Eventually, D-Subs would provide support for the Sega's Mark III and Mega Drive...or what we'd call the Sega Master System and Sega Genesis, respectively. The pinouts -- how the 9 pins actually mapped to their respective game controllers -- didn't always match up exactly, but in most cases, compatibility was surprisingly good.

One such compatibility was the Coleco Vision and the Commodore 64.

The Commodore 64 computer had two game controller
ports that were compatible with Coleco Vision paddles (right)

Blinded by Obsession

After the thirty minute bike ride to Stephen's house, I dropped the navy green backpack on the floor of his bedroom, unlaced it, and produced two black Coleco Vision paddles.

"You think they'll work?" Stephen asked, grabbing the connectors and jamming them into the ports.

"One way to find out..."

The game of choice to test the two controllers was Spy vs. Spy, a simultaneous 2-player game pitting the infamous cone-nosed MAD Magazine characters against one another in a battle of tricks, traps, and treasure. Two player games were rare in 1985; if they existed, players typically took turns trying to beat each other's high score. A game supporting two players at the same time was a rare luxury.

The controllers worked beautifully.

Stephen shared a bedroom with his older brother Cameron. Once Cam saw the dual joystick action, he wanted to get in on it, so we rotated him via "winner stays" rules. Round after round, traps were set and triggered, heads were cracked with batons, bombs exploded in unsuspecting faces, and angelic spies floated up to heaven. It was a blast. But like all blasts, time flew by, and eventually, the time came to depart. I bagged the game controllers back up, hit the bathroom before the long ride home, then said good-bye to Stephen and his brother, and headed out.

There were no surprises on the way home. I took the same route I always took, taking a short cut through a wooded area along a bike path worn down by kids in the neighborhood, cutting across a shopping mall's parking lot, and down through a neighbor's unkempt yard. I never fell off my bike. I wasn't robbed at gunpoint. There wasn't any period of time I was without my backpack; it was cinched closed and laced tightly, and hung off my shoulders for the duration of the ride.

You can imagine my shock, then, when I got home, opened it up and controllers inside.

I frantically rewound the memories of my ride home, but there was no event to single out. I grabbed the phone and called Stephen. Had I left them there? He checked...nope, not there. Must have fallen out on the way home. I hung up, and tears began to well. Could they have possibly fallen out? It made no sense; the backpack was closed the entire ride home. The more I wracked my brain for an explanation, the more upset I became. Most frightening of all was facing Mom's wrath -- the only thing she hated more than video games was dealing with the fallout. Those game controllers were not cheap, not replaceable, and would bring a swift end to my video game addiction. I half expected her to rejoice in hearing they were gone.

Mom had a very different response than what I expected.

As I stood in the kitchen, blubbering, and still clinging to the empty backpack, Mom picked up the phone and began dialing. She butted a du Maurier cigarette into an ashtray as she waited. Someone picked up. Her tone was cordial, with perhaps just a tinge of condescension.

"Yes, Hello? To whom am I speaking? Cameron? Yes, hello there Cameron, this is Shawn's mother. Are you Stephen's brother? Oh, you are! Good, well, I'm calling to let you know that Shawn seems to have forgotten his game controllers at your house. Is someone going to be there at the house in the next hour? Because he's going to be coming by to pick them up, so when would be a good time for that?"

A pause.

"Yes, I heard the conversation earlier, I'm not interested in listening to any of that right now. Yes. Uh-huh. Yes, well I really don't care about that story, Cameron, as I said earlier, perhaps you weren't listening. His controllers are at your house, and he's going to be coming by to pick them up..."

A longer pause. I watched Mom's face. Her eyes narrowed.

"...Well, if that's your story, Cameron, then I have a story for you: I've called the cops on you and your thieving little brother, and they are going to be at your door in the next fifteen minutes unless you cough those game controllers up. I'm gonna wager a guess that your parents won't be too thrilled about that. We'll see you in fifteen minutes!"

...and she hung up.

I stood for a moment, wiping the tears away, staring wide-eyed at Mom. She hadn't called the police. Can...can you do that? She drew another cigarette from the pack, looking back at me in...disgust? Or was it pride? How much longer am I going to have to fight your battles for you, son? Or maybe, it was sometimes, when people play dirty, you have to play dirty.

The minute of silence ended abruptly as the telephone rang out. Mom answered, speaking in the same faked politeness.

"Hello? Yes, he's right here, just a moment!", and she held the phone out toward me.


"......yeah, this is Cam. Come get your controllers."

In-game screenshot of Spy vs. Spy,
based on the MAD Magazine comic strip
created by Antonio Prohias

Two to Tango

Parksville grew rapidly in the 80s, and "Town of" had to be replaced by "City of" before I left grade school. Rapid growth forced limited classrooms to deal with their size by instituting a 3/4 and 4/5 split. This was how I first met Stephen's older brother Cameron, who (in Grade 4) ended up seated across from me, a lowly Grade 3er. Cam was a smug piece of work with a penchant for flicking stones as adeptly as he flicked insults. But his true versatility came in how he affected the room.

