2440 words. 10 minute read.
Content Warning: The essay touches briefly on an account of an abusive relationship, and gaslighting. It also contains spoilers for Tim Hutching’s Thousand Year Old Vampire and the companion volume.
My relationship with memory is a strange, intimate, frustrating one. One the one hand, my memory is excellent. On the other, it’s effectively non-functional.
My memory is wonderful. I can relive conversations from two decades ago as though they were happening now. When I smell ironing I remember my mother, ironing in the kitchen at the height of summer in the mid 90s, George Michael’s Careless Whisper on the radio as the asphalt melted outside and we had water fights that felt particularly dangerous under the ominous threat of a hosepipe ban.
I remember being woken by my mother, late at night in January 1991 when I wasn’t even five years old, telling me to come downstairs and watch TV, we’ve just bombed Iraq. I can still smell the cheap bubblegum and musty seats on a school coach taking us home as, a decade and a handful of months later, David Kelly stood on the seat with his ear to a radio and told us that “someone’s bombed America”. We cheered and laughed, because we were 15 and naive and stupid, and then I got home and watched a second plane hit a second tower and humour evaporated from the world in a matter of seconds.
I remember the moment I first saw the woman who is now my partner, a rare flash of lightbulb memory in a period of years that is an amorphous haze due to an abusive relationship that saw me gaslighted for years, so stressed that my teeth were falling out of my mouth. It was the first day of my Masters and I was sitting at the front of the room during an induction, trying to figure out if there was anybody here who I knew and how much older than everybody else I was, and this girl walked through the door and everything stopped. She was wearing a black leather jacket and blue jeans and had sharp black wings around her eyes. She was just late enough that everyone noticed when she walked in, and my heart stopped in my chest. A few minutes later we got told to go and talk to somebody who we’d never met before, and I made a beeline for her.
I have zero memory of what we talked about, and we’d barely speak for another two years before the planets aligned and we fell into each other’s lives again.
My memory is abysmal. It doesn’t function. I have a neurological condition – untreated, undiagnosed until my early 30s – that renders my short term memory practically useless, especially during periods of high stress. If you haven’t been paying attention, 2020 and 2021 have been particularly stressful. I don’t remember them. I don’t remember what I did yesterday. I may have spoken to you. I may have promised you I’d write something for you, or read something, or look something up and get back to you. If I didn’t write it down, it might as well not have happened.
This, you may imagine, is quite an impairment for somebody who makes part of their living as a freelance writer who people have to be able to rely on.
As I’m writing this, I’ve just stopped to look for the coffee that I know I made when I walked in to the office. That was an hour ago. I genuinely don’t know if I drank it or if I left it somewhere, but it’s gone.
On top of the fact that my brain is wired poorly, I have a history of abuse – a very specific type of abuse that led me to strongly doubt my own memories. I can’t trust my recollections of the past, even though I know that when I do remember things I remember them well. My 20s are a blur, a vague mist with a few patches of very clear light. When people ask things like, “What’s your earliest memory?” or “What was your favourite holiday as a kid?” I don’t have answers. I remember a few very specific, very clear things. The rest is fog.
Enter Thousand Year Old Vampire, a game I own two copies of because – when it was proving very hard to get hold of in the UK – a friend told me he’d arranged with a local gaming store to reserve two copies when they arrived. I forgot, and ordered one directly from Tim Hutchings as well. They both arrived on the same day, and I laughed about it because my life is one endless parade of things arriving that I forgot I’d bought and already own.
TYOV is deeply, intimately connected with memory. Memory is a finite resource, and you are old. Ancient. Potentially eternal. When you create your vampire, you create the memories that you carry with you. And as you play, you destroy them and replace them with new ones. It’s an unsettling, emotional, visceral journey – and it hit me hard, because it replicated, in some small way, the way I experience life.
I haven’t finished my play through of TYOV. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve started to play the game. When I bought it I also bought a new notebook and a new fountain pen, along with some blood-red ink to write in. I do this for all my journaling games.
I don’t know where that notebook is. I put it down after a few days of playing the game on and off, and then I never saw it again. At some point I tidied TYOV itself onto my shelves, and as far as my brain was concerned it ceased to exist.
This has happened multiple times with this game. It feels very fitting.
During ZineQuest this year Tim launched a campaign for A Fantastic Longing For Adventure, an autobiographical zine game played with pieces of coloured plastic that you use to decode messages across the three zines. This is, to coin a phrase, exactly my shit. The title of my MA is “Creative Writing: Innovation & Experiment”. I’m deeply interested in weird narrative things, in writing that breaks our conceptions of what a text can do, from B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates to House Of Leaves to Tom Abba’s These Pages Fall Like Ash and everything in between. I was very excited for A Fantastic Longing.
The Kickstarter launched, and Tim also announced that he was released a secret companion book to TYOV. “It’s a book that complements the Thousand Year Old Vampire game,” he wrote. “It’s not a useful book and you probably shouldn’t order it. It’s not a game, there are no words, it’s not a journal or addendum to play. It’s an experience, I think, but it might not be for you.”
I am a collector. I am a fan of Thousand Year Old Vampire and Tim’s work in general (Weird Horror is one of the best things on my shelf). I live for experimental, weird shit. I ordered it immediately.
And then I forgot.
