WORLD OF KHAKI
Today, I remembered all the things that I'd forgotten: black mold on the bath rim, haggard bike frames leaned against everything, Annie's anarchist brochures on the sill... how guests arrived at random intervals, pitiful, a little sick of their own squats, looking to drink beer in front of some different pictures on the wall for a change.
—Slaughter Beach, Dog
Outside the front door of the Khaki Butthole, a rotting pumpkin slumps into itself, a trio of mangled bicycles bend against the railing, and a water-damaged couch squeezes against the edge of the porch. The walls inside are painted an overcast, brownish-yellow—the color that inspired the house's nickname—and a magnet on the refrigerator implores us to be a sequin in a world of khaki. In the center of the living room, a television is propped up by my dresser, which I'd originally positioned there because the dimensions of my bedroom were not large enough to contain it alongside my desk, my twin-sized mattress, a laundry hamper. Erich is usually mainlining 90's science fiction movies from the couch, his hand resting casual in his pants because "it's more comfortable that way," and cackling like a guest host on Mystery Science Theater. The kitchen sink is invariably full of dishes, and a grim stairwell leads downstairs, where Gio reads a generic-looking book while jamming out to alternative music, and where Tommy plays guitar at odd hours of the night and day. Everyone is constantly roaming up and down the stairs, and Mikayla and Sharon come over now and again to sit around the living room and strum an acoustic, drink cheap beer. Others come and go, and the chatter is never-ending: they gossip, they flirt, they tell funny stories, start preposterous rumors, joke about politicians. They hug and high-five and nearly keel over laughing. The Khaki Butthole is warm and alive and full of movement.
I watch this play out on my laptop screen from the couch in my studio apartment, as the relentlessly cheery Sims 4 theme music spits through my busted speaker. The images are mundane, uneventful, and not particularly meaningful to anyone other than myself and my former roommates, but it's March 20th, 2021, day 370 of quarantine, and I miss all of this so fucking much.
I lived in the Khaki Butthole between 2013 and 2016. Four of us split the duplex—Erich, Gio, Tommy, and I—and we lived just a couple blocks east of the Colorado State student center, and a few more west of downtown Fort Collins. My years in the Khaki Butthole were chaotic and joyful, punctuated, like many off-campus living situations, by shit-show house parties and by raucous pre-games. It was rare that all four of us would be home at once, but the living room was always occupied, the energy consistent, frenzied, with interruptions to our routines never more than a few hours out from any given moment. There was a sense, living there, of what the writer Marina Keegan described as "the opposite of loneliness":
it's not quite love and it's not quite community; it's just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it's four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can't remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.
And so, from the futon in my studio apartment, twelve months deep into this global pandemic, I'm thinking of the time we hurled stacks of plastic stadium cups at one another, of the time Taylor and I kissed on the front patio just before she moved overseas, of the time Gio got too high and pressed his palms against the drywall and explained mournfully that he had witnessed the shapes of childhood past in the bathroom mirror. I'm thinking of dragging our mattresses into the living room. Passing joints back and forth across the outdoor couch. Sitting on the kitchen floor and trading stories until someone had the good sense to check the time. I'm thinking that, after a rough couple of years, the Khaki Butthole was the last place that felt like home.
Since the start of the pandemic, I've been indoors and unmasked with exactly seven people. It's an uncomfortable number, and in the absence of consistent human contact, I've passed the time by pestering my cat, bitter-ending virtual happy hours, and, for the first time in my adult life, playing video games: dabbling with my old Minecraft account, floundering around in Among Us, and, with an ever-ballooning time commitment, engaging in an obsessive recreation of my life in the Khaki Butthole via the long-running life-simulation game, The Sims, which I purchased over Steam for $49.99.
In his 2003 essay "Billy Sim" Chuck Klosterman describes the game as, "an escapist vehicle for people who want to escape to where they already are." He's not wrong: the game invites players to boldly imagine a world in which their endlessly customizable avatars navigate lives that find them waking up, showering, eating breakfast, going to work, buying crap they don't need, texting their friends, making dinner, washing dishes, repairing appliances, fucking, shitting, answering the phone, staving off despair, surfing the web, falling asleep, and waking up the next morning to do it all over again. It captures the banal carnality of being alive better than just about anything.
