A Walkthrough the Junkspace

By Frankie Caracciolo
Illustration by Sarah Kelley

Catastrophes such as ours, including but not limited to an ongoing pandemic, incredibly fractured if not broken infrastructure, and refusal from the feds and the states to promise reparations and acknowledge police brutality likewise make for, apparently, a fashionable time to make promises to oneself. Specifically, promises for things that can get done rather than all those that can’t or won’t.

You don’t have to report it for the Census, but overtures to do more or, as Gen Z says, do less, continue to pop up online and off. These promises to be better or to improve or to break bad habits are tuned to the key of New Year’s Resolution but flare up not so quietly and then all at once like the local evening fireworks displays (remember those?).

At the highest levels, the people in power are horizon-line thinkers. So, here we are, homebound for months and in need of stimuli and escape. If you could afford it—meaning being in possession of or access to time, money, space, and working utilities—entertainment made a big promise to fill what we felt we lacked.

It was in the really early days of quarantine then that I made small if inane promises to myself—reassurances that there’d be some semblance of comfort and creativity and cultural engagement (that wouldn’t drive insane my girlfriend or the cat or the newly-adopted kitten) as the reality of lockdown set in.

The first promise: Sweatpants. It’s a topic I’ve addressed in these pages before, but I put the fleece on one leg at a time so my stance, briefly, is that comfy casualwear will win out over “tech startup workplace caz-formal” that’s so widely adopted and bland as to be a banality of evil, sartorially speaking. The second promise: video games. I’ve got zero reason to believe that the tax man and I will ever break bread, so, apropos that up-in-the-air stimulus check, there arrived at our apartment a relief package in the shape of a surprisingly-discounted PlayStation 4. (Plus my Nintendo Switch and the neighborhood GameStop, the essential-in-my-eyes business that wouldn’t close until just after Animal Crossing: New Horizons dropped 🙏.)

It was still cold out as the new reality set in like the snowstorms that never arrived, so my promises that read more like premonitions regarding sweatpants and video games made sense in a sort of sunk cost kind of rationalizing. Figuring that by the warmer months, sweats would be obviously impractical (warm winters we may have but, lord, give me a cool summer) and gaming would lose its luster as the enticement of going outdoors again, and going on vacation again, would become an everyday possibility. That’s my kind of horizon-line thinking. But maybe I was acting far fetched to think that far ahead.

I love to talk about the weather but I truly cannot forecast anything. So it felt like a reboot of my past to get back into playing video games. Mostly this meant a reboot of an interest in certain franchises—Grand Theft Auto to Final Fantasy to Pokémon to Animal Crossing, along with some indies, too—and a reboot of the habits of a video game player: an intense, concentrated fixation on the screen ahead of me, poor posture, and playing at hours that creep into the awful late. And, of course, it would happen that, God of War, an unsentimentally violent game with a touching storyline about fatherhood, fate/faithlessness, and myth-making that I was captivated by, is a reboot of the series.

Reboot. One of those funny words and one that I particularly associate with both childhood and video games, and much less so the revival of a show or movie from ten or twenty years ago that I may have seen. Hollywood, they’re always taking the piss, huh? This’ll sound cranky, but the reboot I recollect is the extremely factory reset move of blowing into a N64 game cartridge to make it work properly or wiping PS1 and GameCube discs outward (that was key) with a wet paper towel to remove all the smudges.

The God of War reboot I mentioned makes light use of Nordic and Greek mythology to tell its story and to direct its character arcs; but what the open-world, third-person, action-adventure, hack and slash does so well to have nabbed Game of the Year honors was that it felt cinematic. And that was two years ago. Many games today—particularly those designed for the home consoles built by PlayStation and Xbox—are rife with cut scenes or have a visual render so intensely captivating (reminder: I wear glasses) that they feel like a movie you can manipulate, that you can replay, and replay, and replay until you get bored or stop failing. It’s given me a refrain like my “Hug me I’m half-Italian” t-shirt that I keep going with when asked how I'm staying entertained throughout quarantine: I’m not really watching movies. I’ve seen most of HONY, true, but have otherwise just worked and gamed and tried to teach the kitten to play fetch.

