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Saturday, 10 June 2017

Nintendo Switch Review: The First 100 Days

Satsuma man wishes he was that handsome.

I’m writing about Nintendo on the internet. Totally breaking new ground here. Where do I start? It’s been an interesting few months to be a Nintendo fan. This time last year, you'd be forgiven for forgetting the company were even still making games, such was the extent of the Wii U’s obsolescence. A lack of concrete information around what Nintendo were working on next didn't exactly help, leading to all sorts of purported ‘leaks’ pointing to another underpowered flop for a niche market.

Come October, things began to change. While many of the ‘leaks’ suggesting Switch would be a hybrid console were bang on, the initial reveal went well. The concept was appealing and the messaging was clear, unlike Wii U’s muddled branding, but the reveal video was soon followed up by a… weird January press conference that deflated at least some of that enthusiasm. (By the way in case you ever feel Nintendo should do live E3 stage shows again, let me just point you to this.)

Enter March 2017 and all eyes were on ‘console-elect’ Switch to make Nintendo Great Again after, y’know, the Fisher Price tablet that wasn’t even a real tablet. (I promise I’ll stop being mean about Wii U from this point on, I actually like it a lot.) (I also promise to never make another hamfisted reference to real world politics in my gaming blogs, as much as we wish it were all just a game.) There was a mix of optimism and… you know, the usual.  OMG NINTENDO WILL NEVER MAKE A CONSOLE AGAIN. NINTENDOOMED. SWITCH? MORE LIKE SWITCHERU AMIRITE?

When reviews for Zelda came out calling it the best game ever made, it seemed like suddenly this was the real deal. Preorders went haywire - luckily I’d caved months earlier - March 3rd came around and it was finally time to find out if the Switch delivered.

But not before paranoia began to set in. One minute the left Joycon has Bluetooth problems, then suddenly the dock is scratching people’s screens, or some people’s consoles are just like… BLERGH I’M BROKEN. Or minor amusing issues like that one time when sentient Switches acquired free will and started taking random Minecraft screenshots. Now I’m not denying these issues weren’t real for some small minority, but 3 months in it’s kinda clear, like, yeah, calm down. We’ve all seen worse. The system’s build quality alone is well worth praising. Uh-oh. That sounded like something a Nintendo fan would say. Let’s stop this history lesson and get on with my review...



The Hardware:
While not as powerful as it could have been, the system is still in a great place for the types of games on offer. The battery life is solid; honestly, it’s on a par with any other mobile device and charging via USB-C is super convenient so I don’t get everyone’s problem. I’d rather it didn’t have those small internal fans - I get why they’re there, but moving parts on portable devices just don’t sit that well with me. I don't like that I had to buy a screen protector and it doesn't stick down properly in the top-right corner.


Above: First-world problems.
The main thing I don’t like is how awkward the sideways JoyCons feel; those straps are a pain in the arse to take off even when you put them on the right way, and I’m at least 75% sure it’s not my cack-handedness to blame… (Pro tip: Get the Mario Kart wheels, they're much more comfortable.)



The OS:
Well, minimalist is one way to describe it. Non-existent is another. While on the one hand it makes sense de-emphasising features like the Miis and the wacky interface overkill… (You know what I’m talking about - all the long, unnecessary animations and background music - honestly, as much as we may get nostalgic for it, console menus and digital stores really don’t need a soundtrack.) Still, a complete lack of an accessible browser, video apps, or basically anything to do outside of just playing games is a bit unprecedented for any kind of device in 2017. You can… take a screenshot, add text and post it on Twitter… Ok?

But this gets me on to what might be my single favourite thing about the Switch. It’s got a bloody fast interface. Just the process of starting it up, selecting a game, loading it, backing out and loading another game, is by far the fastest process I’ve seen since, well, since before consoles even had operating systems. While it is bare bones, it gets the basics so utterly right that I can only hope it doesn’t get slower when they inevitably do add more features. Features like the new paid online service, which we don’t really know much about other than how much they totally messed up the system for voice chat. The official Splatoon 2 headset diagram from Hori sums this up better than any textual description can:
This many wires is not a good thing. I don't need to know Japanese to know that.



The Games:  
Well, I’m not going to review Zelda because that would need a blog to itself, but I do think it stands as the most significant Nintendo launch game or indeed Nintendo game in general since Super Mario 64. Now, for a while it was impossible to separate the success of the Switch from the success of Zelda… the game had the luxury of a ridiculous attachment rate of over 100%. There’s Mario Kart of course, a pretty safe bet this early in a system’s lifespan, even if it is mostly a recycling of Wii U’s version.