Contrary to Klosterman's notion, though, I have no interest in escaping to where I already am. Instead, I want to use The Sims to reconstruct a happier, less lonesome period of my life, to escape to where I've already been rather than to where I already am. I want to build the Khaki Butthole. I want to create simulations of myself and my former roommates at age twenty-two, as well as our friends, our classmates, our partners. I want to re-experience what it is like to socialize without the risk of cutting out for a second, to remember nuances that I might have forgotten, to watch myself in a cramped space, surrounded by a scattered assortment of loosely connected individuals who would otherwise have no business being in a room together, projecting our voices over shitty pop-punk music and sipping out of red Solo cups.
I want to watch myself throw a house party.
After reconstructing the Khaki Butthole, I set about placing the chess pieces that I'll need to make the eventual party a success, first by customizing avatars for myself, my old roommates, and our circle of friends from our early twenties. I give my sim messy hair, thick-framed glasses, a tattoo on his left shoulder, and an unzipped black hoodie over a UFO tee. I assign him a standard walking pattern—not too confident, not too goofy—and pick from a list of aspirations and character traits to define the way his AI will interact with the other sims across my detailed renewal of the Khaki Butthole. I give him the BESTSELLING AUTHOR aspiration and set his traits to OUTGOING, CLUMSY, and NONCOMITTAL.
Creating a sim in my own image is simple enough, but, as I move on to making avatars for my old friends and roommates, it's tough not to feel a little skeevy about the entire project. The limited selection of in-game aspirations means that everyone who has not, in the real world, found their career trajectories routed towards the arts (MUSICAL GENIUS), academia (NERD BRAIN), or brewing (MASTER MIXOLOGIST) is made subject to an abject flattening of their internal lives. Friends who now regularly go to the gym are reduced to this single trait (BODY BUILDER), others who are now married or engaged are defined entirely by their relationship status (SOULMATE), and the identities of my friends with children are tied inextricably to their genetic output (SUCCESSFUL LINEAGE). A friend who now works as a kickass middle school teacher is given the aspiration PARTY ANIMAL because we used to throw down together in college, another is bestowed with FREELANCE BOTANIST because he likes to look at trees when he's high on mushrooms, and a third is assigned MANSION BARON because he once floated the idea of spending $400 on a pair of pants.
Next, the game prompts me to select character traits for each of these sims. It would be inauthentic to give everyone traits like ACTIVE, CREATIVE, and GOOD, and so I assign things like MEAN, LONER, ERRATIC, and LAZY. While I'm putting his sim together, my old roommate, Erich, texts me from a thousand miles away to ask what I thought of Godzilla V. Kong, and I feel a pang of absurd guilt setting his life goal as CHIEF OF MISCHIEF, and his personality traits as SELF-ASSURED, GOOFBALL, HOT-HEADED.
I take a break after creating the first batch of characters, and even as I know, of course, that a video game simulation could never begin to replicate or capture the multitudes contained by even a single person that I have ever crossed paths with, I'm feeling like I fucking nailed it, and so I text my friend Maddy to brag on my creations. By her own best estimate, Maddy has logged more than 300 hours in The Sims since the start of the pandemic, and she rattles off expansion pack recommendations after requesting that I forward her a photo of her sim. I tell her that I don't need any expansions, that I'm really just trying to throw a house party here, and once she's seen her avatar, she writes back with an extensive list of corrections, finally hopping on Zoom to coach me through the nuances of avatar creation.
She texts me again after our call: "This can't be healthy, right?" she asks.
I respond with an upside-down smiley face. I continue my work.
Before I know it, my up-and-coming little town is populated by 25 people from my early twenties with whom I'm still in at least somewhat regular contact. I've effectively turned back the clock for each of them, having plucked Killian out of Sweden, Michael out of the apartment he now shares with his partner in New Haven, Ward and Devyn out of home-ownership and back into the basement apartment. Children are wiped from existence. Entire relationships and career arcs are erased. I prop them all into an approximation of the lives they were living when we first met, and they move through their old housing situations roughly in character: Isaac spends his days alone reading; Aumaine sinks into spells of disaffected melancholy; Diego falls in love over and over again. Occasionally the game will glitch and Micha will stare blankly at a wall for entire days on end, and this feels representative, somehow, of the real-world listlessness that has afflicted so many of us in the intervening years.
