I don’t remember not being a gamer. I was fortunate to grow up in the era of the British Bedroom Coder revolution; from my cousins’ Spectrum to my own beloved Amiga, my youth was spent in the company of increasingly colourful pixel pals, names that are still as familiar to me as my own: Dizzy, Seymour, Chuck Rock, Zool, Guybrush… All my life, I have Gamed.
As much as I enjoyed it in my infancy, I can pinpoint exactly the moment I fell in love, the moment gaming shifted for me, away from idle pastime or funky futuristic pleasure and into, essentially, a way of life. It was arguing with Men of Low Moral Fibre over some breath mints. I don’t want to hyperbolise it, but it’s definitely true to say The Secret of Monkey Island changed my life. The graphics were gorgeous, the animation cartoon-like, it was genuinely funny, the music was excellent, the puzzles were sufficiently tricky so solving them felt like a victory, especially for a ten-year-old. But the most important thing – the thing that, in retrospect, sealed the deal for me – was that it was real. Melee Island was a real place in a real world, and whilst it clearly wasn’t my world – to my eternal shame I have never owned a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle – it was a real world all the same. It had characters to talk to – really talk to, about pointless things like PTA minutes or used vessels or, of course, LOOM. You could wander around aimlessly, just checking stuff out, reading posters, looking at the moon, chatting to people, picking things up, opening things, closing things, pushing and pulling and all kinds of fun stuff. I sank hours into that game, and probably even more time into its arguably superior sequel (I think technically Monkey 2 is the better game but I’ll probably always love Monkey 1 a tiny bit more). I played a lot of games in those days – shooters, racers, a whole load of Lemmings – but really it was Monkey Island that defined my tastes.
I think it’s partly a compulsive, completionist attitude – I simply have to click on every dialogue option – and partly a desire to truly lose myself in a fictional world. This extends beyond typical backstory-rich time-sinks such as adventures and RPGs and into all kinds of genres; I tended to either create my own narratives or just really knuckle down to get under the skin of a game, whether it was imagining intricate motives and inter-personal relationships between opponents in Civilization, or creating intricate levels in Build in order to whiz around them in Duke Nukem. The point I’m trying to make is: I had the time, I had the inclination, and I used them both extensively to sink into a game.
Now it’s not fair to say that all this changed when I had kids; things were already in flux. Late-night multiplayer sessions went out the window when I regularly had to be up for work the next morning; spending all my money on a new graphics card became harder when I had a mortgage to meet. We all grow up, and even something we love gets pushed to the side slightly in order to make room for the bigger picture. Plus every once in a while you want to put down the controller and watch an episode of The West Wing. But what had been an activity I partook in every night became, as I edged towards my thirties, something I had to find time for. So life intervenes, but that’s okay, because we adapt and make do; I knew going into this Parenthood Lark that I’d have less time to game, but it’d already taken me six months to complete Batman: Arkham City, so I had prior when it came to delayed gratification gaming.
If I was prepared to accept less gaming when my first daughter was born, what I wasn’t really prepared for was different gaming. My tastes throughout my gaming life have been – and I really hate to use this word, which I find particularly divisive, but probably fits in this context – “hardcore”. I wasn’t really playing quirky puzzle games or trendy indies; I was playing Halo and Mass Effect and Medieval: Total War. Massive blockbusters with massive audiences; “triple-A” big-budget 3D extravaganzas. But it turns out it’s hard to drive a Warthog with one hand whilst a baby sleeps on your shoulder; it is, however, fairly easy to play Drop7 on an iPhone.
And so it was that quote-unquote “casual” games became my mainstay. My iPhone was a godsend: I was able to quickly jump in and out of smaller, leaner games, games that could indeed be played whilst holding a baby, or in the brief bursts of me-time in between getting puked on or scrubbing poo from under my fingernails (yeah, I don’t recommend anyone borrows my phone in a while). And what was really weird was, by and large, I didn’t miss my massive narrative games; maybe I was too excited about my Bundle of Joy (my daughter that is, not my iPhone) but I quite enjoyed the more relaxed pace and the less demanding nature of mobile gaming.
Even when I did venture back to the big black box under the telly, my habits had changed – and, so far, it’s been a fairly persistent change. I game at night, after the nippers (and the wife, as it happens) have gone to bed, but I daren’t spend too long at it because, best case scenario, I’ll be up at six with a toddler demanding cereal and Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom. This is assuming, of course, that no one wakes up in the middle of the night. So epic gaming sessions went straight out the window. I took this as an affront: I didn’t resent my daughters denying me my game time, of course, but, rather, I blamed by feeble mortal body for allowing itself to be so weak as to feel the effects of fatigue. I mean, I might have wanted to play Batman, but I sure as hell wasn’t Batman. He knows a theta-level relaxation technique. I fell asleep playing Lego Marvel Super Heroes.
