[Content warning for suicide, self harm and cancer]
You go up, then you go down. Up, down. Up, down. Over and over, ad nauseum.
This summer, I had what can only be described as a mental breakdown. I wasn’t allowed to be home alone for fear of what I’d do to myself, I could barely walk and I physically couldn’t hold my head up. It felt like it was 100 pounds; a colossal effort just to look someone in the eyes. Trying to talk in a sentence? Couldn’t do that either.
I kept a boxcutter on the bedside table next to my bed, as if it was a dare to finally do it. I could kill myself. It would all be over. All the demons, they’d be gone. I used it to make marks on my skin.
In a rare moment of clarity, I called the nearest therapist office to me. I told them if I didn’t find help, I was scared I’d end my life. I set up an appointment, I met my therapist, I learned I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. There were also anxiety and depression disorders, too. My therapist literally told me it sounded like my life was a living Hell. I didn’t disagree. I was told I needed to enter exposure therapy, twice a week for the foreseeable future. My life was put on hold. No work, nothing but recovery.
[pullquote]And then, only a couple months after my breakdown, only a few months after I started therapy, I learned I have cancer. When it rains it pours, you know?[/pullquote]
So, that’s what I did. Well, that’s what I’m doing. It sucks, it’s scary. But, once in therapy, I began to get better. I gave the boxcutter to my friend Maria; she promised she’d throw it away somewhere I’d never find it. I made progress through each session, facing each fear and learning how to cope with all my anxieties. My therapist told me how well I was doing; she told me she was proud of me. I was proud of myself.
And then, only a couple months after my breakdown, only a few months after I started therapy, I learned I have cancer. When it rains it pours, you know?
Much like starting therapy, there wasn’t really time to wait. There were blood tests, urine tests, there was a surgery, there was an unbelievably painful recovery full of sleepless nights. There were more tests, CAT scans and biopsy results. There was also OCD and therapy still. It was a lot. It was, almost, too much.
Again, work was put on the backburner. I couldn’t leave the house. I could barely walk the pain was so bad from my surgery. In a lot of ways, it felt like the weeks following my breakdown. Between psychiatrists, urologists, nurses, emergency room doctors and ultrasound technicians, I’ve seen more medical professionals in the past three months than I’ve seen family or friends.
At this point you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with videogames.
The videogame industry’s preview cycle is a weird place to find solace, but thank God for YouTube.
[pullquote]Now let me say this up front: in no way, shape or form do I think this new Spider-Man videogame saved my life.[/pullquote]
As everything in my life was was going on, the game press was fixated on Insomniac’s upcoming Spider-Man game. It was a new take on Marvel’s iconic character, it had a beautiful, meticulously crafted open-world Manhattan, New York, it had exciting, bombastic set pieces full of explosions and quick time events. And, sure, that all looked cool, I guess. But all I cared about was the swinging. I watched every preview, every trailer, every gameplay video. I just wanted to watch Spider-Man swing throughout the city. More than that, I wanted to play as Spider-Man swinging throughout the city. It looked like a way to get my mind off of everything, a repetitious mechanic I could get lost in. I craved it. I couldn’t wait to play it.
Now let me say this up front: in no way, shape or form do I think this new Spider-Man videogame saved my life. Getting my shit together and going to therapy — something my friends and loved ones have told me I needed to do for years — saved my life. Noticing a lump — you know, cancer — on my body and getting it checked out is saving my life. The web-headed web-slinger is not the reason I woke up today, and he won’t be the reason I wake up tomorrow.
What Spider-Man did give me, though, was a fucking break from everything. OCD, surgery, recovery, it’s all ups and downs. It’s a cycle full of good days and bad days. You go up, you go down. Up, down. Up, down. Over and over, ad nauseum. Much like, bare with me here, Spider-Man swinging throughout Manhattan.
[pullquote]The fun of swinging in Spider-Man never plateaus, it never gets stale.[/pullquote]
I got Spider-Man the day after my surgery. I couldn’t leave my bed; it hurt to walk, move, and breathe. I was stuck there so I booted the game up, watched the brief intro cutscene, and then, right after Spider-Man jumps out of his apartment window to respond to a shootout at Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk’s skyscraper, I pressed R2 for the first time. Finally, god dammit, I was swinging throughout that city, and I’m happy to report the swinging in Spider-Man is as mind-numbing as I’d hoped it be.
For nearly three weeks, Spider-Man consumed my entire life. I played through the story — it was fine. After that, I found every backpack, took every landmark photo, completed every Demon, Sable and prisoner base, completed all the Taskmaster challenges, research stations and did every shitty sidequest (no seriously, they’re pretty bad). It’s only the third game I’ve ever gotten 100-percent completion in, behind The Simpsons Hit & Run and Grand Theft Auto V. I didn’t particularly like most of the side stuff, to be honest, and the campaign was serviceable, but I just wanted an excuse to swing around that city. I wanted a reason to keep turning the game on.
The beauty of swinging in Spider-Man is how deceptively complex it is. It’s easy to swing around the city by just holding R2 and pressing the X button to jump from web to web; that’s how you begin the game. Immediately, you’re treated to fast, responsive and fluid mechanics that take you from point A to point B, all complimented by flashy, entertaining acrobatic animations. As you learn the game’s mechanics better, though, upgrading your Spider-Man, Manhattan no longer resembles a series of buildings to swing between, it becomes a full-blown jungle gym.
[pullquote]You go up, then you go down. Up, down. Up, down. Over and over, ad nauseum. But thank God Spider-Man made me forget, even if only briefly.[/pullquote]
The fun of swinging in Spider-Man never plateaus, it never gets stale. Even when I was fully-upgraded, knew all the tricks in the book, I never stopped enjoying moving around that city. No longer was I simply swinging between buildings, I was running up them, launching over them and doing tricks in midair as I plummeted towards the ground, pressing R2 at the last second to pull myself back up, rocketing back through the sky. It’s mind numbing and repetitious, but not in a bad way. Spider-Man’s traversal dances a delicate line of being easy to understand, but challenging to master. When it finally clicks in your head it’s like riding a bike — you don’t really think about it, you just do it. For however many dozens of hours I swung around Manhattan, I had just enough visual and mechanical stimuli to keep my brain engaged, but never so much that it required constant-focus. As it dances that delicate line, your brain kind of turns off for a bit while you go through the motions. It was exactly what I needed. Also, let me add, I’m really good at swinging in Spider-Man at this point.
Maybe it’s because I’m a member of the game press, or maybe it’s because I’m pretentious, but I don’t look to videogames for escapism. Like books, movies or music, I play games to engage with them mentally (which, admittedly, can be hard because most games are stupid). Spider-Man, though, was different. Maybe it’s because it came out during the darkest part of my life thus far, but it was escapism for me. I don’t necessarily think the game breaks any new ground in terms of storytelling for games, nor do I think it has anything profound to say, and I think that’s fine. Because sometimes you just need a fucking break. Sometimes you don’t need to be challenged, sometimes you just need to drown out all the noise.
The thing about recovery — at least for me — is it’s a like a vicious circle. My best days are followed immediately by awful days, days where my OCD renders me useless. I can go out with friends, have a great time, and then out of nowhere be in so much pain I have to limp to my car and drive home. There are multiple appointments a week I have to remember, anxieties I have to fight and treatments I have to undergo. It’s a lot for one brain to handle. You go up, then you go down. Up, down. Up, down. Over and over, ad nauseum. But thank God Spider-Man made me forget, even if only briefly.