Conjunctions:58 Riveted: The Obsession Issue

The Last Film of Alan Smithee
After all that, I chose the avatar that looked most like me: similar build, similar features. I gave him my name, Alan Smithee. I gave him glasses. I felt relatively certain that my wife would have recognized this, at least, as progress. There had been so many choices of what to be—round bodies, flat bodies, flabby bodies, tan, pale, or liver-spotted bodies, bodies with long arms or skinny legs, triangular noses, dimpled chins, jug ears, or thin lips. So many choices. Now it was done. Once, she had opened my cabinet in the kitchen and stood next to me, silent, while I looked in. Six identical rows, seven cans deep—three weeks’ worth of meals. She had opened my closet. Six blue Oxford shirts with left pockets; next to them, a row of plain-front khaki slacks. I had one gray suit that I never wore, though this was never remarked upon. There was no time in my schedule for a job. It took me hours to get dressed. I thought about what I had to do that day. I tried different combinations. I had long ago ceased to eat breakfast—by the time I was dressed, it was lunchtime. I stood in front of the open cabinet in the kitchen, scanning the rows. I could not allow lunchtime to pass in the same way as breakfast had, but I always bitterly regretted my choice, closing off as it did other, very possibly better, choices. Having fewer things to choose from had made these decisions somewhat easier, though of course the smaller differences in each item—of circumstance, of memory, of effect—meant that a high degree of care was still required. In the game, some of these choices had been made for me. I gave my avatar the khaki slacks. I gave my avatar the blue shirt. I gave my avatar the brown shoes. I chose the haircut that I had had since the age of eighteen. My wife had it styled once, the day we got married. I wore a tuxedo in our wedding photographs. People asked if it was me when they saw the photographs. I considered laughing. I considered who was speaking to me. I considered what they would want to hear. I considered answering seriously. I considered making a joke. I considered answering with a question of my own. I considered changing the subject. In time, they moved off. 

I spent two days on the Internet looking for a strategy guide, a walkthrough, an FAQ, anything at all about how to proceed in the game, but I could not find anything. I spent half a day in front of a screen that asked me to press a certain button if I wished to proceed. I was unsure. I knew that I would have to finish the game if I pressed the button. I did not know if I had the time to finish the game. I did not know anything about the game. I did not like that I did not know anything about the game. Without being aware of it, I had already spent so much time on the game, and I had not even yet begun it. It seemed now that I had no choice. I pressed the button. I regretted it. Alan Smithee was by himself in a house. Nothing happened. I did not know how to proceed. The game seemed to be an open-world game, a game without predetermined paths to follow. I had always avoided these games. They had none of the advantages of the other games. What was the right thing to do first? What was the right thing to do next? One entered situations thoroughly unprepared for them. One might go through the entire game in such a state, never feeling prepared for anything one had encountered. How does one proceed when there is more than one right way to proceed? What if one had to go back in order to proceed? What if one had to take on obstacles or challenges in a certain order but this order was never made clear? One was always made conscious of possibilities closed off. One was always made conscious of optimal strategies, of the importance of preparation and an advanced state of readiness. One could never be too ready. Unless there was no way to make ready. 

