Places of Power

Humans were born in ignorance a thousand thousand years ago. We couldn’t comprehend the world we lived in, but we had instinct. We knew to avoid places of power: symmetrical hills, ghostly swamps, bottomless lakes, and so on. In the sixth century, wandering knights would seek out these places to have their bravery judged, and the magic either rewarded or destroyed them.

The age of reason ended all that. The hills were measured, the swamps drained, the lakes mapped. The magic faded away.

Mostly. You can still find some if you know where to look.

I found one at an ancient burial mound in southern Wisconsin in 1992. At midnight on the vernal equinox I went to be judged.

“Don’t go armed!” my Arthurian legends professor warned. “You have to go alone and unarmed or it will kick your ass. Just go challenge it, then leave and never go back.” I thought she was joking. How could you challenge eldritch magic without a sword? Without backup? I went armed, and I brought someone.

And it broke me. It hurt me worse than anything I’d ever experienced. Almost thirty years later I still sometimes feel the pain.

But that’s a story for another day.

I found another place of power in 1996 on a hill above a tectonic fault line in California. Once a year, on my birthday, I would visit it. I went alone. I went unarmed. I just sat there until sunset, waiting to be judged. In 2001 it rewarded me with the greatest gift I’ve ever received.

But that’s another story for another day.

This is the story about the third place I found. This is one I stumbled upon by accident and unwittingly challenged.

In 1999, I applied for my dream job: making games. I’ve always wanted to work in games; I’d been making them on my own since about 1982.

You think your dev tools suck? Try writing a game on this.

The job interview was nerve-wracking. I wanted to show off my earlier game work, but I’d signed a form saying I wouldn’t transmit my materials to anyone, either through the internet or on removable media.

So, I brought my twenty-pound minitower to the interview. I lugged it upstairs and plugged it into a monitor the company provided. I couldn’t get it to run. I tried restarting the computer, updating the drivers, and audibly pounding my head on the table (yes, really).

Nothing worked. Little did I know I was in a place of power, and it was testing me.

Really, two places inextricably linked.

I went hyper-manic. I jumped around, waving my arms to explain the movements of enemies. I drew maps on the white board and tried to explain dramatic visuals with hastily folded paper spaceships. Then I lifted my computer, dragged it downstairs to my car, and drove home — dejected.

The powers ruminated on my performance for a week and a half.

When I got the call at work (“Are you still interested?”) I was overwhelmed. After I hung up, my boss handed me resignation forms. I had shouted “Yes! I am so, amazingly, mind-bogglingly interested in the job!” loud enough to be heard on the other end of the office.

A week later, I went back there to work. I got out of my car, stared up at the building, and said “I make games.”

I said those three words every time I showed up to work. They were like a magic spell, a talisman to remind me of how lucky I was. It was also a challenge to the powers I didn’t realize were there.

Fifteen months later, the magic had had enough of me. When the company moved a few blocks down the street, the magic turned.

I got a manager who treated me with contempt, a QA lead who didn’t like my designs, and a growing stress disorder. I worked ten hour days, six to seven days a week trying to make something new, exciting, interesting.

Nobody liked what I did.

One day, the company’s HR manager took me to lunch. “So… How’s work going?” he asked.

“Oh, man, I’m going to get fired,” I said.

“You’re not getting fired!” he laughed.

The next day, my manager walked in to my office, closed the door, and sat down. He crossed his arms and looked at the ground.

“This isn’t good,” I said.

Half an hour later, I looked up at the office building and tried to figure out what I’d done wrong. I’d come up with simple solutions to huge problems, represented the company at a major conference, and worked myself into physical and mental infirmity. For over a year, I barely saw the world outside my job. In the end, I still got canned.

The local magic broke me. I never found a job I cared about as much again.

On that day, I stood in the parking lot and stared up at my failure and said “I don’t make games.”

Then I drove home.

Originally published at on November 8, 2018.