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Illusion of Gaia and my Cousin David

posted by B on 6/01/01

It's not even that great of a game, really.

I grew up in the industrial town of Danville, Virginia, the self-proclaimed "Capital of the Confederacy" and America's East Coast representative for racial injustice. My life is splattered with racial prejudice, some forced, some circumstantial. Every year I got to attend our "Festival in the Park," and I can't seem to remember anything other than the one time I could see the skinheads surrounding the park, swinging chains, whenever my seat reached the top of the Ferris wheel. I remember feeling like I was treating people *like I was supposed to* whenever my 19-year old black next door neighbor would come over to play "Anticipation" on Nintendo. I remember feeling like I was doing everything wrong when my family came home from a beach vacation and he'd broken into our house. He didn't steal any money, or jewelry...just my Nintendo, and all of my games. I haven't seen him since.

Suffice to say it's hard growing up in a town that can't even understand itself. Family lunches and holidays become a battlefield when half of your relatives hangs up artist renderings of Jesus Christ all over their home and half of your relatives hang up their white hoods. Especially when it's the same half. Living in your ten-year old's bedroom in the dark playing video games is sometimes the only way to keep from screaming out, or crying. I did a lot of both.

I avoided my family (as much as you can when you're little) most of my life, and thanks to the fact that most of them have grown to be overly self-conscious, they avoided me as well. My parents are somewhat the "black sheep" of their respective families. My Mom (a "Thompson"), at 110 pounds, is one of the few on her side to dock in under the two-hundred fifty pound mark. My Dad (a "Stroud"), has never hunted a day in his life. He's never killed another living creature (on purpose), except for when our dog got really sick and bit through my hand. I remember that he cried, too. Y'don't see that much.

Other than the few black sheep, my family lived (and still lives, mostly) in the blissful ignorance that comes along with being a herd of hillbillies. They go to church, eat deviled eggs (ironically), and plop down on their dusty old felt sofas to watch NASCAR. I can't say that they're wrong for living the way they do, because it makes them happy. Except for the whole NASCAR thing. I'd like to take a mallet to their foreheads for that one.

My Dad's cousin David was almost twenty years younger than his other cousins, so I considered him mine. David didn't grow up with black sheep parents like I did. I almost crapped my pants one Christmas when my parents shelled out to buy me the Ninja Turtle "Pizza Wagon." Dave routinely received most of the things he wanted. He was the first person I knew to have a Nintendo. And a Super Nintendo. And the Sega Genesis. Sometimes I'd make the trip out to the country to sit in his bedroom and admire all the stuff he had. I remember playing with his Skeletor Snake Mountain thing and wondering why MY parents didn't buy it for ME. It had a big purple snake microphone that made your voice warble. I was a pretty petty little kid.

During those visits, Dave (who never had much in common with me) would make like Vanna White and show me all the new things he got... a new hunting rifle, a new hunting bow, some hunting arrows...he could walk around and point out the intricacies of every shotgun and handgun he used to kill every different kind of squirrel. All the while I sat on his bed with some notebook paper and an ink pen doodling something inconsequential, like Abraham Lincoln's head or a squirrel. I'm a victim of subliminal suggestion, what can I say. I also had no interest in hunting whatsoever, which was the fantastic conversation piece for most of my bloodline. Sometimes I could persuade him to pull out the Super Nintendo and let me play around with it.

It's like the one kid you know who's got a trampoline. YOU think it's the best, coolest, most reeking of awesomeness thing you've ever seen and want to trampoline all day. That kid's had that trampoline probably for MONTHS. It's boring to him, he wants to get the new Chinpokomon action controller or one of those razor scooters...something crappy that'll keep his attention for another six weeks. You end up sitting there, staring out the window at the trampoline.

So, as far apart as we were mentally, David and I bridged the difference with a shared love of video games. I asked my Dad about David the other day, and he told me about Dave's mental problems and how he never thought he could communicate with anybody else. It makes a lot of sense when you look back on times like this, when I'd whip some candy ass in Tetris and my "cousin" would sit there astounded. I thought he was making fun of me most of the time, but he really did love those times we spent with the Super Nintendo. He'd found somebody that cared about something HE cared about. It wasn't violence, it wasn't prejudice, it wasn't religion...it was something without any vice or associated hatred to make him sad.

