My Name is Ozymandias 3


Thomas Barber Coberly died, with­out warn­ing, on May 1st, 2016, at exact­ly 7:04 in the morn­ing. A heart attack, or maybe an aneurysm. It real­ly doesn’t mat­ter, at this point. The ambu­lance came prompt­ly, but he died short­ly after arriv­ing at the hos­pi­tal.

Unexpected deaths leave behind a mess. Unfinished projects and oblig­a­tions and all the detri­tus that life cre­ates are all sud­den­ly with­out the anchor that held them togeth­er or gave them mean­ing. At least with a lengthy ill­ness, a per­son can try to set his life in order, but with a sud­den death, every­thing is still unfin­ished and lived-in. So in between all the big ques­tions, where is the funer­al and who do we invite and did any­one tell Great Aunt Sally, you have all this stuff to deal with, stuff that’s tak­ing up space on the kitchen table, stuff you can’t just ignore. What do you do with the Post-it notes on his desk, remind­ing him to call so-and-so or pay the gas bill? What do you do with his glass­es, which I found right where he left them, on his desk, just before he went to bed that last night? Then, later, once every­one has gone home and you’ve han­dled all the big prob­lems, as you’re left alone to bask in the awful real­iza­tion that he’s real­ly gone, you have to deal with all the lit­tle things. What do we do with his books? Where should we send the remain­der of his sub­scrip­tion to The Economist?

What do you do with all the save files on his com­put­er?

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It’s appro­pri­ate I write about him here. He sup­port­ed my games-writing, and even wrote a short piece for the Ontological Geek some years ago (where­in he wrote about Strat-O-Matic Baseball and called him­self the “Gerontological Geek.”) He com­ment­ed at length on Ontological Geek pieces, and was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in any arti­cles that touched on issues of ethics or the­ol­o­gy.

See, Dad liked videogames – not as much as I do, but more than most, and more than many peo­ple real­ized. Strategy games and RPGs were his favorite, though when I was grow­ing up he played a lit­tle bit of every­thing that I played. His favorites when I was a kid were Starcraft, Final Fantasy Tactics, Baldur’s Gate and Pokemon Red, and he wound up play­ing most of these much more than I did. When I was a kid we used to play co-op mis­sions in Starcraft, both of us con­trol­ling the same base, play­ing again­st AI. He would con­trol the econ­o­my, and I con­trolled the “micro,” the quick maneu­vers and rapid click­ing that wins skir­mish­es. He hated what he called “fast-fingers” games, though he still played them with us any­way, par­tic­u­lar­ly when we got Super Smash Brothers: Melee and I could think of noth­ing else for about a month straight.

But for all that he liked Starcraft and Strat-O-Matic, Dad’s real videogame love was Civilization IV, which he dis­cov­ered in 2010 and played steadi­ly until his death. Civ games hit all of Dad’s old war-gaming and his­to­ry but­tons, and although he enjoyed Civilization V, it was real­ly Civ IV that won his heart. I checked his Steam account (OFSM, for “Old, Fat, Smelly Man,” his pro­file pic­ture “two vast and trun­k­less legs of stone”) after he died: 4638 hours in Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword.

That’s a lot of hours spent man­ag­ing the affairs of dig­i­tal empires. I knew he played a lot of Civ IV, but it wasn’t until I said that num­ber aloud right before his funer­al that I real­ly thought about what it meant.

Dad worked from home as a tran­scriber, sit­ting in front of his com­put­er all day, type-type-typing away, turn­ing the dis­joint­ed ram­blings of men in expen­sive suits into words on paper, neat­ly pack­aged. Their umhs and ahs and incom­pre­hen­si­ble phras­es are turned, by a good tran­scriber, into coher­ent sen­tences (if not coher­ent points). The high-paying work was in pro­duc­ing tran­scripts for investor rela­tions calls: lis­ten­ing to CEOs and CFOs talk about how many gajil­lions of dol­lars they made last quar­ter, and field­ing ques­tions from ana­lysts about how many gajil­lions more they expect­ed to make the next quar­ter. I some­times won­der if the investors and ana­lysts, all paid absurd amounts of money to move around other peo­ples’ absurd amounts of money, had any idea that they made their invest­ment deci­sions based on tran­scripts pro­duced by a col­lege dropout who lived in a single-wide trail­er for the last 30 years of his life.

