Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sweaty Delerium is the Worst Videogame Ever

So, as I returned from the post-Xmas trip to Guatemala and Belize last week (there was a wedding, along with some R&R) I had the full intention of hitting the ground running, taking care of business in a flash, being well-rested and rejuvenated. Despite the fact that I had spent almost a month playing very little save a DS port of an eleven-year old SNES game (more on this later), I had all these aspirations to get the games-criticizing back on track.

And then, about two days after reentry, I came down with the death flu. You all know what I'm talking about. One morning I had a runny nose, and then gradually my eyeballs began to ache. This is always a bad sign, this soreness of the eyeballs. Over the following days I'm treated to a whirlgig tour of the varieties of somatic distress. Not only the industry-standard chills, nausea, sweats, etc., but also these absurdly detailed headaches: a San Andres fault of pain, a fully localiziable fissure spidering its way through your cranium.

You know the situation, where the full-body weakness forces you to subject the smallest expenditure of effort to this brutal calculus. I would like to take some juice, but can I afford to walk all the way to the kitchen? When that juice is on the bedside table: can you afford to move all the way across the bed and move from underneath the covers? While I made it out of the house on Saturday, I didn't make it past the refrigerator on Sunday. It was that kind of sick.

Listen, I realize that all this is pretty uninteresting. Publicizing the minute particulars of your unwellness is on par with telling people anecdotes about your pets' eccentricities, or showing them your vacation slides. And telling people about your dreams is almost as bad. However, I think the fever- delirium over the last few days had some interesting angles. When you run this kind of fever, the frontier between wakeful consciousness and the dream-logic gets a bit porous. You can't really fall asleep, but when you close your eyes your thoughts run away from you.

So here's the thing: My hallucinatory feverishness had this distinct ludic quality. Right as I was coming down with the sickness, I had been playing Shiren the Wanderer. I even played it some while I was sick, during those times when I was capable of keeping my head and hands outside of the bedsheets This was a very bad idea. I've been this kind of sick before, and the fever dreams have always had this nasty edge to them, these really abstract elements of persecution-mania: I'm being pursued, or kept against your will, I'm being followed, I can't find my way to escape. Not by anything in particular, mind you, and this makes it worse. There's no beginning and no end to it.

Usually I would say there's something metaphysically comforting about playing video games. It's a space that functions according to a predictable and surmountable set of rules. I think this is true regardless of challenge: even where you're unable to get through the obstacles the game puts in your ways you never lose the sense that there is such a way. I sometimes think that the essential predictability and intelligibility of games (and sports, for that matter) explains why they appeal to us so much during our adolescence: while we're spending the rest of our lives coming to grips with an emotional and social reality that is new and complex and unpredictable, games offer us a place where we can safely cope with a recognizable and familiar order.

This is why the ludic delirium was so godawful. Whenever I closed my eyes, my brain kept on playing Shiren the Wanderer unabated. But it was as if the familiar logic had come unmoored, was stripped of all its comforting sense of stability and order. My mind kept traveling along in this insanely familiar space, but the experience was twisted into this Kafkaesque odyssey. I retained this feeling that I was wandering along these paths between towns (these dreams even had this overlying map-grid from the game), but any sense of progression or rule-guidedness was gone. I had this incoate feeling that the goal of my quest was to overcome this terrible illness (like, when my fever broke and the aches receded and my stomach settled down, it played out in-game like I had discovered some new town or accomplished something) but I had this horrible sense that my most intelligent efforts would avail me of nothing in this effort.

I think most people who play games as much as I do see this phenomenon to some extent, where the game-logic invades their everyday activities. There were some hilarious examples of this in the most recent Idle Thumbs podcast. This was some bad mojo, though. The moral: stay far far away from videogames if you have the death flu.

Now that I'm on the mend I have some some plans to talk about actual games that you can play, rather than the hallucinatory versions of them that are available exclusively on the in my fevered brain entertainment system. Stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

Woah. Of all the imaginary spaces to escape to during illness, you chose the one built around relentless and unending death. I can not even begin to imagine how terrifying that would be.

