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It Has To Be Good

Roller coasters are, in a way, the ultimate sculpture. They are towering monuments of hubris, love letters from pioneering engineers and vaudevillian capitalists to nothing more than the mere concept of a thrill. Perhaps it’s this purity that makes their appeal so obvious. People enjoy that which thrills; being up, going fast, whisking to and fro. It couldn’t be simpler.

And yet, it’s not that simple. Somehow, there is so much more to the allure. There’s an artistry inherent in roller coasters. Each one has an identity, a soul, a personality baked into its very core. It’s as if every ride is a signature, and soaring effortlessly across steel frames and wooden panels is like gliding along the brushstrokes of a coaster’s calligraphy. This is a unique journey, one that can only be experienced here and now and nowhere else and never again.

Chris Sawyer understood that. He understood that a roller coaster’s design is one of expression, of creativity, of character. So, like those who built the coasters, he too went to work developing his love letter to theme parks and thrills. The final product, RollerCoaster Tycoon, gave anyone with a computer the ability to be such a pioneering engineer or vaudevillian capitalist.

The game is over twenty five years old, yet continues to stand as one of the most enduring simulation games ever made. It was released (and re-released) on computers, consoles, and mobile devices in the two and a half decades that followed, and has found continued life in modding communities and internet memes. Giving out free sodas, then charging ten dollars a pop for a trip to the bathroom, is a universal experience it would seem.

Every time I begin a new park, I get lost in the aesthetics of it all. I labor over the colors of each ride and the shape of the train cars. I ensure the paths are laid in a way that is clear and with payment that is befitting of the climate. I title each ride in accordance with whatever motif I’ve determined should suit this particular park. I am not playing a game, I’m assembling a world.

But RollerCoaster Tycoon is a game. There are objectives to meet, deadlines to mind, and rules to abide. Behind each fantastical ride is a string of code that keeps the whole affair chugging along. All the care put into my parks is lost on the binary triggers and if statements that govern the software. The pixelated guests don’t care if “The Fireball” is aptly painted red and yellow. They don’t even know what fireballs are. All that’s happening is a series of checks. Does price equal intensity, dictated by height and speed? Yes? Then people will ride. No? Then people will not.

I had denied this truth for some time. Style had to count for something, otherwise those features wouldn’t exist in the game. Why allow me to make something beautiful, when efficiency was all that mattered? Why bother trying to craft something good, when all it would do was cost me time and effort? Surely the hours I’d spent over the years had not been in vain. The intrusive thoughts told me otherwise.

An experiment was in order.

The hypothesis, formed in a lab fueled by anxiety and cynicism, was this: I could make a soulless, brutalist, lifeless amusement park, but it would still be successful so long as it could function. No one would die, no one would need to pay for the restrooms, no one would get trapped in a sinkhole full of overpriced food. This place would be the platonic ideal of a Well-Oiled Machine. I got to work.

As one stepped into this park, they were greeted first by an Information Booth, stocked with discounted umbrellas and even cheaper maps. I wanted to ensure no one could get lost on the central sidewalk, which, as it would turn out, would be the only sidewalk by and large. On the left side of Main Street stood a Scrambler, followed by a second Scrambler, and then a third Scrambler after that. Across from each was a Carousel, completing a second trilogy of identical rides. Behind them lived four Spiral Slides, two on each side of the pathway. Flanking these were two roller coasters; there was one incline, one drop, and the rest was flat…no additional features festooned these perfectly acceptable ovals. Before opening the park, I checked that each of these attractions was optimally priced and ready for operation. Confirmed: these grey units of entertainment were ready for guests. The light switched from red to green, and tiny legs began to shuffle through the gate, excited to experience all that the park, named “No,” had to offer.

This enterprise had two requirements: hold 250 guests by the end of Year One, and obtain a rating of 600. Though the aforementioned construction was done in under a month prior to opening, I did build a few more rides to keep my mind occupied during the rest of the scenario. Two more wooden coasters were manufactured, each one circular and monochromatic like the others. Two “Car Rides” which were, again, round and flat, settled in as well. Near the entrance, I erected a pair of Ferris Wheels and Observation Towers on either side of the central strip. A few trash cans and restrooms were sprinkled onto the walkway, symmetrically of course, and with that, the park was complete.

In the minutes that followed, I watched queues of loathsome guests grow behind carbon-copied piles of mediocrity. These people, these fools, shelled out their money with glee, carted about in a fog of disinterested adequacy. Then, in Sisyphean fashion, they would walk to the next ride, an exact replica of the former, and again pay the price of admission without a second thought.

Time went on. The in-game days passed. Rainstorms drifted in and out. And when the bell tolled, and my judgement was upon me, scores of featureless humans turned to me and applauded. The objective demanded I attract 250 guests; I had over a thousand. The objective demanded I garner a rating of 600; I exceed that by 100 nondescript units of rating. My loan was paid back, yet I had more money than I knew what to do with. Notification after notification buzzed across my screen, begging me to increase my fares, that I was offering too great a value, that this was all bang and no buck. The game had spoken: my effortless smudge of colorless pixels was a rousing success.

