I was going to write a blog post about games that my siblings and I used to play when we were kids. But, I have a lot to say about this one so it wound up getting its own edition.
When we were kids growing up, three letters – G.I.S. – meant that you would not see me or my younger brother for the rest of the afternoon. It meant we were about to haul the three overflowing storage bins chock full of action figures out from under our bunk beds and disappear into a world heroes, villains, and epic battles for the fate of the universe that would last at least until dinnertime.
The name came from something my brother said. We originally called it “playing guys.” Then one day my brother, trying to be clever and spell it out, said, “Hey Russ, wanna play G… I… S?” The name instantly stuck, and “playing guys” had now been re-christened “playing G.I.S.”
The mish-mash of characters in those bins allowed us to create a strange shared universe where Superman and Batman could join forces with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, where Spider-Man could be found web-slinging alongside the Thundercats, where He-Man could become a member of the Justice League. And if there was a character we wanted to include that we didn’t have, we improvised – like when Dr. Smith from the Lost In Space toy line subbed in for Alfred the butler. We even had some figures that we had no idea who they were, so we re-imagined them as new characters that we made up, or sometimes pretended it was one of our real-life friends, neighbors, or family members who apparently also existed in the G.I.S. universe.
The best games though were when my dad would join us for a game. Dad, no doubt exhausted from working late night shifts on the assembly line, could still be persuaded to join his sons for a game of action figures on the floor of our small bedroom on a Saturday afternoon. Although if Dad was laying on the floor and the scene suddenly shifted to a life-or-death battle atop my brother’s dresser, Dad would just hold up his figure and say “Just pretend I’m up there,” which would cause my brother to fly into a fit of rage.
Dad introduced probably the most memorable character into the G.I.S. universe when he re-dubbed the Splinter figure from Ninja Turtles as Templeton, a ruder, cruder version of the rat from Charlotte’s Web. Templeton became a staple of all G.I.S. games going forward.
The plots from each game would usually continue. If Batman quit the Justice League one week, he would still be off the team when we played again. If last week’s game ended with the Joker going to jail, he would need to bust out before he could plague Gotham again. But every once in awhile a curve would come out of nowhere that just did not jibe with what we’d established before – usually a major character dying and/or coming back to life – which would prompt my brother to say, “Pretend this is an unaired pilot.” I have no idea where he picked that terminology up, and I burst out laughing the first time he said it. But I knew what he meant. The rules are out the window for this one, anything can happen and we’ll just ignore it next week. Hollywood “reboots” things all the time now, we were doing it in the mid-90s.
There were some strange events in those games. One time we used a Ryu figure from Street Fighter as Charles from “Charles In Charge.” We killed him off, and played the “Charles In Charge” theme as he floated up to Heaven (I had a CD full of TV show theme songs). In homage to that moment, any time a character was killed off after that we played the “Charles In Charge” theme. In another episode, Templeton got really bad diarrhea and flooded the toilets in Wayne Manor (I don’t think my dad was in on that game, Josh and I had taken the character to new lows at that point). There are actually a handful of G.I.S. videos that we made that survived to this day – one where Batman and Robin fight the Oreo Cookie Man, and one where the Kingpin of Crime flushes Spider-Man down a giant toilet (a lot of toilet humor in those days, what can I say).
Those action figure bins are all in my parents’ basement now. On Thanksgiving my dad and I took my 17-month-old son, Dominic, downstairs to run around. I got out one of the bins of action figures just for fun, and started showing them to him. He was especially interested in Spider-Man (not the one that we threw in the toilet, at least I don’t think so) and the Flash. And it made me think about all the games I will play with him someday.
In just a few days, my brother will welcome his firstborn son into the world as well. I look forward to the day that Dominic and his cousin can haul a box of toys out and escape into a world of imagination. Maybe they will ask their dads to join in, and Josh and I can return to the world of G.I.S. with them, although now we’ll be the ones saying “Just pretend we’re up there” when the action shifts locations a bit too quickly. I can’t wait to watch our kids create their own stories, their own universes. I can’t wait to see what their imaginations come up with. And I can’t wait for the moment that Dominic says (most likely not in these exact words), “Dad, pretend this is an unaired pilot.” The rules are off this time, anything goes.