I'm Right Here

My end-of-summer vacation.

I had a moment a few weeks ago that's stuck with me, it was perfectly mundane but baffling all the same. I was dressed in a newly-purchased red suit¹ overlooking dark water pierced by the reflection of an overhead harvest moon. The orange glow shone bright enough for me to take in the surrounding area and the wedding guests who'd convened at the lake's edge all in some various states of preparing to swim beneath a cloudless night sky. I didn't really know these people beyond cordial introductions the night before, but we'd all been brought to this coastal Maine farmland to celebrate the same event. We could relate on at least that one singular level.

The group grew larger as more and more at the party further inland heard about those of us who'd broken away from the music and the dancing, each new participant taking turns jumping into and out of ink-black water, swimming to the nearby dock to lay below stars or instead standing knee-deep near the bank to feel loamy lakebed beneath bare feet and stare out across obsidian.

I hardly spoke a word.

I watched all of this happen and thought to myself about the importance of fully capturing the moment in my head to recall forever. The breathtaking beauty of the sky and the symphony of crickets, the first playful chill of autumn up my spine after an oppressively hot summer kept me indoors more than I'd liked, this group of relative strangers embracing the opportunity the lakeside afforded them — suits and dresses be damned. I drank it all in happily, but also wondered if my devotion to building a perfect memory betrayed what I told myself I truly wanted. Was focusing on getting these details right in the present just a plea to my future self? Was I setting an unrealistic expectation for my own capacity to remember the events in my life? Would I eventually regret looking on as everyone else truly took advantage of the night? Was I already regretting it in real-time?

As I thought about this, the moment passed. Everyone dried off as best they could in the frigid air and walked barefoot back up the path, through the farm, and toward the party to dance some warmth into their bones.

At the time of this writing it has been seventeen days since that night and I finally have a bit of clarity thanks to Tim Rogers' incredible review of the PlayStation One and Japan-only video game Boku no Natsuyasumi, uploaded to his Action Button channel on YouTube. The review is long — over six hours all-told — and sways to and fro between critical analysis, personal anecdotes, let's play content, and genuinely profound prose. I've had a great admiration for Rogers' approach to games writing since I first stumbled upon his work for Kotaku via a review of Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (which has since become one of my all-time favorite games). His aptitude for weaving life experience into commentary feels fresh against a backdrop of writing that, while necessary in the critical landscape, can veer into matter-of-fact discussions of mechanics and pros and cons devoid of meaning — analysis of a product for purchase, not a piece of art and the interpretations therein. I know it's not a hot take to say I relate to the lived experience of others more than I relate to writing about frame rates being "inconsistent" and what features are or are not locked behind a paywall, but in a world where weird dudes online continue to all-caps lament about the "bias" of writers towards one megacorporation's video game console over another it's nice to see someone wear subjectivity on their sleeve. Specifically, it's nice to see Rogers lean so far into reverence for the medium and the ways in which viewing art through a lens of unconditional subjectivity can teach one about themselves and their relationship with society². That kind of consideration requires an acceptance (or at least an inquisitiveness) of the self and an openness to new world views that the weird dudes online don't have the capacity to recognize. The weird dudes online are a miasma rallying for their favorite medium of choice to be considered "Real" alongside other more established forms of expression while also preventing themselves from doing the emotionally vulnerable work it takes to create that reality for themselves. The bizarre impossible dream of "objective criticism" or art-sans-politics is positioned exactly opposite the kind of analysis that would actually lead to games being taken "seriously." Rogers' writing and videos are proof of the rewards that coincide with allowing that kind of vulnerability into one's heart, and nowhere is it more evident than in his review of Boku no Natsuyasumi.

