Late March, 2009, London. I am feeling more well-rested than I have in weeks, and the pent-up stress from this extended stretch of days is just beginning to dribble from my ears as I feel the comforting familiarity of a sixaxis controller in my grip. Over the course of the month I had taken to balancing full-time CELTA study with a part-time gig selling videogames to tourists. As if by timed fate, my Ps3’s blu-ray laser had died just before the course begun, and I had been exclusively restricted to what existed on its hard drive.
Not that I had time for even that.
There was no way I could have comprehend the intensity of the workload ahead of me when March first rolled around. I had put myself through similar insanity while trying to maintain grades I wasn’t naturally talented enough to healthily maintain during my time at University, but that era of my life may as well have taken place on an alien planet by this point in time. I had been contentedly resting on my creative laurels, happy to tell myself that the instances when my day job and freelance writing would create fifty hour weeks was, in fact, considerable. The regular stretches of eighty hour diligence that would, once certain deadlines rolled around, bloom up to and past one hundred, had become a thing of my simultaneously over-achieving and sleep-depraved past.
But thank heavens that this endurance training remained buried somewhere within me. My schedule moved away from allowing extended evening sessions with Prince of Persia, and entered a world of bloated academia and labour. On my first day in class, we were informed that some of us would break down and cry, and that others would suffer sleepless night; the previous batch of trainees saw two students drop out in spite of the Â£1000 investment, unable to cope with the pressure. Of this fresh batch of students, I was one of only two people trying to hold down a job while balancing studies on something so purportedly simple as teaching the English language.
By the end of the first day, my mental state needed a complete reset. I had come in, having struggled through the ten or so hours of pre-course work, expecting to have to make major recreational compromises. On the bus ride home this plan was altered to eliminate all pleasure pursuits entirely. One day down and I was already expected to teach my first practice lesson in less than twenty four hours. I spent the bus trip (as I would spend every one to come) franticly flipping through the recommended course books and reading over the handouts. From the bus stop to my front door, I turned grammar rules over and over in my head, repeatedly, trying to create examples and then to make sense of them. This became a common activity, one that ensured that I was never able to mentally rest, even when simply walking from point A to point B.
I would get home, fire up my laptop and check only email from my classmates and teachers. I would download templates and build lesson plans, scrap them, build them again and worry over if I’d ever be able to build them just so. Eventually the reality of the blackness of the sky would strike me with the limited realities of my own mental and physical endurance, and I would have to decide what would be the greatest pleasure: an activity involving my television, or an extra thirty or forty minutes’ sleep. For almost four full weeks, sleep won every time. For this time, sleep was quite literally the only rest I got from my mix of study and work.
Understanding the value of a fresh mind, in the sense that half an hour of thinking with a moderately well-rested one is equal to at least ten times as long with a fried one, I was able to turn my entire life over to this life where work infested my short-term education. Not even meals were sacred. I began the course towards the course bottom end, unsure of myself and often asking assistance, but as the limited weeks passed my position rose. I passed as many assignments as anyone on my first submission in a world where three of four was more than most, and as I entered the final week I had pulled things under control.
In a sense, my timing was horrible. I had booked all my remaining holiday time from work for this last weekend of my course, when in reality I should have booked the one before. The last assignment I was given was laughably short and easy compared to the others, and the remaining work that needed to be prepared for was thinner than before. I wasn’t at the end yet, but as I woke up from an extended sleep late on a Saturday morning, I could just able feel the breeze of downhill flight splitting as it slammed into my face.
That I played and fell so head over heals in love with Flower as to declare it my personal favourite game of 2009 during this time isn’t a huge surprise. Although the game is neither a huge blockbuster or conventional pick, it was still so far up my alley that I was pratically violated by it. No, I could have fallen in love with Flower at any point over the past few years. What is more odd, and thereby of more interest, is how smitten I was after playing a demo of The Wheelman.
I didn’t, not for a second, believe that I was playing a sample of a genuinely great game. Locked into a mental state that had, for the previous weeks, worked in endless circles of critical thinking, the many problems with the game may have been even more transparent than they otherwise might have been. However, after just as much time of living a life to the music of Nightwish and live Metallica recordings, desperately taking disproportionate amounts of metal and using it to process insecure uncertainty into energy, this demo of a fairly middling game achieved one of the purest triumphs that can be associated with gaming as a hobby: it cut me free from the stress of my recent reality. The black plastic of the controller in my hand acted as a conduit for everything that had become pent up and, in the sunny gamespace rendered on my TV, turned it into play through the catharsis of the mechanics.
I never purchased The Wheelman. Not even after returning to Australia and seeing it on sale for $10. In some ways, I see little point to it. It’s purpose had been filled before I had my Ps3 repaired. In a landscape brimming with quality titles, and at the forefront of an era where the first quarter of a year was becoming less infamously dry for quality new releases, it was the demo of a largely forgettable game that really stuck.
Even when the life circumstance rationale has been taken for granted, this moment stands as a guilty pleasure. The experience was liberating in more ways than one. Obviously, being not only a re-induction to games, but also to recreation in general was a huge boon, but another point rose up from The Wheelman’s lack of noteworthy reputation: I felt no pressure to appreciate it. Instead, I was able to allow my mind to go blank and enjoy the experience of playing a videogame in place of something far less relaxing.
It seems ludicrous, and it may very well be so, but this moment stands out as one of the most memorable gaming experiences from my life â€“ one that could only have been born from a game of unexceptional standards. Streaking down those streets of a polygonal Barcelona became an exceptional experience because it wasn’t. A game of greater quality may have demanded more from me, or asked me to demand more from myself. I would have cared about the experience, would have invested myself in paying attention to its mechanics, would have feared ruining the experience for myself.
How ironically joyful it was to have (a sample of) a game that I cared so little for as to be able to enjoy it completely.