I want to tell you about this one time. I was sitting on the roof of my parents’ house and it was late summer, at the beginning of nineteen ninety-seven. I grew up in quite a beautiful town in the mountains in New South Wales. Most of my friends hated the place and couldn’t wait to escape to a big city and start their lives. I made vague noises of agreement, and I was very excited to go away to university, but I also liked our town and was sad to leave. I had many fond memories of wandering the streets; skateboarding in the chilly evenings; eating chips and gravy and holding hands in the underground carpark with grungy girls in fingerless gloves and long skirts. Planning whose house we were going to drink at that night.
Of course all of that came later. When I was a boy there were no girls but people’s sisters, and instead of skateboarding in the carparks and running from security guards we splashed in creeks and flitted through the trees in backyards, fighting with wooden swords and grimacing when the wood smashed our cold hands. We tirelessly played Sega and SNES games, jumping the same bricks and falling in the same lava for hours until we saved the blocky little princess.
And we played Warhammer. And Dungeons and Dragons. D&D games in the beginning were a bunch of shrill little boys joyfully cheating, slashing and looting through a child’s intricate and pointless dungeon, crammed with secret doors and moving statues and existing only for the characters to pillage. Our characters grew up before we did, buying land and ruling it, and that was boring so we started again. Then we grew up a bit, and our characters never did – some of the grungy girls sometimes played in our game, and we drank whisky while we played and our characters had personalities. And we tired of them quickly and started over and over again.
It was Warhammer I was thinking about on the roof though. Like I said, the town was quite beautiful and late summer in the afternoon was cold. There was smoke coming from many of the houses with old wood fires and I could see almost the whole town. I liked climbing on to the roof because the corrugated iron was pleasantly warm, and if you’ve never been to country Australia you don’t know how big the sky looks.
When I sat on the roof I didn’t see my town. I saw Marienburg, or one of the other regional cities of the Empire in the Warhammer Old World. I liked to pretend that I was a watchman, eyes peeled for the black smoke and howling insanity of a horde of beastmen and grim chaos warriors. This time I felt especially gritty and soldierly as I had started smoking and had a roll-your-own in my hand. Despite the smoke and trace of a hangover I felt completely connected to myself as a boy, even though I knew that at nineteen I was probably too old to be sitting on a roof pretending to be a doomed town guard. It was a guilty pleasure.
I had always loved the Warhammer Old World: the crooked anatomy of Blanche; the rictus grins and demented cross-hatching of Ian Miller’s Empire cityscapes. The figures were like that too – unbalanced, looming and creepy. The fiction was even darker. On the train to Sydney once I had read Jack Yeovil’s Genevieve books, and Ian Watson’s Inquisitor. I was old enough by then to notice the bent sexuality and blood-slicked murderous quality of the violence. People were wary of D&D but Warhammer was the real deal. Demons possessed helpless folk and burst from their bodies rotting or bedecked in parodies of S&M gear. The Old World and the Imperium of Man were small places full of small minds, and everyone was doomed. The nihilism was palpable and as a kid you could just tell that this was forbidden stuff. It clearly wasn’t written by normal, healthy adults.
And I was never exactly a normal kid, so I sat on the roof and smoked my cigarette and looked out at my town. I knew I’d be leaving in a few weeks for good but I couldn’t stop thinking about Warhammer. I played it with the younger kids. My brother’s friends. Only one of my own friends wanted to play with us. The others were even fading from our D&D group by now. Making their excuses and giving me this look, like they knew how much I loved it and they didn’t want to hurt my feelings by telling me they felt like fools. I had this feeling myself: that these games were something secret and golden for kids, and so I was leaving them behind. I wasn’t sad exactly… I mean I knew that there’d be parties and serious discussions in the pub and probably beards and maybe even placards at the university in Canberra. Definitely cigarettes. And hopefully some girls who were as pretty as they were smart.
When I thought about Warhammer I did just that. I thought about it. I didn’t talk to anyone. At that time I had been gaming for about half of my life. I had never met a single person that played the games I loved who hadn’t come to them through me or one of my friends. That seems so strange now. But the world was small.