The last avatars that I turn loose are the simulated versions of myself and my old roommates. I drop Erich, Gio, Tommy, and I into the city, and, after an impossibly long waiting screen, watch them materialize in front of the Khaki Butthole. They stand around blankly for a few moments as my laptop makes whirring noises, and then they come suddenly to life, shaking hands as little green plus signs appear above their heads. I make them introduce themselves to each other one by one, and once they've all formally met, I click on the front door, prompting the sims to walk up to the patio, past the bikes and the jack-o-lantern, and into the Khaki Butthole.
It's genuinely moving, watching them enter this house together.
And I feel this, deeply, even as I know I shouldn't—because I created them, because this is not real, because they are glitchy facsimiles of real human beings who I could just text if I'm really missing them so much. But it's been at least three years since we've all shared a space that wasn't a Discord channel, and it's been over a year since I've been in a room with more than two people at the same time, and so watching them—watching us—feels so much like going back in time.
They slide easily into the old routines of their real-life counterparts: Tommy strums his guitar, Erich pulls pranks and does push-ups in his bedroom, Gio scrambles eggs, and my sim bemoans his lack of creative inspiration. In the bottom right corner of the screen, a little ticker marks his career progress. "WRITE TWO NOVELS: 0/2," the text says. "WRITE FOR ONE HOUR WHILE INSPIRED: 0/5."
I accomplish very little over the next few days, clicking around the Khaki Butthole long into the night, admiring the unsettlingly close approximation of our previous group dynamic. One night, I fumble for the command button and accidentally make Erich give Tommy "FAKE BAD NEWS," just as he has taken off his clothing to get into the shower, and so Erich steps out of the bathroom, sits naked at the dinner table and lies to Tommy that someone close to him has just died. Tommy puts his head in his hands and wails, but then Erich laughs, stands up, and walks to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, pixels blurring out his genitalia.
It's an absurd display, but watching it, I'm reminded of the time Erich hid individual slices of an entire loaf of bread throughout my bedroom, or of the time Tommy put on a Friday the 13th mask and chased us around the living room in the middle of the night, or of the time Erich and I broke a lamp wrestling over the last Pop-Tart. The specifics are a little off, maybe, but the broad strokes are strangely accurate. I'm struck by how life in The Sims isn't that much more heightened than the reality of my old life inside the Khaki Butthole, isn't that much more absurd than my life in quarantine: using so much hand sanitizer that my skin cracks, disinfecting bottles of Malibu, and getting stoned off my ass each night watching action movies and reassuring myself that this is a sacrifice in the name of public health and of saving lives. The world of The Sims is absurd in a less lonely way than I've become accustomed to, absurd in a more interesting way. It's a little like watching a plotless, avant-garde, generically animated film adaptation of a version of your life you no longer have access to.
There's a whole world inside the game, whereas out here, in this apartment, there's only me.
I get more and more lost in it. The sun rises and falls every twelve minutes or so, and the compression of time within the game mirrors the way my perception has shifted throughout quarantine: days feeling like they've ended as soon as they've begun, weeks passing by like they're nothing, an entire-year swallowed whole. The seasons change as the sims wander about their little lives, learning new skills and engaging in inane discourse and getting very sad if I forget to feed them. I pick a different avatar every hour or so to lead around the neighborhood, and I'm intentional about making sure that each forges various connections with other sims so that the eventual party I plan on throwing might have a little life to it. Some burn bridges with the person their real-world counterpart would end up marrying, others making fast friends with sims they barely know in three dimensions. When the simulated version of my college girlfriend calls my sim up to ask, "HEY CHRIS, IT'S ME, SHARON, DO YOU WANT TO GO ON A DATE?" I immediately, instinctually accept and then feel super fucking weird about it.
"Your sim asked mine out," I message the real Sharon over Instagram.
"lmao," she replies, and then later: "How'd it go?"
"Terribly," I tell her. I explain that our sims don't have much in common: that they didn't laugh at each other's jokes and that I couldn't get mine to stop inexplicably flirting with randomly generated strangers at the sparsely-populated dance club where we'd met up. "The timer on our date ran out," I say, "and then we both just wandered away from each other."
Sharon tells me that this all seems to track, and it strikes me what it means that I've created a Sharon within the world of the game. Despite a complicated history, including her simulation was a no-brainer: we had broken up amicably, had stayed in each other's lives, had stayed friends. Other exes, meanwhile, I had left out entirely—the ones who aren't part of my social circle anymore, the ones with whom I am not on speaking terms, the ones I lived with in the years following my time in the Khaki Butthole. Exes aren't even the only figures I've omitted: I've left out friends that I've fallen out of touch with, acquaintances who hurt the people I love, anyone who it is painful to think about.
