Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"A Place To Cry Alone"

This is a letter I wrote to James Clinton Howell a few days ago about how games can speak to our subconscious. It's about a grieving process I went through. Honestly not sure what trigger warnings to attach, but if you're dealing with recent grief you may very much want to read this or not want to read it at all. In any case, proceed with caution I guess.

"Dear James,

So first of all I'll start by promising you that someday I will leave you alone about Metal Gear. I am more than aware that my enthusiasm for your analysis of the series is well beyond over-eager, and I could learn something from the series and from you by trusting my own instincts more to make analysis of the series with your work on the series in the back of my mind, as opposed to being an infallible bible on the subject.

Second of all: this is going to sound completely crazy, and I just ask that you stick with me.

However, the time of the year has made me realize something quite interesting, and actually quite moving, so I decided to sit down and write this.

December 25th was when my brother David Greyson Howe was born. He was born in 1987, six years older than me, and he died in 2003 at the young age of 15 when I was nine years old. This is a deep wound which has since scarred and healed, but there are still nuances to that tragedy and grief that I am still only understanding today.

Among these things: my brother was not an influence on my early taste in videogames, he basically created it. My parents bought me age-appropriate games that I adored like Spyro and Crash Bandicoot but my brother gave me the first tastes of the game series I would still call my three favorites:Final FantasyLegacy of Kain, and of course, Metal Gear.

As a young child, I did not understand how to play these games. One of my earliest gaming memories is booting up Metal Gear Solid and pressing Snake's back against the first wall for literally half an hour waiting for a moment when I felt comfortable to move, even though there were of course many opportune moments to do so. (Somewhere in there is a metaphor for my love life.) I often relied on Greyson's prior knowledge about the games I would play to help me know what to do next. (Another distinct memory:Metal Gear Solid's manual teaches you to press the "weapon button" repeatedly to break a guard's neck when you have no weapon equipped. Cue me mashing the R2 button "because that's how you pick a weapon" and getting frustrated, and Greyson shows me it's the Square button.)

That said, while I slowly got better at these games, in the wake of my brother's death, I felt almost a sense of obligation to him and to myself to learn to beat them myself. I had to honor his memory by completing unfinished tasks in his name, (in this case, I decided to finish his save files of his games, which to my luck often left much of the game unfinished, as my brother was a far superior student to myself and therefore didn't play games that often later in his life) and I had to demonstrate to myself that I could do fine without him by learning how to play these games on my own. (And without the assistance of Gameshark.)

To state it more simply: I played games to cope. I locked myself in my bedroom and played games nonstop for maybe 2 years, which was a good excuse for not going outside when I wasn't terribly ready to make new friends. Some people find it sad, but it really did help a lot, especially since the stories of these magnificent games I was playing created what you might call "safe spaces" for me to engage with my grief in a way with which I felt comfortable: Kingdom Hearts for example allowed me to deal with losing friends and trying to stay connected with old friends and make new ones as my family moved away from Germany, where we had lived until a few months following my brother's death. Final Fantasy IX in particular I remember affecting me deeply: the character Vivi is a black mage who is constantly dealing with his mortality until his own inevitable demise, and I was glad to have someone who I could empathize with, especially since his interactions with Zidane reflected my relationship with my brother.

A bit of a jump here: when I was, I believe, 11 years old, Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance was the first game I ever purchased with my own money. I saved three weeks of allowance for it, and I am fairly certain that is the most patient I have ever been with my own money.

Being just a young kid, I was not in a mental state to reject it the way many people did. What I remembered most fondly about the original Metal Gear Solid at that point was lots of cool military jargon, and just really crazy plot twists. And MGS2 delivers both of those in spades. Nevermind the fact that I liked Solid Snake just as much as anyone else, the fact that you were playing an entirely new character was a totally crazy twist and I was super behind that. The villain in this game is the President from Metal Gear Solid who had to resign after Shadow Moses? Woah dude, crazy twist!

The many unique factors associated with my experience of MGS2 made it a more impactful experience than the first one. I wasn't confused, even though there was a fair bit of it I didn't understand, I cried for it. 

I cried about a lot of things and for a lot of reasons back then obviously, but still, there was something uniquely powerful in MGS2 that I didn't really yet find in MGS. Perhaps it was my joy at having bought my very own videogame for my very own videogame system and playing it on a TV that was in my room this time, and it was definitely in part my lump of play-doh of a pre-adolescent, post-traumatic brain. 

In any case, it was a more impactful experience than playing the first game, and for the first time in ways that I couldn't entirely understand. Even as a child I understood why I identified with Sora or with Vivi, but for a long time I couldn't understand why I identified with Raiden.

And I think I may have realized that, on top of just the general insights and new understanding that reading "Driving off the Map" brought to playing the game, that it also gives some unique insight into my personal experience with it.

MGS makes the argument that we can't let who we are, our "genetic destiny" define us, but MGS2 makes the argument that we can't let other examples define who we are, that we have to take control of our own lives, forge our own destinies and beat our own paths. 

There were superficial ways in which I resembled Raiden: he and I were both thin and waify whereas Snake was more built. Raiden wore long hair around the time I started preferring not to get haircuts. Raiden was more prone to emotional outburst than Snake, I also identified with that. But it goes deeper than that.

I don't like to dwell on it, because I prefer to remember the positive, as people do, but my relationship with my brother was not entirely positive. Not because of him, I don't think: he was entirely kind to me, cooking me Ramen, playing games with me, and even going so far as to allow me to hang out with him and his friends.

But as older brothers can be, he was a standard I couldn't live up to. He was popular, I was awkward. My life prior to his death was not defined as "Austin" but as "Greyson's little brother" to my schoolmates. My parents are not perfect people, and even in death his standard lingered as his grades prior to his death were usually superlative whilst mine were atrocious, and my mother was not often reticent to make the comparison.

I often did this to myself as well: Greyson wanted to be an astronaut, and during his life I had no idea what I wanted to be when I was older, but in the years following his death I got the idea in my head that I wanted to be President. I grew out my hair, I started wearing his clothes when I reached the age of his death. I made his ambitions, and some parts of his personality my own.

And I'm just seeing it now, but I think that's a major reason why "Driving off the Map" was such an affecting experience in it's own right. By showing how Kojima remixes these elements in his games both to create new stories and gameplay as well as to self-commentate on form and self-criticize, it also allowed showed me how in playing my brother's games, wearing my brother's clothes all while not being able to be what made the memory of my brother so bright in my mind, that I was assuming the role of someone I was and am not.

Anyway, this letter has gone on far too long, and I'm writing it at far too late an hour. But I just felt like maybe I ought to share this because (and this is something I really want to confront this year in my writing) videogames really are emotional experiences, even when they're juvenile or trite, and I think in writing formal analysis we can engage both with how these games function thematically through their narrative and design, but by investigating the nuts and bolts of that construction we can connect those parts of the game to the world around us and to the the world inside of us.

In short: games, (as has been concluded already, I am aware,) are not simply wastes of time meant to fill the hours with frivolity. They are, to say it coldly, empathy simulators. They make us feel amazing just through the psychological effects of good game design, but on a good day they also give us stories to connect with, worlds to live in, and though we are quick to give games a hard time for only seeming to have the ambition for giving us places we want to escape to, I've always chaffed at that suggestion because, on a bad day, in a long month, during the hardest years of my life, videogames gave me a place to cry alone.

If you've made it all the way through this I am sincerely grateful,

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