March 3, 2009

Domestic City, Part Seven

Weeks after the death of Emily's father, she was persuaded by her therapist to attend a bereavement group. Plainly dressed for the first time in twenty years, Emily joined eight other people in a church basement decorated by plastic chairs and posters about gambling addiction.

The man leading the session spoke about grief and coping with loss. Emily found herself nodding along as he described the death of a loved one as a sudden absence of structure in one's life. It was normal to feel without guidance, like you're stranded in the world with no clue where to go next. He said that people in mourning commonly lose interest in their routines, that they feel alone and afraid now that someone they relied upon for direction was gone. Emily thought about her father always insisting what was best for her and a lump formed in her throat.

There was a television in the corner of the room, and the man flicked it on with a remote. "It can feel a bit like going from this," he said, and the screen showed an excerpt from a Final Fantasy game, with the player character running back and forth between clearly-defined objectives and cutscenes, "to this." He pressed a button again and the television now displayed a game of Far Cry 2; the player standing unguided in the epicentre of the massive African savannah. "Look at this. No one's telling you where to go. You have so many choices. You can feel anxious. It's normal to feel overwhelmed when you switch from some very prescribed JRPG to a big open-ended, hands-off Western game like this. The differing approaches in design can result in a very abrupt adjustment. Where are you supposed to go from this point? Why isn't there someone telling you what to do?"

Emily, confused, turned to a elderly woman who had interjected, nodding vigorously. "After my husband died I started playing Grand Theft Auto, which was unusual for me, I never do that. I play Persona and Metal Gear mostly, it was like I was in a trance. But playing that game was a revelation for me: the openness of the world, it spoke to me. It knew exactly how I felt."

She collapsed into sobs and a sympathetic teenager sitting beside her held her hand tenderly. Emily got to her feet. "What the fuck is going on? Stop talking about video games!"

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