“I just wanted to tell stories,” I told her.
It started at Photon, the running-and-shooting dark warehouse game center. That place was awesome. I loved it. I can close my eyes, and I can still imagine how heavy all that equipment was — and I was only 28 inches around, so it felt heavy enough to me — and how that fog smelled in the darkness of the playing field.
All the players have lights on their chest as well as around the front of their helmet. Your pistol is tethered with a thick, black cable coming down from the base of its grip to the rest of your rig. Your helmet and your chest plate were both tethered to each other and to the giant battery pack around your waist.
It’s a terrific experience, in a large part because even though it was as simple as “run, try to shoot people, don’t get shot,” it was not uncomplicated. But it was complex in a way that rewards exploring its details. The more you knew about it, the more control you had over it.
Here’s how it worked. Get your gun aimed at the lights of someone on the opposing team and pull the trigger. Then the system adjusts the scores, and disables the rig of the person you’ve shot — their lights flash yellow for some small number of seconds, during which they can’t fire their weapon. I don’t think you can be shot while you’re recovering, but it gives your enemies plenty of time to line up a good shot at the exact moment that your own gun becomes active again, so they’re likely to register a shot on you before you could get them. It was a real drag getting stuck in that cycle, but the more times you get shot before getting a successful shot in yourself, the less time you spend recovering, which was a nice touch. Good experience.
But basically, after being shot it’s best to run. The game took place in a dimly lit, vaguely science-fictional two-level warehouse. Nearly half of it was open area, and the rest of the place was a series of twisty-winding maze-like runs. Sometimes you could look down on the second level — or up from the first — but most of the time you couldn’t.
Ever since I’d heard that Photon was run on some kind of Apple II, I’d been fascinated to know exactly how. Not surprisingly, I only felt like I’d started to get good at it once I’d heard how it really worked.
You didn’t shoot people. Rather, your gun didn’t shoot anything — the actual mechanism of the game worked in the exact opposite from that. The lights coming off your equipment signaled your number. Someone from the other team could aim a tube at you, which happened to look like a gun, and in the back end of the tube was a sensor. If the other guy’s sensor has your number captured while he pulled the tube’s trigger, then his rig radios both its own number and the captured number to the computer. The computer signals the rig associated with the captured number to become disabled and adjusts people’s scores accordingly.
Photon was awesome because not much more than ten years earlier, it would literally have been science fiction — as in, unless NASA chose to consider it an interesting side-business, it would not have been possible. And I know that by saying this I’m simply inviting someone to create a steampunk Photon that Lady Ada could have constructed, and I’m willing to accept being wrong so long as whoever creates it also lets me play it.
The point is that even at the time, while you could accept Photon’s existence by saying, “Oh, cheap computers and electronics and radios and small batteries,” very few people understood exactly how it all worked, and exactly how cool that was, and almost no one had begun thinking about how to use that same tech for other purposes.
The idea that you were emitting the code of your own destruction, and that the point of the game was to capture other people’s codes, sent me down a long line of thought that ended in a bit of a strange place.
Take Photon. Let’s say you don’t need a gun, and you don’t need all the complicated electronics for managing the state change and signalling the computer over radios — let’s say you wanted to be shot, that you wanted your signal to be captured. You could wear a more modest battery belt, supporting a not-at-all heavy rig. You have a cluster of lights on your chest, another on your back, another around the front of a short-brimmed cap, and a pair on the back of each hand.
Let’s say each cluster of lights was emitting a different code — as though you’d taken all your teammates and cannibalized their equipment, with what would have been one person’s signal coming from your chest, two others out of each hand, and so on.
Then off-stage — you’re not in a dim warehouse but on a dim stage — are the guns, the signal detectors. Those are cabled directly to the computer, no radios needed, some low and some high.
The computer has been stuffed, like a turkey, with memory upgrades. Using this memory as a gigantic, super-fast drive, load up a ton of images.
Take a television projector and it hook up to the computer. In front of the dancer on stage — you’re not playing a game, now, you’re dancing — is a kind of screen. When lightly lit from behind, it’s mostly transparent, so the audience can see you. But the computer projects onto the screen, in front of the dancer, cycling through images so quickly that it creates the illusion of being video.
As you move, the different signals you’re emitting are detected by different “guns” off-stage, which changes how the computer cycles through the images — forward or backward, faster or more slowly, or between one run of images and another.
If you have the images project the appearance of a partner, a digital ghost, then you could puppet them in real-time by doing nothing more than dancing. You’re dancing with the computer. With several people on stage, wearing several rigs and several computers, something cool would happen, I was certain.
I thought you might be able to tell some really interesting stories that way, reaching out for a new abstraction, a new way to get at the same feelings that art has tried to access in people ever since singing and storytelling first began.
“So that was the plan,” Lizard said. “That was your idea.”
I nodded. “I figured I’d already come up with the image flipping solution with my Max Headroom project — fast computer video, responsive to changes, which was the actual insane part. Everything else was just pieces that everyone already knew about, pulled together a new way.”
“That’s…amazing,” she said. “What did they say when you told people about it?”
“They kinda said I was crazy. Well, they didn’t just kinda say it. I was ordered to a psychiatric health counselor.”
I called the number my professor had recommended and I talked to the guy. Once in his office, he kept trying to get at why I’d been sent there, and I honestly didn’t have much of an idea. We talked for an hour, and what he heard didn’t leave him thinking it was worth setting up a second appointment. The next week, my dance professor only wanted to know if I’d gone or not. She didn’t want to talk about it otherwise, and she made it clear that she didn’t want to hear anything out of me about computers or sensors or anything else like that.
Lizard narrowed her eyes at me.
“And was that the end of it?”
“No,” I told her.