Ben was the first to purchase a Sony PlayStation.
You wandered over one Saturday morning, and there he sat, parked on the living room floor. Ben was older, wiser, splashes of wonder and mischief ever sparkling in the pools of his dark eyes, the gears of his mind ever churning. He was drawn to art, creativity oozing from his pores, taking the form of make-believe games, fantastical scenarios with sticks for swords, shucked corncobs for grenades lobbed across backyards and paved roads - your wide world of adventure. Ben would create, and the rest of you would tumble right into his wardrobe.
But the PlayStation required not the creative expenditure; it was all there at your fingertips, glimmering, a virtual smorgasbord.
“No way,” you breathed, taking a seat beside him, the carpet soft under your feet. Ben hit the power button and the machine came alive, a dramatic opening like synthesized gongs, wind chimes tingling as if plucked by the master hand of unseen forces, the best of feudal Japan hopped-up on electronic steroids. And you watched, equally - endlessly - mesmerized, two kids slobbering over pixelated candy. The PlayStation came loaded with a demo disc; over a dozen mini-screens exploding for your attention - Crash Bandicoot, Tekken, Jet Moto. It was like fireworks, and your two-dimensional brains – inoculated with Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog – blowing fuses and melting the hardwires, your small sense of gravity chasing vertigo as the floors and cliffs and walls fell from beneath the third dimension of your tube TV.
At some point, your hypnosis was interrupted by a knock at the front door. Your sister, with neighbor Katie in tow. The four of you comprised the core of a larger neighborhood group, back when kids still roamed the streets on Huffys, skinned knees were just a rite of passage, and everyone’s home was up for grabs on Saturday mornings. By now, you were well past the Huffy phase, peeking over the threshold of a new destiny full of hormones and independence, before everyone would claim their licenses in turn, like Arthur pulling his sword from the stone, a celestial appointment scattering your lives like stars across the night sky; first your sister, then Ben, then Katie, then you.
The girls whisked open the blinds, demanding you come outside, until Ben, like some cool-handed dealer, placed a controller in their paws.
"Give it a spin," he said, his words like bottled magic, fire sizzling from the seams.
Not much for gaming, the girls were, of course, terrible; sliding sideways around the turns, rolling, slamming into every barricade. It didn’t matter. Your sister, who cared more for showing horses and Seinfeld reruns, howled with every blunder, while Katie, built of guts and iron, pragmatic and tough, laughed without contempt. You were sailors on the high seas of adolescence, the wind and sun and salt spray like the breath of every good dream on your skin, riding the waves, squinting against the wide, broad, endless blue sky.
It was your maiden voyage on the Sony PlayStation, the dawn of a new era both in tech and simply coming of age. Of course, all good things come to an end; time was inevitable, but the rules you could bend. The Rally Racer demo was limited to three laps before restarting to the home screen, so, like the creative minds that you were, are, and will always be, you simply turned that Jeep around and raced backwards for eternity.
Your homes were built across from each other, circa 1980; three bedrooms, a modest living room and cramped kitchen, yours with an unfinished basement and white textured ceiling, Ben’s with a crawl space and wallpaper. According to Kathy - Ben’s mom - you wandered over there the day they moved in, a three-year-old who just yacked an endless stream of questions and nonsense. And you never really left, just sort of split your time between homes like a man laboring out of town.
Together, you and Ben inhaled 80’s action flicks, burnt your fingers with fireworks and army men melted under the steady flame of neon lighters, transformed the stuffy garage into a haunted house every October, and packed snow at the bottom of the hill, forming a ramp for saucers and stovepipes on the divine blessing known as a ‘snow day’.
And of course, you gamed.