I tran­scribed for a liv­ing for a while, too, fol­low­ing in the fam­i­ly busi­ness, I sup­pose. So I under­stand how he had time and incli­na­tion to put so many hours into one game over the years. Transcription, at least the way we did it, is a ter­ri­ble full-time job. The con­stant stream of words flow­ing into your ears and out through your fin­gers throws you into a sort of stat­icky trance, pound­ing out an awful, tedious rhythm bro­ken only by typos you have to cor­rect or by inco­her­ent mum­blings you have to replay a thou­sand times before you final­ly give up and mark them as [inaudi­ble]. There’s never enough work, and what there is remains spo­radic and hard to pre­dict – con­fer­ence calls get resched­uled, or are half as long as you expect them to be, so bas­ing your house­hold bud­get on tran­scrip­tion is like the world’s worst game of chance. During busy sea­sons, there’s plen­ty of work, but it’s all at once and all rush work, expect­ed to be turned around a few hours after the con­fer­ence call ends—indeed, the faster you must turn it around, the bet­ter you are paid. Transcription pay is based on a com­bi­na­tion of length of the call and how quick­ly you need to turn around the work. Too lit­tle work and you’re bored, chained to your com­put­er in case some­thing comes in but left with noth­ing to do but browse the Internet and play videogames while you wait. Too much work and your fin­gers hurt and your brain starts to fray around the edges. You end up exhaust­ed, but unable to sleep, your brain still buzzing with para­graphs and para­graphs of garbage, men­tal­ly tired even though you didn’t leave your desk more than once every five hours.

I did it full time for about 2.5 years, and part time, off and on, for anoth­er 4. It left me tired, depressed, irri­ta­ble and noc­tur­nal – ter­ri­fied I couldn’t sup­port myself and my wife, and bored dur­ing the days when there wasn’t any work. I look back on the time I spent tran­scrib­ing, sit­ting in front of my com­put­er all day, as some of the low­est points of my life.

Dad tran­scribed full-time for almost 20 years.

He only said it once or twice, but I know it both­ered him to be reduced to a stenog­ra­pher for wealthy men with Harvard MBAs who nev­er­the­less couldn’t speak in com­plete sen­tences. My father was a bril­liant man, an excep­tion­al ora­tor, a some­times poet, an auto­di­dac­tic man of let­ters, and yet here he was, liv­ing in a trail­er, only writ­ing down the dri­v­el of other men who made mil­lions of dol­lars a year. His lack of edu­ca­tion and his eter­nal strug­gles with depres­sion and bipo­lar dis­or­der kept him where he was, when he felt he should have been so much more.

It’s more com­pli­cat­ed than that, of course (it always is) and maybe I’m just pro­ject­ing: read­ing Dad’s actions through my own guilt that I got out of that trail­er and grad­u­at­ed from col­lege. I don’t tran­scribe any more, after all. I’m going to a swanky law school, and I’ve devel­oped a taste for sushi and scotch.

So per­haps Dad’s love for Civ has noth­ing to do with the cir­cum­stances of his life – per­haps it was just a fun game he played on his com­put­er between tran­scripts, and I shouldn’t read any­thing into it. But I can’t help but feel that he liked the con­trol of Civilization, liked that he was leav­ing a mark on the his­to­ry of a world, even if it was only a dig­i­tal one.

And here I am, now, and on his com­put­er are all the save files from his thou­sands of hours of elec­tron­ic con­quest – 4600 hours of time stored in lit­tle pock­ets of elec­tron­ic infor­ma­tion on a hard drive. I have spread­sheets where he tracked his scores, play­ing through every lead­er and com­par­ing the results. I have all these things, and I don’t know what to do with them.

I don’t even know what to do with my own save files. They just sit around tak­ing up space on hard dri­ves and mem­o­ry cards until those dri­ves fail or get lost. I rarely load them back up. There’s no rea­son to go back and look at old playthroughs of Mass Effect or half-completed playthroughs of XCOM. But I have a hard time delet­ing them even as I know they’re essen­tial­ly use­less. When, some years ago, my sis­ter told me that my old copy of Pokemon Gold had cor­rupt­ed and I’d lost all the data there­on, I felt a pal­pa­ble sense of loss even as I laughed at my silli­ness.