I sat there and imagined scenes in my head, and recalled gruesome passages from the stories and shivered. The actual games we played were slipshod ridiculous affairs. We used an old ping-pong table in my garage and there was no prior agreement, no rules arguments, and no one really tried to win. We just rolled up with as much as we had on two giant teams, and then tweaked it so the forces were well matched before the game began. And then it was hours and hours of yelling and creating scenes and dramatic fights and admiring each other’s painted figures.
I once went with my dad to play a real, adult wargame with my friend’s father. I was sixteen. My friend’s dad invited my dad because he was an army officer, and he thought he would like the game. My friend’s dad was a librarian. When we got there he had loads of Napoleonic models, and he explained the rules and he and dad started playing while I watched. Dad frowned, and leaned over the table, and then cheerfully beat the guy. The guy suggested another scenario and dad beat him again. Then they switched games and dad beat him again. My dad, as well as being an army officer, is one of the smartest people I have ever met and he never loses anything. I could sense that my friend’s dad was irritated and a bit frustrated, but he was a grown-up so he tried not to show it. They shook hands at the end and he showed us out, looking a bit sullen but acting friendly enough. I wondered if this was how adults played wargames. There was no magic and they frowned and tried to beat each other.
When I sat on that rooftop I wondered if I would ever play Warhammer again. I couldn’t see how I would. I’d given my army to one of my brother’s friends for safekeeping but I knew it was more than that. And I couldn’t imagine scraping another army together. It had taken me years of effort to collect and paint the one I had. I was fine with the idea of never playing again that day. I felt as though my friends must be right, and that these games were a fragile childhood experience; one that was too fragile to bring with me into the future.
I didn’t know that the future would hold the internet, and smart phones, and the eternal exchange of information and opinion, and that the small worlds of the Old World and the Imperium would be too small for future people, and they’d inflate them and explain them and cast light into every shadow. I didn’t know that I’d be lonely and sad and I’d try and play again five years later, and find that there were no more kids gleefully immersing themselves in forbidden lore. Or at least, it didn’t feel like it. Even the kids were frowning and trying to beat each other, and adults complained about how it wasn’t how it used to be. Of course it wasn’t; the whole world was different. The Games Workshop didn’t seem to be a bunch of vaguely creepy weirdoes handing down dark, carnivalesque concoctions anymore. They now seemed a little out of their depth, catering to a huge industry of people who, unlike me, had never let go for a second. People who had grown with the game from childhood and dragged it into adulthood, and they – and the game with them – had become cleaner. Straighter. Squarer.
Well, Games Workshop were still odd. But not in the same way. I went for a job with them and was embarrassed when they asked me to name a Hollywood actress whose bathwater I would drink. I told them I hadn’t expected that question, and that I had a girlfriend. Then they insisted. I had to pretend I had no girlfriend, and answer the question. I said Jessica Alba and left wondering what the hell had happened. I didn’t get the job. I suppose I’d grown up too, in some ways. Soon afterwards I met a guy at the pub who used to work for them and he said I had “dodged a bullet” and was lucky I hadn’t “drunk the Kool-Aid.”
The world got bigger and the people got smarter and better at everything. Everyone worked out by consensus the correct way to play games. You tried to be good at them, of course. You tried to break them and win them, as a friendly battle of wits. Obviously. And I remember the crazed lawless Warhammer we used to play, where we knew the rules and followed them but no one was really fighting each other. It just genuinely never occurred to any of us that being the best in our group at winning was important. And I wonder if a kid who is obsessed with strange worlds today can ever sit on his roof and pretend his town is Marienburg. Or will he just go online and gossip to a bunch of experts about strategy instead?
It’s really true; you can’t go back. Even a million of us, a billion of us, can’t hold back time. Because we change, and so everything changes with us, and nothing can ever be the same. The games I used to play are as gone as the world I lived in when I sat on my parents’ roof, because they were in that world.
I don’t want to stop my ears and pretend I’m still a child in a world long passed. I’m glad that I can remember being that kid on the roof though. I think remembering is enough and anyway, it’s all we get.