The other problem with gaming whilst your Little Ones sleep upstairs is the noise factor. When you’ve spent a solid hour pacing round a nursery room softly murmuring Ten Green Bottles, you do everything you can not to repeat the experience later that night. So you keep the volume down. I’ve been turning the subtitles on in games habitually for the past three years, which is okay, but does give everything the flavour of a daytime educational programme for the hard of hearing. One in which you learn sign language for “This is my favourite store on the Citadel.” Action games are even worse: okay, you can either skip the cut-scenes entirely or just ignore whatever passes for “narrative”; but the experience is punctuated by sudden explosions, squeals of gunfire, and high-pitched enemies Wilhelm Screaming themselves to death. Like the Spanish Inquisition, an action game’s audio hides until you least expect it, before bursting out of the door with aural equivalent of a comfy chair, shocking you from your revelry and potentially waking up dozing infants. A knighthood for whoever invents a TV that automatically turns the volume up for dialogue and down for explosions, I say.
It’s harder to lose myself in a narrative nowadays too, because I’ve always got one ear open for a cry in the dark, or the sound of a toddler falling out of bed. Like a superstitious teenager alone in the house after a late night binge of a Paranormal Activity box set, I’m hyper aware of things that go bump in the night. A creaky floorboard, a wobbly pipe, next door’s cat taking a dump – all things to make me hit pause, crane out an ear, and wonder if that was Just a Noise or Daddy’s Cue to Take Action. As a result, gaming can be a tad stop-start.
And don’t get me started on multiplayer: I’m glad I didn’t fork out for Titanfall at launch, because – even after picking it up on sale – I hardly play it. Can you imagine what would happen if you had to drop out of a game to comfort a crying baby? Think of the damage to your reputation. I’d never get a match on Xbox Live again. I’d be lumped in with the foul-mouthed, the racist, and the under twelve. I shudder at the very thought.
So, no late-night sessions, no mega-narratives, no multiplayer, no games that don’t pause, no games that don’t have regular checkpoints. Even my beloved Halo is a struggle, as you have to do that frustrating quit-back-the-menu thing to make sure you’ve saved properly. It’s a stress they never seem to mention in the fatherhood books I read. So what do I play? Well, things that load quickly are nice. Games you can drop in and out of. Less demanding, more relaxing games. This means I’ve ended up using expensive gaming hardware to play the sorts of games I can play on my phone. The Xbox One game I’ve been the most since my second daughter was born? Probably Threes. Threes! I mean, you can play it when snapped! It’s less of a game, more of way to avoid going to bed for another five minutes. It’s practically Snake. Four hundred pounds of electronics and I use it to play the videogame equivalent of a sliding block puzzle.
(Another aside: I genuinely think Threes is great. Even if my Gamerscore now ends in a 9 or something)
What else have I played recently on Xbox? Another World. Worms. That Pool game that was on Games With Gold recently. What have I not played that much? Halo. Tomb Raider. Forza Horizon. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be playing these games if I didn’t like them; and I know most of them hide a depth and sophistication behind seemingly simple facades. But at the moment I’ve just wanted to stare at the facades. And you know what? I like it.
And that’s what’s changed. It’s not that I’ve got less time to game. It’s not that the games I’m playing are in genres I’d have shunned (it wouldn’t really be true, as I’ve been playing Worms since its original Amiga release). It’s not even that I’m playing on a different platform. It’s that I’m happy with these changes; happy with the way I game nowadays. These smaller narratives, these simpler, purer encapsulations of what it is to game, these little bundles of fun have reminded me what I really love about gaming. It’s not the epic sweep of a story, the complexity of its smoke effects, or how long you can spend customising your armour. It’s that feeling you get. It’s the same feeling I got when I worked out How to Get Ahead in Navigating back in my Monkey Island days. It’s the feeling you get when you score a headshot with a Spartan Laser. It’s the feeling you get when you solve a puzzle in Limbo, get a new highscore in Threes, beat your mum at Alphajax, found that next city, score that next goal, craft that next tool, explode that next pig with a bird dressed as Optimus Prime. It’s a feeling that says right here, in this moment, this game taught me to sing. And it’s wonderful. And before I was a father, I think I was missing it. But finding that wonder in a free phone game as well as a fifty pound behemoth has made me fall with games in love all over again, and I’ve got my daughters to thank for that.
Besides, having kids is a perfect excuse to buy Disney Infinity. I hear the new one has Star Wars in it. Happy Christmas, girls!