Next on the agenda: a palate cleanser. I needed to make a gorgeous park, one full of ebullient gardens and roller coasters that weaved in and out of each other like strands of slippery spaghetti. I needed souvenir stalls, each touting different color balloons, to nestle between topiaries and trees. I needed guests to shriek with delight as they exited their favorite ride, exited my favorite ride, even though I knew, deep down, that it was all an illusion.

Doing this was hard, or at least, harder than making that first park. I had to conduct ride tests to ensure I hadn’t gone overboard with my custom tracks. I had to take out more loans so I could expand my land rights. I had to assign different work zones to my handymen, lest my flowers wither away in the sun. This, when compared to the “acceptable,” was overkill and then some.

And “Overkill” is my middle name.

It’s why I can’t be content “cooking” when, alternatively, I could plan elaborate themed dinners with nuances that often go unnoticed. It’s why I have to commit to a years-long martial arts program, rather than just “exercising.” It’s why page after page of the calendar turns to dust while I meticulously edit a three hour long video on this history of Super Mario, instead of simply playing the games like every other human being on the planet.

This is not enjoyment. There is no fun to be derived from all this. Every second of the process is grueling. My head spins as I pace the floors, waffling between two options that are both imperceptible to anyone but me. My eyes sting as I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, desperately praying to a God I don’t believe in for the clarity needed to remove this last mental block in my way. I pull out my own hair trying to convince myself that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that fulfillment is a reward unto itself, that the abject misery to which I’ve subjected myself is normal, actually, that everyone goes through this, and that I’m not suffering from some undiagnosed, or even undiscovered, form of creative masochism.

Recently, I started a new project. I told myself, after completing that Super Mario video that took me two and a half years to make, that I’d be allowed a few months to relax. Six, minimum, but maybe more depending on how Life goes. No, the creative hiatus barely lasted three months before my brain was seduced by creature that feeds on existential crises and depression. “Perhaps we shall start a new project?” it beckoned, having sniffed me out from a mile away. I’m sure it wasn’t hard to do; mine is a rancid curse. Trying to do a little bit everything in your life means you’re never actually good at anything. I only possess enough knowledge to know how little knowledge I possess. I can say “hello” in a dozen different languages, but can’t converse in any of them. The only skill I have is being broadly talentless, having spent not enough time on any one hobby to actually polish my expertise. The stink of that resultant frustration doesn’t take a particularly strong nose to trace.

I can sense this siren’s breath on my neck on any given day. As I walk the halls of a convention or scroll through online forums, I realize how divested my tastes are from the masses. I view movies differently than everyone else. I play games differently than the rest. I follow sports in a way that no one else does. I’m out of step with the world, and with every lonely day spent in pursuit of my artistic ideal, I feel this beast’s teeth on my flesh, injecting me with doubt and worry. It’s possible that I am the one who is wrong, the only student home with the flu for the “Fix Your Broken Brain” session.

Perhaps this go round, things will be different. Maybe now I’ll make something I can feel safe being proud of. Taking pride in something is easy, but being confident enough to be proud? That’s different. In order to do that, one must have an aptitude for that which they’ve created. If I don’t have that, then I’m the idiot, flaunting a creation so crass and offensive that the rest of the world stifles their laugher in response. How could I be blind enough to ever let this thing see the light of day?

This is hellish, make no mistake, but it is not hell. This torturous prison in which I find myself is one that I’ll never leave, even if I could. For on the other side of these walls is an alien world; a world that asks me not to care. I don’t know that I could ever exist in such a space; in fact, I know I couldn’t. Why else would I have locked myself in this cell and thrown away the key? The only thing worse than biting off more than you can chew is starving to death.

It has to be good. Not good enough for you, or for them, or for anyone else. It has to be good for me. If I don’t think it’s good, then I didn’t try. And if I didn’t try, then why did I bother? Militant, yes, I won’t argue that. However, after thirty-two years on this planet, several of them spent with therapists, I’ve learned that this is not a habit waiting to be broken. It’s simply who I am, and I cannot, will not, apologize for it. “Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?”

I’ll ease off the gas a tad, enough to avoid killing myself in the name of Perfection. But I won’t pump the brakes. I’ll keep driving towards whatever destination I’ve circled on my map this time. Even if I don’t know where I’m going, even if I’m lost, even if the bridge is out and the detour warns of an untold amount of time added to the trek, I will not stop. The alternative is to wander the narrow path of grey coasters and identical carousals. It is to wait in line for the same ride again and again. It is to pay for this flavorless park, buying into a world that wants nothing more than to Operate. And for this, I refuse.

I want to try and make something beautiful.

(Seconds after taking that last screenshot, a coaster crashed and killed twenty people).


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