Best of 2014 – The Game That Saved Christmas

First Published: Jan 8, 2014
Voted For By: Ed, Lorna, and Richie
Reason(s) For Vote:
“As much as I try, there’s no real way to set this one up. It’s the story of a man who does everything he can for his friends, works more than should be possible, and yet still finds time to look after his children, and also keep this wonderful site running despite all evidence that he shouldn’t. Knowing him personally, most of this article is just a constant gut-punch – if not full-on heartbreaking – with a tiny reprieve. Look, my words are essentially meaningless here. Read this, hold a loved one, and appreciate everything you have while you still can.” – Ed

“Heartfelt and touching, Mark’s piece describes a brutally tough time in the past year and the game that was a shining light in the darkness. The concept of games as therapy has never seemed more real, and it appears that the most unlikely titles can become a remedy. His was Tearaway and, despite never having played it, it is already special to me because of that.” – Lorna

“I liked Tearaway and I like Christmas. And it was a good article even if it had feelings in it and shit. I need to go and play Tearaway again. What more do you want from me?” – Richie

Contrary to not-very-popular belief, I’m neither J. Jonah Jameson nor Perry White. I don’t sit at my desk all day barking orders at writers, urging them to go out there and find stories worthy of the front page. My editorial status may be time consuming, but it’s far from being a full-time job. That unfortunate accolade goes to my role as designer and software developer – a job that I grew to love over the years, but which has slowly corroded to the point where I loathe the thought of spending a single moment in my office or having to deal with ungrateful and obnoxious clients. Sure, there are those who appreciate the effort that goes into keeping their businesses running but, for the most part, it feels as though there’s as much grief fired my way each day as was outpoured after news of Nelson Mandela’s death broke.

I don’t get to go away on holidays, and my only chance to break free from the mundanity of the daily grind is when I pack away my laptop and head to Los Angeles and Cologne but, even then, all of my time is spent writing and editing while the team covers E3 and Gamescom respectively. Even then, I wasn’t able to do either last year as E3 rolled around a week before the birth of our son, and Gamescom came at a time when there was no way that Lorna would be able to look after our daughter and a new-born. It’s why I look forward so much to those two weeks every year when I know that clients won’t bother me, work doesn’t have to be done, movies can be watched, music can be written, games can be played, and I can kick back with my family and just enjoy their company without the pressures of running several businesses on a day-to-day basis, seven days a week, like I have done for the past seventeen years.

Each year, I’ll down tools on or around December 20th and won’t go back to work until around the 6th of January, or whatever dates are best suited to the days upon which they fall. As with the previous two years, Christmas break this year began four days later than it should have, thanks to clients. I always expect that it will, but it doesn’t stop me from almost begging clients to respect that it’s my time and that they should arrange their design and programming needs in advance so that, when it comes to it, I’m able to shut down the workhorse for two whole weeks. So, rather than having four clear days on the run-up to Christmas to get things ready, I was instead working right up until around 6pm on Christmas Eve for one client, and then another client ruined the mood entirely by throwing out a manipulative passive aggressive comment, undermining everything that we do and making me wonder why I bother.

Me, during my 'band' days.

Then, when you consider that the closest person I’ve had to a father for the past twenty-five years was dying in a hospital which had no heating (thanks to ‘a technical issue’) after suffering a heart attack, kidney failure, another dose of heart failure, and the loss of half his body’s blood thanks to a mixture of Warfarin and internal bleeding from an ulcer… the break wasn’t getting off to a great start. He gave me my first razor, came to watch me play at my first ever gig, paid to furnish my first flat so I wasn’t living in squalor, and helped me to survive when my first boss bounced every single pay cheque for a month… but to the client who needed their stuff done by a deadline, he may as well have been already dead and so I never got to go and see him when he was at his most vulnerable. Trying to put everything out of my mind and just get on with the celebrations – which included watching our daughter enjoy her first Christmas where she was able to rip open her own presents, and our son’s first ever Christmas – wasn’t easy, but I tried as much as I possibly could, under the circumstances.

It was made more difficult thanks to three out of the four of us ending up with severe colds, and both my daughter and I picking up bad chest infections so that every night consisted of nothing but broken sleep for everyone, and it was only to get worse. As the end of the holidays grew closer, our little boy started to have severe coughing fits which would then cause him to bring up everything that he’d taken from his bottles. It became clear that he wasn’t getting any food, as the spasms caused by the coughing would have him bring it all back up before it was being given a chance to work through his body and provide him with his much-needed nutrients and, at only six months old, he needed every calorie he could.

