Alone In The Dark. Weeping.

By Kieron Gillen on February 14th, 2008 at 2:45 pm.

[This was originally published in a slightly different form last year at the Escapist - keen eyed pedants may note the difference in the opening. I suspect this one could run from now until the end of time and remain relevant. Chins up, soldiers.]
Physician, heal thyself

And then they’re gone.

They were the air that you breathed, the water you drank, the creature who – in a whirlwind of flesh – turned early nights into early mornings. Now they’re the toxin pumped into your gas chamber, the sand on your tongue and the nagging memory of /that/ thing with their tongue on your bare skin, which you know you’ll never feel again.

What do you do? What can you do? You are broke-up. You are Ex. That is, ex-human. Your life is over.

It’s time to build a new one.

Where to start?

You flip through the record collection, playing whatever makes you maudlin or angry or dramatises your misery into something cinematically meaningful. You slob around, burning through entire DVDs boxes of your favourite series while having chocolate conveyer-belted into your bedroom. Or go the other way, and tidy your house to the state of perfection. Turn similar puritanical instincts on your body, and try and get into shape to show them what they’re missing. Drink or drugs? Sure – after all, vodka will never leave or hurt you. Pull on the comfortable coat of boiling misanthropy. Start writing emo-kid poetry… actually, no, it can’t be that bad.

Or you could pull out the right videogame.

Every single relationship I've ever had, has fundamentally been Elaine and Guybrush. The dress thing only happens occasionally.

We don’t tend think of videogames as utilitarian things, designed to perform a proper useful job. They’re mostly just “fun”. But that misses that fun is a purpose too – that even if they’re just being fun, that’s also a purpose. Where a dull sense of boredom, there now exists a blessed and amusing distraction, and even that’s putting aside the hugely varied forms of fun which games can offer. Some find their home drunk on a Saturday night (Fighters, Sports games, Singstar, etc). Other games work best hungover on a Sunday afternoon (Civilization, Baldur’s Gate). And, following that logic, some games must work particularly well when you’re trying to avoid taking a set of nails and hammering them into your eyeballs just so that for a single blessed second you could feel pain unconnected with The Absent One.

I hadn’t really thought about how videogames worked in this context until the year where a certain young lady and I were involved in a course of mutually assured destruction. In the twelve months covering our affair, we split up five times. The majority of the time was spent circling each other, as if we were stuck in a pit of our own making and involved in a knife-fight to the death. Before we had realised we could climb out any time we wanted, we got plenty of practice in Intense Splitting up. So I ended up listening to a lot of early Nick Cave, drinking a lot of Red Wine and playing a lot of Planescape Torment.

It just made perfect sense. Yes, it was a brilliant videogame – unarguably one of the greatest role-playing games in the canon – but it was more importantly the right brilliant videogame. And years after the fact, thinking back more coolly on those days which became known as the “Evil Kieron period” among my long-suffering friends, I began to see exactly why. Taking these realisations, I asked around, looking for other’s experiences of break-up games. Many of the attributes mapped exactly into what appealed so precisely about Planescape Torment.

EEEEEEEEEEEMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMO

Firstly, Planescape Torment isn’t hard. You’ve had your self-worth cut off at the knees and you’re left dragging yourself around, leaving embarrassing bloody emotional smears everywhere. Last thing you need is to be left staring at the Play Again screen in something as brutal as Ninja Gaiden. You need to succeed, no matter how meaninglessly, to start rebuilding confidence.

Notably, this includes social interactions, especially with Sheena-Easton-voiced Tiefling Annah. When prompted, Nihilistic in Northampton recalled his similar time with Troika’s broken masterpiece, Vampire: Bloodlines. “Full of heartbreakingly broken women who you could, at 3am, be convinced were actually really flirting with you,” Nihilistic recalled, “and you realised their powers of seduction were working on you, on some level, because your immersion in the game and stints of playing it way beyond tiredness, because you had nowhere else to go, and nothing else to go, meant you were open to even that level of artificial suggestibility.” Sadly gay guys and women have less choice in videogames where they get to pick up pretend people. Hopefully they’ll be okay without synthetics giving the come-hithers.

