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Archive for March 23rd, 2011

I scabbed a smoke off a Japanese traveller at Charles de Gaulle airport. Lise was standing on the other side of the glass, but I had to wait for my luggage. She looked ecstatic and a little slimmer and seeing her, I felt rested after the flight from Sydney. We motioned and blew kisses through the glass and I sucked my cigarette with the force of an old habit regained after three weeks of parties. Back in Europe, en route to England, I felt like a conquering hero.

After many kisses the first thing I did was have Lise take my photo. Selecting a point in the bright concrete ring that provides, with such airy modernity, access to the gates, I wanted to look like Bono on the cover of All that you can’t leave behind. In the fever of travel and a tad self-conscious, I lingered just long enough for one take; the backdrop, uncannily, in near perfect alignment. The photo done, we moved to the transport and waited in glee for the bus.

I was on the final leg of an extraordinary four months of travel. In August I’d flown to Berlin, then hitched a ride many miles south into France to meet Lise in Strasbourg. From there we’d ventured around Alsace and into Switzerland, crossing into Germany via Freiberg and spending my birthday in Baden Baden. I finally returned to Cambridge via several drunken nights with old friends in Paris. In November I attended a medieval history conference in The Netherlands, then, the morning after returning, flew to Vienna and took a train to meet Lise and her parents in Budapest for a Nato conference. At the end of the month I flew to Northern Italy to see an exhibition of Lombard artefacts in Brescia and travelled on through Verona to Venice. In December, Lise and I flew to New York and then on to Toronto to spend Christmas with her family, returning to a Cambridge covered in snow. We made straight for London and spent a crazy new years high on piles of coke and champagne at Circus Bar in Soho and later at a party at Rolf Harris’ old house. A couple of days after that, I flew out to Australia for three weeks, whilst Lise moved into a friend’s apartment in Paris where she planned to conduct further research. Life had been unbelievably kind to me; to the both of us, in fact.

Lise’s Parisian flat was on Rue des Quatre Vents in the 6th arrondissement. It was a beautiful apartment, not far from the Odeon and within easy walking distance of Notre Dame or the Luxembourg Gardens. It was small, but very tasteful, with polished floorboards and simple, comfortable furniture. It had an aspect of the old and new. It was very quiet, being set back from the road, down a passage protected by old, dark green, wooden doors.

I was exhausted, but far too tired to go straight to sleep. And anyway, it had been a while since we’d seen each other, so the loft bed, up the ladder, was initially put to more energetic use. We hit the streets of Paris and wandered about. I smoked cigarettes and felt strung out, drank coffee and dreamed of being drunk. Paris can make anyone feel cool, unless you’re prone to status anxiety and feel oppressed by how effortlessly cool everyone else is. I was so full of confidence, fun and bravado at the time that I felt especially cool, even more so than the Parisians. Perhaps I genuinely was at that time; it was a rare window in life in which to feel magnificent.

That night we went out for an assiette grec, which was decidedly Turkish. We returned to drink a bottle of wine, and after that I was spent. There was no chance for me to stay awake any longer, and anyway, I’d already made it into the evening; a first step on resetting the circadian clock from the southern hemisphere. We climbed up the loft ladder and, mid conversation, I fell into a deep sleep.

At four o’clock in the morning, I was suddenly very wide, bruisingly awake. I felt a momentary disorientation and initially wondered where I was. Sydney, Cambridge? Ah, Paris. Beside me Lise slept and I had no wish to wake her, so I tried to remain still as possible. I lay in the loft staring at the close ceiling. I smiled, feeling the residual warmth of my close friends who had gone the distance in those last, frantic days. We had squeezed every drop for a final hoorah and, now, feeling fully rested, my emotions were at liberty to indulge in nostalgia.

Perhaps it was the inevitable comedown from the ecstasy I’d taken two nights before, or perhaps it was just the terminal distance, but, very suddenly I felt enormously sad and before I quite knew what was happening I began to cry. A yawning chasm had opened in my heart.

Only now did it dawn on me just how far away I was from Australia. For a year and a quarter I’d been living in England and at times my heart had burned. I had missed my friends and family and I had missed the climate, but most of all I had missed the history I had with people. I was fortunate to have established very deep friendships at Cambridge with people I knew would be my friends for life, yet in Sydney my relationships had an antiquity that lent itself so naturally to nostalgia, and I have always been cripplingly nostalgic.

Lying there in the loft, I realised how long it would be before I was back in Sydney again. A year, perhaps even two years, I couldn’t be sure. Oddly enough, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be here. I loved Europe, was obsessed with it. The experience of going to Cambridge was the highpoint of my life. The year 2000 was the happiest of my life, and I knew it then and there. And this happiest year had occurred up here, in the northern hemisphere, in England, in Europe. I wanted to be here in Europe and had even begun to wonder if I shouldn’t stay here forever; albeit in the UK. The only problem was, I wanted to be in Australia as well.

