I’ve been cleaning this sewer for close to 3 hours. The average level time is apparently 1.5 hours but I like to think I’m just being thorough. There appears to have been some sort of skirmish between unidentified alien beasts and sanitation workers down here, an encounter for which the latter party were grossly under prepared. Then later some military types must have come down to take out the aliens before they could do any more damage. Judging from the carnage the mission was a success. All’s well that ends well, right?
Wrong. Some poor fool has to clean up all the blood and guts and make sure word doesn’t get out. And that poor fool is me.
My girlfriend watches me mopping a bloody walkway curiously over my shoulder for a moment and asks why I don’t just mop the kitchen instead. I’ve been expecting this question and have been mulling it over for a while. “I can’t just jab three times at a square of kitchen and have it be clean,” I say. “There are rules here. Clear, understandable rules.”
She shakes her head and goes to find something more interesting to do. I continue my answer internally. There are rules in the real world, sure. Natural laws and such. And in the kitchen there’s something close to a system in place – there are tools for each job. Cloths for wiping down surfaces, the dustpan and brush to get rid of loose debris from the floor before mopping. There are different cleaning products for each job too. But things are infinitely more complicated. These different cleaning products – are they truly the right tools for the job? Of all the ones available in the supermarket is this floor cleaner the best one? We aren’t just cleaning visible dirt here – there are invisible germs and microbes to be wary of. Is our surface cleaner doing enough to combat those, or are my efforts merely cosmetic? Am I in fact endangering us both in my efforts?
And these products, these tools, are finite. When I boot up a level on Viscera Cleanup Detail I know that the tools to complete a level are all held within the level. Even if they’re hidden or the solution to a problem is not immediately apparent I know it’s in there somewhere. If I keep looking it’ll become apparent. But in the kitchen things are different. I can run out of cleaning fluid or bin/recycling bags. The cloths, scourers, the mop – they all become unusable eventually. When do you decide they’re done? And once you do what then? Am I going to have to go to the shop? Does the shop across the street have them or will I need to drive to the supermarket? Do I have enough money? Is there enough petrol in the car? And then there’s the question – how clean is clean enough? There’s no one giving me a percentage and a rating on my performance in the kitchen. I’ve just got to look around and decide at some point that I’ve done enough.
So you see, girlfriend of mine (who has long since retreated to read a book upstairs), it’s very different. The reason when my brain decides that literally everything is a threat I retreat into fake cleaning and not actual, useful cleaning is because there’s an understanding, a covenant of sorts, between player and game. Sure, some devs don’t always abide by this covenant. And there are glitches and design flaws that frustrate along the way. But by and large I know what I’m getting into. And that sense of order is perfect for soothing a brain that sees chaos everywhere else.
And that’s just cleaning. I’ve never tried running a haulage company but I’m willing to bet it’s a mite more complicated than my other current anti-anxiety game, Euro Truck Simulator. I can only just manage to drive my own small automatic hatchback without panicking – put me behind the wheel of a juggernaut and I suspect I’d just start crying uncontrollably. No-one likes a weepy trucker. And one look at my personal finance spreadsheet I created to catalogue Where I’m Going Wrong and you’ll see no one should ever hand me the reins of any sort of business and expect it not to tank within the first week. You can tell me the petty cash is not to be spent on vinyl and cheap wine but I can’t guarantee I’ll listen to you.
Of course all games are simplifications – if war were as simple as a game of Battlefield we’d just get a coach full of excitable teenagers, give ‘em a crate of red bull, send them to Syria and watch everything get sorted out in short order. If football were as easy as a game of Pro Evolution Soccer I’d have applied to take over from Big Sam and his Big Mouth and would lead England into the next world cup drunk as a lord and be on an open top bus quicker than you can say, “will someone take trophy off Jamie before he loses it, look he’s got sick on him already”. But those games are far too stressful to play when swamped with anxiety – each defensive lapse on Pro Evo feels like an indictment of my character, each death on Bad Company 2 a sure sign that I am Not Good Enough at that game to be allowed to play, which when you extrapolate it out means I’m clearly not goo enough at anything to be allowed to do anything. Ever. That’s just logic. You can’t argue with logic. Even wildly illogical depressed logic.
A few days on and I’m feeling better. Suddenly waving a mop around in a sewer doesn’t seem even remotely appealing to me – while I’m on the upswing I can cope with the toxic douchebags throwing abuse on Rocket League and the specter of failure stalking my squad on XCOM 2. So I put the mop to one side. But I’ve careened from well to unwell long enough to know that neither is a permanent state, to know that sooner or later I’ll feel a tug at my leg and find myself spiraling downwards. And then I’ll be back to stacking buckets, welding bulletholes and putting severed limbs into a bin. It’s a dirty and frankly kind of silly job but when the shadow falls over me it’s one I’m grateful for being able to do.