Not that the game being specifically over-kind is the only way to start reconstructing your self-image. Games also give more easily achievable goals. The manly warrior route: self-worth over your fallen foes. “Immediate response to a break-up from a most-of-university relationship was compulsive playing of Tekken 3,” recalled Simply Suicidal in Sheffield, ”The all-too-obvious psychology behind it was this: having just proved myself to be very bad at something (i.e. making a girl happy), trying to become very good at something more easily masterable was a logical response. There was nothing spectacular in my Tekken accomplishments – I didn’t tour Japanese arcades, claim world records or play for six weeks without sleep. All I did was repeatedly play as one character (Bryan Fury, to be specific) until I’d perfected just enough moves and strategies, and developed such an extreme, unpleasant reaction to the relatively rare occasions that I was beaten, that my housemates wouldn’t play against me anymore. They were both in happy, healthy relationships; I wasn’t, but I was better than them at Tekken. I won! I really didn’t.”

Walker says this is very sad. I say Walker is very sad.

The second of Planescape’s attributes was that it. Was. Enormous. You can lose yourself in it without swiftly reaching an abrupt conclusion. Coming down from a love affair can be like breaking an addiction. If you’re with someone whose very presence fills your body with sexy endorphins, the removal from your life leaves you crushed. The hardest bit of coming down is finding a way to fill the hours which were previously devoted to this thing you were so obsessed about. Planescape was full of things to do – it wasn’t challenging, but there was always something to think about. Which artifact to buy? Where to explore next? What’s that angel creature really up to? Role playing games are an obssessive’s dream.

“I plunged myself into RPGs.” agrees Simply Suicidal. “I played Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, Planescape: Torment, Baldur’s Gate and the add-on Tales of the Sword Coast essentially back-to-back. I scoured each for every secret I could find, played through the night and spurned socialising. Each offered an easy way for an unhappy man to avoid the world for a few dozen hours.” This links closely to another key attribute of Planescape and RPGs – they’re a genre where story is central. You don’t just love yourselves in actions and choices, but also a narrative. The anality of the mechanics distracts the reason-centred left brain, when the humanity distracts the febrile, creative right. It’s especially potent considering RPGs propensities to lead to heroes who wrestle with their dark Byronic nature. “Planescape rang truest,” Suicidal notes, “Mostly for its hero. A physically and mentally scarred loner who doesn’t feel he belongs, who’s the instrument of his own distress, who’s persecuted by forces he doesn’t understand? God, I was obvious. It was the gaming equivalent of listening to Leonard Cohen records and watching Taxi Driver on repeat.” It’s a common enough response. “One of my University chums receded into his shell after a break up and immersed himself in Final Fantasy, Zelda, and Secret of Mana games,” noted Deeply Depressed in Dover, “I was pretty sure I heard him sobbing several times. He described them as “duvet terrain”.”

While narrative is absent, it’s worth noting that the mass of tiny, relatively easy decisions to act as soma works in other genres too. The purified hit of the puzzle game was regularly cited as useful post-break-up. “My boyfriend’s gone,” repeated Catastrophically Cut-up in Cardiff, “One of the most glaring, obvious voids he’s left behind is the one in my bed every night, and that’s the place where I miss him the most and find it hardest to kid myself that I can carry on with everything as usual. Cue: portable games console companionship under the duvet. I need to play something that’s entirely devoid of human contact and interaction but which is nonetheless comforting somehow. I want solace – not to become a robot. DS tile-swap puzzler Zoo Keeper fills the gap, if not perfectly, at least appropriately.” Zoo Keeper, and puzzle games, simplify life’s complexities into neat grids. You can’t untangle the emotional red thread, but you can deal with this. “It’s entirely absorbing, in almost an autistic way, plus there’s cute animal faces in it,” explains Catastrophically Cut-up, “They get angry looking when I’m running low on time, but a quick few chains will return their status to happy. I like to watch emotions that are black and white – a) happy or b) sad – and which are easily fixed. I find this reassuring. Also, I’m capable of playing it for hours until my eyes are starting to close and I’m entirely exhausted, at which point I can just shut the DS lid and leave it on charge until the next night. I’m broken, but the game lets me pretend otherwise long enough to get to sleep. No thought invited or required.”

Now, you may not remember this bit of The Longest Journey, but you say yes to going to a date with this guy. Then you go into another dimension, and by the time you get back, you've missed the date and he goes on the most amazing misogynist tirade. Don't make 'em like The Longest Journey anymore.

The removal of unwelcome thoughts is key. In fact, if a game leaves room for recollection of better times, it may become unbearable. “Cruelly, a lot of the games I’m most fond of – hardcore sims like Microsoft Flight Sim and Silent Hunter 3 – are perfect for introspection.” sighs Isolated in the Isle of Man, “When everything is right with the world, having the space to daydream within a game is a wonderful thing. When life has turned to shit it’s fatal.”

