Midwives of Play

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Trains, rolling without hurry towards their destinations, provide ideal environments for productive thought. Compared to air and even car travel, train travel is slow and deliberate. There is nothing really for you to do, but neither is a train ride mind-numbingly boring. There is always something to see outside the window, you can stand up and walk around, you can head to the lounge or cafe car, you can keep to yourself or chat up a stranger. The atmosphere is a mild but energizing current, something that keeps you alert but does not distract or overwhelm. The essayist Alain de Botton describes this state of mind as “train-dreaming,” a charming and romantic term to describe what is perhaps the definitively charming and romantic way to travel.

As it happens, I recently spent 20 hours on a train traveling from Chicago to Washington, DC. I really do think it’s a great way to travel. I might have used that time to read or to write or to be alone with my thoughts. I might have done a great many productive or personally fulfilling things with that time. And so, I took full advantage of that energizing current, that state of train-dreaming, to beat my head against the NES platformer Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. De Botton would be proud.

I’m not being (totally) sarcastic. Castlevania III is a tough and inventive platformer. You can choose to take different paths through the game, there are multiple playable characters, and there are plenty of different items and abilities to pick up throughout the levels. Trevor Belmont, the main character, can supplement his whip with axes or daggers or holy water. The strategy you use to beat one level might drastically change whether you’re traveling with Grant (who can climb on walls) or Sypha (a fragile sorceress who acquires magic spells rather than Trevor’s usual items).

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It’s a good game, but one that I would almost never be in the mood to play otherwise. I don’t often choose to play punishing, die-over-and-over platformers like Castlevania. NES games are marked not just by difficulty but by arbitrary spikes in difficulty. One level might be challenging but not insurmountable, except that it will end with an unreasonably hard boss fight. One level might be mostly easy, except for one pixel-precise jump that I can only complete half the time. I’m accustomed to games that present a consistent, fluid experience. I’m accustomed to games that, let’s be blunt, coddle me.

One boss fight in particular takes place on a series of small platforms suspended over an instant-death water pit. Two serpents rise up between the platforms, breathing fire, and virtually any hit will knock you into the pit. This fight occurs after a long collapsing-bridge segment where you have to complete a long series of hasty jumps while fish-men leap at you from below. It’s a nasty boss fight after a nasty level, where almost any mistake ends in player death. Die, die, die, game over, start from the beginning, I don’t have time for this.

Except when I have 20 hours to spend on a train.

“Journeys are the midwives of thought,” says de Botton, a pleasant notion that sidesteps that, for most people, journeys are practical necessities, burdens of time and money, more often cramped and stressful than intellectually liberating. The games we play demonstrate this well. Angry Birds and Candy Crush and Crossy Road and whatever game will be popular next year are bite-size, Skinner box distractions designed to quickly and forcefully divert our attention away from the tedium of the trip. Most people in the world, of course, do not travel in spacious train carriages, nor do they have the luxury of occupying their mind with smartphone games.

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Children playing a board game on a ship, circa 1934

But travel, sometimes, has the power to put us in that special limbo. For me, it’s one of the few times I feel like I must have felt when I first played Castlevania as a kid. We’re not talking about mere nostalgia here, or rediscovering an old experience, but finding those spaces where we can really connect with a game without worrying about progress or winning or the chores we should be doing instead—spaces where I’m not worried about anything besides beating those two fire-breathing serpents.

It’s not that I’m killing time, exactly. If I wanted to kill time, I would choose a longer game, something that allows you to space out and grind through hours—a Civilization or a Final Fantasy. Train travel puts me in the right headspace for a game that demands a little patience, a little Zen, a little room in a brain usually occupied by everything else happening in the world. I need to be in a certain mood for “Continue?” to be an invitation rather than a challenge, because most of the time the answer to “Continue?” is a resounding “nope.” On a train, I might take a deep breath, sip from the coffee that sways along with the rocking motion of the train, peek out the window, then jump back in. Continue? Continue.

Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.