The Final Fantasy VII reboot (officially a “remake” but) is perhaps the best example of a video game spliced with a feature-length film considering that it felt like half the game was not playing at all but spent watching cut scenes. Then there’s Epic Games, the publishers of Fortnite, who are empire-building new territory for the gaming industry, lending their proprietary engine—the architecture or framework used to construct video games—to Disney so they could film The Mandalorian. Even Netflix, good old, content for content’s sake Netflix, has admitted that their main competitor is Fortnite. When you’re gaming you’re not streaming, until, in fact, eventually you are doing both.

The future this presents is already here in many ways only absent the blatant injection of marketing dollars from brands. To consider a neighboring industry, museums aren’t so squeamish as to not accept Millennial or Gen Z money to keep their institutions open, so it’s only a matter of time before they could rename MoMA The Depop House of Art & Experiences (which is only by degrees so hyperbolic, tbh, considering how they commodified Luis Barragán’s life and physical possessions into an Instagram-luxe fun house). Same for gaming. In-app purchases and pay-to-play DLCs (downloadable content) are commonplace for publishers to distribute knowing players’ grievances are drowned out by the dollars dropped on more game to play. People who get paid to expound on such trend forecasting (not me) expect Fortnite’s model to be a leading but not the only path forward for blatant branding and sponsored moments to inject themselves in all of your favorite games. The snake eats its tail at some point. Or, if you’re playing God of War, the World Serpent eats you and spits you back out.

I’d made those quarantine promises while also trying to ensure that none of the gaming broke the house rules. Of which there are two. The first: No war movies. The second: No animal violence. If you were keeping track, most of the games I’ve mentioned here would involve me breaking the rules. Which I have despite efforts to the contrary. But it’s not like we’re enforcing the PETA by-laws to gaming here or anything. Oh, and this is related and relevant somehow, but it should be said that a portrait of Gritty hangs in our bathroom across from one of Pamela Anderson Lee.

Increasingly it feels more real, doesn’t it? I mean, it doesn’t feel less fake. More and more, we’re talking about video games, cognizant of their influence on our interests and tastes even if we don’t play.

“Junkspace,” that’s what gaming today is, borrowing the term Rem Koolhaas used in his treatise of the same name to describe the built environment and the absorbing architecture of their digital counterparts: “Real life is inside while cyberspace has become the great outdoors.” Or, as the internet itself would put it, we live our “Seamless and Netflix lifestyle” now. So went one of the many tweets that, with local and colloquial twists, noted the parameters we erect around ourselves; the billboards for reality that obscure the view.

Seems true enough since outdoors is still scary. It’s vacation season but most hotels are not open and all of the good Airbnbs are seemingly booked until the holiday season. What we seem to privilege the most now is escape, particularly a move to a different physical space where we can detox or, at the least, get beyond the delivery routes of Amazon, Zoom rooms, and every other bit of the internet that’s everywhere with us now. Maybe that’s the other catastrophe we’re experiencing: Capsular civilization: Where society is a little dystopic and very much so administered by a super mega corporation. The meme’s not wrong: Jeff Bezos has decided not to end world hunger today. But at least our packages are arriving on time again!

Though I thought I’d be outdoors more by now, wearing sweats less by now, I’ve managed to drag these promises out to, what’s it now, Leo season? In truth, video games had me spending a lot of time in the dark. A lot of time online with the cats and whoever’s setting off all of those fireworks. But things did change, outdoors especially as people became more brazen about the little things like taking the subway or being in a park. Then the stores and bars opened up a little bit more, too. Then, rightly so, many of us were out in the streets protesting, marching, and demanding change if not outright justice. Gaming wasn’t really happening then but it didn’t disappear entirely either. It felt, in an upside-down kind of way like what Fiona Alison Duncan wrote in Exquisite Mariposa, “I’m still walking this city like I’m fucking Socrates!”

