A cautionary tale of obsession and perfection as Jeff Dunn pushes himself to the edge.
I attained nirvana about a year ago. It felt pretty nice, at least for a little bit. It took a while, though -officially, I needed seven months, thirteen days, six hours, twenty-six minutes, and forty-six seconds to obtain my spiritual high. Unofficially, I needed $215 (I'm a Yank), one PlayStation 3 wireless controller, two weeks of not making contact with anybody socially, a bruise on my thigh, a popped blood vessel in my right eye, many curse words, and some other things I'd rather not mention just to do something that maybe 2,000 people in the world have ever done.
I got the Gran Turismo 5 Platinum trophy.
The place was the beautiful Suzuka Circuit, a historic race track found in the Mie Prefecture of Japan. It was a sunny afternoon, not a cloud in the sky, my sleek, custom-made supercar glistening in the sunlight as it blazed through practice lap after practice lap. As for me, I was one win away from doing all there was to be done in my racing career. Here I was, a tired veteran at the end of his rope, in need of one last victory to finally put all my hard work to bed. And today was the day I was going to get that elusive trophy. I wasn't about to turn back now.
Okay, sorry, reality check: the place was actually Abington, Massachusetts, a fairly standard American suburb about a half-hour out from Boston, itself a fairly standard American city. I don't remember what the weather was like, because I hadn't been outside in three days. I was really one trophy away from completing what is generally regarded as one of the hardest trophy/achievement lists ever devised. Here I was, some red-eyed college senior who hadn't showered in ages, in need of one last completed time trial to get this damn Platinum trophy - the trophy you get after you've completed everything else in the game.
I had been chasing the prize for too damn long. And today was the day I was going to get that elusive trophy. I couldn't turn back now.
The last objective I needed to hit was called "The Gold Standard." At this point, I could tell you its description by heart: "Get a gold trophy in every race event, license test, and special event." Basically, you've got to beat everything in the game. After about seven months, on and off, of playing and perfecting Gran Turismo 5 - becoming a virtual demigod of racing simulation in the process - I was finally at my last challenge: running two laps on the aforementioned, notoriously tricky Suzuka Circuit in under two minutes and ten seconds.
There was a slight problem, though: doing this was absurdly difficult. Anyone who has played a Gran Turismo title could tell you that developer Polyphony Digital has a thing for making events tough for its players, but here, things were on another level. They decided that, in order to give this "final battle" the properly epic feel, they would put you in a vehicle that doesn't actually exist, a sort of super F1 cart that could hit speeds currently unattainable by anything on four wheels. The result of this was a car that controlled like, well, something that doesn't actually exist. That is to say, something that's nigh impossible to get a handle on with just a simple DualShock controller.
So I caved. I did something I once swore I'd never do for a video game, and bought an outside peripheral for the sole purposes of getting this one trophy. "I just need this one last thing," I'd tell myself, "then it'll all be over with. I have money to spend, so it's fine. After this, it's done, once and for all." You'd have thought I was talking myself into murdering something. I kind of was.
I dropped the necessary $150 to purchase my fancy new steering wheel controller, ignored the better part of my conscience for a while, and got to work on doing the deed. As a broke kid who could only rely on old college Work Study cheques and his grandparents' birthday money, this was like willingly going bankrupt. But at that point it didn't matter to me. I was almost there.
I then spent two weeks in that state of being "almost there." In that time, I came to memorize the run I needed to make to beat my final trial until it became a type of unspoken mantra, played on repeat in the back of my mind while the rest of my body just drove.
"Full throttle until the first right turn," I'd think. "Brake at the end of it until you hit third gear, then full throttle into the S turns. Keep it steady through the first turn there, then 7/8 throttle, then full, then turn hard into the last. Give it everything you've got, and when you hit 276 km/h you get back on that throttle and stay there until the next one…" And on and on it would go.
