Sunday, 4 March 2018

Life is like a browser game

You start with two grey boxes. You must decide what to do with them.

You have choices. Directions for movement. The illusion of freedom. You decide what happens, but certain things are not possible. You can't go diagonal. You can't rearrange at a whim. Most of all, you can't leave the box. You have one box, and it's a certain size. It will never get bigger no matter how much you plead for more space, more time. The box doesn't care.

Oh, and there are strictly no takebacks. You live and die with your mistakes.

So you get going. You send your boxes flying. The movement is fast, thrilling, overwhelming. But more astonishing than the movement is the appearance of a third box. It turns out that as you proceed, things happen. Things you could never see coming. You gain something with each choice, each progression. Another box; another something that will be yours forever, a part of you.

You move again and there's a fourth box. The appearance is random, and sometimes there's a different number in the box at intervals you can't predict. But that new boxes appear - new things happen - is a certainty. These sudden arrivals are scary. They throw strange new elements into a world you thought you knew. But if you accept them - and you must accept them, they are here to stay - you will see that they respond to you like the other boxes. They are you. You will love them all, even as you sometimes curse their initial inconvenience. You are learning new things about yourself all the time, and they're not always nice.

You move, and now a miracle occurs. Two boxes become one. A flash of perfect synthesis, two elements so attuned that they produce a spontaneous singular, the sum of themselves. You have taken the parts of you and you have forged them into new shapes. You have learned something. Two twos become four. The four is slightly less grey - there is a hint of colour, albeit beige. Soon you will see that two fours become eight in a detonation of glorious orange. Oranges deepen and turn red, then transcend themselves into a blaze of ever-brightening yellows. You have become a rainbow of fire. You are vivid with boxes.

And all the while, while you combine your boxes to mould ever greater constructs, the new boxes continue to appear. There is never a shortage of fuel. Stuff happens - continuously, unceasingly - and you effortlessly fold the raw new elements into yourself. You have become an engine, powered by these two processes: combination and acquisition.

You are growing.

For a time, it is glorious. You are a furnace of amalgamation, an inferno of coalescence. Boxes whiz in every direction, merge and bloom. You reach ever greater heights.

But then you start to notice something. Your space is finite. Grow too big, and something pushes back. There are walls. There are limits. There is something that doesn't want you to expand forever, that refuses to let you reach your predestined potential. Your boxes get stuck. Movement becomes strained, impossible. You are filling up, and the walls are unyielding. You are drowning in yourself.

And so two things will happen. Either you will die: a husk, unable to move, defeated by your own unwieldy inability to comprehend your world and what you were up against. Or you will compartmentalise. You will learn the skill of organisation, of long-term planning. You will look to the future, and delay gratification. You will not respond simply to the desire to grow, that purest, truest instinct. You will have to make decisions about how and where you grow. Where you see yourself going further down the line, what you see yourself becoming.

You will organise your growth, create a foundation, a corner-stone on which you can build. You will only move in certain directions at certain times, not wherever you feel like moving. You will have purpose. You will ensure that your boxes align, like with like, so that the engine never goes hungry, that progress never ceases.

You are chugging along nicely. With the organisation comes a sense of safety, a sense of security. You grew too big and you learned what it is to be anxious, to fear for your continued growth. Now you are confident, although not completely confident. Random events can still happen, can throw spanners in your carefully constructed works, derail the formation of your great edifice. The more you master the chaos, the more that what little remains becomes the source of ever-greater dread. You realise your anxiety in fact has not diminished, but it has grown alongside, in proportion to the mightiness of your achievements.

And sooner or later you will find that a terrible question comes, one that never occurred to you in your salad days, but which now takes dreadful form: Why?

Why are you even doing this? What is the real purpose of your labours here? Suddenly this growth that seemed so vital and urgent begins to feel hollow. Pointless. You need a reason to continue, so you look for one, and you find it. An external source provides it. You are told. You are commanded, and you believe. The great mantra is handed down, written in mighty tablets of stone, an ineffable answer that reads:


You are reborn. Now you understand. A reason for all this struggle. A goal to be your point of focus. Something to strive for. A scripture to whisper to yourself when the anxiety strikes, to fill your heart with devotion, to banish your concerns about the nature of the world and its cruel, arbitrary limitations.

You are a zealot. You are bent on reaching this destination that has been ordained. Your fervour for growth reaches new heights. You struggle. You labour. You build, box by careful box.

And finally, one day, there is a tremendous final rush and you have done it. It is done. 2048. There is a fanfare, a triumphal procession. The world itself turns yellow and tells you that you have won. Endorphins flood your system as everything you ever desired is consummated. You are at peace.

You read the victory message over and over, wallowing in it. You notice something. You hesitate. You turn cold. There is another box, just below the official certification of victory. It is grey, but it is not a number box. It is just a simple box with two words: Keep Going.

Realisation is like an anvil. This is not the end - it never was. There is no end, there cannot be an end. 2048 was just a short-term thing, to keep you sane. You were never really doing it for 2048. You were doing it for the growth. The growth, you now see, is its own terrible end, the end that can never end. The yawning abyss that must constantly be fed, now and for ever. If you made 2048, you can make it again, and you can merge it with itself, and create 4096. 8192. You see it now - the wave of satisfaction that passes like a summer storm, the fulfilment that seeps away, leaving only the option of continuing ever on.

You have no choice. You never really did. Your mouth is dry as you watch yourself click the Keep Going box of doom, like someone signing on a parchment for a deal with Ursula the sea witch. By condemning yourself, you know now who you truly are. You are not the boxes. You are the need to keep going.

And so you do. The boxes never end. The days turn to years, to millennia. The numbers rack up and up and up. The biggest ones turn black, unforgiving, hugely heavy. You have been going so long now that you barely register the movements, the mergers. There is almost no more conscious input; you are on automatic.

And maybe that is the end, in its very endlessness. Maybe that is just you, now and forever, until you fill your space and your time is finally up.

Or maybe...something extraordinary happens. Two boxes merge, and something new is born. Your eyes flicker for a moment. They mark the tiny genesis, and they notice its beauty. The little flash of colour. Distantly, they remember how bright that moment used to make them feel. They remember the heat of the flames from the great engine, the light on their face.

You watch, and you see another spark, and another. You find they precipitate microscopic delights. And you sit back and watch them flicker across the grid, across yourself. All these moments of beauty building into something greater. You realise that your edifice, your biggest number, represents an entire lifetime of joys and successes. And now you see the patterns. You can appreciate both the minuscule moments and the dizzying macroverse that exists and thrives in these four small walls.

And maybe, just maybe, before you die, you will get the feeling that you have made the most of what you were given.

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