My worst year on earth may well have been 2005. I had gone from a blood-and-guts newspaper writer to headcount hire sitting in a cubicle with nothing to do for weeks on end. I'd once been the coolest guy at the cocktail party, now I was just another stiff with a badge around his neck in the cafeteria. I'd moved from a log cabin in North Carolina to an apartment underneath the flight path of San Jose's airport. I couldn't be in my apartment without headphones on, pumping white noise into my eardrums. I literally went into therapy.
It took a long time to pull out of that funk. I did it with video games. I had a GameFly subscription. There was a GameStop near my work. Sometimes, there'd be a package waiting for me when I got home, postmarked from Denver, with a game sent to me by Brian Crecente, my comrade on the city desk at my old job.
Some were good—many were bad. But they were the games that got me through the worst year of my life.
I'm 38 years old. I come from the era when you bought your porn face-to-face. You just squared right the hell up and did it, convincing yourself that even though you were buying a skin mag on a Friday night, the fact someone else was working the cash register at a porn store meant they were the pathetic and desperate one.
Then the Internet arrived, and as Betamax and VHS took away the great shame of jerking off in a theater, the World Wide Web took away the need to make excuses as you slid cellophane-wrapped sex across the counter at places with names like V.I.P. News and Magazines. So when I reacquainted myself with Playboy: The Mansion yesterday at Video Game Headquarters here in Springfield, Ore., I concealed it among two other purchases and stammered out an excuse as to why I was buying this terrible game—which, not coincidentally, cost the most of all three.
"I, uh, write for Kotaku and this is for an article," I said, and I could feel Totilo's angry stare from a thousand miles away in Los Angeles.
My first trip to Playboy: The Mansion came courtesy of GameFly—in fact, I joked about that in an article I wrote about the service, then three years old but starting to get coast-to-coast attention. GameFly has provided me a ton of things I'm too ashamed to admit to trying. If that website ever gets hacked, I am done for.
I had no illusions about Playboy: The Mansion. It was basically The Sims gone topless. You built a house, had fake conversations and, like real Playboy pretended to care about the articles in the magazine. Only you were publishing it.
I didn't buy this because I wanted to customize the upstairs with bay windows and a $2,000 toilet, furnishings that are available in the game's extraneous decoration library. I wanted to see some nekkid women. Yet even by previous-generation standards the models were extremely plastic-looking. Which I guess is reality, now that I think about it. The game's quick tutorial level gets you to the action fast, taking care of all the articles in your first issue and sending you upstairs to photograph Julie McCullough, Miss February 1986. I immediately changed her into the leather pants outfit.
After that everything revolved around throwing parties. That's how you recruited subjects for your pictorials and articles. Some of the situations were comically bizarre. I introduced myself to a sitting U.S. senator, convinced her to pose nude for the next issue, took the pictures and then we screwed on top of a pinball machine in front of all the guests. Afterward, I bellied up for a drink, tried to hit on the reigning Playmate of the Month, and she kneed me in the balls. Then I turned on the jukebox and breakdanced to smooth jazz.
It had some really janky controls. Going upstairs or downstairs presented you with the strange menu option of "Use Staircase" or "Throw Party". When your model moved from location to location during a shoot you could end up completely lost behind backdrops and props, as I am in this video (which is not topless. But I wouldn't call it SFW, either.) She would often pick the strangest things to pose near, like a potted plant or the john.
I didn't kill much time with Playboy: The Mansion. It was reviewed very poorly and the drudgery of getting from one photoshoot to the next had none of the titilation and suspense of, well, buying a real Playboy and then driving home to see who was in the centerfold. It has one hell of a huge instruction manual—34 pages before you get to the credits. But it was supported post-release, with "downloadable content" before that became a dirty word. Probably because it was free.
The game provided very little in the way of a turn-on. Then again, the medication I was on had the dreaded certain-sexual-side-effect that made parts of my anatomy go into hibernation. I got a bigger tease from visiting the Pole Position in Vice City the preceding autumn. But Playboy: The Mansion distracted me for a good week, and making time go by quickly was about the best I could hope for in May 2005, seven years ago.
The Worst Year of My Life will be an occasional feature of Anger Management. Feel free to share with others the bad games that got you through bad times. Or the good ones.