You Need to Pop the Bubble
By Wu Xueting
If you happen to find yourself near Northstar Mall after 11 on this Saturday night, do yourself a favour and step inside. Don't let the faded paint and eerie darkness from the outside put you off. Push through the double doors and listen. Do you hear that cacophony of bouncy electronic beeps, laser gun zapping, and frantic button mashing? Follow it up the escalator to the third floor, where you'll be greeted by the brilliant lights of Xcapade, Singapore's only surviving independent arcade. For one more night. That's right; after sixteen years of delighting children and adults alike, Xcapade is singing its last beep. Its annual all-night anniversary event always attracts a crowd and buzzes like a party, and apart from a hint of obligatory restraint to the shrieks, so subtle you wouldn't notice it unless you were a regular, tonight feels like a classic Xcapade all-nighter.
But Sze Wei is a regular, and to her, there's nothing to party about tonight. Standing at the entrance in a calf-length black dress and black flats with her hair up in a braid, she stares up at the glowing Xcapade logo with her bottom lip sticking out, trying to recall the first time she came to the arcade. It must have been way back when she was in secondary school. Even when exam period was drawing near, she and her classmates would hang out at the arcade after school playing Dance Dance Revolution and the Taiko drumming game until their parents called and threatened to come and cause a scene. Now, at 30 and with her life in a mess, she wonders where that carefree spirit went. But those afternoons are not her favourite memories of the place. After school and just plain life took over, Sze Wei started visiting Xcapade only once a year during its all-night event. It's the only time Jasmine would be there, too, anyway.
"Are you gonna come in or what?"
Sze Wei looks down to see Jasmine standing with her arms crossed over her chest, right under the name of her secondary school basketball team where she played all four years, to the surprise of everyone who has ever met her. Even in her platform high-tops, Jasmine just reaches the collarbone of Sze Wei, who is already shorter than most women their age in Singapore.
"Why are you wearing your basketball jersey?" Sze Wei asks.
"It's my lucky jersey," Jasmine says. "That game when I wore this, I had six assists and three steals, and my team won. My coach said I had magic fingers." She holds up all ten of her fingers and wiggles them. "I'm going to tap into that magic to help us complete Bubble Bobble today."
She gives Sze Wei a once-over. "Why do you look like you're at a funeral?"
"Because that's what this feels like," Sze Wei moans and presses her fingers to her temples. "I can't believe Xcapade is closing. Closing."
"Shh, don't say the c-word in front of Randy, he's barely holding it together," Jasmine says, then her eyes go wide. "Oh, we better go in before we miss the start of his speech!" She drags Sze Wei into the arcade by the arm.
Although the official start time of the all-night event is 11pm, only newcomers would arrive before midnight, which is when Jerry, the owner, makes a speech celebrating the arcade's anniversary. It got more and more emotional in the recent years as making it through yet another year became a hard-won feat for the arcade. The regulars would stream in at the tail end of the speech to lighten the mood by teasing Jerry for crying. It always stuns newcomers to see Jerry, a pot-bellied guy in his mid-40s, cry like a baby. But this time is different. There was no need to discuss it in advance; everyone arrived well before midnight, and by the time Sze Wei and Jasmine make their way to the center of the arcade with two minutes to spare, the space is filled with people. They finally find a spot beside the shooter game machines at the back just in time to hear Jerry call for everyone's attention.
When a hush has settled over the place, Jerry begins. "It's midnight, everybody! It is officially 16 years since the day Xcapade first opened its doors, and eleven years since the first Xcape the Night, our annual all-nighter. I see many familiar faces and many new faces, too. I'm so grateful that so many of you are here at this hour, especially tonight. Tonight, the la-last night after 16 years."
Jasmine nudges Sze Wei. "His voice is breaking," she whispers. "Someone better make a joke quick before the tears start."
But no one says a word. Jerry goes on, talking about the history of Xcapade, the years when he brought in this and that game machine that helped attract new customers again. Finally, someone in the middle, whom Jasmine and Sze Wei recognise as one of the guys who always hog the racing games, tells Randy to stop making some of them feel old, and everyone laughs with relief.
