There's too much at stake.
At the first bank of network computers, a group of gaming journalists is purposefully analyzing the flickering pixels that constitute a new 3-D shooter game called Recoil. Clad in black leather pants and dark baseball caps with methodically shaped bills and grim patches, they swivel with casual authority from their keyboards over to their complementary beverages and back again while representatives from Westwood Studios patiently await their appraisal near the cafe counter.
In the center of the room, a slightly apprehensive group -- comprised of 19 slender young men and one woman clutching a box of Kleenex Cold Care and a mocha Frappaccino -- sits around a cluster of tables, intently studying the 64-page glossy manual for Lands of Lore III, a soon-to-be-released Westwood role-playing game. Some jot notes on clipboards, others stare fixedly at the "Hot Key" page, as if committing it to memory; each has in his possession an eye-catching name tag that declares him a "Racer." The racers were chosen in a random drawing the day before to compete in tonight's 24-hour marathon gaming session. The first racer to complete the game gets an all-expenses-paid trip for two to explore medieval castles in Germany. Everyone gets a copy of the game and the opportunity to play before its market release -- no small incentive in the gaming community.
In preparation, 28-year-old Club-i regular Allen Huffstuffer (handle: Tengaar) made sure he got a solid 10 hours of sleep the night before and ate a good meal this evening. His longest continuous gaming time is 19 hours -- while playing Final Fantasy -- but he assures me the self-compelled marathon was forcibly cut short by the pesky intrusion of school. As a safeguard, he has scheduled a day off from his current management job at Walgreens and plans to "really push" himself. Huffstuffer's confidence level is high and Red Bull is coursing through his veins; he is physically and mentally prepared.
Twenty-four-year-old Josh Adams is not as well primed. He was out the night before, tearing it up with a childhood chum until 2:30 a.m. At 7, he got up to take his wife to the airport, and he hasn't slept since. On the upside, Adams is a game writer for Playstation, and he once spent three days playing Adventures of Link with only sporadic shut-eye and no food. (Here, at least, the eats are generous: brie in brioche, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, spiced chicken wings, pears topped with kiwi and creme frache, with sandwiches and coffee throughout.)
Twenty-three-year-old Chris Reynoso, a sweet-faced computer student at Napa Valley College, hasn't ever spent more than 12 hours in one gaming session, and he's exhausted tonight, but not enough to stay home. A big fan of Lands of Lore I, Reynoso is terribly eager to play the newest rendition before its release date.
"OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] is not a disease," says 21-year-old Nathanial Bray (handle: Deekoo L.), "it's a job skill." Bray -- whose inclination, if not vocation, is code -- came to Club-i on the off chance one of the first-string racers wouldn't show up. He's in luck, and is granted the opportunity to play for more than 20 straight hours.
"I can't explain what happens when you've been playing for a very long time," says Bray, whose nervous tics and fragile good looks are hidden behind a wavy fall of light brown hair. "Your language doesn't have the words to describe it."
Aaron Cohen, a Westwood representative, has the words to describe what will not happen: "You cannot go to sleep. If you fall asleep, you will be considered a dropout. If you leave your contest chair for more than 30 minutes, you will be considered a dropout. If you leave the building for any reason other than a cigarette, you will be considered a dropout."
The racers move toward their terminals and situate themselves, anxiously await-ing the signal: "Are you ready?! RPG!" The screens roar to life, and the room falls silent.
Twenty-five-year-old Alden Wong pulls a pair of headphones out of a duffel bag at his feet and plugs into the computer.
"There he goes," says his girlfriend, Cindy Hwee, a sumptuous 24-year-old who has brought a friend and a video camera to record her beau's progress. Wong props a photo of him and Hwee against his competition monitor. "He's got to have headphones. He likes to play his audio really loud. Sometimes, at home, I can't hear the TV over the computer."
Now, everyone wants headphones: Left hands shoot into the air, while right hands continue manipulating the mouse, carefully guiding "Copper Le Gre" through the land of demon-plagued Gladstone, carefully choosing guild affiliation -- warrior, wizard, cleric, thief -- and determining character strength. Aside from an occasional synchronized outburst ("See the world, they said!" or "Healing's for pussies!") from Blair Reynolds (handle: Houston) and Tim Smith (handle: Smythe) of the Bay Area Network Gaming Group, the room is again silent as the 20 competitors stare into their animated screens.
Sensing that the next six hours will look much the same, I high-tail it over to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium for a little live-action roll playing: The American Skating Derby League home season opener -- Bay City Bombers vs. New York Demons.
