The first all-nighter I ever pulled was because of a videogame. A dumb one, too. Remember Painkiller? It was People Can Fly’s debut, a sort of willfully dumb, post-Serious Sam throwback FPS whose demo, for whatever reason, struck such a chord with me that I’d played through it dozens of times in the months leading up to its release.
Something about Painkiller deeply resonated with me. I had a weird fascination with physics games as a kid and Painkiller was basically the ragdoll equivalent of medical-grade heroin. The demo alone was a Havok physics wonderland – from the stake gun that pinned dudes to walls to the shotgun that sent enemies flying cartoonish distances to the titular weapon’s ability to juggle corpses, the whole game was just as excited about goofy-ass videogame physics as I was. It was fast and fun and mischievous, with ridiculous gibby violence and a doofy speedmetal soundtrack that hit me right at the peak of my System of a Down phase. We were an infernal combination, and I devoured it. I was 14.
So, yeah, the night I got it, I wound up playing it straight through til morning. There were extenuating circumstances, though. Turns out, the first patch they issued for Painkiller broke game saves – like, ALL game saves, completely – so the only way to progress was to beat an entire stage in one go. And when we’re talking about a Doom-revivalist quicksave-fest like Painkiller, playing it with permadeath kind of changes it, uh, a lot. But I toughed it out. I threw myself at this weird and technically broken Ironman version of Painkiller for the eight most important hours of the night. I am not sure why I did this, but I think – and this is only a theory – but I think maybe I just enjoyed the videogame a whole bunch.
The next day was incredible. I have a few clear memories from that morning: noticing the sun rising through the trees outside my bedroom window. Hearing my dad get up for work. Halting my strafe-jumping to sit frozen in a squeaky-ass desk chair, until finally, mercifully, hearing his shitty old Volvo creep up our gravel driveway. Feeling relief at getting away with it, followed by a sort of transgressive joy, followed by more Painkiller until my brothers woke up.
I remember an element of disbelief at my first all-nighter – at seeing things like sunrise and breakfast that happen at the start of every day happening closer to the end of mine. It sounds stupid, but there was something profound about witnessing with my own eyes that every day is connected to every other day through one long, unending band of time, and we just happen to sorta doze off roughly every 16 hours during the boring parts. These thoughts, combined with the surreality brought on by my sleep deprivation, swirled together into this tingly, guilty giddiness that stuck with me the rest of the day. It felt significant. And kind of like being drunk.
Here’s the problem: sleep is boring.
The feeling, ironically, wasn’t unlike making it to a level you’d never made it to before in a game. Encountering these deprivation-altered versions of familiar places I’d been to a million times before – my bedroom, my kitchen, the shopping mall – gave me the same sense of unlocking a new area in a familiar world. Exploring a dreamlike, palate-swapped version of my small, suburban North Carolina town was straight-up fun. It mirrored my experience with Painkiller perfectly, up to and including the undercurrent of creepy that ran through the whole thing.
This wasn’t the beginning or the end of my fucked-up relationship with videogames and sleep. When I was 12, I began a ritual of playing Super Monkey Ball Jr. and listening to the BBC World Service before bed every night, forging a bizarre correlation in my head between the invasion of Iraq and monkey screams. Also, last week, I fell asleep WHILE playing Fire Emblem Awakening. Like, in the middle of one of my turns. It hasn’t ended, is what I am saying. And I think I’ve figured out why.
Here’s the problem: sleep is boring. Videogames are the opposite of boring. My entire life, I’ve been told that nighttime is for just lying there and ignoring the Game Boy or iPhone or whatever I’ve been lucky enough to have a few feet away from my bed. I guess I just don’t remember a time choosing sleep over entertainment ever made sense to me.
Follow Nick Robinson on Twitter @Babylonian.