Mortal Kombat II, Midway, 1993
by Elias Tezapsidis
I remember growing up, it was still a time when people “summered.” Not just hyper-affluent people, but most middle class Greeks would take a vacation and close their store or business to in the months of July and August. People had summer homes, or extended family who could host them in a place they could summer. Summer as a verb is something I adore: its obnoxiousness is a delicacy, using it is my summer cabernet.
Just across the street, there was the video game parlor. I call it that because it was not really an arcade, though some of the features were shared: a variety of consoles. It was called ABC studios, but obviously had no connection whatsoever to any studio in the media sense. In reality, it was two different businesses: ABC the game parlor; and studios rented out to tourists in the time that tourists made cheap-ish arrangements upon arriving to an accessible destination. The second was the “studios” part, but the sign outside said ABC-Studios, and to me, that is still funny.
R was the owner, and he was the image of a Greek dad in the ‘80s, even if it was the ‘90s. He was fat, obvious and probably a decent businessman, in the limited scope that is necessary when you live in a village and want to stay there. He owned land, mostly farmland, and did not waste whatever properties had come to his possession. I sort of know this, because my dad liked him, and if there is one mean thing I will allow myself to openly pin to my father it is that he only likes people with money. He interacts with everyone, but he likes only those who have, or appear to have, money.
I did not realize at age five or six, but over time, I got that a lot of Greek dads were like that. It is like a microcosm of straight people with tangible goals, who worked hard in an era when that was connected to accruing a degree of wealth, and respected those who shared those qualities. Here, it is somewhat important to add that a few years ago I would have stated “straight white people” but there are so few non-whites in Greece I now stopped linking race to different social strata, but this is not so much a social analysis of the lack of racial diversity in the Hellenic Republic, but my memory of playing video games after spending the days in the sun. Still unbathed from the sea water, salty skin and sunkissed, I would meet my childhood summer friends at ABC Studios.
Sometimes, usually at the start of the summer, but often more frequently, R would send someone to grab me. He would ask me to run a stupid, silly errand with a sense of responsibility I so welcomed in the absence of schooling. I was the sort of kid who got bored a lot during summers.
“Can you grab me an ice-cream from the minimarket?” or “Will you get me a gyros sandwich from XYZ place?”
Whenever I would return, with whatever he had requested, which was usually food because he was a fat dad, even though he wasn’t my fat dad, he would thank me and give me multiple times the value of whatever I had brought him, always in coins. That they were to be consumed in there was not something he would need to ask, I was going to do it anyway. I don’t know if this nice gesture was methodical, and I don’t think it was. I think he liked my dad, and by extension kind of liked me. In that area, I could tell my family’s financial position was different, and while I was always nice to others, that was not always the case for the behaviors I encountered from other kids. Though this was not financial, it was cultural: my going to private schools and the summer “friends” almost canonically attending public schools.
In the beginning, the games consoles that could be found in ABC studios took drachmas, in the coin slot. The earliest I can remember was when each machine requested 50. Then it became 100. Then Greece joined the euro currency union, as well as three independent events connected on an axis that makes me an unreliable reporter on the subject. One, I was a teenager so it became more of a social pressure to see and be seen in public spaces: was it cool still to be into videogames? Two, the Internet changed the business model for the purpose ABC studios served. Three, though partially due to two, ABC began also featuring an electronic equivalent of slot machines, bringing many parents to the space and getting me further out of there.
There are impossible an amount of game categories, but for me, there is order in categorizing, or attempting to, and when it came to the video games I pushed coins to play, I have the following.
Very violent, intolerable for the sort of prude who doesn’t get that’s what the prohibited gives to a young audience; the joy of mischief. Examples are abundant in Mortal Kombats 1-11, also the numerous Street Fighter franchise successes. Kicking, screaming, hadoukening. The colors are vivid, the injuries the players sustain impossible. It’s funny, having had my jaw wired shut I can recognize it took one hard punch. Additionally, the move by move emphasis in this game is hilarious: when you are getting beaten up time flies or simply does not compute similarly to a care of each motion, because your brain is running on adrenaline. Hilariously, this is likely what gets brains to get overly excited when playing such games, though this is my wildly unscientific guess. I do remember being scandalized by Mortal Kombat as a child, and I recall both the “oh no I shouldn’t like this” and non-ambivalent certainty that I enjoyed carcasses being tortured in FATALITY: FINISH HIM/HER mode, in which the player is asked to finish off their opponent after having successfully defeated them. Usually they ended up in pieces, ice-cubes, flames or on a bed of swords. While not exactly funny, it was never scary, because the artificiality of it was always certain. Additionally, my brain always reminded me “this is just a game” in the same way that I watched “Casino” and the murders meant nothing because I was 6 and in my head movies were fake.
