I played bomb disarming Steam sensation Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes with my girlfriend. That might’ve been a bad idea.
Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes is a game with an extremely unique premise: one player is on their PC, interacting with a virtual bomb; the other(s) pull up the official bomb manual on their PC, phone, or what have you and give instructions on how to defuse said bomb. The twist? Only the defuser is allowed to look at the screen. Everyone else has to listen to the defuser’s (sometimes frustratingly vague) descriptions and tear through the manual for something matching them. Each bomb is made up of a series of randomized, hyper-specific modules that involve buttons, wires, mazes, Greek characters, and all sorts of other bullshit, so good luck.
Having never played before, I decided to give it a try with my girlfriend. We are, generally speaking, decent at communicating, but we have some extremely... specific issues—ones that have, honestly, been pretty much exclusively responsible for every major fight we’ve had. As a master of forethought and crystal-ball-level soothsaying, I naturally didn’t think about this until we were in the middle of disarming a fucking bomb.
Oh, but it gets worse. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this Thing about being misunderstood. I can think of few things that make me more anxious. When I was little, any time I’d say something, only for somebody to retort, “Oh, I thought you said, ‘[insert incredibly silly sounding thing here],’” I’d go beat-red and, on the verge of crying, shout, “NO THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT.” These days, if that sort of thing happens, I chuckle politely while my heart flutters like it’s full of butterflies and also a live volcano.
Our first bomb—the tutorial capable of leveling a small city block—was simple enough. A couple wire snips here, a few meticulously ordered button presses there aaaaaaand... done, with 50 precious seconds to spare. A few bombs later, however, we encountered our first true test: a tiny maze on a grid. We had two minutes left.
“OK,” said my girlfriend while glancing through the manual. “Let’s treat this like a spreadsheet: columns and rows.”
For some reason, my brain decided to forget how spreadsheets work. “Columns are the up and down ones, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “Now, where’s the first circle in the maze?”
“Uhhhhhhh... third column, third row,” I said.
A few seconds passed. “There’s nothing like that in here,” she told me. “Are you sure it’s the third column and not the fourth?”
The bomb timer ticked away. One minute left. I started to feel anxious. My stomach sank a little.
“No, this is definitely the third,” I replied.
“Well then,” she said, audibly frustrated, “I can’t help you with this one.”
Which is really the last thing you ever want to hear while a) in a relationship and b) disarming a bomb.
A piercing pause in conversation, a painful lull. “Are there any other modules?” my girlfriend finally asked.
“It doesn’t really matter anymore,” I said. “We have seven seconds left.”
There it was. We had stopped talking. Everybody exploded.
Afterward we talked it over, and my girlfriend explained that I had, in fact, been looking at the fourth column, as you read these things from the top down, not the bottom up. Given that my entire work schedule is organized by way of a similar system, I have no idea how this didn’t occur to me. Stress makes people stupid, I guess.
Upon realizing what a basic mistake I’d made, my girlfriend was even more frustrated. I have a way of frequently making silly mistakes, you see, and she—as someone who’s quite good at A Whole Lot Of Things—sometimes finds this (understandably) annoying. So, upon noticing her frustration, I did what I often do: transformed into a quiet, overly apologetic turtle. The short version: she was angry and I was anxious and neither of us were really talking about it. It was kind of a bad scene, but not an unfamiliar one.
“Let’s try one more bomb,” I suggested, refusing to be defeated by some idiot bomb.
“...OK,” my girlfriend replied, also refusing to be defeated by some idiot bomb.
It was our most difficult yet: twice as many modules as we’d encountered before, all sorts of arbitrary button holding, etc.
We fucking killed it, and I’ll be honest: it felt amazing. We talked through it slowly, but with more precision than before. Stress began to dissipate as I realized we might have a shot at stopping this one from making Wile E. Coyotes out of us.
It completely changed the mood of the room, too. Minutes ago things had been tense and A Bit Too Real; now they were light and smiley and hug-y. We remembered that we’re a damn good team. We’re doing this whole life thing together (at least, right now) for a reason, after all. Who’d have thought it’d feel good to stop a bomb from blowing up and killing everyone?
I think the structure of the game also revealed something fundamental, though—something that definitely helped us power through the moment and react constructively when faced with a recurring relationship issue: little conflicts don’t have to be the end of the world. The pressure is artificial. If you slow down, breathe deep, and think it through, you can pick it apart—dismantle it piece-by-piece.
No matter who you’re dealing with, certain things they do are gonna annoy, sadden, or infuriate you. This goes double if you care deeply about them or are around them on a regular basis. In Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes, all that tension gets squeezed—all the trash gets compacted—into five minutes. Sometimes, it blows up in your face. But afterward, that’s it. It was just a moment. Instead of holding onto it, the best thing you can do is say, “OK, how are we gonna handle the next moment better? How can we improve our communication? How can we learn from this?”
You might still fail, but at least you—both of you, all of you, however many of you—resolved to do better, to understand, empathize, and cooperate. If you can stick to that resolution (no small order, believe me), you can disarm all sorts of bombs, present and future.
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