In the game, there was a gaming console with a game already in it, ready to be played. I could not find any other games. I could not think what else to do. After deliberating and searching the Internet, I commanded Smithee to play the game. From what I could gather, it was called Time Out. I paused the game. I queried a long string of search terms beginning withTime Out and including the words “walkthrough,” “strategy guide,” and “FAQ,” without any results. I unpaused the game. I still did not know how to proceed. Smithee’s wife entered their living room, standing just inside the door. I do not know if she had a name; I had neither clothed nor named her. I could not see the expression on her face because of the angle of the camera. I expected a cutscene, but there was no cutscene. I still had control over my avatar. I could not decide what to do. I longed for the cutscene, if only as a way of easing the burden of decision. I thought perhaps if Smithee spoke, this would trigger the cutscene, but the speech interface used by the game was so clumsy that he could not. Each word had to be picked out letter by letter, through a laborious process of using the joystick to control a cursor hovering over a huge and confusing list of symbols and letters that had been arranged in an order I had never seen used anywhere else. If a single wrong letter was chosen, the entire sequence had to be performed again. I stood Smithee up and walked him to the opposite wall, where the television hung. I had intended to turn off the console and the television, but he would not approach the console or the television. He faced them, inert no matter what button I pressed. Time Out seemed to be paused. It was difficult to tell—nothing had happened in it yet. Smithee’s wife stood near the doorway, her hair and shoulders bobbing. Perhaps the cutscene could only be triggered if Smithee approached his wife, I thought. I paused the game. Smithee faced the wall. I searched the Internet again. My query began with the word “wife.” The search engine suggested dozens of possible endings for my query. None of them included the words “walkthrough,” “strategy guide,” or “FAQ.” I had trouble choosing one, so I erased “wife” and started over. This time I tried the word “walkthrough” first, but none of the choices included “wife.” I cycled through endless queries. I came up with nothing. I unpaused the game. I tried to turn Smithee around, but he would not turn. The camera overcompensated, turning my commands to him to turn around into commands to stay facing the wall—if I thumbed the joystick left, the camera turned past him to the right; if I thumbed it to the right, the camera rotated left. Alan Smithee slowly turned around the room, always facing away from the camera, away from the center of the room. The cutscene I had been waiting for began when he had almost reached his wife, still not facing her. It began with a close-up of the mirror that hung next to the doorway where Smithee’s wife had stood a moment before. The mirror’s silver was warped. It showed the room behind Alan Smithee. The television was in the center of the mirror—“Press A to continue,’ the screen blinked. Then Alan Smithee stepped over to the left and appeared in the center of the mirror, the game screen behind him warped now and the text there indecipherable. I could not see the resemblance between us anymore. I thought at first that it was not my avatar at all. I moved the joystick on the controller. He moved with it, disappeared into the warp, and then reappeared. I tried to turn him so that he faced the camera; was this the avatar I had chosen? Was this still Alan Smithee? The cutscene ended, but by then Smithee’s wife had left the room, and there were other things missing too. The plant next to the couch was gone. One of the pictures that had hung on the wall was gone. The rug was gone. There was a ring of lighter-colored wood where the rug had been. There was another, smaller lighter-colored area next to the couch. There was a rectangle of bright white on the wall. 

I did not seem to be advancing any, and did not seem to have triggered anything of consequence. I had only the challenge of finding a challenge. I felt that Smithee lacked an item or piece of information, and I commanded him to look through his house again and again, hoping to find something, anything, that would tell me what to do next. Nothing ever turned up. I searched the Internet again and again. I despaired of accomplishing anything at all. My Internet search queries got longer and longer. Then they began to contract. Every time I unpaused the game there was something else missing from Smithee’s house. The books on the bookshelves were gone. Then the bookshelves were gone. The armchair was gone. The game console had been transferred to a card table. The other rooms were just as bare. In the breach, I established a routine for Smithee. I showered him in the morning, spent some time dressing him, then played Time Out for a few hours while waiting for something to happen. Then I prepared and ate lunch. Then I returned to the game. Then I ate dinner. Then I returned to the game. Then I went to sleep. 

Time Out began with a cinematic sequence. The player’s avatar, named Bill Connor, is in a bar with his coworkers. He has just been passed over for a promotion. He is complaining about it. Connor had a haircut very similar to Smithee’s. He had a set of pixelated features very similar to Smithee’s. He was wearing a gray suit and a red tie. After the bar sequence, a load screen came up, presenting a choice of “New Game” or “Saved Game.” There were three entries under “Saved Game.” Someone had already played this game and advanced its story. The choices were: “Vichy,” “KKK,” or “Vietnam.” I did not know which to choose. I searched the Internet again and again. I searched Smithee’s house. I sat in front of the game, with Smithee sitting in front of Time Out, waiting for the right choice to become apparent. After two days of this, Time Out shut off, and I was returned to the main game. But nothing had been happening in that game for quite some time. Still, I envied Alan Smithee a little. He had those saved games, whole sets of choices already made, to work from. It remained to him only to choose the saved game that had progressed the furthest, the densest agglomeration of choices. He would be relieved of so much. I saved my progress, and I considered whether to turn off the console or not. 