It has to be said, and while I’d argue there hasn’t been a huge amount of software so far, with the addition of indie games and the multiplayer trials of Splatoon and Arms, there’s been a good variety so far. It feels like Nintendo is riding a high quality wave to make up for their staggered release strategy. Arms in particular feels like the product of a confident development team. It shouldn’t work - motion controls front and center in a fast paced competitive fighting game, but based on my time with the ‘testpunch,’ it does work.

This won't be the last we've seen of these sorts of ads.

I’ve played a couple of indie titles so far. Human Resource Machine is a game about coding that I think I got way more into than I had any right to, considering I normally can’t stand games that remind me of work. Thumper on the other hand is a very repetitive ‘rhythm violence’ game that made a splash on the VR circuit last year, but honestly as a pick up and play title it works really well on the Switch.

So, all in all a strong line-up, with additional indie variety for those brave enough to venture outside the ‘first party’ comfort zone. I should mention though, if you believe some of the things floating around online, Nintendo still has a long way to go before it reaches the full potential of the Switch as a safe haven for indies.



The Overly Positive Section:  
Look, I really want to talk about just how transformative this thing is as a portable console. It’s hard for me to really put a finger on why this feels so fresh when portable powerhouses are hardly a new idea, but I think it comes down to commitment.

PlayStation Vita was all about giving folks a full console experience on the go but it couldn’t hold a candle to the types of experiences Sony themselves were delivering with the PS3 and later PS4. It had all these watered down spin-offs of big budget franchises that just didn’t have anywhere near as much time or effort pumped into them. It just didn’t feel like we were supposed to even care that much or take them seriously. “Oh wow, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, it’s like the Uncharted you play on your TV but it’s a spin-off and it’s not made by Naughty Dog and it’s boring and gimmicky and the level design kinda sucks…  Uh… well it’s cute, I guess. Portable Uncharted yay!” For the record I don’t think the Vita is a bad machine, hell the indie support made it worthwhile on its own, just that by its very nature as a companion machine, it never felt like we were really getting the ‘the real deal.’

This is so, so not the case with the Switch. As Nintendo’s new core platform, it has the full breadth of Nintendo’s development prowess behind it. It launched with the literal biggest game the company has ever made. Being able to play games of that quality on the go is new and exciting, however you slice it.

Now naysayers might say things like “ooh you can’t get immersed in big games unless you  play them in the home for hours on end blah blah blah” and, okay, fine, if you want to do that, then do it. That’s the whole point of the hybrid design. But what I’ve actually noticed is the portability encourages me to go deeper into these sorts of games than I normally would. Often if I’m tackling a big RPG or something where you do lots of grinding or you spend ages just running around talking to NPCs, managing inventories or whatever, I’ll look at the time and just think ‘wow what a waste of 2 hours.’ But now I can get the Switch out whenever I like and just have a quick 5 minute session here or there. I don’t have the bother of blocking out time to use the TV and turning loads of things on and faffing around with half a dozen different remotes. So if anything, I think the Switch is better suited to these huge epic timesink games than just about any other platform. I can hop onto Zelda on the train, maybe find a shrine or two but not really accomplish a whole lot, and it’s fine because I’m doing it on my commute. I don’t think I’d have pumped 70 hours into that game if I’d only been playing it at home, that’s all I’m saying.

Of course, there’s also the idea of having two detachable controllers, meaning I can play a quick, silly, impromptu multiplayer game with literally anyone without even having to organise something in advance. The versatility is something I didn’t fully appreciate until I realised that within 30 seconds I could show off Snipperclips to someone who’s unfamiliar with Nintendo games while sat in the office during a lunch break.

It's cute a'right? Come on, you cynical bastard.

As a twist on the hybrid-gaming concept Switch feels like a very Nintendo-ey way of embracing broader modern trends that Sony and Microsoft don’t seem to care about. It’s like how we now rely on cloud-based platforms for file management no matter where we are; how we have things like Netflix to watch films no matter where we are. It’s a console that fits around daily routines rather than one that you have to make space for and I think that is a bloody good thing.



The Problem: Well, that last section got real fanboyish, I’d better look over my list of criticisms to help balance out this review, let’s see now… Well, I could think of several nitpicks but there is an obvious one to me.

Everything is too goddamn expensive!
The console itself is steep but acceptable - it’s everything else. The accessories, the pro controller, the freakin’ standalone dock. It’s a piece of plastic for £80!

It’s worrying when games are priced a £10 premium compared to other consoles. Now allegedly this is due to the expensive cartridge format, leading to devs actively trying to make their file sizes smaller to fit on the cheaper cards, but still. It’s worrying when Nintendo insists on digital pricing being consistent with the physical RRP’s and offers no discounts whatsoever. It’s worrying when Nintendo games are already notorious for holding their value. Try finding a cheap copy of a five year old 3DS game, and compare that with how easily you can find a cheap copy of a one year old PS4 game. Then there are some publishers just having a laugh. A near-full-price 25 year old port of a certain fighting game, itself over twice the price of the 10 year old HD version it effectively repackages…

There’s certainly no sign of price being a major issue yet, as Switch consoles and games alike continue to sell like hotcakes globally. But when this honeymoon period is over; when the novelty of playing games everywhere wears off, what then?