I plunged wholly into sadness and reflection. The glint of the ocean, the broad camaraderie, the hugs and the handshakes, the dinners and drinks; cigarettes borrowed while shouting my tales. I confess that life had been working to tickle my ego. I was the centre of attention, I had all the yarns to spin, I had gone away and become somehow exotic. Sydney had been even more fun than I remembered because I was there this time as a tourist, and everyone came out of the woodwork. I revelled in my time and, high on pills, drunk on wine, smoked up to the clouds, I rolled through it all with a robust good humour. And then, I had to leave.

I also remembered the kisses to which I had almost succumbed. An old friend, with the unfortunate name of Beryl, a person I’d kissed before, loomed back into my life from a long obscurity. I watched those lips swell luscious before me, and in the throes of some rare, first-rate ecstasy, we sat close the luxurious staff lounges in an office behind the Martin Place clock-tower, full of desire. It was all born of a longing for everything. I had become so accustomed to things going my way that I could resist nothing, not even things my timidity might once have forsaken. With other friends gathered round, high as kites, we drank all the office beer and shot pool. At 0600 AM, I phoned the city council and spent ten minutes politely complaining to the nice man on the other end that the clock was two minutes slow, and could they please fix it.

In Tokyo, sleeping between flights in an airport hotel, I wrote a letter to Beryl on the hotel paper. At last I found a use for the Emperor’s yen that my old friend Marcus had given me five years before, and which had ridden my hip for so long. The note I posted was slightly dark with the oddness of flying; the introspection, the philosophy and the urgency of travel. I told her how strange it was that I was thinking of where I was leaving and not where I was going. That I should be looking forwards, not backwards, that I felt half in love, but wasn’t sure what the other half was up to. There was no question that I was in love with Lise, so what had I fallen for in Sydney? It was, in truth, the whole package; the city and its lights, the living postcard, the friends and stories, the emotional history, the scents, the water, all gleaming in the midst of a northern winter. Beryl had, rather unexpectedly, come to symbolise it all. She was the muse of Sydney just now, and so my heart went out to her as I felt the desperate loss in leaving.

I soon erupted in weeping. Another year at least would have to pass before I saw those faces again. A whole other year of waiting and missing things. I had already missed two weddings and the birth of my best friend’s daughter. It was as though people had waited for me to leave before taking these important steps. I lay there still, under that close ceiling, and the tears kept coming.

Soon, Lise was awake.

“What is it, Snail, what’s the matter?”

“I don’t know, it just hit me. I feel so far away.”

There was little she could do, though I wanted her there. She held me and I held her. There was nothing else for it but to seek comfort. Truly, I was very happy to be here, which made my sadness seem so oddly out of place; yet it was the consequence of coming out of such a deep immersion. My synapses hadn’t reconnected with Europe. Home had shifted back south in my head and I was severely disoriented.

I sat up as best as I could. I was wide awake and I felt awfully restless. What should I do? It was January in Paris and still dark. The dawn would not come until near eight o’clock. I needed to sit alone for a while; to compose myself with some sobering cold. Not even the central heating could keep the chill from the tiles. I hugged Lise and kissed her.

“I’m OK,” I said. “I’m just sad to leave my family and friends. I’m glad you’re here.”

I climbed down the ladder to go to the lounge. Little did I know that what I was about to do would have such far-reaching consequences.

There, sitting on the table, was Lise’s new laptop. I had gone with her to buy it in Toronto and it was, for the year 2001, a state of the art machine. Whilst in Sydney, my brother had flown down to visit, and during his stay he brought with him a computer game he wished to give me. It was called Baldur’s Gate; an epic-length role-playing game based on the 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. My brother and I had grown up doing little else but gaming. Strategic board games, role-playing games, tabletop miniatures, naval warfare simulations, you name it. Between us we owned something like 31 different role-playing rules systems and I had even written my own role-playing system, consisting of more than 100 pages of rules, at the age of eleven. My brother owned around 30 Avalon Hill military strategy games; complex and involved board games and now much coveted in the first edition. Yet pride amongst all of these games was taken by Dungeons & Dragons. We had once locked ourselves in my room out of protest for being made to stop playing and go down to dinner. My father thought there was something dangerous in our obsession, whereas he should rather have marvelled at the exponential expansion of our vocabularies in learning these sophisticated rules systems.

Despite not playing the game for many years, I had never lost my love for D & D. The last sessions had been conducted between 1994 and ’95, when I was still an undergraduate and living in Darlington in Sydney. My old friend Cody created an excellent campaign; political intrigues in a small regional capital, replete with wear-rats in the sewers. I was a feisty 17 year-old female ranger by the name of Trissa Slondar, ably assisted by my friends Ventris and Faldor, aka, Mike and Malakai, and a very peculiar NPC wizard who chose to join us here and there. It was always fun. Has there even been a better reason to roll dice?

I reached into my bag and pulled out the discs of Baldur’s Gate. Computer games were still relatively primitive at the turn of the century, yet they had come a very long way from the text-based, 2D graphics and simple engines I had begun with. Baldur’s Gate was a multiple award-winning piece of work, both for its narrative qualities, its neat and functional engine and interface, and its incredibly epic scope. Not only did it boast up to 200 hours of playing time, but it was, within the bounds of commonsense, very replayable on account of the wide variety of characters on offer as potential henchmen.