I've erased goodbyes, fuck-ups, screaming matches.
What I've created within the game is not just a simulated version of my past; it's a version of my life where my history is incapable of hurting me.
When at last my sims have gotten to know each other well enough to make a house party conceptually interesting, I put Erich, Gio, Tommy, and I to work cleaning up the Khaki Butthole, and then instruct them to invite twelve friends—the maximum—over for a PARTY at around 8:00 pm.
The roommates transform into inexplicably nice attire, and one by one, old faces enter, make themselves at home, begin mingling. And this is it, this is what I've been waiting for, but before I even have the chance to feel sentimental, the game mechanics kick in to place a degree of stress over the proceedings that I had not anticipated: the party will only last for exactly six full minutes, and as the host, simulated Chris must accomplish a series of quantifiable goals for the party to be considered a SUCCESS:
1) SOCIALIZE WITH 12 GUESTS; 2) DRINK THREE ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES; 3) GET EVERYONE TO LISTEN TO MUSIC AT THE SAME TIME; 4) FLIRT WITH FIVE PEOPLE.
A timer in the top left corner of the screen begins to count down, and instead of luxuriating in a simulacrum of my friend group's anachronistic reunion, I click wildly across the screen, flirting with anyone who will speak to me, refreshing my drink every two minutes, and feverishly attempting to enjoy myself. My sim's conversations are vapid, never having enough time to go beyond ENTHUSE ABOUT NEW SHOW or THANK FOR COMING. There's no space to indulge in the surprise of assorted acquaintances colliding with one another, or to bask in the thrill of an unexpected connection. I do a drive-by of John bobbing along to the speaker system, wake up Mikayla when she passes out from exhaustion on the kitchen floor, neglect to engage with Emmelia and Noah's argument over dolphins, and even feel a surge of inexplicable jealousy as my ex, Sharon, flirts with Erich in the kitchen.
It's a fast six minutes, and the party is a total bust. The vibes are all off, nobody gets laid, and once the timer runs out, my guests shuffle into the night, little red minus signs popping above their heads as they debrief the evening's transparent failure. Their dissatisfaction appears to be due to my inability to complete most of my tasks, and a text box at the bottom of the screen informs me that my sim is ASHAMED for having thrown a BAD PARTY.
It's two in the morning, there's trash everywhere, POP MUSIC is still playing from the speakers, and only my roommates and I remain inside the Khaki Butthole. I had not expected The Sims to so accurately capture the vague sense of dissatisfaction at the end of a house party, or, for that matter, at the end of just about any night doing anything. It's a feeling I had nearly forgotten: like the last few hours weren't what you'd hoped they'd be, like there was something more you'd expected that you can't quite put your finger on. I'm feeling somehow cheated by this anti-climax, but then my attention rises as the four roommates congregate in the living room, where Tommy plays his acoustic as Gio and I clean counters and Erich scrolls his cell phone. My sim's anxiety at having thrown a bad party diminishes, and little green plus signs flit across the screen as I instruct him to JOKE ABOUT POLITICIANS.
There's an ease to all this, and I'm thinking, oh shit yeah, this is what I've been missing.
I exit for the main menu, and as the game saves, I lean back on my sofa feeling like I've rediscovered something I didn't realize I had lost, and I resolve to let this absurd game be transformative. When the world opens back up again, all I need to do, maybe, is be present for moments like the pixelated one I've just witnessed. I decide that I will hold onto walks and backyard hangs and park crawls, that rather than going out drinking every weekend, I'll invite friends over with more frequency, put on a record, and split a $10 six-pack instead of spending $6 a beer at the neighborhood bar. I don't want to worry as much about traveling, or concerts, or FOMO. I want to remember exactly what it is that I missed and why I missed it: the moments of quiet, of connection, of community.
It's an epiphany that lasts less than a minute.
The prolonged save screen comes to an end, and on the main menu, an advertisement showcasing a BOWLING NIGHT expansion pack catches my eye. It looks flashy, novel, and I realize that actually, I am not content to have simply observed my old roommates and I in a muted moment of affection, and that rather, what might really scratch an itch is getting my old bowling team, The Twenty Some-Pins, back together in the world of the game. I decide to keep playing, and I purchase the expansion pack for $19.99.