Boku no Natsuyasumi, for those (many, I'd imagine) who haven't heard of it, is a literal vacation simulator set in the Japanese countryside during August of 1975. You play as a young boy named Boku who travels to stay with his rurally located aunt and uncle while his parents prepare for the birth of his soon-to-be younger sibling back in "The Big City." As each of August's thirty-one days slide by, the player as Boku can choose to explore and interact with the surrounding area by catching bugs, flying kites, fishing, or just sitting on a log and listening to the sounds of nature as the summer sun recedes behind nearby mountaintop forests and equally mountainous clouds. Boku can also, if one so chooses, spend all thirty-one days in the walled confines of his temporary home. Regardless of the level of activity one chooses, Boku no Natsuyasumi's narrative reveals itself through seemingly mundane but thematically rich conversations and events that happen ambiently over the course of play. No matter the focus of each player, when August ends so too does the game. Boku's father arrives to take him back home, and the summer of 1975 immediately begins the shift from present day experience to memory. As such, the game exists as a totem to the collective nostalgia of its creators. Regardless of one's own personal relationship with the Japanese countryside in the 1970s, the development team at Millennium Kitchen invites players into their idealized memories of an era considered simpler and long-since-past in the hopes that anyone can relate to what, on the surface, could be considered a too-hyperspecific setting³. Childhood is a universal experience, after all.

Rogers' particular experience with the way his memory works — notably what some would consider to be a “perfect recall” of every lived experience, or hyperthymesia — plays a large part in how he both relates to the world and to the idea of nostalgia at large, so it's no wonder this small game about an idealized version of youth raises big questions about his own past and the nature of experientiality. I sat down and watched the entirety of his review in one sitting the day it was released, putting aside the plans I'd had and instead giving myself over fully to what I assumed from the outset would be an emotionally wrought journey despite the purposeful mundanity of the game in question. I was right: The video made me laugh, the video made me cry, and the video made me revisit my long held beliefs about what it means to be present.

I don't speak about the earlier days of my battle with depression often, but around the year 2011 my nihilism and a literal existential crisis had reached a breaking point that made any kind of activity or creative work impossible. I laid in bed for days on end, my roommates constantly prodding me to go outside or do anything but languish in front of reruns of shows I didn't even enjoy or replay the opening Twilight Town section of Kingdom Hearts II repeatedly because I felt like I was going through whatever Roxas was going through on some unknowable level. Skipping over many major breakdowns here, I eventually recognized the need to seek professional help and began a multi-year rehabilitation process that saw me trying every kind of treatment in the hopes of finding something to pull me up from rock bottom. The act of finding a way out of a pit that deep is incredibly hard work, and landing on the right regimen can take months if not years. But knowing the truest depths of how one can feel also has the potential to be a deeply motivating factor in itself. Medication, meditation, diet, exercise, gratitude journals, more natural sleep patterns — I tried the whole deal as prescribed and they all helped in different and subtle ways that added up to a collective betterment in time. I also sought extracurricular betterment. One text I found deeply helpful at this point in my life came in the form of a paperback copy of The Handbook by the Greek philosopher Epictetus, which is a thirty page treatise outlining the concepts of Stoic philosophy via a literal numbered list of rules by which one should live their lives. The best way to explain Stoicism in one sentence is probably to let rule number eight of The Handbook speak for itself:

Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.

Thinking back I'm not sure how or why I used what little money I had to purchase a copy of The Handbook, but I'm glad it found its way into my life. While using an unsuccessful mixture of SRIs and ADHD medications (I would eventually land on the correct mixture with help from my psychiatrist), I found myself in a chemically-induced rabbit hole of fixation on The Handbook, reading and rereading it as many times as it took for the concepts to actually sink in. Because the whole thing is only thirty pages long, I would rip through it multiple times a day for actual months. Even at the time I remember thinking the weird ancient-Greek-specificity of some of the rules feeling so of-their-time⁴ as to be completely unrelatable or wildly misogynist and frequently both, but skipping over what I dubbed The Shitty Rules I found within The Handbook a pretty simple and teachable concept: Live fully in the present.

A lot of my fears and depressive episodes at the time stemmed from anxieties rooted in the past and a deep impending dread regarding what lay before me. The unknowable vastness of space and time made me feel small and insignificant to the point of paralysis, the uncertainty of the future made me think the only prudent thing to do was stay in bed and remain insignificant⁵. In the face of this, my sudden fixation on Stoicism and experiencing life as it came to me felt like it placed the first few bricks into a path towards feeling okay — I truly believed it intuitively and on a subconscious level. And I still do, to some extent. To this day I consider that guiding principle to be one of the core elements of my being. I'm not obsessively rereading The Handbook as I used to, I'm not thinking about the numbered rules as often as I was as a soon-to-be twenty-something looking for any way to feel normal in society, but I've also been told people generally find me to be quieter than expected when meeting me in person, especially knowing my tendency to enjoy being performative on stage or in podcasts and the like. That timidness doesn't stem from anxiety or a lack of confidence, but instead from a desire to sit back and absorb experiences as they arrive. The delicate nature of moments in time demand an acceptance of the roles we play within them, activity and passivity are tools we can use to influence future memory. I strive for my place in those memories to be balanced, to be both observer and participant where applicable.

