My friend, David.
Do you remember your first day at school? I don’t really remember my first day at school but it’s one of those types of memories that people tend to recall because of its significance in their lives. Did I cry? Was I nervous? Did I uncouple from my parents without a second thought and run straight into the gaping maw that would chew me up and spit me out tens of years later? Like I said, I don’t really remember my first day – I remember vomiting in the playground one day and someone slipping in it, and I remember picking up a rock and throwing it a good twenty paces away at some jumped up little prick who was taking the piss out of me (it hit him in the eye no less and it was a cracking throw). None of these things happened on my first day of school, but I do have a memory, one of my earliest school memories, that occurred just after I started my third year at primary school; that was the day I met David Burns.
David was an incredibly shy five-year old boy and when I say incredibly shy, I don’t mean he wouldn’t say boo to a goose – he wouldn’t have said boo to his own reflection. He generally disliked new experiences, meeting new people, and any situation where he was the centre of attention or the spotlight was focused on him. This was a mindset that he never grew out of and it was as endearing as it was frustrating. Standing in the playground, recalling the way the cheap cement felt underfoot, the typically dull British weather rolling clouds across the sky, there I stood, with David not saying one word. He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. I was a fairly chatty six-year old boy and David, whose June birthday had not yet arrived was standing silently waiting for another day to begin. I had other friends, he probably had a couple too, but none of them were around. It was just him and me. I think what happened next probably went something like this:
“Do you want to see my watch?” I chirped up. I wasn’t really sure what to say while we waited for everyone to arrive and go into class. David didn’t really reply he just sort of half mumbled something.
“It’s a Super Mario Brothers 3 one. You use the buttons on the side to jump around and go to the next level. It’s pretty cool” I said, unclasping the strap and handing him the watch.
He took the watch from me and eagerly started pressing buttons. In hindsight, it was a stroke of genius because that watch was bloody awesome, even if I lacked the smarts to get past the second level. David stood there, in the cold, silently pressing buttons and looking at the tiny screen before eventually handing me back the watch. I don’t remember what happened next exactly – the shores of my mind are constantly being ebbed away by the tide of time that never relents – but I would like to think it went something like this.
“I have a Mega Drive” said David.
With those five simple words, a friendship was born that would prove to be one of the most important and fulfilling things that has ever happened to me. Friendships are a curious thing because of what they mean to different people. Some friendships are strong – they outlive love, governments, people, wars, animals, and in some cases even time itself depending on how philosophical you are. Some friendships are weak; they don’t last; they crumble and strain to exist. David and I had a strong friendship that was not without its problems.
It’s a few years later and I’m about ten years old. David and I are sat in my mum and dad’s bedroom where the family PC lives. It’s the first one we’ve ever owned with Windows, and the somewhat odd ability to install games. We spend more of our time on this than our consoles because David isn’t really a fan of Nintendo games and although I love his Mega Drive, this exotic, exciting console that is the opposite of a Nintendo, he doesn’t have any two-player games. We sit at the computer, doing what we always do: playing first-person shooters. The formula is the same as always – I’ve played the games dozens of times and memorised maps, routes and the locations, so I sit on the left hand side of the stool, moving us around in the keyboard, opening doors and collecting items. David, who doesn’t know the routes but enjoys the shooting aspect, takes the other end of the keyboard and the right hand side of the stool, choosing weapons, shooting bad guys, and monitoring our ammo levels. We were a team born out of the desire to share a single player experience with one computer and for many years it works like a dream. Occasionally we ditch first-person games and switch to David’s main love, racing games. IndyCar Racing is our favourite and we spend our time driving the wrong way up the tracks, trying to retire as many cars as possible. Not the objective in the slightest but we loved it.
We loved playing on the PC but we also continued to buy consoles. David ends up getting a PlayStation, this strange grey box that uses discs and not cartridges, which seems foreign to me, still with my Super Nintendo. Dave’s got some titles that I could only dream of having – Metal Gear Solid, Pro Evolution Soccer, and Gran Turismo. The Super Nintendo just can’t compete with that level of technology or the evolving gameplay and graphics that these games provided. He shows me Metal Gear Solid and I’m astounded at what I’m seeing. This is on par with what my PC at home can do, and the advantages and disadvantages between the two consoles ignites a fan-boy war that would last for years. So passionate are we about our respective consoles that every conversation rolls round to how much of a loser the other is for owning his chosen platform. The arguments include everything from games, to hardware specifications, to longevity, and always end up with childish insults.
The year 2000 arrives and with it, the PlayStation 2. David and I are both fourteen years old and are well and truly in love with video games and everything about them. We’ve spent the last few years playing all manner of things and although the passion for our respective consoles still burns brightly, we put the wars aside to sample some of the greatest games that the world has to offer. The Nintendo 64 arrives and brings with it the likes of GoldenEye 007, and Mario Kart 64, two of the greatest multiplayer games to ever grace a console. We spend hours at weekends, constantly shooting, constantly racing. We invite other friends round – Richard, Steve, Robert, Joe, Simon, James, Sam, the list goes on and on – none of them can match us. The big television in my parents’ living room struggles with the frame rate of having four players going hell for leather round D.K’s Jungle Parkway but we don’t care – we’re young and having fun. When everyone has left for the day, David and I retreat to the bigger, more powerful family PC (now in the loft) and try to play Thief 2 whilst sharing a keyboard and the controls. If you think that ‘Twitch plays Dark Souls‘ was hard, try and play Thief 2 as a two-player game. When we’re not doing daft things like trying to tackle a stealth game in the stupidest way possible, we’re getting to grips with David’s PlayStation 2. When I say ‘getting to grips’ I mean he’s beating me at every game he owns.
