It’s only when night falls, the sun like a pool of something molten yet cold on the grey horizon, that I realise just how alone I am on the boat. It’s just me, attended by a silent retinue of winches, hooks, scratched plastic tubs and battered steel tables. And then, beyond the chipped paint of the gunwales, the infinite ocean. It’s a perfect arena for introspection, scored by the lashings of rain on a hard metal deck. There’s not even a bird this far out. There’s nothing: just me and the crabs, in their invisible millions. And that’s when the speed kicks in.
This week, after twenty years of deadline rushes, mood swings, lost keys and unreplied emails, I was diagnosed (against my every insistence at the start of the process) with ADHD. It’s a strange time, as I’m having to re-evaluate a lot of things I thought about myself. Many things I thought were deep character flaws are, it seems now, just medical facts – but that doesn’t mean for a moment I don’t have to do anything about them. That discussion is for another time, however. I’ve come here to talk about drugs and industrial fishing.
You see, the medication I’ve been prescribed, dextroamphetamine, is a stimulant meant to help with attention, focus and impulse control. However, it’s also what they used to give cold war bomber pilots to stop them falling asleep at the controls of nuclear war machines. It is, not to put a fine a point on it, a sensibly-dosed, medically therapeutic cousin of good old crank.
So, while I was relieved to be prescribed something that might help me avoid losing half an hour’s working time whenever I see a new email coming in, I was slightly daunted. Even in my Wild Youth, I’d never really crossed paths with speed, and I didn’t quite know what to expect from it. Apparently, I was advised, the initial dose could be… quite noticeable. “Wouldn’t it make for a good post tho,” I thought to myself, as I went to bed on Sunday night, “if I got up well early tomorrow, took my first pill, and played the demo for Deadliest Catch: The Game”.
DCTG is a very sober-looking simulation game currently being kickstarted, based on the Discovery Channel show of the same name, in which burly men haul crabs out of the icy Bering sea to a Bon Jovi soundtrack. I hadn’t touched the game yet because I thought it looked comically dull – one of those weirdly bleak sims with absolutely no soul, that flood the cellars of steam like creeping groundwater.
Suddenly, however, I felt very differently. I love crabs. And I’m fascinated by the megableak aesthetic of arctic factory fishing. Plus this was a game about brutal, monotonous work – what could be better for a test run of my new medicine? I bet crab fisherman take amphetamines all the time. This would be immersion. Suddenly committed, I swallowed my little pink-and-white capsule, fired up the game, and queued up a spotify playlist that was just different covers of “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi on repeat. Here’s how things went down.
September 1, 17.01hrs
I’m eight hours out from Dutch Harbor, on a five day expedition into the cold heart of the Bering. There was a big manual on running this boat, but it went straight in the sea – who’s got the time for that? I’ll either be cut out for crab-hauling or I won’t, and the sea hates a fucking coward.
I might not know much about this boat, but I know a thing or two about crabs, and I think I’ll find them here, that being a bank of deepwater sand at three degrees celsius, just off the continental shelf. I’ve burned most of the day getting here, but it should be worth it. If I was a big, red Alaskan king crab, this is where I’d be.
The sea is an immense, leaden grey, and there’s a haze in the air that makes the sun little more than a patch of bright mist. I use the time before it sets to take a tour of the boat, which is maybe a hundred feet in length, and is filled with obscure, weatherbeaten equipment. I’m alone on its deck, and outside the bridge with its cosy wood panelling and coffee stains, it seems a place inimical to human wellbeing; a compromise between primate ingenuity and the frigid hell of ocean.
September 1, 19.14hrs
I think I’m figuring things out. These two rusted-black, mattress-sized cages must be crab traps, and there’s a magnetic crane for maneuvering them onto the launcher at the edge of the deck. There’s buoys to clip to them for retrieval, and a fridge full of frozen fish for bait. I haul out a fat block of herring and feed it through a grinder to make a grim pink slurry, which I use to bait the first of the cages.
September 1, 20.01hrs
After some buggering around, the first of the cages has slid into the gelid grave of the sea. The light is fading now, the sun just a wobbling stripe of gold splashed across the horizon, but there’s still work to be done. There’s a second cage to kit out and dump in the sea, so I motor a few hundred metres into the gathering dark, prep it, and toss it overboard. As the brine hisses through the sinking mesh, and the light of day is replaced with the actinic chill of the deck-lamps, I fancy I can feel the faintest glow deep in my chest.
September 1, 23.15hrs
It’s fully dark now, I’ve turned the ship’s floodlights on, making the rain flicker white and illuminating circles of eerie, foam-marbled green on the surface of the sea. This is lonely work; the dark is like something huge and dead. What sort of stone-hearted god, what beast of rust and salt, would choose to work out here without a crew?