The Missed Opportunity: I’d be remiss not to mention the biggest missed opportunity so far which is probably the lack of Virtual Console. Now, I’m sure Nintendo has a plan, there’s E3 coming up so what I’m about to say may well soon be redundant, but a Virtual Console on Switch just seems like a no-brainer. However much the idea of paying for roms annoys you, if the NES Classic proved anything it’s that lots of people really, really want to pay for roms. And with a library as big as Nintendo’s, the prospect of legitimately playing more advanced games like N64, and yes, GameCube, on a system like Switch should be ridiculously successful. I don’t think fans would be able to stop throwing money at them. I know this, I’m one of them.


Of course, if you really want to bring the good will back, announce that all VC games from 3DS and Wii U will transfer over and watch the fanboys lose their collective minds. Then throw in Wii support as well, I know you wanted to ditch all association with that brand, but you’ve got the waggle controllers already, why aren’t you flogging us Wii Sports again? Hell, bring back Nintendo Land and make it so we have to own a second Switch to simulate the Wii U Gamepad stuff, I’m sure some idiot somewhere will buy it!

All jokes aside, didn’t I just criticise a certain publisher for releasing a certain 25 year old fighting game again? Well, yes, but that was an extreme example of overpricing. Price it right, and I think the Switch is a double-dipping gold mine. We saw this with Mario Kart - hardly any new content over the Wii U version, yet it still feels like a justifiable purchase. Portability is more exciting than an HD makeover. It feels like Switch really could become into the ultimate all in one Nintendo platform, it’s just way too early to know if it will. Frankly, the weird and random way in which Virtual Console has and continues to be managed is the main reason I’m not all too optimistic. Apparently we’ll get ‘online’ NES games with the launch of Nintendo’s new paid online service, a sort of NES Netflix, if you will. That’s a fun idea, I just hope Nintendo can start thinking bigger. I’m not sure Nintendo is a company that’s used to using the old noggin. Case in point:

A Raymanology: Which one of these three systems do you suppose is the most logical candidate for a re-release of the Game Boy Advance port of Rayman 1? (Why you would want to play the Game Boy Advance port of Rayman 1 in 2017 I don’t know, but anyway...) Is it...
Option A: The 3DS, a compact, super-successful handheld with roughly the same dimensions as the GBA. Option B: The Switch, Nintendo’s brand-new exciting hybrid console.
Option C: Wii U, a home console with no true portability that is officially on its last legs.
As a reminder, Rayman Advance is a portable game. If you said option C, you’d be mental, but also correct, as that is the only digital store on which you can purchase Rayman Advance.

Who knows, maybe they’re holding out on the VC because they don’t want to cannibalise sales of new games which is totally understandable when you’re starting a new brand. But man, the idea of playing F-Zero GX on Switch, analogue triggers be damned…



Closing Thoughts:
I got pretty hung up on the whole Virtual Console thing there, but trust me, Nintendo is on to a really good thing with the Switch. Going in to E3 this year, they have the momentum, they have the games and most importantly they’ve captured gamers’ interests. All they have to do now is not Nintendumb the whole thing up. Nintendo can Nintendumb all they want, but if Nintendo Nintendoes right, they’ll keep Nintendoing until they’ve Nintendone what they always Nintended to do: Put a smile on people’s faces. For the first time in years, the future of their console business is looking up. Let’s see what they do next.


A Mario theme park? Sold.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Sofa Space Preview 2: Chapters 3 & 4

Another preview of my novel Sofa Space! You can catch the first two chapters here.