See, what began to happen as we entered our teens is that David turned out to be quite the talented individual. He didn’t believe in letting people show him how to do things – if he wanted to know how to do something, he would just learn how to do it. So when he wanted to learn guitar, he taught himself inside six months and formed a band. When he wanted to take his car’s engine apart to clean it, he learnt how to totally disassemble it and then put it back together. When he wanted to reach a professional standard at ten-pin bowling, he learnt how to do it; for David, it was as simple as working out how long it would take him to assimilate the information required to perform the task. To put it bluntly, he became amazingly good at anything he put his mind to. For this he was both brilliant and a total douche. As time went on, I couldn’t beat him at shit. Every year a new version of PES got released and every year I would spend months and months losing games. To clarify something, I wasn’t bad – I could beat other people – just not him. I think over the course of a two-year period, playing hundreds of games, I beat him twice. Fucking twice. I’m good at video games, so constantly losing to him was a perpetual sore point. He seemed to be having a good time though, the swine.
As we exit our teens, real life begins to creep in and we have less and less time to spend hours and hours doing stupid stuff in front of a computer. Nevertheless, we spend time with some absolute crackers; TimeSplitters, the sequels to the Metal Gear Solid series (although despite his instance I didn’t play Metal Gear Solid 3 until last year, some twelve years after its initial release.) Not all of these games are played together – we have jobs, university and the such like but when we do get together, we fall into familiar patterns, Mario Kart 64, No Mercy, and Vigilante 8 are just some of the games that keep us entertained for hours and hours. We have meetups with large groups of friends, quickly get a Pro Evolution Soccer tournament going and before you know it, a weekend has passed and it’s time to get back to work.
This formula goes continues until late November in 2006 when David, Fitz, and I spend the evening at mine, playing games late into the night and then setting and stupidly early alarm for the six o’clock opening of GAME so that I can collect my Nintendo Wii. The arguments about its merits versus the PlayStation 3 have raged for weeks, if not months, at this point but David, never one to turn down a social event, so far removed is he from the boy I met on the playground, comes with us to collect it. We get it back to my parents house and he then spends the next eight hours playing Wii Sports, among other things. Despite three of us swinging Wii controllers about in the living room, nothing gets broken (apart from my serve, several times, because within an hour, David has learned the optimal way to swing the controller, of course). It’s a fantastic day and dare I say it, he had fun on this obtuse, graphically deficient piece of technology.
On the 27th January 2008, I had finished a shift at work and was sat at home drinking a glass of whiskey and attempting to get to grips with World of Conflict, a recently released real-time strategy game. I still don’t know what it’s really like as I never went back to it. I get a call at around eight o’clock in the evening to tell me that David has been involved in a car accident and that he’d died at the scene. At the time, my employment involved taking 999 calls for the police and I can say with absolute honesty that, despite all my exposure and training, nothing could prepare me for that news. I would spend the next six years coming to grips with this shock and the general emotional fallout from losing someone that was essentially my brother.
I went off games after that – I still played them, but I didn’t ‘enjoy’ it for a long time. I would just sit and play them and drift away, not really acknowledging what I was doing or if it was any fun. I played games alone, I played them with other people, I tried different types of games, and I tried taking a break from games altogether. It wasn’t that I had grown out of them or disliked them – I just felt indifferent about them, like something was missing or, as I put it to several people, that part of me was ‘broken’. It was still there; it just wasn’t working. I was numb and video games were just a portal to avoid acknowledging the fact that I felt nothing. I forced myself for a long time to play games without really enjoying them because I felt like I owed it to David to live life, and that contributed to me doing everything, and a lot of everything, regardless of whether or not I was having a good time. It didn’t matter if the activity was good or not – David was dead and couldn’t do it, so I should just be lucky that I could.
The truth was, looking back on it now, that I owed it to myself not to him, to not throw my life away and David’s death should be viewed as a reminder of just how fragile and precious my own existence is and of those around me is. Instead, I had used his death as a reason to accept that however I was feeling was good enough because trying to achieve more or push for more was greedy, or wrong, or somehow an insult to the fact he had died and left me here to cope with this alone. That last part was often screamed in anger, because I was angry. So very, very angry. I was angry at him for leaving me here, I was angry that I felt like I had to carry this weight around with me, and I was angry that I didn’t enjoy something I had spent most of the last twenty years doing.
These emotions (or perhaps lack thereof) came to a head in 2014, when, after a few different counselling visits and chats with hundreds of different people about how amazing my now-deceased friend was, I wrote an article entitled ‘Player’s Block‘, in which I describe my disassociation with games and the different reasons why I’d fallen so out of love with it. I feel like my strong relationship with David, the fact that we shared this amazing passion for games, and the fact I was playing games when he died all contributed to this strange lack of emotion towards them. It’s hard to tell, really what was going on and what finally clicked in me at some point over these last two years, to allow me to start to enjoy them again. There may have been more to it than just his death, or perhaps because I’ve finally found a place of peace with large parts of what happened to him, I’m able to return to interests we shared together.
One thing that certainly rings true, and where I’ll conclude this, is that video games are clearly a large part of my life but they were equally a huge part of our friendship – one of the major threads that bound us together. We laughed, we cried, we argued, and we cheered; video games were the cause of all those emotions for better or for worse. Reclaiming that love for playing them, that desire to explore these worlds and experience these stories, is just as important as the day I handed David that watch and I am so very, very thankful that I did, because exploring these worlds and experiencing these stories is always a little bit more memorable when you can look over at your best friend, to see if they’re grinning just as much as you are.
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