Long read: Who is qualified to make a world?

In search of the magic of maps.

If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

My friend and his Pokémon save file

Inner narratives.

I haven't seen a Japanese friend of mine in well over a decade. Family is a complicated business, time has moved on, and circumstances have changed. I find I think about him regularly.

He's a man now, priorities and pressures and all. I wonder what he looks like. Perhaps a cigarette hanging slack from lips curled into a cheeky grin, that signature long hair now layered into a fashionable trim. Baggy T-shirt resting on a big boned frame. Those cropped chino trousers which rest just above the ankle, creased white trainers below. Gentle eyes, they won't have changed, though, I'm sure of it.

Our homes were close back then, so I'd pop over to his house regularly and we'd mainly play Super Smash Bros: Melee together. Gasps, laughs, wild gestures, the clack of buttons. Broken English, equally choppy Japanese. We couldn't really speak to each other, which sounds a little primitive in some ways, but I'm convinced the simplicity of our interactions actually led to complexities of expression, of eschewing vocality for a janky, often wordless communication. Not a single conversation between us, yet a strong behavioural understanding deepened by time in one another's company.

One of the last things he gave me was a box of old Gameboy games he didn't need anymore, among them, a Japanese copy of Pokémon Red. For reasons unknown, I never got round to booting it up on my SP, but years later a pang hit me, a surge of curiosity? A need to reconnect? Sometimes memory bubbles, then boils over.

I'm staring at his character on the screen, an 8-bit persona of sorts. I rifle through his inventory, and I examine the Pokémon he has collected, all bobbing, or flapping as they do. I notice his position in town, even little things like the direction he's facing, and I move a few steps before recoiling all of a sudden. I feel like an intruder, an imposter roped into a job they're uncomfortable with, rummaging through someone's deeply personal belongings in a place they've worked so hard to cultivate.

Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks tackles memory in his astonishing The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a collection of cases concerning patients who navigate life with severe neurological disorders. One chapter focuses on Mr. Thompson, a man with Korsakov's syndrome who is "driven to a sort of narrational frenzy", rapidly, unceasingly generating fictional stories interspersed with glints of truth. Tragically, this is how he constructs his sense of self, for without these outpourings he's left clawing, thrashing in a sea of black.

It's here where Sacks delivers a few lines which resonate beyond Mr. Thompson's condition and apply, I think, to all of us. "We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative - whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives a 'narrative', and that narrative is us, our identities."

What then, is my friend's save file? Looking at it now, I believe it's a fragment of his inner narrative captured through code. Sure, it's just a little plastic case containing bits of metal and plastic, but it's one which contains a multitude of experience. Just as current snakes through its circuitry causing the ones and zeros to twirl, an impulse fires in my brain, and a curtain is peeled back revealing images from his past I've never known. Like puffs of smoke swaying into view, these fictions harden and dissolve before the distant snap of a sliding door transports me back to the present. In drawing out the artful and the expressive from the cold and empirical, I get to know him better.

Perhaps more than any other medium, video games have this incredible pull. Hit play on someone else's save file and you're sucked into a computational universe, a virtual place where one part of their narrative becomes pliable, able to be picked apart by the character you embody, or the puzzle you're solving, or the platforms you're crossing. All these options! And yet a funny part of me is reluctant to mess around with my friend's save file, as I'm afraid doing so will rupture the fabric of his timeline and gradually cause it to unspool at our feet.

I say 'our', as I can thaw his perfectly preserved world and set it in motion once again, but doing so would sever his narrative, and in a way, my connection to it would fade away too. I would lose the ability to interact with, and paint my own pictures of this unknown period. To me, his save file has become a communicative device, one which has given us a conversation through memory.