3
The lack of seating didn’t exactly help group morale. All attempts at conversation had subsided, and eye contact with anyone was now strictly off the cards. I gazed out at the sofa, now but a tiny gyrating cuboid, trying not to feel too bitter. Perhaps we were overreacting. I quickly came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t have been possible for all five of us to sit on it at the same time, although with a bit of effort we might have been able to squeeze on four. It had only been a double seater, but the girls and I were probably slim enough to have sat together without brutally violating each other’s personal space in the process. Travis could have climbed up onto the armrest; it would have probably been a bit uncomfortable for his old bones. Dom? No combination of body positions would have allowed for his bulky frame to fit on there too, I decided, picturing the disturbing image of a collapsed sofa with human limbs protruding outwards in all directions. It might be possible to fit a couple of dozen people in a Mini, but as far as comfortable seating arrangements go, I wouldn’t exactly call it practical.
I bring this up because for a considerable amount of time after Dom’s little outburst, there was an unspoken aura of longing for that sofa, as if having something pleasant to sit on was the be-all-end-all solution to all our problems. Yeah, it does seem trivial. Perhaps it was the manner in which the damn thing was still just about visible to the naked eye. Every time the cosmic couch rotated fully on its axis it would catch the light coming from the ship. A little reminder that it was still there, just out of arm’s reach, taunting us with its soft, plush cushions that would now go untouched for millions of years.
But yeah, we were overreacting. The floor of the common room had a soft, textured feel to it that was fine for sitting on, probably even passable enough as a last-resort sleeping location. The empty bookshelves in the corners of the room were rather pleasingly rounded. The coffee table was just about high enough for people to perch upon without it a) breaking or b) putting an unnatural strain on the pelvic muscles. Nevertheless, we weren’t happy.
Travis sensed this, and, perhaps out of fear of some future explosive incident, decided to take matters into his own hands. With no fanfare, he left the common room, returning a few minutes later with some strange plastic sheets, pipes and cables sourced from the lining in the ship’s corridor. In total silence, and to the increased bemusement of the others, Travis began twisting these disparate pieces together to make something vaguely resembling an armchair. After a quick non-verbal glance upwards for approval, he wandered off again and returned with more bits and bobs to fashion up a second. For something so obviously hacked together, it was surprising how good the end result looked. I have no idea how he managed to build it all so quickly. I hadn’t even thought about looking through the ship’s innards because I didn’t have a clue what any of it was; I figured I might accidentally blow up the ship in the process. Perhaps I’d been a technophobe in the past. As long as Travis knew what to do, that was fine by me.
I wasn’t in a position to suspect Travis was some kind of imposter or anything like that. He’d certainly been the quietest and most reserved member of the group so far, but his age was quite telling. This was a man who’d been around long enough to know how to knock something together from spare parts, and we were very grateful to have someone like that with us, even if we couldn’t quite admit it.
“Thanks Travis,” I said to break the silence, slumped on one of his improvised chairs and trying to sound sincere, although something about the name Travis didn’t seem to lend itself well to compliments. Travis made an odd nervous squeak of acknowledgement, then sat down on the floor. This was odd, because one of his makeshift creations was unoccupied, and neither Dom nor Chloe (who were both standing up, arms crossed, having said nothing for over an hour) looked like they wanted to try it out.
“You sure you don’t want to take a seat?” I asked tentatively.
“Nah… nah...” Travis mumbled, shaking his head and looking at the floor. I waited a few moments before launching into another half-arsed compliment.
“It’s good, this,” I said, rubbing my hands along the angular armrests. “Very comfy.”
“O...oh… I’m glad.” Travis smiled weakly.
“You must be tired after all that work. Why don’t you try it out?”
“I’m good.”
That was all I was going to get out of him, clearly. I could have taken the Dom approach and forced him to sit in the chair but I didn’t want to start getting aggressive, especially after all the drama from earlier.
Not long after this exchange, Chloe decided she was going to sit down in the unoccupied chair. She waltzed over with the poise of someone making a calculated chess move, presumably to make sure Dom didn’t get there first, although he was never going to bother. He was clearly not in the mood to damage his reputation any further. Once Chloe had gotten settled, I tried to get a conversation going.
