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David Bingham’s Yellow Switch Palace

David Fitzgerald

Yellow Switch Palace
David Bingham
Expat Press, June 2023


don’t play video games anymore. I actually largely abandoned the medium almost 20 years ago, around the time Halo (for Xbox) and Grand Theft Auto (PlayStation 2) started welcoming everyone into their unprecedentedly open worlds, and neurolinked massive multiplayer online (MMO) titles began expanding exponentially what such worlds could do and be. I wish I could claim some high-minded artistic or ethical reasoning behind my decision—I certainly have those for why I don’t play now—but at the time, in all honesty, things were just getting too complicated for me. Somewhat suddenly, I found I didn’t have the patience anymore. I’d always played video games to relax, and save occasional outliers like Katamari and Guitar Hero, I did not find this new generation of gaming relaxing. There were too many buttons. Too many actions. Too many choices. I still remember my college roommates gathering together to lose entire weekends to World of Warcraft LAN parties, and not feeling remotely jealous or left out. Whatever video games were becoming, I wanted no part of it. I have a shitty Tetris knockoff on my phone, and I occasionally blow the dust out of my old Mario 64 cartridge. But that’s really about it.

Incidentally, and for those who may not know, the title of this novel is a reference to that long-running series—a feature that, if memory serves, first appeared in Super Mario World for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) back in 1990. The “Switch Palaces” were hidden stages housing giant, color-coded buttons that, once pressed, activated previously intangible blocks containing previously inaccessible power-ups, which in turn allowed Mario to venture further along in the game. The yellow blocks were by far the most common, and thus you encountered the yellow palace almost immediately. It was the lead domino. The shot heard round the World Map. Everything else was only made possible by that initial flip of the switch.

It’s a video game that kicks off the action in David Bingham’s seismic debut novel Yellow Switch Palace too—a simplistic, but seemingly mesmerizing smartphone app that divides people into red and blue dots, maps them to their geographic locations, and directs them to occupy various territories—public parks, historic monuments, government buildings—in their local vicinity by amassing in strong enough numbers to crowd out the other side. At least, that’s how it starts. But what could, at its outset, easily draw comparisons to the latest TikTok challenge or iteration of Pokémon Go soon proves an insidious tool for the consolidation of power, if not a malfeasant multiplier for any such nebulous forces as spur society forward from mere rumors of war to the genuine article.

In a stroke of in-joke genius, the beginning of Yellow Switch Palace reads almost too familiar— its first few chapters displaying all the hallmarks of what might be affectionately referred to as “cozy indie lit.” With its aimless twenty-somethings crafting elegant similes in the endlessly referential manner of folks who’ve been getting high together in the same small corner of suburbia for a very long time, this is clearly an author with a keen awareness of who is most likely to be reading his book, and an even keener talent for subverting their niche expectations. You might think you know where it’s going, but rest assured, this is no ordinary tale of quarter-life malaise.

I don’t usually like to get too explainy when it comes to charactonyms, but the trio at the heart of Yellow Switch Palace are perhaps most easily discussed via their pitch-perfect monikers. Piper, the type-A+ student of big government hellbent on her own leadership (however pied), and Exley, the unmotivated revolutionary she recently dumped (for what he fears is the last time), are two sides of the same artificially inflated cryptocoin—the smartest kids in a dumb place, repeatedly drawn together and torn apart by their own circumstantially bored ambition. Though they seem to have joined (or possibly even launched) the game in tandem as some kind of social experiment, their fiercely competitive pasodoble relationship is soon clouding their objectives and skewing the results; kicking up dust and drawing ever-sharper lines in the sand until they find themselves spinning at a blur; locked forehead-to-forehead; waiting for the other to blink; all each other can see.

And then there’s Andy. Set firmly between them, so rooted to their center he might as well be their axis pole, our neutrally observant, doggedly risk-averse protagonist is the ultimate involuntary collaborator (even his name can be interpreted as the adjective form of the most common conjunction in the English language). Though he clearly craves both his friends’ approval, it’s never quite enough to warrant his choosing a side. He never once displays enough self-possession to even be called pragmatic. He’s more just loyal to whoever’s around, at any given time. Playing along to get along, while retaining the plausible deniability of the put-upon bystander—that one kid who always insists that he’s simply “not playing.” Interestingly, we associate the color yellow with caution and cowardice—both key attributes of Andy and his shifting non-allegiances—but also with contagion (as with the yellow flags hoisted to indicate ships stricken with plague), and as the game spreads like a communicable disease, drawing more and more people into its sphere of self-perpetuating red vs. blue conflict, no amount of yellow indecision can protect him from passive infection.

