The Landing

This past weekend, I attended EGX 2014, a video game expo in London, and this website qualified for a press pass! So here’s my coverage of the show, partly focusing on games, and partly focusing on the uncertain recovery after a mental breakdown.

Trigger Warning: This post includes incredibly frank discussion of depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

“No, it’s nine-thirty,” I say.

The man looks down at me through the glass. “Sorry mate, gotta wait til ten for an off-peak ticket, otherwise they’ll fine ya.”

My breath begins to rise in my chest. My palm starts to vibrate, and my chest clenches up. Public transport inconveniences are like bait for my panic attacks. My support worker, Laura, tells me not to feel guilty, this is an extremely common reaction for people with Asperger Syndrome, something about routine being broken. I never find it useful to think of myself as a list of diagnoses, so her words are small comfort as I run through alternate routes and times in my head, wondering why on earth my brain decided this journey, in which I previously had zero stake, would be a hill worth dying on.

The man’s still looking at me. I’d forgotten he was there; it’s so easy to retreat inside my own head in these moments. Christ knows what he thinks of me at this point, so I nod and dash out the door.

At the side of the door is the ticket machine. I load it up, check when the off-peak tickets become valid. Nine-Thirty. Of bloody course.

I hear the train pulling in above me, and make for the stairs.

*

Earl’s Court exists in a majestic squalor. The lobby juts out into the courtyard, under windows that look to be separated by mighty columns, as two once proud neon signs announce the venue’s name, looking now like a decoration you’d throw on the wall of a throwback 50’s diner. It’s standing tall all these years later, trying so hard to justify itself, but its dull, ageing concrete shows the pomp and circumstance above the lobby to be a façade, unable to disguise the fact that the Court is merely an empty room. No wonder they’re knocking it down.

The queue shuffles along under the building’s shadow. I shuffle with it, my breathing in check, Idle Thumbs keeping me company in my earphones as I pass through the Call of Duty advertisements and into the lobby.

I hand my phone over to the man behind the desk, he scans the barcode on the screen. I’m at an event with the sole purpose of proudly displaying technological advances, yet it’s the fact I don’t need a paper ticket that tells me I’m in the future. He gives me a wristband for the day, directs me to some steps on the left. I’m apparently making a damn fool of myself attempting to attach the wristband, because a middle-aged steward is waving me over.

“Come here, let me.”

“Oh, no I’m–” But she’s already got my wrist, and fastens the strap.

“They all know how to work their PS3s or whatever, but they don’t know how to…” She shrugs her shoulders. I can’t help but laugh.

“I know. Thank you.”

And she gives me a smile and wave as I turn away and head back into the fold.

The stairs take the crowd underground, which only increases the claustrophobia as we wait for the hour to strike and the doors to open. I can feel a palpable excitement rising. I’m half scared a buzzer’s going to go off and I’ll be caught off guard as everybody runs, trampling me as they burst into the hall, like the cork has been pulled off the bottle.

Then the hour strikes. The crowd proceeds calmly and orderly to the gates.

As I enter into EGX’s main hall, I’m greeted by a cacophonic barrage on the senses. The house lights have all been turned off, allowing streaks of blue and green to tear through the darkness, crashing into my eyeballs at each and every angle. To my left, speakers twice the size of me blast out commentary of a Smash Bros match over the crowd’s raucous cheers. I stumble as a man blasts through my shoulders, heading into the Destiny booth. I regain my balance, and see the man flicking me a quick guilty look, the universal British symbol to ensure both parties understand it was an accident and can proceed onwards with their day.

My chest tightens again. I can hear every shout from every stage, see every screen moving out of the corner of my eye, feel every entrant erode more and more of my personal space. The effect is overwhelming. Sometimes I’m okay with crowds, sometimes I can just let everything roll over and shift into this relaxed state where what happens happens and everything will be alright in the end.

Not today. Today, I’m scared I’ll start shaking. I’m scared I’ll sit and whimper in the corner and someone I know will see me. I’m scared I’ll tweet some more about my mental state and and I’m scared everyone will think I’m overreacting.  But mostly, I’m scared I’ll always be like this. Unable to function, unable to interact with others, regressing further and further into mental illness, until I die young of heart disease and stress, leaving only a twitter account behind.

