There is an early scene in Martin Scorcese’s mobster classic Goodfellas where Henry Hill is explaining to the audience the benefits of living a life of crime. The money, the freedom, the respect. All of it irresistible and more than worth the risk of being arrested by the police. He sums it up best by saying: “For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. They were suckers. They had no balls.“
I’ve thought about that quote for years. Obviously, millions of people in the western world fall into the “suckers with no balls” category that Hill is talking about. At face value, that sounds a bit harsh. People work themselves to the bone every day. They work jobs they hate, hours too long, alongside people they don’t care about. All to provide for their families. It takes inner strength, dedication and a sincere hope that their children’s lives will be better and more rewarding than theirs. It is one of the most selfless acts anyone can do. To sacrifice decades of your life for another person’s happiness and well-being.
All of that sounds delightful and admirable if you ignore a few things. Like a deep inner sense of dissatisfaction that can manifest into depression, self-loathing and a general feeling that you’re never achieving anything of worth beyond a weekly wage. Or on a very base level, spending most hours of most days away from the very people and things you’re working to provide for. Even more if you have a long commute.
On a psychological level, it can be difficult to accept this societal norm. But most of us do. That’s just the way things are. We even joke about how bad it is. “Thank God it’s Friday!” is a known state of mind shared the world over. Why? Because we relish the weekend like it’s an oasis in a desert and despise everything and everyone when it has to come to an end. Forced out of bed every morning at an ungodly hour to catch public transport bursting at the seams with other miserable bastards. Can’t wait for lunch. Christ, how slow has today gone? I need more coffee. Finally it’s quittin’ time and I can go home to collapse and get ready to do it all over again. Damn kids better appreciate what I’m doing every day. I’m so angry and sad and trapped. What am I doing with my life? Best not to think about it. I should just watch funny YouTube videos before I fall asleep.
This past weekend, PAX Australia happened. At the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, thousands of people spent three days playing games, discussing games and celebrating games. It is always an amazing sight. From the passion that drives the e-sports teams to the exhausting dedication cosplayers put into their work. This convention is at once staggering and exhausting.
It’s also a rare chance for independent developers to show off their games to the public. Small teams of people bringing the latest builds of their creations to display on the show floor for three whole days. The Australian Indie Showcase has become a staple of PAX Australia and a home to innovation in storytelling and game design every year. Not only did this year’s stable of games show ideas that were surprising but they went beyond that. They effortlessly displayed concepts I had never even considered before.
An outer space stealth trading game with modempunk aesthetics. A darkly satirical VR game where everyday Americans go about their mundane lives, but by shooting absolutely everything. A musician embarks on a multidimensional psychedelic journey to create his on-stage persona. Stories, art design and gameplay mechanics that defy convention and reach for the stars. This isn’t simply an exercise in refinement. These developers are breaking games down to their old dusty bones, blowing away the cobwebs and putting them back together in new ways. New genres, new characters, new experiences.
The Showcase area itself was packed. The whole floor section of PAX that housed the indies was teeming with people wanting to see what these games were all about. I never saw one booth without one or two people playing and more waiting in line. The developers themselves were eager to explain the intricacies of their games to everyone who wanted to know more. It was a non-stop hive of activity.
Eating untold buckets of metaphorical manure is nothing new if you’re a cog in a machine. Sitting at a desk in a grey office working on a grey computer completing grey tasks does little to shape a person into someone that can improve anyone’s life, much less their own. Add to that an environment of countless humans only interested in themselves sharpens the problem into a needle’s point. And in my experience, the needle is bursting with a green poison designed to dull senses and stunt ambitions. That’s what a regular day-to-day JOB can do. A job you don’t want. A job that only exists for the paycheck. A job that I did for almost twenty years.
Government departments, university faculties, marketing companies, telecommunications and any other desk farms with no windows, monthly quotas, pointless meetings, outdated equipment and obnoxious directors in other cities that implement changes that harm people and practices just because they got drunk with their overseas counterparts and thought it would be awesome to be just like them. Hundreds of millions of people do these jobs every day. All day. For money that barely keeps them afloat.