What’s more, the wider that sphere expands, the more all that familiar indie lit plotting—Piper and Exley’s tactical web of counterromantic maneuvers, Andy’s reverse telescopic navel-gazing, all of their nonstop-but-somehow-still-casual drug use—falls away like so much hip window dressing. Though the book is set in and around D.C., with all that entails, even our Nation’s capital begins to feel like just another layer of the metaphorical dome Bingham’s built around the whole of the human experience. His characters’ fervent defiance in the face of betraying their core ideals—the way it naturally mutates from love into hate into the naked pursuit of power and, ultimately, into an even baser desire to simply not let the other side win—goes far beyond politics, achieving such a multifarious and resonant degree of applicability that I won’t even try to assign it any specific symbolic meaning here, except to say that you will recognize things in it. Things about technology, and war, and youth. Things about yourself. Your country. Our world. Bingham’s operating on a masterful scale here—reminiscent of no lesser a talent than legendary Hungarian parabolist László Krasznahorkai—and watching him slowly tip his hand—seeing the whole book turn, several times over, on a phrase, or even a single word—like Mario activating even more colored blocks, moving ever deeper into his own namesake game—is perhaps Yellow Switch Palace’s greatest pleasure.

The original Mario Brothers arcade game turns 40 this year (as do I). Super Mario Brothers, for the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), was the first video game I ever played. In fact, I first learned that Santa Claus isn’t real at age 5, upon coming downstairs for a drink of water on Christmas Eve only to find my dad already playing the NES Santa was supposedly dropping off later that night (for what it’s worth, I don’t remember being upset about Santa in the slightest. I was too excited about Mario). Yes, that turtle-squashing Italian plumber pipe-warped into our young lives and stayed there—a gateway drug for every addicted gamer alive today—a relaxing, 2-D distraction from our stressful 3-D lives. And while I’m certainly not enough of an alarmist to sit here and draw direct parallels between the beloved, mustachioed face of Mario and the surveillant fascist imagery of Orwell’s Big Brother, writing this article did make me consider, perhaps for the first time, just how ingrained and ubiquitous a part of our childhoods he’s become. Not quite on par with Santa, sure, but on a rarefied, iconographic plane with Barbie and Mickey Mouse, Star Wars and Superman. Something that’s been there from the start; a part of our fabric; the yellow switch.

Mushrooming alongside the leviathan rise of social media, VR, and AI, we’ve seen video gaming develop from a product into a culture, and a pastime into a skillset, turbocharging everything from political activism to drone warfare along the way (with the U.S. military’s current slate of recruitment commercials resembling nothing quite so much as cut scenes from the latest Call of Duty). The same handheld devices we use to tap mindlessly away at Candy Crush were instrumental in mass protests as disparate as the January 6th insurrection and the Arab Spring (and, as we all recently learned, can now be accessed en masse by the government’s new wireless emergency alert system). In practical terms, our virtual worlds have already grown infinite, encompassing more territory than any one person could explore in a lifetime, and with countless more on the horizon—the entire enterprise a strange realization of that paradoxical childhood retort: “infinite + 1”.

No, I’m no alarmist, but I do believe the collapsing of reality is well underway, and when faced with the gargantuan, tentacular enterprise that is the gaming industry today, I feel 100% justified in my stance as an early disowner. The more we see things depicted onscreen, the less we question their normalcy—their acceptability—when we encounter them in real life. Call it the soft radicalization of desensitization. Forces beyond our ken, easing us toward the MetaVerse since at least the dawn of the NES, methodically laying cable, mining data and currency, and landfilling uncanny valleys until we no longer recognize the difference. Until we’re all just sleeper cells, waiting to be activated by that first giant button.

All of which is to ask, if that lead domino were to fall—if, say, a new Mario game popped up on all our phones tomorrow, and instructed us to go to our local park, how many people do you think would just go? How many more would join, once they saw that initial wave? If it got enough of us to go to the park, what might it get us to do next? How long before “not playing” became its own kind of untenable choice? How long before we’d all just have to play?


David Fitzgerald