Cinnamon and Entropy

December equals holidays. Holidays, if you’re sentimental like us, are a time for thinking about your friends and family and how much they mean to you. When games play an integral role in your existence, a lot of your favorite experiences with friends and family will have a videogame smack-dab in the middle of them.

On every Tuesday/Thursday for the next month, we’re going to talk about those games, how they brought us closer together, and how they helped us create memories. We want to share what games hold special places in our hearts, and not for their own merits but because of how they affected our relationships with the people around us. We’re calling the series Warm and Fuzzy, and we hope you like it.

I’m nine years old and it’s way past my bedtime. I’m sitting on my grandparents’ living room floor, inches away from the screen. The carpet is a dusty pink, and if you press hard enough you can trace designs with your fingertips. Reclining in the black leather armchair behind me, watching me play Crash Bandicoot: Warped, is my father. It’s my cousin’s PlayStation and this is the first 3-D game I’ve ever played.

It’s shortly before Christmas, or shortly after, I don’t remember. We’re at my grandparents’ house for the holidays, and everyone else has gone to bed. Periodically, my dad goes into the kitchen and returns with toast topped with butter and cinnamon sugar. Even now, cinnamon toast brings me comfort.

Visiting my grandparents for the first time without my mom makes me nervous; I miss her. My parents separated over the summer. “Separated” is such a nice term, so detached, so neutral. In reality, my dad left. I still see him three nights a week and every other weekend; we go to dinner, see a movie, or both. Drunk and snarling, my mom would greet us at the door when he’d drop me off: “Did you have fun on your divorce date?” she’d ask. I did, but I couldn’t tell her that. “You two go on better dates than we did.”

My mom never understood my fascination with video games. To this day she can’t fathom why an adult woman would spend so much time with them. That was something “little boys did.” My dad didn’t agree. Sitting on his lap, barely four years old, I remember watching him play Warcraft II and patiently explaining why the orcs and the humans were fighting. The original Game Boy was grey and blocky and too big for my hands, but when I was old enough he gave me his. Against my mom’s wishes, my dad got me my first console, the Sega Genesis.

Riding a tiger along the Great Wall of China, I can smell that my dad is preparing another round of cinnamon toast. Jumping and dodging flaming barrels, smashing crates and collecting fruit, the pace is almost too much to bear. With much struggle, and a few restarts, I make it to the end: “Well done, sweetie.” Even my dad is impressed.

Before this, I’ve only ever played games on cartridges. Sometimes they wouldn’t work, but it’s okay, all you have to do is blow the dust out. This disc is so shiny and thin; I can see my face and rainbows in its reflective underside. The controller is weird, too. There are too many buttons. It takes me a while to get the hang of this two thumbsticks thing.

I’ve never controlled a character like Crash before, I can look and move in any direction. The 3-D environment is fun to explore and the platforming elements are well-designed. But nine-year-old-me wouldn’t say that. She’d have difficulty understanding what it means.

The smell of cinnamon coasts the air once more, and I stop playing to take a bite as Crash plays with his yo-yo. They’re bandicoots, Crash and his sister Coco, but I’m not sure what those are. Mini-kangaroos, maybe. They can talk because they were mutated by the bad guy, Dr. Neo Cortex. My dad has to explain why his name is funny: something to do with how big his head is, I think.

My dad never said I needed to smash all of the crates, that’s something I wanted to do on my own. In retrospect, collectibles and statistics were bound to appeal to me. I’ve always been a perfectionist, driven if a bit lazy, and nothing motivates me quite like a to-do list. Somehow I find it comforting, calming, that tiny victory of checking off an item; it reduces, if only temporarily, my chronic anxiety.

That year, the year my parents separated, I felt so anxious, helpless, and confused. Crash Bandicoot: Warped gave me the sense of agency that I lacked but so desperately wanted in the real world. I couldn’t control whether my parents stayed together or not, but I could control Crash, and for that moment at least, my dad and I were playing games together again.

We got pretty far that night. But it was late, we were both tired and all the cinnamon toast in the world couldn’t help us defeat the third boss. My dad had to explain the pun; I can imagine him now, trying to teach entropy to a nine year old. After a dozen failed attempts, Dr. N. Tropy proved too much; I gave up and passed the controller to my dad, and fell asleep curled beside him, watching him play.

A few days later, on December 30th, I turned 10. After a strained dinner and cake with my estranged parents, I opened my presents. Ripping the paper from a large rectangular box revealed my very own PlayStation, and a copy of Crash Bandicoot: Warped. My mom rolled her eyes. My dad gave me a knowing smile.

My dad doesn’t play games much anymore. He’s moved on, he’s got a new family to raise, a retirement to save for. His wife, my stepmother, is even stricter with my half-siblings about video games than my mom was. It breaks my heart that my 10 year old brother has never held a controller. I’ve never really properly thanked my dad for introducing me to video games.

I still eat cinnamon toast when I’m feeling scared. And though we don’t talk much these days, when I play games I think of him. It’s funny, neither of us knew, as we endeavored to best Dr. N. Tropy, that years later my gamertag would incorporate the pun my dad had explained to me that night.

You can find me on Xbox Live as “emtropy.” Thanks, dad.

  • Jordan

    This is magnificent, Em.

  • James

    That was really beautiful :) It’s important to not dwell too hard on the past but it’s nice when you allow yourself a carefully selected memory/experience/feeling to come back to you. I wonder if he does anything like that to reminisce the quality time he spent with you!