Thanksgiving

"I'm sorry?"

The grey faux-granite of the kitchen counter has a sheen of dried soap. I watch the flicker as the politically-correct compact fluorescent bulb alters the texture of the matte. The kitchen, no matter how orderly, is never clean.

"I said, are you OK?" Jessica has had furled concern in the corners of her eyes since we left my Mom's.

"Yeah, I guess," I reply. "Whatever." With this cold slap of passive-aggressive, I shut down the one meaningful, loving conversation I might have had today.

I defocus. My eyes no longer converge see the Corian surface, lining up instead in parallel tracks through the center of the earth, never converging.

I'm in the Monet fire of Braid. What would Tim do?

---

Earlier. I sit at the aged dining room table. This table and I are not friends. When I was five, I tripped over one of the grotesque lions marking its feet, breaking my leg in three places. It is a 25-year stalemate. It won't kill me. I won't find the axe in the shed outside and reduce it to stained-oak kindling.

The table shakes under the weight of the obese factory-bird. It will deliver its gift of salmonella into my unsuspecting gut momentarily. The air is sour with brussel sprouts and canned cranberry.

I should be full of love--my family is here, my favorite nieces, my sister, my mom. Even the stepfather, a man I prayed for just a year ago, his body in declining torpor in an ill-managed hospital. But there is too much tension in the room, even before the ritual of awkward Thanksgiving conversation.

The table sits.

"Can we say grace?" my mother asks. My jaw opens just a bit, an involuntary, minute homage to cartoon surprise. Since his recovery, the stepfather has rebelled against the stereotypical return to faith common in the aging and infirm and those who have seen death. Instead, he's resorted to a form of militant atheism designed to douse even the most casual agnostic in scientific shame.

My four-year-old son is too small to choke on the tense smoke filling the house at adult height. He soldiers on, delivering a rote prayer.

Sick pink meat travels down the table.

"I don't think it's underdone at all. It's just moist."

My well meaning sister, at my left. She's wrong. The wet flesh on my plate is evil. I push the offense into my abdomen, a decision I will regret tomorrow.

I close my eyes, grasping for escape, incongruously finding the wastelands of Fallout 3.

The green-and-black of my Pip-Boy readout indicates contamination, my pixelated doppelganger's face humorously unwell. Examining the plate in front of me, my VATS targeting overlay descends, percentages indicating the areas of highest bacterial concentration.

This calms me. It occurs to me, although briefly, that this is not a healthy reaction to American holiday tradition.

Inane conversation sputters around me. I do not participate. I have better things to do. I have left my hunter alone in the Arathi Highlands. She needs training. I construct the talent tree I feel will finally bring her more quickly to the endgame of World of Warcraft. I have not yet mastered playing a hunter.

"Well, I don't understand why she didn't just have an abortion."

I return from Azeroth to see that my stepfather has descended into angry stupidity. He has been discussing the fate of his 19-year old grand-daughter. In the course of 15 minutes, the table has discovered for the first time that she is pregnant. We learn that my born-again stepsister talked her into keeping the baby. The four, seven, and nine-year-old children sitting at the table seem temporarily oblivious to this inappropriate fork in the conversation.

I stand up.

"Does anyone want more wine?" I say this too loudly, and with a tone of voice that I hope communicates "Shut the f*ck up, you tired, inconsiderate old man. I don't even disagree with you, but you're an ass for saying it, and saying it in front of my children."

I'm fairly sure I fail. Falling silent, I play the conversation mini-game from Oblivion, choosing the "intimidate" option, over and over again. The washed-brown, uncanny face of my opponent remains grim and unyielding.

An hour passes.

There is pie.

The inequitable division of said pie inspires pre-teen hormone-rage within my daughter. She runs from the table in tears. I have no skills with which to deal with the multiple failures of the evening. I quickly exercise an unspoken marital veto, and escort my entire family from the house.

We travel home in silence. Children are unceremoniously deposited in beds.

---

"You need to calm down."

Nobody else would look at my immobile exterior and my center-of-the-earth stare and see anything but calm. Jessica, as always, sees well below the surface.

I return to the basement. I return to the more forgiving and controlled world of vision and sound and interface and tidy save-games and virtual friends who won't see the blood-flushed skin under the permastubble or indoctrinate my children without consent.

What would Tim do?