At the risk of spoiling the Action Button review of Boku no Natsuyasumi, there's a sequence around the five-hour mark in which Rogers fondly describes the act of discovering "new nostalgias" in moments good and bad from recent memory. He describes playing Animal Crossing while sick with coronavirus early in the pandemic, of his dog falling asleep on his lap after returning home from an extended stay in the hospital, about eating a bag of Andy Capp's Hot Fries Potato Snacks™ at a gas station in Kansas. He follows:

I have new nostalgias all the time… Every one of these enhances all of the others all the way back, forever. Nostalgia is thus a product of love, we make it when we remember. It accumulates as we age.

I paused the video here and recalled my crisis on a lake's edge in Maine a few weeks earlier. At the time, I'd endeavored to absorb the experience like a sponge, to create a perfect memory. I had made sure to focus on the sights and sounds and weather and people and the electricity between all of us and render it down into a beautiful little jewel I could retrieve from my lived experiences at will. I had done this many times throughout the past decade. And then I worried that in doing so right here and right now and in all of my previous attempts I was missing out on some even deeper even more primal version of living in the moment. But in this moment sitting in front of my television, my worries subsided. Upon reflection, my desire to soak in the air of occasion was not the selfish act of a dragon hoarding memories like a mountain of unspendable treasure, but was instead an act of truly experiencing everything life has to offer. To stand at a lake's edge and inhale brisk air and literally think "this is perfect" is an acknowledgement of beauty, an acceptance of good fortune, and an active choice to engage completely with a brief window of time before it slipped away — and not an instance of unmoored passivity. I don't think creating a perfect memory is possible, the fragility of our recollections grows more brittle as we age, but in setting out to do so often I find myself in a state of elevated awareness. Seconds can feel like hours if you focus on the right elements, feel everything there is to feel, appreciate all there is. To have the ability to sit here at a cafe near my Brooklyn apartment weeks later and recall the night so vividly is a blessing, and I'm even moreso indebted to my younger self for doing the hard work it once took to build past being merely "okay" and into someone who can live an experience and feel nostalgia for it simultaneously. To love life, truly and fully, in the present.

To say “I’m right here” and to know what that means.

¹ I notably have spent over twenty years thinking — without challenging the idea — that I look bad in red. This suit is a big deal for me!

² I'm sure this is obvious but I feel a nagging voice in the back of my head as I write telling me to spell it out: I am not saying Tim Rogers is the only person writing about games in this way. Many talented people around the world are doing this constantly. And to double down on an earlier point, I also think there's great merit in writing about games as products. Not every game is going to have a profound effect on your soul. There's room for nuance! Who would believe it?!

³ Boku no Natsuyasumi was never released outside of Japan. Nor was its sequel, its third entry, the PlayStation Portable remake of the first game or any others that followed. The closest my home country of the United States has seen to a game from this series came this past summer in the form of Shin-chan: Me and the Professor on Summer Vacation – The Endless Seven-Day Journey. In it, Boku is replaced with manga and anime superstar Crayon Shin-chan, who is kind of a little shit. Much of the gameplay remains exactly the same as its predecessors, but the single monumental character change varies the vibe drastically. I played a few hours of it on the Nintendo Switch (fittingly) in August and enjoyed it very much despite the caveats. It's currently the best access point anyone outside Japan has to the franchise, and I'd recommend it to anyone who is curious. I also talked about it a bit on Into the Aether.

⁴ Although I do love rule twenty-two which states "If you crave philosophy prepare yourself on the spot to be ridiculed, to be jeered at by many people." Even in literally 100AD people were out here in the streets dunking on dudes for being Weird Philosophy Bros. That's that good shit imo.

⁵ There's a brilliant and extremely short story by Ted Chiang called What's Expected of Us in which an inventor creates a small device that takes the world by storm. It's a little button that will light up exactly one second before it's pressed. The invention of this device proves free will doesn't exist and sends society careening towards doom as the population unhooks itself from the ability to act as they did before the device existed. I relate to this story more than I'd like.