I am on a train to Sheffield, tapping away at my iPad daintily to avoid the RSI in my right wrist making a resurgence. I’m sitting at a table with a family: a father and two children playing a board game. The box calls it Click n Jump, but I remember it as Frustration when I played it with my brothers as a child.
The rules are simple. Like Ludo, the object is to move your four plastic tokens around the circumference of the board and into a safe zone. The die is encased in a plastic bubble that you press down on to roll, which makes a distinctive popping noise that is great fun for the kids and probably annoying most of the train carriage right now. The eponymous Frustration comes from two factors: you have to pop a six before you can move a piece, and if your piece lands on an opposing player’s, it sends their piece back to the start. It’s a game of false starts, setbacks, and of course, luck.
I used to love board games when I was young. My favourite was Mouse Trap: gradually setting the trap around the board, the anticipation of someone triggering it, the disappointment of the pieces not aligning properly and the Rube Goldberg machine collapsing as the green ball failed to launch the diver. As well as Mouse Trap, my brothers and I would play Monopoly, Cluedo, Connect 4, Game of Life, each ending prematurely as someone was accused of cheating or unfairly punishing another. One of us would storm away from the board, usually admonishing “you’re sly!” Nowadays, it’s called ragequitting. As it once said on the box of Trivial Pursuit, “what mighty contests arise over such trivial things”.
The greatest strength of board games is their meaninglessness. They don’t matter while you are playing, and they matter even less when you’re done. The only record of your play (apart from the lasting resentment of You’re sly!) is the faint outline of the last Yahtzee scores on a pad of paper. I miss the ephemerality of such games. It used to be the case with classic videogames as well: the Mega Drive lacked persistent memory except for battery backup in some cartridges, and every new game was a blank slate. Now, everything contributes to an endless ticker tape of statistics. I just finished replaying Bayonetta on the Wii U before tackling the sequel, and I missed all the weapons and techniques I had unlocked on the 360 version, the high scores. Yet the game was exactly the same! It was just as good, if not better without having the crutch of accessories. I deliberately wanted to experience Bayonetta afresh because my judgment was clouded by those fifty hours of accumulated play. (Spoiler: it is still amazing.)
We cannot escape our prejudices. Our minds absorb information, reviews, rumours. Even when we think they’re clear, they are more like the Yahtzee pad; as we write new memories the pencil lines warp in the indentations, almost imperceptibly altered. The mental mouse trap has been set, waiting for our prejudices to trigger it. Bayonetta 2 will feel like a masterpiece because Bayonetta is a masterpiece. Frustration is frustrating.
The children are still popping the die, swearing revenge against their father for the setbacks. The young boy says “I hate you!” to his dad, lovingly, for acts that will soon be forgotten. I imagine myself sitting with my brothers, flipping the board, screaming “You’re sly!”. But it is not they who were sly. It was my own mind. It has always been sly.