My first exposure to Dadaism was somebody showing me an image of Duchamp’s Fountain. My initial response was laughter and the words, “what the fuck is that?” I was told that Dadaism – and Duchamp especially – were exactly my shit and that I was about to have my mind blown.
I don’t remember who told me that, but they were not wrong.
I’m not an expert on art or Dadaism or… well, anything. But I like it, a lot. I like the questions it’s made me ask myself – about art, about my relationship with art, about the nature of art itself. About the intersections of art and capitalism. About ideas of utility, function, and expression. I enjoy the mental friction that comes with looking at a piece of art and thinking “what the fuck is this?” – and then it gestates, and I don’t stop thinking about it, and slowly the question becomes “how did I ever think this was anything other than brilliant?”
The Thousand Year Old Vampire companion volume did all this to me.
When it arrived, I was excited. The envelope had Tim’s name on the return address and, for once, I wasn’t confused. I remembered. I knew exactly what this was, and I knew that I’d been looking forward to it for a while. I opened it immediately.
When I saw the cover – the same as TYOV, but with all the words smeared out – I smiled. And then I turned to the first page, and the smile became a frown. My partner asked me if I was okay as I flicked through the book, looking at the shapes and colours and nonsense on the pages.
I put it down, because I felt angry. I felt robbed. Cheated. I’ve been lied to, I said to myself. This is a fucking con. What the fuck is this?
I went online, to Kickstarter, to see how Tim had sold this thing. What had he said about it, back in February, when I’d been so excited to order it?
It’s not a game, he’d said. It’s not a journal or writing book, he’d said. You probably shouldn’t order it.
I put it down. I ate dinner. I read some Kickstarter comments – many outraged, some seemingly in on the joke.
I started talking to my partner about it. And as I talked, it began to make sense. I began to get it. I began to realise that this was exactly my shit. And I realised that I hadn’t been lied to, at all. I’d got exactly what I was told I was buying.
There’s so much to say about the Thousand Year Old Vampire companion that I almost don’t know where to begin. I’ve written 1600 words, and I haven’t even started yet.
One of my initial thoughts was “this serves no purpose”. And in the twelve hours since I had that thought, I’ve come back to it a lot. I don’t like that that was my instinct. I hate that we live in a world where I can look at a piece of art and think “what use does this serve?”
Part of me thinks that this is a facet of the form this companion volume takes. If you’ll allow me to step sideways into Heidegger for a second, there’s a distinction between objects and things. Books are objects; they serve a purpose. They contain words that we can read, or pictures that we can look at and have some kind of emotional response to. Or they don’t – they contain nothing, void, lines or dots that invite us to make our own make, fill them with our self.
Either way, books are functional. They are object.
The Thousand Year Old Vampire companion does neither of these things. It contains no words. The spreads aren’t “art” in the traditional sense of the word. The “almost museum quality paper” is explicitly not suitable for writing on (and just touching it tells you that ink won’t take to it, unless you write in it in Sharpie).
The companion isn’t an object. It’s a thing. And that creates friction.
I look around my office, though, and I’m surrounded by books. Literally, surrounded. At last count I have about 3000 books of various types and genres shoved onto shelves, stacked two- or three-deep, precariously balanced in places not designed to hold them. I’ve read 90% of them, and I tell myself that if you were to pull one off the shelf and ask me about it I’d be able to talk to you about it.
In many cases that’s true, but in many cases that’s a complete lie. I might remember the vague shape of what the book contains, a detail here and there, maybe the name of a character. I might have to read the back of the book to jog my memory. Or I might look at it like I’ve never seen it before.
What is the state of those books that I don’t remember? Words on the page may as well not exist until you look at them, read them, take them in. If a book sits on a shelf, unread and unopened for many years, does it actually contain anything? The books on my shelf that I’ve read and forgotten contain a trace of what they used to be. They’re the memory of narrative, a few smears of story.
Paging through the Thousand Year Old Vampire companion feels like looking at the memory of a book. The right shapes on the page are there, the blur of lettering seen in a dream, but there’s no meaning. No “content”.
The reaction to this thing has, unsurprisingly, been mixed. People have called it a con, a joke, a rip-off. Useless.
But these are gamers we’re talking about. On my shelves, in front of the books and the memories of books, there is a broad collection of what can only be described as tat. I have Funko Pops – the memory of an action figure, all points of articulation gone, stored in a box, unable to be played with. I have plush toys that have never been cuddled. I have collectors editions of video games that came with massive figurines that gather dust on the top of my bookcases. We call it memorabilia when what they really are is just things.
There are spreads and pages in the companion that could have been sold separately as art prints. People would have bought them with no questions asked, paying ten or fifteen dollars for them. Buy four or five and it’s cost you more than the price of this book, and nobody would have questioned it.
But this is a book. Made by a game designer. Surely it must serve a purpose? It must be useful, functional, playable. Right?
When I realised I wanted to write this essay I was walking to work. I had snippets in my head, things I wanted to say, bold turns of phrase and insightful paragraphs about art and thing theory and post-modernism. Some of it was genuinely very good. I was reminded of the essays I wrote during my MA, when I really got to dig in to a topic I was passionate about.
Then I got to work, and I made a coffee, and I said hello to people, and my memory did what it does. It betrayed me.
So you get this. The memory of an essay.
And that seems fitting, somehow.
Thousand Year old Vampire and the companion volume are available from thousandyearoldvampire.com.