And on and on I would fail. Attempt after attempt led to failure after failure, and failure after failure led to frustration upon frustration. The frustration soon led to rage, which once - and only once - led to a few tears, when I missed the target time by just six hundredths of a second.
Once I was into that second week of repeated failed mistakes, I'd full-on scream if I screwed up my routine and I knew nobody else was around. One day, in the midst of one of these fits, my eye's blood vessels burst. I didn't notice until hours later, though, because I couldn't pull myself away from the TV screen until my whole being felt utterly spent. I abused myself, punching my legs until the pain distracted me too much from my racing. I was legitimately throwing temper tantrums for the first time since elementary school. In everything but physical stature and Gran Turismo 5 skills, I had reverted to being an infant again.
And then I got it:
My weeks of rage, months of dedication, and what felt like a lifetime of self-imposed anguish had finally culminated in those two innocuous little "ping" noises - the first informing me that I had gotten "The Gold Standard," and the second saying I had gotten my Platinum. "You have earned a trophy," the PlayStation told me, and I couldn't have agreed more. Damn right I had earned this. I felt my knees go weak, and this time it wasn't from me punching them.
I collapsed onto my desk, head in my hands, purely and wholly consumed by relief. All my failures, all my agony, all my poor hygienic habits, all of it finally culminated in success. At long last, I could stop playing Gran Turismo 5.
Then I did something dangerous - I actually thought about what I had just done. As I sat in my living room, alone, and stared at the little picture for which I had so ferociously fought, I had a moment of introspection for what felt like the first time in weeks. For a good while after I had conquered my albatross, one lonely question continuously dogged my mind: why did I do this?
Why did I feel like I had to get this trophy? Why couldn't I take a breather, even for just a day or two, when I knew I only had one challenge left to conquer? Was I even having fun throughout it all? What void in me was "The Gold Standard" actually fulfilling?
Was I controlling Gran Turismo 5, or was Gran Turismo 5 controlling me?
I didn't really know, to be honest. I guess I did it because it was there, because it was something rare that I could say I accomplished. It was like grabbing a snack when you're not really hungry, or buying something at the store just because you have the cash to do so. That empty trophy space had the nerve to stare me in the face, with its proverbial tongue out, and taunt the deepest parts of my obsessive compulsive being until I could put it back in its place. It had to go away, and in the process I could say I was better than those lesser players who shared my hobby.
So I made it go away. But it wasn't until after I freed my mind from the shackles of this self-destructive pursuit that I realized I had effectively rendered myself brainless throughout the whole process. For me, this was the way it had to be if I wanted the Platinum: I could either go on living with that empty trophy slot's omnipresent tease, or I could clear out all the space in my brain typically reserved for rationality, social skills, maturity and the like, in order to join the elite trophy hunting club of which I so desperately wanted to be a part. I chose the latter, my enjoyment of Gran Turismo 5 be damned.
And what did I get out of it? A grainy YouTube video with about 150 hits, some delusions of grandeur, a set of serious racing sim skills that I'll probably never put to good use, and of course, guilt - lots and lots of guilt. I felt guilty for displaying temporary flashes of someone I'm not, flashes of an irrational, self-harming, dangerously prideful man who unhealthily put all his time and attention into something he'll never hold in my hands. I felt guilty for having something that I thought would be the pride and joy of all my gaming accomplishments become an insular shame. I felt guilty for creating a new, deeply-ingrained memory that I just wanted to forget. I felt guilty for feeling absurd.
Look, I don't claim to be a video game addict (though that problem most certainly exists), merely someone who once wrestled with addictive behavior. I recognise trophies and achievements are very much "real" in the sense that they often produce very tangible mental and physical effects, both positive and, in my case, negative. I also recognize that I seem like a rather extreme example of these potentially dangerous attitudes.
But there comes a point where any "extreme" trophy hunter/addict should ask himself that simple question: why are you doing what you're doing?
With these feats of gaming, anyone can do the seemingly impossible. I'm a testament to that. But I don't know if the impossible is always worth the sacrifices needed to obtain it.