"Well, that's all just to say thank you for your support over the years," Jerry says. He wipes a tear from his eye, which is the cue for all the regulars in the audience to let out a collective "aww." "Now I'll let you get back to what you all came here for. As always, and for the last time, doors close at six o'clock, and there are snacks and drinks at the counter. Have a fun time, everybody."
There's a ripple of applause, and everyone slowly disperses to the machines. Jasmine and Sze Wei walk over to give Jerry a hug. "Thanks, girls," he says. "You finally completing Bubble Bobble tonight?"
"That's the goal," Jasmine says, and Sze Wei nods in agreement. "We made a promise to beat the boss battle someday, and now it has to be tonight."
"You know the game is available on consoles, too, right?" Jerry says. "And there are other arcades. I guess most people would rather play on their consoles nowadays, but I hope you will still support the local arcades."
"Of course," they say in unison, but Sze Wei has to force the words over a lump in her throat. She knows that for a long time, she hasn't been coming to Xcapade for the games, not really. It's the place, the people, the yearly routine. Now more than ever, she needs something constant to look forward to, what with her career in shambles.
It's something Sze Wei doesn't even know how to talk about with other people yet, but when they begin an air hockey game and Jasmine asks her about work while sending the puck flying, Sze Wei lets the familiar groove of the game guide the words out of her mouth. "I quit my job again," she says. "Yesterday was my last day."
"Good," Jasmine says, shifting from side to side to defend her goal. "You sounded like you hated it even more than the others." Sze Wei hasn't stayed at a job for more than two years, which means nearly every time they meet, she's complaining about a new job.
"But it's more than that." Sze Wei leans across the table for a shot. "I don't think want to do programming anymore."
The puck hits the side and slides straight into Jasmine's goal. Jasmine looks up at Sze Wei. "What do you want to do instead?" she asks.
"I don't know yet," Sze Wei says. Jasmine begins another round and they play a few more in silence. Suddenly, Sze Wei slams her mallet on top of the spinning puck and sighs. "Do you think it's reckless to change my career at 30?"
"Not at all," Jasmine says.
"Because I don't know what I want to do. I don't have a plan, and it feels stupid to waste my diploma. But I was so stressed out all the time at every job."
"Maybe you just haven't found the right place. But it's fine and normal to switch careers at 30," Jasmine reassures her. "If anyone gives you pressure, don't listen to them. When I was turning 30 and still waitressing, lots of people told me that I need to get a proper job" — she curls her fingers to put air quotes around the words and makes a face — "but why do they get to decide what's a proper job?"
After getting her diploma, Jasmine went from one restaurant to another working as a waitress and spent two years at her current place before she was finally made assistant manager.
"You know, I'm always amazed by you," Sze Wei says. "I never knew anyone could be so passionate about, like, food service."
"It gives me such a rush." Jasmine's eyes sparkle. "When everything gets hectic but somehow I'm keeping up with the chaos? I love that feeling. Plus, I get to eat the food for free at lunch."
"That reminds me," Sze Wei says, giving Jasmine a look. "You promised me you'd treat me to a meal at the restaurant." Every year, Sze Wei tries to get Jasmine to hang out outside of the arcade, and every year, Jasmine says something about being busy and she'll text Sze Wei about it. But she never does.
Judging by the scrunched-up expression on Jasmine's face, Sze Wei can guess what she's going to say, but before she can, someone calls Jasmine's name. It's Anik, a lanky Xcapade regular, and he challenges her to a basketball game.
Jasmine straightens her jersey and puffs up her chest but quickly misses the first couple of shots, which makes Anik snicker from the adjacent machine. "I still can't believe you played for a team," he says.
"I was the point guard," Jasmine retorts. "Take me to an actual court and I'll show you how I can pass the ball."
"Whatever, this is a shooting game, and I'm winning."
