This is my wrap-up for Wait for Me, a journaling game that recent played. An explanation, and my first entry, is here. Oh, and these posts are organized into a series now. You can see the post series page here.
(This is a wrap-up post with my thoughts on the game, rather than a post made as part of the game.)
So, first things first: I feel a little bad that my wrap-up has taken almost two weeks to post. It’s been a busy two weeks, though—a busy semester, really, and that’s why my posts slowed in frequency as I played through this game.
What can I say? I loved Wait for Me. I’m not sure I recommend my own playthrough as particularly representative of the game, of course: I treated the prompts as cues for a sort of ongoing mini-fiction about time travel, and built up a kind of meta-narrative about how time travel involving visits to other moments in one’s own life might be a constant element in a person’s life without realizing it. (If you’re thinking this could be a metaphor for how memory shapes who we are, then yes, that’s what I was thinking.)
Anyway, I found a lot of other people’s posted playthroughs online inspiring and better indicative of the apparently intended playstyle, and I’d recommend searching the hashtag #WaitForMeRPG if you’d like to see those.
The game is absolutely lovely, which is not to say breezy. Some bits are breezy, but it’s a game about exploring your own past. While the creators made clear—more than once, if I remember correctly—that the game isn’t intended as therapy, it does prompt one to look at a handful of moments in one’s own past, and some of them are explicitly meant to be tough moments. Of course there’s guidance to step back if the experience crosses over into something more difficult or painful, and the design was clearly built to alternate between the more challenging exercises and the more light and fun or nostalgic ones, but it’s clearly part of the design intent that players engage with the ups and downs of their own pasts, and how they look to one from the vantage point of hindsight.
I think the pacing of the ups and the downs is pretty effective, even though for me it worked out that even the more soothing moments sometimes had a barb in the tail, and a lot of the more difficult ones felt… well, a little less difficult in contrast to stuff I’d been through since (not to mention the nightmare that 2020 has been). I know nostalgia rightly gets a bad rap, but for me there the etymology of the word comes to mind: return/home + pain. Not a deadly pain, necessarily; it can be a sweet pain, and still be authentic pain.
An example: in one installment, I visited a day that has been on my mind for years now, when my dad and I made pizzas from a premixed kit and ate them for dinner. I don’t remember my sisters being around, don’t remember anything much about the day, but I do remember the taste of the pizzas, and how loved I felt when we made them together. (I’ve made pizzas with my son, in part as something I was trying to carry forward about that vaguely-remembered day, but being even pickier about food than I am, he refuses to eat them.)
Given that this incident—making pizzas with my dad—has been on my mind so much since I became a dad myself, it’s interesting that I learned new things about that memory when revisiting it in the game. I mean, I already knew I appreciated it, that it’s been a cherished (if fuzzy) memory. But I saw it from another vantage point, playing Wait for Me: not my Dad’s point of view, and not the point of view of child-me, but the point of view of myself, my present self, as a third-party observer. I could see how important and wonderful that day was for me. I could see how it was probably, to my dad, just an easy dinner that he made with me to keep my busy and give me something to do until dinner, not a moment he somehow imagined would live on for decades and decades in my brain, a touchstone of our relationship.
And yet there’s something even more precious to me about that day, having thought about it from more vantage points now. In some way, I found a new way to feel about that moment, about my feelings about that day, in a way that’s difficult to express, but which felt very meaningful and welcome to me. Maybe it’s this year—2020, a mess of a year, littered with so many losses to mourn—but I kind of accepted the lostness of these moments in time, the fact that they live in me and, now, in me alone, and that they will be lost to the winds eventually, but that they were real, that they mattered when they happened more than anyone realized at the time.
There’s a fair amount of times where one is prompted to give advice to oneself. This is something I was somewhat leery about thinking about: I’ve made perhaps more mistakes than the average person in life, and once you wade into giving your past self advice, well… it becomes ever-clearer how much better one could have done, with support and good advice and, yeah, the benefit of future hindsight. It’s important to honor the way that we muddle through life, and for me, giving advice somehow feels a little like repudiating past mistakes. Except… this is a journaling game, and when you step back from it, the act of giving advice is also the act of reconnecting with the self who needed it (and maybe never got it) in the first place. There’s a kind of empathy that this game therefore evokes, where you’re not just observing your past self, but also engaging with your past self with the empathic benefit of hindsight. Realistically, going back in time and saying, “Don’t go through with that!” probably wouldn’t help, but going back in time and embracing the scared kid who thought they had to go through it, and who is going to have to march long and hard to make their way back out of it, is difficult to do with attentive, focused empathy, but that’s something this game really does facilitate. That said, it eventually becomes clear that giving oneself advice is a fluid, funny thing: you ultimately end up wondering what advice your future self would give, a question that it turns out the designers understand will cross players’ minds from time to time.