I think this is because old save files serve as a sort of memo­ri­al for the amount of time we spend play­ing the game. Some kind of proof that I didn’t just waste all that time spent fid­dling with plas­tic in front of a mon­i­tor. Even if I can’t point to some phys­i­cal thing I built as a result of those hun­dred hours, the save file exists. I could go back and look at the empire I built in Civ or the memo­ri­al wall in XCOM, or see the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of choic­es I made in Dragon Age. Their mere exis­tence is a com­fort – some way to mark the pas­sage of time – a mon­u­ment to hours spent star­ing at a screen.

But none of Dad’s save files holds any par­tic­u­lar mean­ing for me, in and of them­selves. I don’t have any games we played togeth­er that I’d par­tic­u­lar­ly want to memo­ri­al­ize, or any per­son­al con­nec­tion to any of his empires. I don’t even know yet how many save files there are. Did he keep only the games he was par­tic­u­lar­ly proud of? Did he keep every­thing? Or is it just the games from the last few months, games he hadn’t quite fin­ished yet and was mean­ing to get back to?

According to Steam, he last logged on to Civ IV on April 29th, two days before he died. Is that save file still on his com­put­er? Did he fin­ish that game?

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My sis­ter said she might go in and fin­ish one, one of these days – log in and load up what­ev­er game he was play­ing that week and play it to the end. I like that idea. I like the sym­bol­ism of pick­ing up where he left off and resolv­ing all the projects he left unfin­ished. The King is dead, long live the Queen. But that doesn’t actu­al­ly solve the issue of what to do with all the data. It doesn’t feel rea­son­able to just store all of it some­where and never look at it. He’s gone, and any­way, he was prob­a­bly going to delete them him­self at some point. If he didn’t think they were impor­tant enough to save, there’s no rea­son we should keep them.

Even so, I can’t bring myself to just erase it all. I don’t want to just anni­hi­late all trace of those 4600 hours of hard work. If your dad built model planes or fixed old cars or paint­ed, you would keep at least some of the objects he cre­at­ed, right? Even if they weren’t very good, or only lived in boxes for the rest of your life, you would want to keep them and look at them every once in a while, or maybe just think of them, slow­ly rust­ing in the attic, and allow them to remind you that, yes, he real­ly did exist, you didn’t just make him up. You might show them to your chil­dren, to give them some sense of con­nec­tion to the grand­fa­ther they never met.

(That’s some of the worst of it, you see. My wife’s father died five years ago in a sur­pris­ing­ly sim­i­lar fash­ion. Our chil­dren, when­ev­er they’re born, will have no grand­fa­thers. We joke with our sis­ters that this makes us mem­bers of the World’s Shittiest Club.)

But some­how I don’t think I can load up a game of Civ IV for my kids and show it to them as some­thing Grandpa made. They can’t hold the Civ empire in their hands and know he touched it, or won­der what it looked like before the paint peeled off. And it’s not like I don’t have any other memen­tos of Dad. I have plen­ty: his gavel, his old wargames, old D&D char­ac­ter sheets, and oh-so-many books. I have the Bible he gave me when I was 8, with 2 Timothy 2:15 inscribed on the cover, writ­ten in his care­ful pen­man­ship, so unlike my own chick­en scratch­es. (“Do your best to present your­self to God as one approved, a work­man who does not need to be ashamed…”)

But I don’t want to just get rid of the save files, either. 4600 hours over 6 years is about 15 hours a week, same as a part-time job. It’s too much time, real­ly. A clear symp­tom of Dad’s manic-depressive mind. So maybe I should just destroy all of it, treat it all as proof of how unhap­py he some­times was. People who live ful­fill­ing lives don’t rack up those kinds of num­bers, as a rule.

And I don’t have to – shouldn’t – make all the deci­sions yet. Not now, only a few months later, when I still catch myself won­der­ing what he’ll think about some­thing in the news, or want­i­ng him to look over a draft of an arti­cle before I post it.

