Dabe Alan

Gaming as comfort food: the games we play when the world sucks

Gaming as comfort food: the games we play when the world sucks

We lose ourselves in different forms of entertainment whenever we’re depressed, down, or simply grumpy. Some people put on a favorite song, or a certain movie, but I’d like to talk about video games. There are certain games that always make me feel good when I play them, or at least comforted. These are the gaming equivalents of a warm blanket, or a nice grilled cheese sandwich. I think we also have a game or two that we turn to when things get bad, so let’s talk about it for a bit.

And let’s get specific, because playing games on different consoles, with different controllers, is like drinking wine from the same vineyard but bottled in different years. When I play Tony Hawk 2 on the Dreamcast, it’s like being hugged by angels wrapped in silk. Playing the same game on the PlayStation? I’m sorry, not the same thing. I gotta have my Dreamcast. I feel the same way about the Virtua Tennis series, it’s just so much more comfortable on the Dreamcast controller for some reason. It’s like coming home.

Not that I dislike the PlayStation, mind you. When I’m really in need of a me pick-me-up I turn on Gitaroo Man. For one, there’s a boss named  “Ben K,” and that’s awesome, but the acoustic guitar song the lead character plays on his date, the one that ends when the little girl puts her head on your shoulder? Absolute bliss. It’s the best thing ever.

So okay Andrew, when you’re down in the dumps, what games do you reach for? Do you go back into your catalog, or do you find yourself in the arms of a modern classic?

Andrew's comfort games

I've never had a game that I've considered comfort food in the past, but now that I'm thinking about it there are several games that I consistently go back to when I'm sick or when I'm just generally life-tired and need a break from the world. Most of them tend to be sixth generation, so DC, Xbox, GameCube most often, as that's still my favorite batch of consoles.

Specifically, I go back to the early 3D Zelda games a lot. Like a lot of people, I find that those games represent a simpler time for me. There never has been, nor will there ever be another game that captures the sense of pure, childish adventure quite like Wind Waker does. That game is very powerful when you're out on the high seas with a strong wind at your back and a map in your hands. I know that Link is always supposed to be your inner child, but that Link is me. More than any other. 

For me, that game is about stirring something dormant inside of myself. But when I just need to put a smile on my face? Burnout 3. Full stop. Forever. I defy you to keep a straight face for 10 seconds while playing Burnout 3. That game represents play in its simplest, purest form to me. I've played it for hundreds of hours, and I hope to play it for hundreds more. There's absolutely nothing predictable about the game, and even after thousands of races it still surprises me every single race. 

But let's say I'm feeling lonely, and need a best-friends-forever pal to hang out with and create some memories: Contra 3. It combines the laugh-out-loud hilarity that you'd want from spending an evening with a buddy, your characters can flex and pose with their guns, with the teamwork that builds lifelong bonds. 

What about you, Ben? Gitaroo Man sounds like Chicken Soup for the Kuchera Soul, but what game do you play when you're looking to have a good time with a friend?

Ben's thoughts

Going way back, I have incredibly fond memories of playing NHL Hitz 2002 with my friends when I was back in college. We had a team, we named our characters after each other, and spent many long days blowing off classes to drink and play video game hockey. I'm not shocked that I'm still a few credits shy of a degree.

These days when I spend time with friends and play games we usually set up a LAN at someone's house, and the main game we're playing right now is Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. I remember getting into Counter-Strike around beta 6 or so, and watching the game through all the different versions. CS:GO brings back almost everything that I loved about the original, and it doesn't make my eyes bleed when I look at it. It's great, fast-paced fun, especially when you're only playing with your friends in someone's basement and you're all around the same skill level.

I'm also a big fan of board games, and if I have an entire day to blow I like to get some friends together and get lost in Arkham Horror. It's a complicated game, and it takes for-frickin-ever to finish, but while you're playing and trying to win you can't really worry about anything else. And isn't that the point of escaping from games, to replace a harder problem with a solvable one, or at least one that's more fun to tackle?

But the takeaway is that when I'm gaming with friends, I like my friends to physically be there with me. Online is great for people who live far away, or can't always get out, but being in the same physical room as someon while you're gaming feels much better than just voice chat. It's also hard to pull off, especially with a large group, and that makes it special. The fact you're all there is itself a cause to celebrate, which is great.

But let's flip this around, are there games you try to avoid when you're down in the dumps?

The Groen Sorrow

This is probably a weird answer, but the game I try to avoid is actually my favorite game of all-time: StarCraft 2. I've been playing and studying that game for three years on-and-off, and I've loved a great deal of that time. The trouble is that now - whether I like it or not - my StarCraft abilities are bound to my sense of self-worth. 

If I go on a winning streak and I'm pounding fools into the dust with my silky smooth unit micro then I'll be on top of the world. People who know me can literally tell when I'm on a winning streak because it shows in my walk and in my smile. But when I lose, it can really get me down. It's hard to get thrashed in a game you've dedicated so much time to. It makes you feel like all that time was wasted and you're still terrible.

The other part, is that when you really get to know a game like StarCraft 2, you know what you need to do to win. If you win, it usually just means that everything went the way you expected. It's not too exciting. But when you lose, you've failed! Something has usually gone catastrophically wrong and your whole base was torn to pieces. Winning becomes less exciting than losing is depressing.  So even when you win half your games, as should be expected, it can feel like you're losing a lot.

It's a special circumstance, but I need to be aware of my mood and stay away from StarCraft 2 when I'm feeling blue. Otherwise it can thrust me further into the darkness, and end up affecting my work and my personal life.

Is there a game you have to stay away from?

Ben's thoughts

I don't even think it's an active thought, I don't try to steer myself away from certain games when I'm under the weather, I just don't feel like playing them. There was one night when I was tired, the baby wasn't sleeping, a story had fallen through the cracks, and I sat down and tried to play the latest Walking Dead episode. I was already a wreck, and I was a snotty, weepy mess a few minutes later. That wasn't a good move, and now I try to pick out games I know are going to pick me up more than I think about avoiding the bad ones.

But anything with kids will just wreck me. There were certain moments in The Last of Us that just totally did me in, and I was in a good mood! I think the ultimate fear of any parent is watching your child suffer and being powerless to help, so I can't do games with little kid characters. They tear me up in the best of circumstances, if I tried to play them when I was feeling down… man, no good.

But honestly, games pick me up when I'm down way more often than they drag me down when I'm up. And even then, you play games like The Walking Dead to feel something, right? Even when that thing is fear, or grief. I think I get more emotional charge out of games then I put into them, and that's a good thing.

So what about the rest of you: What games do you turn to when things just suck?