A little part of me wants to find former Senator Trent Lott and apologize for some of the things I said about him on December 23, 1997. I didn’t mean to insinuate anything about his mother, and that crack about his love of animals was totally uncalled for. I plead no contest: the blame lies with my late Uncle Will and a mediocre PlayStation One fighter from LucasArts called Star Wars: Masters of Teras Kasi. But if it’s any consolation to Lott, the evening in question remains one of my fondest memory of my uncle, and it inadvertently helped to define my career.
I was in my late teens at the time, on a holiday visit to Los Angeles, which had become a tradition for my mom, brother, and me. These beach escapes from the winters of Kansas were generally positive experiences, with the one exception being the holiday party my uncle threw every year on December 23.
It was the type of party adults hope they are invited to, populated by fun-loving professionals with interesting stories to tell. My uncle and aunt were journalists, but their friends were a mix of everything from war correspondents to house painters to at least one B-list actor that was still riding high on a semi-successful guest stint years earlier on the show Dallas. They talked, they drank, they danced inappropriately with people they shouldn’t. Neck ties became headbands and new types of shots were invented, all while politics were discussed and philosophy debated. As an angry teen, I hated every minute of it.
To help me avoid a party full of alcohol I couldn’t (legally) drink and people I’d never met, I brought along one of my best friends: the PlayStation One. By today’s standards, the PS One is roughly as powerful as a phone you can buy at a gas station, but at the time it was cutting edge.
My birthday lands 10 days before Christmas, which puts it in something of a gray zone in regards to presents. On this particular year, I had received Teras Kasi as a Birthmas day gift, and I brought it along with me.
When it was released, the game was held in higher regard than it deserved. You could play as Boba Fett and fight Princess Leia in her Jabba slave girl outfit! You could settle the age-old question of who would win in a fight between Darth Vader and Thok, the Gamorrean guard! It was a very silly game.
It did, however, provide a sanctuary away from people I had no real interest in getting to know. A close examination of the room my brother and I shared could also likely reveal the unmistakable bouquet of manufactured resentment directed to my uncle, who had the gall to revel with his friends rather than hang out with his anti-social nephew.
Meanwhile, Will was calmly and impartially trying to explain to his neighbor that the current Senate Majority Leader, the Republican Senator from Mississippi, Trent Lott, was an idiot. His neighbor, a staunch conservative who would have elected Regan king given the chance, did not take the news in the good-natured spirit with which it was delivered. Maybe it had something to do with all the good-natured condescension.
With tempers flaring, my uncle wisely decided to avoid escalating things and instead went looking for me. He discovered me beating Luke to death with a casual glee that would have sent Fred Thompson into seizures, and then tried to lure me upstairs with feeble lies about raging parties and half naked women. I was content to perpetuate the gamer stereotype and fulfill my anti-social role. He wasn’t buying it, but a few angry shouts from his enraged neighbor upstairs encouraged his interest in Teras Kasi.
My uncle was not a gamer, but he was a bright guy with the ability to quickly pick up on things. At first, he employed the ancient video gaming fighting technique of jumping a lot and kicking. It was shockingly effective, but I chalked his first win up to luck. His second win was a little tougher to explain away. His fourth win in a row, this one nearly perfect, made a vein on my forehead come to life. I named it Leroy.
During this humbling display, a few others came looking for him. Star Wars being universal, the game was flypaper for the attention spans of those lubricated by the Christmas whiskey/spirit.
Others jumped into the rotation. Apparently, my uncle had some sort of Rain Man-like ability at this one particular aspect of gaming. It was horrifying and fascinating at the same time. Eventually it got to the point where he pitied the rest of us and voluntarily gave up the controller. Soon, the best action in the house was found in a small bedroom with a 19-inch TV and a PlayStation One.
As the room became increasingly crowded, I fled with my uncle into the main party and was soon confronted by guests asking questions about things I had no interest in discussing. School? Career? Girlfriend? Do you like LA? Do you hate LA? It was bad.
I did my best to engage, I really did. In LA there is a certain subspecies of partygoer who seems nice enough, but is focused on discovering exactly what you can do for them. These were the easiest to weed out because I had no job or career, but there were some who made an honest effort to connect. Unfortunately I’ve never excelled at small talk.
Like a lawn mower failing to catch with each new pull of the chord, I just couldn’t break past the first line of talk and find an actual conversation. My uncle, who had a near pathological urge to ensure his guests had a good time, recognized this instantly and tried to steer the conversation towards things I was interested in, which is how we found ourselves talking about Teras Kasi.
The guests were fascinated. By 1997, gaming had displayed the potential to be a force in the entertainment industry, but it had not yet engaged a broader mainstream audience. It was still considered a fringe lifestyle, neither particularly cool nor stylish. It was a hobby, but one that was gaining traction. In that moment, I was the de facto expert in a field my audience knew nothing about.
They wanted to know more about the industry and how it was going. They wanted to see Han Solo beat up Darth Vadar, and we all wanted to know why Teras Kasi featured a Tuskan Raider but not Lando Calrissian. We (myself included) kept the conversation going with shots of tequila, boldly chased with red wine.
As a seasoned reporter, my uncle had a tendency to bombard people with questions. You had to be quick on your feet and willing to let the conversation expand. I admired my uncle a great deal, and one of the traits I most appreciated was his ability to merge discussion with the Socratic Method.
Even though I was a lifelong gamer I had never really considered a career in gaming. At that point, there weren’t really many careers outside of the actual development of games to even consider. But there I was, surrounded by extremely intelligent, curious people who forced me to define my own views of the nascent industry and acknowledge the things I didn’t know. It’s something I’ve never stopped doing.
The conversation also brought me into the fold and made me swim within the stream of the party. My antisocial tendencies were shelved in favor of heavy drinking and good conversation.
By the end of the evening, we had concocted an ungodly thing combining tequila, red wine, and beer, which we dubbed the “Teras Kasiohmygod.” Eventually, we stopped talking about the game industry and started talking about everything else, from religion to society to politics, which brings me to Trent Lott.
This part of the night stands out in my memory, because it involved me standing on a table with my uncle as we cursed the former Senator. Most of the assembled agreed with our well-reasoned, and completely unbiased assessment, and a few – my aunt included – looked on in horror. I may have questioned her voting history at that point. Upon further reflection, that may explain why she vacuumed outside my room early the next morning. Slamming the vacuum into the door was unnecessary, but not unjustified.
Teras Kasi was not a good game. In fact, it was a terrible cash grab with mangled controls and a disappointing lack of content. But at my uncle’s funeral five years later, when the weight of it all was so great that I couldn’t tell you what day of the week it was, I could remember every playable character in the game and their special moves. Chewbacca’s bowcaster attack was a quarter circle and triangle.
I wish I could have gotten at least one win off my uncle at that damn game – not because of my wounded pride (or not just because of it), but because it became a running joke for years that he would tell to friends at each subsequent Christmas party. But each year after, he would do it with me at his side. Those are the things I remember most about my uncle. Not the bad days to come when he got sick, but the good times. And if Trent Lott happened to be a casualty of those good days, I can live with that.