This is me at the GDC award show in San Francisco, part of a team nominated for Best Narrative at the Independent Games Festival. How I came to be there is a story that goes back a few years and involves friendship, honesty and dick jokes. Evan Greenwood and Richard Pieterse had a weird and super fun game featuring squishy penises with little butt-holes that they called Genital Jousting. I’m not sure why they decided to put in a story (probably a joke or a punk whim) but they did and decided they needed a writer. They got me.
After that the mission and the team got bigger. Robbie Fraser joined the core. But it wasn’t getting bigger that made Genital Jousting something to be proud of… It was how much deeper it went. It was a process of challenging ourselves and our ideas of masculinity and what it means to have a dick. The meetings with Ev, Richard and Robbie where we discussed and shared were sometimes close to therapy… These three men have taught me a lot. About games, but really about being an empathetic and reflective person. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but that’s what Genital Jousting is about, and I think that’s what life is about.
We didn’t win the IGF award. But we still won.
The knife chases the pea around the plate trying to herd it onto the fork, which is sloped in the correct manner. There’s already some food loaded on ready to go. The knife seems to have control of the defiant pea and onto the fork it goes – but it’s a trick. The pea leaps upward, knocking his captured brothers out of their bondage to scatter across the plate, knife in pursuit. The girl’s mouth is scrunched in frustration. She doesn’t even want to eat the gross green goblins but she’s furious that they would defy her. Their rebellion shows the weakness of her control and, like any despot, she cannot appear weak. The knife courses after the peas, a tireless hunter. The fork waits. One of the escapeas is isolated, cut off from the rest. With a wild screech the fork pounces, tines crashing down to impale the pea once and for all. But somehow fate grants a reprieve to the undeserving legume – instead of piercing the green skin, the plunging prong sends it into the air. The pea soars like a green comet over the little planet of the dinner table, a majestic arc accompanied by the praise of brass music. The diners could almost hear at its apex the scream of pure joyous defiance before it descends to golden paradise – splashing down in the patriarch’s flute of champagne.
The table is silent, all eyes fixed on the kamikaze pea.
“Emma,” the patriarch rumbles, “don’t play with your food.”
He fishes the pea out of his glass and pops it into his mouth, the sparkle of champagne still on its green hide.
The smell was a beaded curtain she had to push through to enter. At first it seemed unified but once her nose got over the shock she could parse different scents in the mix. The most powerful were the coffees; robust and earthy textures, some just released as the wood and iron grinders crushed the beans. Then there were spices, the distinctive sting of cinnamon, cloves, star anis. Cocoa sprawled lazily under it all, dark and heavy. Above these scents floated the teas, almost ethereal. They were farthest from the door and that’s where she headed. There were deep racks of loose leaf with prices by weight and a little scoop to fill the brown paper bags. Pre-weighed, paper-wrapped parcels were stacked in line with the teas, their labels plain. No cute colour-coding here. Just the names of the tea and their origins.
“We closing,” his voice was deep as the cocoa, his accent from as faraway as his wares.
“It’s only two,” she said, confused.
“Not today. We are closing shop. Permanent.”
He picks the syllables as carefully as she picks her tea. She looks around, searching for some sign of the end. But the store is as it ever was. She returns to her task, and after some deliberation pours a hundred grams of honeybush into a bag. It’s a reassuring flavor, a comfort. She goes to the counter and he rings up her small purchase on the battered register.
“You come for more. Next month we are closed.”
She nods him and thanks him. At the door she turns to look back, to breath it in. Then she steps out into the street, the door chimes shut and the wind brushes away all the scents except for the little she takes with her in a little brown bag.
Snork wheezed as she clambered out of her round bed. Jen could see the pug’s leg was stiff today. Maybe she should leave the heater on at night? Snork waddled toward Jen, her under-bite yellow with age and lopsided because of the missing canine on the left. It just about made Jen cry. Snork’s eyes didn’t sparkle and her coat was dull and brittle, Jen could remember burying her face in the pug’s neck and feeling loved and safe. Which was insane because Snork was about as threatening as a soccer ball. Her father had told her to get ‘a real dog’ when she moved out and into Woodstock, ‘that’s the only thing that scares those people.’ her mother had shaken her head while she agreed with father. But Jen hadn’t wanted a scary German shepherd or a boerbul, she wanted a dog kids would run up to and throw sticks for, she wanted a dog that would roll over for a belly scratch, a dog that could sit on her lap while she binged series. She wanted a dog like that and she got Snork.
