Alone in the Dark

And then she’s gone.

She was the air that you breathed, the water you drank, the creature who – in a whirlwind of flesh – turned early nights into early mornings. Now she’s the toxin pumped into your gas chamber, the sand on your tongue and the nagging memory of that thing with their lips 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 dramatizes your misery into something cinematically meaningful. You slob around, burning through entire DVD boxes of your favorite 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 her what she’s 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 useful purpose. They’re mostly just “fun.” But that misses that fun is a purpose, too. Where there was 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, 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 when a certain young lady and I were involved in a course of mutually assured destruction. In the 12 months covering our affair, we split up five times. We spent the majority of our time 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 realized 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 roleplaying 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 realizations, I asked around, looking for other’s experiences from break-up games. A lot of what others were looking for mapped exactly into what made Planescape: Torment so appealing.

First, it 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. Nihilistic in Northampton recalled his similar time with Troika’s broken masterpiece, Vampire: Bloodlines. “[It was] full of heartbreakingly broken women who you could, at 3:00 a.m., be convinced were actually really flirting with you. And you realized 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 do, meant you were open to even that level of artificial suggestibility.”

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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. “[My] 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 master-able 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.)”

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, their removal from your life leaves you crushed. The hardest bit of coming down is finding a way to fill the hours you previously devoted to the object of your affections. 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? Roleplaying games are an obsessive’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 socializing. 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 lose yourselves in actions and choices, but also a narrative. The anal mechanics distract the reason-centered 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? … 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 breakup 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 [the games] as ‘duvet terrain.'”

While narrative can be important, it’s worth noting that tiny, relatively easy decisions act as soma in other genres, too. The purified hit of the puzzle game was regularly cited as useful post-breakup. “My boyfriend’s gone,” said 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: [Nintendo DS] 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, simplifies 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 – happy or 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-breakup gaming favorites share everything with Planescape. There’s the response which was memorably immortalized in British sitcom Spaced, where a jilted lover 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 [Command & Conquer] 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. Keep eyes open for a sales blip around Valentines for Introversion’s nuclear holocaust wargame, DEFCON.

Where next for breakup 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-breakup 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 [my] 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 underestimate the effect of advances in gaming technology on the breakup 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 apologize profusely and beg me to come back, I’d have the phone right there.”

But the primary attribute that makes Planescape: Torment a breakup 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 realize 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. She wasn’t worth your time anyway.

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

Kieron Gillen has been writing about videogames for far too long now. His rock and roll dream is to form an Electro-band with Miss Kittin and SHODAN pairing up on vocals.

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