Brian Oliu is originally from Readington, New Jersey and currently lives, writes, and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
"[Oliu's] lyric essays read the way video games felt before they understood themselves: mysterious, lonely, sad, funny, weird, existing in their own desire as much as (or more than) their bodies. They read the way it feels to remember something incorrectly.”
". . . more than metaphor, more than fantasy, our questing characters are our questing selves, and art that moves us like Level End is the gem in the labyrinth we’re after.”
A long time since I — Player 1 — last played games (depending on who you ask) and I sigh to steady my hands. I'm the boy who gave up games for the broken belle who babbled something about "growing up;" I am the old gunman who incorrectly believes it is a time of rest, that retirement is a save point, that my season has passed as opposed to the truth: a season's end is flagged by transition — call it "death" — but until then —
Level End loads. 8-bit pixilated backdrop of a mountainous desert, a pyramid with spires, a cliff in the foreground, the hero — Brian Oliu of So You Know It’s Me fame — on said cliff, staring, preparing himself; he stands as a stocky, broad block in a red track jacket, the letters "RTR" on the back.
When I arrive as Oliu arrives, the music changes — changes much too soon, much too fast. I remember my youth; I remember the proving grounds: Sega Master System, Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo; I remember easing myself into the new world. The first level should be filled with third-rate henchmen or goons or robots ready to be pulverized into coins or points.
Level End begins with a Boss Battle — The One With the Long Neck — and I quickly scan the HUD to ascertain Oliu's status: six full hearts indicating maximum health; one life, no extra man. He rocks back and forth, knife in hand.
I take my knife and start cutting--your neck breaking in sections and vanishing, tendons unraveling like our time away from this room, your neck growing shorter by the second. Your face shrinks back toward your shoulders, shoulders I remember but cannot place. [ . . . ] This is where you disappear. This is where the door opens. This is all that I have wanted.
Victory. Gold coins rain down into Oliu's body. I breathe and select “Continue.”
When I arrived, the music changed —
Again, no henchmen or goons to use as punching bags and cheap power-ups to hoard before the Boss Battle. A Woman Made of Feathers.
If I could fit your body inside my mouth I would, you said, and I believed you: to be swallowed whole like a fish is a noble way to lose one’s way — out of breath, crushed to serve a purpose. As you spin your feathers come undone — they crash into the walls, they spin in reverse. I can catch anything you throw at me: grasp it between my fingers; snatch it as it floats to the ground.
* * *
By the time I move Oliu, limping and sluggish, to the Save Point: Inn so he may rest and contemplate a more tranquil setting — the northern coast of France, perhaps — I figure out Level End. Or at least, I get the gist.
One life; Oliu’s pixelated knife looping, swirling, slicing, re-arranging the Bosses and the rooms, which hold them: our hero knows each Boss. Or knows that each Boss is a composite of known people. The Bosses stand before him, each with his or her own special ability, supernatural body, and hidden reason to strike him down.
Level End is a game of recollection. Based on events true to the main character, Level End is a saga through memories — those undependable images in our brains, chopped and screwed out of sequence and shaded with our perspectives, our version of what really happened.
The Boss Battles are as surreal as any level in any game I once played during my younger days: worlds which are frightening and wondrous and against the laws of physics; Bosses that can only exist in a young boy’s mind or on a television screen in a living room in New Jersey, volume turned up to push down his — my — parents’ shouts and swear words.
* * *
Oliu and I are exhausted; Level End’s diminutive size belies the weight, the pressure, of each battle. This is an old school game, before the days of memory cards and hard drives; you press Pause to catch your breath, to get a snack, while Oliu stands frozen in place. We began early in the morning; it is now night and I haven’t showered, haven’t called my lover, haven’t eaten.
Game players can feel the last level approaching, the story near its end. Showers and lovers and food can wait because I feel it in my bones — that stinging sadness mixed with an adrenaline rush, my thumbs sore from button-mashing madness — we are here, Boss Battle: The Final Boss.
There is nothing romantic about the idea of final when final arrives like this: not with an arrow in the eye, not with a body losing grip on the floor and disappearing in the dark with a sparkle and a wink, not with a final blink after turning magenta, a red not found in nature, a red not found in your face, not even while choking, not even while gasping for breath. What you have imagined the final stage to be is not what it is — here is a list it is not.
I know how this will end because of my history with games — each preceding Battle gave me clues to the climax — but I cannot share my knowledge. True gamers do not reveal spoilers; to do so would ruin the laughs, the claps, the excitement shared between those who faced each Boss and lived to talk about it.
Which of my bosses, then, do I — Player 1 — bring to Level End? Only one. A fight to the death, I can assure you.
Roll credits. Play inspirational music pecked out on a keyboard. Shut off the game. Breathe.