I remember why I’m here. To disprove that. I check the map, and walk towards the escalator.

*

Nobody is sitting at the monitor. The screen is inviting, the station set up in the middle of the Leftfield Collection, calming blues on whites, the poster above reading “Induction: a game about cause and effect from Bryan Gale.” I take a seat, put on the headphones, and pick up the controller.

Before I can start, Bryan Gale leans down, nervously popping into my view.

“There’s actually no sound in this build yet, you don’t need the headphones.”

“Ah, okay, thanks.”

I’m nervous now, though I know I shouldn’t be. Expos like this are invaluable for game makers, they get to see how people react to their game first hand. I know shouldn’t feel any pressure to play well, it’s more valuable for them to watch my honest playthrough, but I do nonetheless.

Induction’s first few levels ease me into the core concept: the game is essentially turn and tile based, every action taking up an exact amount of time and space, and when you press the A button, the level resets to its original state and runs events again up to the present, whilst allowing you to retain control of your present self. It’s confusing to explain in text, but self-evident when put in your hands.

By the fourth or fifth level, I’m horrifically stuck. The wall I need to climb is too high for my square to do so, and there’s no way for me to get back onto the movable column once I push it from the platform at which I arrived to the platform to which I am headed. I roll around the level, resetting a few times, unable to work out how to proceed, until it clicks: I have to push where the column will be, not where it is, then sit my cube on top of it and reset the level, allowing past-me to push present-me to the exit.

This eureka moment in Induction is nothing unique, it’s the core foundation of many a puzzle game, though particularly well executed here. The effect is – and let me tell you, this is the only time I will use this simile in a positive manner – essentially making you feel like you’re in a recent episode of Doctor Who, the climax of each level an intellectual revelation of cause and effect instead of any emotional pay off.

But whereas that makes a television show about characters and relationships feel hollow, Induction uses it to increase the focus on the player and the puzzle, nothing else matters. The game’s deliberate pacing, the game’s chill aesthetic, everything is tonally designed to allow the player to relax into the game’s rhythm, to shut out the outside world and then, at the end of the level, come away having achieved something tangible.

I stand up from the machine. The hall feels quieter, more manageable. My breathing is back in check. Bryan steps towards me, excitedly asking me what I thought of the game. I tell him I really enjoyed it, appreciated how chill it was, and then apologise for being so bad.

*

Feeling a little more balanced, I venture back downstairs, into the sea lights and sounds, marching through towards Nintendo. I can feel myself sinking into the crowd as I go, I bring up my hand and check my pulse – it’s a now unbreakable habit of mine – it’s within reason. I can do this.

The queue for Bayonetta 2 stretches out past the allotted, roped off area. The queue for Hyrule Warriors is in the same boat. Two games I want to play, but I know enough to know that stuffing myself into a queue isn’t a good idea right about now. I flit around for a while, and come across an empty console – Persona Q!

I love me some Persona, despite having huge gaps in my knowledge in the series (I’ve only played the first few hours of Persona 3, for example), and had no idea Q was on the show floor in London. I jump towards the 3DS as soon as the sign catches my eye, so who even knows what anyone who saw me thought of that. It’s a pleasant moment; I see a thing I am excited for and am then able to experience that thing. This is the intended convention experience purified into a single interaction, and maybe everyone else here feels this way all the time?

Persona Q’s demo is in progress as I arrive, the investiagtion team are talking to Rei and Zen, two new characters in Q, demanding them to explain how they’ve been pulled into this mysterious land. The dialogue goes on. And then it goes on. And then, after that, it continues to go on. It’s entirely indulgent fanservice in the same manner of Arena, but as that game did, Q appears to know it, the endless dialogue a reassurance that the game’s Etrian Odyssey influence hasn’t resulted in a more silent experience.

After a good ten minutes of solid dialogue, I’m getting antsy, I don’t want to spend too long on a single machine, lest I be encroaching on another’s playing time. I skip through to the dungeon, and sure enough, the game is exactly what I expected: Etrian Odyssey in Persona clothing. There’s a map that gets filled out with every step, you traverse the dungeons in first person and will stumble upon random encounters as you go.

I’m only beginning to get into the flow of the game when a couple arrives at the station next to me and begins to play Final Fantasy: Theatrhythm Curtain Call. I feel myself flinch as the one not playing slides sideways, uncomfortably close to me, in order to get a good look at the screen.