My brother had raved to me about the game in Sydney, and I had been impressed immediately.

“Bro, it’s totally Dungeons and Dragons rules. It even simulates dice-rolls. It’s a TSR product. It’s the real deal.”

The strength of my nostalgia for the game cannot be taken for granted. It had been the great comfort of my childhood. I had stared every day into those lengthy rule books, reading descriptions of magic spells, ancient items, the lore and legends of different races and professions. The illustrations, the fantastic settings, the at times disturbingly adult nature of the content had awed me. Being thrust daily into dangerous situations, striving either for loot in an ancient temple or some desperate rescue; pitted against an incredible array of foes in deserts, jungles, snowy mountains, in quaint and corrupt medieval fantasy towns, was a rare privilege. To play through a quest could take several days and each had its own narrative, its own settings, its own heroes and villains. Solving all manner of problems, making moral, tactical and strategic choices, conducting interrogations, investigations; the variety and versatility of the role-play seemed boundless. Of course, it was often just good hack and slash dungeon-crawling, but this too had its merits as old-fashioned fun.

“Hey, Lise,” I said, walking back into the bedroom, before she had a chance to fall back to sleep. “Can I install this game on your computer? I’ll delete it later. I just need something to do.”

“Of course, Snail. Go for it.”

“Thanks a million.”

I ran up the ladder and kissed her sleepy face. Already I felt considerably better. Wasn’t I really happier in Europe anyway? Hadn’t the last year been the best of my life? For someone obsessed with history, there was simply nothing for me in Australia. It was an empty land, full of fat, rich, vapid people growing more conservative by the minute. Did I really want to be there when I could be here in Europe – in Paris, for god’s sake! There was more culture in Paris alone than in the whole of Australia. What had I been thinking? I smiled, trying to shut out my sense of loss by rationalising my good fortune in being where I was. It was working.

I slipped in the first of the six discs and began the installation of the game. I rubbed my hands together in the light of the lamp. I closed the door and put on the kettle, making a cup of tea. I could see nothing outside the frosted window, except a few muted stars. The cars were sparse enough that each had an individual tone. I checked the time. It was only 0430. The world was going to leave me alone for a good while yet. It was exactly how I wanted it.

I put in my headphones and started the game. The title music was slow but insistent, bombastic and dramatic. I watched the opening animation of a man in armour being thrown from the top of a tall tower by some great brute with an evil voice. This brute must, ultimately, be my nemesis. The body struck the ground and the blood flowed between the cobbles, finding its way to the title, written on the medieval pavement. BALDURS GATE. I was excited to say the least, but far more so when I entered the character creation screen. Just as my brother had so enthusiastically assured me, in every way the game seemed true to the rules of Dungeons & Dragons. My troubles were behind me now as I basked in the rich colours of the interface.

When, some three hours later, Lise finally arose and joined me in the lounge room, I was in another state of being altogether. I had rediscovered a happy place to which I thought I could never return. Baldur’s Gate was simply marvellous, it was enthralling, it was like cocaine. It was the computer game for which I had been crying out for many years, it was that good it was better than sex. I didn’t want to stop playing. I couldn’t bring myself to stop playing. I had to request special indulgence from Lise to let me go through until lunchtime. Everything about it tickled my nerdy fancy and my deep nostalgia for the game. The character classes, the potions, the magical items, the simulated dice-rolls, the sense of adventure, the mission, the quest. Sure, it could hardly replicate the freedom of movement within the pen and paper game, especially when it came to dialogue, but everything else was absolutely spot on. When, from a scroll I’d found, I cast my first Stinking Cloud spell for perhaps 12 years, I nearly wept afresh.

Such was my enthusiasm, that I managed to enlist some from Lise. She found the game cute at first, with its entertaining voices, its artwork and themes. In the days ahead, however, when I continued to wake up at four in the morning, and could not be easily pried away from the computer, my obsession with it became a burden to her.

And this obsession did not diminish upon my return to Cambridge. I continued to play the game, completing it, then restarting it and running it through again, and just when I had finally walked away from it, Baldur’s Gate 2 was released with its far greater complexity, detailed character work, lengthy dialogues and more engaging and coherent story. If Baldur’s Gate was cocaine, then the much lauded and still highly regarded Baldur’s Gate 2, was heroin.

There came a time, further down the track, when things between Lise and I became more strained. We were used to spending a lot of time apart, and when she moved back to Cambridge, we didn’t adapt so well to being together all the time. One day she turned to me, teary-eyed, after I had frustrated her once more with my apathy, and said. “It’s all gone wrong.” It was a dark joke we had often made to each other, that there would come a time when it would “all go wrong.” Then, as if to clarify, with, I’m afraid to say, deadly accuracy, she said, “It all went wrong with Baldur’s Gate.”

Though I don’t regret the beauty of those mornings in Paris, the truth is, it did all go wrong with Baldur’s Gate. And later, with others who were yet to come, it went wrong with many other games as well.

ps. Have you ever seen anything so universally well-reviewed in  your life?

http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/baldurs-gate-ii-shadows-of-amn/critic-reviews

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