It’s 5 a.m. The wheels of our Suburban glide across the empty highway, a lullaby for the weary inhabitants who snuggle their pillows in the hope that a nap makes our early departure less obscene. Already two cups of coffee deep, my father keeps his eyes on the road; mine are glued to the screen of my Game Boy Advance SP, which is its own form of caffeine.
“Hey,” my Dad whisper-growls, “look.” After a few moments, I tear my eyes away from the GBA and glance out the window to see the rising sun. Blood orange and soft red mingle in the sky, a secret dance privy only to those stupid or bold enough to be awake at this hour. I drink it in for a second before returning back to the virtual world in my hands, the fantastical once again taking precedence over reality.
Growing up, I never traveled without a handheld console and at least 10 games to switch between on a whim. A good trip always requires a good videogame, at least that’s been the guiding philosophy of my life. Immersing yourself in a game frees you from the tin box you’re steadily moving forward in, allowing you to stretch your mind to balance out the aches of being shoved into the backseat. And although mobile devices, the Nintendo Switch, and the Steam Deck have helped portable gaming to reach an unimaginable freedom, there’s something special about the consoles from my childhood. Holding a GBA or DS Lite in my hands just feels right.
That’s probably why, when a housemate suggested we play through the third generation Pokémon games—Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald—on our spring break road trip, I immediately agreed. My six housemates and I were driving to a few national parks to camp, hike, and shoot the shit around the fire; we wanted to do one last big hurrah before the looming specter of graduation changes everything. By the time we hit the road, five of us were set on not just playing the games, but racing to see who could beat the Elite Four first.
Perpetually crammed in the back-backseat, I was determined to spend every minute in the game that my nearly two decade old GBA SP could provide. Although I was straddled with Ruby, which is unarguably the lesser game in all contexts, I was thrilled to be exploring Hoenn again. The generation remains my favorite, and I’ll defend its three starters and the amount of water until my dying breath. The moment I heard the Game Boy’s opening chime, I was transported back into the Suburban with my Dad.
If I closed my eyes, I could tune out everything except the rumble of the wheels beneath me. I imagined myself shrinking, the burden of growing up stripped from my bones. Once again small and so full of potential, my hands gripped the GBA perfectly, as if they were solely made to do exactly that. When I looked out the window, I swore I saw the sun rising even though it was already morning.
I know the opening of Ruby like the back of my hand: exit the moving truck, talk to Mom, talk to your rival, pick a starter (#TreeckoGang) and save Professor Birch. The familiarity the game provided was comforting, and I quickly lost myself among the well-worn routes in the name of catching ‘em all. I simply didn’t have the time to think about graduation, possible jobs, or what daily adult life would look like when I desperately needed to evolve my Makuhita into Hariyama to beat the third gym leader.
Although we were technically in competition, a few housemates graced me with their Pokémon expertise, gently guiding me into building my perfect team, or less gently reminding me for the fifth time that Psychic moves do not affect Dark-types. The communal experience felt akin to being on the playground in elementary school, everyone excitedly sharing their knowledge without expecting anything in return.
This videogame fever spread far past the bounds of Pokémon though; it was never long before the topic was broached during our hikes. Answers to our first videogame were quickly followed up by a ranking of the most iconic Call of Duty games while a half-hour later I was waxing poetic on how underrated the Wii U was. Passionate diatribes on the quality of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag were exhaled while we scrambled up, around, and through massive boulders. Even the people who “grew out of games” had stories to share about the medium influencing their lives. The veneer of being college seniors dropped: we were little kids again, gushing about our favorite games without an ounce of embarrassment. Although I’ve known my friends for the entirety of my time at college, it was this connection that made me feel closer than ever before.
I reached the Elite Four during the last stretch of our drive home. With nothing but a few battles between me and victory, I could have dedicated those last few hours in the car to trying again and again to win… but I didn’t. I put the game down and haven’t picked it up since. It would be easy to say that part of me doesn’t want to let this rediscovered childhood roll credits. That I pinned my past onto beating Ruby and if I never do, I’ll never have to actually grow up. That would be disingenuous though.
The truth is a lot more mundane and adult: my motivation fizzled out. The moment I entered my house, all the work and expectations I had been avoiding settled back on my shoulders. I had essays to write, journals to read, writers to edit; my responsibilities, the things I have worked so hard to have, returned. When I sat down at my desk to start the crunch of work, soft pink and warm amber light trickled through my blinds. The sun was setting, a melancholic ritual that lethargically nudged me out of the fantastic and back into reality.
I simply got busy, but I want there to be a more romantic and introspective reason, even if it’s a little white lie. I want to imagine that by leaving Ruby unfinished, I’m harboring the last vestiges of my childhood flame, all that naïve passion and uncomplicated joy. It smolders, waiting for the next road trip so it can once again transform into a roaring fire and cast me into the warmth of youth once again.
Mik Deitz is a freelance writer and Paste intern. They inhale stories in videogames, films, TV and books, and have never finished God of War (2018). Yell at or compliment them on Twitter @dietdeitz.