One official version of how Games vs Play began starts with me taking advice from a weird old man with a ponytail, and ends with me saying “Hey guys, I’ve got this idea” over a few drinks with AB and Falk in a bar in the city. But not all on the same day. My life is pretty fast-paced, but not quite that fast-paced.
This story is recent history. It starts in the winter of 2014, a few months after the birth of my and Priscilla Jane’s second son, Aeneas. That’s not his real name of course. Which is almost a shame, as it does sound kinda cool. “Aeneas! What have you got in your mouth? Give it to me now, c’mon, spit it out!” I think I’ll call him Neas for short.
Anyway, soon after popping out into the world, young Neas distinguished himself from his older brother by being even more challenged in the sleep department and, what’s more, something of a screamer. Though never when other family or friends were around, of course. We’ve heard so many variations of “I can’t believe this go-ooo-rgeous boy gives you so much trouble!” that if we bothered to count them all we’d probably discover the true name of God and the world would end. But crying for 4-16 hours at a time in the comfort of our own home? Not a problem! Those of you who know what I’m talking about are probably curling up into the foetal position or taking up loose liquor and hard women/men again (and you were so close to being 3 weeks on the wagon). If you don’t know what I mean, try to imagine the scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with the extreme close up of Sally’s eye as she’s screaming hysterically, but stuck on a 24-hour loop. Even then all you’ll have is a simile, as in “It’s like that scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but worse.”
Needless to say, this was not an environment conducive to creativity. Or sleeping, or relaxing, or sanity, really. By mid-year I’d decided there was no point trying to keep writing, at least not until Neas settled into the role of super-cute toddler with a strawberry blond Tin-Tin haircut that describes him so well now.
Instead, on those two days a week when I wasn’t working at my not-for-profit job (it was mainly my profit which it was not-for), Priscilla Jane and I tried to devise ways to help young Neas sleep during the day. Oh, the crazy things we did! Like the time we went to a local café and he actually slept in the pram for an hour straight. Crazy!
Driving sometimes helped. Sometimes it drove him into a berserk rage that would make the most diehard Viking consider giving up the pillaging and hacking and getting into the pickled herring business instead. So, about a fifty-fifty chance of things turning out well.
On one such lucky roll of the die we found ourselves driving far out of Melbourne, past the edge of the city proper and its encircling ring of commutervilles, and well into Day Tripper Country. Much to our surprise, we made it as far as the historic Central Highlands town that I’m going to call Wombat Hill. Even more surprising, not long after we got out and put him in his pram, young Neas fell asleep again. There were only two sensible things we could do with this unprecedented opportunity: have sex, like right now before he wakes up, or go shopping.
We went shopping. I mean, Wombat Hill is notoriously liberal and new age-y – since 1989 the local council has held its meetings in a replica Navajo sweat-lodge – but two weary late-30s parents rooting on the nature strip while their infant dozed in a pram would probably misalign the chakras of even the most broadminded tree-changing hippy.
Now, Wombat Hill is the sort of place where you can buy thirty-one flavours of incense, but you’d need to drive twenty kilometres to find a decent set of coat hangers. Unless they were antique or retro coat hangers, in which case the Baskin Robbins analogy still holds true.
Luckily Priscilla Jane and I weren’t in the market for coat hangers (and at Wombat Hill prices who could afford them?), but a bit of antique porn never hurt anyone. So we made a beeline for the Mill Markets, an antique bazaar about five minutes from the centre of the town.
Collectively, the Mill Markets probably contain the single greatest concentration of twentieth-century kitsch this side of a John Waters’ movie. There were shelves and shelves of novelty ashtrays, a relic of an earlier, happier time before political correctness and pesky medical science ruined everyone’s fun (NB: I jest! Don’t smoke, kids, just don’t smoke); gaudy clothing from the 1970s that had been donated to an op-shop in Geelong, washed and ironed in China and then repatriated back to Australia to begin the cycle anew; and the usual rows of unread Dan Brown and Nora Roberts paperbacks. It was a kind of heaven, especially if heaven looks like the cultural leftovers of the petite bourgeoisie.
As Ernest Hemingway noted in The Sun Also Rises, men and women shouldn’t really shop together, so Priscilla Jane and I split up and promised to meet again when the bulls started running or Neas woke up, whichever happened first. Always on the lookout for new gamebooks to add to my collection, I focused my scrounging efforts in the bookcases sprinkled liberally throughout the maze. As it turned out, on that particular count I would be unsuccessful. Instead, I stumbled across something else that would have lasting ramifications for not just myself, but for the very nature of existence as we knew it.
(Oh, ok. Not for ‘existence as we knew it’ – just for myself, pretty much. But if you can’t do hyperbole on your own blog, where can you?)
