In May 2004, Mrs. HM and I went on a whistle-stop tour of Kyushu, the big southwestern chunk of Japan, home to Nagasaki, the steamy onsen town of Beppu and the slightly surreal Dutch theme park Huis Ten Bosch. It was one part honeymoon, two parts sayonara as we were soon to depart Japan for a new life in the UK. The final destination of this tour was the island of Yakushima, a verdant fist of volcanic rock punching out of the water around 70km off the southern coast of Kyushu. It's reputed to be the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke.
We had two days on Yakushima. On the first day we did a circuit of the island by car, leaving us with memories of lazy monkeys pottering about on the road and magnificent waterfalls at every turn. On the second day, we went to see a tree.
The tree in question was Jomon Sugi, located near the centre of the island and at least 2,000 years old. It is visited by hundreds of hikers every day.
Let me describe the normal route taken to reach Jomon Sugi. First, you have to take an early bus – we had to catch one at 5.40am – which delivers you to the Arakawa Trail around 6.30am. The trail follows a little-used railway which is largely flat and easy to follow. Three hours later, hikers will reach the Okabu Trail which, to feet lulled into a false sense of horizontal security by the Arakawa rail track, looks like it lurches upward at a right-angle to the ground. Following this trail for another two hours will lead you to Jomon Sugi.
Now I hadn’t thought this thing through at all and our muscles were totally unprepared for the climb. Once we reached Jomon Sugi, we took a few pictures and then had to head back straight away. No time to dawdle: there was only one bus back in the evening! But after stubbing my toe several times in ill-fitting boots, the downward journey was agony, each footstep reverberating in pain. While Mrs. HM and I were great enthusiasts of long, urban walks, we had never put ourselves through a challenge like this before. Mrs. HM was in so much pain during the night she had difficulty sleeping. The following day we could only move around like Lego figures.
But our new wedding bands had accompanied us on the entire journey and suffered. Scrambling over rocks and grappling trees on the Okabu trail had scratched and scuffed the rings. I couldn’t help but think of some friends of ours who wore cheaper simulacra instead of their real wedding rings, to protect them from harm. Mrs. HM suggested we could get our rings polished and return them to their original, glistening state.
I said no.
In those marks I saw evidence of our climb together. Over the coming years, the rings would acquire more scratches and pits, each mark representing an event we had shared together. These tarnished rings would not merely become a historical record but also a metaphor for changing lives. People and relationships are not set in stone: they evolve and adapt. To keep the rings as they were would be a lie, trying to freeze ourselves in the past instead of owning up to who we would become.
I look back at this moment and now see the beginnings of a broader philosophy of life.
Embracing change and failure is a lot tougher than blabbering the soundbite. The transition from blank slate youth to curmudgeon is part of the human condition; we all acquire some sort of "not like the good old days" spiel:
- Consolisation has dumbed down gaming difficulty.
- I remember when documentaries were documentaries and not bloody "docudramas".
- These "art games" aren't games.
- I miss the days when a man could come home and expect dinner on the table.
- Today's youth is Generation Entitlement, all X Factor and electronic now now devices.
Let go. Accept. Adapt. I have my moments of weakness but I’m always trying to chart a path forwards, weighing up what experiences or ideas can be rescued and appropriated for the future, and what ones I have to let go of. And here’s the thing I’ve been leading to: it has changed how I play games.
Contrary to what might have been interpreted from The Consequences of Consequences - which was meant as a warning for developers - I'm a consequence junkie. Actions have more meaning if you lose the ability to undo them. And you know what? You have the power to enforce that.
If you lament the lack of consequences in games, well, you don't have to reload that last save. You don't have to explore every nook and cranny and dialogue tree. No one is forcing you to play super-optimally.
Years ago, I pleaded with Mrs. HM to play through Max Payne with an emphasis on fun rather than optimal play. Max Payne is about diving into a cloud of bullets in slow motion and accepting the mistakes you make. Counting ammo and trying to snipe around corners ruins the joy of it.
Then there’s Armageddon Empires. If I make a mistake and let the enemy AI take out an important unit, I roll with it and carry on. If I am defeated, the game is over and I start again. I later discovered Armageddon Empires has an “Iron Man” mode which automatically saves after every turn, preventing the player from turning back the clock and undoing mistakes: shit, that’s how I normally play.
And I got Cart Life quickly. The depth of the Cart Life world with its deliberate scarcity of instruction sat on a particular sweet spot I could appreciate. It wanted me to learn and make mistakes like the characters in the game would. I got it right away. When I read responses to Cart Life that contain phrases like “I needed to start several times before I got the hang of it” I want to beat my chest and yell about how wrong that is. You’re supposed to fail! It is in the failing that the game's meaning is found.
If you can retain your scratches and scars from one scene to the next, then play transforms into something that feels more real and a little more dangerous. This is why there is experimentation with permadeath and hardcore checkpointing – Dark Souls, anyone? But the obsession with “death” is a cliché and misses the point. It’s about living with error and being human.
Remember, you don’t have to use the tools you are offered. That option to reload a game is a choice.