When I was younger, I had a strange sense of my future self being a different person from my current self. At times, I was curious to see what he would be like, and that times I was resentful of him. After all, human beings are in some sense autophagic: the process of becoming their present selves involves, to some degree, consuming their past selves. This is especially true in earlier childhood, but it’s also true in another way: we tend to reduce our past self to a wireframe versions of a person, their blind spots and misapprehensions and confusions and passions all abstracted in some sense. Opening the door to those past selves can be difficult, especially the more vulnerable, ignorant, or helpless ones. This is why we do this kind of thing in therapy: it provides an interesting framework for playfully engaging with those past selves safely and with a specific purpose.
And here I am, having to reiterate: Wait for Me isn’t therapy.
But it’s a game about engaging with your past as a human being, and… human life involves a certain amount of pain and suffering, as well as a certain amount of joy. Wait For Me provides a kind of framework for engaging with your own past—a set of rules, a somewhat unspoken purpose—and it directs you to engage with some specific moments of a type that most people have. You know what else does that? Stories.
As I played, I never once thought of the parallels with two films:
But for me, I think playing Wait for Me approximated my experience of those narratives. (Or, even more than The Arrival, the Ted Chiang short story it was based on, “Story of Your Life,” which is available in this collection.)
Which raises questions about “fun.”
So Is It Fun?
“So,” I’m sure people are wondering, “This all sounds kind of profound and serious. Is Wait for Me is fun? I mean, it’s a journaling game after all.”
A decade ago, I commented to an acquaintance about steampunk that, while I could understand the allure of fun costuming and zeppelins, I thought Charlie Stross was right in pointing out that mainstream steampunk pretty much refused to engage critically with any of the history it supposedly drew upon: the horrors of Victorian culture and of the British Empire. That I thought mostly if Steampunk didn’t intelligently engage all of that, it was doomed to be shallow and not very interesting to me.
This acquaintance responded with one of the least helpful possible responses: “Oh, you just don’t like fun!”
My point is, I suppose, that it depends on your definition of fun.
Personally, I do like fun. I just like my fun to be chewier. As one famous brewer commented, human beings aren’t born craving bitter flavors: they develop it as they grow up. That doesn’t mean they stop taking pleasure in sweets, but they gain a capacity to enjoy and relish a more nuanced combination of flavors as they mature. It’s the same way with fun: the amount of challenge, complexity, and even sorrow that can be part of a fun experience grows as one becomes older and more mature.
That’s what comes to mind for me when I think about this game: it’s not merely fun, in the peppermint candies simply “taste good”; instead, it’s fun in a way that is also sometimes difficult or emotionally (or intellectually) challenging. I love that, and I think it’s exactly what I needed this year, a year when so many of the most available ways to have “fun” have involved shutting off or shutting down one’s brain—bingeing Netflix, overdosing on social media, that kind of thing.
It’s not that Wait for Me is necessarily super-serious, mind you: the tone depends on what you do with it, and you’re in control. That works. But for me, one of the attractions of the game was that it involves revisiting one’s own past. I’m someone who’s spent a lot of time learning how not to think too much about one’s own past… or, rather, learning to reduce the amount of time I think about it. But I also found that this game was a vehicle for thinking really differently about one’s own past: being able to take distance from it, to reflexively observe it from outside myself, to think about whether I could (or would want to) change it…
Which is to say that as I played, I made the decision to play have fun in a way that seriously challenged myself. I found myself fascinated by the experience of literally playing a game with my own past, and spent a lot of time thinking about all kinds of questions that came up for me regarding how to feel about this. If you play, you may pause and find yourself wondering whether you’re being sufficiently respectful of your own past, or the people in it, or asking, “What does it mean to create a fantastical space in which I can engage with my past selves, and maybe change how my life turned out?”
If you want a light experience, I guess you can likely do that; but I wanted a meatier one, involving some radical honesty and discomfort and surprise, and Wait For Me more than kept up with me. A song that came to mind for me every once in a while was the incredibly-titled Astor Piazzola’s “Three Minutes Alone With the Truth”, because that’s what this game can challenge you to do: spend a few minutes alone with the truth of this or that remembered moment from some point in your own life.
So, yes, I had fun, even if it also sometimes left me filled with longing, wistful or even teary-eyed for the presence of people and places I’ll never see again. In a way, it even opened up some doors inside me, and more moments that I’d forgotten completely have bubbled up since I finished playing. Most vividly, I’ve begun to remember friends: Sean Strong, a boy I was friends with in Truro, Nova Scotia. Victor, a boy I apparently befriended in La Ronge, Saskatchewan. Playing Contra and Super Mario Brothers with Kyle and Brian during sleepovers at Brian’s house. (May he rest in peace: I ran across that while writing this. It’s… a bit of a shock.) I’ve begun to remember mistakes, too—more than I care to talk about here.
But yeah, it was definitely fun, and more than that, I found it meaningful. Or, rather, it was that kind of fun that is fun because it’s a rich, meaningful experience, a journey and a challenge to the player.
Anyway, if you’re interested, Wait For Me is supposed to be released on Jeeyon Shim’s itch.io page at some point soon. I strongly recommend the game: the experience of playing the game was profound, challenging, powerful, surprising, and yes, fun. For me, it was an introduction to a whole different kind of play I’ve never experienced before, and one of the nicest surprises of 2020.