Paris/London: Videogames in Two Cities
“Amusement,” she said, around four on a February afternoon on stolen internet. The lobby of the hotel — in the heart of a slum — was white and yawning like a clean abattoir. I felt like an impostor, an infiltrator in Paris’ old crumbling heart. We had a mission now. A mission of youth. We were netrunning, our little Scottish hearts beating faster and younger every second. We were out of London and into Paris’ apparent art and technology obsession; it vibrated through roads like signals through the veins of a motherboard.
“This is the place,” she said, looking at the now non existent webpage for a place called ‘Le Creative-Shop Amusement’. “This is like a geek paradise.” The website was glossy, but the sheen was palpable camouflage on an avoidant soul. It advertised an interview with XCOM: Enemy Unknown developers; had featured some sort of art based on Nintendo characters, but it was trying to avoid my gaze. My three-hour brunch of cafe cremes and hollandaise and fries and the late-night creole chicken flipped itself in a strange anticipation. She was more excited about this place than me, but I knew we had to get there anyway.
“I refuse to say it the French way,” I say, rummaging through a pocket of receipts for Metro tickets that she’d paid for. I only speak Japanese, and I was convinced that Parisiens could see the bitter Brit baked into my face.
“It has an accent on the ‘u’,” she said matter-of-factly. (It didn’t.)
Her red coat and cropped blonde shock made her dramatically visible at the grimy Porte de Clignancourt Metro, which is full of dark-clothed, surly Parisiens whose children are taught to leap the barrier. She walked to an eternal Blondie bassline, though she’d tell me she was nervous. A few days before she’d been staying in a hotel at Capcom’s behest, and I’d made the wunderkind move to a hovel for our holiday where the radiator woke her up squeaking with the persistence of a rutting couple. She took it like a woman, her youthful skin surviving anything, my own skin feeling like sack material draped over a potato as she rummaged curiously through the five Gambit comics I had packed for the trip. She looked at them gleefully each morning, the female gaze always landing neatly on his mid-section, and I’d smile. “What is this about?” she asked me, several times. “I don’t know,” I’d admit. “Fake geek girl,” she said, letting the grin permeate the room.
We popped various exotic pills that day, bought pop art, and walked directly into the stinging wind on our search for la Gaité Lyrique. It purported to be a ‘digital arts and modern music centre’: was it likely that it would value our young digital souls more highly than our country? Or would we be lost children in Paris too? I listened to the Beastie Boys’ “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” and silently brooded, watched the young man across me on the train clutch a half-eaten kebab like it was the Peruvian fertility idol from Raiders.
It was close to closing time when we neared our destination, the background of Paris on fire, our dead fingers scrambling to look at the alien paper map. Our modern instruments were somehow unusable in the badlands of the Third Arrondissement. And the Boulevard de Sebastopol was slowly filling up with murk, indigo treacle seeping into the streets and up the Metro steps, the frigid cold infecting our zombie limbs and doubt creeping on us that we would ever, ever find it. Dimanche — everything shut around us in a tight Catholic frown, the deep glow of neon shops with dark, closed doors.
My heels dug into my heels, we circled the block, and she was ready to give up. “Amusement,” she said finally, in a perfect French accent, pointing at the shadow of some long gone letters on a shop front. “It’s no longer there.” We had found an internet ghost. Meatspace was cruel and real. And our bodies were slowly becoming nothing more than a binary signal in the cold.
Kavinsky plays. In this neon silence and dark, a bike-mounted T-800 screeches to a halt by my feet, holds out his hand, offers to take us somewhere we will live.
She looks at me expectantly. “To the comic shop before it closes?”
No. Kavinsky is playing. There is something we have to do.
I push open a door to a desolate looking building that seemed to have life in it, and I gesture at the doorman. She enquires about the building. He tells us to ask at the desk.
The girl at the desk seems surprised at our enquiry, gestures upstairs. We look up: Amusement. At the top of the steps, white light presses gently through a curtain of clear plastic strips, like the sort of curtain you might get at a butcher’s. But the sound of Major Lazer’s “Get Free” gently runs downstream towards us, a song that has constantly haunted me everywhere we have been in Paris. It really soaks into me now, like hot water into a towel.
