Content warning: mental illness, suicide
Like a lot of people my age, I play video games. I tend to have to play the older ones, because I’m usually technologically or financially not in a position to buy the new stuff when it comes out. Like books, there’s just too many to take in all the good stuff in a lifetime, so I’m often going back several years to play the things people are now saying were actually masterpieces. You don’t typically get that from a day one release. Critics’ll say it’s good or Game of the Year or whatever, but it doesn’t hold any kind of place in the culture or the scholarship.
You know that the Oscar for Best Picture in 1985 went to Out of Africa? I can’t name a single person who’s seen that movie. Think of all the pictures that came out in '85. Just off the top of my head there’s Back to the Future and The Breakfast Club and Clue and that’s all stuff that’s stood the test of time. I could point to Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome but nobody besides me likes that movie too much. Anyway the point I’m getting at is, sometimes it takes a while for the really good stuff to make itself known, and that’s as true with video games as it is with film.
So it was about 2009 before I played Planescape: Torment, now widely regarded as one of the best video games of all time, (and if you don’t believe me you can look at Wikipedia). Planescape came out in 1999. It was a venerable old warhorse of a game based on a pretty obscure Dungeons & Dragons setting and it wasn’t very impressive to look at. Commercially it didn’t do so well so I guess a lot of people weren’t swayed much by the box art. And I get it, the things that make it good I’d find hard to sum attractively in a couple sentences even given that I’m in this advertising class right now. I’ll do the best I can though.
The writing and story and characters are all incredible and tragic. The game intertwines the amnesiac protagonist’s fate with a cast of memorable supporting characters and lets you discover how you’ve wronged all these people in a past you’ve forgotten. It’s high concept, philosophical, and, (spoilers I guess), the final boss is actually your own mortality given horrible life by your past choices and regrets. It’s compelling stuff and I hadn’t played anything like it before or since.
Which is why, on this warm day in 2009, I found myself sitting on the steps of the theater building where Johnny Carson once studied, trying to explain what made this game special to Liz.
I was always trying to impress Liz so that maybe she’d consider having sex with me. I wish I could say something like my goal was more about “having a meaningful relationship," but I was 24 and not really A Man in any sense that denotes maturity and personal growth. I really didn’t understand what I wanted out of life or whatever, so, there you have it: that’s about as far as I could plan. I like to think I’ve made some strides since then, and some of that is because of this thing I’m talking about.
The way I was raised, in the culture of my upbringing, I was pretty well convinced that video games were for nerds, specifically boy nerds, to the point where whenever I encountered a woman close to my age who’d played a few games I was absolutely floored. Again, I’ve definitely changed, and if I keep apologizing for all my backwards views here this story won’t get any further, so: just keep that in your mind.
I’m trying to explain the plot, and I keep feeling this horrible red blush all over my face because Liz is being really patient, she’s asking questions, and she came over to sit by me and talk about whatever, and this is the thing I’ve foisted on her. I can look back through the lens of memory and I’m pretty sure whatever feelings I had for this strange, polite, creative, attractive woman were probably mutual, and I was too wrapped up in being embarrassed about being captivated by a story that I couldn’t see this.
I have a lot of regrets about graduate school. I was pretty emotionally confused. I contemplated suicide more than once and on the day I was going to make an attempt I found a whole pack of cigarettes just sitting on a bench and decided not to and maybe I’ll just smoke all of these instead. I smoked back then. Marlboro Lights were never my brand but you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. I guess when you’re in that mood you’re looking for someone to talk you off that cliff and a pack of smokes on a bench is pretty all right if you feel like nobody’s there you can talk to.
Anyway I was talking about regrets and I just want you to hold this picture in your head: It’s a nice day, and two people who have a strong attraction to each other are sitting outside, and neither one of them have killed themselves, and that’s a pretty good victory in the long run, if you think about it. The boy is trying hard to explain to the woman that he’d experienced a piece of art that moved him, and she’s nodding along and smiling and asking questions, and the whole time he’s thinking what an idiot he is because he’s talking to this nice lady about video games and she doesn’t want to hear about that. But he can’t stop, because there’s something attractive about a game where you face down your own death and it flinches, and the people you’ve wronged forgive you, and that boy won’t figure anything out for another decade.
I know now it’s okay to talk about stuff you like with people you like, as long as you’re not being boring and as long as they’re okay with it, and it’s been a hard road getting there. It’s fine to tell the people you like that you like them, because you might not get another chance. I think back to this day often, a nice day outside trying to capture the attention of a nice woman and not knowing that I had it the whole time. And that’s what I think about when I think about Planescape. Looking back on this moment is how I started the long, slow process of becoming a real grown-up.