Games to Play at the End of the Anthropocene
It was the last game a human would ever play—or the first, depending on how you saw it.
Before we ring in the new year, here's a little reminder that much of the natural world is on a crash course with oblivion, desperate times beget desperate measures, and yes it can all get much worse. Sorry. Debbie Urbanski's harrowing and inventive look at what the last days and years might entail for the last ones living it, after a failed last ditch effort to—well, see for yourself. Enjoy, and here's to the hope that 2019 marks the beginning of a crawl away from some of these ends. -the ed
The windows of the gray house on Syracuse’s east side have hastily been boarded up with plywood. The house used to be charming, painted shutters and a tarnished copper mailbox for when there used to be mail. The reason the windows were boarded up was because one of the neighborhood children had been hurling rocks through the glass. It is unclear why. Before the virus S. was released, no child went around breaking windows, at least not in this neighborhood. After S., the children, sterilized from its various strains, everyone was sterilized, went around breaking the windows, at first only at night then during the day as well. What about S. made children want to break things in the daylight? The children should have considered themselves heroes, they were saving the world, everybody was finally saving the world!
The gray house is located on Perkins Marsh Parkway, named after an antiquated conservationist no one listened to, hence the guilt and the honorary street. The house’s right side is blackened from a fire set by somebody’s benzene torch. The damage isn’t serious, Mama Lindsy had been awake to put out the flames. Lindsy had stopped sleeping at night, both of Sen’s mothers had stopped sleeping. They would close their eyes and not sleep and pretend to sleep while listening to the sounds of glass shattering outside and the wailing of cats.
Several neighboring houses are surrounded by chain link topped with broken glass. This used to feel like overkill in the early days of the transition. The bottom parts of certain fences have been ripped open by wire cutters, the holes large enough for a person or a body to fit through. You did not cause these holes.
Here is what you do.
You turn south and head out of the city, past the flooded retention pond and the geese with their necks broken to unnatural angles. Stay here long enough and a man will come along and make brutal cooing sounds. He will hold the geese, straightening their necks with a bright snap, and the geese will squawk in his arms. You don’t stay here today. Eyes down, you continue walking, focused on your realistically filthy gymshoes and the grotesque shadows retreating across the pockmarked asphalt. All your impressions, everything you see, is part of the game (Game No. u7), the details generated by multiple information feeds plus the recreations and player memories, not to be confused with your memories, as you have none. You are not the player. You are a point of view. You are leaving the city because it was Mama Dana’s turn to control you.
Let’s review the point of the game. The point of the game is that the world is moving backwards through time. The point is almost anything that has happened can unhappen. It isn’t the sort of game you can win.
Mama Dana and Sen sat on the cabin porch facing the clearing, this was not in the game, this was in the actual world, as they played the game on Dana’s screen. They had left Syracuse weeks previously. Mama Lindsy was not with them because Mama Lindsy was dead. Dana had not left Sen yet, obviously, she was only planning on leaving; it was her turn to choose the game and she chose this one. “You need to get more comfortable with being on your own,” Dana said as she forced you, in the game, to leave the broken road and enter the shade of an abandoned tree farm. You rub your hands along the black fungal strands on the infected trunks. The tree farm had nothing to do with Mama Dana or Mama Lindsy or Sen, which was why Dana was drawn to it. Sen said, “But I’m not alone.” Dana said, “Well you’re going to be.”
When Sen controlled you, she did not turn you away from the house in Syracuse, rather she dragged you deeper into her recall, forcing you to kick your way through the front door of the gray house and step over the image of herself slumped on the wood floor in the dark in the living room. You have to push through the image of Mama Dana who blocks the doorway to the kitchen. Sen’s other mother, Mama Lindsy, was supposed to be haunting Sen in real life but Sen can’t find her ghost.
In the yard, Mama Lindsy, we’re talking about in the game, slumps crookedly on the floor of the garage, her upper body suspended by a rope. One end of the rope is looped around her neck, the other end has been secured to shelving anchored into the concrete floor. This is the 47 th time you’ve revisited the scene so you already know what’s going to happen next: Lindsy’s heart will begin to beat. She will be strangled by the rope only this time she will be strangled in reverse. There isn’t a word for that. Unstrangled, if we want to start making up words. Mama Lindsy is unstrangled. Her body thrashes, panics, claws, makes noises, the backwards noises are just as unbearable, she stops making those noises, she raises up onto her knees, breathes raggedly, breathes, she loosens the noose, removes the noose, stands, unknots the noose. It’s not like there is anything for you to do, you are just there to watch. It’s not like this is a really fun game.
Lindsy, neck straightened, carotid artery uncrushed, exits the garage rushing backwards, her face furious and determined. She rushes backwards towards Dana who grabs Lindsy’s wrist and yanks Lindsy to her in the yard. The neighbors look and look away. Lindsy shouts, Dana shouts. They stop shouting. They walk backwards into the house. Sometimes you are left behind in the yard. Other times you trail Sen’s two mothers into the living room, where Sen will be screaming, not words, just a sound. A scream sounds practically the same forwards as it does backwards. The direction you move depended on which way Sen slid her finger across the screen. Dana did not like to rewatch any of this.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Dana asked Sen, who was forcing you yet again to revisit the garage in the yard for what was now the 48th time. “Let go of people if they want to go, Sen. Let them go.”