I feel like I am a child. Duck Hunt is the most advanced piece of technology I have seen. I want to touch consoles and click on adventure games and eat tuck shop strawberries and smile and run. I feel calm. Paris is a virtual board, and I am a little pawn engaged in haptic feedback with everything.
In Pixar’s Ratatouille, Remy serves up a dish so evocative of memory and pleasure that it makes Paris’s harshest food critic cry. There is an attitude of acceptance at la Gaité Lyrique — the encouragement of play — that is like a home I have never been to. Objects that remind me of where I come from, of the culture of curiosity that gave birth to me. It is a glorious teenage wasteland. It doesn’t give a shit like we used to not give a shit, but this time it is for everyone.
L’Araignée designed the interior to be like a puzzle game; all white maze walls with accents of fluorescent colour. The shelves are bright orange. What I see of Amusement at this moment is hundreds of kitsch design objects, inspired by modernity, spurred on by the effervescence of technology. Tetris post-it notes, weird USB sticks, Shiggsy everything, some new mobile phone. They sit in cubby holes and on shelves as if they were collectables or secret pickups, all forty-five Euros too expensive to take home. At the back lies a library of books on modern technology, digital punk culture, cyberpunk notebooks, gloss pictures and photos of the electric vanguard. Our videogame warriors. A few people study quietly at the side, reverent.
She picks up one book on the Jeux Video shelf; a shelf I have never seen so full in any other library. I see a few familiar names in the index amongst the French words. She points excitedly to her own name, under ‘collaborateurs’. I nod, realising that I forgot about her being in the list. She looks like she remembers now, too.
Suddenly I understand: Paris cares about the young. It is young. It is as if Paris is a young heart with an old beat, an old step. There is trust in youth here, like London doesn’t have. London suspects its young. It cripples them. It tells them they cannot have color or digital museums or pop art glory in case they turn on us; riot. Camden is dying; Dalston hates everything. Never got love from a government man. London tolerates these things as if they are improper, refuses to invest in anything new. London is an old pompous heart, frowning at the children that try to frolic at its feet. Paris throws money at this, loves to play, make out, live, and we play only when we have to, have sex just to keep warm, and struggle to Nottingham for Gamecity like crotchety misers. The little lights of videogame culture we have are Wild Rumpus, Hide and Seek, Gamecamp, One Life Left, anything David Hayward can smuggle in, and they are stitched together with love and the hope that one day we will have space and investment for them. London, your soul is tarnished. Are you a place for life? Or for the preservation of a cultureless class whose credit cards invest in paintings produced in an era they will never let happen again? Where are the monoliths built to our artists?
I sting with a fuck-you feeling. I stride to the videogame section, where developers have given their work to young Parisiens. It is free to play all the games here. There are little girls here. More little girls in this section than I have seen in London’s Namco arcade. They are playing games with each other. I sit at an indie game I have never heard of and pick up the controller. It is a racing game in an abstract, colourful world. I am mesmerised for what seems like an hour, but must have been less. She joins me, and races. She is a console woman; this looks and feels like a PC-developed title. She wins anyway.
But there’s something else, I sit here and think, peering at the shut-off sections. This place is only half-open. Is Paris dying too? Curiosity, the curiosity that made me write things in the beginning, is making me ask questions. “I want to know why this is shutting down,” I say to her, as we play. “I know we are on holiday, but I want to know why this is closing.” I feel ashamed at my fledgeling journalistic feeling: she informs me that no article about the demise of a Parisian arts centre for nerds would get the hits that justify the writing of it. She is right. Who would want to know about the death of a beautiful Parisian future, except the French? And neither of us write in French. Perhaps this is no closure. Perhaps this is a refurbishment. But the ghost on the web has stayed the same. There is no indication there that anything is changing, though it is obvious something is. And I’m sort of afraid of it. I hope that Paris is okay, in the way that an old person might worry about a toddler with a chest infection. Is Paris burning?
They advise us they are closing for the night, and we are pushed out of Amusement onto the cold streets. The echoes of “Get Free” linger underneath the eaves, uncertain of where to go now, and she and I go to sit in a bar and I look over my beer and I suddenly see her. And I suddenly see who I am too: I am a person who is young still, and who is idolising, romanticising the young. The youthful heart that sits across from me, face aglow from adventures, in a beer sulk.
