The End of an Era

In the absence of regular school, work, or any rites of initiation or leave-taking, I tracked my life via consoles and the games I played. So even if I couldn’t remember dates, I could say like two years after Xenogears Episode Three and I would have a better handle on things. (it helps that can track the actual dates on the Internet) I’m very thankful for that time-keeping! When I checked with my family about what they remembered (or rather, did not) I often discovered that they couldn’t remember either. And even though my sister went through a relatively normal school life, (normal compared to me that is) she cannot remember some things as well. Such are the ravages of abuse.

So apart from saving my life on multiple occasions, video games served as a timekeeper. They’ve proven quite handy in the writing of this book!

What is this era that I speak of? Namely, that of the Playstation 1, the most successful gaming console in history (don’t believe me? go look it up on Wikipedia) To me the SNES will always be the best, but that is probably a given seeing as how it is bound up in memories of the US and coming back to Singapore when things were still alright.

I probably played more games on the PS1 than any other system. This was before you could download stuff from the Net, so most of my time and money was spent going around Singapore to buy pirated games.

Ah, software piracy. Another thing I am profoundly grateful for. Why? I had little money to buy games. If I didn’t play games, the darkness would eat me alive. Do the math. I played to survive as well as to have fun. It’s all very well and good to talk about ethics if you don’t have depression and a broken home to deal with.

I dodged a lot of bullets, come to think of it. Some youths join gangs, some take drugs, some have casual sex, some do all three and more besides. I played video games.

Video games. This book could well be all about them. I think at least more than half of it IS about them. I’ve said I would be dead without them and it’s very, very true. I used to tell everyone and anyone that Everything Important In My Life I Learned from Video Games and…well, that was probably true too.

The PS1 era as I think of it lasts from around 14-19, crossing the initial occurrence of depression and ending at the tail end of the suicidal period, when I started going to see Dr Hudson. As the steady stream of PS1 games wound down, leaving only the odd Japanese dating simulation, so too did many other things. Many of my friends started to leave for other countries as university beckoned.

Where did that leave me? Staying alive, as usual. The depression had lifted somewhat but what in those days I thought was complete recovery was actually only a temporary reprieve. There would be times in which the wolf bayed at the door, and I would block it out, and it would go, (or seem to) but it was always there at the back of my mind, even if I didn’t know it myself. Medication (which I was on during that period at least part of the time) can only do so much, especially when the problems are still there.

It wasn’t all bad. I kept on telling myself that and sometimes it was actually true. The depression HAD lifted. I could think clearly again. I wasn’t actively trying to kill myself (if you have never been suicidal you do NOT know how much of a blessing that is) I did have some friends. I had my games as well, and anime, and books, and the Internet (another thing I wouldn’t be here if not for) Life was…livable? After a fashion.

At other times, it was worse. FAR worse. For starters, we were poor. It’s such a relief to be able to admit that! To write it, to say it. I’ve spent most of the last fifteen years trying to deny a simple reality. It didn’t seem that way, because we lived in a decent-sized house, and even though I was out of school, we weren’t starving. Of course there was the specter of depression (and a broken home, and abusive parents, and a sister to take care of) but we were ok…at least monetarily, weren’t we?

Not really. All I had each month was 500 Singapore dollars to pay for everything – clothes, food, therapy. Now the cost of living was pretty high in Singapore (and gets higher every year) so that is not a lot of money by any means. I didn’t have to pay rent of course, and food was usually taken care of.

The real problem was that outside of the 500 dollars (which was pretty regular) everything else was not. Take for instance buying groceries. Sometimes I would get the money to buy them. Sometimes not. If anything broke down I might get the money for it, or I might get shouted at for not being able to take care of “simple things like this”. Or I would take the money from her purse to repair the washing machine or air-conditioning first, and then get shouted at for being a thief and taking the money.

It was the uncertainty that was the problem. If you have no money, then you have no money (which by the way I can totally appreciate as a significant problem in its own right) But at least then you KNOW you have no money. You don’t need to pretend. You can tell people “hey, I have no money” (which you might feel uncomfortable or ashamed of) but it’s still a fact.

