I. Love. Birthdays. A lot of people see them as silly, frivolous, or uncomfortable occasions where unwilling strangers are forced to listen to that godawful Frankie & Benny's Birthday Medley Of Hell, but I think they're great. I mean, I agree with the Frankie & Benny's thing, but you don't have to go there.
I also love video games. Video games are a means of escapism, whether that's the gentle commute-based prod of a good session of Candy Crush or the in-depth strategy/colossal mind-buggery of the new Metal Gear Solid game. But sometimes, there's this weird crossover into reality, a hand reaching out from the screen to remind us that we're not suspending dogs and bears from balloons with all the glee of a child burning ants with a magnifying glass - we're sitting on the floor in our pants, sticky-fingered and wide-eyed. Oh, and also, it's your birthday.
Not many games do it, because not many games give a toss about your personal statistics - that's the point of games, to pretend to be someone else with better statistics - but when they do, it's absolutely charming. There's something about a bunch of well-crafted pixels wishing you a happy birthday that touches you more than all the fiver-stuffed cards on the mantelpiece and gift-wrapped socks ever could.
My personal favourite is Animal Crossing, a game that's already so sweet your dentist has warning posters about it in the waiting room. As soon as you start the game, you'll find a villager outside your house, who will take you to theirs for your party. A cake, one of those proper ones with icing and strawberries like something out of a Stepford Wives cookbook, sits proudly in the middle; a tacky-looking sign in the back wishes you Happy Birthday. Your villager friend has moved (or sold) all their furniture just to fit this display in FOR YOU.
In Harvest Moon, people wish you happy birthday and give you gifts, but at the end of the day, your boyfriend or husband will make you a special, romantic dinner. For me, this was extra special, because it was only the second time that my nervous, shy husband had said the L-Word. It felt like a real interaction, free from all the immersion-breaking repetitive dialogue and mountains of tedious farming that usually stop the game from being elevated to anything beyond a cutesy time-waster.
And, of course, the recently released Metal Gear Solid V was revealed this week to have a little birthday surprise (WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILER AHEAD). Ocelot and his pals throw you a party, singing a pleasantly copyright-free birthday song as they wheel out a cake. It's very cute for a game that is mostly about murdering people and trying to understand the significance of the surreal cut-scenes.
In video games, we've been trained to want something for nothing. It's why we grumble about mobile games costing less than a pound, and why some people get mad that free DLC isn't what they asked for (turns out that teaching people they will always get the princess leads to entitlement, who knew?). Birthdays are the ultimate show of something-for-nothingness - you're being congratulated on a day that on which your parents did all the work - and there's something a bit weird about having them in games.
For starters, there's that slightly guilty feeling that maybe you should be spending your birthday seeing friends or celebrating rather than playing video games. And after that comes a sort of sweet bashfulness, because these game characters have assembled themselves for you - they're acknowledging not only your presence, but your importance, too. For the many people who retreat into a video game world because they find the real world too unkind or hard to navigate, it means a lot.
When most of the emotions in a game are felt towards the protagonist - who isn't you, because they're a blue alien, a seven-foot tall Viking or a half-naked elf - it's touching to have a moment when suddenly, unexpectedly, the game looks through the screen, and tells you that it cares about you.
I love birthdays because everyone is always really nice to you. I don't mind too much about gifts, cake, balloons or songs, but it's the one time of the year when everyone you know says lovely things about how much they're glad you exist, and in a world where sometime your existence feels like a drop of water in an ocean, it's nice to be reminded that the drops around you care. I love video games, too, and when they acknowledge your birthday, it might be fake - programmed in to create the illusion of human interaction - but the emotional bonds you've made can feel incredibly real. Everyone deserves to feel loved on their birthday.
(Main image credit: Neogaf user Koomaster)
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