When Sen played Game No. u7 by herself, as she had to do after Mama Dana went away, as there was no one else at the cabin to play the game with other than Mama Lindsy’s ghost, who could not play games as she was practically non-existent, Sen sometimes placed you a decade or two into the future at the window of a decrepit cabin. Not the decrepit cabin where Dana and Sen once lived together, this cabin was located further south, beside the Pennsylvania border, where, at least in this version of the game, it was predicted the Anthropocene would end, heralding an epoch of restoration and rewilding. The cabin’s curtains are always an ugly yellow, they are shoved aside, the remains of a candle melted onto the sill. Inside the cabin a woman’s body is sprawled across the floor, discolored, bloated, inhabited by flies. She is either the last human alive on Earth or she will be the first, depending on if you are moving forwards or backwards through time. You are moving backwards through time.
The woman in the cabin eventually moves her finger. The woman moves all of her fingers. Smoke gathers in the windowsill above the candlewick, condensing into a flame. In the surrounding woods, vines are uncoiling from the trees. Leaves are lifting up from the forest floor, exposing human rib cages, skulls. Bits of flesh emerge from the wild dogs’ mouths, muscle and fat and skin wrapping itself around the bones. The smell turns awful, unbearable, then not, bodies reform beneath the pedestrian bridges and on the rocks at the end of the falls. Bodies uncurl their fingers, the bodies breathe, the children come home from school, and S. emerges from everybody’s pores. It is like watching a field of dark moths flooding out of everybody’s skin and escaping into the air.
Dana to Sen: “Did you think it was going to be easy to save the world? Did you think it was going to be pain free, like a super fun vacation? What did you expect?”
To achieve proper customization of Game No. u7, there are two important game settings. The personal settings allow the game access to a player’s memories, a curated grouping or the complete set. (This data transfer involves electrodes, a QEFS cap, and patented technology the game’s anonymous developers will not explain.) The second important game preference is the correction settings, which allow players to adjust certain details of their virtual lives. Dana attempted in the correction settings to erase the existence of S. Apparently nobody can do that. The game froze two minutes in. You froze by the culvert and you couldn’t move. It appears certain events are locked into place by the game’s programmers. The next event Dana tried correcting was Lindy’s suicide. Her input: Lindsy Gahr does not hang herself by the garage, she doesn’t die in the city. For unknown reasons the game ignored Dana’s instructions. That was the time you found Lindsy’s body in the yard in a shallow hole, her face practically blown off, which made for a violent and unsettling rewind. “This fucking game,” Dana said though she kept wanting to play. There is something addictive about the premise of the game, the desire to watch and rewatch and rewatch certain people opening their eyes.
After Dana went away, you spend a lot of your time watching Dana come back to Sen. Every afternoon in fact you do this. Sen never gets bored of it. You watch Sen’s mother rise up from the forest floor in the dark where she had laid down and she walks for hours backwards in the dark, spitting out wild raspberries which she sets onto the bushes bordering what used to be the road. When she reaches the cabin she pauses in the clearing, an emotional look on her face. Inside, in the dark, Dana removes her shoes, she crawls into bed beside her daughter, where she holds Sen instead of letting her go.
You have watched Sen lose her height, lose the ability to read or talk, she becomes a toddler in the game, an infant, she can’t fall asleep without one of her mothers’ arms around her. You have seen her startled, afraid, wailing, she is shoved back into Lindsy’s vagina, you have watched as the cervix snaps closed. Sen becomes an embryo, a gamete, an egg, she’s gone. This is generally when Sen, not the character in the game but the version of Sen in the real world, closed down the game, though on occasion she made exceptions, sending you further into the past, where you can watch a woman remove a dead bird pinned to her fashionable hat, she lifts her arms, allows the bird to bolt, and eventually the sky becomes clouded with pigeons.
Dana trudges backwards toward the cabin. Lindsy removes the rope from her neck, she stands up. Dana unpacks her bag, empties her water bottle into the drinking picture. Lindsy exits the garage. Dana crawls into bed with her daughter. Dana holds her daughter. Dana leaves the deck, this is back in the city, in the game, she lunges to grab Lindsy’s wrist, they walk together into the house. You are jumping around in time here because this is how Sen has begun to play the game. Dana walks into the house. Lindsy walks into the house.
They walk into the house.
How many times can you watch someone or two people walk back into a house?
Dana and Lindsy walk into the house.
They walk into the house, they walk into the house, they they they they they and so forth.
Dana to Sen: “Something good will come out of all this.”
A girl opens her hand and in her hand is a crushed butterfly whose endangered blue wings mend themselves before it flutters elsewhere.
The blight in the yard lifts from the yellow flower petals, the torrential rain rises blinding off of the pavement.