Not that all post-break-up gaming favourites share everything with Planescape. There’s the response which was memorably immortalised in British sitcom Spaced, where after splitting Simon Pegg’s character, Tim Bisley, spends hours playing Tomb Raider. Not to actually get through the game – he just likes repeatedly drowning Lara Croft. We’re talking about bloody, dirty release. “I’m a simple fellow,” claims Isolated, “I find sparkly slaughter and breakneck speed cure a multitude of ills. My comfort shooter is the original Unreal Tournament. A manic hour bouncing between the towers on Morpheus or goop-gunning for England on Deck16 usually banishes most bad thoughts.” “Playing C&C as China, on an easy setting, and just walling up your base, and building eight nuclear missiles, and unleashing them on the enemy all at once is the only catharsis you find,” agrees Nihilistic sagely. Keep eyes open for a sales blip around Valentines for Introversion’s nuclear war Wargames-based wargame Defcon.

Where next for Break-up gaming? Well, this initial exploration into matters of the heart and the hard-drive actually lead to elements which implies there’s an article to be written about pre-break-up and general relationship-trauma gaming too. “I started obsessing over someone quite recently,” explains Guilty in Guildford, “I’m in quite a long-term relationship, so this is bad. So I started playing Zelda hard, very hard, so as to a) try and forget and b) withdraw myself a little bit from proper girlfriend. That way, she’d assume I was being distracted and distant because I’d been up all night playing Zelda. And not, say, because I was a bad, bad man.” Also, don’t under-estimate the effect of advances in gaming technology on the break-up game. Take Alienated in Auckland, whose post-split choice was… Siberian Strike on his mobile. “Not because I had a hankering to shoot down some Russians,” weeps Alienated, “but so that if she called to apologise profusely and beg me to come back I’d have the phone right there.” It looks like as long as people insist on hurting each other and videogames allow you to hurt simulated people, they’ll be a use for the Break-up game.

They always go for the Ghost Pirate, the heartless bitches.

But one of the primary attributes that makes Planescape Torment a break-up classic on par with “Songs Of Love And Hate” and the nearest bottle of Chianti wasn’t actually hit upon by any of my correspondents. Fundamentally, as long as it is, as distracting as it is, as all-consuming as it is… it ends. You complete it, look up at the sun and realise you have to do something else. The duvet-terrain description of Depressed in Dover’s friend rings true. It gives you a place to lie, heal and lick your wounds… but after mourning, new morning. Get on with it, soldier. They weren’t worth your time anyway.

So for God’s sake, don’t get into any Massively Multiplayer game post-split. We could never see you again.

__________________

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44 Comments »

  1. ezequiel says:

    this post made me re-think all my love for RPG’s like the FF series, Planescape, and Fallout.
    i feel weird now.

  2. Feet says:

    Great article. Cheers.

  3. Meat Circus says:

    World of Goo’s out today.

    I bet that would help to soothe the sting of damned good cuckolding.

  4. Seniath says:

    Great read when I saw it last year, great read again now :).

  5. c-Row says:

    Best. Article. Ever. Especially for those of us going through another lonely or freshly split up Valentine’s Day.

  6. goz says:

    Keep eyes open for a sales blip around Valentines for Introversion’s nuclear war Wargames-based wargame Defcon.

    You are viral marketing AICMFP

    ;)

  7. arqueturus says:

    “Vodka will never hurt you or leave you, ever

    The first quote I can remember of yours, from back in the early days of the PCG Delphi forum (or perhaps it was on the new forum that followed).

    I have no idea if it belongs to you or you appropriated it from somewhere else but I sure as hell appropriated it from you and still use it now :)

  8. DigitalSignalX says:

    This is why I *like* long, tedious, incredibly boring Asian grinders like Lineage II. Basically you can plug your soul into it and hit the reset switch on your brain while you turn into an autonomic leveling, farming, questing machine. Brilliant escapism catharsis for all sorts of real life stress.

  9. Satsuz says:

    S-class material, that. Definitely adds a new later of perspective to things.

  10. Chis says:

    Break out your Cream albums, Kieron. It helps to have good taste in music. ;P

  11. Phil says:

    Okami, with it depth, love gathering play mechanics and general all pervasive sense of utter joy is what got me through my last break up – the moment the sex bomb, who you had assisted for hours, ripped off her face to reveal the inhuman demonic visage beneath held a special significance.

    Fab article by the way.

  12. Del Boy says:

    Great read.

    I’ve actually only recently been introduced to Leonard Cohen’s stuff so this kind of struck a chord.