Spending Hogmanay (or New Year’s Eve, for all your non Scots) in the paediatric ward of the local hospital watching over my little boy as he struggled to take 10-20ml of food at a time, holding his tiny little hand, wondering if he’d bring it back up again, was one of the most harrowing nights of my life, especially considering he’d already been in earlier in the day and was discharged with absolutely no advice as to what we could do and the attending nurse that evening when I went back couldn’t give a single shit that our son was desperate for food and dehydrating rapidly. This was made all the more worse by the people in the bed opposite – the mother was lying in bed with her 12-13 year old daughter while four other sisters sat in their vile onesies having a party, cheering and laughing while the other beds in the ward contained tiny babies with worried parents looking on. The lovely chaps who decided to set off fireworks in the hospital car park at 3am for almost twenty minutes, waking all the babies up, also needed a serious beating… but I couldn’t leave my little boy on his own.

His first day back home was a tense one, with us flinching every time he coughed in case he brought his food back up again but, thankfully, he’s now been home for a few days and has been slowly eating more each day. The cough is still there and we’re pretty much starting from scratch with his eating/sleeping pattern, but it’s not preventing him from eating and he’s back to being his usual smiley self. The same can’t be said for me, however, and as each second on the clock in the lounge ticks by, I’m reminded how little time I have left of my ‘holiday’ and how there’s practically no time left to do anything. With only two days left before heading back to the grind on Monday morning, I made a point of spending Saturday evening with my Vita and a little game by the name of Tearaway.

Within moments of starting, all of my concerns and the trepidation surrounding going back to work was starting to fade away. There was just something enchanting about the whole premise; something overwhelmingly calming. Seeing my face in the sun made me laugh for the first time in days, and I put a great deal of effort into ensuring that the image captured on file would be the most ridiculous face I could possibly come up with, which was made much easier by the fact that I hadn’t done anything with my hair in days and looked like some twat from One Direction.

As I manoeuvred through each area, picking up new abilities as I went, the ‘real world’ became more and more distant and I was only reminded of it whenever the game asked me to interact by taking a photo of my surroundings for a mural, texture, or to update the image for the ‘You’ in-game. My arse was well and truly welded to the sofa and I cared not that my bladder was screaming ‘Niagara Falls’ in my head, and that I’d not taken my Amoxicillin tablets when I should have. All I cared about was getting this cute little envelope guy to safety and making sure that his message was read by the rightful recipient.

At times, when something particularly smart came up, such as having to combine the rear touch screen to move obstacles while pressing ‘X’ to cause other objects to either appear or disappear, I’d actually get out of my sofa-groove to enthuse and show Lorna what was going on. Other times I was so overwhelmed by how inspired it all was that I honestly couldn’t be arsed sharing it with anyone else and wanted it all for myself. Eventually, Lorna fell asleep on the sofa and I considered doing the same myself as the stress from the past two weeks had now reached the point where I needed to either lock myself in my office and play some intense drums for ten hours straight, or just sleep for days on end. Instead, I looked down upon my little gummed friend from my place in the sky and helped him fight Eye-Boxes and Wendigos so he could help the others in his world.

By the time I reached the end-game, it was close to 2am and I’d gone beyond the point of fatigue to a place where I was particularly alert. I watched in awe as the last eight hours of my life was retold in a beautifully stylised pop-up-book fashion, with interactive areas opening up to show more detail or smack home an unexpected punchline. Every tilt of the Vita would move the entire diorama and allow me to see other aspects which were previously hidden, and I felt genuine joy. If anything, once the credits rolled, I entered a state of mourning where I wanted to go back to this beautiful world rather than the dark and gloomy reality around me.

As disappointing as it was to see Tearaway end, knowing that I had gone beyond midnight and was now into the ominous ‘only one more day until work’ territory, I’m glad that I sank the hours into it. I’m glad that I took a chance on another puzzle platformer and allowed myself, or forced myself, to spend the evening gaming rather than worrying about how shit 2014 was potentially going to be. It may only have been for eight or ten hours in total, but it was time well spent as it transported me to a place that I needed to go, mentally, and has given me one of my few good memories from Christmas 2013. Had it not been for Tearaway, I imagine I’d be going back to work on January 6th having done nothing but fret.

And in case you’re wondering, I did manage to get the little guy’s message to the rightful recipient. The message was that life is too short to let people drag you down and damage the world you’ve built up around you, and the recipient was me.

Last five articles by Mark R


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