He hung with the best and brightest bullies in school...or at least they seemed to be bullies. By themselves, a good number of those kids were no worse nor better behaved than the other. For whatever reason, Cam brought out the very worst in them. He was a button pusher, and knew what buttons of mine to push. Say the right thing, and watch Zurba fly into a rage -- it must have been hilarious for him, a free show every day with minimal investment on his part. I was small, weak, and Mommy fought my battles for me, so "crybaby" worked particularly well; I was a bully's dream come true. What upset me more than the name calling was his effect on people. With Cam in the room, everybody was a bully.

I had few friends, and even fewer that shared a passion for video gaming. In that small town of Parksville, a gaming nerd was a rare treasure to stumble upon. So rare, in fact, that it was easy to turn a blind eye to any riff-raff it happened to attract. It was our mutual love of video games that brought us together and allowed us to leave our differences at the door. This was my reasoning, at least... my naive and inexperienced reasoning.

I was quick to forget any atrocities Cam committed against me on the school playground, if it meant looping him in for the next round of Spy vs. Spy. I never stopped to ponder whether or not it was all just an act, that he was excited because of his own self-interests, especially at the convenience of having game controllers where, formerly, there were none.

There was nothing complex about this first lesson. No diplomacy required to understand motivation, no finessing people to extract any subtext. It was very simple: some people want what you have, and they'll do whatever it takes to get it. And when it happens, it won't be a series of strategic moves to topple you from a kingdom, no mosaic of plotting, no navigation of political minefields. They'll take what they want, and the story will end. You'll want an explanation for why you were betrayed, but you won't get one...because there won't be one.

There is no betrayal where loyalty never existed.

When I showed up to collect my controllers, Stephen didn't answer the door. There was no apology. No hung head in defeat at being caught red-handed, and no show of remorse. Instead, the ringleader was the one with the balls to face me, standing on the front steps with the controllers jammed into a plastic grocery bag. Hours earlier, we were all on the same team, playing video games and having a blast, and all was right with the world.

"Here" was the only thing he said to me as he shoved the bag in my face. I looked back into his eyes, to see if I could get a read on whatever Mom got from Stephen. He stared back with a cold smirk, no hint of defeat, no acknowledgement of loss; an unremarkable vibe of apathy. I got the message, loud and clear:

I was never on your team, loser. 


Fred said...

It's stories like these that make me hate people. You did something nice and the punk took advantage of you. I will whoop my kids asses if they ever pull crap like this

Casually Hardcore said...

I love this blog post. It seems like it is setting up the dominoes for the collapse of a great guild. Like EVERY guild that has ever collapsed, 99% of the time its raiders being selfish and trying to take what you have rather than work for it themselves. Happened in my guild, Gods Among Legends. I think it's setting up a plot of "poaching" or guild members leaving one guild to another based upon a sour/bad player leaving the guild under bad circumstances.

Aedilhild said...


It's just a part of growing up. Kids run at different speeds, and some of the ones who act on impulse and need thrills -- especially from affecting others -- get loose reins from parents.

You'd be surprised, though, how often the proverbial Biff ends up waxing the car.

Brought back some memories, Shawn.

Anonymous said...

I remember kids like this.

Even had a kid who was apparently genuinely disturbed pull a pellet gun on me. Threaten to shoot me if I didn't give them the "Friendship" they wanted, and not share my time with other lesser friends.

Kids can REDEFINE douchebaggery.

-Catelina, KT Holy Priest, desperately hiding from the expansion XD

JC Sway said...

Quest For Tires! Oh man did I play the hell out of that one on my C64! With my own damn controllers..

Shawn Holmes said...

@JC Sway

Years later, here's all I have to say about B.C.

Unknown said...

Almost the exact same thing happened to me as a kid. A "friend" of mine got word that a friend of his was selling a Game Gear for 30 dollars along with a dozen games or so. However he did not have the money so asked if i wanted to split it. I must have been 12 or 13 at the time and said yes. So i worked for my parents for a couple weeks, cutting grass, doing dished standard stuff to save up 20 dollars to chip in. After it was all said and done we decided to share week to week and both enjoy it. This lasted for around 2 weeks before he gave me the Game Gear and nothing seemed wrong. Turned out the one he gave me was another friends of his and not three days later he wanted it back. So being the kid that i am i gave it to him and waited for my turn for the one we bought together. That time never came, keep in mind the guy i was sharing with was 2 or 3 years older then me, and no matter how many times i asked i never got another turn with it. Eventually parents got involved and he ended up giving me my 20 dollars back. Lesson learned i guess don't trust people you don't know to be reliable