The first real video game Ben acquired for the PlayStation was Resident Evil. Since it was single-player, Ben played while you watched and offered sage advice (use the shotgun on the green monsters, save the ink ribbon, try the flame rounds!). It was your introduction to a proper storyline, and a horror flick at that. Even now, you can still hear the ominous knocking of Jill Valentine’s boots against the wooden floors of the mansion, the low murmurings of zombies around every corner, the pop of her Beretta, and the howling of feral dogs in the distance. Whenever you returned home for the evening, you’d poke your head out their front door and glance across the street, peering into the black hole that was the cornfield behind your house. God only knew what nightmares festered out there, in the darkness. And you sprinted as fast as you could across earth and pavement, just in case.
Like clockwork, you’d return to Resident Evil after school, picking up right where you left off until Ben’s mom would holler, jolting you out of your reverie, “Supper’s ready!” Kathy was always making food for the hungry mouths that wandered into her kitchen; children, neighbors, nephews and cousins. In the early days, as Ben would sit down to a plate of goulash, you’d park yourself next to the door and slip on your shoes.
“Supper’s ready,” Kathy repeats. And that was the thing; she never asked, like it was even a question, or an option. She assumed the most natural posture of generosity, automatic, an extension of herself, always there and could never be removed. Growing up with this, you just assumed it was a normal, natural phenomenon, but wouldn’t realize until the depths of years had sunk in how rare this gift really was.
You remember Ben pausing the PlayStation one evening, both of you sitting down to plates loaded with spaghetti. “How’s your sister?” asks Kathy, setting a warm batch of chocolate chip cookies on the counter.
You glance out the window, at your living room smoldering with lamplight and a flashing TV screen. Parked in front of the house is Molly’s Chevy Cavalier. Suddenly - as if prompted by Kathy’s inquiry - the headlights flick on and disappear a breath later, leaving a plume of exhaust trailing under the warm glow of the streetlight; another shift at APAC, another social gathering, important things all high schoolers drift to on weeknights and weekends.
“Good,” you say, noodle strands slopping out of your mouth. “I think.”
Katie moved in a few years after Ben. She showed up on your doorstep one day, all energy and expectation, eyes large behind thick lenses.
“Hi guys, wanna play?”
For years you chased each other around the neighborhood, invented games like “Old People” where the garage was the nursing home, and the nurses, armed with imaginary syringes you called ‘sedates’, were forever flailing about, cleaning up the messes of the residents always fomenting escape. You cranked 90’s soft rock on your boomboxes while setting up the volleyball net, the trampoline, or makeshift bases made of frisbees. Sometimes, you’d haul out the riding lawnmower and, with white rope and duct tape, tie on mechanical appendages like passenger cars on a junk train – the red wagon for Molly and Katie and Joanna, the skateboard for you - and Ben would crank it into high gear, steering wildly around the extra lot trying to throw you off.
After Molly claimed her independence via her driver’s license, the dynamic changed. Long gone were the days of forts and make-believe, kids traipsing under the broad sky, replaced by a new era of sports and computer screens. Sometimes, you and Katie would listen to the radio, and she’d pull out one of her teen magazines, and you’d cackle together at the stupidity of the culture. Other times, by yourself, you’d pop a new disc into the PlayStation and just lose yourself in distant galaxies, in ships burning under the somber pulse of dying suns, in a bath of napalm splashed amongst the wreckage of twisted metal, in a dystopian labyrinth transforming into a breed of weaponized mechs called armored cores, taking contracts, spraying bullets, upgrading your armor, steeling your soul so you never felt the impact - protection, all glitter and gold on the outside, even if you had to shed the best parts of yourself along the way. And you never felt you were wasting your youth – mashing buttons, getting lost, soaking up the oxygen of faraway worlds - gaming in the aftermath of sunny Saturday mornings, losing track of time until you could taste the stink of your own BO. This was simply the way the world tilted, growing up. Moving on.
