New dad diaries: altered states

, | Game diaries

When I first learned that my wife was pregnant, I knew that my life was going to change. And it has, even in the most mundane ways. Going to the grocery store now requires D-Day level planning and preparation. Buying a taco sets off an internal fiscal debate. A slight temperature deviation in our apartment means frantically dialing down radiators or cranking up space heaters.

I was less prepared for the personal changes. Sure, there are the usual things like a sense of responsibility more potent than ever and an ineffable love that swells each time I look at the twins. But the surprises come from the smaller stuff. Like the fact that my burning hatred of scatological humor has mellowed after months of my kids’ boisterous and unrestrained flatulence. Or that my rock solid faith in the medical profession has crumbled thanks to the parade of obstetric and pediatric bozos we’ve dealt with since the births.

And then there are two recent revelations that came to me through games.

After the jump, friend becomes foe and man becomes mental.

1) Immersion is the enemy

You know that old saw about the gamer sitting alone in the dark, face lit only by the flickering colors of his television or monitor, body tethered to his chair by headphones, eyes wide open with a fixed gaze, fingers gripped tightly around a gamepad or mouse? The gamer that shuts out the real world and immerses himself entirely in the electronic world in front of him?

Well, that’s me. Or, rather, it was until I had kids. That’s when I realized that immersion is the devil.

Wasn’t it immersion that made me shun fast travel for the first 100 hours of Fallout 3 because it wasn’t “realistic?” Never mind that the sun set every 20 minutes and that there was apparently some dude with a piano, trumpet, and fife following me around wherever I went. This was one of the main reasons I burned out on Fallout 3 — a game that I had anticipated for years — and never got around to completing it.

Hasn’t immersion also weakened my heart, thanks to several occasions when I failed to hear my wife come up from behind to ask a question? And didn’t immersion make some games so creepy that I dreaded playing them even as I yearned to know what happened next (I’m looking at you, Fatal Frame series)?

Evil, twisted immersion. God, how I love it.

But like any Prince of Lies worth his pitchfork, immersion tempts me with what I want most only to destroy me with it. Once, immersion meant the perfect play session. These days, it means that I don’t know what’s going on with my kids.

Technology can’t help. I can get all the baby monitors I want, but they won’t still the voice inside of me that says they’re faulty or broken or unreliable. That my son or daughter could be choking right now while I’m engrossed with exploring some digital fairyland to solve the Riddle of Whatzis and find the Smiting Sword of Smite. Is that really worth risking their safety? And even if one of the monitors worked perfectly, wouldn’t its hissing audio and flashing sound level indicators break the immersion anyway?

So for now, immersion must take a back seat to situational awareness. For now, I can’t afford to lose myself in anything but my children.

2) Watch children in peril at your own peril

It’s not often that kids are in mortal danger in games. They might be kidnapped, isolated, or in need of rescue, but you rarely see someone or something actively trying to kill a child. Unless, of course, the game is Japanese. Even then, things usually work out for the best.

Which is why the recent trailer for the upcoming zombie MMO Dead Island caused such a stir. In a market glutted with shambling corpses, Dead Island has a pretty good chance of being just another blip on the radar. But the trailer — a self-contained story about a pre-pubescent girl and her family’s ill-timed vacation to a tropical resort — is one of the few pieces of gaming media that goes beyond terror and gore and nails the horror of the zombie genre. A large part of its success can be chalked up to the way it jumbles the pace and timeline with a savvy choice of background music. But the horror comes from the girl being murdered in front of her helpless parents. And any zombie aficionado can guess what happens next.

It’s haunting and bleak, but this ain’t my first time at the necro-deo. I’ve seen my share of zombie flicks, most of them reeking of the same hopelessness, sorrow, and revulsion.

But the Dead Island trailer punched me in the gut. Hard. I tried to distract myself for about an hour afterward, but unease gnawed at me. Since misery loves company, I asked my wife if she wanted to see it (she wisely declined). I then went to check on my sleeping daughter. As I looked down on her still and silent form, half-shadowed in the dim light of the nursery, I burst into tears.

I’m a fairly sappy guy to begin with and weeks and weeks of sleep deprivation couldn’t have helped, but I don’t think you have to be a psychiatrist to figure out what was going on. It was just too easy for me to picture myself and my little girl in those monstrous circumstances. And I don’t mean a zombie attack; I mean any potential situation in which I might fail to protect her from a deadly threat, especially when she’s so fragile and helpless.

Now that’s horror.

I think the Dead Island trailer is one of the best gaming ads that I’ve ever seen, despite the fact that it shows no actual gameplay. But, in retrospect, I wish I hadn’t watched it. No one enjoys seeing children in peril, but it seems that parents are in a class of their own. Guess I can cross off the Square Enix catalog until the twins go to college.

Up next: time in a bottleneck; or how exhaustion, perfection, and a crime wave conspire to destroy the little gaming I have left
Click here to read the previous new dad diary.

Justin Fletcher has written for Computer Games Magazine, MASSIVE Magazine, and tech enthusiast website Envy News. He has also guest blogged at Flash of Steel.