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.]
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.