Strawberry milk with a little green straw, on the floor, in front of the thickest TV set in the East Midlands. Not diagonal, but chunky, like the big belly you’ll grow in 19 years’ time. In your hands is the grey portal device. Look, goofy-grin-goody-two-shoes, something weird is about to happen.
Looking back at the early experiences of dissociation in my life I always eventually come to that day, as a four or five-year-old with frequent headaches, tethered to a grey box. Could you over-enunciate Action Man for me?
Action Man: Operation Extreme is the game that breaks me. I’m on the carpeted floor in our semi-detached three bed rent, trying to stop the forces from taking over the city, sipping on a Yazoo milk-drink in the meanwhile. Or am I? Is that me making those decisions, choosing when to take another big, pink, sugary gulp and press X, or is it someone else, some overlord in control of this thing called me?
I sit there, piloting Action Man’s car around, captivated, feeling, and knowing this phantom presence is controlling my actions, sitting in their own house, drinking their own milkshake.
What is me? Who are they? Is this real?
Video games have always been more useful to me than not. They provided an essential space for expression, in gender, violent play and exuberant joy, against general cultural prejudice and changes in family life that closed in around me as I grew. I also rarely experience dissociation to that level these days. Those ‘glitches in the matrix’ are deeply unsettling though, and it’s taken a long time to disentangle them from the science-fiction, and scraps of quantum science, that I became obsessed with as a kid, realising them as symptomatic. One small part of seeing that I wasn’t alone in these experiences was in fact learning that similar moments had driven the creators of the sci-fi that I connected with, from The Matrix to the works of Philip K. Dick, they’d taken their lead from these disconnections.
Experiences of derealization would play out across more mundane settings throughout childhood too, in the school canteen, in the car passenger seat, taking a pee during the 2003 Rugby World Cup final, and so on. Whatever level of rationalisation they receive now, these deeply compelling memories of having seen beyond some border of our reality still remain. I sometimes wonder if I can replicate them.
Since I can boot PlayStation games elsewhere these days, I try to recreate that earliest weirdness. First step is to buy a bottle of strawberry flavoured Yazoo, easy. 50p at Tesco. Then I load Action Man: Operation Extreme onto a mobile emulator, preparing myself for an encounter with the portal into the true form.
Operation Extreme pits Britain’s exported gay-action-hero icon, whose toys were factory-built in a town not far from where I sat as a child, against a plot to end the world, missions you load into from his glass-walled studio apartment. Until now I’d believed it was just a top-down driving game, since my skill level never took me past the first level, a race around an industrial suburb destroying enemies in different Action Man vehicles. That isn’t the case, but it’s only this first level I’m here for.
Loading it up once again it doesn’t take long to notice the most unsettling thing about Operation Extreme, its prominent, deeply unnatural feeling sound set-up. The general background music of the first level is some patient techno-pop that builds from Action Man’s trademark secret-agent riff to a drum-heavy dance floor classic. However, there’s a voice that cuts in, your assistant, pausing the game to deliver context and information, and each time that happens the music cuts out, falling silent for the coldly feminine, robotic voice to interrupt. While the clipped British computer speaks, you also get spattered with hints of plosives and sibilance on the recording, the clicking of their tongue, breaths between words, a person imitating a machine. Each time that score stops it resets, so that once the voice ends, the music plays again from the beginning. It draws your attention to the deep valleys of quiet in between those moments of music and information, and pointing, screams at the truth about the game. It is false. It’s strange. This is an untrue moment, and Action Man’s world is completely being made from whole cloth before my eyes, skipping, resetting.
I’m pointing to this precisely as a potential cause for the dissociation because it feels right, despite there being no way to really know why I went somewhere else that day. In reality, what’s become most interesting to me is that the original PlayStation’s catalogue is rich with games which, because of the technical and budget constraints, are deeply formally unsettling.
The game 40 Winks comes to mind instantly as an example, radiating fields of strange energy back from the past. The 3D platform adventure’s most troubling feature was its main villain – Nitekap – a gaunt, wiry wizard wearing the eponymous cap, who would crop up leering in the background of the save screen, or in menacing, tonally dissonant cutscenes, which far outstripped the graphics of the playable, low-poly world. As developers themselves got to grips with full 3D exploration, and ways of making it feel more ‘real’, clunking polygons, distressing texturing, extended loading screens, and FMV cutscenes were their tools. It’s important to remember that the fluidity of modern 3D games, even as stylistically present in lots of indie works, was developed out of the limitations of the PlayStation and its rivals.
Is the phantom caused by those limits really there in my replay though? In the unsettling quiet between voice and score as I destroy cars with mounted weapons? No. It cannot be willed to be. I only get a tingling sense of the thing in the shadows when I realise that Action Man himself has a PlayStation and TV set-up eerily similar to the one from my childhood. I wonder if I noticed that back then. If I reacted to the fact that these characters live in a world where they themselves play video games?
Thinking about thinking. Thinking about thinking about thinking. Thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking. That loop would really freak me out as a kid, I’d get stuck peering down into my mind’s own fractal splitting. For, if I’m playing Action Man, and Action Man is playing a game, then who is playing me?
Editor’s note: The featured image is original art from the author, which is pretty cool.