Provided you’re not hoofing around on a dancemat, wiggling your Wii-stick, or re-enacting all of your favourite John Woo films with a lightgun in hand, playing games shouldn’t be particularly arduous. When I was a kid, a day off school with some vague illness was a perfect excuse to spend a couple of hours at the altar of Doom. Playing games while wrapped in a duvet was pretty much the entire point of being ill.
Now that I’m An Old Man, I find that I struggle to play games when I’m ill. Maybe that’s because Old Man illnesses are actually real, unlike the sniffles and pangs of youth, or perhaps it’s because even a sniffle can fell a fragile frame, laid low by booze and time. I’ve been trying to find games that can provide respite in times of sickness.
Last week, something knocked me for six. I’m fine now – a little wearier, a little wiser – but I was in a state. It was dramatic, of course, with appeals to several pantheons for mercy, instructions to tear up the will that I’ve never written, and heartfelt thanks to the non-existent serving staff who were making my last moments as unkind as such things can possibly be. It was one of those illnesses that necessitates regular bowls of soup, which always end up left next to the bed, a spoon tentatively dipped in, raised to the lips briefly, and then abandoned. I was just about ill enough to definitely require a doctor’s attention but just about ill enough to make the trip to the doctor’s clinic unimaginably difficult.
To pass the time, while my other half selfishly abandoned me to go and work in a children’s hospital, I decided to play some games. There are games that I need to play because my job involves playing games, but they tend to require a furrowed brow and fully-functional brain. This was the kind of illness that makes the skull into a microwave, rotating and slowly cooking the gelatinous lump of mind-jelly that’s slopping around within. Strategy games were out.
Past experience has shown me to be incapable of absorbing anything plot-related while I’m in a particularly bleak state. I once spent a sick day huddled on the couch watching the first few episodes of of The Americans. Had to watch the entire thing again when I tried to pick up where I left off a few days later and realised I thought it was a sci-fi time travel show. Fever can lead to a surfeit of speculative reconstruction.
No RPGs or adventure games then, even though the latter seem like a perfect fit for a person shorn of reflexes and dexterity. Turn-based tactics might have a suitable pace – a pace of whatever the hell I want it to be – but that takes me back to the problem of having to kick my brain into gear. Wasn’t going to happen. Football Manager used to be a sickness staple but my current career sees me pushing for a first Premier League title after five years of struggle – in my delirium, I was likely to blow it.
Eventually, I turned to a game I’d installed a while back but never played. Tallowmere. It’s a short-form action game with roguelike elements and it contained everything I needed. Each playthrough lasts a few minutes and even rapid defeats occasionally feel rewarding when a new weapon, enemy or room layout pops up. I needed something that I could play for ten minutes in between naps and repeated attempts to find that one comfortable position, in which the body is momentarily tricked into feeling like a safe place for a little while.
Then I fell back into Spelunky. Even though I wasn’t equipped to deal with the more difficult scenarios it threw at me, I realised that what I needed was any game that combined brevity with a sense of achievement. Everytime I manage to carry a pug to safety, I feel like I’ve won, even if a bat bounces me into a set of spikes a few seconds later.
I loaded Minecraft at one point but felt immediately overwhelmed. Without an immediate FORWARD objective, I was inclined to recreate my real state, constructing a small shelter and curling up in a corner while I waited for the world to make sense again. The beauty of Spelunky, Tallowmere and other such games is that they present worlds that make immediate sense – go toward the exit, avoid the traps, collect the things. That’s what I needed.
And that’s also why I ended the day playing Punch Quest on my phone. Small enough to hold in my hand no matter how contorted my comfort position had become and with the simplest premise of all. Go right and punch.
If my sickly body were capable of going right and punching, everything would be alright. I’d be fighting fit and ready to face whatever was in store.