I set the 3DS down, and move back into the main crowd. I check my pulse again.

*

I return to the Leftfield Collection. It’s quieter, for one, but also the walls are all the same, there’s an honesty to the proceedings, no blinking displays and on-stage retail shows. There’s just a line of monitors, each displaying a game, ready to be played. Maybe you’ll take something from it.

An open monitor sits to my left. Above it, scrawled in biro on the wall is the phrase “[encrypted] by Niall Moody.” I sit down, headphones on, and press A.

The sound that greets me sends shivers down my spine. It’s a low, full, electronic hum, building quickly to a crescendo but never finding a cadence. Higher tones begin to trickle in, sometimes crashing with a glitchy wave. It’s not atonal, there’s far too much coherence to the way everything fits together for that. Every sound meshes with the other, the soundscape oppressive but not antagonistic. The visuals are all constructed from these unknown glyphs, the colours bright and shifting, sometimes surging in your direction. If another glyph touches you, the screen shakes, the sound becomes more intense, and you may not understand why. The theme of the game is clear:  You do not belong here.

Ostensibly, [encrypted] can be decoded. All the glyphs form an unknown language, but a language nonetheless, flowing past in the lower third of the screen with every movement. But to look at [encrypted] as a purely intellectual challenge would be to ignore what the game presents to you plainly. As a tone piece, it is haunting, perfectly capturing the experience of being in an environment that may be hostile or may just be alien. It’s not that you don’t have all the information, there’s just something different about you that makes you unable to process it.

All sorts of questions pop into my head as I play. Why am I being followed? Why do these other glyphs crowd me? How can I get out? What am I supposed to do? But the big question, the important question, the reason the game resonates so strongly is because everything about the world, the sound, the controls, is perfectly set up to not ask “what is the truth of this world?” but simply, “what is wrong with me?”

The game never answers. I die. I die again.

And then I stop.

I sit there, headphones on, in the silence, not wanting to press play again but not wanting to take them off. I simply listen to my own breath for longer than is healthy.

[encrypted] hit me hard. It made me look back on the day so far, on myself, on my mental state, on the lights and sounds of the show and how not-okay they made me feel. This game resonated with me on a deep level, it made me feel both understood and alienated. It was a dose of self-reflection on a day when I just wanted to keep moving, to not think about how my brain wasn’t up to snuff for once, to prove I was fine.

Then I realise where I am. I snap the headphones off, and head straight for the exit.

*

No matter how loud my headphones are, I can always hear the sound of the door shutting behind me. I can always here the the lock clicking into place and I can always feel the wind stop blowing. Returning home is an exercise in futility when you’re depressed, that door shutting behind you a reminder of the lost potential of every day. You thought maybe today, you could feel differently, but you’ve ended up back here.

I slink into my bed, as I am wont to do, and check twitter until I see something that makes me want to throw my phone into the wall, as I am also want to do. I grab an old shop loyalty card and grasp it until its ragged edges start to dig into my palm, holding on for as long as I can until I breathe out and let it go, my hand on fire.

“Christ, I’m useless,” I say to myself. “I can’t even self-harm properly.”

I hear those words twice, once when they leave my mouth and once when they reach my ears, seemingly seconds later, and I’m horrified as I realise how casually I’m able to have such a fucked up thought.

Then we’re off to the races. My mind fires off thoughts in a thousand directions, each an increasing shade of unpleasant. The worst part is how familiar everything feels, this isn’t a sudden and unexpected collapse into despair, this is Thursday evening.

Night falls, time passes, and I don’t take any action. I sit in my room, I read some posts that have been linked on twitter, I watch some youtube videos, I keep going. The thoughts stay thoughts, safe inside my head, blurring as soon as they pass, the details obscuring so I can continue to operate until they return.

I hear my phone buzz as I lie down to sleep. It’s my friend Callum, wondering where we’re going to meet tomorrow, now that he’s in London for day 2 of the expo. We’ve never met up outside of internetland before, and he’s excited, but relying on me to show up with a head that isn’t broken. I need to be confident, assured and funny. I need to be better. Things will be alright tomorrow.

For the first time in a long time, just like that, I allow myself to believe it.