This incident also occurred during our summering times. Most of my friends as a 6 year old were teenagers, so when they decided to go to the movie, I simply asked for 1,000 drachmas and there I was a few hours later watching fully inappropriate things sans guardian oversight! Unfortunately, the movie lasted too long, which made my mother worry and so she showed up unannounced—though how could she announce herself in the pre-cell era?—to pick me up, catching the rather bloody finale of a rather violent movie. I was not in trouble, but the following time I requested movie drachmas, I was asked to provide a summary of the film I was to see, or at the very least its title.
I guess a huge chunk of playing these games was also indulging in one of not too many ‘boy’ things I enjoyed. I was not the sort of boy who liked soccer, and that is a very popular thing to do for young kids in Greece, and it does have a direct correlation to gender. These games, I did enjoy, and it was an activity I could engage with other in a homosocial manner.
Either as a puzzle or in the better, more inclusive manner of Bubble Bubble, where 2 players actually benefit greatly from concurrent playing. The enemies remain the same, the rewards double. Snow Bros, too. In Bubble Bubble (from 1986), you are a cute little dinosaur who puts stuff in a bubble. You win much more when you collect all your enemies in bubbles and burst them all together, like in Snow Bros—where you are a pile of snow thingie that pushes enemies into snowballz—but with much more food. This is another reason using the 2 player option is optimal; if you have a friend willing to play with you, then you are much more likely to get way further down the road of challenges ahead. There are also letters for bonus lives and lots of food-related rewards. I despise the time aspect in this, which means if you loiter too long, cowarding the attacks against your enemies you eventually get a little demon chasing you. How real life is this little demon?!
Bubble Bubble, Taito, 1986
My sister was a teenager when I was very young, she is 10 years older, and I remember her playing this when I would go get her from across the street to have lunch. So, this category is much less “boyish” which means that it featured a nice alternative for girls in the arcade!! As if that was necessary, we should all be swimming in the sea instead, but you never realize that when you are a kid.
About a decade later (in 1994) came Puzzle Bubble, which was much less dinosaur-driven, but featured the famous little Bubble Bubble protagonists. A variation of this game is super-prevalent to this day, where you throw something bubbly of a certain color on a series/combo of similar colors and then they vanish. At the same time, the longer you take to deal with the bubbles, the lower the ceiling gets, reminding you times is always essential! Real soft skills brought to you by ABC Studios.
Wonder Boy, Shinobi, New Zealand Story
Why my favorite? Because things keep moving, practice made perfect and there were constraints, challenges, rewards, clear-cut good guys and bad guys. Villains, I learned later, come in more deceitful packages.
The three games mentioned above were my favorites. They all feature a figure-stand-in for the player who goes through obstacles of ascending difficulty levels. Challenges occur, “bosses” appear and ultimately, sticking around ABC Studios would teach you how to get further down: you could watch someone older who knows tricks you don’t and then try to copy them or you can spend time and money until you get further down. Best alternative, in retrospect, is probably to head home, put on a bathing suit and go for a swim. Screens will soon enough be everywhere and the Hellenic sun will become more of a novelty the less you have access to it.
As I type this I see a flock of seagulls around the boat I’m on. I’m escaping for the day, heading to the beach. I question, why are certain variations of technology overuse accepted? Is it sane? Why am I always thinking I’d be better off a couple of decades older? I’m obviously only alive because of my timeline. Though, would I have behaved the way I did if it were all different? That’s a different game altogether.
Wonder Boy, Sega, 1986
While growing up, my sister always despised how I handled my knowledge of films were she to watch them in my company. I found some idiotic satisfaction in ruining the element of surprise for her, and yet here I am again all these years later, finally coping up to some system of order that entertains trigger warnings and respects the culture of not ruining popular culture for someone who has yet to experience it. So, in Black Mirror’s “Striking Vipers,” what you initially think is going to happen goes really a different direction and then continues to transgress viewers’ expectation for a few more layers.
What happens is this: there are two very close friends, who are brought closer through playing videogames, and they each ‘choose’ a character to battle every time. They are both black dudes IRL, but in the video, one always chooses to be a hot azn lady, reminiscent of Chun-Li of both Street Fighter and Nicki Minaj fame. Over time they lose touch, because one of them becomes a responsible partner to his fiancé, then wife. So they grow apart, until the Chun-Li guy gifts the grownup one a reboot of the game they used to play. The reboot is Virtual Reality at its finest: pain is felt, joy is real and somehow they end up fucking rather than fighting. This mindfuck is brilliant because it makes us wonder about how much of sexuality is physical and how much of it is in our brain.
What it also does is remind me of how sexualized so much of the violence was, especially in the Fighting Games. The female characters have gigantic boobs and are vixens in a manner the steroid-ed dudes do not abide to, but beyond that even the sounds they make are highly sexualized. Why is that?