Aren’t you a fucking adult? I think of myself. Aren’t you an adult, who can fuck and kiss and run and mess with the physics of life as she sees fit? You can drink at 9am and no one is there to tell you that you are ruining your life — and yet sit there like you have lost something that is only twenty years old from its pixellated birth. Is it the candour of a love in your teens you miss? Of the pitter-patter of Starbursts falling over a midnight keyboard — as if that’s a thing you can’t feel any more. Your resentment, I think, little rookie, is in yourself. You are treating her blue windows and inimitable smile as if that’s all she is. Quiet humanity is spilling onto the table and seeping into your sleeves. Videogames are not young any more. Youth is not what you are looking for: you are looking to stretch out and make something, connect to people through this, hold people. A week from now, I will email Amusement to ask them if they are closing. They won’t answer.
Look up and Paris is just a shining, exploding star, something that on the outside sears the face and on the inside displays the hollow insides of want; through the windows of Parisian boutiques it is only foreign games on show. Simon Bachelier will tell me that but for One Life Remains’ experimental games, on opening night at La Gaîté Lyrique’s Joue Le Jeu, hardly anything was French. There’s a hollowness to Paris too: it’s a museum for other people’s ideas. La Gaîté Lyrique is a rich varnish. It is funded by the Mairie de Paris, and yet, the exotic ideas are coming there from somewhere else. Simon sounds envious in his email to me, as if I am surrounded by a culture that he struggles to set a taper to in Paris, even France in general.
“Private parties and game evening[s] are organized outside and far away from public institution such as La Gaîté Lyrique because those places doesn’t allow you, for instance, to stay late,” Simon will tell me, and I look at us then, kicked out of La Gaîté Lyrique at sundown. Drift past the beer in front of me, sweating in the humidity, to smash into Wild Rumpus in London lit up with neon; we slop beer from stand to stand, yelling and shouting at Space Narwhal and There Shall Be Lancing after hours on a ship in Canary Wharf, the MS Stubnitz. The licenced bar denotes entertainment for adults. That we are brought together not by our youthfulness, but our willingness to play — and as John Cleese would agree, a willingness to play is the mark tattooed through the gut of the pathologically creative. In the bowels of the Cold War ship, the crowd sways and rages, parting for the swipes and kicks of people playing JS Joust, and Chipzel vibrates her sounds through a frenzied mess of people, her red hair flashing as she flings her head to her beat.
One Life Left, Hide and Seek, Gamecamp, anything London has is not the sign of weak unfunded limbs, but an ecstatically-clenched fist.
Is Paris burning? I think, drinking the backwash on the finest trash beer I’ve put my lips on. Is it burning down, or being set alight?
“Today, we’re still far away from amazing activities such as Wild Rumpus or even Hide & Seek… Maybe the difference between Paris & London is that UK has the creative people who actually makes crazy things, and France has new fresh institution/place to exhibit and to show them such as La Gaîté Lyrique,” Simon says to me. “Just take a look at Universcience (the place where I used to work): at the end of the year there will be another public place (1000m²) in Paris entirely dedicated to videogames culture…”
I wonder, at once, whether Paris and London should be closer. If Paris funds this, and London makes this, why aren’t we always on the Eurostar? Can’t we pool our resources? Can’t we find some way to help each other? Aren’t we ignoring the idea that Paris and London could live symbiotically? Hide and Seek did it once, after all. Can’t we do it regularly? I am far away from Simon, but I would like to hug him. There is work to do. We can live in a world bigger than London, and I want to have him feel like he isn’t alone.
And Amusement? “The Amusement shop has been closed… almost 10 months because they wanted to put it inside La Gaîté Lyrique and not outside because people didn’t think about it after seeing an event or an exhibition.” It was supposed to be part of the exhibition, not a stand alone shop.
They’re moving it into the bosom of the museum. It’s just a smaller part of a bigger idea. It’s not dying: the light is getting stronger. And a few months later, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London would hire BAFTA-winning game designer Sophia George to head up a residency. EToo would happen by sheer force of will — by rebellion, almost, I think now. We are winning.
My companion and I get on the Eurostar back to London with tiny bottles of train wine. Falling silent for a moment as the carriage rushes into darkness, I feel like an adult for the first time.
[Get Free: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OI3shBXlqsw]
With many thanks to Tracey Lien and Simon Bachelier.