Locked inside a glass cabinet dating from the upper 1930s, a strange box caught my roving eye. Larger and squarer than a shoebox, but small enough to carry concealed in a backpack, it sported a vaguely sinister looking symbol emblazoned on its side: a five pointed star drawn in electric fire, with an unblinking eye set in the centre.
That’s odd, I thought to myself. That symbol looks exactly like an Elder Sign based on the artificial mythology of H.P. Lovecraft.
Could it be? After all these years, had I finally found a copy of the near-mythical limited edition Necronomicon box set? The dark cultist inside of me started getting very excited indeed.
Peering obliquely through a side panel of the cabinet, I made out the arcane writing inscribed on the lid of the terrible object. Elder Sign, it read. A game of supernatural suspense for 1-6 players based on the artificial mythology of H.P. Lovecraft.
Ah. So not the Necronomicon. But the next best damn thing, if you ask me!
Trembling slightly, I requested one of the Mill Market minions to open the glass cabinet for me. Still shaking, I carried the oddly-warm-to-the-touch box to show Priscilla Jane, who was now breastfeeding a recently awoken Neas in the understaffed café.
“I think I’m going to buy this,” I said.
“Good for you,” she said encouragingly. “It’s ok to treat yourself every now and then.” I forgot to say we were pretty much broke for most of that year too.
“Ok,” I said. “But when I show you what it is I want you to promise not to laugh, or groan, or say something like ‘Why is the father of my children such a geek.’ Do you think you can do that for me?”
“I can probably promise the first two things,” Priscilla Jane said after a moment’s consideration. “That’s my best offer.”
“It’ll have to do,” I sighed. I showed her the box.
“It’s a game,” I said.
“Is it like Dungeons & Dragons?” she asked, sounding worried.
“A bit. Except in this game you play a bunch of plucky investigators who run around a spooky museum trying to stop the Great Old Ones from breaking through into our dimension and eating everyone’s brains.”
Priscilla Jane stared at the box, then at me, then down at the cherubic features of our younger son suckling at the boob, who was listening to our exchange avidly.
“Oh, my god,” she said. I like to think she was really happy for me, beneath her obvious fear that nerdism was hereditary and incurable.
There’s only one way in and out of the Mill Markets, which is past the checkout. Priscilla Jane and I piled our spoils for the day on the counter – a set of antique coat hangers, some freshly laundered retro clothes and the unopened box that contained Elder Sign. The old dude with a ponytail at the cash register ran through the rags and rag-holders like Drano, but pulled up straight when he saw the glowing box.
“Ah,” he said appreciatively. “You’re gonna love playing this. This is a great game.”
“Really?” I said, surprised. I’d always thought bingo was about as game as old people got. “Have you played it before?”
He straightened his ponytail. I’m not sure how he did this exactly, but the effect was palpable. He suddenly seemed a lot more imposing than the usual kind of seedy volunteer guys with faded prison tattoos and dodgy screensavers who tend to work in op-shops.
“Sonny,” he said, “this game here used to be mine.”
Well, why didn’t he say so earlier! He was just an elderly nerd, a cut-price Obi Wan Kenobi to my amateur theatre Luke Skywalker. One of us, one of us!
“Oh, my god,” Priscilla Jane said again. Like, in a good way, I thought.
“Yep, we played that game for quite a while,” the old guy in the ponytail went on. “Until we got bored of it and I decided to donate it. You’ll love it, trust me. But I have to warn you: there’s three things you have to remember about playing Elder Sign.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“One,” he said. “Never play the game after midnight.
“Two, don’t expose it to sunlight.
“And three, never, ever, get it wet.”
I looked at the ponytailed dude a bit more carefully. Yes, if I looked closely, I could see it. He was crazy. Unless …
“Um, why shouldn’t we play it after midnight?” I asked timidly.
“Cos it usually takes two or so hours to play. You’ll be up all night, believe me.”
“And the sunlight?”
“Fades the illustrations. We kept the box sealed with candle wax stuffed in the bottom of an old goldminer’s chest sunk in the deepest channel of Narragansett Bay, just to be sure.”
“Um – ”
“And don’t ever get it wet. It’s made of cardboard, you know. It’ll turn to pulp. Not good for anyone.”
“Right,” I gulped. “You played this game a lot, didn’t you?”
“Yep,” he said. “There’s a part of me in that box that will always stay there.”
I fervently hoped he didn’t mean one of his ears, or some other such appendage.
And that, dear readers, is how I stumbled across Elder Sign, which became the first game that we played here at Games vs Play. I’ll have to tell the next part of the story in another post, the bit when I say to AB and Falk in a bar in the city, “Hey guys, I’ve got this idea.” But for the moment let me just say this: none of us have ponytails. At least not yet. And yes, the old man was right – we did play Elder Sign after midnight, and it was a late night.