Ben was next in line to buy a car. It was freedom and opportunity, theft and robbery, opening new doors and slamming shut the windows. How many times does one glance across the street, seeing the car there and gone again, a mirage in an urban desert? Ben had a lot of cousins, and they would stop over at random, for hours or days or years. You remember one summer evening, setting up the tent in the backyard. The air cooled as darkness settled in over a blazing red horizon, torches licking the night air like hungry devil tongues. Finally, one of the cousins asks the question you’re all thinking.
It didn’t feel right, pounding in the stakes without his guidance, conjuring up pre-dusk games without his leave. Hootie looks across the road - to where Ben’s car was always parked under the streetlight, tonight a void of vacant concrete - and then up at the night sky, like a man searching for something that isn’t there. Maybe it was, once upon a time, but it’s gone now, and try as you might, wish upon whatever shooting star, it’s never returning.
“Ben ain’t coming,” he says, and turns back to the rest of you. And with the words now spoken, a sadness settles about the camp, the melancholy understanding that when you wake up tomorrow, the grass and tent soaked with dew, shivering and stinking in your sleeping bags, you’ll no longer be kids. Not adults, either; just the desperate, shifting sack of bodies in between, filling spaces and voids as you stumble along, finding your way in an unstable world.
Hootie turns back to the road, as if one last glance might change things, and relents. “And we just have to get used to that.”
The first place you drove to, the day you nabbed your license, was Boz’s house. It almost felt wrong, like you were committing a lawful crime, driving without another soul in the passenger seat. You don’t recall what you did – probably game. The PlayStation was old hat now, the Xbox the recently crowned king. New buttons and new titles and rising stars that would make swift conquest of the virtual landscape, and you sucked down every pixel of this new wonder, chased it with an encore, coughed out the rind of brain-fried watery eyes, and never looked back.
Sometimes you’d wander over to Bondman’s house, equipped with the perfect gaming setup in the basement. Bondman could put down pizza with the rest of you, and yet somehow remained all elbows, knees, and pointy edges. The Bridge, Bondman’s prank-mongering little brother, was a denizen of the basement, forever lurking in the shadows, controllers, glass-bottled Pepsi, feathers and shaving cream armed and ready.
Nemmers was a regular in the basement as well, renowned for his racing skills. Despite now being long defunct, you popped in the PlayStation for nostalgia’s sake, challenging Nemmers to a long-awaited duel in the original Gran Turismo, where you and Boz mocked like petty lords when Nemmers selected the Concept Car.
The race began. You were hunks of steel flying through time and space, chrome noses separated by inches, until the power of the Dodge Viper - all eight gas-guzzling cylinders - roared to life, and you left Nemmers far beyond - a blip, a joke, a blurred ghost lost in the sands of time like the very title you were playing, and no chains of Bob Marley could pull him back from the dead.
“Take that, Nemmers!”
“See ya, wouldn't want to be ya!”
You were kings, royalty racing chariots of glass and rubber, eyes on the prize, mashing buttons and burning adrenaline, never realizing the immense fortune it was to simply be slated there, of all the places in the great wide world, at that moment in time. And while you basked, Nemmers just absorbed it with a small chuckle, like a gambler who knew the game to be rigged. Once you hit the first turn, you understood what that thing was. You had thought it was about speed – about getting from point A to point B as fast as you could - to your folly. But it was never about speed.
The handling of the Concept Car was beyond measure. Once Nemmers rounded the corner and pulled ahead, he never even looked back. Bondman – rightfully – chortled over the swift and sudden, embarrassing victory, and Nemmers just smiled, beady eyes twinkling.
Later, you and Boz and Bondman would stay up through the night to beat Metal Gear Solid 2. The original came clipped on a demo disc from Pizza Hut, of all places. Twenty-five years have passed, and you can still recall with uncanny detail every drop of that masterpiece: Snake’s breath frosting in the Alaskan air, the explosion of alarm when an enemy spotted you, the little jingle as Mei Ling buzzed in for a pep talk.