The temptation to just steal was there on more than one occasion, but I never did it. Why – was I just too much of a Good Boy? I think my sense of right and wrong guided me even in times like this. All the Arthurian legends I used to read as a kid, the samurai whom I later learned about (and tried my best to emulate) Video games and books, ever the guardians of my soul. In later years I became rather good at manipulating people (mainly so they would stop asking me awkward questions about my non-existent studies and work) and I think it’s good that my moral code stopped me from becoming a conman. (or worse!)

People have told me that 500 bucks a month is a pretty decent allowance. They would be right if you didn’t factor in the fact I needed to pay for my visits to Psycare out of that as well. My mom once told me that “500 dollars would have been plenty if you didn’t need to see a shrink!” Which is like telling a beggar “you would be a rich man if only you didn’t need to eat or drink or buy clothes! What a vagrant!”

I would sometimes get money for that from my Dad. Not always, because he was out of work a lot of the time, and when he did have work it wasn’t steady. Plus I was still combating Mum’s poison and I didn’t even know I wanted to accept money most of the time.

Mum? You’re…joking right? Mrs Psychology-Is-Useless-My-Kids-Are-Weak-Willed-Saps-Who-Need-To-See-A Shrink? I think I got a few thousand from her once and was told never to ask for any more money to see a doctor ever. Oh and did I mention I had to pay for my medication out of that as well? The money was gone within the year.

That’s the thing with living with abusive parents. It is not safe and it’s made more dangerous by the times when it’s actually safe. You can’t rely on things. Will she scream at us today or won’t she? Are we the apple of her eye or stones around her neck? You can’t tell. Most abused children become excellent at psychoanalysis and reading others’ emotions (the ones that don’t commit suicide or become drug addicts that is) because it’s a necessary survival skill.

This was to be the reality of life for a long time. I had some savings (basically money that my parents gave me when I was younger and before all this happened) and what with Christmas and birthday presents it amounted to around 10,000. I asked for money almost every Christmas and every birthday. I hung on to this for dear life. My relatives would give me Chinese New Year money and it would all go into that account.

Washing machines and airconditioners had to be fixed, groceries had to be bought, games didn’t grow on trees. The money had to be stretched and stretch it I did. Rationally I knew that if I spent a hundred or so here and there it wouldn’t be a matter of life or death – but during those years, EVERYTHING was a matter of life and death! The washing machine breaks down, panic. Mom flies into a rage and I have to do something about it. Dad comes and wrings his hands ineffectually. Repeat and rinse, add some relapses into the mix and you have a recipe for unhappiness on a major scale.

The fear of not having enough money (and not being able to make it) dogged me for a long, long time, and even now part of me can’t believe that I am writing about it in the past tense. Those two numbers dominated most of my teenage life and young adulthood. 10,000 for safety (in case anything happens) and 500 per month. Whenever I bought anything for myself I could feel the threat of the poorhouse on my back. My father’s own skinflint nature didn’t make it any easier. I picked up a lot of bad habits from him that I would need therapy to deal with as well.

So my family (and life) was totally out of control and utterly dysfunctional…but I didn’t know that. The Family Story was that I had Depression and that I was Ill and that once I Got Better I would be able to Go To School and/or Work. That was the reality back then and we lived with it. We would live with it for quite some time.

But back to games for a while.

Since I’m mentioning the PS1 I have to mention the Sega Saturn as well. Yes, I bought one (and man did I feel guilty about it at that time…I was the only one who had not one but TWO gaming consoles, which meant that obviously I was a Lazy Good-for-Nothing that just played games!) and it was pretty good. This is going to come as absolutely no surprise to you by now, but I only really bought a Saturn to play – you guessed it – Evangelion : 2nd Impression.

Which actually wasn’t that good a game. (actually most EVA games didn’t hold a candle to the series…which is only to be expected.) The Saturn was never as successful as the Playstation 1, but it had it fair share of good games. The Saturn also had a better 2D engine, so there were more anime games on it…except that most anime games sucked. Oh well.

There was Sakura Taisen…oh man, I could write a whole chapter about Sakura Taisen. I’m going to stop myself before I do. If Everything Important In My Life I Learned from Video Games, then Everything I Learnt About Girls I learnt from Sakura Taisen.

No, seriously. I feel Sakura Taisen is unique among dating simulations because some real-life females actually like the series as well. Which means that the girls are actually well-written and not caricatures.