Launching Braid, I try and find out. I hit rewind over and over again, replaying each section that fails to meet my expectations. I throw myself against the game, rejecting the real, hoping that this time, this time, this time I will get it right

Comments

Are you suggesting, sir, that the games we play have deeper cultural and metaphoric resonance in our lives? Hogwash! Tish and tosh, sir!

I am afraid I may be forced to cancel my account at this website!

Rabbit, I do not want to seem to ass kissing, but your last few articles leading up to this one have been amazing.

I return to the basement. I return to the more forgiving and controlled world of vision and sound and interface and tidy save-games and virtual friends who won't see the blood-flushed skin under the permastubble or indoctrinate my children without consent.

Not only did you capture my feelings at my own dysfunctional Thanksgiving at the in-laws, but you capture in an amazing use of the English language the reason I play games.

This is was an amazing read.
So I raise my Coffee and Salute you for your command of this language is all I wish mine was.

If you play WoW, you'll never have to worry about abortions?

Thank God my family doesn't feel the need to express their opinions on everything between heaven and hell as if they invented hot water, although I've been in these kind of situations before.

They're hell, and you did a perfect job at bringing back those memories. Thanks!

My 'solution' is trolling the self-righteous, to the edge of them exploding. Evil, but fun.

Edit: did the turkey image just become a headcrab? Does this mean the Combine have finally arrived?

Wonderful and awful wrapped up at once.

Great article!

Ah, so other people do live in my world. While sitting at my in-laws Thanksgiving table I dare say that I too was playing Fallout 3 in my head while my father-in-law rambled on about political conspiracies and the failings of his wife's brothers. It's so great that our thoughts can escape into the game world even when the machines of our addiction are so far away.

Excellent article. Really like the way you write, Julian.

Sorry about the salmonella, man.

Do you need a hug, Rabbit? It's alright, hug it out.

Beautiful as always. Games as an escape is, sadly, something I think we all participate it and none of us are willing to admit. Games are always logical and fair -- and when they're not, it's comforting knowing there's a benevolent figure out there who will someday release a patch.

stupidhaiku wrote:
Beautiful as always. Games as an escape is, sadly, something I think we all participate it and none of us are willing to admit.

You may also notice that he uses games (Braid in particular) as a way to better connect with and understand reality. Sure, he strategizes about WoW leveling in order to escape, but he also uses the time-warp mechanic as a way of thinking about what he could have done differently.

Braid is, after all, a game about regret.

Best bonding of the holiday: Leveling up with the kids, while others cooked and cleaned and bored the crap out of each other. Why didn't I think of this YEARS ago?

Tkyl wrote:
Do you need a hug, Rabbit? It's alright, hug it out.

Only if you want partially-digested head crab running down the back of your tweed jacket. (I'm fine now, thanks for the concern).

PS hilarious and wonderful writing, as usual

wordsmythe wrote:
Braid is, after all, a game about regret.

And not just the regret of not being able to beat it.

I've been trying to release a patch for years for my family. F*ckers won't listen to me tho.

Excellent story and writing, Rabbit. Really good stuff.

A compelling narrative.

Games cannot, must not, be a long-term escape from the difficulties of life. As some of you may recall, a long while ago I related the destruction of someone I loved as she used gaming to escape from harsh reality. We all escape a little sometimes, just as we all procrastinate a little when we don't want to do something. But just as we must eventually stop procrastinating and perform our unpleasant task, so must we face the world openly and fully if we're to be healthy.

To escape mentally into the game-space during difficult times is a disengagement from reality, and a disconnect from those around us. In the short-term, it makes things easier to bear, but the long-term price of the practice is terrible. Gaming is, and will forever be, an integral part of who I am. However, sometimes the best achievement we can hope to earn is having the strength to eschew that comforting place because those we care about need us to be fully there with them.

Sorry, this one kind of hits a nerve.

Coldstream wrote:
A compelling narrative ... Rabbit needs better meds ... Sorry, this one kind of hits a nerve.

I think there's a line here between having coping mechanisms and true avoidance of reality. I think most people wouldn't argue that, say, going for a good hard run because you're angry, is somehow a bad thing. It's a way of purging, and getting through something and out the other side.

