One house. One newly wed couple. One television. Unless you find some sort of common ground — quickly — this is the kind of thing that can break marriages. At the very least it’s the starting point for the definition of boundaries. Who rules the roost, who wears the pants? Often clichés are clichés for a reason, particularly when it comes to relationships. Particularly when it comes to control of the television.
My new wife and I lived in the pokiest flat imaginable. We barely had space for a second television, let alone the money. She worked hard, searching for jobs in a competitive market, but unwound after a tough day by completely spacing out in front of the television.
I play video games — and therein lies the issue, the spousal battleground. Of course, there are TV shows I’ll watch, but more often I’ll simply tolerate them. I can never shake the feeling that whilst watching TV I’m just wasting my time. With video games there are achievements to be had — rewards. With video games, I’m doing something.
But tragically, my wife isn’t one of those rare treasures who are happy to simply watch others play.
“BORING!” she’ll say loudly, before making a reach for the remote. Again, there are games she’ll play, but they’re few and far between -– and predicting precisely which games she’ll enjoy is hardly a precise science.
But here’s the thing — once you’ve found a game my wife enjoys, she’ll play obsessively. 120 hours spent on both Pikmin 1 and Pikmin 2. I have no idea how or when she began playing. The Sims 2 –- several hundred hours under her belt — that one was a little more predictable I suppose. But years of refusing to play shooters, before falling completely in love with Portal? That came out of left field.
“Try this,” I say.
“Ugh,” she groans audibly, “FINE!”
I’m painting a pretty harsh picture of my gorgeous wife, but this is the precise noise she makes whenever I try to introduce her to a new video game. It’s a delicate courtship period, and the first five minutes is critical.
The game I am attempting to foist upon my wife was PixelJunk Monsters, a game I’d been already spent two hours in the office playing for review. I’ve just spent the last hour playing at home. It’s the kind of simple pleasure that I feel compelled to share.
“There are all these monsters trying to eat your babies,” I explain, “and you build towers on the tree so you can kill them and save your babies.”
“That’s stupid,” she says, but she’s still holding the controller, and has now progressed onto the next level. This is a good sign.
Then I showed her the co-operative mode — a mode in which we could, in the weirdest of ways prepare for parenthood. A parenthood in which we, together, would transform trees into towers, slaughter waves of monsters walking on a pre-determined path, collect money from their corpses and redistribute the resources so we can do it all over again -– wave after wave. All to save our precious babies. Our babies.
It clicked. It was over. She was obsessed. We were obsessed.
For the next month we played PixelJunk Monsters together, almost religiously, every day — existing without the need for normal communication. We spoke our own language, a fragmented splatter of words adapted to make our playing more efficient. Efficiency was all-important.
– You collect the money.
– Now hurry up and build a laser. BUILD THE LASER!
– Should I build it here?
– No, no, no! Build it up there! Hurry up! The bats are coming!
– Should we get rid of the fire?
– No we need the fire for the fire guys…
– USE THE BEANS! USE THE BEANS ON THE CANNONS!
– YOU DANCE WHILE I USE THE BEANS! THEN YOU COLLECT THE MONEY! DANCE!
Some co-op games are barely co-operative. There’s hardly any need for co-operation at all, you both shoot at things — that’s it. In PixelJunk Monsters, in order to complete levels perfectly, a high level of communication and planning was required.
And no level exemplified that more than ‘Treeless Forest’ –- a level that would push our communication skills, and our marriage to breaking point.
‘Treeless Forest’ was not completely treeless. It had four trees, four points from which we could build defences. This meant that organisation was utterly paramount. In other levels it was possible to build haphazardly and adapt to situations as they came — you could even complete levels perfectly this way if you were smart.
Not in ‘Treeless Forest’.
The limited trees in ‘Treeless Forest’ meant that, constantly, as the waves of monsters attacking your babies changed, we would have to destroy towers and rebuild different types to adjust, using a small amount of resources along the way. You couldn’t simply level up specific towers to breaking point and hope they would kill all the monsters, because different monsters had different weak points. That’s the nature of PixelJunk Monsters — that’s where strategy comes from.
We had played ‘Treeless Forest’, at my rough estimate, probably about 30 times. We’d either completely failed the level, or scrambled to the finish with our precious babies massacred. Early on we’d come to realise that a precise strategy was required, we had just consistently failed to strike that precious balance.
Then, it happened.
We ran the level with military precision. We built a specific set of towers at very precise times. We danced like our lives depended on it. We spent out money wisely. We used our beans frugally. We destroyed our precious towers when required — we made sacrifices. And when the time came, as the last wave of monsters was put to the sword via the the strength of our fully levelled up Mortar Cannons, we felt a common sense of achievement as strong as any I’ve experienced since. Ever.
It was a strange time. We were newly married, we lived in a pokey one-bedroom flat. We existed solely on one wage, and it was a meagre one, but somehow we managed to make it through. Monsters don’t leave behind magic beans and money in real life — if only! But if we could get through the ‘Treeless Forest’ together, through hard work, planning, and compromise, we could probably get through anything.
And we could definitely learn to share one single television.