Olsen Twin Anxiety

On terrible video games, and growing up

Olsen Twin Anxiety

A while ago, the lovely people at Triple Jump played a game that I absolutely adored as a kid: Mary-Kate & Ashley Magical Mystery Mall. It's an incredibly awkward, janky game in which you play the teenage Mary-Kate & Ashley as they wander around an empty mall, completing mini-games in order to unfreeze time. For some reason.

Some background on this: it was released in the year 2000, at which time I was the tender age of 12. Mary-Kate & Ashley were - and I really can't stress this enough - everywhere. Books, magazines, movies, video games, a clothing line, and accessories. All embellished with these perfect, identical blonde poppets. And I - being a small, pale, British poppet - worshipped them.

I knew the Olsen twins mainly from their TV presence. I first spotted them in Two of a Kind, which was always on after school, sandwiched between Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Kenan and Kel. I watched every single episode of that show. I loved the sporty, rebellious Mary-Kate and the perky, upbeat Ashley. At the time, I was also obsessed with twins (thanks mostly to my sisters passing down their Sweet Valley High paperbacks to me). I wrote my own stories, and nearly all of them involved twins. There is a large age gap between my older sisters and me. I loved them, but sometimes I felt lonely. A twin was a built-in best friend, a constant, comforting presence.

So when my Dad picked up Magical Mystery Mall for me, I was pretty happy. I found it captivating, even though I knew it was objectively terrible. I laughed at the weird, completely unnatural way the twins walked. I rolled my eyes at the stupid mini-games. I turned the volume down when I got sick of their catchphrases.

And yet I played it. Again and again, I played it. I wandered around the hauntingly empty mall. Something about the lack of life both intrigued and scared me: I wanted to break the game, to push one of the twins through a wall to see what was on the other side of those empty storefronts. I wanted more from this game, and I really tried to get it, eventually butting up against reality.

Why is it so crap? A rushed timeframe, presumably, and a lack of care and thought. Magical Mystery Mall is one of nine games featuring the Olsen twins, all released between 1999 and 2002. I can't find out much about the development of these games, but I think it's safe to say there was a time pressure involved there somewhere.

The Olsen twins' entire lives were under intense time pressure. The girls themselves were a ticking clock. The older they got, the less marketable they became. And so the twins sacrificed their childhoods for work before it was too late.

I'm not saying that they didn't do this willingly: I always found it interesting that the girls had a company set up in their own name, for example, so they couldn't be exploited financially in the same way Miley Cyrus was later on. For all I know, it was Mary-Kate and Ashley organizing the meetings, rocking up in tiny power suits, throwing their briefcases onto a table, demanding more opportunities, more acting roles, more merchandise, more fame. In fact, they both admitted that they were more interested in building a brand than anything else, with Ashley saying in an interview "I always looked at myself, even as a kid, as a businesswoman."

They built their business. They appeared in dozens of TV shows, movies, and video games, mostly in their pre-teen and teen years. Their worth is debated, estimated to be anywhere from $100-$500 million, depending on where you look.

Of course, this is kind of a tired question, one that people have asked again and again when it comes to child stardom: but was it worth it? Really?

What a strange thing that must have been. To grow up and to feel guilty for it.

I'm projecting here. I don't know if they felt guilty or sad about growing up. I'm basing this on how perfectly they fit the lucrative tween market, but how fleeting that stage actually is. Parents know too well the reality of 'pester power', and no-one is better at pestering than tweenagers. It's an awkward era, one that I look back on in my own life with both tenderness and embarrassment. My own daughter is heading to the pre-teen stage in the next couple of years, and I can already see it happening. She's shedding the younger version of her. This middle stage will be a cocoon, and she'll erupt, sometime in her mid-teens, on the other side, an almost-adult.

For parents, this is a difficult age. You want to hang onto them to keep them little somehow, and yet to do so would be damaging, so you just have to watch it happen. At 12, I was thinking about boys, probably more than was advisable. I spent hours lost in daydreams, imagining some exciting, improbable romance. I also liked to go on the swings, eat sweets, and lovingly organize my Beanie Babies. For parents, the Olsen twins were a 'safe zone', wholesome and innocent enough to be trustworthy, but cool and interesting enough to pique a girls' interest. Perfectly marketable.

And it helps that they're so beautiful. Now, they look older, of course: with huge eyes and pronounced cheekbones, they have an almost haunting, ethereal look about them. Back in the day, they were the American dream. Blonde, tanned, perfect teeth, dimples. Unattainably gorgeous for kids like me (again, frizzy-haired, bespectacled, teeth too big for my face). But the twins were friendly enough that you couldn't help but trust them even if you felt you would die of jealousy just looking at them. They were friends, almost. Companions.

Now, I have a lot of respect for the direction the Olsen twins took. They shed their acting careers almost immediately in adulthood, choosing instead to develop a fashion line. I love their 'give-no-shits' style. They dress for themselves, not for the male gaze. This is a twist of rebellion that I find particularly satisfying because for so long, it felt like everything hinged on the twins being attractive to boys and aspirational for girls. I was one of many tweens searching their website for hints on how to get beachy waves, just like them. (It didn’t work because I had crap hair straighteners and no discernable hair styling skills.)

(This is coming back around to the game, I promise.)

Growing up is a multi-layered thing. For me, there were a lot of elements involved: fear, excitement, secretiveness, guilt. A lot of guilt. I yearned to grow up, but I felt sad at the thought of everything I'd be leaving behind. I felt sad for my parents. That they had to lose the innocent version of me and gain a more complicated, difficult version instead.