Mostly, I was stoked to be back in supermarkets even if that meant repeatedly being at a loss with what to touch and whom to make eye contact with—not quite the sensation The Clash described in that one perfect song of theirs. I lapsed. My evenings of gaming lagged for a few weeks, city life trying to beckon us back. The Elizabeth Street Garden, still in need of saving, got a Venmo from me and I, a t-shirt in return. Manhattan, so peripheral but omnipresent like all those fireworks, was still beautiful even if all the boarded up storefronts and quiet streets(?!) made it appear all the more damned. Gem Spa closed and Zoltar’s gone with it (but not its merch site which is about as macabre a metaphor for post-coronavirus art history as I can figure). And isn’t it raining a lot more this summer than usual? But I had video games still and I was tempted to ask the ghost in the machine for advice about fun, entertainment, power, and policing. Not that any of the many animated avatars I “controlled” would themselves break character with their thoughts on the subjective experience of pleasure as social control. But I had a hunch on who would.

But I had video games still and I was tempted to ask the ghost in the machine for advice about fun, entertainment, power, and policing. Not that any of the many animated avatars I ‘controlled’ would themselves break character with their thoughts on the subjective experience of pleasure as social control. But I had a hunch on who would.

Online, in my little junkspace corner, I knew I wasn’t a complete fool for thinking gaming was a portal not just into the possible future but all the stories we tell ourselves to give definition to what’s beyond the billboards. The White Pube countenances similar territory, albeit, with much more humor and poignancy. The lightly erzasts and idiosyncratic art critics of The White Pube are the creative ideal in terms of video game writing from outsiders to the industry. Consider their essay on the particularly excellent Kentucky Route Zero—a magical realist adventure game which respects both house rules and is like reading a book only if books somehow were secondary to the invention of gaming if that makes sense. But it’s there, too, in their Animal Crossing: New Horizons crit. “After playing it, I felt similar to how I did after I went to a film festival for the first and only time, like my sense of the world is a little more expanded now, but also I am really tired.” It’s what could be said about gaming, life, and most pasta dishes. They’re also going through the junkspace. We all are.

Playing the latest Animal Crossing installment, you’ll eventually meet the museum’s curator: Blathers, an anthropomorphic owl with a deep disgust of bugs. The game encourages frequent interactions with Blathers and whenever I’d bring him a new bug to donate to the museum he’d invoke the jokey name I’d dubbed my island way back on Day 1 of this quarantine gaming habit reboot. “The Cultural Development of Brad Leone is a worthy endeavor indeed,” he’d pridefully squawk. I felt that. Everytime. That is until Brad’s employer, Bon Appétit got itself canceled which is great timing for the publication to get its reckoning since I haven’t played the game in weeks. Unlike with Blathers or NPCs (non-player characters) more broadly, different attitudes emerge over time and, sometimes, it’s the correct ones which do.

Unevenly, we phase back into reality, to use the language of the government. As it happens, it’s becoming clear that the nerd’s dream was a false promise: gaming (and the internet) alone could not produce sufficient enough meaning and context for reality. Gaming could substantiate life but wasn’t yet equipped to completely replace it. Forthcoming releases, backed by lots of hype and anticipation are on the horizon for nearly every mainstream gaming console, but even in the junkspace we went outside. We put down the controllers and phones and went out into the streets and marched and protested and mourned. We’ll keep going outside and find some new balance with our indoor lives which are, let’s be clear, not our interior lives in the a priori sense. Gaming, then, would be for the wee hours. As we try to reboot society, we’ll see what the collective can accomplish. The game we were playing might be broken. That, or we’re just between updates.︎