In its beige-toned, wood-floored, 65,000-bulbed, restaurant-themed, air-conditioned glory, we can't tell whether it's the Kenny Rogers Roasters, Burger King or the aptly named Steak Escape that is exuding the aroma that negates our hunger pangs just so. The odor even beheads the usual sugary appeal of Häagen-Däzs being offered up from a cozy kiosk.
The food court is crammed with the demographically correct, the well-dressed, mainly white folk under 40. Inversely, the fast-food servers are nearly all but white.
Conversation runs the usual gamut of television, shopping and movies. All stuff that is entertainment: the new culture being crammed down our throats.
Past the food court, next to the IMAX Theatre and the Harkins Cineplex Luxury 24, smack in the middle of this visual roundelay, we come to GameWorks, the much-hyped national chain of glorified video arcades.
GameWorks is a place created under the "direction" of Steven Spielberg. In the GameWorks hyperbole-heavy bio, the man is quoted thusly: "Playing [at GameWorks] is about fun, excitement, competition and bringing people together. It's about escape, adventure and connecting. It gives each person the chance to prove that he or she can be a star."
GameWorks is also co-owned by Spielberg's DreamWorks SKG (Spielberg, Katzenberg, Geffen), Sega Enterprises and Universal Studios (Seagram's).
At the door, a smiling, uniformed hostess greets us with a quick explanation of what goes on inside. We shove some money into a machine and it spits out a debit card to be used in lieu of cash.
The foyer contains a giant poster in primary pulp cover colors that seems to simultaneously mock yet embrace GameWorks' master plan of post-boomer, Pac-Man-weaned parents who can be entertained in the same venue as their virtually real progeny. The poster shows a happy, smiling family (ma, pa, boy, girl) styled in a Cleaveresque Fifties motif. Except they picnic atop a war tank with its cannon barrel aimed at a massive Hooverlike river dam. The poster reads: "Spend Some Quality Time With the Folks! You'll Be Glad You Did." At the bottom it says, "Happy Parents Are Protective Parents."
The decor inside is more ornate-industrial-movie-set-meets-corporate-millennial-optimism than hipster-futurist. There are red bricks, steel girders and blue-lighted catwalks; myriad video monitors loop white rock videos that pump through a muscular sound system (no hip-hop tonight); and, of course, monstrous, bigger-than-life games set in five different neighborhood themed rooms.
The state-of-the-art games have either an entertainment-biz tie-in--Jurassic Park, Star Wars, X-Files, etc.--or are tagged with familiar suburban trademarks: Sega, Nameco, Harley-Davidson. Most games (aside from action sports or ersatz gambling) are action-packed with a primary objective of blowing the heads of others clean off.
For grown-ups, there is an upstairs lounge and sit-down restaurant/grill situated near "old-school" vid games like Donkey Kong, Asteroids and Space Invaders.
"Parents come in here sometimes and get sloshed while their kids stay out and play the games for hours," says a clean-cut bartender who wears a uniform of black pants, blue shirt and black tie.
We play a Spielberg-created setup called Vertical Reality in which the object is to absolve (shoot/slaughter) as many crooked guys from a skyscraper as possible. Strapped into individual seats like some carnival ride, we grip the triggered levers that come up between our legs. In the event of panic, the friendly ride operator advises, "Hit that red button on your right side. That is for emergencies."
The game starts, and, as we kill men coming from all directions in front of us, our chair literally moves to higher levels--up to 24 feet--as a reward. Should enough enemy fire hit us, we descend in a kind of free fall back toward the starting position. Whoever kills the most guys wins.
The game's physical consequence suggests that the more people we decimate, the closer we move to heaven. In the end, enemy gunfire kills us.
In front of a big-screen, open-air mini-theater the size of a living room, we watch a heavy-set guy combat an animated but buff kung fu expert. In high-tech motion simulation, the challenger's onscreen persona belies his lumbering presence; his high kicks defy gravity, and his punches appear to connect with bone-crunching force. His face shows a seriousness of a seasoned fighter. This human antecedent wins, laying waste to his cartoon foe.
"Finally," he says.
He drops his fists, adjusts his belt and walks off in confidence. We want to applaud. One person actually does. Who needs reality?
We move to a section called Redemption, which is a kind of kiddy casino without the smarm. The more you win here, the more you accumulate points and take home top-shelf prizes like TVs, microwaves and cameras. There are mock slots with such names as Match 'Em Up, Dinospin, and Jungle Jive.
We watch a young couple burn $20 in 10 minutes. The girl turns from her boyfriend and says, "That 20 bucks was nothing. Three nights ago it was almost $200. This thing is addictive." Her boyfriend nods in agreement.
The mall has closed, so we go out through the GameWorks exit. En route we pass all the photo-realistic racing simulations and fighting games, the adventure and strategy games and the latest in motion simulation, networked multiplayer games.
Who needs enlightenment when we can be entertained on such colossal desultory and peripheral levels? When we maintain that queer desire to conquer nature, even a synthetic one?
Snaking around the outside of Harkins Luxury 24 theater is a line of a few hundred Star Wars buffs counting down the 25 hours to the prequel's premiere.
Mike Clark, a 24-year-old computer company employee, is one of those camped out.
"We're all geeks and we know it," he says. "But, hey, it's all entertainment.