It's not surprising, that I felt conflicted, really. Society doesn't know how to deal with adolescent girls in general. Back when I was a teen, it was even worse. It was considered perfectly acceptable to run a public countdown until a famous teenage girl came of age. (That's still going on, obviously. Just ask Millie Bobby Brown.) Everywhere the Olsen twins went, people asked them the dreaded questions: do you have a boyfriend? What was it like when you kissed that boy on set, did you feel nervous? (This is still going on, obviously. Just ask Sadie Sink.)

Fuck that for a game of soldiers. I'd rather be poor and happy, than to be incredibly rich with adults asking me hideous questions about my developing sexuality in front of millions of people.

Even their undeniable beauty was a bit of a curse. When Mary-Kate was 17 or so, it became pretty obvious that she was suffering from an eating disorder. Oprah still asked them for their dress size in front of a live audience in a recently resurfaced 2004 interview.

Mary-Kate hesitates and looks, for a split-second, genuinely afraid. 'Size? We're really short, I mean -'

Ashley attempts to help. 'I mean, we're not sure -'

'Oh, you're not sure?' Oprah says. Dripping in sarcasm. 'Oh, that's so interesting.'

I mean, no wonder our generation is so messed up when it comes to body image. Even the Olsen twins, the icons of noughties American beauty, couldn't escape the pressure. While I tried to push the boundaries of reality to make myself look more like them, they were going through incredibly difficult challenges to keep looking like themselves.

I'm at a weird transitional point in my life right now in terms of beauty standards. It took me until I reached my thirties to feel genuinely beautiful. It’s also taken me until my thirties to just not give so much of a shit about it anymore. It’s a huge relief to finally get there, but recently I’ve been having a bit of a wobble.

I'll be 35 this year. I'm not sure whether to embrace it and look forward to my wrinkles deepening and my hair slowly bleaching itself from red to white, or whether I should be trying to prevent it from happening. Part of me wants to age gracefully, and the other part wants to stay young, or reverse time somehow, to make myself more relevant. I get where this comes from. Social conditioning and so on. Still, I guess I am a little bit scared of the inevitable. Of becoming an invisible older woman, just another mum that nobody notices when they walk down the street.

I found myself sitting cross-legged in bed the other night, staring into my phone at my own face. I was trying to appraise myself in an honest way. It took me back to being a young teenager. Looking at myself critically. Wondering why I couldn't be more. More beautiful, more sexy, more grown-up, more confident. And here I am now, still questioning if I am enough. This kind of self-criticism is kind of familiar to me, the ghost of something I used to feel. Only now it’s much less invasive, but a bit more complicated.

Now I realise that those perfect, iconic twins had a life I would never actually want in a million years. Like a lot of things in life, the image was a facade. They were actually human: funny and savvy and joyful and stressed and sad and struggling. They were like me. I mean, they were a lot busier than I was, but you get the idea.

I can't help but wonder what they're doing now. Whether sometimes they sit in bed appraising the way they look, only to feel unsure of themselves.

Anyway, all of this made me play Magical Mystery Mall again. It's shit. I'm sorry, but there's no escaping it. It's a cheaply made and desperately rushed attempt to cash in on the fleeting relevance of the two celebrities-of-the-moment. And while I'm sure that there were talented people involved in the making of this game, the end product is what it was always meant to be: a money-making endeavour.

The gameplay is repetitive, the plot is embarrassing, and the mall itself is obviously an empty shell complete with imaginatively named shops such as 'Sunglasses', 'Books', and 'Sheets and More.' And I'd insert a long waffling bit here about how stereotypically 'girly' interests aren't taken seriously by society in general - girly girls deserve better than shitty horse and makeover games, they should have good horse and makeover games! - but actually I think it's more reflective of the way the movie and TV industries view video games in general. It doesn't really matter if they're crap, because it's ‘just a game’. That was the attitude then and it remains so now, which is why we feel so shocked when tie-in games are done well.

I know there will be people reading this thinking 'yes, but Mary-Kate and Ashley shows were crap in general.' But they weren't! They were funny, and aspirational, and romantic. For 12-year-old girls - their target audience - their movies and TV shows were great. (Let's not talk about New York Minute though.) They were absolutely what girls like me were looking for.

Tweenage me deserved better than this terrible game. This is a hill I am willing to die on.

Playing the game again was a slightly haunting experience. I roamed around the empty space. I butted into the walls, trying to trigger a glitch somehow. I remembered a lot of it, which probably says something about the amount of time I sat alone in my bedroom playing the PlayStation. It felt like visiting the past.

Sometimes I dream of past places in vivid detail: our old council house in Hastings, with its long, sunlit kitchen and uneven garden. My primary school, with its enormous oak front doors. The department store I worked in when I was sixteen, where I first met my husband. I dream of these places as though I was in them yesterday. My mind keeps hold of them for me.

Playing Magical Mystery Mall again felt like that. The still emptiness of the mall feels surreal, almost dream-like. I remembered this place well, but really, there's nothing to do in these dream spaces. You can't stay in them, because you've moved on. You're a different person now, and you don't belong there anymore.

When I played this in 2000, I knew I was too old for it, really. All of it: the TV shows, the movies, the games, and come to think of it, my Mizz magazines and sparkly stickers and Pokemon cards. I was the right age in theory, but my classmates were reading Cosmo and talking about bras and snogging and stuff. I knew I was on the cusp of leaving this era of my life behind, but I wasn't ready to grow up. I felt torn between the need to grow older, and the urge to stay young.

I was afraid of what growing older might mean. Better to stay in this space, where I felt a little uncomfortable, than to fully embrace the next stage, where life felt strange and uncertain, and I wasn't sure what my place would be in it.

Ah. In hindsight, maybe not much has changed after all.