“You alright, Chloe?”
Instead of looking towards me, Chloe turned in completely the opposite direction, resting her hand under her chin. Not a good time to chat, clearly. Travis shot me a look as if to say ‘let’s just sit here keeping ourselves to ourselves.’
Actually, no. I was starting to feel light-headed. I wasn’t in the mood to sit for another few minutes in dead silence. I needed to talk to someone before I collapsed out of sheer boredom.  I figured I’d have more success if I tried with Emma.
“Hey Emma.”
“Hey…”
“You alright?”
“Yeah…”
It was one of those automatic ‘yeahs’ that is always the default response to being asked if you’re alright, even when you’re clearly not.
“Good good…” Well, great. There goes another potential conversation. Why did I have to ask such a stupid question? Guess I’d have to shut up now, before things got any more awkward.
“Joe?” Emma asked.
“Yeah?”
“You’re bleeding.”
And so I was. Well, that explained my light-headedness. I put my hands to my face and found that I had a gash on my forehead.
“Must have been when I fell and hit that coffee table.”
Coffee table. Saying those words out loud finally reminded me of something.
“Damn coffee,” I muttered to myself.
“What’s that about coffee?” asked Chloe, suddenly alert.
“Nothing. Coffee table. I hit the coffee table, that’s why I…”
“No, you kept going on about coffee earlier, back when you passed out.”
“Did I?” I tried to pretend that I couldn’t remember.
“Yeah, it was, like, the only thing you kept saying. Damn coffee, over and over again.”
“That’s weird.”
I suddenly found that Emma was handing me some paper towels. She must have ran off and grabbed them from the bathroom. I held them up to my forehead. I wasn’t bleeding heavily, but it was enough to put everyone off.
“You scared us,” Emma said. I assumed she was talking about my subconscious coffee ramblings, and not the bloody mess on my forehead.
“I’m sorry about that,” I said. “So whose coffee was it, anyways? Could sure use one right about now.”
Everyone stared at me like I was slipping back into unconsciousness, but I was pretty sure, despite the blood loss, that I was feeling fine.
“Joe… there was no coffee.” Emma said delicately.
“But I could smell it...”
“Joe, there was no coffee.” Chloe repeated Emma’s words with a stricter tone.
“There must have been. It’s what woke me up!”
“Joe!”
“Come on! It was so strong, it must have been real!”
“Joe, snap out of it!” It was Dom, finally speaking after the whole sofa incident. I suddenly felt very small. It was like the tables had turned; now all of a sudden I was the crazy one. The others were starting to look at me as if I was dangerous, as if my steadfast belief that I’d smelt coffee this morning was the first step towards becoming a serial killer.
“I just thought I could smell it, that’s all!” I half-shouted, standing up and darting out of the common room, hand still supporting my head wound. I needed to get away from everyone.
I stood in the bathroom, staring at my reflection yet not thinking about my injury. Instead I was putting all my effort into focusing my senses. Was it really possible that I’d imagined the whole coffee thing?
It’s funny. Waking up with no memories of my former life, so far I’d found that my senses were the only thing I had absolute trust in. Everything was mental, but I didn’t doubt that what had happened in front of me had been real. The sight of the great burgundy sofa colliding with the self-repairing glass. The rough feel of the armrests on Travis’ almost-chairs. The faint whirring sound from the cryogenic pods, reverberating through all the walls of the ship. My brain was telling me that these things were ridiculous, I mean for Christ’s sake, waking up in space! How the hell do you even begin to rationalise that? The only way I could was to trust what my senses were telling me. No, this wasn’t a dream. This was happening here, now. A cut on my head. I could see it. I could feel it. It was painful. Makes sense.
So to be confronted with the idea that this coffee I’d so vividly recalled might be completely imaginary, I didn’t know what to do. It felt like a personal loss. If I couldn’t trust what my own senses were telling me, what else did I have?
I had to calm down. For one thing, this whole incident had happened right after waking up. Waking up, apparently, from a goddamn 25-year long sleep. There probably wasn’t a manual for the associated side effects. Maybe hallucinatory coffee experiences go hand in hand with cryogenic amnesia, who knows? Either way, I decided to pull myself together. I wasn’t going to give up on my senses yet. I figured a more careful approach would be needed. From now on, I was going to pay extra attention to everything my brain could process. I was going to be even more aware of my senses. I couldn’t afford to miss anything. I needed to understand what I was going through, what was really going on. I needed to be able to keep track of things, a way to piece everything together and make sure I wasn’t going insane.
So I started writing this book.
Knock knock... Who’s there? Anybody at all? Oh well, I’ll just have to wait. I’m good at waiting.