I slept uncomfortable sleep when I slept. The springs under the couch cushions and a burden I could not seem to identify kept me awake. I did not feel myself. I found myself talking to the screen, telling Smithee what to do even as I failed to make him do it. “Smithee, you do-nothing son of a bitch. What are you doing? You aren’t doing anything! There must be something more to this than staying at home. There must be something more to this than playing a video game.” But it was useless. The suit in his closet could not be put on. I could put on any of the other clothes hanging there, but the suit could not be put on. I thought perhaps it was that Smithee was too out of shape. Getting into shape, though, would mean spending hours and hours on the treadmill. It would take weeks to get into shape. I would have to set up a routine to get into shape. I would have to exercise at the same time every day. I would have to exercise before I showered in the morning, so that I was not wasting water. I would have to wake up even earlier. I would have to go to sleep even earlier. I would have to exercise in a new set of clothes so that I did not ruin those I already had. I would have to go out and buy a new set of clothes to exercise in. I could not be sure that the treadmill would be there once I had decided on a set of exercise clothes and had worked out the changes to the schedule. Things had disappeared from every room in Alan Smithee’s house. The shelves and cabinets were now bare. The bed had gone. Footsteps were louder when he crossed the rooms. And there was almost nothing to interact with. Nothing, other than Time Out. Smithee turned it on. The same cinematic sequence played. The same load screen came up. I scanned the buttons on Smithee’s controller. I considered which was most likely to prod him into action. Smithee chose “Vietnam.” It was last on the list, perhaps closest to the end of the game. There was another cutscene. Connor, in the suit from the bar, was now in a mangrove swamp. There was a Vietcong patrol passing him. He hid in the mangroves. A snake swam past him. Smithee paused the game just after the cutscene. Smithee checked his house. There was no new information. The couch was now missing. There was less information than there had been before. The game’s clock had disappeared, corresponding with the clock that had formerly hung on the wall, but which had disappeared in the interval between pause and unpause. I had no idea how much game time was elapsing. I could not tell when to stop Time Out to prepare and eat lunch. I could not tell when to stop Time Out to have dinner. I could not tell when to stop Time Out to sleep. I began to worry that I had involuntarily caused a glitch in the game by having Smithee choose, by the fact that he had then chosen “Vietnam.” I thought about resetting and starting over. But I could not make that decision. I would have to play this game through to the end. It was time to prepare my lunch, I thought, but I could not seem to get the game to save, and so instead of saving and turning it off, I paused it, or so I thought, and prepared and ate my lunch. 

When I returned to the game, Smithee had carried on without me. I didn’t understand how this was possible. I sat and watched for a minute before I realized what was happening. It was not that the game had come unpaused in the interval when I was preparing and eating my lunch: In that case, things in the game would have gone on, but Smithee would not have been able to act, he would only have been acted upon. But on the screen in front of me, Smithee had left his house somehow and walked to a pawnshop. When I picked up the controller, Smithee had a gun in his hand and was exiting the pawnshop. I do not know what he could have pawned to get it, as almost everything of value had already disappeared, but I took control and steered him back to his house, only because I was sure that this was what the game wanted me to do: There was a police car cruising the boulevard, shining a spotlight on the storefronts I had only just passed. I was tempted to bring the gun back to the pawnshop, but I could not reach a decision, and I instead got Smithee home and had him stay there. I had Smithee unpause Time Out. The soundtrack blasted “Purple Haze.” American soldiers approached, and Smithee, perhaps in desperation but certainly not as a result of my command, commanded Connor to yell out to them. They fired in his direction, but he was not hit. It seemed I had no control over Smithee at this point. Was it a cutscene? It did not seem to be. Still, I watched as Smithee commanded Connor to take two young Vietnamese children hostage. I watched as he commanded Connor out to the paddy, holding these two young children in his arms. I watched as Smithee commanded Connor into the middle of the paddy, underneath the American helicopter passing overhead. I commanded Smithee to jerk the joystick in the direction of the swamp. Helpless, I watched as Smithee commanded Connor to yell up to the gunner in the helicopter. I watched as the helicopter was hit in the fuselage by an explosive launched from the village. I watched as the helicopter canted over and its blades severed Connor’s head from his body. I watched as the screen went dark and the words “GAME OVER” came up. I felt a small measure of relief. I watched as Smithee pointed the gun at the television. The noise of the shot was deafening. He pointed the gun at the console. As the camera continued to zoom out, I noticed that the table was gone. Smithee had only gun, television, and console. And now the television and console were inoperable. My options were thus limited. But this was how I preferred it. This world was so large, its interactions so complex, it seemed best to limit one’s options. Smithee had reminded me that there really was only one button, one action. I felt almost ready to reach a decision. I had had as much preparation as I was ever going to have. 

Gabriel Blackwell is the author of four books, the most recent of which is Madeleine E. (Outpost19). His fictions and essays have appeared in Conjunctions, Tin House, Puerto del Sol, Post Road, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. He is the editor of The Collagist.