Memoirs of an Invisible Player

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Memoirs of an Invisible Player

Curtis Cole is from a small town in Ontario. He studied web design at a nearby college. His Facebook wall is lined with smiling selfies, provocative yet innocent, a series of tilted reflections and toothless smiles that give away nothing. He enjoys paintball. He seems to prefer hip hop and bands that reference Hellraiser in their names. None of this answers my one question I have for this stranger: Are you him? More specifically: Was it once yours?

While visiting my old college town, I popped into a used game store and bought Uniracers for SNES. The cartridge was in poor shape—Hollywood Video sticker still affixed (this was once a 2-day rental)—but the price was right and I wanted to replay this forgotten gem, a stunt-racing unicycle game from 1994. Scrawled on the back of the cartridge’s thick grey plastic is a name, etched in black marker: Curtis Cole. The handwriting befits a child; given its release date, Curtis is likely a grown adult. And this possession of his youth is now mine.

More than any other medium, videogames remember. We watch a film as anonymous viewer. We listen to music, unable to alter its notes. But in a game, we do more than scribble our names on plastic; we imprint our own identity onto these digital heroes. Every Legend of Zelda gives you the option to play not as LINK but as a name of your choosing. Contemporary role-playing games like Fallout 4 or Skyrim allow you to create your own character like some mad genome scientist, tweaking and nudging facial tissue and hair color until your in-game stand-in is just so. From the beginning, when arcade titles granted the player immortality by letting them etch their initials alongside a high score, videogames have had a memory.

But that memory is being lost. Physical games, once shared or resold and then re-lived by another, are being replaced by an all-digital future where software is downloaded or streamed. That experience is anesthetized and clean, straight from the factory. But there’s something compelling about peeking through the ruins of another’s past by scouring the same virtual lands once roamed by another.

I turn my new/old copy of Uniracers on for the first time. I control a self-powered unicycle, rolling along twisting tubes as fast and as stylishly as possible. Though published by Nintendo, the game was developed by DMA Design, a Scottish studio at the time most known for classic puzzler Lemmings. They would go onto create a little game called Grand Theft Auto, ultimately being reborn as Rockstar North.

Each cycle has a name; I can rename them in the options. “Andrew” is the blue one. “Dave” is bright white. “Robbie” is deep red. Are these Curtis’s childhood friends? What is Curtis doing now? Perhaps this game sparked something in him that lives today: Is he a mechanical engineer, his love of physics first impelled by navigating these twisted tracks by D-Pad? Maybe if I find Mr. Cole, I can understand something about this game and its impact on another.

I search the cartridge for clues. The Hollywood Video stickers are halfway scratched off. Maybe Curtis stole it from the rental store, only to call it his own with a hasty application of black marker? Or maybe this was done not by a kid in 1994 but a new child, rummaging through his parents’ things, and after claiming this antiquated object as his own and playing it, deemed it not as fun as Forza Horizon and sold it for profit? I sniff the ink: No smell. This was written long ago.

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I call the used game shop, explaining I was in a few months ago and am trying to find the previous owner of one particular cartridge. “Is there anything wrong with the game?” the cashier asks. No, I explain, I’m just hoping to find out who sold the game to their store. He explains they do keep all records of cash buy-outs, but everything is done by hand. After a month they’re stored away. They’ve bought thousands of titles, and one game might have been sold many times before it reaches their store. To find one owner of one previous game would be, in the words of my patient cashier, “not very realistic.”

Anonymous or not, the previous owner is out there. Tomorrow’s games won’t be handed down to siblings or sold to thrift stores. And with that inevitability, games as a piece of culture lose part of their communal history. The designers of FutureGrind, an upcoming release for the PlayStation 4, have named Uniracers as a prime inspiration. But this new title will be a digital download release only. There will be no CD set between cover art and displayed on a store shelf. There will be no FutureGrind’er who buys it then sells it for cigarette money; no nostalgic adult in 2035 who buys it to restore old memories and, in so doing, inadvertently controls a stranger’s cadre of pals.