I learnt a lot about the female of the species from observing their reactions and personalities. Sumire Kanzaki, full of pride and desirous of attention. Sakura Shinguuchi, resolute and determined but…sometimes rather petty. Kirishima Kanna, muscle-bound big sister with an even bigger heart who nevertheless also had a sensitive side. The list goes on (the series has more than 20 females!) but I really did gain and learn a lot from playing it.

Not to mention that the gameplay was good as well…and the music! Sakura Taisen has music from all over the world, just like its characters. It has everything from opera to rock to showtunes to samba. To this day Kouhei Tanaka remains my favorite composer of all time.

The Saturn was never really that big an impact of my life, and so Sakura Taisen is the only game I’ll mention on it. There were other greats – Radiant Silvergun and Panzer Dragoon Saga come to mind – but no time and space.

Somewhere around this time I had my 18th birthday. As you might expect, there were no friends, no parties, not much of anything. About all I can remember is taking anti-depressants and trying not to kill myself. Wow, what a way to celebrate coming-of-age, huh? Well in some ways I had come of age (unwillingly) many years before.

Much as I would love to talk about each and every game that impacted my life, there just wouldn’t be enough space. I would have to write several more books for that. However I can’t just let the PS1 era end without at least talking about SOME of the greats.

Der Langrisser was one of those games I always dreamt about playing back in the days when I didn’t know Japanese. I loved its predecessor (Langrisser, localized as Warsong for the Genesis) and had wanted to play the sequel for years. Now that I could finally at least partially comprehend what were previously only funny squiggles on-screen I played the heck out of it. It was even better than Warsong, with great gameplay, awesome music and some of the hottest women in gaming. (especially Sherry…though her outfit is beyond indecent)

There was Lunar : Eternal Blue. To a diehard romantic like myself this game was a dream come true. Once again it hit the trifecta – story, music and gameplay. And let’s not forget the romance. I’ve always found the ending of this game one of the most touching ever – Hiro saves the world, travels everywhere seeing what he has saved, and then at the end, gives it all up for his lady love. Warms the cockles of my heart every time.

There was Xenogears, the first game I ever tried my hand at translating completely (and failed miserably…I didn’t even know the word for church at that time. Quite an embarrassment!) At that time I thought given it’s highly religious nature it quite a miracle it was even localized. I wouldn’t say I loved it to death but I liked its philosophical depth and spiritual inquiry.

I was very taken with Valkyrie Profile for a time. I’ve always loved strong, independent women (in and out of games) and Lenneth Valkuria fit that to a tee. I liked the detailed art and how Norse mythology was incorporated into the story – plus the attacks were really cool. This was actually how I met one of my girlfriends…but I’ll get to that in time.

And of course, Super Robot Wars.

I also hated FF7. Why am I even mentioning this? Well it’s actually more important than it seems. Given how much I loved FF6 I thought FF7 would be amazing but it…wasn’t. Of course this was also directly after I watched EVA so it thought it really sucked compared to EVA – a rather unfair comparison to make to be honest.

I really went quite nuts about how much I disliked FF7 (probably because of everything in the background at that time and) and I only let go of that hatred when…you’ll see.

The end of the PS1 era was also essentially the end of my teenage – not that it was much of one. Sure, the years passed but there was no actual teenage to speak of, just holding down the fort and trying not to go nuts. No real rebellion, (though I tried!) just a lot of pain.

If there was a song to sum it all up, it would be Resistance Line, from Wild Arms 2.

A thousand red shadows sliced at my breast even as I slashed back at them. Pushing back at everything with all I had so that I could remain who I was when I was not sure of who that might be. I stayed alive for my family, for those that I loved, away from that cliff of despair, even as they seemed to push me to the edge.

Like the song says, everyone hides pain in their heart, and no one really wants to hurt anyone else. But I had something important that I wanted to protect, and that I wanted to return to. In brandishing my fury to do so, I lost a kindness and a gentleness that I would only regain, much, much later. When we resist with such intensity, we may end up pushing back against ourselves as well…but at that time, I lived in the way that I did because that was all that I had.

When I remember my teenage I also can’t help but remember Camille Bidan from Zeta Gundam, brilliant blue-haired rebellious youth filled with resentment and anger and most of all, a need to resist everything forced on him. The hypocritical adults who waged senseless wars. The stupidity of it all. And yet the stars that called to the spirit within. That was me all over again. (minus the giant robot and the nail-biting)

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