Where it verges on the true Walter Mitty -- an escape that replaces dealing with something, and provides an alternate self-space that denies the real one -- that's where I agree with you. If my thanksgiving was in any way indicative of a norm for me, I'd seek therapy in a heartbeat. Instead, the fact that this was such an outlier is what made it ring so strongly that I felt compelled to write something about it (and believe me, I appreciate the indulgence.)

It's the part about the pie that got to me.

I don't much like kids (no offense to all parents here, I'm not saying you're wrong for having a kid, I respect and admire your ability to connect with and handle children which is a skill I completely lack). What I really don't like is when kids suffer over silly things. There are only a handful of circumstances in life in which it is appropriate to cry over pie and it makes me sad that a little girl was deprived her enjoyment of pie for whatever reason, including her own hormones and overreaction. So Rabbit, I hope that in the end your daughter got some pie and loved it.

What really disturbs me about this is that Rabbit's imaginary PipBoy detected the contamination. Rabbit... are you a superhero?

From the stories I've heard, this is what I imagine actually sitting down at the table with my fiance's family (extended, not immediate, those ones seem alright) would be like. But even wtih this Thanksgiving being the frist time with them, we didn't sit around a table and they confined themselves to a cramped kitchen with temperatures well above 80. I stayed with the fiance and kids in another room most of the time. Maybe I'll be sat at the table of inane uninvited opinions some other day.

To escape to a world where the number of legal moves and decisions from a point are finite, as in our world possibilities lay before us, tempting and daunting.

Another brilliant article, Rabbit. Bravo!

You're a better man than me i'm afraid i tend to descend behind a red haze that everyone can see no matter how i try and hide it. There was one time when something similar happened at a family gathering and after a certain ignorant comment by a young-ish relative of mine to an older and recently bereaved relative the room fell into an uncomfortable silence..... until my 'cousin' neatly leaped the gap and parried the silence with a witty remark which had everyone laughing including both other relatives. It was a heroic action and my admiration for these quick-witted people has no bounds.

I also like how reading this and writing it is another, non-game sort of therapy for you.... must have been good getting it out and going over it in the editing process.... allowing you to sort, characterise and choose how you respond to the incidents of the day. In a way, this article is your personal version of Braid and not just because of the constant 'life imitating art' construction of the passages.

During last week's conference call, the "board room" answered an email asking how game limitations enhance games. In some cases, it's reality that limits a game - I believe Rob and Certis stated that when reality comes into conflict with fun, fun should always win. I only bring this up because it seems to me that you, Rabbit, have experienced the inverse. Games have ehanced/influenced/drove your life narrative. Will this be a common feature of the future? Just as today, people may envision mundane tasks as epic struggles between good and evil, replacing supervisors with Darth Vaders or Saurons, tomorrow will see the background noise of pipboys and dialogue trees. I welcome the dawn of this new age. Here here, Rabbit.

Dude.
...
I mean... er ... I want to say ... uh ... look, um ...
...
...

Dude.

Feel better and take hugs. Many, many hugs from all those around you. They don't help with food poisoning, but really, that's not the issue here, is it? The strength of your family; your wife, your kids and their love will get you through tough times with the rest of the family.

Also, I want to point out to everyone that it's perfectly OK to excuse yourself and your children from awkward and inappropriate conversations. I have lost count of the number of times that I've had to stand up and say "Well that's enough intolerance and bigotry for one day," when visiting my in laws.

Wow. Long time reader here, lured out of lurkerdom by this very excellent piece of writing. Thanks for painting such a vivid picture of the day-to-day reality of a gamer; the ugliness as well as the exhilaration. Stuff like this gives us hope that at least one other person on this planet might understand the strange polygons and avatars that flicker in our dreams...

I'm trying to find an witty way of describing how good you use the English language to tell stories. If you've ever written something you consider better than this piece, please share it.

I never thought I'd enjoy one of your articles as much as I did Best Buy Bodhisattva. I've never been so happy for being wrong.

Sorry to hear about the Clash of the In-Laws and the salmonella aftermath.

I choose to gauge the success of anything I write based on delurks, so thanks for that!

I had a good Thanksgiving, but I did think about the bones that you find extra body pieces in Spore when I saw the turkey.

rabbit wrote:
I choose to gauge the success of anything I write based on delurks, so thanks for that!

What if I went from posting back to lurking because of a story you wrote? Would that count as a -1?