In the last few years -- since the league chose to turn its back on technology, asking skaters to give up "blades" in favor of more analog "quads" -- roller derby has been regaining its popularity. Tonight's crowd is an alien mix of Art Institute students, long-haul white trash, little kids, and snow-haired fans from the '50s -- when roller derby was a televised national pastime -- who hold up signs and yell lightweight obscenities.
The Demons are outfitted in antagonizing red-and-white uniforms, while our own Bombers -- one of the first teams in the league -- wear a soothing melange of 1970s orange and brown. Both teams are comprised of "seasoned professionals" and new talent -- from the lithe and creaseless to the balding and downright paunchy -- who fly around the banked track in a mock rage, body-slamming each other into the padded railing. The crowd eats it up, groaning loudly as "big-boned" Demon Jan Vallow hurls tiny Dena Roman over the railing, then begins "beating" her with closed fists when she has the audacity to return to the track.
During the men's round, former teammate and current Demon Alphonso Reyes hits Bomber captain Larry Lee from behind, then body-slams the Bomber "blockers." In the audience, 70-year-old Ann Calvetto -- a roller derby legend with an unfeasible tan, stiletto heels, and a bleach-blond buzz-cut (handle: Lioness) -- shakes her head and signs autographs for a child of 6 and a man of 59. The Demons' rotund Terry Lewis uses his helmet to beat our top male "jammer," gray-haired Joe Perez (handle: Jumpin' Joe). The crowd is beside itself.
"This is bush league!" shouts 69-year-old Sylvia Wester.
Perez recovers and hurls Demon Tony Trujillo into a turnbuckle face first -- the thud is audible, the railing quakes, spittle flies. The crowd roars. Suddenly, Orlando Thunder's hulking leader, Robert Smith (handle: Ice Box), is ringside, pulling Lee to the cement, beating him, pummeling him, kicking him again and again. The crowd is on its feet, and the stage is set for next May's (grudge) match between the Bay City Bombers and Orlando Thunder.
Back at Club-i, it's 1 a.m. One contestant has already dropped out, and gaming journalist Colin Ferris (a purported "ringer") has suffered inconsolable technical difficulty. Reynoso and Adams are neck and neck, but Reynoso is suffering cauliflower ear, balancing his headphones precariously on his head. Huffstuffer has just successfully completed his journey through Volcania, shaking his head in exasperation. "I hate lava! I've always hated lava."
Bray disappears into the bathroom, where a nervous empty stomach and too much coffee get the better of him. After vomiting, Bray is put into a cab and sent home. Wong's girlfriend and her companion have deserted the video camera and moved to a side table, where they chat sleepily over sodas.
"The game is going very quickly," says designer Anthony Gurr, moving from terminal to terminal, making notes on his clipboard. "Five racers already have their first shard [of the Shining Path, a broken mirror needed to close the portal that allows the evil Rift Hounds to ravage Gladstone]. Three people already have their second shard. I'm very impressed. Of course, the worlds get harder." Adams and Reynoso are still within minutes of one another.
I go home to sleep.
At 10 a.m. Reynoso completes the game. At 10:30 a.m. Adams finishes. During the course of the night, Adams' machine crashed and, in an act of competitive nobility, Reynoso offered his saved game so that they could be tied once again.
"It was pretty amazing," says Cohen. "It was like him saying, 'I have $6,000, take it.' "
Adams declined and, with tech support, got his machine up and running, battling the final monster with pure brute force. (Reynoso's knowledge of Lore I led him to pick up the Sword of Thohan -- a great help in battling Jakel.)
At 11 a.m., Adams sits near his new pile of DVD equipment, offering sage words of wisdom to Jesse Sullivan, who is in a heated battle for third place with Gilbert Lam. Christina Cain, the only woman competing, quits out of fatigue, but her husband, whose birthday it is, races on. Sullivan finishes fourth with two empty cans of chaw and a glass of spit in front of him, but with the Shattered Desert happily behind him. He wins an MP3 player, and Lam takes home a 3-D acceleration card.
By 3 p.m. there are still eight people left battling for fifth place, among them a determined Huffstuffer. Most of the racers only have two of their five shards. Westwood withdraws before they do, calling it a tie.
"A couple of the players never want to see the game again," says Cohen, "but most of them wanted to take their saved games home. That's a good sign."
Huffstuffer, I hope you've made it through the Shattered Desert.
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By Silke Tudor