Late in the summer of 2008, I decided to get a tattoo of a video game character. I know: video game tattoos are as a rule atrocities. But most tattoos are as a rule atrocities, and anyways, I had picked out the one game character who was both close to my heart and a design that transcends the medium. Or so my thinking went.
I'm talking, of course, about Manny Calavera. The quipping, down-on-his-luck hero of Tim Schafer's Dia de los Muertos-noir Grim Fandango, Manny is just, well, unforgettable. He's a smoker, a gambler, a drinker, a dinner-jacket wearer, a reluctant revolutionary, an accidental poet, a jazz lover and a romantic. He drove a badass car. He was basically all of the things I thought were cool when I was thirteen and first played the game. And, why yes, still think are cool.
I had just moved to New York for journalism school, to central Harlem. I also covered the neighborhood for school, and the central issue on people's minds at the time, other than a rash of gun violence that summer, was an accelerating gentrification. It was a weird situation to be in, part of the problem and trying to understand the problem, and it felt awkward a lot of the time.
Technically you probably shouldn't patronize businesses you might cover, but I was a lazy graduate student and did not want to go very far to get my tattoo, so, I fired up Yelp and searched for "Tattoo parlor 10026". To my surprise, there was a place with a sterling reputation a few short blocks from my apartment. It was called "Black Ink" and it had an art gallery, and in the hierarchy of my feverishly sheltered mind, it was probably going to be the kind of place that administered street art-inflected upper-middle-classisms, rather than teardrops. (I know I sound intolerable, but I am trying to convey the level of decadent anxiety to which I had sunk.)
One hot, early September day, I printed out some grainy pictures of Manny and walked down Lenox Avenue to Black Ink. The basement shop had red walls and cultivated a late-streetwear vibe that I did not quite understand. There were three or four workers crowded around a desktop computer, and they were all tall black guys dressed in clothing indicative of a constellation of potentially imminent complex misunderstandings. That is to say, I felt white as sin.
Before I could even start to yammer caucausianly, one of the guys looked up at me with a big smile, and said, I quote, "Yo nigga, come check this out."
I walked over behind the desk and squeezed in between two of these strangers to get a look. On the screen was Spore, Will Wright's whimsical evolution simulator, which had been released that day. If you have never played Spore, suffice it to say that you cannot imagine a less racially- or culturally-charged game than Spore. It looks like a less-offensive Monsters Inc. We stood there taking turns and watching for about fifteen minutes in giggle-studded silence.
Finally, aware that business was somehow at some point supposed to be transacted, someone asked me what I was there for. I said I wanted a tattoo on my right arm of Manny Calavera from Grim Fandango and did anyone know who that was. I got a bunch of looks like, don't you dare ask me if I know who Manny Calavera is, guy who I just played fifteen minutes of Spore with. After some simmering down, the consensus was: this was a special job.
Someone ran off to summon an artist of sufficient importance from the depths of the store. He turned out to be one of those Supreme-wearing, weed-smelling, Ghostface-quoting, fat, impossibly cool Asian Falstaffs whom only New York produces and who I wish would let me into their club. I told him what I wanted for my tattoo and he initiated a big, two-armed hug, the kind that you reserve for people coming back from military service. He drew something up, I liked it, and two days later I came back to get branded.
Almost five years later, I don't hate the tattoo, which is about as good as it gets. I mean, tattoos are absurd. That's not the point of the story.
The point of the story is, Disney closed LucasArts today. Everyone basically knew it was going to happen, and LucasArts hadn't put out a good game really in ten years. Other people will write, and write well, about the significance of many of their legendary games. To me, LucasArts will always be the logo that I saw before Grim Fandango. They were also the company that made possible this one small moment in my life, which no one else will ever think about but which I will always remember. Some of the more maudlin things being written right now are faintly ridiculous; it doesn't make sense to mourn a company. But I still feel a little sad, and I think I know why. It does make sense to mourn a memory.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at email@example.com.
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