Subconscious association is an interesting phenomenon: what we tend to think of ancillary to the central point of a given reminiscence informs us of a lot more than the initial memory. The degree to which we hold relationships between the inanimate and our animate interactions with the world, and the targets to which these affective bonds are attached, are informative insomuch as the provide an insight into what matters to us; what events we deem worthy of attachment to any given inanimate subject of that is a source of a passion, either negative or positive, enough to have a long-term memory attached to it. For me, the associations come in their strongest form with games and associations with ex-girlfriends – a cliché no doubt resting on the cusp between worthiness for inclusion in a mid-nineties Nick Horby novel and a painful realisation that the true struggle faced by men in their early twenties in my generation is the realisation that they’ve probably been awful people to all of their partners at some point or another. While either horn of this dilemma may well lead to ultimately the same conclusions about oneself, those of an irreconcilable tendency towards self-indulgence, navel-gazing isn’t necessarily always a terrible thing.
Resident Evil 4 is forever marred (or enhanced, depending on mood or phase of the moon or however other variables I have that weigh into the changeability of my mood) by the memory that I played it start-to-finish at a time that I was particularly struggling with an ex-partner. It happened at a time where I had stopped playing games in the main, rather being captivated by wholesome pastimes such as incessant checking up on friends and acquaintances across the myriad of social networks that a naïve teenager would have thought it completely necessary to hand over personally identifiable information to or pretending that I didn’t find this particular person’s friends completely unbearable to be around. Perhaps that should have been enough to hint to me that the arrangement was about as sustainable as not aiming for the Chainsaw Ganado’s head or attempting to find the parasites to shoot on the Regenerators without the aid of the infrared scope: it’s likely to end up ugly unless you end up being beneficent of a great deal of luck. Looking back, it’s difficult to identify which elements were cause and which effect: did I play games because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I played games? The negativity that surrounded my playthrough of Resident Evil 4 no doubt coloured my enjoyment of it: while I found it a joy and definitely worthy of the status of ‘modern classic’ that it has, the drawing of comparisons between the ever-present and ever-in-need-of-saving Ashley and my own relationship of the time provided an interesting counterfactual to my own situation.
I’m not too proud to admit that I was probably the Ashley in the majority of the conflict.
The relationship between Leon and Ashley is an interesting one: on paper, it is merely professional – a man charged with the rescue of a VIP’s daughter by virtue of his organisational affiliation – it appears to be strangely nurturing as the game’s escort mechanics become the core mechanic of gameplay. One may expect a military man such as Leon, whose general approach to things, as indicated in his treatment both in Resi 2 and Resi 4, points towards him being a man of business (aside from a taste for puns) rather than of empathy, to take the matter of escorting Ashley to a safe zone into his own hands in a more literal sense than the sort of hand-holding and asking her to jump in bins than it actually does. Leon’s approach is far more one of gentle nudging rather than one of force. In a sense, it is the relationship between a “romantic” couple: one partner encouraging the other towards a mutual goal. This is something that, at the time, I required and yet was not receiving: a disingenuous “I’m sure it’ll be fine” while remaining distracted by the omnipresence of a handheld Twitter hardly compares to assurance both physical and verbal that the one partner will aid the other in working through whatever obstacles are ahead.
The end of that relationship coincided with the time at which I first had a Steam account: this was a simpler time, by all accounts, in which I didn’t have to wade through 500+ entries in my games list to be able to find what I was looking to play, or install and never play just in case I wanted to at some point. It also coincided with a time in which I was – to co-opt yet another cliché – looking for love in all of the wrong places. Well, not necessarily the wrong places: this was the standard affair whereby the conclusion had been reached that something is better than nothing, and something made the mistake of directing affection in my direction. The true start of my career in serial monogamy lay with this unfortunate girl – lovely, but so completely and utterly wrong for me: someone to whom the concept to personal space in the context of a relationship was alien. It was Chains that was most often played in her company, more an excuse to not be touched than anything else. We’d spend time together – well, not together in the true sense of the word, this strange sort of together where we inhabited the same physical space but only one of us truly had any presence of mind and it was so rarely me – and I’d seek to do my own thing for a while. Chains was perfect for this: a puzzle game that made me think enough to not think in any meaningful way: a distraction that isolated me from considerations of the daft things I’d done in the intervening period where I was ‘single’ like sent roses to the ex with a note saying sorry, but only because I new she was seeing someone else who I’d been concerned was incredibly handsy around her when we were together and I was trying to pick a fight.
I’ve never said I was intelligent.
Every now and then she’d make a sarcastic – well, as sarcastic as Austrian accents can be – remark along the lines of “oh, that again?”, to which I would respond with a bark “yes.” Of course, my tone was unlikely to particularly help matters, but she always took me spending time “away” from her, even though she was practically live-in at some points, as a slight. The tortured association I have when playing Chains now is about matching: it’s a happier thought now than it was then, but Chains ensures through the medium of colour that the things that you pull together to make the circles disappear are designed to be pulled together in that way. Three or more of one colour in a line? You’re golden. Matching of people with other people is never that easy: there are far too many variables, including the most fickle of all in emotional state, that come together – luck plays a deciding factor in determining whether the match is the right linking of three or more attributes of the same class.
A third relationship context found me making links between games and the people I was with at the time. Dangun Feveron is key, not to exaggerate a point beyond reason, in my development as a person and in coming to peace with the fact that I enjoy the things that I enjoy and I shouldn’t feel shame in that. Of course, coming to this realisation at 22 years of age is probably a little late: it is supposed to be the teenage years in which peer pressure is at its most effective. The partner of the time, however, was the most controlling person I have exposure to: aside from my night curfews and strict oversight of friendships, there was an “it’s me or the games” moment. Put this in the context of someone who was a First Class university student and was working three jobs at the time, and it becomes unreasonable to assume that this development came in the form of an intervention; that my consumption of games was having detriment to my personal or professional life. I framed my response to this in terms of stories: she watches films, she enjoys the stories of films, games are a bit like films. She accepted this, but I was keen to avoid giving her cause for concern, so I stuck to “cinematic games” and spent the best part of a year playing only the likes of Uncharted and Bioshock. Now, these aren’t bad games, but they lack gameplay as the focus of the enterprise of producing a video games. Then, following my viewing of a particularly interesting gifset, Dangun Feveron came along. In typical Cave fashion, a perfect distillation of twitch and logic as combat puzzle-solving tools that reminded me of what I really valued about games: agency and challenge. I think it was this realisation of the importance of agency to me that led to me finally having the courage to leave and be alone for a while.
The title of this piece is something tragic that I once saw on the cover of Play, I think it was: a throwaway misogynistic line used to emblazon the header of a magazine to sell it just that little more to its target market of sweaty, spotty teenage scrotes. Fortunately, I was never spotty and so never picked such things up, but that phrase stuck with me: there’s an odd relation between games, people that play games, sex and relationships that is complex and unique to everyone. Of course, the same could be said for music, with people ranging the gamut from “we only fuck to Black Sabbath” to “hymns teach us the word of God and we must show restraint with regard to our earthly desires”: I think games, however, are unique in the sense that the way in which player agency shapes experiences combines with the way that external factors affect the agency of players. Either that or I’m just a mess who takes things too seriously.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.