WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, Cara Ellison’s Embed with Games
Embed with Games is a travelogue of video-games journalist Cara Ellison’s year-long journey through the homes of games developers from New York to Tokyo, Paris to Melbourne. In 2014, a time of turmoil for both gaming and games journalism, she embarked on a crowd-funded couch-surfing odyssey, reporting on the experiences and cultural viewpoints of games developers worldwide. Eight months into her travels, Cara finds herself in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Amongst many cultural differences, she notices a striking similarity to her native Edinburgh.
There used to be a cheat code for Tomb Raider II – a complicated series of steps where you lit a flare and danced, the screen would go black and the CD would rev in the drive. A step forward? A step back? A jump, maybe.
Each flight I take is like a rev in the drive. I sleep and wake up and everything is different. The requirements are different, the objectives unknown, new environments wait.
I think about how cheat coded I feel by planes as the palm trees fly by; twelve hours of mascara stings my eyes and I smell of KLM green tea handwash. Kuala Lumpur’s hot damp clings and shimmers. The cheat code has kicked me across time and space. It kicks like a son of a bitch. It kicks brutal in the gut. It keeps happening.
‘Most people in KL will greet you with “Have you eaten?”’ my friend and Rock Paper Shotgun colleague Cassandra Khaw shouts from the front seat as her mother guns it down the wide flat asphalt. This month’s fixer, Cass, is teaching me about Kuala Lumpur food culture.
People have a similar greeting in Edinburgh. We do a demure-sounding ‘You’ll have had your tea?’ which, particularly coming from older people, is a preamble to stuffing you with scones or steak pie. I’m skinny from being ill last month, and this month I will learn that Cass is the equivalent of an Edinburgh grandmother. I will trail her around malls being refilled like a Pez dispenser, only instead of candy it is hot butter Rotiboys, satay, savoury pastries, roti bon, Thai food, every kind of curry.
Cass instructs me on the city:
Wear a bra
Don’t go out after twelve
Boil the water before drinking it
Don’t leave your phone on the table
Don’t barter while white (‘you are very white’)
Don’t eat where there are roaches (disobeyed)
Don’t get ripped off (failed – twice)
Thick stretches of palm trees line the roads, huge concrete buffered roads wider than I have ever seen, even in LA. The skies are bigger and mistier here, and my slow brain thinks
To the music of the road, Cass explains that everyone speaks more than one language, describes the diverse ethnic mix of Kuala Lumpur, and tells me how easy it is to insult people by not reading their race and cultural background. I nod and try to breathe everything in, noting that I can at least recognise spoken Cantonese if not Malay. Cars around us brake abruptly; motorbikes weave in and out of them like mechanical deer.
I look at my battered UK passport. Back in Scotland, there will be a vote this month on whether or not I will still be British. Malaysia escaped the British a while back, and although it isn’t the same situation by any stretch, Scotland always had a chip on its shoulder about being ‘colonised’. I’m not sure how I feel about any of it. I want the people who still live there to make the decision.
The undulating palm leaves and spiked bushes go by in a muggy haze; it is monsoon season.
That cheat code for Tomb Raider II – a system of steps and jumps. Deftly completed, it would throw you forward into the next level. It was like waking to a new place each time: emerald valleys, Venice canals, rocky overtures with promise of secrets, medipacks stuck in caverns as chocolate chips in a dense cake. I would try to take nothing from the levels, jumping to the next when it became apparent I couldn’t proceed without stealing.
The waking was the thing. A fade in, and you raise her head to see where you might go.
At some point, you’d wake underwater, and, unable to do the cheat ‘dance’ at the bottom of the ocean, you had to survive until you found an air pocket and a place to orientate yourself.
Have I mentioned before that I love roads, and driving games? And I love roads in driving games. I think it is half because I can’t drive, half because I like the therapy of it, the journey and not the climax. But now as I sit here in a Tokyo armchair remembering Kuala Lumpur, all I can think of is that first drive Cass’s mother navigated from the airport, and all I can do is look at this video of Max’s game with the sound off. Of course, Kuala Lumpur is a built-up concrete-and-glass city and there are no dirt tracks. The road from the airport is a huge motorway of the wide, long, flat asphalt kind. But the road is lined with those trees. Staring at the lush trees and plants in Dirt 2 is enough to evoke the feeling of being there. I feel like I am in a thick, delicious-smelling cloud of Malaysian foodstuffs when I look at it. I feel like I am floating through the car-clogged streets of the city, following my nose into cafés and restaurants full of the kind of food you only taste when you’re asleep, because your imagination makes it up.
• Cara Ellison is a Scottish writer, game critic and video game narrative designer. Embed with Games: A Year on the Couch with Games Developers is published by Polygon, £8.99