It had been the worst day in a string of very, very bad days. I was desperate and angry and sad and getting drunker by the second. I hugged a bottle of vodka like a safety blanket, but it gave me nothing in return. No sympathy, no warmth. "Maybe I'll just go for a drive," I thought. "Yes, I should go for a drive."
Disclaimer: DRIVING WHILE DRUNK IS A HORRIBLE IDEA.
I have never done it. I do not want to ever do it. It's reckless and irresponsible. It endangers both the driver and countless others whose path the driver might cross. It is not an acceptable thing to do under any circumstance. Don't you even dare think about doing it. Put those keys down right now, mister. I will fight you.
For a moment there, though, I honestly considered it. Driving is my escape. When I just want to get away from life for a little while, I like to hop in my busted up junkheap of a shoe-shaped car and drive anywhere, nowhere. I listen to music, look out the window, watch trees and buildings and mountains pass me by—you know, car stuff. It's simple. It's pure.
I can just sit in my own mind. I can't work or look at my phone or stare unflinching at the 18-wheeler-load of Life careening toward me at a million miles per hour. It's me and the road, and that's all.
So I picked up my keys, ran my fingers along their edges while contemplating the idea of doing—and I can't stress this enough—a massively stupid thing. My vision was slightly blurry. I knew it was an awful idea, but maybe, you know, for only a little bit?
Then I remembered that Glitchhikers exists.
It's a game about languidly cruising down an open back country road, listening to the radio and meeting an increasingly strange cast of strangers. It'd been sitting on my hard drive for a bit, but I'd never gotten around to actually trying it out. So I sat down my keys and put on my headphones. After that, I never looked back—except to turn out the lights in my room.
Playing Glitchhikers in the light feels wrong.
I began the game. For a while it was just me and the road, light NPR-style radio chatter and music humming in the background. I was still feeling pretty anxious about Life Stuff— overwhelmed by recent realizations about myself as a person, tragedies that had befallen friends, fears about a highly uncertain future—but that feeling began to fade. I remained keenly aware of my own battered emotional state (and, you know, inebriation), but I felt ever-so-slightly soothed as I lazily shifted between lanes, taking in the purple hills and eerily moonlit sky.
I passed a woman on the side of the road. I tried to stop for her, but my car just kept on driving, independent of my will. And yet, as I turned to look at my passenger-side window—to watch the woman fade into the distance—there she was, sitting right next to me.
The radio host crackled in to inform me that the song we just listened to had been by David Lynch. That's when I knew what sort of territory we were in. It was going to be a strange night.
I struck up a conversation with the woman. She didn't need to go far, just to the next stop. She told me how she used to play make believe games where she'd destroy far-off worlds, how she felt no remorse. She said that one day a strange man came to her and asked her to stop. She told him it was all pretend, but for him it evidently wasn't.
"Children really are cruel," I could've said when I was offered a choice between four responses. Instead, I disbelieved it. "That didn't really happen, did it?" And then she asked me a question:
"Why are you driving?"
I had four options to choose from—"Just to get somewhere," "It's a spiritual thing," "Because I like it," and "To find something"—but I just... couldn't. I hovered my mouse over the answers, chewing on each until there was nothing left to chew and tugging the implications from my teeth. Why was I driving? Why was I driving? How could I sum up so much in so few words?
I didn't know my time to choose a response was limited, but I shouldn't have been surprised. Time is always limited.
The woman left shortly after. She didn't get out of the car so much as she just vanished. I was all alone again. "Why am I driving?" I continued to ponder as I passed through a tunnel wreathed in an ethereal light, aglow beneath the jagged red scar of a moon in the sky. "What do I hope to get out of this? Do I really think it'll help? Why am I not being more proactive? Why am I wallowing and sulking? Why am I not doing something? Why am I being so weak? Didn't I get past angsty defeatism when I, you know, grew up?"
While I was lost in my own thoughts, another glitchhiker joined my journey. It was a sort of—I don't know how to describe it—spiky alien rabbit creature? With half a face? It told me tales of far off worlds, of fleeing its old home because some unknowable force destroyed it. I asked if that force was a little girl, but the alien didn't seem to understand what I was talking about. I don't think it really mattered.