Watching them from the side, Sze Wei smiles at the banter she's heard so many times. And now probably for the last time, she remembers with a pang. She looks around the arcade and tries to slow down everything around her, to remember the sounds, the easy energy, the faces of the friends she made here. She has only ever met these people at the arcade. When it is gone tomorrow, will she ever see them again? She imagines bumping into one of them a few years later, them taking a moment to remember who she is, then reminiscing with a chuckle that it's been so long, they were playing around then but they finally got serious and now they're doing what they've always wanted to do, but what about Sze Wei, what has she been up to? And the flicker of awkward surprise on their face when she stammers that she's still figuring it out.
A weariness fills Sze Wei and she tries to shake it off. Jasmine and Anik finish their game, and the girls make a round around the arcade. They play their favourite games and catch up with their friends, but even as Sze Wei loosens up, she feels like a part of her is detached from the moment, like she's looking at the scene from afar, watching herself laugh at a joke she only half heard. The time passes in a haze, and when she hears someone ask if she and Jasmine are going to play Bubble Bobble, she's startled to see on the clock that it's already 3.42am.
Every year, by three, most of the newcomers would have bowed out, their stamina not trained enough to last a full Xcapade all-nighter, leaving the regulars to set up camp at the more popular machines. A small crowd of their friends gather to watch Jasmine and Sze Wei finally complete the game that's bested them for 10 years. "Ready, Bub?" Jasmine asks Sze Wei as she taps her Xcapade card on the machine to start the game. "Ready, Bob," Sze Wei says back.
They get off to a good start, but their rustiness starts to show after level 40, when new, fast-moving enemies appear and start flying all over the place.
'"Wow, you guys are good," someone says at level 67. "Do you play this often?"
The question hangs awkwardly in the air for a moment. "Sorry, she's a friend I brought," another voice rushes to explain. Sze Wei and Jasmine recognise it as belonging to Hanna, one of the Dance Dance Revolution fanatics. "She's new so she doesn't know the rule."
"What rule?" Hanna's friend asks.
"Don't talk to Sze Wei and Jasmine when they both have two lives or less left."
"Isn't that how you two met, though?" a third voice asks, this one belonging to Pei Ling, who's part of Hanna's DDR gang.
"That's right!" Hanna exclaims. "It was the first Xcape the Night, and Jasmine was down to her last life at Bubble Bobble when Sze Wei came up to her and asked her if she can join the game as a second player to help her out." Hanna wasn't there herself, but the story is Xcapade legend, and every regular knows it.
"I thought she was some master gamer," Jasmine says. "But it turned out that her best skill is dying." Right on cue, Sze Wei's dragon is hit by an enemy sneaking up from the bottom. Everyone laughs.
"I'm on my last life, so you need to focus," Sze Wei tells Jasmine.
"I'm always focused," Jasmine shoots back.
"No, you're leaving the enemies in the bubbles!" Sze Wei yells. "Stop caring about the special items, the enemies are gonna escape and time is running out!"
"I know what I'm doing," Jasmine says, and carefully manoeuvres her dragon to collect a candy at the foot of the last remaining bubbled enemy without bursting it. "The special items will disappear once we kill the last enemy! You don't know what special powers we'll get later just because we collected these items."
"Special powers are useless if we both die! Pop it, pop the bubble, you need to pop the bubble!"
Behind them, Hanna puts a hand on her friend's shoulder to pull her back. "Another rule is," she whispers, "back away when they start fighting. For your own safety."
The "HURRY UP!" message flashes, and Sze Wei abuses her jump button trying to get her dragon to the top to burst the bubble herself. Just as the bubble turns red, Jasmine's dragon jumps and pops it, and the two dragons float down to the next level.
"I told you I got it," Jasmine says triumphantly. But four levels later, they both lose their last lives, and it's game over.
Sze Wei slams down her Xcapade card to start a new game, all her lethargy from earlier gone. If she's going to figure out her life, she needs to at least be able to figure out how to win this darned game. She tucks a strand of loose hair behind her ears and rolls up the sleeves of her dress.
"Ooh, the sleeves are going up!" Jasmine shouts.
They go again and again, slowly getting into their old rhythm and reaching the 80s and 90s before failing again. When they finally get to the boss battle but, with one life left apiece on their last credit, are easily knocked out, Hanna's newcomer friend asks why Jasmine and Sze Wei don't increase the number of credits per game.