I did. And it almost killed me. On a mental and physical level. Frustration led to bitterness, lack of sleep, bad eating habits and general sense of hopelessness. The most obvious question is why. Why stay in such a toxic environment for so long? Well, after a university degree in journalism doesn’t lead to a concrete career, disillusionment sets in. But only for a short time because hey, those bills aren’t going to pay themselves. Cut to a couple decades later and the gap between this grey slug-like existence and a creative dream is wider than I care to mention.
Looking at kids as young as ten staring at the screens of these indie games at PAX leaves an impact. For two reasons:
1. They’re seeing this kind of change in storytelling at a young age. To them, this revolutionary game development is already part of the standard landscape. First-person shooters and multiplayer arena games still push through but these groundbreaking adventures are already here for them. Waiting. Ready to be played.
2. These games aren’t being made by huge corporations or internet celebrities. These kids are wide-eyed at people who might live in a neighbouring suburb, not someone who has their own merch table. And those people are standing right there, excited to see what you think of their game.
I felt the same way. The developers in the Indie Showcase were roughly my age or slightly younger. With similar views and ideas about the world. I could have gone to school with some of them. That’s what makes what I thought about afterwards so relevant.
There was this man, let’s call him “John” for the sake of argument, who was a vague colleague of mine. He worked in the same government office as me. It was time for him to retire after forty-two years with the same department. On his last day, everyone in the office chipped in some money for cakes and biscuits to send him off. Typically, a morning tea break in this office was fifteen minutes long. But for John, the hierarchy very graciously allowed us thirty. Thirty minutes for everyone to eat and for the impending retiree to make a speech. He was a quiet unassuming person who never had much to say and never really talked about his personal life. Someone asked him, “So John, what’s the first thing you’re going to do now?”. Instantly, he replied “Leave this bloody building!”. Everyone laughed. Continued eating their supermarket cake. But it was obvious John meant what he said. He was old. Not only in age but in life. He was finished and couldn’t wait to leave.
About a year later, I was still working in the same office and one afternoon was cleaning my desk. Amongst the rubbish that had accumulated, I found a pencil. It had John’s name on it. Only then did I realise since that retirement day, nobody in the office had ever talked about him. Once that morning tea was over, John was never mentioned again. It was like he vanished. More than that – it was like he never existed in the first place. Forty-two years and he left zero impact on anyone. In fact, if he had died rather than retired, more people would have discussed him afterwards. But even after a year, there was nothing. I threw the pencil away.
That’s just how it was. John wasn’t integral. He was just a single part in a machine that was removed and immediately replaced. No difference was made. Business as usual. The machine just kept running. Regardless of anything or anyone.
The game developers at PAX are so far removed from that machine that they seem like they’re from another planet. I’m sure they’ve all had unfulfilling jobs to sustain their current careers but the fact of the matter is that they’re now leaving that behind. They are creating games from scratch because they just decided to. They’re not applying for jobs they know they will hate because the rent needs to be paid. A dream has been realised and by god, they’re going after it. When a ten year-old child stares up at their game about mysterious towns or abstract puzzles, that child may not ever grow up to enter the machine. They may be inspired to chase similar dreams and sidestep the machine entirely. That in and of itself is a monumental shift in how we live our lives. And it all came together at PAX Australia.
In the final scene of Goodfellas, Henry Hill is in a witness protection program after turning against his criminal associates. As such, the illegal life he loved has come to an end and he has to go about his days like a normal person living in a normal house. To quote his lament: “Today everything is different; there’s no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food. Right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.“
What I saw flourishing at PAX Australia should be congratulated at every opportunity. It was fantasies made real. One after the other. Inspiration laid bare for people to break away from the engine of their lives and consume. For developers, it was validation that they were on the right track and guidance on how they could make their vision even better.
PAX Australia is in its fourth year in Melbourne. People from all walks of life attended to play games, discuss games and celebrate games. In the Indie Showcase, dreams were given a shot at reality. All because these small developers wanted to go after them and not live the rest of their lives like a schnook.