My wife is a dig­i­tal media artist – maybe I can com­mis­sion her to do some­thing clev­er with all the data – turn it into a visu­al­iza­tion of some­thing. Maybe I can look at each of them and write some cheeky arti­cle about the many empires he built. Or maybe not – he would prob­a­bly think that was a waste of time and chide me to spend more time on my school­work or other projects.

But now he’s gone, so he doesn’t get a vote. He left us behind to pick up the pieces of his life, to throw out his post-it notes and turn off his Facebook account. We have to decide what to do with all the bits and bobs of him tak­ing up space on our hard dri­ves, because our lives move on, even if his doesn’t, and we can’t haul every­thing around with us forever. And in the grand scheme of things, the fate of his videogames saves isn’t very impor­tant. He left behind plen­ty of lega­cy in other ways, and I have plen­ty of things to remem­ber him by.

But, trite as it is, it’s the mun­dane stuff that means he’s real­ly gone. Deleting those save files just proves that he’s not ever com­ing back for them.


Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and now Editor Emeritus (that means he doesn't really do anything any more) of the Ontological Geek. He currently studies law at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he lives with his wonderful wife and a pair of small and snuggly terriers.

  • MMello

    Nice piece. Thanks.
    I’m a Civ addict myself.

    I always dreamed of a Civ fea­ture that would com­pose a text, nar­rat­ing the his­to­ry of our civ­i­liza­tions, in a nat­u­ral, history-book-like style.
    Maybe a friend of yours would do us all the great ser­vice of devel­op­ing such a feature/app. I would cer­tain­ly pay some­thing for it. And you would have won­der­ful bed-time sto­ries to tell your chil­dren, about the exploits of their grand­pa. ;-)

  • Hi, first time read­er, first time com­menter. I read the Kotaku repost and since their com­ments sec­tion doesn’t work for me, I opted to reg­is­ter a dis­qus account and post here.

    I want to make the argu­ment that you should back­up your father’s saves for three pri­ma­ry rea­sons:

    1. Since your sis­ter wants to con­tin­ue from his saves, it gives her the option to revert back to where he saved. It also elim­i­nates the pos­si­bil­i­ty of her over­writ­ing one of his saves and forever los­ing that snap­shot.

    2. Your father touched more peo­ple than your­self. While you may not see that data as rel­e­vant, some­one else might. They may or may not under­stand the choic­es you made after his death.

    3. Because you may change your mind later on in life.

    To elab­o­rate on that third point, life changes in ways we don’t expect. We as humans are awful at pre­dict­ing the future espe­cial­ly when it comes to our own. Events we didn’t expect hap­pen and com­plete­ly change our per­spec­tives and views on life and peo­ple. Your arti­cle is a snap­shot of your mind at the time you wrote it. Ever look back at ear­lier arti­cles and won­der what you were think­ing? I’m sure at some point in time in the future, you will think the same way about this arti­cle (or some­thing speci­fic in it).

    If you delete the saves now, you can’t recov­er them. They’re the new pic­tures to fill the fam­i­ly photo album. Even if we don’t think that’s ever going to be the new norm. Grandchildren or great grand­chil­dren might real­ly get into early Civilization games, and these saves can be an excel­lent way for them to con­nect your family’s his­to­ry to their lives on a whole dif­fer­ent level than retelling sto­ries of yore.

    My father passed away a few years ago. He was a real ass­hole to my fam­i­ly and myself, and I don’t miss him at all. However I still retain a back­up of his data not for myself, but in case if any­one ever wants to exam­ine it. It could be for research, for his­tor­i­cal pur­pos­es, or plain curios­i­ty. Why deny the pos­si­bil­i­ties because I was angry and short-sighted? History, no mat­ter how grand or small, needs to be taught in its entire­ty. No mat­ter how messy.

    Thank you for the very thought­ful arti­cle.

  • Sarah K

    First of all, this is a love­ly trib­ute to a man you clear­ly loved and knew well.

    You said your wife was an artist. I think the opens the door to a thou­sand tan­gi­ble things you could remem­ber him by with­out the files, know­ing that the files will some­day be use­less. The first thing that sprung to mind was to find some appeal­ing maps, add a fil­ter, and print and frame them as peo­ple do for places they’ve vis­it­ed or wish to visit. Put them up in your office or some other place you will see them often. I think it would be good to have a tan­gi­ble con­nec­tion to a “place” he spent so much time in.