4
Food. Sustenance. Nourishment. Edible matter. The basic key to self-preservation had somehow been largely absent from my survival agenda until this point. I abruptly became aware of the complete lack of nutritional resources I’d come across so far and found myself panicking. Were we going to starve? I laughed incongruously to myself. I’d been worrying about trivial things like seating arrangements when I should have been worrying about things much more primal and obvious.
“Guys have you seen any food?” I asked, dashing back into the common room; still agitated, yet no longer the paranoid bleeding wreck from earlier.
“Anyone?”
My question hadn’t gone unnoticed as everyone was looking down at their empty stomachs; it was like a bomb of sudden realisation had been dropped.
“I’m hungry.”
“Me too.”
“Oh god, what are we going to do?”
The intense quietness that had lingered around the ship for most of the time gave way to a noisy wave of panic. The sound of five bellies rumbling in unison no doubt added to the cacophony.
“GUYS SHUT UP!” I yelled, having had more time to think things through. “I’ll ask again, has anyone seen any food? Anything at all?” A few tense moments passed.
“Oooh!” It was Dom.
“What is it?” I asked, hopes raised. Dom was rummaging around in his pockets.
“Would anyone like…” Dom lingered on this sentence for longer than was necessary “... some chewing gum?” Sure enough, he produced a strip of chewing gum from his pocket. I didn’t know how to react.
“Are you insane?” asked Chloe matter-of-factly.
“No, it’s real chewing gum, see?” Dom pulled off a rather large piece with his teeth and started chewing. The girls took a hissed breath of disbelief.
“That’s 25 years old, Dom…” Emma gurned.
Dom kept chewing.
“And it’s hardly gonna keep us alive…” I chipped in.
Dom kept chewing.
“Where the hell did you get that from?” asked Chloe.
“Pocket.” Dom muttered between chews.
“Why was there chewing gum in your pocket?”
“I don’t know! There just was!” Dom spat out the gum in anger. “And since it’s been frozen in that cryo pod with me, it’s probably fine.”
“Probably fine, yeah right…” Chloe looked away.
“It’ll do you better than imaginary coffee will, I’ll tell you that.” Dom looked at me bitterly.
“Look, I’m sorry,” I suddenly felt compelled to justify my earlier behaviour. “I was having a bit of a moment earlier. I know that coffee can’t have been real, I just…” I rubbed my throbbing forehead.  “I just wanted to believe it could be. But this is serious, Dom. If we can’t find any food… This is life or death.”
“Exactly. So does anyone want some gum, or not?” Dom was waving the gum around like the bread of Christ. I shook my head.
“I’m fine thanks…” Travis said.
“I don’t even like chewing gum,” Emma replied. “I think…”
“Well, suit yourselves,” Dom resumed chewing noisily.
“There’s got to be something else…” Chloe said.
“Huvvyurrtyurkedyurpurrkutz?” Dom tried to say something.
“What?” Chloe asked.
Dom, annoyed, swallowed his gum. “I said have you checked your pockets?”
Chloe looked offended. She pointed at her dress. “I don’t have pockets you moron!”
“I wasn’t asking you,” Dom rolled his eyes. The rest of us all had pockets. It was a good point; I didn’t think I’d actually checked mine yet at all. Unfortunately they were empty. Emma checked hers too and shrugged.
“Travis, you gonna check yours?” Chloe asked.
“Huh?”
“Your pockets, Travis – look, I can see there’s something in there!”
Travis shuffled awkwardly backwards, defensively.
“Come on!” Chloe shouted. Travis finally gave in.
“G-got something.”
Dom’s face perked up like a dog that had suddenly become aware of the evening meal. It wasn’t food though. Travis was holding a small black object, shaped like a USB flash drive with a small indentation on the side.
“Okay, so what’s that?” I asked.
“No idea.”
Dom laughed. “Guess we’re screwed then!”
It certainly looked like it. We were drifting in the middle of space. That seemed to rule out a trip down to the local supermarket. There was literally no food anywhere to be found. Nothing to cook, nothing to hunt, nothing to be scavenged. Even if there were supplies somewhere on the ship, I figured the ill effects of eating food that’s 25 years past the sell-by-date would probably kill us all a lot quicker than starvation. My heart sank as I found myself mulling over what exactly would happen now. We were trapped like rats. With no resources… perhaps we’d turn into cannibals.
That’s a disturbing thought, but I took a few moments to really explore what that would be like in my head. I tried to figure out the order in which I would eat the others. I’d probably start with Dom, since he was the largest and probably most-likely candidate to flip first and try to eat me. Travis would probably have to go last; I can’t imagine his elderly skin being sufficiently succulent even to a starving fellow. Sorry Travis. I’m sure the girls would have been edible too, but trying to visualise how this would work started evoking disturbingly fetishistic imagery in my mind so I decided to stop thinking about it. In the end of the day, it didn’t matter. Whoever the last one standing was would only end up having to eat themselves, and I can’t imagine that being very pleasant.
Someone was tugging at my shoulder. I snapped out of my daydream. It was Emma.
“I didn’t want to say anything,” she said, placing something in my hand. I knew exactly what it was before I even looked.
“Is that… Is that a coffee sachet?” I asked.
“Pretty weird huh,” she smiled at me. “I just found it, it was in my pocket all along.”
“That’s… one hell of a coincidence. Don’t you think?”
“Yeah. I want you to keep it.”
“Wha… er… thank you I guess,” I smiled back. It was probably the first time I’d smiled all day. “Do you think it’s…”
“It’s yours now,” she cut me off. “I think you deserve it more than me.”
“What are you expecting me to do with it, eat it raw?”
