I got a piece published in Kill Screen last week. It could've gone in many different directions, but it ended up being about the bootlegged DVDs I ran across in Southeast Asia as a teenager. More or less.
What I didn't write about was the significant role this Saturday morning ritual played into my relationship with my dad. I grew up loving him from a distance, sometimes closer, sometimes scared of him, often in awe, but the fact was that he worked the hard shift as a pilot, and his time was often spent providing for his family. Up until I turned 17, I'd never spent regular, significant time with him.
But I think we're both creatures of habit. "Whenever I go to a different city, I always try out their Rueben sandwiches," he told me recently. When I get into an airport, I buy myself a small black coffee and stare at it miserably while waiting for the gate to open. I also try to put on my best resting bitch face to discourage anyone from talking to me. It's nice not talking to anybody at eleven in the morning.
In Laos, we had our own patterns. My dad and I would go to Joma cafe, get ourselves a bagel egger each and some bitter/sweet ice coffee, then head over to the morning market. I'd buy myself a game, we'd window shop past all the other stalls lighting their incense, and eventually drive home. I'd sometimes try to tell him why I was excited about a game.
"They look like porcelain dolls," he pointed at my freshly-bought copy of FFIX.
"Yeah but the story."
The thing we consistently connected on was Soul Calibur II. My dad and I must have logged about 300 hours together on it. He always played Kilik, the pole-brandishing upstart, but I played around with a variety of other characters. Every evening or two, we'd congregate in front of our TV, turn up the A/C and square off. I could just out-dance him with the fencing Raphael, but he could beat the leatherclad hypersexual Voldo with a few deft cracks of his quarterstaff.
But all that was just fun. As I sampled more and more of the Playstation catalogue, the games began to feel more serious than silly to my teenaged brain. I felt my throat parch when I heard Tidus talk about his old man Jecht in Final Fantasy X. The muscles in my arms went taught when I imagined the Precursor civilization in Jak 2, and late nights spent playing Kingdom Hearts made me think deeper things about Disney and J-pop than they perhaps deserved. I wrote a crappy fantasy novel that was all steampunk and anime-flavor. I grew my hair long and tried to unsuccessfully cultivate a scraggly tuft of facial hair.
There were nights when my dad was working hard at his desk just behind me when I wanted him to turn around and watch me playing these games. I'd replay the most overwrought and emotional scenes in the hopes that he'd turn around and look on. Occasionally, he'd come over with a bowl of ice cream and eat in silence as I shaved off the last Hit Points of a massive shadowbeast or mecha-giant.
I didn't have the temperament or physicality to make him proud on the football field, so I wanted to impress him with light shows and critical hits. I was Quentin Coldwater of The Magicians, sick-spirited and desperate to prove myself, even though I was playing to a blind audience. Despite all my attempts to get his attention, I never got the affirmation I wanted, because let's face it: games can seem pretty silly. It's not all that fun to watch someone play a turn-based battle RPG, even if the limit breaks are pre-rendered cutscenes.
Maybe if I'd actually said it out loud?
"Dad, I want you to be interested in this because I'm your son."
It gets more ridiculous when I say it explicitly
"Dad, I want you to watch the blue lion man and little Japanese girl and emo blitzball player take down the undead astral projection of an effeminate blue-haired man's deceased mother. I want you to be impressed that I can navigate a set of arcane menus to defeat this weird-ass monster."
"Dad, I want you to watch me airboard as a goateed elf-eared man with a fuzzy ocelot through a desert and beat this time limit. Even though I will fail multiple times, I'd love it if you could cheer me on or be invested in this game you are not playing."
"Hey dad. I want you to endure Haley Joel Osment's whining about the power of friendship in Neverland while he fights off Captain Hook's pirate minions with a massive key and overlarge boots."
The logic of the JRPG--or most video games in general--is a tall order for anyone. So maybe it's good that my dad and I took refuge in our usual routine, eating ham and eggs on a bagel in a well-ventilated western coffee shop, buying our games from the same guy every Saturday every week for months on end. The ritual made more sense than either of us must've made to each other at the time, and eventually it did pay off.
A year passed; I cut my hair and started applying to colleges in the US. We grew into familiarity with each other, even if we didn't understand each other completely, and some evenings I'd pass him the controller and ask him to try out a boss or a minigame. If nothing else, we could boot up Soul Calibur II and duel it out.
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