I’m coming back from the shops with Dad. The sun is shining, and I’m carrying two shopping bags in each hand to show Dad how strong I am. I’m trying to tell him about the things I love. I’m twelve. What I love is collecting Warhammer.
“I’m collecting Space Marines at the moment, Dad. Space Marines are these super warriors. They’re over seven feet tall, and they’ve got two hearts, in case one gets damaged, and they protect the Emperor, who almost died, but kind of got put into cryo-stasis before he died so now he’s not really alive, but the Space Marines protect him anyway, they protect all of humanity, Dad, because it’s their sworn duty. They’re very noble like that.”
I risk a glance up. Dad isn’t listening. I change tack.
“But Space Marines are kind of boring. I’m thinking of collecting Imperial Guard next. They’re friends with the Space Marines, but they’re a lot more believable. You’d like the Imperial Guard — they’re regular soldiers, and they have all these tanks and heavy ordnance, and they beat enemies because there are so many of them. The Space Marines are elite and each chapter only has a thousand Space Marines in, but there are loads and loads of Imperial Guard, and they all look different depending what planet they’re from. And, Dad, there are these new ones that have just come out and they look like English soldiers from … was it one hundred years ago? When English soldiers wore red and fought in Rorke’s Drift. Like when we watched Zulu together. They’re really cool, Dad.”
“I see,” Dad says. We walk on in silence a while, then I ask him about football, so we have something to talk about….
This recollection will not, I’m sure, be unfamiliar to many of you who play videogames. Ours is a niche hobby, and anyone passionate about it will likely know the pain of trying to explain our passion to others, to bring the people we care about into our worlds, to be understood, to be accepted.
Gamer Mom is an indie adventure game about just such difficulties. In it you play as a woman trying to convince her sullen daughter and work-stressed husband to join her in a game of World of Warcraft. You navigate conversational routes, at times trying subtlety to intrigue your family, at others engaging them in small talk to bring them back on your side. Sometimes you get carried away in your exuberance and leap out of your chair. There are many poignant moments when you wait for a positive response. And wait. And wait.
It is a simple game to play, with a nice script, and a touching, sketched art style that perfectly captures the exasperation of the daughter, the bewilderment of the husband, the woman’s quiet, aching loneliness. The game only lasts a minute or so, and requires no specialist knowledge to play. You should definitely all give it a go.
From a technical viewpoint, Gamer Mom is dazzling, both a coherent argument for the merits of the indie production route, and for the strengths of the medium in general. In struggling to find ways to interest your family, meeting walls of anger, amusement and indifference at every turn, you-the-player are made to understand and empathise with the plight of you-the-character. You’re not viewing this woman’s world from the outside, you’re experiencing it from within, actually living it. You feel for the woman because you have been made to walk a mile in her shoes. This is something games do better than any other form of art.
And it’s the kind of personal, heartfelt game that only really the independent sphere of game design seems able to foster. When a title costs sixty-bazillion bucks to make, and will bankrupt the studio if it doesn’t make back those costs, no one involved can afford to take risks. You figure out what your audience is most likely to spend their money on, and then you give it to them, in a slick, polished, loud, gauche package. This keeps studios afloat. It doesn’t, however, produce much of worth.
Because worth precisely is taking risks. It’s telling a story that is important to only you, that makes you squirm, that burns inside you and thumps on your chest to get out. What is worthwhile today, and always has been worthwhile, is having something to say. And having something to say is risky. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be exciting.
So the Gamer Moms of the world are vitally important. Kids can think of something to say, knock a cheap game together, then whack it up on the internet for everyone in the world to play, to judge, to hopefully connect with.
And I connected with Gamer Mom hard. It reminded me of similar conversations I’ve had in my past — and still, sadly, have today –, trying and failing to reconcile my internal world with the external world of my family and friends. Gamers will likely be familiar with this. But I think it’s more universal than that. We all, at times, find it difficult to connect with others, to show people what we are like inside, to be known, to be appreciated for who we truly are.
And here we come to the aspect of Gamer Mom that interests me the most, though I debated whether to discuss it here out of fears of handling it wrong, being insensitive. I think it is worth saying though.
Mordechai Buckman, the writer and designer of the game, has Asperger’s Syndrome. His website is a strange and beautiful marvel, a bizarrely ordered (by which I mean it is very ordered, only in a way that feels bizarre to my mind) collection of thoughts, transcripts of IM conversations about love, musings on game design, journal entries, self-therapy sessions. It is a highly personal attempt to understand life by someone our society deems to suffer from a “disorder”, though to my eyes appears to be getting along just as well as the rest of us.
Discovering the personality of the creative force behind Gamer Mom, the game starts to make sense in a new light. The nerdy hobby, the disconnect between the woman and her family, the bursts of excitement, the way a dialogue has to be intellectually plotted out, rather than instinctively navigated — this is a game that allows us the opportunity to live, for a short time, as an autistic person.
What a blast. How vital. I’ve seen some commenters arguing that the protagonist of Gamer Mom is entirely unsympathetic, that in ignoring her husband’s desire to work to support the family, in steamrolling over her daughter’s likes in favour of her own, it is she who is the villain, she who needs to adjust her priorities to allow for a happy home life.
This is, I think, missing the point. Mordechai never claims the woman is right or wrong — nor does he claim having Asperger’s is right or wrong. Simply that this is how he really is, these are obstacles he struggles with. Devoid of judgement, the game is honest and heartfelt, and I find it so beautiful because of this.
Gamer Mom tells me what someone else on this planet is like. It allows me to connect with them, two different minds sharing something across the ether, something that brings us closer, reminds us that the canvas of our lives is shared, and it is but the print scrawled across the canvas that changes.
In a letter written to a girl he had feelings for, bravely reposted on his website, Mordechai compares his attempts to understand people without Asperger’s as like trying to relate to “the behaviors of some (albeit intelligent) alien species.”
Well a lesson for all of us, taught to me by Mordechai’s wonderful game, is that even alien species share common ground. We have to exist in the same universe together, and how much more lovely that can be when we accept the divergences and asymmetry we find, when we respect it all has the same right to exist. This gives us a new perspective on others, and a new perspective on ourselves.
Gamer Mom is one of the most important indies produced this year. It is a call for games to hold meaning, to be genuine, to say something. Did I mention, rather exuberantly, that you should PLAY IT RIGHT NOW?