"Use Freedan, for God's sakes...look, you've got to go a lot longer of a way around but you're not gonna beat the fuckin' vampires unless you use Freedan. NO, you can't use Will, he....JUST SHUT UP AND USE FREEDAN WOULD YOU! Here, give me the controller..."

Illusion of Gaia, or Illusion of Time as it was known is Europe, was the second game in the trilogy of "Soul Blazer" games for the Super Nintendo. To this day I've never played it's prequel ("Soul Blazer") or it's sequel ("Terranigma"), but it's the only video game that has ever effected me the way it did. In this game, the player takes control of Will, a young boy from the town of South Cape. He is an orphan who lives with his grandparents because his explorer father died in a mysterious accident at an ancient tower. Less "Final Fantasy" and more "Legend of Zelda," Illusion of Gaia featured insane (for the time) graphics and play control that was a step and a staircase above similar crapholes like Square's "Secret of Evermore" offering. Come to think of it, it might've had crappy graphics and it might've sucked more than the Captain Planet game. But I love it with all my heart.


David was proud of Illusion of Gaia...he was only a few years older than me, but it was his first "pre-ordered" game. Nowadays you can pre-order overrated shit like "Conker's Bad Fur Day" or other games that make me want to stick my head between my legs and vomit into my ass and get free action figures, free playing cards, free vacations to Tahoe, whatever. David's Mom worked at K-Mart so he pre-ordered the game and got an "Illusion of Gaia" T-shirt. He wore it every day for the first two weeks he had it until his Mom made him take it off. She washed it, and he wore it for two more weeks. Illusion of Gaia took a firm place on his priority list, and he did everything in his power to complete the game...perfectly. Kill everything, collect every gem, follow every supporting character, find every secret. It was an obsession. A really fun obsession.

And it brought David and I together. He'd sit there Indian style in front of the television pounding away at the enemies with his purple flute (which, unfortunately, is not a euphemism...you actually have to hit enemies with a purple flute) and I'd sprawl out on the old felt couch to cheer him on.

Dave owned the game until he got to the vampires.

In the game there are these portals to Dark Space, in which Gaia (who might've just been an illusion) can save your game and record you. In these Dark Spaces Will (the game's I'm-young-but-I-can-still-BE-A-HERO hero) can also utilize one of his unique talents, which is to transform into one of two other characters. Freedan is a Dark Knight, who has more attack power than Will, and a longer reach. Eventually you get the power to turn into the being called Shadow, who is very useful, and even more powerful than Freedan. The player can use either of these characters to solve the countless puzzles in the game, which mostly involve pushing or pulling things or killing a monster. But more importantly, if you want to defeat some of the tougher stages you've GOT to use them. It's a really easy game. Except, y'know, for the vampires.

That's two paragraphs that ended with something about how hard the "vampires" are. I guess I should explain. The game takes you all over the world...into forests, through the Great Wall of China (no kidding), into a palace floating in the sky, into space ... so it's not a surprise that the bosses in the game are out of this world. Giant worms, Fire Gods who are so big that you can only see their head, huge birds (who may or may not want to sodomize you), Illusion of Gaia has every video game standard covered. The toughest of these bosses are "Jack and Silvana," two vampires who've kidnapped one of your friends and challenge you to rescue him.

David couldn't beat the vampires or save the kid's life. They tie your friend to a bomb in the middle of the screen so you've got a time limit...so even when Dave did GREAT and smoked the vampires he never had enough time to run over and save the kid. It drove him crazy, he almost broke the television three very crucial times by hurling the Super Nintendo controller at the screen. They really ARE hard, too, especially considering that they're thrown in unexpectedly into an otherwise easy game.

I screamed at Dave to turn into Freedan (the dark night) and slash them to death, but he was determined to beat them with his purple fluted little boy. It never made sense, but I guess it was a feeling of accomplishment.