“No, of course not. I’m not saying this like it’s going to be enough to keep you alive or anything, it’s just that with what happened earlier… it wasn’t fair of us to gang up on you like that…” she stood closer, hand still clutched to mine, eyes wide and apologetic. “Then when I found this, I dunno… Maybe it’s important.”
“Do you believe me about what I said? About the smell of coffee being real?” I asked. She drew her face even closer to mine, lips pursed and closed her eyes. Was something about to happen? She moved past my mouth and over to my left ear. Then she whispered something so unexpected it nearly made me stumble.
“I could smell it too.”
“Oy, lovebirds!” Dom called from across the room. “We think we’ve found something! Get over here!”
I looked back at Emma, determined to finish our conversation.
“Why didn’t you tell the others?” I whispered.
“I… I just…”
“Oy! Move your arses!” Dom cried.
I followed Dom through the corridor, Emma trailing right behind. I was still shaken by Emma’s revelation, trying to formulate exactly what it meant- whether I really had been right all along or whether she was just saying that to make me feel better for some reason, or maybe…
“JOE!” Dom snapped. Apparently he had been asking me a question.
“Sorry?”
“You wanna give me a hand?”
We were standing in the middle of the corridor opposite a door, the very same door I’d failed to open earlier in my initial little wander-about.
“We reckon there could be something to help us through there,” Chloe elaborated. “The lock seems to be broken. With enough force we could-“
“Yeah, got it.” I nodded at Dom and together we started kicking the door.
“No, no, no. Come on guys, you’re not in sync!” Chloe shouted. It was harder than it should have been to synchronise our kicks since Dom’s comparative frame meant that it took him a lot longer than me to extend his leg to the correct height. We tried timing it by saying “one, two, three!” but I found myself having to mentally add on a ‘four’ just to match the time it took him to do the motion. Finally, the door gave way.
Talk about luck. We were greeted with, to our amazement, a kitchen. Not a futuristic spacey-wacey kitchen either; in keeping with the other rooms, this one was thoroughly traditional, with pots and pans, glasses and mugs, a distractingly large kitchen knife positioned scrupulously on the counter, cupboards, a sink, a microwave, an oven, a fridge, a toaster and… oh god, was that a coffee machine? It was. Enough coincidences, I kept telling myself, trying to keep it out of my mind for the time being.
Chloe rushed around as if she was examining a holiday home, delivering a commentary of all the things I just mentioned. The whole kitchen was spotless, and seemingly also completely bereft of actual, you know, food. Chloe frantically opened all of the cupboards and started to get herself worked up. It was like we’d found the Holy Grail but forgotten the drink. That’s probably not a fair analogy. I should mention, the taps did somehow have running water, or rather, a fluid that looked and tasted enough like water so as to not raise suspicion. So, on the bright side, at least we weren’t going to die of thirst. Cross out that box.
“Guess we’re still screwed then!” Dom huffed. Once again, I found my heart sinking. Of course there wasn’t going to be any food. Thank god the kitchen was clean though. Imagine if there had been food, left out for 25 years. Imagine the mould! It would have been absolutely disgusting. Or would it? I was imagining some kind of evolved, carnivorous, all-devouring super-mould. Was there even such a thing as mould in space?
I was getting off track again. The reality was, we had half a stick of chewing gum and a coffee sachet, and that wasn’t going to last very long.
“We can’t give up yet,” Emma said reassuringly, but her words weren’t very effective. Dom stormed off, and Chloe followed. Travis, as usual, was keeping himself to himself, but he looked strangely unfazed. He was staring at the inside of the empty fridge, scratching his chin.
“What is it Travis?” I asked. There was no response. Eventually he was sticking his whole head inside the fridge and pressing against the back end, which was so weird that I had to ask him again.
“What is it?”
“Just thinking…”
“Thinking what?”
“This fridge… S-seems to be right behind the cryo pods,” he muttered. He was right, I realised, the curvature of the corridor meant that the cryo room would be right on the other side of the wall.
“So what?”
“So what if it’s not just a fridge?”
That was probably a completely hypothetical question as Travis didn’t even bother to explain what he meant. Later it occurred to me that it could have just been an unnecessarily cryptic way of saying the fridge might have a freezer compartment. He was probably right to be suspicious though. It’s not like any of the equipment we’d come across made any sense so far. Everything was so normal in design, yet there were no plug sockets or anything to indicate how they could possibly work. It wasn’t just the kitchen appliances that baffled me. Thinking back, the bathroom even had a working toilet with a flush. How exactly did that work? Where did it all go? Why even bother designing all these things like this? Surely there were better ways to make things work in space. And how exactly were we all walking around with what was effectively normal Earth gravity? There were no planets or stars nearby, so there must have been some kind of artificial source keeping us glued to the floor. All these thoughts were ultimately unnecessary, and I figured I’d better just shrug them off with the lazy excuse of ‘well, I guess this is the future.’ I felt like an old man trying to understand how mobile phones work. Better get used to it.