As you play - as you game together with the friends of your graduating class - you won’t really think about your old neighborhood. The memories will linger only in the periphery, in the stillness of quiet evenings, after the excitement has burned out, when the games and the shenanigans have cooled, and you idle your Ford down the quiet streets of your small town, rolling to a stop in front of your house, on the very same road that swallowed up and spat out everyone’s rides: first your sister's, then Ben's, then Katie's, and now yours. You gaze down the empty street, and in the darkness, memories flash like still-frames of lightning, there and gone, there and gone. You place your hand on the steel, shut the door, turn your back on them and step inside.
You started selling things on eBay when you were 14. For a small-town kid with no job and no prospects, it was a pretty good side hustle. Throughout your teen years, you converted your useless junk into profit, regularly returning to the post office with a package or two clutched under your arm. There was an older gentleman who worked up front, and although you don’t recall his name, you remember his smile, the way it just sort of melted between all the wrinkles, and how lightly he moved behind the counter. You always wondered if he wondered what you were up to. This was still in the early days, when dialup was dominant and long-distance calls were a thing, so what was some teenager doing sending random crap all over the countryside?
You remember the day you sold Armored Core. PlayStation games ran about 45 bucks new in their heyday, but years later – and you’ll never understand if there was some sort of shortage or cult following that sprang up in the black markets of Japan – but you managed to nearly double your money. You remember slipping the game into the yellow envelope and sliding it across the counter with a hint of regret, like you were letting a part of yourself go in the exchange.
You kept waiting for the old man to inquire as to what you were up to – he had to wonder, didn’t he? - but he never asked, content to simply confirm there were no liquids, fragiles, or perishables; to perform his duty without question or complaint. Perhaps he was satisfied with a cursory glance at the outside, at the manilla bubble wrap - the soft armor - and trusted your answer, that in spite of how things change, of how you grow up and grow old and move on in your separate ways, you’ll be all right. He handed back your change, and you listened to the echo of your footfalls on the old stone floor, not unlike the sound of a certain special forces member treading her way through a zombie-infested mansion full of trial, trouble, and the wild unknown all those years ago.
A year or two after you graduate, you’ll find yourself parked in Bondman’s basement, linking Xboxes. Guns will fire, shouts and sneers will echo, Tombstone pizzas and Pepsi will be passed around the basement like bread and wine on a Sunday morning. When the battle is over, The Bridge will shove a disc in front of your face and challenge you to a duel.
“Armored Core,” you’ll say, a taste of nostalgia on your tongue. The latest edition. The original came to you on one of those fabled demo discs, way back in the budding days of the PlayStation, now historic, ancient memory. You could pick your weapons, swap out arms and legs, transform every inch of gear that you didn’t like. You think about the years that lie ahead, what you’ll leave behind, and wonder what sort of transforming – what sort of armoring – will take place in your stead. You suspect - but don’t fully comprehend - that everything will change; the times and tech, the friends and families, even the games themselves. Inevitably, as every system does, it sheds its dead skin and gives way to a newer, better version of itself. The next generation flocks to the stores while the old is forgotten, left to collect dust in basements next to board games missing pieces and expired canned soup.
But right now, it’s just a disc, a glimmering harbinger, a herald of everything encompassing the unstoppable future, a tragic memento and the anthem of your waning youth. And although it shares the same name, this new, upgraded version is a foreigner, a language you’ve yet to speak. If you play, you’ll be destroyed. And yet for some reason you find your gaze circling the disc, your fingers crawling over the controller, hear your mouth forming the words, “Yeah, sure,” remembering everything you had and everything you were, and deciding to - at least for one final, glorious moment - lay it down, armor and all.
The Bridge presses the power button, and you listen, equally and endlessly mesmerized, sucked right back in time by the haunting echoes of synthesized gongs, the best of your childhood hopped-up on sweet memories, tingling like the sound of distant wind chimes plucked by the hands of unseen forces, forever moving forward, shifting and changing and transforming, and protecting for eternity their softly armored core.