I had freaky nightmares about Assassin's Creed once. That's all I got.

Brian O'Blivion said...

I was sick last weekend, too, and I definitely had some anxiety-inducing dreams. Funny how that happens.
Any-hoo, while you were away I finally traded my Wii for an Xbox360. Thumbs up: COD4, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Halo 1. Thumbs down: Perfect Dark Zero, which was a bummer 'cause I spent hundreds of hours fragging Meatsims on the original N64 version back in the day. I just started GTAIV, and my first impression is that I miss the cartoonish silliness of the previous incarnations, but I'm along for the ride anyway; the series has always been a favorite.

Welcome back, my friend--glad you beat the death flu!

Miguel Lopez said...

"Ludic delirium." That's a good one, and I know exactly what you mean. The instance that's stayed with me the longest involves Genghis Khan II for the SNES, which I played while fully banged-up with the flu in high school. I distinctly remember brutal loops of broken sleep, ineffectual units, and puny harvests. It sounds like Shinren's occupation of your fragile sleep wasn't quite so uniformly oppressive. For me and Genghis though, it was all stick, no carrot.

Glad you're better!

Nels Anderson said...

God damn Iroquois, glad you're on the mend. As bad as the death flu may be, at least you didn't contract malaria. A good friend of mine was in Peru a few years ago and got ridiculously sick. They prescribed Lariam just to be safe.

While he never contracted malaria, the Lariam had its own side effects. For months afterwards, he'd had episodes where one emotion would become completely dominant (e.g. happy, sad, cruel, etc.). He said it had a bit of a game-like nature to it but also shared your sentiment that it's absolutely horrifying when it's beyond one's control.

Aside from a few horrific dreams (you know the ones where you wake up, and you're in another dream), I've been spared such so far. No offense intended, but hopefully this is an experience I can keep third person.

Ben said...

Let me guess, right before you got sick, you ate a rotten riceball in Shiren. *Twilight Zone twist!*

I definitely identify with the fevered mind's failure to disengage, although in my case it was a book. I recall in high school I was reading the novelization of Star Wars (A New Hope) when I had a nasty bout of the flu. I woke up sweating one morning positive that I, Han Solo, had to get to the Millennium Falcon to save Luke Skywalker. Needless to say, my possession faded as I realized I was supposed to go to school that day.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see you back and I'm glad for you that the sickness didn't hit while you were on your trip.

Duncan said...

Dude, my first weekend home from the holidays I woke up with the worst case of food poisoning I have ever had. I didn't even know what it was at the time, I honestly thought that my organs were shutting down and I was dying. Right then I resolved to live my life totally differently, but it's been pretty much the same so far.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@thesimplicity: yeah, I blame you for my monthlong shiren the wanderer obsession and the subsequent nightmares. the ominous feeling of futile non-progression actually meshes pretty well with the game itself.

@ben: zing! seriously though I should have stayed away from the games while I was feverish. found something that was totally incorruptible and pure, like when Dan Ackroyd imagines the Stay-Puft Marshmellow Man in Ghostbusters. Shiren the Wanderer (and A New Hope, apparently) do not fit the bill.

@Karl: thanks! You know, the lady and I were both like: thank good god we didn't both come down with this shit while we were in Belize, it would have been the worst. I actually came down with Portuguese Death Flu when I was alone in Lagos Portugal a few years ago and that shit was rough.

Ben Abraham said...

Hey man, you know me I'm always up for a bit of gonzo first person narrative in a blog post.

Keep on getting better, IP.

Anonymous said...

Glad you're feeling better, Pliskin.

I've had a phenomenon like the one you describe happen as well, and I think it was almost as horrifying...playing Sonic Adventure 2: Battle on the GameCube while I was recovering from hernia surgery. Every time I closed my eyes all I could see was a little blue ball hurtling down a hill at speeds that made me ill. Of course, that probably had more to do with the medication than the ailment.