I like questioning if I am what I am and who I am because of where I am.
The best way to feel at home at a destination you don’t like is to object becoming a local. So, in Thessaloniki, the city I come from but dislike for reasons still unvisited by me intellectually, I decided to do the next best thing: live like a tourist. There are big pluses to second cities, and if you think about Chicago, you might not know what I mean, but in any case, Salonika, is fun when you embrace the everyday dailiness of it as a temporary visitor. Rather than be above doing stuff, I immersed myself in doing much.
I went out for lunch with C, who my dad tried to make my therapist when I first returned to Greece, thinking that I needed expert help from someone who deals with drug addicts. We, C and myself, both laugh about it now, but we became friends nonetheless. She is very bright and she is dating someone who lives a block away from my last NYC apt, the one I hate the most, in Harlem. Apparently the Whole Foods there is finally completed! Not that I care, I plan on never seeing that part of town.
“So, what is new with you? Tell me everything.”
I oblige. I will get a Master’s. I tell her about my frustration with failing to get the scholarship I wanted and the likelihood of reapplying next year, with the idea of pursuing an academic career.
“Have you been writing?”
I confirm, hesitantly. This was right when I had gotten a rhythm back into what I consider to be my vocation, so yes, I was writing. Enough? Unsure, but life once again was happening faster.
“Are you happy?”
I plead the fifth. I am proud of myself, in that moment. I have made tremendous progress in no longer depending on others’ wellbeing to be okay, but I still wanted what I wanted.
We share a delicious meal. Tsipoura, beet salad, seafood orzo. We order EXACTLY the right amount of food, which never happens. We are both full, but not grossly. Though C orders a beer, and that she regrets. She is tiny.
I ask her if she wants to go to a play with me in an ancient Greek theater. She is culturally aware and also cares about things going on, so maybe I found the victim to cosign as company to watch Oedipus Tyrannus.
I do! We buy the tickets for the show, the following day. It rains nonstop, the show gets cancelled.
“Eliassss! I can’t make it, something came up. Sorry.”
She doesn’t specify what, which is annoying but also she is great so I don’t push her. I send a polite texts stating:
“HEY BETCHES! I HAVE TIX FOR OEDIPUS IN THE FOREST THEATRE AT 21. CUM!”
I get no texts but one phone call, from my second cousin, the accountant who talks a lot but is exceptional in every other respect. I have already gotten in by now, and to my amazement, they don’t really keep tally of the people coming in and the tickets they have. I did not have mine printed out, so I showed them on my phone, and it would have made no difference if I had shown them something fully different, they did not scan it.
In a moment of utter Greekness I think that I can use mine and C’s tickets to get my cousin and her boyfriend in, and I am correct! They arrive less than 30 minutes after, with a cold beer for me and snacks. My cousin and her boyfriend are great company, and for a second I think to myself this (this being BEING and also BEING IN GREECE) is not so bad in the right company and also when you are taking things less seriously.
I receive an email saying “You seeing Oedipus in an Ancient Theatre in Greece is secretly my dream for you.” I smile and turn my phone to mute. It seems like it won’t rain, and two hours after my intended departure to antiquity, I start, with a different crew.
OEDIPUS, the trip is a cruise sponsored by Sophocles. To much of the world it is known as Oedipus Rex. It was first performed in 429 BC, and YES I KNOW THIS IS CHEESY but remains highly contemporary to this day.
The plot, in a nutshell is this: Oedipus is crowned as the new Theban tyrant, where tyrant also means king, rather than having a clear negative connotation. (Though the lack of democratic process is implied, at least to my understanding.) In doing so, Oedipus lives out the prophecy in which he is to kill his father, Laius, and marry his mother, Jocasta. He married Jocasta as a reward for solving the riddle of the Sphinx, which he brags about a few times through the tragedy, and killed Laius way before, unaware of his actual father’s identity. The big question Oedipus tries to solve is: who killed Laius, thinking that will end the Thebeian curse. Of course, he does not know he is the person responsible, nor how that can possibly be the case.
From all the ancient tragedies, Oedipus Rex is undoubtedly the most prominent one. Every Western-educated individual has something to say about it as a saga, an opinion or an idea. Above all, it has provided the Freudian archive with its analytical terminology for how to coin the complexity of an inappropriate, but undeniable, connection between a mother and her son. This concept, of course, is the very core of the Oedipus Rex plot, but there is another way to interpret the ancient tragedy, and this is more in line with the show we watched. The legend can otherwise be perceived as one in which destiny—or is it fate? What is the etymological difference?—itself, as a notion or idea, is the protagonist.
