Our weekly series continues, as I take a look back at some of the games I played during the site’s first few years. If you’ve missed any of the previous pieces, go here for the first, or find them all here.

Hopefully if you’ve read this far you’ve enjoyed these articles. Part four is about the time I played Deus Ex. Unlike all of the previous titles covered in this series, it’s not a game that I reviewed for FFG, and I won’t be revisiting much of my experience in this piece (for reasons that will become apparent). So if you’re expecting nostalgic ramblings about Walton Simons et al, you won’t find them here (although we sort have already done that).

Also I should warn you that there’s quite a lot of personal stuff in here, a lot more than there is about Deus Ex. Really this bit should be called “When I got into a bit of a serious pickle and didn’t know how to get out of it or what to do at all” but that’s not really very catchy. I know that this kind of thing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and if it doesn’t sound like yours, feel free to give it a miss.

I promise, though, that there is a point to sharing this story with you, and it’s one that’s relevant to the site history. Hopefully all will become apparent by the time part five is done.

wheniplayeddeusextitle

Do you remember the first time you played Deus Ex? I don’t, not really. In a manner consistent with my purchasing habits over the years, I’d ignored it at release, briefly became excited when it was out on budget and rushed out to buy it, before playing for about 15 minutes (or however long it took to get stuck on the tutorial level) and consigning the box to the Cupboard of Shame where all other “games I really should come back to one day” resided. Deep down I don’t think I ever really thought I’d actually get around to it. Five years later, though, I did.

It was 2006, and I was 25 years old. I’d just started a new job, about which I was very excited, and had moved into a flat with my girlfriend (now wife) and best friend (later the best man at my wedding). Somehow, by the summer of that year, I had gotten myself into a bit of a state. You’ll forgive me for using such a colloquial turn of phrase, and I appreciate that it’s probably not the correct way to talk about such things, but I honestly can’t think of a better way to sum up how I was feeling, other than to say that I thought I was going mad.

I’m pretty sure the problems started at work: the job wasn’t really working out quite as I’d hoped, and my only coping mechanism was simply to try harder and put more hours in. Such a strategy only really leads to one place: eventually, you’ll have given everything you have only to find that it’s still not good enough. When you’re relatively young, with little experience to fall back on, the idea that you might not be able to cope with something as fundamental as work can turn into a fear that you just might not be able to cope with life. I started to wonder, as my dreadful ex-Army driving instructor had once said to me (before he was fired by my parents): was I just one of those people who found things more difficult than everyone else?

wheniplayeddeusex4

I wasn’t getting much sleep. Sometimes I was deliberately and actively avoiding it, because I was dreading the thought of the next day, and going to bed would only hasten its arrival. At other points, I desperately craved rest, only for my efforts to be undermined by heightened and unspecified anxiety that caused me to lie awake in a state of moderate panic, punctuated occasionally by the sense that some imagined noise or other (most usually, a giant air conditioning unit), and not my own whirring brain, was the source of my restlessness.

I tried to keep it together in front of other people, and outwardly, compared with what was going on in my head, I probably seemed relatively normal (although there was the occasional moment of erratic behaviour). Work wasn’t getting any easier, though, and my frazzled state of mind only made things worse. After about three or four months, the last straw came when I accidentally sent an important work-related parcel to the wrong address, and found myself hammering on the door of a boarded-up house in a not particularly nice area of North London in an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve it.

I’d always been a fairly anxious youth, and had a brief but troubling brush with depression a few years previously, which I’d dismissed as a one-off and based on a particular set of circumstances (finishing university, not having a job, being miles away from everyone I knew). My attitude towards illness was also that, to an extent, combating it was a case of mind over matter. Anything obvious, like a physical injury, was acceptable, but when it came to coughs, colds and generally feeling squiffy, my view was that you sort of had to dust yourself off and get on with it as best you could.

wheniplayeddeusex1

However, even I recognised that this had all been going on for far too long and was now getting rather serious, and so I did what you’re supposed to do in such situations and went to my GP for help. In turn, he did what I guess they’re supposed to do in such situations: listen patiently for a few minutes, pass over a box of tissues when the inevitable sobbing starts, and send you on your way with a sick note and a prescription.

It was official: I was ill. There was a brief sense of relief that it had all been confirmed by a medical professional, whose advice was that I was not to go to work and should instead stay at home in order to recover. Relief soon turned to panic again: how, exactly, was I supposed to get better? I was fortunate to be living with two people who really cared about me, and they provided as much support as they could. But seeing as they both found work to be generally ok, they were getting on with their jobs, and lives, during the day. An initial two weeks at home, alone, seemed like an awfully long time.

