This short story was originally published at Across the Margin.
Competition, compulsion, and companionship – a story told in 8 bits…
Trinidad checks her crumpled shopping list. She’s just picked up the bouquet of flowers. That’s everything.
The drive home is quick despite intermittent traffic. Trinidad slips through the front door with grocery bags hooked over her arms, especially careful with the bouquet. Streeter hunches over a worn cardboard box in the living room, wrestling with a cluster of wires inside. “Tachyon” is scribbled on the box’s side in black.
Streeter plucks an ancient video game console out of the box and hooks it up to his 70-inch television. Trinidad smiles, realizing he has no idea she’s there. A brown-haired Swede, over the years she’s developed a hunched spine that betrays her thin body and lean face.
Computerized, simplistic beeps flow through the television’s speakers when Streeter switches on the console. The pixelated title screen is absurdly magnified on such a large display. Trinidad sets the bags down and comes into the living room with the bouquet. “I leave you alone for five minutes,” she says matter of factly.
Streeter whips around in surprise, his boyish slate-blue eyes peeking out from unkempt chestnut hair. “You’re back. Thought I’d play a quickie.”
“So, only a two-hour game?”
“I used to be so much worse.”
Trinidad shows him the bouquet. “How’s this by the way?”
Streeter shrugs. “That’s fine.”
“They had silk too, but I didn’t think you wanted that.”
Streeter unravels a clunky controller from its black wiring. “Real’s better.”
The uncomplicated, insistent game music draws Trinidad in. Small pixelated ships move around the screen in staccato animation. “Wow. This game’s ghetto.”
“Hey. Your boyfriend holds the world record in this ‘ghetto’ game. Show some respect.”
“Another online dating miracle.”
“Nine months of pure bliss, baby. And counting.”
The game makes a sound like a pitched-down kick drum run through a distortion pedal.
Streeter’s ship floats alone in space, until a wireframe tube comes out of nowhere. Enemy ships run along the perimeter, shooting at Streeter, who retaliates. His movements are graceful, like a master chef’s unwasted strokes; each serves a function. The gameplay is fast, even by today’s standards.
Trinidad’s gaze drifts to the cardboard box. Several crinkled 35mm photographs of Streeter rest on the mess of wires. She flicks through them. “These photos are amazing. Look at these corny t-shirts!” She studies one of Streeter with an older man resembling him. “Is this him?”
Streeter is silent, either from game focus or from memories.
Trinidad pulls out her phone and scrolls through her newsfeed. “I’ve been following BitPixel like you said. Someone tweeted the other day about beating your high score.”
“Whoa, really? All the more reason to practice.”
“You’ll beat him.” She reads from her phone. “This kid got a high score finding a glitch on level twenty-five. It shows you how on the site.”
Trinidad shows him the phone but he doesn’t look. Already the game’s tougher; enemy ships are firing homing missiles and triple-burst shots.
“Twenty-five….let’s see when I get there.”
“So wait. How’s that not cheating?”
“Yeah, it’s allowed if it’s in the programming. Obviously cheat codes, stuff like that, that’s notallowed.”
“Can’t believe people still play this game.”
“It’s big.” The game rewards Streeter with a shrill, klaxon sound for grabbing a bonus orb. “You’re coming to BitPixel this year, right? Maybe you’ll like it.”
Streeter doesn’t see her reluctant expression. “Yeah, I’ll check it out.” She watches him destroy three enemy ships with sniper-like precision. “You want to get going?”
“I already started a game.”
“This came out prior to pause.’”
An hour and a half later, Streeter runs out of lives, but he finds the level twenty-five glitch.
Training for the BitPixel competition coincides with Streeter’s annual cemetery pilgrimage, the one day of the year he drags himself out to visit his father’s grave. The March air is brisk, but it no longer slices at exposed skin.
The cemetery is near the pizzeria he and his father frequented when Streeter was little. It was on the way back from school, and on Fridays, his father took him for pizza to ring in the weekend. Streeter ate greasy pepperoni slices and listened to the owner and his father talk about off-track betting, their weekly poker nights, the shitty weather and most often, trouble with the misses.
Then the eighties arcade game explosion hit, and businesses were eager to cash in. The pizzeria owner installed a Tachyon arcade cabinet when Streeter was ten. Long after slices and idle conversation became stale, his father sat marveling at Streeter’s early gaming skills.
By twelve, the game transfixed Streeter. By fourteen he had the highest score on the leaderboard.
By sixteen he’d mastered the game, his score hundreds of thousands higher than second place. A friend told him about the world high score rankings; Streeter had a new goal.
By eighteen, he’d made out with a few girls and had gotten to second base with one, but, more importantly, he held the world’s highest score in Tachyon, having shattered the previous record holder by over a million points.
His goal achieved, Streeter turned to his college studies, largely forgetting about video games. But video games wouldn’t forget him. A few years after he finished college, BitPixel was formed.
b. 1942 – d. 2007
Trinidad gives Streeter space in front of the tombstone. He crouches over the grave and reads the inscription, once again doing the math in his head. Sixty-three. Trinidad squeezes his shoulder. He rises and hugs her in prolonged embrace, allowing the tears to flow.
For the next two months Trinidad has front-row seats to Streeter’s intense training. He wakes at six for a couple of hours of play before work, and hits the console immediately after, breaking only to eat a few protein bars and fill a water bottle to stay hydrated.
By week two, Streeter tapes a printout of the new high score in large type near the television, a visualization technique he picked up from a sports documentary. Streeter and Trinidad go to bed together at first, but by week four she’s jolted awake nightly by the trebly sounds signaling the game’s beginning. In his absence she discovers the comfort of keeping in touch with friends digitally, from commenting on friends’ vacation posts to joining interest groups to building boards and sharing those with her growing followers.
Streeter’s unwavering discipline is that of an athlete or a drug addict, depending on the day. Streeter’s ritualized discipline is one of his strong traits, but it pushes out other aspects of a well-rounded life. In these months he sacrifices human pleasures in service of the greater objective. Sex with Trinidad decreases, his sleep patterns are affected, and his posture becomes hunched. Before the start of the tournament he takes vacation days to train.
Read the full short story at Across the Margin and don’t forget to follow Tristan on Twitter.