*

I arrive first. The queue expands so fast it becomes rapidly clear that Callum and I are going to have to meet up once we’re both inside. I relax a little, at least nobody will shout at us for jumping the queue or something, this first part of the process is easier alone.

Once inside, I muck about at the Nintendo stations for a while, this is my only chance to play this stuff before it gets too busy. Bayonetta 2 is more Bayonetta and that’s great, Kirby’s Rainbow Curse is a little fiddly but too cute for that to matter, Captain Toad is a charming puzzler that makes me sad I don’t have a Wii U. After twenty minutes, the place is beginning to crowd up, and I move to leave. At Yoshi’s Woolly World are two kids, can’t be more than seven or eight, massive grins on both their faces as they jump and roll (when running, Yoshi’s legs turn into wheels made of Wool!) around the level. It warms my heart.

I check twitter: Callum’s inside, over at the PlayStation area. This is it. You’re doing okay.

I know I’ve arrived in the PlayStation area because everything is bathed in a blue neon so thick that all the scrawny silhouettes of dudes in black jackets look even more identical than they did in the queue. I feel awkward waiting in the middle of the walkway, taking up space, and spot a sign for OlliOlli 2 over the other side. I’ll head over there. Take my mind off waiting.

“Have you played OlliOlli one?” asks a man in an OlliOlli T-Shirt, and I explain that I’m a big fan. We keep up the conversation as I begin to play. The main big addition in Welcome to Olliwood (if this is the kind of wordplay they reach for when naming a sequel, truly I have found kindred spirits), is manuals, which are incredibly easy to pick up. You simply press left or right on the stick as you land on the ground, and it functions similarly to a grind, except the slowdown is more pronounced. Within seconds I’m executing an x36 combo, grinding to manual to flip trick, the game feels as smooth as its predecessor. I feel right at home.

And then comes the landing.

This is what separates OlliOlli, thematically, from other skateboarding games. Tricks are relatively easy to pull off, once you have a handle on them, the difficulty comes not from increased complexity, but increased weight placed upon a single action. It doesn’t matter how large your combo is, it doesn’t matter how much you’re able to feel the flow of the level, it doesn’t matter how comfortable you are with the system; if you don’t stick the landing, it’s all for naught.

I do not stick the landing.

My skater stands up again, there’s another chance, there’s the retry button, but it feels like the entire combo was a waste. OlliOlli, perhaps even more so than Tony Hawk before it, is a philosophically nihlistic game; the joy of playing comes in the flow, in the journey, but the game only rewards you for the destination. There’s an inherent conflict between the urge to be a vehicle for player expression and the need to provide the player with a metric for appraising said expression.

By now, I’ve been playing OlliOlli 2 for a good ten minutes, and am conscious that I need to start looking for Callum again. My conversation with the man from Roll7 has been going well, my breath is under control, I’m speaking properly. I’m a different person than the one I was yesterday. It would be a shame to waste this newfound competence. I need to stick the landing.

“I’m actually, I’m going to crowdfund this book about Skateboarding Games, like Tony Hawk, Skate, and now yours, I wondered if you’d be interested in an interview or something at some point about OlliOlli?”

“Oh, we’d love to! What’s your name?”

And I give the man my name. He seems really into the idea, and a weight lifts off my shoulders. Partly out of anticipation for this project (I’m a person who thinks regularly about the philosophy of skateboarding games, I’m pretty excited to deep dive into playing and writing about all of them), but mostly because I was able to ask in the first place. I’m a little self-concious of how proud I am, most people are just able to say words, aren’t they? I try not to let my doubt take away the good feeling.

I thank the man, I turn around, and I see Callum standing behind me, giving a sheepish wave. I smile back, call out some warm greeting. We hug. Nice to meet you.

Maybe today. Maybe I’ve landed.

*

“Did you finish it?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” Callum says, “everything just went black.”

Even The Stars is another game included in the Leftfield Collection. We spend most of our time there partially because every display was exciting and cool, and partially because it was usually the only quiet area in terms of foot traffic. The games’s description on its itch.io page reads:

wandering through space without a purpose_

getting old and getting lost_

It’s an accurate description.

Your ship starts in an empty area of space, co-ordinates in the bottom left hand corner of the screen. To travel to another sector, you must type “warp” and then a six digit number. There is no way of knowing what number you are supposed to press, for that is up to you to decide. You view the experience through a frame emulating an old CRT monitor, direct control is present but not focused and most interactions come from this disaffected typing of commands.