"Because I set a credit limit on the machines," says Jerry, who just joined the crowd. "I'm running a business," he explains with an apologetic shrug.
At 20 minutes past five, Jasmine taps her card again and says, "This is it. Our last attempt. I have a good feeling we can get to the last level and defeat the boss this time."
"We have to," Sze Wei says, "because I can't afford more games. I'm officially unemployed now." She surprises herself by laughing. She's starting to get what Jasmine was saying earlier about the thrill of running with the chaos.
Jasmine's gut feeling proves right. They pass the tougher levels with more lives remaining than before. They run into trouble at level 83, but Sze Wei gets a blue cross that suddenly appeared, and water fills the screen, turning all the enemies into diamonds.
Jasmine lets out a whoop. "And that"—she punctuates the word with a slap of the control panel—"is why the special items are important!" She gives Sze Wei a pointed look and adds, "Sometimes taking a risk pays off."
Sze Wei grunts in concession.
They reach the boss battle, and the room explodes into chaos. Everyone is yelling. They yell "shoot" when the boss turns away. They yell "run" when the boss turns to attack. They yell anything and everything just to cheer the girls on, until all at once there's nothing to shoot at or run from because the boss is trapped. Sze Wei bursts the bubble, and the game goes quiet. When the words "HAPPY END" appear on the screen, Sze Wei feels electric.
"Wait!" Jerry shouts over the cheers and applause. "What about the super mode?" He points at the screen, which is asking for a secret code that would restart the entire game at a faster speed and reveal a different ending.
"Do you want to?" Jasmine asks Sze Wei. "I can Google the code right now."
There is that sparkle in Jasmine's eyes again, and Sze Wei wonders if it can be seen in her own eyes, too. But the energy inside her isn't a restless buzz she needs to expel; she feels calmer than she has been in a long time, and she just wants to feel it. To soak in the warmth it is filling her up with. So she is smiling when she says, "No, let's end it here today."
Jasmine grins and punches her shoulder playfully. "That's what I think, too."
Later, after they helped Jerry clean the place up and hugged him, promising that this isn't goodbye, Jasmine and Sze Wei leave the mall. Under a sky that is shyly waking up with a blush of orange, they walk with Pei Ling, Hanna, and Hanna's friend to the MRT station. Pei Ling is getting worked up telling them about a difficult colleague at work when she suddenly stops and looks apologetically at Sze Wei, and Sze Wei remembers what she blurted out in front of everyone at the arcade.
"You don't need to stop because of me," she tells Pei Ling with a laugh. "I'm gonna be okay." Saying it out loud, she feels like she's starting to believe it.
"Actually," Hanna says, "I have a cousin who works at a start-up that makes video games, and I think they're hiring."
Just when she's feeling good about taking her time. Sze Wei opens and closes her mouth a few times, unsure of what she wants to say. Seeing her hesitation, Jasmine says, "Why don't we all go to have breakfast at the restaurant where I work, and Hanna, you can tell us more about this job?"
"Right now?" Sze Wei exclaims. "You're not too busy?"
"It's still early. And I made a promise, didn't I?"
"Wait, where are we going?" Hanna's friend asks.
"It's this Japanese restaurant in Bencoolen that always has a long queue," Sze Wei says.
"Some of the chefs usually arrive early," Jasmine says. "I can ask them to make some ramen for us."
"Ramen for breakfast?" Hanna asks. She screws up her face in mock disgust for a second before breaking out into a grin. "That sounds amazing."
They laugh and start discussing what kind of ramen they want. As they cross a road junction, a glint of sunlight catches Sze Wei's eye and she looks up to see her reflection in a convex traffic mirror. She sees herself for the first time the entire night. Her cheeks are flushed pink, her sleeves are still rolled up, and strands of hair fly loose from her braid. She lets herself wonder, just for a moment, how she would look like a year or two from now. Then, Jasmine calls her name, and she turns back to her friends.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 4 Oct 2021