I answer my own question with a grappling hook, arcing into the heaving black before snagging on a cage’s buoy and tug, tug, tugging it in. I hoist the cage up, and there they are, pale pink and glistening in the lamplight, a forest of faintly stirring claws behind the mesh: the old snipple snapple. They’re the first company I’ve had in this world – they’re my crew, in a sense – and I am to be their executioner.
September 2, 01.07hrs
Midnight has been and gone, and I can’t get the bastard crabs up on the deck. I’ve even gone and found a copy of the manual, but it’s no use. Either something’s bugged, or I’m missing something, but that damned cage is stuck fast to the side of the boat.
It’s at this point in a game, all too often, that a sort of vulture descends on my engagement with the problem, shielding it with its wings and saying “right, you’ve had enough”. Some buried neurone shits out a cost-benefit calculation of persevering versus giving up and doing something more interesting, and the game is suddenly dead to me, without conscious intercession. It’ll go to the Steam Refund graveyard or, more likely, I won’t be bothered with the admin, and it’ll just end up as clutter in my library, forever unfinished past its initial moments.
This time, there’s no vulture. There’s no anything, somehow, interceding between my brain and the thing it is working on. There’s no magnetic cushion, invisibly repelling me from what I’m trying to concentrate on at the first hint of frustration. The night rain beats on the hull of the boat, and I become aware that things suddenly feel a lot different.
What started as a little glowing sliver in my chest has grown into a feeling as if warm floodwater is gushing down a long canyon inside me, reaching out to tremble in every extremity. It’s a bit like in an old Popeye cartoon when it zooms in on his arm, post-spinach, to show loads of machines and boilers going mental, only it’s calmer and nicer than that. And most of all, I can choose what to think about. I choose to solve this silly crab problem.
September 2 – 09.21hrs
Eight crabs slither onto the stainless steel sorting table, crenellated bodies making whispered additions to its patina of scratches. It’s taken fifteen minutes or so to figure it out, and it’s an utterly shit haul, but I’ve managed to harvest crabs from the sea. I’ve done the Deadliest Catch! The weather has cleared now, leaving a flat sea under a pale mist, and I can almost smell the morning freshness.
I want to get out and catch more crabs. And I’m emboldened; The laborious chain of press-E-to-interact tasks, the don’t-forget-tos and the make-sures, that make up the process of setting and retrieving pots is finally becoming clear to me, and I’m keen to see how good I can get at it the rest of my time at sea.
September 2 – 10.30hrs
Bonanza! The second trap isn’t full — this is clearly not as great a site as I thought — but it has done better than the first for having spent longer in the sea, and I’ve retrieved it in less than an hour of in-game time. I think about sorting the crabs, but that can wait til I have a few more. While the daylight’s good, I’m going to sail the boat to richer grounds up North; a warmer, shallower mud flat 52 metres down. It’ll take a few hours of motoring through the fog to get there, but I’ve got a good feeling about it.
September 3 – 01.29hrs
The second day of the expedition passes in a deep, pleasant fugue of concentration. I’ve been thinking about a single thing – how to get better at simulated crab fishing – for the best part of an hour, and the experience is novel to say the least. The traps have been down again (this time, I left the boat running so they plopped in behind me like little parachutists, 70m apart), and back up, full of crabs.
Every time I do the process, I get a little quicker at it, and I start to learn little shortcuts. It puts me in mind of the conversation I had with the Wilmot’s Warehouse devs, about the peculiar sort of optimisation-fun involved in manual jobs, and how games can simulate that. I begin to feel grateful that I stuck with this demo long enough for it to kick in.
It’s late at night now, and any sensible mariner would turn in for a night of musty, cable-knit sleep. But this crustacean wrangler doesn’t intend to sleep away the all-too-brief crabbing season: he’s put the traps back in the sea, and while they tempt in a new flock with tendrils of herring-stink, he intends to sort the harvest so far. He has caught 69 crabs; it is nice.
September 3 – 02.09hrs
Finally, my repository of deep crab lore (much of it acquired by obsessive research while I was meant to be working) is coming in handy. King crabs are not true crabs, within the infraorder Brachyura, but are classified within Lithodoidea (stonelike) – phylogenetically, they are probably closer to lobsters and shrimps (by way of hermit crabs) than ‘true’ crabs, and their once-tails persist as broad abdominal flaps curled beneath their bodies. Females have broader flaps than males, and a trained eye can spot them in a moment, which is just as well for my mariner, as they are illegal to harvest!
Spinning the crabs around, presumably through telekinesis, I examine their undersides and eyeball their body size to make sure they’re big enough to keep. Large males go in the keep pile, females and juveniles (labelled by the game as “bad crabs”, which seems a bit harsh), go in a big bucket to be returned to the sea.