Then it told me of places it had seen and people it had met in its own travels. "A little planet of tiny volcanoes and baobabs. A civilization of artists and dreamers, who believe we are all just living in someone else's story. Tribes of nomadic people who live amongst the stars." What wonderful places that alien had seen.
Its words made me feel small, yet also incalculably large. It explained the concept of sonder, the realization that everybody around us—even the cars right ahead of us—all have thoughts and hopes and dreams and fears. I am my own tiny galaxy, and so is everybody else.
The alien left abruptly, and I realized I immediately missed it. Like, I wanted it to come back and sit next to me again. I wanted it to tell me more about the universe, about myself, about whether or not its world had a social network called Half-A-Facebook. And once again, I wondered why. Why did the alien's words make me so emotional? What about them, specifically? Why did I feel so much for a pre-scripted NPC I'd only known for a couple minutes?
The radio crackled back on, filling the black emptiness with relaxing sound. After some light chit-chat about the music, it took a turn for the poignant:
"There are seven billion people on Earth. All we have is each other. Our own little infinity."
It's nothing I hadn't already thought of before, but what a beautiful way to say it. Even as my face felt heavy with longing and loneliness, I couldn't help but smile.
"A video game made you cry?" some might scoff—but there it is.
One last glitchhiker appeared next to me moments later, a sort of amorphous ghost-like being. I don't entirely remember what it asked me, but I think it had to do with self-harm. I asked if it ever considered hurting or killing itself. It replied, "Well, haven't we all," pointing to those little moments where we gaze over tall ledges or into speeding traffic and think, "I could. Nothing is stopping me." Most of us don't. Some of us do.
It was a dark contrast to the hopeful message I'd received minutes earlier, but I didn't get the impression that Glitchhikers was trying to instill a feeling of inspiration or devastation. It wasn't trying to advocate any particular message. The point was to go for a drive and take whatever I wanted away from it. Not to escape, but rather to take an unflinching look into my own mind for a while, to see what stared back and confront it head-on.
Glitchhikers is a game of introspection, one I half-played in my own head. In a world where other games (and life, frankly) are mad cacophonies of information and noise and action and aliens who'd rather fill me with hot pink murder needles than strike up a pleasant chat, I appreciated the quiet. It's hard to find time to just think these days. Rarer still is the experience that puts you in the ideal state of mind for it.
I passed a highway exit sign—a clever way to signal the game was about to end—and realized I really, really, really didn't want to leave. "Please, please, please let me stay," I whispered, nearly in tears. This place had made me feel so much better. I needed it. I wasn't ready to go back into the frightening, ugly real world yet. The air conditioning blasted on in my (real life) bedroom. It was cold.
But I had to. There'd have been no point to this bizarre, utterly wonderful journey if I didn't bring these thoughts and feelings back into the real world. I took the exit. The credits rolled. It was over.
I was sad, but I felt better than I thought I would. For some reason, it just seemed like things were looking up. Like maybe I could handle everything that was on my plate. The overwhelming hurricane slurry of fears, anxieties, and surefire losses had become bumps in the road, punches to roll with it. I just needed perspective. Some time to think.
I decided, though, that it couldn't hurt to dive back in, to gain some more perspective. So I opened up Glitchhikers a second time, and to my surprise I discovered new hikers. The game randomizes them. It's not just a single set. Eventually, however, I met that same woman from my first session again. We had the same conversation, and at the end she once again asked me, "Why are you driving?" This time I knew my answer:
"To find something." And I knew I'd find something different every time.
Glitchhikers might not be perfect (some of the dialogue exchanges are trite or heavy-handed; it's not always as profound as it thinks it is), but it was a game that came to me exactly when I needed it. There's something incredibly powerful about media's ability to do that, whether it's a game or a book or music or a TV show or whatever else. To say the words you need to hear in just the right way, in a language that's abstract and diffuse yet beautifully precise—like a dagger of insight straight to the heart. Words that are more powerful than speech or language, or maybe they're not words at all. Maybe it's just a thought, an idea, or a feeling.
Sometimes it's almost impossible to explain why these things mean so much to us—"a video game made you cry?" some might scoff—but there it is. I don't think I'll ever forget my night with Glitchhikers, no matter what road life takes me down next.
TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry (and sometimes other offbeat and/or uncomfortable subjects). It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.