  13. Echo Nolan says:

    Aww, Kireon… :hugs:

  14. Nallen says:

    So easy to feel a sense of smug self satisfaction, knowing that I’ll be spending this evening in the arms of very beautiful and talented woman.

    Trouble is I can’t help but remember the fact that I inexplicably pulled Oblivion out of the pile following my last break up and put over 100 hours in to a new character.

    A magic based character that only used touch damage spells, come to think of it.

  15. phuzz says:

    Oh. Fuck. Yes.
    Reminds me of many, many hours spent trying to turn my brain off so I couldn’t think about..stuff.
    nice timing too by the way, now if you’ll excuse me, my flatmate has just cleaned the house for the first time in two years (really) and he’s kicking me out of the house so he can…stuff.
    Rum, rum is my freind now.

  16. Andrew says:

    Thanks for this, Kieron. Good read.

  17. Electric Dragon says:

    Doom, set to Ultra Violence (or possibly Nightmare), enable God mode and IDKFA, and spend some time mindlessly chainsawing or gunning down the zombie hordes. Preferably imagining the ex to be each and every one.

    Also: pace the TLJ pic caption, you can choose for April to go on the date with Zack, which is after she returns to her own dimension. You never see it, but are merely told the following morning that it went very badly. Or she can sack the date off and go to a rock concert with her top-heavy friend Emma. Either way, Zack is extremely pissed off.

  18. realmenhuntinpacks says:

    yes good words.

    word.

  19. Zeno, Internetographer says:

    After a bad break-up, I do what most sensible guys do: make a player model based on the bitch’s face in UT2k4 and let the fragging heal my heart.

  20. Okami says:

    When I was 16, I had a Warcraft save game, I’d load up whenever I felt angry, alienated or bewildered (i.e. every day, I was 16) or when I had problems with the first great love of my life.

    The savegame was from a skirmish map, I played Humans against Orcs. Our bases were seperated by forrests, so the AI couldn’t get to me. I’d built the granddaddy of all RTS bases, and had a small, hard hitting army of knights, crossbowmen, clerics and catapults arraid in front of the forrst.

    There was just one tile of forrest seperating the orc army from my defences.

    So everytime I needed to let off some steam, I’d load the game, send a peasant to harvest that last patch of trees and watch the orc army squeeze through the bottleneck only to be killed like flies by the massed and concentrated fire of my army.

    Since the AI player had built up a huge army (maxing out his population limit), the carnage that ensued was incredible, leaving not a single Orc alive with no losses at all on my side.

    This allways cheered me up immensely, driving away all bad thoughts.

    Of course I also had Doom, just in case the Warcraft genocide wasn’t enough to make me feel better..

  21. Sum0 says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever thought about gaming as comfort food, but in retrospect I can see how I’ve used marathon stints of gaming to shut myself away from the world after a breakup. Including, I must say, Vampire and its various beautiful ladies. A pale substitute for the real thing, but strangely warming in the absence of anything else, like a bland but filling Pot Noodle in the rain.

    My own personal breakup tonic includes a healthy swig of Nick Cave too, natch.

  22. drunkymonkey says:

    Yep, this is one of my favourite articles from The Escapist, and it’s nice to see it finally up here in all its glory, too. I loved the thing you did with the names of the players.

    Curiously inspiring article, and its relation between real-life issues and gaming culture is also quite interesting.

  23. AlpineViper says:

    I did this, and didn’t even realise I did it until now.
    When my long term relationship hit the deck (hard) I remember now that shortly afterwards I was installing all of Freespace in its open source goodness and playing through the entirity of the first and second games, plus the very large Derelict user created add-onn.

    I was saving lives against a race of destroyers. It felt good to be good at something.

  24. WCAYPAHWAT says:

    Mmmm…..I ended up playing a lot of C&C general’s. I preffered massed scud storms though. I think that was also around the time I got CoH: opposing fronts. so yeah, lots of artillery shelling and mass destruction went on.

    I’m over her now, but of the 8 people in my duplex/share house I’m the only single one. Thank god i have you RPS *heart*

  25. sigma83 says:

    World of Warcraft did this for me, as well as countless other games I can’t remember or name.

    Gaming remains the only activity that really totally disconnects from the world in such a way. My other hobbies include reading, a lot, but every so often you read something mildly soppy and that flips all the wrong switches. It doesn’t really happen when you’re grinding kobolds.

  26. zergl says:

    Ex dropped me a day before christmas eve.
    What ensued:
    1) get heavily drunk
    2) go on a MMORPG binge (Ragnarok Online, the mindless grinding was exactly what I needed)
    3) mess up a semester at university because of 2)
    4) ?????
    5) definitely not profit.