The days went on like this, with Dave cutting the machine on, getting beaten by the vampires, having his friend get blown up, and throwing a controller fastball into the television set. Weeks went by. Eventually, he did what he didn't want to do.

He gave up.

He tore the game out of the Super Nintendo, unplugged it, and tossed it into the corner of his room. Instead of using his money for another video game, he just bought more hunting equipment. After a few boring days I just stopped coming over.

Weeks went by. I never said a word to him.

I would see him at family dinners and nod in his direction, sometimes mentioning Gaia and the vampires. Dave would get upset and that would be the end of it.

Months and years went by, and we grew further and further apart. My family moved to Lynchburg Virginia, David stayed with his parents in the country. Time went on. I started high school and discovered the joys of an awkward puberty, David searched the town to find something else he could believe in. His parents went to church every Sunday, every Wednesday, every Saturday Night. David stayed at home, by himself.

By the time I reached tenth grade David had met a girl who had a similar mental problem...she wasn't retarded, but neither was David. They just had problems dealing with their emotions. Sometimes they would get into fights and she'd throw a plate against the wall. Sometimes he'd go out hunting and say in the woods all night, just to be away from her.

Then she left. She insulted his manhood and left with a baby in her stomach.

David put a shotgun to his stomach and ended his life.

I woke up in a cold sweat that night, and didn't sleep for what seemed like weeks. The family was hush-hush about what exactly happened. Some people say that it was some kind of mental problem that drove him crazy. I hate my family for that. He was a sweet human being who just wasn't like everybody else...he didn't think he could talk to anybody about the problems he was having in life. He didn't know that people loved him as much as they did...he thought that if he didn't have God he didn't have his family...and he was almost right. Those bastards still go to church every Sunday, every Wednesday, and every Saturday night and praise his name.

I didn't see him much, but I saw him then. The reports say that it was an "accident." The splattered blood and dripping pieces of a human being that cared about me stained on the wall tell a different story. I'm not sure I'll ever stop thinking about it.

Most of David's things got packed away and put into storage after that. Redneck cousins and uncles came through and took their pick of the hunting equipment. Two-hundred dollar bows...two-hundred dollar rifles...it all disappeared from the walls around his room like it had never been there at all. When the time came for me to pay my respects, I took the thing that meant the most.

Illusion of Gaia.

It sat in my top drawer, wrapped in an old Santa Claus hat I got when I was a kid, for a long, long time. I didn't know how to deal with the situation...I didn't know why the God my family loved so much, why the idealism and dogma that helped them oppress every minority I'd ever met still rang so true to them. I didn't know how they could live in a world without David and still not care when they saw the skinheads from the top of the Ferris wheel. I just wanted to scream out, and cry. I did a lot of both.

A few months ago I pulled Illusion of Gaia from the top drawer and placed it into my old Super Nintendo. After a few failed attempts to get the machine to work the memories came flooding back to me. Every secret was mine for the taking...every boss was child's play. I never got to play (after all, it WAS David's trampoline) but I played like I'd been playing every day for years. The next day, I was at the vampires.

And I beat them. With Will. On the first try.

I started crying, and didn't stop until I went to sleep.

Sometimes I'll be walking through the mall and I'll pass Babbages, and see Illusion of Gaia in the discount bin for $9.99. I'll stop for a moment and then move on. It's one of those unstoppable emotions that run deeper than love or conviction. You don't cry, you don't speak, you don't even breathe. You just stand there, motionless, until you're ready to move on.

If you ever get a chance to play the game, I highly recommend it. It's not Zelda by any stretch of the imagination, and it's hard to write about. You can't make many jokes about it, you can't put your finger on why it's fun.

But it is.

Right now, Illusion of Gaia is wrapped up in an old Santa Claus hat I got when I was a little kid in my top drawer. When I'm ready to understand what that emotion is...what can possibly run deeper than conviction or love...I'll play it again.

Hey David, I kicked the shit out of the vampires. Heh.

b
swan@whatever-dude.com
AIM: NotAGoonie

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