On Air Pressure
This writeup assumes that you have played the game, which can be found over at Raitendo, here (click on past the jump to see the link). I highly suggest you do so prior to reading this, as it only takes about 10-25 minutes to play through multiple times (necessary to fully grasp what you’re being shown, since there are multiple endings). Also, there are major ‘spoilers’ ahead.
Played it? Good! Keep reading.
“From the second we met, she wrapped herself around my left arm and has stuck there ever since”
These words mean more than what they appear, though their significance is not understood until the very end of a specific playthrough of the game. The first time through, though? You’ll dismiss it, you won’t know it’s meaning. But there’s something to unpack there, a deeper metaphorical significance I later understood with a pang of realization.
This is about self-mutilation. I almost killed myself in that last scene.
My reaction to this realization is the same uneasy sickness that overcomes me when I realize how alive murdering people makes the protagonist of Showtime’s Dexter feel. Confusion, even, for my ability to empathize with him despite a strong moral opposition to what he’s doing. Conflict over the impossibility for me to fully conceptualize how he can go through with something like that. Fearful of the idea that one he can only feel alive through the dependency of a dangerous addiction.
Shock. That last scene, that’s the singular word that keeps that came to me. Shock.
Let’s talk about why this metaphor it was so effective for me; let’s back up for a second. My first time playing through, I felt very conflicted about the situation the game was presenting me. You start off the game with the protagonist establishing the length of your relationship with the girl, named Leigh. He’s been with her since he was a teenager. Notice, too, that the music evokes a defeatist feeling, a feeling of dejection and, well, depression.
And yet, there she is, standing in front of you with a cheerful face asking you what you want to do. Usually, being thrust into a situation en media res like this is problematic: players do not feel a connection because they’re being TOLD there is one. They haven’t been a part of the relationship or established it themselves, though. Hence games like Fable 3 and Dragon Age 2 falter with their assumption that the simple inclusion of a family or a love interest will be create a sense of attachment.
In Air Pressure though, the disconnect is in the game’s favor: the protagonist immediately establishes that he’s “not sure how I feel about her being around anymore.” He’s feeling an immense sense of detachment to the girl–which mirrors what the player feels at that point–but the length of the relationship and its intimacy up until that point make it difficult for him to break it off despite no longer having an investment in the relationship. In this way, the metaphor of the addiction as a relationship reveals its brilliance to me. Trying to break up with someone after being involved for so long is incredibly difficult, all the more exacerbated if the other party is completely oblivious to your inner conflict, if they, unlike you, seem happy with the relationship.
That dichotomy made the conflict real to me: I don’t know this girl. She seems so happy. How could I dare breaking her heart even though I know the protagonist doesn’t want to be with her anymore? So I did what is likely to happen in that situation: I pretend to be happy. I play along, for her sake, because…maybe it’s me? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with this relationship, you’re just being stupid or something? Look at her. She’s so cheerful. Even though you might’ve tried dissuading this conflict a million times before by telling yourself this, you still resolve to try to make it work this time, it can work this time. And, to boot…it’s your anniversary. Yeah, you can’t do this today, I tell myself. It’s not right. It’s never the right time to break someone’s heart, after all.
So…she asks me what I want to do. I tell her I need to go out, I need fresh air, some perspective. Try to get lost in the crowd, as the protagonist mentions. I go out, but then hear something behind me. I know exactly who it is. She’s haunting me, after all. I’m given two options: stop or carry on. I choose stop, even though I know who it is, and I know we’re about to ride that same rollercoaster again, but…how could I be so cruel?
And so…there she is again. Why did I do this? Look at her, she’s…so enthusiastic. You tell her you’re glad she’s there: the lies slip out so easily. So easily you’re not even given a choice of what to say there, but you’ve rehearsed this so many times before that this is the only natural answer, isn’t it? She asks me what’s wrong, and I let the usual facade take place: nothing is wrong. Nothing is ever wrong, can’t you see? So she says she’s glad, too. Only she’s probably actually glad, unlike you, you miserable fuck.
So, off you go, to find someplace quiet. I even tell myself I’m glad she showed up. That’s the appropriate emotion to feel in this situation, isn’t it? And yet reality rears its ugly head again. Two options arise: confess how you’re feeling, or buy ice cream. I guess I must’ve felt brave, because I choose confession. Of course…I’ve tried this before. And every time, I’m too nice to tell it like it is. I phrase it in the completely wrong way, in the way that I think will hurt her the least. Actually, it’s the method that doesn’t even remotely relay that you want to break up. “Do you think I rely on you too much?” The hell kind of question is that, you dumb fuck, how is that going to get you out of this mess?
She’s confused at the question, of course she is, it doesn’t even make sense. Aren’t we friends, she asks? Yes, I answer. Of course we are. She frowns, says I sound unsure. So I try to salvage the situation, framing it so that it slightly implies what I mean, but not enough that she actually understands what I mean. I think it might be a good idea to make some other friends, I say. More friends, or more friends instead of her, she asks? Oh shit. Look at her face, look at what you’re doing, you inhumane beast. I reassure her; I don’t want to be that asshole. More friends, darling. Why would I mean instead of you? There’s no way I’d want to get rid of you. We go back home. I convince myself I need her more than anything else.
Next day. She starts flickering…what the hell is going on here? I start feeling sick. I call out to her, and…she stops flickering. What in the world..? She jokes, you laugh. It’s sickening, really, how good you are at this. You ask her: is she happy? Yeah, she is. Of course she is. She frowns, asks you if you’re not happy…? She starts flickering again. You tell her that you are, same as always. That you want to be closer, even. Anything that promises to bridge that gap, I tell myself. She asks you if you’re sure. Yes. Yes I am. Of course I am. She smiles at you. She tells you to hold still.
You wake up in the hospital. You’ve been here before–especially likely if you’ve played the game multiple times, like I suggested. You tell yourself you’ve made the right decision after all, as always.