Pinball: A love story

Originally appeared in Slam Tilt Zine 2014

“Jackpot, hurry up!”

Playboy was the first machine we ever played together. Of course, as self-identified feminists, we were appropriately self-effacing about how much we enjoyed it. The first time I got the ball up the ramp enough times for the centerfold to open, I realised this was something I could get into. It wasn’t that I’d just won a brief peep at a pinup girl from the not-so-distant-past, it was that I’d just realised what pinball was capable of; transforming the simple action of hitting a target with a silver ball into any reaction imaginable, limited only by physics and the theme of the table. I also just kinda wanted him to like me more. As I watched the names of the months of Playboy issues successively light up on the table, it struck me how long we’d been together and also apart. Long-distance relationships are a lot like pinball; you can play for as long as you’re willing to pay.

“Stop the spider!”

I only played Elvira’s Scared Stiff all the way through once. I’d get to the spinning spider that decided your ghoulish winnings but the ball would decide to never come back. It was a pity, Elvira declaring ‘Good Head’ would’ve made an excellent Vine. After we’d decided to break up, but before he left for good, we played pinball together one last time. Rollercoaster Tycoon had filled the space Elvira left in our hearts; you could ‘Spin to Win’ there too. (The Newtown Hotel made a lot of money off of us). We remarked on how excitable the machine would get about an extra ball or multiball event and it quickly became a favourite. He suggested I bring the next person I date here. It made me queasy to think of staring over someone else’s shoulder, craning my neck to follow someone else’s silver. But a part of me was a little excited at the prospect of spreading our love of those blinking lights, those dinging bells, those intimate shoves.

“I am the Ringmaster, you must challenge me”

It’s been three months since we parted ramps and I’ve taken two subways, a bus and some reimbursed help from a homeless person, but I’m finally standing out the front of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, just outside San Francisco. I’m in a part of town I would never have thought to visit, were it not for a strange sense of obligation to a relationship I once had and for a slightly different one I still wanted to maintain. And it was perfect. For $15, you get to admire some of the oldest pinball machines ever made and play any number of machines from the 60s right up to last year, any number of times. I had no idea Dolly Parton or Elton John could’ve provided such pinspiration. Solar War was a pinball video game developed by Atari, and so much fun to play if you can deal with not feeling the weight of an actual pinball while you flipped it for a while. I think I finally had my moment of closure while playing two-player Roller Disco pinball with a middle-aged man I’d just met there, halfway across the world.

“The spiral awaits you!”

The last game I played at the museum was The Twilight Zone. Using magnets as flippers, white ceramic balls that change gameplay by defying magnetism and gravity, and the smooth voice of Rod Serling showing you behind doors unlocked only by your imagination, it was no doubt that it had always been our favourite, and so I played it last. I’d never managed to get the white Powerball by myself before but this time I did. I wanted it to mean something but I thought it probably didn’t. I also thought about how, during a game, some pinballs seem to be guided by magnets from below, their trajectories pre-planned, while others are allowed to free fall.

“Shoot again”