As I go through the pile, every crab individually, I become a sort of hellish, industrial Sorting Hat (Gryffindor! Hufflepuff! Bisque!), telling them apart at a glance. Indeed, I feel like a sort of Crab Anubis, separating the blessed from the damned. But which is which? In this game, it’s only the “bad” crabs who escape a nightmare of ice and boiling water.
September 3 – 05.27hrs
As dawn quivers at the edge of the sea, I get down to the last few crabs, and realise that I’ve basically just replicated one of the classic ADHD diagnostic tests. During the test, I had been tasked with hitting a button to indicate certain combinations of colours (blue or red) and shapes (circle or square) as they flashed up again and again over a horribly long period of time. I completely biffed the test, doing worse than 88% of people, but here I was, doing the exact same thing but with crabs, and a mild quantity of amphetamines. And I was a model student.
It puts me in a good mood, and so I decide to spare the last of the crabs. I take him away from the sorting table and scale the bridge tower, where I place him atop a lamp overlooking the rain-slick deck. This strange, benthic relic shall be my confidant. The Donkey to my Shrek. My Bosun. And under his stalk-eyed, indifferent gaze, I enact the fate of his fellows.
While the “good” crabs go down into the hold, the “bad” crabs go overboard, and due to a spectacular bug, they don’t go normally. They fly out of the plastic tub as if hurled by an ogre, clustered in a demented accretion disc of salmon-hued limbs, and spinning towards the horizon in a long, eerie yeet.
Worse, they don’t disappear into the sea. Despite growing tiny with distance, they fall in front of everything else, like Sonic the Hedgehog when he dies. After a while, I realise they have not disappeared at all – the rotating, semi-fused gaggle of Bad Crabs have lodged in the deck, where they continue to regard me. Are they angry ghosts, castigating me on behalf of their fellows, or kindly reminders of my mercy? Either way, they are distractions. I will not consider the Bad Crabs.
September 3 – 20.13hrs
I have few words to say about the expedition’s third day, and fewer screenshots to show. I am too busy crabbing to take any. After the dawn appointment of the Bosun, I fall into a powerful rhythm, sinking the traps on the go, and sorting their catch as I wait for them to fill again. Then, when Neptune finally allows the arctic clouds to part for a glorious sunset, I find myself actually excited. How much can I get done in the next two simulated days? How quick can I get my trap turnaround? How will I handle my second playthrough? Second playthrough? Am I really considering repeating all of these monotonous tasks again?
September 4 – 23.37hrs
There is no need to describe day four. Although it has pretty weather and is surprisingly well polished, this is a fairly bare-bones demo. There really isn’t much variation in what happens. It might, in fact, be very boring. The fact that I’m still glued to it then, three hours after booting it up, is probably a good sign for my ability to focus. It’s not that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. It very much does. It’s just that it’s going to stay where it is, and not intrude on my thoughts until I’ve filled this hold with crabs, thanks.
September 5 – 02.26hrs
In the depths of the trip’s final night, a mighty storm rages, raising white-ridged hillocks of water that seethe in the lamplight as I haul in the latest trap full of crabs. I take this as a sign from Poseidon that my work is over — I will soon have to set sail for Dutch Harbor after all, so there is no time to set out another set of crab traps.
After I’ve sorted the last lot of crabs, I go to the roof to retrieve the Bosun, who has kept his vigil this whole time, mouthparts quietly whickering away. He’s a calm sort; a good figurehead. As I pack away the deck’s paraphernalia in preparation for the return trip, I decide to reward him by placing him atop the controls for the deck machinery.
Come rain, sleet, or Bad crabs, this is a man who I can trust to keep his eye on the job. He’s not a bad role model for my executive function, I think, as I disappear into the bridge.
September 6 – 06.20hrs
Back at port, I sell 859 kilograms of king crab, for just under twenty thousand dollars. It all happens in a menu. There isn’t even a cash register sound, let alone the queasy schluck of a knife punching through crabshell into neural ganglia, as their mortal forms are converted into capital. It doesn’t seem right. But I was paid to bring them here, and I’ve done my job.
As I write this, I realise I’ve not looked away from the screen – except for to go to the loo and make a cup of tea – since I opened this document. I don’t think I’ve done this before in my life, except for with the cold terror of a hard deadline looming. What’s more, after writing for this long, my head would usually feel utterly hollowed out, knackered from having cascades of thought crash messily into each other for hours. Instead, it just feels… fine?
It’s like I’ve been trying to get crabs out of the sea my whole life, and I only just realised I don’t have to do it with my hands. Honestly, I could weep with relief.