“Maybe you don’t know what the nights are like for people who can’t sleep,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Book of Hours. I’ve fought with insomnia as long as I can remember. Rilke’s line here has always struck me as the best description I’ve read of the experience.
Trying to force myself to sleep is an anxious process, one that builds up in my chest over time as I watch the minutes highlighted in bright red on my alarm clock bleed into hours. I become increasingly afraid of how I’m going to make it through the following day, trying to grasp at words through a thick fog of exhaustion.
Rilke wrote those lines at the very beginning of the 20th century. I’ve often wondered how an artist like him would have coped with the dizzying overstimulation of modern life — the overwhelming proliferation of bright and shiny things to seize your attention and keep your mind spinning on its virtual treadmill for another few hours before it’s able to wind down and finally slouch towards something resembling peacefulness and calm.
At least, that’s how it’s always worked for me. I’m one of those people who’s tried almost every quack medicinal approach and touchy-feely lifehacking method to make falling asleep as painless a process as can be. Yoga, exercise, white noise, music, tea, booze, drugs, none of them work. Turning off screens in favour or reading before in bed just manages to get my mind racing anew — albeit in a slightly different way. And video games only make matters worse. Trying to shoot a quick batch of nazis or space aliens before calling it a night inevitable leads to several more rounds of shooting nazis, followed by more frantic tossing and turning in bed afterwards. Playing more soothing games like Rymdkapsel didn’t change much about that equation.
I assumed video games were part of the problem, in other words. They were yet another enemy of sleep that was helping keep me revved up far longer than I wanted to, making the next morning a sluggish process of getting the gears in my head to start turning again.
But then I started playing Tomodachi Life a few weeks ago, and Nintendo’s new mobile sim game did something that surprised me. I’d log on at night to check in on the state of my Miis before going to bed, only to find that most of them had already called it a night long before I had.
The ones who didn’t paced around frenetically, chirping phrases like “I’m staying up late tonight!” or “I’m not tired at all” whenever I clicked on the windows of their apartments — still lit up brightly despite the dark blue tone cast over the rest of the island. The Mii I created for myself is a chirpy little fellow named YanYan, and he always seemed to be in the latter group when I’d check in. Usually, he was just pacing back and forth in his apartment. One time, I found him sprinting back and forth on the beach late at night. When I called him back to his home, he looked out at me with inquisitively large eyes and asked, “What’s up?” as if nothing was the matter.
Slowly, I got him to change in the ways I couldn’t. As he leveled up, I gave him exercise equipment, books, and manuals for yoga. Instead of seeing him sprint across the beach, I’d stop by his apartment and see him stretching out in some meditative stance.
YanYan started to mellow out. He became friends with the other residents in Yanville island. He got a girlfriend. One night, Anya proposed to him at a fancy restaurant. They were sitting right by the windows overlooking all of Yanville island. YanYan was wearing a full-body cat suit. He looked happy. The two of them honeymooned in China.
I looked into the Yanville apartment complex last night to check in on everybody last night, and saw that YanYan and Anya were both sleeping at their new home in the suburbs. They both looked happy and peaceful, but I wanted to talk to YanYan so I pressed the “call” button to try and get his attention anyway. The game informed me that he was so deeply asleep that he didn’t even hear it.
Unlike nearly every other game I’ve played, Tomodachi Life doesn’t just sit there, waiting for your command. The lives of all the little Miis you’ve created continue whether or not you decide to drop in on them. They wake up in the morning unbidden, and they go to bed without asking your permission.
As I’ve sat there impatiently watching the little “Z” bubbles floating up from my Mii’s head, I’ve started to realise I’d much rather join him than try to nudge him back into action. So I did. Or I tried to, at least. Slowly, it’s starting to work.
This morning on the subway, I dragged the cursor over a tiny little cup of coffee to hand to him. He gobbled it up quickly, paused a moment, then did a little dance.
“He loved it!” the game reported back. My Mii’s head bobbed happily in anticipation of the day to come.
Mine did too.