This cartridge, built and shipped in 1994, still exists today over twenty years later. I must honor this object’s existence. It is a totem to longevity, to that trace identity that slips from our skin, tainting all we touch like DNA evidence. It says, if nothing else, “we were here once.” Curtis was here once. But where is he now?

I type “Curtis Cole” into Google. A documentary about assisted suicide follows the story of a man with the same name, a 54-year-old father of two struggling with colon cancer. Was the wavy handwriting not a child’s uncertain penmanship but lettering weakened by the toll of illness? Unlikely. I move on.

Another result brings me to a personal site, home of a self-professed “internet aficionado” with the same name. The blog includes pictures of KFC workers sleeping on the job and a picture of two bananas in bed, their peels on the floor. There is a single photo of Cole lying his head on a pillow. I send off a message to the email address listed on the CONTACT ME page. No response. I browse through dozens of Curtis Coles on Facebook, cross-referencing ages and locations, wondering if I’d finally found the one.

What will I learn if I find him? The search feels important but doubts linger. Who cares who once owned this somewhat obscure 16-bit racing game? The Curtis Cole of 2016 has no bearing on this old game, or its new owner. The game belongs to me now. Yet his name still stains the plastic. I eject the cart out of my Super Nintendo and that name—“CURTIS”—greets me, emerging from inside the system’s guts.

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The concept of “belonging” is a tenuous force beyond temporary ownership of exchangeable goods. Even the downloadable content of today, which cannot be re-sold or easily exchanged, does not belong to you. Read the fine print on most digital shops and realize the owners are merely leasing you this game or song or film, allowing you access for a fee. We don’t yet know where this path will take us; the future of digital goods will be traveled along a sinuous path, as complicated as “Hairpin Hill,” the last level on Uniracer’s Hopper Circuit and the game’s final track. But this question of ownership remained in flux long before I stepped into an Ann Arbor retro shop and bought someone else’s property.

In 1987, a fledgling animation studio called Pixar showed a computer-generated short called “Red’s Dream” at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference. The film shows a red unicycle tucked in the back corner of a bike shop, unwanted and deeply discounted. During the four-minute running time, Red comes to life and joins a circus, juggling and cavorting with the crowd. The short, Pixar’s second ever film, was directed by John Lasseter, who would go onto direct another film starring inanimate objects brought to life called Toy Story. Seven years after “Red’s Dream,” Uniracers starred some familiar-looking vehicles. Someone at Pixar took notice. The likeness between Red and Nintendo’s living cycles was too much; Pixar sued DMA Design for copyright infringement and won. The game, a critical success and selling well at the peak of the SNES’s lifespan, ceased production. Only 300,000 copies ever made it to shelves.

Curtis owned one of them. Now I’m playing his old copy in my new house. I look again at the list of cycles and their names. The red one, the one named Robbie, does look similar to Pixar’s ‘80s dreamer. But a unicycle is a unicycle. I scan Uniracer’s credits for evidence of foul play or playful nods that backfired. I notice a set of recognizable names: Andrew Innes, front end and general coding. David Jones, co-founder of the studio. Robbie Graham, artist. The blue and white and red cycles were not named after Curtis’s buddies but members of the development team. This cartridge was just another thrown away object, not some sacred memento.

The year after Uniracers released, Sony’s PlayStation and its compact disc format would formally end the era of games with built-in batteries that saved stats and information. Now there were memory cards to buy, separate from the games themselves. Old cartridge batteries died eventually: all those quests wiped out, a history written by the winners but unwritten by time. Soon we would save our games online in some intangible repository named “the cloud.” Hard to write your name there using magic marker.

The future of digital ownership is insular and lonely. My copy of Red Dead Redemption, developed by Rockstar San Diego with help from Rockstar North née DMA Designs, is and will always be wracked with amnesia. One day its silver disc may spin in another’s console but there will be no trace of me there. The game will live on. I will not. But until my own credits run out, every time I play Uniracers I’ll think of its original owner, wherever he may be and whoever he is now.

Curtis, if you’re out there, know that I have your old game. And if you want to top the High Score list again, you’re going to have to find me.


Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.