Snork started enthusiastically gulping down the soft wet food, snuffling around for more. Then let out a yap, letting Jen know it was time for a short walk. Jen buckled on Snork’s little doggy jacket and as she did the last clip Snork let out a fart. Like a trumpet.
“Oh my god Snork! Why! WHY?!”
Snork rolled on the floor, wheezing with laughter.
He’s intent on the coffee maker. He’s laid out all the parts on a dishcloth on the kitchen counter. She’s given up on it and is in the little adjoining lounge. Kindle propped up on her knee. She’s not reading; she’s watching him. Every now and then he puts out his hand to hover over a piece, and then folds his arms back across his chest as he rearranges and rotates the parts in his head. She can hear the waves from the open balcony. It would be a perfect view to enjoy with hot coffee.
The night has left a layer of cold over everything – just a tingle across her skin as she sits – and the sun is warming the world gently, unhurried. She wants to make breakfast on the black-iron gas hob, to share it and eat it on the balcony overlooking the bay. But the kitchen is his now. The coffee maker must be fifty years old. Probably every native to Portugal knows how it works, but to these travellers it’s a puzzle.
She would be content to boil the grounds on the stove and pour it through the sieve, but he has to solve it. It’s a challenge. So he frowns over the obsolete parts trying to parse their purpose and make them fit, while she stares out at the foreign country they’re visiting to celebrate getting married.
We were young, and that is no excuse for it. We were also twice blinded. The first was by our skin, which made so much invisible to us. The second was by the beer. And the cheapest vodka and wine we could find. We took pride in how fucked up we could get for so little money. Took pride in the pain the next day, and sharing fragmented memories of what we had made ourselves into the night before. Some of those fragments are still with me. I once broke into my own car window while drunk and high, my hand went into the shattered glass. Tiny splinters were working their way out of the numb scar tissue years later. That’s what it’s like. Remembering. This night in particular has stayed clear because I thought I might die.
We were staggering along the main road toward a club; a long walk from our res but we were propelled by lust and fueled by alcohol. We were a pack of young men eager in our exaggerated machismo to score. But the walk was long and the booze was straining our bladders. The others ducked down an alley to piss against a wall. I stood on the street, bladder tight but I have never been easy about public urination and the club was close enough for me. That small act of restraint was why I was the face of the group.
By an act of something like justice, people started leaving the building abutting the alley. My friends were pissing on the side of a mosque on Friday night. The crowd noticed and started shouting. I was slow and front and centre. My friends fled as the crowd became mob and surrounded me. Enraged men screaming in my face. I didn’t disown my friends, I didn’t feel innocent. I was terrified and ashamed. A man struck me, a backhand slap through the face that staggered me. I fell to one knee. One person against a mob is helpless. That’s what I thought. And whether getting up would be worse than staying down.
The man who had struck me raised his hand, clenched into a fist. And someone stood between us. Another man, his beard grey, his upper lip shaved. He pulled me up by the arm and hustled me through the crowd, waving their anger back. He took me to the edge of the mob, pushed me and said, “just leave.” One man is helpless against the mob. But one man carried me to safety. He hated me I’m sure, but he did not want me to be hurt.
There are memories like splinters, able to pierce right through your skin and leave it marked and changed.
The cat was a large and handsome animal, its fur thick and deep, brindle. Or tortoise shell? When was the last time Shay had seen something made out of tortoise shell? Her grandmother’s set of combs? Her fingers rub the cat’s warm belly. Her grandmother’s house had been her model of fantasy worlds. Rich and dark textures. Every piece of furniture was arcane and specific to a purpose, from the roll-top writing desk with its hundred tiny draws, to the cutlery caddy that opened up a green felt chamber in which all the ivory handled silverware waited in their precisely fitted positions. Even the wood of these wonders wasn’t the wood of the rest of the world. A thousand dark shades, a thousand patterns of grain and knot, arranged as inlays or in a symmetry that seemed magical – like the far edge of a lake, where the land meets its mirror.
Shay was twenty when they moved her grandmother out of her old house and into a care home. Twenty when they sold the treasures. The only thing that went with her grandmother to the place that could never be her home was a little vanity table. Her tortoise shell combs in their silver case in one of the secret drawers. Thirty-three now, Shay wonders what happened to the table and to the combs. The cat purrs, its ear flicks.