And the bowling is, of course, unsatisfying. Maddy, Gio, Michael, and I crack the same jokes about politicians that we've been making ad-nauseum throughout the game, only this time we do it in a bowling alley, with one of us tossing a ball down a lane every couple of minutes. I decide that the house party was more fun, honestly, and I wonder what other possibilities exist for my simulations.
Over the next couple of weeks, I convince myself that the DISCOVER UNIVERSITY expansion pack will be different ($29.99), that the OUTDOOR RETREAT expansion pack will be different ($9.99), and that the SPOOKY expansion pack will be different ($14.99). I buy my sim's way into increasingly absurd scenarios, and by the time that Erich and I are having a mundane conversation with a vampire inside a haunted mansion, I realize that this project no longer has anything to do with my past, that it's devolved instead into the undiscerning accumulation of experience and material. It doesn't matter that I have populated this town with the people that I love; instead, it's become about all about the cool shit they're able to do, the things they're able to see, and the increasingly esoteric junk they've collected inside the Khaki Butthole.
As I pull myself away from the catalogue of expansion packs, I think that maybe this is the danger of nostalgia: it lures us in with the promise of a comfort and familiarity that we associate with a bygone, unattainable era of our lives—when we were more hopeful, more in love, less lonely, less afraid, when, for instance, we could safely congregate indoors without so much as thinking about it—but so rarely is the mere simulacrum of those feeling sufficient.
It's not enough to look at old photographs or to re-watch old movies. What we want deep down is more of the old thing, extended out indefinitely and presented in increasingly exhausted permutations: more revivals, more superhero movies, more reunion shows. It's the same reason why we meet up for old time's sake. Why we get back together with exes. Why we turn a positive experience into a yearly tradition, returning over and over to places that hold emotional significance because a thing that mattered happened here. And even through the pandemic, so often this nostalgia is commodified: Netflix Party to relive movies nights; Zoom Premium to extend virtual happy hours past 40 minutes; Tinder Gold to flirt with impunity. We identify the experiences that made us feel something, and then we pay for the chance to relive them in ways less and less connected to the original experience. The seventy-fifth Avengers movie calls back to the forty-eighth, and we're left thinking: oh yeah, that was a pretty good one.
Outside the world of the game, I'm two weeks out from my second dose of the Moderna vaccine, and four weeks out from theoretically resuming some semblance of what my life looked like before the pandemic. God willing, I will soon no longer be limited to my apartment and to park hangs and to the same small assortment of people. I might be able to finish watching Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip with Aaron in person instead of over Zoom, might be able to share a joint with Gio, might be able to get drunk off my ass in Jenny's apartment. If I've spent the last thirteen months operating within a base-level, pandemic-world starter pack, expansions to my daily routine are fast approaching.
And as soon as I have access to them, I know I'll just want more.
Bar patios. Indoor concerts. Clubs.
Possibilities for incident and coincidence.
More anecdotes. More drunken shitshows. More sex. More life.
I rig the game so that our bills get paid automatically and so that nobody's in danger of starving to death, and I use the FAST FORWARD feature to let the residents of the Khaki Butthole advance through their lives on rapid-fire auto-pilot on the background of my laptop as I shit and brush my teeth and answer emails. The seasons change every hour, and our avatars zip back and forth across the house, taking out the trash, getting into arguments, welcoming over company, singing together in the middle of the night. They barely leave the house without my intervention, and each begins to look subtly older as they advance into middle age—their hair a little grayer, their faces a little more wrinkled. The avatars exist in a state of perpetual, manic stasis: they never change jobs, never couple up, never move out of the Khaki Butthole. By evening, all four have aged into senior citizens, ancient and hunched over, still wearing the same youthful t-shirts and flannels that I dressed them in at the start of the game. Without warning, a bald, bespectacled Erich stands up from the sofa in the living room, makes a strange noise, waves goodbye to Gio, Tommy, and I, and then drops dead on the floor with the television still playing before him. The Grim Reaper manifests in the living room to collect his body, and an hour later I watch myself die, and then Gio, and finally—plucking his guitar until the very end—the bell tolls for Tommy, too, and at last, the Khaki Butthole is still.
This essay originated as a joke about the least emotionally healthy project I could under-take during quarantine. Much gratitude to the friends who helped me re-create the Khaki Butthole within the world of The Sims, often over late-night Discord night calls during the coldest months of the pandemic.