I’d never really had more than a single day off sick before, and usually I spent the majority of the time wondering whether I really had been ill enough to justify a day off work: how many times had I sneezed since 9am? How often had I dashed to the toilet since lunch? Should I have eaten lunch at all if I was really ill? If such transparently illogical thought processes made little sense when applied to physical illnesses, they certainly didn’t work for this particular predicament. Frankly, anything other than staying in bed crying all day, every day, seemed unacceptable: if at any point this state of affairs was not maintained, I was no longer unwell and should immediately report back to the office. I therefore reasoned that trying to feel better was less important than reassuring myself that I was ill, and refused to consider any activity that might even be vaguely helpful.

wheniplayeddeusex2

(On that subject, the doctor had suggested eating a banana and going for a run, which was fair enough I guess, but you’d still have to eat a shitload of bananas and really enjoy jogging to fill one day, let alone two weeks. I didn’t much care for either, but followed this advice as best I could, seeing as it took roughly half an hour and I didn’t have anything better to do.)

Games were of course an option but, bearing in mind everything I’ve already said, the concept of not being able to work but ok to play a computer game seemed absolutely ludicrous (you could imagine the Daily Mail headlines). No matter how determined I was to lead a largely pitiful existence, though, alternating between two main tasks of lying motionless in bed and watching crap daytime TV on the sofa (it was all downhill after early-morning repeats of Knight Rider on Bravo), with the odd break for a banana and a half-hearted jog, I was soon ready to heed the advice of my increasingly concerned housemates and consider doing something that might actually contribute to my recovery.

I’m not certain, but I don’t think I could have just played any game. I’m not sure my mind could have squared the circle of being off from work and spending the day with a mindless shooter or something I’d usually play, like the latest PES. It sort of had to be big enough and different enough for my brain to accept it as a worthwhile activity – less of a game, and more of a project – and start doing something other than incessantly whizzing the same unhelpful thoughts around my head. I had increasingly become used to playing the kind of thing you could fit into spare bits of evenings and weekends, but now I needed something that could fill some serious time.

wheniplayeddeusex6

I dug out my copy of Deus Ex, and gave it another go. Surprisingly, given that I’d put it down so easily before, it fitted the bill. (I dimly recall being advised by someone – possibly Stoo – to just skip the tutorial and get on with the missions). Treating it as a project, making steady progress each day, with completion as the ultimate goal, gave me something to work towards and instilled a sense of routine that was very helpful. I started to get up in the morning, wash, get dressed, eat proper meals, and generally act more like a normal human being. The multi-layered nature of the game, and the fact that it wasn’t my usual fare, somehow made it acceptable to play without feeling guilty. It was a dense and complex distraction.

To say it was enjoyable, though, would be a significant stretch: my head was so full of fog at the time, even some of the most pertinent details of the plot remain a little muddy. I wasn’t at my most productive in terms of FFG stuff at this point, but I think under other circumstances I might have tried to pay a bit more attention to what was happening in order to put something together for the site. Later, when I was feeling a bit better, I started to regret the fact that I’d somehow managed to actually get to the end of this game that everyone loved without having anything to show for it, so I wrote a brief second opinion that was pretty light on detail and basically just amounted to, “this is great, like everyone says”.

Clearly, playing Deux Ex wasn’t a magic wand that made all my worries go away, and I’m not suggesting otherwise. Everything that was wrong at work was still there waiting for me to resolve when I returned. Going back and tackling those problems was hard: attempting to overcome the damage caused by the whole episode was even harder. But at some point in that gradual process of recovery, playing Deus Ex had helped. I’ve since read other stories about the potentially restorative powers of playing games under difficult circumstances, and they certainly resonate with me.

wheniplayeddeusex5

Deus Ex itself, though, is now a bit of a strange one to recall. Obviously, for many people it is one of the best games of all time, and for them excited discussion of all the best bits brings back great feelings and recollections of the first time they played. It’s not that to think back or even replay the game brings back painful memories (I had a bit of a go a few years ago), more that I don’t really have much in the way of memories at all. It would be neater for this piece if I could pull something out, even the tiniest detail, from the game that somehow related to my situation: perhaps how I desperately wanted a can of Fanta one day but, having dragged myself to the shop, they only had 7-Up (although that would perhaps have been too neat). But I can’t.

I guess I’ll never quite be able to have the same fondness and reverence for Deus Ex that so many others share. But on the other hand, from a practical point of view it possibly had a more positive effect on my life than any other game. And ultimately, the whole experience gave me cause to re-evaluate a few things. (We’ll get onto that next week.)

Next time: When I played…Covert Action

Serious note: Obviously, I have no relevant specialist knowledge relating to mental health issues. If you find you’re struggling, you should contact someone who does, like your doctor.

In the UK, charities such as Mind (http://www.mind.org.uk), or the Samaritans (http://www.samaritans.orgcan also help.