I wandered the recreated Titanic dozens of times during my middle school summer of 1998, hiding from the heat and shitty neighborhood kids by camping in front of our family’s PC. TITANIC: ADVENTURE OUT OF TIME was stocked by the palette at our local Costco, a game developed independently of James Cameron’s disaster opus but riding its fanaticism to the now-defunct studio’s one true success. The country was thick with teen millennials like me willing to sit through The Man in the Iron Mask for another glimpse at Leonardo DiCaprio, and more than willing to beg moms amidst the bulk-packed warehouse cheese for the $20 two-CD-ROM set.
The game held no similarities to the movie plot, sharing only the framing device. But as a Titanic obsessive, I loved the chance to unravel a new story. The film I’d seen eight times at the Bonney Lake Regal Cinema ignited a binge on all things related to the doomed ocean liner. Yes, I’d ordered a VHS copy of 1958’s A Night to Remember, along with a stack of every crusty history tome on the event rotting in the Pierce County Library system. The Titanic loomed in my imagination a ship of horrible destiny—but destiny all the same. It was infamous. Iconic. Obsessed over almost a century after its sinking. I dreamed of being on it not because of a death wish, but an aching desire to be a part of a history. Present in a time, and a place, that mattered—even a hundred years after its demise.
* * *
I don’t know what reminded me of the 24-year-old historic adventure this July, month 400 of pandemic quarantine. With every day spent in our 1300-square-foot house, watching our new infant daughter as hours grinding against endless uncertainty, I felt like my brain was eating itself to stay alive. Gnawing through dimmed synapses until this random gristle of recollection—a summer folded deep in the past, in the purgatory between tween and teen-dom, exploring every rendered pixel the two-disc Titanic game contained.
Distracting the baby with her Rock-A-Mole singing guitar, I ran a quick eBay search for a copy. Jewel cases abounded for less than the cost of my favorite gyro. Aside from the minor detail about my Microsoft Surface having no CD drive, the software was designed to run on Windows 95, a platform I’d left behind 8 computers and 12 phones ago. Yes, the games of my youth are now so crusty and old, they can no longer function. However, even though I hadn’t held onto a spare Gateway for emergency nostalgia rabbit holes, I was in luck. Thanks to the genius of nerds, a converted original was downloadable from Galaxy of Games.
$5.99 on my Visa later and I was back in faceless point-of-view character Robert Carson’s dilapidated London flat, digging through the detritus of his failed spy career. The story begins here, just as the disgraced secret service agent is bombed in a World War II blitz, which magically sends him back 30 years to his C-deck Titanic cabin, the night of the famous sinking. It’s a leap, I realize like a headboard to a shin, almost as far as I’ve made time-traveling to 90s gaming on my Microsoft Surface.
“The past,” his dashing, poor man’s James Bond voice layers over the opening credits. “Forever locked in regret. But what if the past could be changed?”
The objective is not to stop the ship from sinking—apparently the universe just hates that boat too damn much for that. No, your mission is a late-night caper to collect several key artifacts that, if kept out of Nazi and Russian revolutionary hands (antagonists who are, conveniently, booked on the same voyage), prevents both world wars from happening and rights the course of the 20th century into a Walt Disney utopia of peace and prosperity for all mankind.
One night, four objects small enough to stuff in your satchel, and all disaster can be averted. It’s the same fantasy I fall into within all of these current unmarked hours, useless days trying to do everything “safely” from the confines of our little house. What night, what moment, what combination of changes could I make to save us all? When, exactly, did our world fall apart?
The morbid dream of wandering my favorite tragedy’s decks brought me here in childhood. The lure of rewriting fate called me back.
* * *
Does the game look good after all this time? No, the graphics wouldn’t pass quality control on a cheesy pay-to-play app you’d get drunk and download on your phone. But the 3D, historically accurate rendering was revolutionary when it hit the market in 1996, and the badly pixelated furniture and hallways match up with remarkable clarity to the few photos that survived of the ship. The labyrinth layout is meant to add to the mystery of the game as you track down characters and complete favors, but after so many summer days running over every last corner programmed into the code, my fingers navigate the corridors and staircases on auto-pilot. I can’t place what 2020 month we’re in, but once I touch the arrow keys, it’s as if I haven’t been away from this mission for more than a day. As I approach the smokestack, the game’s most complex maze, I tap the correct series of right-right-left-right turns while simultaneously texting my mom back. I reach the top perfectly without a single back-step.
The characters are, quite frankly, creepy as fuck. They loom in otherwise abandoned hallways and decks not quite correct to scale, dead-eyed and unblinking until you summon them with a click. Their animations are an archaic style of stop-motion photographs of real actors, talking in the same cardboard cutout style of South Park. But to me, these old friends are charming, with the same expressions and tics I’d memorized and never forgotten.
The stress of the mystery has not abated, even as I remember each pace, even as I’ve lived a lifetime in between. The moody orchestrated score grows more and more foreboding the deeper into the ship you get, as if warning you to stay above-deck. I still find myself terrified to go back into the engine room, where I know the Serbian stowaway Vlad is waiting to clobber me with a wrench. I stall on grabbing the notebook the German double-agent hid because as soon as I do, the iceberg scrapes by and we’re all doomed. I’ve been here dozens of times before. I know every corner of the story. But the terror in these condemned puppet-people as their reality collapses, it’s real. It’s palpable. It’s helpless.
The end inevitably comes. My bag is stuffed with The Rubiyat, the Painting, the Real Necklace, and The Notebook, everything I need to rectify the world. As I wait for a chance to depart, the boat deck is crammed with humanity eating its own head. Socialite Daisy Cunningham refuses to get into a lifeboat that doesn’t have the “right people” to be seen with. Henry Gorse-Jones wants to get back to the smoking room where it’s warm and packed with men and the comforts of cards and whiskey. The ship dips further and further into the sea, and as the water pours in around the cast’s ankles, the last words continue to assure themselves—things can’t be that bad on an unsinkable ship. There is no combination of dialogue you can crack to convince them of reality. I’ve tried them all. Their self-destruction is programmed.
There is a comfort here, one I didn’t expect to find in a very old game about a much older disaster. The, by all accounts, accurate showcase of incredulous exceptionalism even as death sheds every mask and pretense, unhinging its jaw for the feast. My generation, my parents’ generation, we did not invent ignorance. There is nothing special about our flagrant self-destruction. The magical thinking that lures people into believing that doctors are liars and masks are the real enemy is the same rationale lulling those passengers refusing life vests into a narrative of overreaction ruining their evening.
And yet, we are always here, too. The humans cursed with a critical eye, a healthy sense of fear, a life that has forced us to accept our infallibility. We are the wireless operators sending iceberg warnings to deaf ears, packing the lifeboat we can find with as many bodies as they’ll hold, going back into the darkness to snatch anyone, anyone else from the doom we sniffed out of the air long before the powerful admitted to emergency. Scrounging what we can on only the fumes of hope that the inherited future will somehow be better than our imploded present. Outside of the game, there’s no enchanted combination of artifacts that can save the world. It will always need saving from burning, from sinking, from sickness, from suffering. The hope resides in what can be salvaged from the detritus, and who is left to build it.