It’s World Mental Health Day, and it’s a subject that we’re all affected by on some level, whether it’s ourselves who suffer with it or someone we know. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s probably affecting a lot more of us than ever before: this collective trauma we all went through, where the world stopped for a moment, and none of us knew if it would ever start back up again. During that time, Forza Horizon 4 got a next-gen update on the consoles we were then still able to call “next-gen” without getting shouted at in the comments, and I got a little obsessed.
For those of us living far from where we grew up, our loved ones felt further away than ever before. The interlinked world we were accustomed to boiled off in the heat of panic leaving a sea of tiny islands: millions of households that suddenly had to host entire lives within them. In normal times, we plod along comfortably in the knowledge that our parents, children, friends, cousins – whether we have the time or money in that moment to actually visit them – are only hours and pounds away. It was a simple matter of numbers, until we fell hostage to an entirely different and far less simple matter of numbers.
Video games helped many of us bridge those newly insurmountable divides. Animal Crossing became a sanctuary away from the bleakness of the pandemic, providing a tangible way for us to visit each other in a cutesy world which sat comically juxtaposed to the ravaged world beyond. Games stepped up to provide meeting places of all kinds in lieu of access to real ones: from Minecraft to GTA Online, multiplayer environments took on a whole new dimension of social significance by virtue of the fact that they were no longer an addendum to the real world, but a replacement for it.
But my dad doesn’t play video games. He doesn’t have a Switch, or an Xbox. He’s a 69 year-old man with Parkinson’s Disease who lives just off a remote farm track in the Scottish Borders. He tires easily, and conversation is particularly draining for him, so the modern convenience of video conferencing is an even poorer substitute for in-person visitation than it usually is. He’s the sort of person we all stayed home to protect, but in doing so, made them stranded. I missed him terribly.
I’ve made it a bit of a running joke on VG247 to have a dig at FH4 every time it comes up for the sin of making people drive through Edinburgh (a thing I haven’t actually done since they were ripping it up to build tram lines, hence the affected disdain). In truth, it represents one of the most profound and emotional ties to a real place that I’ve ever felt in a video game, and I’m lucky enough to have lived in or visited many real world places that have interactive equivalents.
Dad taught me to drive in a Peugeot 206, which is not in the game, but the older Peugeot 205 is and it’s a much funnier car to stare at the back end of. Rather than making any actual progress in the game, I found great comfort in driving up the east coast from Bamburgh Castle to Edinburgh, or at least Forza’s massively truncated version of the route that almost nails the vibe, but misses huge swathes of the landscape, from Lindisfarne to the Torness nuclear power station. A great oversight on Playground’s part, frankly. The coolant system once got clogged with jellyfish. I feel as though reflecting this fact in one of the signature events would have been a much better use of resources than putting in the Derwent Reservoir, but I’m not a game designer.
For years, during what I have wistfully (and pretentiously) come to call my Wilderness Years, Dad and I would drive along that route from the borders to Edinburgh every morning to get our jobs. We’d take turns doing the driving. To this day it represents the most time we’ve ever spent together on a regular basis. Driving from the house, to Edinburgh, and back again. It was a routine, if not a ritual, that took a huge percentage of our time in 2013.
I think, if I concentrate, I can remember every single bend in the road. The way our coastal road to the A1 curved around to reveal, almost cinematically, the Torness power station and a stunning view all the way up to North Berwick. How Edinburgh’s roofs would slowly creep up the sides of the road, and before you knew it, you were in Musselburgh, then Portobello, then on the way into town, always noticing the weird little funeral director’s with the Irn Bru branded coffin on display in the window. Idly wondering what sort of person would elect to be buried in the branding of a popular soft drink as we pulled up to the lights. Dropping dad off somewhere near Shandwick Place and finishing the last and most miserable leg of my journey on my own, to a shabby call centre on the outskirts of town that I hated more than joint pain, or being so broke that I had to live in my dad’s spare room at 27.
The ritual broke for that couple of weeks where I got signed off work for depression, and came to a natural end a few months later, after I’d gotten a job that I actually wanted to do, necessitating a move to London. Conspicuously something that seemed impossible until I actually sought treatment for my condition. It’s not a causal relationship, as such, but you miss 100% of the chances you don’t take, and an unwell brain is very hard to motivate.
It’s December 2020, a year that still has many months left to go. It’s a routine, if not a ritual, to drive up the east coast in Forza Horizon 4 in my comical little Peugeot. I pan the camera hard to the right as I fly past where Eyemouth might possibly be if this stupid map actually reflected the geography of Scotland beyond Princes Street and a couple of associated roundabouts, and imagine waving at dad. I head all the way into town from the Portobello end, past the mad wee funeral director that always used to have the Irn Bru-branded coffin on display in the window. I wonder if it’s still there. I wonder what sort of person had commissioned it, assuming it wasn’t crafted on a whim and currently awaiting a buyer.
I wonder if the people who work in the funeral directors have ever played the game, and have been disappointed when their office shows up but it’s just a generic videogame storefront. This is usually the point where I’m welling up, releasing some of the pent-up pressure of living through your generation’s discovery of what the Interesting Times curse really means.
Dad came to my wedding last year, and this year he fulfilled his lifelong dream of visiting Japan, despite his health and the global pandemic that once threatened to end international travel forever, but is now thankfully behind us all (he typed with a knowing irony, currently suffering his third bout of COVID-19). I uninstalled Forza Horizon 4 eventually. Giving up 90gb to simulate driving through Edinburgh? You must be fucking joking.
Hang in there.