No sooner had Travis started his odd little hands-on fridge analysis had he abandoned the idea and returned to building another one of his makeshift chairs. He was an odd man, that Travis. So timid, yet potentially a genius. I felt like I should talk to him some more. I remembered the little black device he’d found in his pocket, but when I tried to ask him about it he wasn’t very helpful.
“Don’t know.”
“Come on Travis, you’re way cleverer than some of the people here…”
“I don’t know what it is.”
“Maybe it’s a key, or a memory device…”
“Don’t know.”
“Could be a transmitter…”
“Uh…”
“Maybe it’s a supercomputer. Like a really cool futuristic one.” I was coming up with all kinds of mental ideas hoping that one of them would incite a conversation, but it really seemed like Travis just wasn’t the sort of guy who wanted to talk unless you caught him at a good time. I felt like I was trying too hard.
“Oh well, thanks again for the chairs.”
“You’re w-welcome.”
It was getting late. Well, maybe it was. We’d been up for hours but without any method of telling the time, it was impossible to know how long it had been. There came a point, however, when we all knew that it was time for a kip. We were all exhausted, hungry, and emotionally wrought, so one by one we found ourselves somewhere to lie down and tried to get some sleep.
The options were fairly limited. There was the floor of the common room; not too uncomfortable but it was such a wide open space with no bedsheets or anything to give the illusion of privacy. Dom and Travis chose to sleep in here. Travis actually climbed onto one of the empty bookshelves to lie down. Dom had tried to sleep slumped on one of the chairs but then changed his mind saying it was going to be too much of a strain on his back. If I were Travis I would have been offended, but Dom probably wasn’t lying. Emma and Chloe went to sleep in the two separate small rooms branching out from the corridor. I’d previously said that those rooms were probably supposed to be bedrooms, but again, there wasn’t anything in there furniture-wise to officially make it so. It was all just empty space.
I was the last to go to sleep. I didn’t know where I should lie down. I thought of climbing back into the cryo pod I’d first woken up in, but I was reminded of the horrible tight feeling I’d had and decided I’d be better off almost anywhere else. I also didn’t want to accidentally re-activate the freezing mechanism, although that would have made for an interesting experiment. God knows what would have changed the next time I’d woken up. I did a few laps of the corridor in hesitation. For a while I stood by the door to Emma’s room, wondering if I might be confident enough to ask if I could stay there. I would have wanted the opportunity to ask her about the coffee again. I wondered if I should try out the coffee machine in the kitchen, but I decided it could wait. I wanted to hold onto it, I couldn’t get rid of it just like that. Not yet…
Ultimately, I found myself back in the cryo room after all, albeit sleeping on the floor, not inside one of the uncomfortable pods. I turned off the lights – thankfully there was a working light switch in every room. Despite my tiredness, it took me a very long time to get to sleep. There was just too much to process. I’d completed my first day as Joe, a complete stranger I’d fabricated out of my own limited imagination. I’d met four other complete strangers who also didn’t know their own identities. One of them had almost killed us all by throwing a piece of furniture out of the window. ‘Did I mention that we’re in space, and we’re going to starve to death? Gee, I can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring!’ I kept talking to myself about the ridiculousness of the entire situation, but it didn’t help. My head was still throbbing. It was probably because of my injury, but it could have been from any number of things. The cut had healed itself up pretty well but it was starting to irritate me more than it had earlier.
I could hear a whimpering in the background. It was either Chloe or Emma. Poor them. Until now I’d been, admittedly, mainly thinking about myself, but it was worth remembering that all five of us were essentially in the same boat, and there was an awful lot to take in. We were all struggling, but at least we had each other. I sighed and rolled over. One day down…
The next morning I wearily greeted the others in the common room.
“Alright guys?”
“Alright Joe.”
Of course, when I say morning, I don’t actually mean morning in the actual sense of the word. Concepts such as morning and evening were completely meaningless. I shouldn’t even be using the word ‘days.’ It was just ‘wake up randomly, go to bed randomly’ for the foreseeable future, until we all died of starvation. Speaking of which…
“I’m hungry!” Chloe moaned.
“Of course you are, you haven’t eaten anything for 25 years.” Dom retorted.
“Come on guys, let’s not start this again…” I said. My voice was hoarse. “We’ve just got to hold on as long as we can.”
“What for?!” Chloe yelled. She had rings under her eyes and clearly hadn’t gotten much sleep. She was a far cry from her earlier, confident self.
“We’re human beings, we do the best we can with limited resources,” Emma replied. I wanted to agree with her, but my stomach told me otherwise.
“Well, shit. I’m all out of gum,” Dom said despondently. He’d been chewing the stupid thing so much, the flavour must have dissipated several times over.
Oh, the hunger. It’s almost impossible for me to explain how much pain we were all in by this point. We were all on the verge of collapse. Then everything changed.
It was the small black object from Travis’ pocket. All of a sudden it began flashing, beeping and buzzing out of control. We were all so shocked, we ran to the opposite side of the room, hunched against the wall. The thing was rolling around on the coffee table for almost a whole minute until it finally came to a stop. Then it yawned.