    =|

  27. James says:

    A really good article, Kieron. Not a subject I’ve placed much thought in before, which made for a very interesting read.

    While I can’t comment on the part of break-up games, my standard response to a particularly bad day? Load up the last levels on Half-Life 2 and start flinging some Combine.

    Not in a sadistic way or anything, mind….

  28. Alex says:

    I still don’t have the heart to go into the details… but replaying Wizardry 7 got me through a bad couple of weeks a few years back. It’s a long game, and a difficult game, and one with some very melancholy undertones. I’m genuinely grateful I had it; it didn’t solve my problems, but it helped me get through them.

  29. Zaptrack says:

    My uncle died when I was like 13, So of course I continued playing video games. But this time with a goal.

    I was going to beat a game. I rarely did, my only conquests being easy, lackadaisal fare like kirby or short, not too challenging games like sonic.

    My comfort food of choice? Earthbound. There wasn’t a moment where I wasn’t either focused intently on the game or laughing at it’s warped sense of humor.

    So, to honor my uncle for both getting me into video games and indirectly introducing me to RPGs, whenever I can name a character, I name it after him. First come first serve, so I end up with alot of main characters named after him.

  30. Kieron Gillen says:

    DrunkMonkey: “Curiously inspiring article, and its relation between real-life issues and gaming culture is also quite interesting.”

    This is a topic I want to come back to eventually. The idea of games – in fact, cultural objects generally – being utilitarian is something that really interests me.

    KG

  31. Nick says:

    I (when it was installed) frequently used Baldur’s Gate 2 to recover from very bad hangovers. Combined with extra strong mints.

    Never a break up though, hopefully won’t have to test it out either.

  32. Morte says:

    What game is the fourth screenshot from, the woman with the little girl lying across her lap?

  33. sigma83 says:

    The woman is 19 year old Zoe Castillo, one of the 3 protagonists from Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, which is a sequel to the screenshot no. 5, The Longest Journey. They don’t make enough of those games.

  34. Dug Briderider says:

    This subject was touched upon with the Film Reign Over Me where Adam Sandler is suffering from crippling grief and playing Shadow of Collosus in the dark all day on a projector. I guess hunched over a 14″ monitor playing Planetscape tourment doesn’t have the same cinematic look.

  35. Morte says:

    Ha! I’m about half way through The Longest Journey, enjoying it, and looking forward to the sequel.

    Thanks.

  36. Spacegirl says:

    Yeh, during my….least happiest days I often find myself plowing through an RPG. KOTOR, Jade Empire and Fable have all gotten me through tricky times..

    Then of course there is Civilization. There are a million things to consider and decide, providing ample thought-distraction. The game moves exactly at YOUR pace, and it doesn’t really feel too bad when you lose cause (at least for me) the whole thing is a really cool sandbox just to explore around in. It also has comforting music and friendly sound effects (speaking mostly of Civ 4 here.) Just pulling back to the Earth View, and rotating the Camera as the whoosh noises play is very relaxing…

  37. Testicular Torsion says:

    As someone who’s been hopelessly addicted to Oblivion for the past couple months after a recent breakup, I can only say that you’re 100% right. The illusion of freedom from the real world is so very tempting.

  38. Seniath says:

    Two weeks ago, my girlfriend broke up with me, and I was devastated. I tried gaming as a form of escapism, specifically Mass Effect, but it just wasn’t clicking. Something about playing a game was keeping the part of my brain that I wanted to get rid of active and thinking.

    In the end, I resorted to just watching hour upon hour of Scrubs. That helped, but now I’ve run out so am trying Mass Effect again, hopefully this time with better results.

  39. Sahagin says:

    Can someone tell me what game is featured in the third screenshot?

  40. LukeE says:

    Looks like Fahrenheit, aka Indigo Prophecy.

  41. tim says:

    What game is in the 2nd and 6th screenshots? Really tugging on the memory strings. And uh, good article too.

  42. Oak says:

    Monkey Island 2.

  43. Gassalasca says:

    I read this at the Escapist, had no idea you posted it here as well.
    In any case, I find that in such moments I am strangely reluctant to play any game. In times of great emotional upheaval I escape to other realms (music, books), but never games. I find myself spending the most time with them when everything else is going just fine, not a cloud on the horizon etc.
    Could it mean that I don’t find games adequate enough of an emotion sinks? That I consider them unworthy of such a role? See them as inherently ‘shallow’. I don’t think that’s the case, but there it is.

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