Thursday, April 18

Can a video game be as good for my marriage as family therapy? Not this one | Games

I don’t like co-operative gaming. I am too much of a control freak to let another player screw up my good work. But I really wanted to try It Takes Two because, first, it was in every single top game of 2021 list and, second, the game is about a couple on the verge of divorce who must find a way to work together. And a little over a year ago, my wife and I were in the same situation.

In It Takes Two, the spouses become tiny dolls who must work their way through their suddenly gigantic house, solving puzzles to reunite with their weeping daughter. In real life, we did family therapy.

Family therapy is great. Everyone sits in a room and says how bad their life is because of Dad. In our case, they were right. I had switched roles with my wife to become the worst stay-at-home parent ever. Stay-at-home parents are the ones who have to problem-solve. I am quick at solving problems but even quicker to get across when people don’t accept the solution I offer. One therapist said it could be Asperger’s. Another said it was inherited Scottish Dad DNA: we like to shout problems into submission. Others closer to me suggested I was just arrogant.

There is no gray area with me. Things are black or white, right or wrong. This is why I like platform games: there is only one solution. I remember playing Manic Miner at 10 years old, and I would just see the path and timing of jumps appear, like pure maths in A Beautiful Mind. But trying to explain that to someone else is a nightmare.

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Family therapy made me realize all this and made me a better person, I thought. What better way to prove that than by playing this game with Phoebe, a black belt at Crash Bandicoot?

For me, the most challenging thing about the first couple of levels was the world’s most irritating character, a talking book. Don’t ask. For my wife, the only thing more irritating than this patronizing, monologuing self-help guide was me. Early in the game a broken hammer asks for help because the wife in the game, May, has been neglecting the tools. “That’s the same problem as our marriage,” I chirped. “If only you’d pay more attention to my tool.”

GamesMaster fans found my shtick hilarious on TV for six seasons in the 90s but my wife has had to suffer this childishness for 26 years.

The world’s most irritating character … a talking book in It Takes Two

Cracks appear when the game morphs from a platformer into a homage to other video game genres. As good as my wife is at platform games, she cannot aim a gun. She has never played top-down RPGs such as Diablo, and crashes around like Leroy Jenkins while I sit back and calculate the best path. We started falling into old roles, with me barking things such as: “Three red rings. Beetle coming for you. One red. Hole filled with sap!” This was fine when Phoebe used her elite platform game skills to react accordingly but when that didn’t happen, the anger started to emerge.

Anger is the fuel for all platformers. It’s the flip side to the joy. That one linear solution makes it the most frustrating of all game genres when your fingers don’t do what the brain tells them to. Especially if, in my wife’s case, that brain is 54 years old, has already done a full day’s proper job and would rather have a glass of wine and a bath.

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The levels got harder. She grew more tired. I grew more determined. “I need to go to bed, I’ve got to be at the shop for eight tomorrow morning,” she said. “But we need to complete this game so I can write about it!” I replied, a sheen of sweat on my face and the look of a zealot in my eyes.

We reached a level inside a clock tower which required me to reverse time, so that platforms would appear and disappear while my wife jumped across them. She kept missing a particular leap. I ran the gamut of passive-aggressive sharp intakes of breath, then proceeded to tell her exactly what she should be doing. It only took one slip off a swinging rope to make me crack. The inside of my brain exploded like an open can of Irn-Bru thrown into a moving car.

It Takes Two game screenshot
Admirable … It Takes Two

“Oh my giddy aunt, how am I ever going to show Guardian readers how great my marriage is if you keep messing up It Takes Two for me?” (NB. This is translated from the original Scottish Dad words.)

I had reverted to the control freak I used to be. Because of a game. My wife gave me a look of utter disdain and left the room. I sat there for a while. Then I put the pad down, stood up, pulled the lead out of the back of the Xbox and went upstairs to apologise.

As admirable as It Takes Two is in trying to show a version of marriage therapy, it doesn’t feature the truly horrible, heartbreaking, crushing-pressure stuff you have to deal with in real marriages: chronic child illnesses, job losses, emigration, addiction, mental health problems, making sure the kids have equally valuable Christmas gifts. It was ironic that having worked through all of those, I was now getting angry at my wife because she couldn’t lure mechanical beetles into cartoon sap traps.

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I think we’ll stick to playing Wordle together over morning coffee.

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