The Year That Time Collapsed

by Brendan O’Connor


Sometime around February, a friend introduced me to a Japanese iPhone game called Neko Atsume. It involves cats. I say that it’s a Japanese game because it appeared to be for Japanese people, or at least people who speak Japanese, given that it was entirely in Japanese. As with real cats, you don’t have to do much: Make sure there is food in the bowl and pillows to sit on or boxes to sit in; unlike real cats, however, Neko Atsume cats give you money to buy them things. Sometimes they bring you gifts — real cats do this too, but it’s usually something gross like a dead animal or a hairball. The game cats bring earrings and cicada shells. It was a simple premise, and it’s also addicting. The point was never clear. For about a week after I first downloaded the game, I would wake up, feed my real cat, clean her litter box, and then get back into bed and play with my Neko Atsume cats.

In the future, I will remember 2015 as the year that time collapsed. I have been working, essentially, seven days a week since last December, having been offered a weekend gig that, after about ten months, turned into a weeknights gig.

Without lengthy, consecutive breaks in which to do something other than work, I started losing track of what day it was. If I took a day off it was often out of either necessity, or by accident, or both: I would wake up and waste a morning and then decide that I needed a day off. Maybe it was a Monday, or a Thursday. Ostensibly my day off was Friday. It never seemed to work out. This experience has only accelerated since moving to nights. It’s a good schedule really: six-ish to midnight-ish, unless there’s breaking news. It offers plenty of time to do other freelance reporting and writing during the day (theoretically, at least), so long as I actually get out of bed don’t have any other errands to run or chores to take care of.

(If I believed that the world reflected my inner life, the fact that, at least in New York, we have had such a mild winter, which followed a very mild summer, would seem to be an externalization of this temporal smushing. But I don’t believe that. The weather is just the weather. Let’s not be ridiculous.)

Anyway, despite waking up and not knowing what day it is and growing more gray hairs in the past two months than I have in my past twenty-six years, the schedule shift has been, on the whole, good. I’m making more money!

In March, the New York Times reported that Netflix was expected to spend more than $450 million on original programming in 2015, up from $243 million in 2014. Next year, Bloomberg reports, Netflix expects to spend $5 billion on programming altogether — both original programming and that which it licenses from other producers.

From Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep:

A 24/7 world is a disenchanted one in its eradication of shadows and obscurity and of alternate temporalities. It is a world identical to itself, a world with the shallowest of pasts, and thus in principle without specters. But the homogeneity of the present is an effect of the fraudulent brightness that presumes to extend everywhere and to preempt any mystery or unknowability. A 24/7 world produces an apparent equivalence between what is immediately available, accessible, or utilizable and what exists. The spectral is, in some way, the intrusion of disruption of the present by something out of time and by the ghosts of what has not been deleted by modernity, of victims who will not be forgotten, of unfulfilled emancipation. The routines of 24/7 can neutralize or absorb many dislocating experiences of return that could potentially undermine the substantiality and identity of the present and its apparent self-sufficiency.

Some people — presumably those who don’t speak Japanese — don’t like that they don’t understand what’s going on in the Japanese cat game app. When the game started getting popular with English-language users, for example, the comments in the App Store were kind of amazing.

“I love this game. It’s very cute and fun to play,” wrote Lily Baby 18. “I only have one problem. I wish you could change the language to understand what’s going on. If there is a way to add other languages, that would be great.”

“The cats are so cute,” wrote nichAsun. “But please add English.”

As far as I was concerned, this is did not detract from the experience of playing this game, but enhanced it. The point was never clear; there didn’t seem to be a way to win. If there was, it was secondary. Everything that happened was a mysterious surprise: the game was mostly inscrutable, with occasional glimmers of causality.

I have a theory about Netflix: It does not mean anything for television to be “good” anymore.

I try to be a critical, skeptical person — especially of that which appeals to me. But this year I spent so many hours watching (and enjoying) television shows that I thought were “bad.” Many of Netflix’s original shows are eminently watchable, but they are, looking at them with anything resembling discernment, not actually good. Marco Polo is extremely bad. Peaky Blinders (not a Netflix original, but they acquired the exclusive distribution rights for the United States) is extremely bad. Sense8 and Narcos: extremely bad. All of them I watched in their entirety in a matter of days. It’s not just Netflix, either. Or maybe this is The Netflix Effect, and it’s echoed back up into legacy programming. In any case, nobody actually cares about the quality of the final season of Mad Men or who is dead and who is alive on The Walking Dead. Prestige television is a sham. Nobody cares. They just want to get it over with.

Again, this is all just a theory. I don’t know if I really think any of this is true. But if consumption is compulsive, then it doesn’t need to be compulsory. And compulsive consumers will always come back, whether they want to or not. They don’t have to be convinced.

I have not been an avid player of video games since I was very young, but, a few weeks ago, a friend introduced me to Skyrim, and I connected with it in a way that I haven’t with a game since Ocarina of Time. This was an entire world, full of countless stories and adventures, puzzles and fights. Dragons! I watched her play for hours. Then I made my own character, and I played for hours. A week later, at her apartment again, I played even more. I decided that I needed my own Xbox, so I bought one on Amazon. It was an impulsive decision.

The console came a few days later, and in the box was also a first-person shooter. I installed it, played it, and did not like it. For one thing, the on-screen bloodshed made me queasy. For another, in contrast with Skyrim, all the choices are foreclosed. It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s straightforward, barely more complicated than watching an extremely violent, poorly scripted movie.

As much fun as I am finding Skyrim, though, I have to admit that this is a difference of degree, not kind. You’re in their world. There are many choices to make, but they remain choices constructed for you. The game’s intoxicating freedom ultimately proves illusory, although by the time you realize this you’re already hooked. I’m not claiming to be breaking new critical ground here or anything, but it’s really no wonder this is a $90 billion industry.

The other day, after a few months of not playing, a friend opened Neko Atsume on her phone. It was in English, now, and all the cats were gone.

Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.