It’s hard to tell whether space is truly quiet and lonely or if locked away in your little box, typing commands into a screen, you are simply too far away to know.

In my playthrough, I come across a planet. I type “disembark,” and suddenly I’m on the surface. I cannot move, I cannot touch, I can simply see. The game presents me with two choices: stay/leave. I choose to stay.

“Write a log entry for these co-ordinates?” the game asks with white text against a black screen.

I choose yes, and am left alone with a blinking cursor on an empty screen, inviting me to record my thoughts, but I’m unsure of what to say. I write a sentence. I press enter. The sights and sound of the world around me return, but now, imposed upon them, are three words: you are young.

Even The Stars continues in this manner, as you flit between locations, visiting whatever planets you may come across, and filling up a log you are unable to access again. It is not the words that matter, it is the writing of them.

I land on a planet with a city, I wander through its empty streets. My fuel is empty. The game has already said that I am getting old. I write my final log entry, and choose to leave the planet. The planet fades away, as it always does, but I am not greeted with space once more. The screen remains dark. The blinking cursor returns, but I am unable to input anything. My journey has ended.

“What did you think?” I ask.

“I wanted more time,” Callum says.

*

Callum is off playing LA Cops, a game I have checked out before and recommended he play whilst he’s here, selling him on it by describing it  as “Hotline Miami if it was a normal video game.” I’m walking around, looking for a game with minimal queues that looks interesting, and notice an empty station for Beyond Eyes.

The screen is entirely white, save for my character, a young girl called Rae, in a dress and purple boots, her eyes closed. I press up on the controller, and Rae begins to walk, the colours of the world filling in around me. Within seconds, the title begins to make sense: Rae is blind. The environment is revealed to you only as you touch it, the soundscape is heightened and gives a strong sense of direction.

Beyond Eyes frames Rae’s blindness with a sense of warmth twinned with melancholy, focusing not on the  the fact Rae cannot see what is ahead of her, but instead in the joy of the discovery. It is paints blindness in an almost romantic light, portraying Rae’s world as simpler, more pure. Had I played the game on any other day, I suspect this would have angered me.

Today, I smile.

[encrypted] conveys the constant ever present fear that comes with feeling as if you do not belong, Even The Stars attemps to find peace with our ultimate meaningless and enjoy the journey, and Beyond Eyes is an ode to to self-acceptance. Rae can’t see two steps ahead of her, but that’s not going to stop her getting where she’s going.

I thank Sherida Halatoe, who hands me a Beyond Eyes poster as I walk back over to LA Cops, where Callum is just finishing.

We leave Earls Court shortly after. The games we had seen were cool, but EGX is busy, loud and smells exactly like you’d expect a large hall filled with thousands of nerds to smell. There are more important things to do.

The evening is one of hijinks and chat, we play Outrun at the Namco Arcade and sit in a Coffee Shop for a good hour. It’s remarkable in its normality, the average pleasantness overwhelming after years now of feeling as if this simple scene was one inaccessible to me.

“We should do this again,” Callum says at the turnstile.

“Yeah,” I say, “I’ll come up to you, you can show me whatever the fuck is going on in Hull.”

“Nothing’s ever going on in Hull.”

“Well.”

We hug goodbye, and part ways. I listen to an episode of Watch Out For Fireballs on the train, and decide to actually walk home from the station. There’s a park on the way home. I’d never seen it at night. When I arrive, I head straight upstairs, getting a full nights sleep for the first time in a long, long while.

I don’t remember hearing the door shut behind me.

*

I arrive at Old Street Station at half past six, giving me around fourty-five minutes to kill. My ticket says the Wild Rumpus starts at seven, but even at my most optimistic and positive I’d never want to be the first one through the door. I walk out of the subway, hoping to see a coffee shop or someplace comfortable to sit down, and it takes me a full thirty seconds to realise I’ve been here before.

The only true group of friends I’d ever had were from a musical theatre company in Fleet Street set up specifically to allow poorer and less advantaged young folk to get a shot and doing something fun without having to pay an arm and a leg. This group was shut down in 2010 to make way for profit-generating exercises, surprising absolutely no one, and over the next two years all the friendships slowly died as hangers-on tried to recapture what was long gone.