The concept of attempting to control our fate based on predictions of the future is very obviously one that has been prevalent forever. Today, it is less scientifically sound to trust astrology, though I will never in my life ever date a Sagittarius again and I do see myself as a very Taurean individual. But the role fortune telling played in antiquity is largely featured in many plays, including Oedipus Rex, which can be also interpreted as Sophocles saying, with intensity and dark humor: “You can try as hard as you want, but you cannot escape your fate.”
The way I perceive it, it is also a polemical criticism of the tyrannical constitution in which the play was written. A dragged out part of the way the play was performed was the interaction between Oedipus and Tiresias, the blind fortune-teller who is forced to confront Oedipus and his exhaustive quest for someone to blame. So certain Oedipus is of his innocence, that he buries his future with threats and the specifics of what he would do to the individual who killed King Laius. In the play, there can be comedy in the darkness with which Tiresias reveals to him the guilty secret: that it was Oedipus, himself, who years ago accidentally murdered Laius, who will then prove to also be his father. In the scene, Oedipus is (metaphorically) blinded by his rage, unable to think straight and listen carefully. This red-headedness is what makes him relatable to me, not the insanely interwoven incestual themes.
Yet it is important to also analyze Tiresias a tad differently: not as a former astrologer or tarot-reader, but as a symbol of power. In antiquity, prophets were emblems of respect, the hallways to (maybe?) a more popular rule. But beyond players in The Power Game, they were also premature data analysts. An intellectual charged with the responsibility of shaping policy, not charlatans throwing cards, is more closely linked to my definition of Tiresias in the play. Again, the Greek word “μάντης” has multiple translations (fortune teller, clairvoyant, prophet, diviner) but none quite fit what it brings in mind as it pertains to the past, which is an intersection of philosopher and guesser. Though, admittedly, the open-endedness of the spoken predictions left the receiver of it responsible for its appropriate interpretation. Alas, in the case of Oedipus Rex, the guessings are not very colorful in terms of their openness to various interpretations: they come in straightforward black and white form. (Fairly black, actually).
Tiresias brings facts to the table, but they are not the facts Oedipus wants to hear, and they surprise him. The conviction of his innocence is actually endearing: he is stubborn and a bit full of himself, not realizing he has to listen instead of demand. Could it be that in such a short amount of time has gotten to his head, that he wants the universe to serve him rather than the other way around? Oedipus is also endearing in that he diminishes the importance of life, but expects his to be of importance to everyone else. He is no conventional hero, having murdered five people years ago for no true reason (and not having felt guilt about it prior to realizing one of them was his Daddy), and also plotting to marry Jocasta to get direct access to the throne of Thebes.
Jocasta, too, seems somewhat deplorable. Naively treacherous, she thinks she can conceal the truth. In a way, at some point she asserts that governance is lackadaisical: no reason to worry, plan or…try. Perhaps she could be a part of the Trump administration; her brand is carelessness.
Ultimately, the decider in the play is the tyrant. Oedipus decides to deal with the hunger that has stricken Thebes initially as a problem of his humble origins. For an ancient audience, this was a major issue, but in today’s climate we can see past it and think above it. So, digesting the play today is more truthfully done as follows: Power blinds the ones who hold it, even in light of hard evidence. In actuality, power does not want truth, but the one truth that it can perform that serves its interests. Advice, even when given by trusted sources, will be neglected, when the power is held by someone who wants to not see it in its totality.
A major element to reconsider as I exit the theater is that what I think of as the current “tone” in literature and the arts has been around forever: where comedy and tragedy mix, and there are moments of both. There were many brief moments of hilarity in the play, though there is no denying a play in which the female protagonist hangs herself and the male protagonist knives his eyes out is not exactly funny. But, it made me re-evaluate how much I gave credit to the Internet for: the mix of extremes in tonal expression. That’s hardly new.
It will take me a long time to forget the dramatic impact of the Horus introducing Jocasta as Oedipus’s “WIFEEEE AND MOTHER….” [Long defined pause] “of HIS CHILDREN.”
“So what did you think?” asks my cousin about the play.
“I liked everything except Oedipus, the actor. But I guess it is hard to play that role, especially when the other actors do such a strong job. He needs to hold the balance of seriousness, so it doesn’t become a joke.”
“Yes, you are right.”
How important, not to be a joke when you are the protagonist of tragedy. Or to find the humor in all circumstances, when you know The Truth nobody else is willing to accept. If only I knew who I was.
About the Author:
Elias Tezapsidis is a generalist writer (currently) in Berlin. His work can be found in 3:AM Magazine, The Awl, Berfrois, BOMB, Harper’s, HTMLGiant, Salt Artists, Thought Catalog, The Millions, Publishers Weekly, The Toast, Vol1 Brooklyn, V Magazine and others.