My soul is water. A silver fluid which fills spaces. Encapsulating and cradling the water is a porcelain bowl, which is the part I think of as "me." It's made out of meat and bone and white melamine desks and concrete floors and Ikea clip-lights.
I've built the bowl carefully these last 40-odd years, reinforcing the weak spots, crazy-gluing up the cracks. I've surrounded myself with catch-basins for the runoff and left the roof open to capture as much tortured metaphor as possible.
When the bowl shakes, I run around like a deranged handyman, wielding duct tape and epoxy. When things get particularly rough, I reach deep into the toolbox for the psychological equivalent of expanding-foam insulation:
Recently, my wife abandoned me for 16 days. In a row. And while her epic journey across Kenya's Masai Mara is a tale worth telling, and worthy of her 2,203 digital pictures, this isn't about her. It is, as always, about me. Her departure would leave a gaping hole in my carefully constructed and deeply codependent psychic jigsaw puzzle.
By day two I settle into a routine. My kids are blissfully self sufficient, and we reach an unspoken agreement: They can get away with murder for two weeks, if they feed and bathe themselves and put themselves to bed. Virtually everything else they need for basic survival could be provided by the babysitter, who ferries them off to camp in the morning, scoops them up at the end of the day, comes home and makes dinner. I engage in what 1990s yuppies nauseatingly referred to as "quality time" with my kids for 2-3 hours a day.
By day three, I decide I am going to get some serious gaming done. Without the (loving, and wonderful) distraction of my spouse, my evenings are my own. Kids asleep, work done, I play games from 7:30PM until deep into the morning hours. It is glorious. I am exhausted, but happy.
On day five, the world explodes. Clients call. Work piles in. I enter crunch mode. Thousands of words a day run through the keyboard. The second weekend home alone with the kids looms, and I have 30 solid hours of work due by Monday morning. My carefully constructed house of cards comes crashing down. My mornings become a scramble to the basement to get a jump on the day. My kids become feral. Vast quantities of Avatar reruns and Harry Potter movies are consumed. I don't touch a game for days.
By day eight, I am a haggard shell of a parent. Mushrooms and Fiddlehead Ferns are growing from the dirt that has grown to encase my children. I am vaguely aware that they attend various activities, camps, playdates and the like. Neither one of them seems to whither, so I assume they eat.
On the morning of her 11th day away, I sit on the edge of the bed at 4AM.
"I need grounding," I explain to my teddy bear, Walter, sitting calmly on the bureau, forgotten and unloved these last 30 years.
"I need to just reconnect," I explained to Oreo, the hamster in the living room who is miraculously not dead from neglect.
I retire to the beanbag chair in the living room. The sun rises. Turkeys eat the ferns in the backyard. A red fox startles them. The neighborhood stray cat startles the fox. A dog barks, and startles the cat--A cascade of "Oh My God I'm Going To Die."
Browsing for games on my iPhone, I install Space Invaders Infinity Gene.
The simple monochrome vector graphics soothe my soul. The turbulent waters cease sloshing. An hour later, I discover I can play my own levels, generated by the music on my iPhone.
Joy Division. The Eternal. Space Invaders Infinity Gene.
The cracks fill. I hold it together.
Infinity Gene is easy to dismiss, because it is "just" another port of the late '70s arcade game, and to be fair, the formula remains intact: Move your ship, shoot the bad guys. Like most shmups, the core skill becomes one of avoiding flying debris and bullets.
On the iPhone, the game is not, in the abstract, difficult or complex. The sole input is the ability to move the defending ship around the screen (anywhere on the screen, not just back and forth across the bottom), and the initial level is in fact just the opening from the standup arcade cabinet. Variations are added slowly, but the core formula doesn't change.
The beauty of Infinity Gene is in the pacing of its player rewards.
Unlike most shmups, each level lasts just a minute or three, and for the first few hours of play, nearly every successfully completed level unlocks something--a new level, a new weapon, more ships. The pattern of a play session is an easy rhythm of play, succeed, reward. Infinity Gene strips this carrot-dangling game paradigm down to the bone; everything about the game is streamlined and simplified. While this could have left the remaining package anemic, instead, it's a pure and refined system of challenges and rewards, with a constant but minimalist flow of change.
The final addition--and indeed, it's so unheralded in the game's interface that it seems like an afterthought--is the ability to play levels along with and generated by your music library. Like Audiosurf this has mixed results, but at the height of my stress and distraction, the ability to take down stately capital ships in time to Ian Curtis' epic droning was what got me past the worst of my co-dependency withdrawal.
It would be hyperbole to suggest that a $3 iPhone game saved my soul. But it sure helped hold it together.