One of the last times we met was in February 2012, there were only about six of us heading to the new venture from the same old organisers, in an alleyway off of Old Street. It was a sad affair, but the sadness was so expected and mundane that standing here, it all comes back, and I miss the sense that something was ending and that was okay.

I shake my head. My brain’s been better in the last two days than it has been in the last two years. I can’t get all mopey thinking about the most teenage bullshit, I have these tickets, and I’m here to have a good time. I can’t rob myself of that before I’ve even got there.

Fourty-five minutes and one hot chocolate later, I mosey over to the place, a venue called “BL-NK,” about thirty seconds off of the main road. There’s a group entering in front of me, so I stand in the queue behind them, giving me time to calm my breathing, bring up my ticket on my phone (seriously, this is the future), and take my provisional license out of my wallet.

“Name?”

“Oh, Jackson, Jackson Tyler.”

The Bouncer eyes his clipboard, flicking from sheet to sheet, searching for my name for what feels like forever. I consider just showing him the ticket, but it’s probably better to wait to be asked. He finds me, of course, on the last page, then stamps my palm and moves onto the woman behind me. I return my phone and license to my pocket, almost disappointed.

Inside, projectors and screens line the walls whilst a bar sits in the corner and club music pounds out of the speakers. Gang Beasts is running up at the front. A piano sits to the side, with a screen attached to it where sheet music would be, playing a version of Cananbalt with a hundered canans balting, each key on the piano corresponding to a single one. Next to the bar is a table with sixteen SNES controllers, which are used to play the game of sixteen-player, real time chess that’s up on the projector. Well, I’ve got to try that.

I grab a controller. Within a few rounds, I’ve picked up the hang of it; it’s far more equivalent to a Geometary Wars than chess itself, focusing on immediate spacial awareness and the ability to maneuver around other pieces, into the position to take your opponent’s king. Yet the enjoyment of the game comes in the joint chaos, the discovery of the system you’re in and how your abilities relate to those of the people around you. When playing essentially by yourself in a party atmosphere, it’s incredibly easy to win, but the victory is hollow.

The games set up in the Rumpus are all thematically connected in this study of relationships between the players; they are all multiplayer games that exist primarily as vehicles for interaction, a shared experience where the relationships between participants is more important than the hard rules of the games in front of them.

But I don’t know anyone here. My interactions with everyone are short and curt, people politely let me have my turn, but there’s no shared spirit when I play, just a sense that I don’t belong. Maybe others can come to these places alone and click with the people already here, but my heartbeats already racing and my palm is beginning to shake. I don’t know what I expected. I’m still me. The last two days were great, I’d got into a real flow and thought maybe I was starting to feel better, but with the brain I’m stuck with, I can never stick the landing.

Black are all too busy laughing and cheering at each other to defend their king.

Checkmate.

 *

When I wake up, I notice fresh bruises on my legs and realise I’ve lost my voice.

My depressive episodes are hard to predict, sometimes they’re dull, sedentary affairs where I feel as if my entire being is held down by something non-existent, sometimes they’re full of energy, I shake and scream, hurting myself til a more logical pain takes over is the only real solution, and gives me something other to think about than the virtues of carrying on. I guess it’s obvious which one last night was.

I get on the train at about twelve. I’m meeting my cousin for the first time in years, for an hour or so, as he passes through to see his girlfriend. He asks me how I am. I don’t tell him the truth.

At three, I enter EGX for one last time. I could just take the train home, but I still have a ticket and I may as well use it up. I raise my wristband as I walk through the gate, but there’s no one checking. Tiredness hangs in the hall. The event’s ending soon.

I clench my shoulders and take deep breaths as I move through the crowd, and take the chance to play OlliOlli 2 for one last time.

After a few runs, there’s a queue behind me, and I allow myself a final try before I head back home.

There’s something about the sound the skater makes every time I successfully grind or manual that’s just right to give off the perfect little dopamine release. In a good run, you feel both in control fully yet also entirely reactive towards your environment. It’s a brilliantly designed system, its limitations are also its strengths; it feels complete. My counter ticks up into the fifties. I take the entire level in a single combo. I reach the end.

I bail.

I’m still trying not to let that bother me.