My memories of high school are, at best, hazy. With self-destructive tendencies, the toxic social norms that maintain violence, and being alienated for acting “so gay,” I pretty much shredded all those brain cells ages ago. However, there is a moment from the summer of 2010 I have been thinking about recently. A good friend had been staying at my house for the entire week. We did stupid things; we spent our entire part time job paychecks on sugar cookies and juice. We walked miles to just talk with each other about cheerful nothings. We had just finished a walk and I asked if we could have a fun Borderlands session together. In reply he asked, “Why do we always have to play games when we spend time together?” It was a question I wasn’t prepared for. As an awkward 16 year old who faced a lot of social anxiety, and consequently depression, on top of being raised in a strange, emotionally challenging environment, I had never asked the question “why games?” It was something that was always a given. Why games? Because they always made my life easier to manage.
I’ve been thinking about this moment because I have been playing a bit of Puyo Puyo Tetris 2. Even though it is a game designed around management, it isn’t necessarily the reason this memory returned to me. Rather, I have been thinking about how the original game forged my strongest relationship with my best friend and how we aren’t able to play the sequel together.
Puzzle fighters are a great genre for bonding because of the venues they provide for interpersonal interaction. The colorful characters and pieces dropping onto a board with fun shouts on the couch are an easy appeal to many. I remember my elderly grandmother breaking out the neon green N64 and her single game, The New Tetris, for my parents, aunts and uncles to play. Hell, even match-three games utilize the social nature of asking for help to progress further.
However, with the release of Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 I haven’t been able to find anyone to play with aside from the online matchmaking system. And as I have continued to play for the sake of this essay, I discovered a new answer to my friend’s question.
The newly released Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 is jam packed for fans of the original. There is an even larger amount of game options to play now. The story mode has a game board map and characters gain XP, plus a lot of the educational resources to improve at play have become more streamlined. As a person with hundreds of hours in the original title, and hundreds more in various other fighter puzzlers, I had a lot of high hopes for the sequel. Yet, as I have continued to play the one thing which is missing is the reason why I came to love the original title in the first place. And that’s my relationship with my best friend.
Back during my undergrad years, I sat in a communications lecture where the professor talked about the ways we maintain our relationships in life. I can’t recall precisely how he said this, but he told us that relationships were like flowers; you must show care for them to stay healthy. This resonated greatly with me, a person with huge anxiety surrounding social ambiguity, because games have always been a social tool for me to spend time with loved ones. A table of different friends talking may cause me to worry if each of them are comfortable. Yet, if one adds UNO into the mix, then the conversation becomes entangled with the play of the game. Similarly with a single person, while I enjoy spending time with people I care about, I also incredibly enjoy being able to experience a game’s story together whether we are playing co-op or I am watching them play.
Playing games with others, like any other activity we spend with others in life, is an interpersonal temporality. They are periods of time that generate feelings and memories between one another. These temporalities teach us about one another through micro-interactions within the context a game provides. In the case of that high school friend, I wanted to play Borderlands because we both really enjoyed manipulating RPG systems. The enjoyment of just being together and finding ways that we could completely break the game’s numbers was unparalleled for me. With these temporalities in mind, this is why I’ve found myself growing sad each time I play Puyo Puyo Tetris 2.
The original Puyo Puyo Tetris is an incredibly meaningful game to me because it was part of what forged the strongest bond in my life with my best friend. During the second year of my MFA, I moved into a second story apartment in New Jersey equipped with a massive living room/kitchen hybrid where we would spend seemingly nights back to back drinking and playing Puyo Puyo Tetris on the couch together. The game became more than just a nightly ritual; it was a form of comfort we both had when things in life became stressful. During the peak of our finals, applying for jobs, and trying to work out various difficulties in life, it was always an option to ask the other person to take a break to play a couple rounds of puyo.
As the months went by we would find new puzzle fighters to play: Puyo Puyo Champions, Puzzle Bobble, Money Puzzle Exchanger, Panel De Pon, Columns, and Magical Drop. And at some point it didn’t really matter whether we were good at the games, maybe around the time we started playing Puzzle Bobble. The games stopped mattering for the games themselves, and more as venues for us to spend time with one another. The music, the visuals, the way our minds adapted alongside one another with the rules of the game: Grabbing a beer, making food together, and playing a puzzle fighter was a ritual that had become a mainstay.
This ritual became more important than the competition itself. Many times we would find ourselves talking about the current day’s drama or stress without realizing a couple rounds had even gone by. The SEGA AGES Columns II port was a common stage for these types of moments. Other nights we would find it thrilling to just learn a new technique together. I’ll never forget the first time we landed an imperial cross T-spin together.
I moved to start study in a PhD program at the start of fall, and with leaving I had to leave my best friend behind as well. Living apart, rituals can’t exist in the same way that they used to. There is no longer the benefit of immediacy that close proximity offers. Soon playing together becomes a puzzle fighter itself, managing whether or not our mental health has the capacity to do a call, or if we can even find the free time among decompressing from work to play a round of puzzles.
Calls, for many, feel like commitments, things where we have to catch up and spend a large amount of time with one another. It’s very different from hopping onto your own couch with a roommate and seeing where the night takes you. On top of this the fatigues of our loved ones, caused by the assimilation to work, make it hard to commit with one another. We become another project that must be maintained, another part of the screens we must engage with as a part of life every day. Our minds have become part of our devices, devices which are formed to exploit our bodies, and capitalize on our enjoyment. As my friend Aliza Mahmood wrote, “This discipline is sold as something you want and have agency over, successfully selling the seamless fantasy while in reality commodifying the interactions performed by the body to interact with technology.”
This brings me to my conflicted relationship with the release of Puyo Puyo Tetris 2. Upon seeing the announcement of the game that was foundational to the bond between me and my best friend, it seemed vital to play it together. I was lucky to receive a code for writing on this website, but my friend never found the right context to buy it herself. It wasn’t any issue between us, life just wasn’t the same as it used to be. We call and tell each other about the ways life has become stressful since we parted. The games we play online have moved from puzzle fighters to digital replications of the analog games we used to play. Something about the conversation that interrupts a yacht dice roll in Clubhouse Games almost makes it feel like things never change.
So I boot up Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 each time and try to find a way for it to just mean anything without the love that made it so important to me before. This has mostly come in the form of trying to play story mode and online ranked, but now the puyos are cold and lifeless. The sky high combos only draw silence. An imperial cross T-Spin is only a means to a higher digit.
In the past, it was a game animated by the bond that strengthened between two close friends. But now all I have to keep me engaged is some new game modes against AI, and a paycheck.
Waverly is a trans game artist and freelance writer. She has written at Uppercut, Into The Spine, and Fanbyte. You can find her on Twitter @hotelbones.