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By the Light of the Silvery Moon

Before I was a game designer, I was a tester. For a long time I've been mulling over the idea of writing up my memoirs of those long days of testing. Finally I've done it... In this chapter I write about the time a programmer went mad...

“He threw a fire extinguisher at the sound library, took all his clothes off and went for a swim!” I was told when I arrived at work.

Our offices did not have a swimming pool.

The full story, so far as I was told, went like this: It was night time, a pleasant night in late spring, and everyone was working late during the final push to get a game in a box. This phase of video game development is called “crunch”, I don’t really know why it’s called crunch, but it’s probably because its soundtrack is the noise of things fracturing under the pressure of long and stressful working hours. Things like psyches, relationships, egos and balls.

Sometimes, as you’ll see, locks and windows.

In this pressure cooker it appeared that one of the programmers had suddenly been overcome with fury and in a moment of madness he decided to take vengeance on something. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and hurled at the CD ROMs on which the sound libraries were stored. In the depths of rage the man chose a target that had hardly anything to do with any strife he might have had. Anyone who’s seen the film Irréversible will know how much worse his choice of actions with that fire extinguisher could have been.

Having struck a blow at his tormentor, or at least his tormentor’s third cousin’s pet flea, the programmer decided to relax and have some “me time”. He stripped out of his clothes and fled out of a fire door. Across the car park he pitter pattered, through the woods he darted, across broken ground he ouched and into tranquil “water” he plunged, blessedly putting an end to the sight of his swaying wigger wagger and limited mobility marbles.

The pool into which he had descended was not some super cool game development accoutrement in the shape of the company’s logo or the silhouette of our flagship character. Nor was it lined, filtered or cleaned in any kind of way. It was simply a hole in the ground, which may or may not have been deliberately landscaped but was definitely a festering pit of potential disease, just waiting for Stan Lee to see it and use it as the device of genesis for a new super hero or villain, or perhaps just as a urinal.

I don’t think the programmer had lost contact with reality so completely that he stayed in there for long, but any time is a long time when you’re swimming with life forms as yet unknown to science.

Was the swim a smokescreen for the industrial vandalism that had been attempted on the library discs or had the cold water, mild acid burns and strange nips to his nips simply roused the guy from his fugue? Who could tell? I’m a game developer, Jim, not a psychiatrist. And to tell you the truth, I didn’t really care about the mental state of this poor chap that had cracked under the stress of the workplace so absolutely that he’d tried to destroy some very valuable software, only the fact that I’d missed out on him flipping out.

This might sound callous (mostly because it was) but young people (which I was also) often are. Besides, by the time I heard all of this the man seemed to be perfectly all right, he was sitting in the smoking room, as if nothing had happened, as if he’d not revealed his sun starved wears to his colleagues, as if he hadn’t taken on the difficult acting roles of various other contents of the construction workers’ mystery object, such as rainwater, the illicit output of toxic fly tippers and rats’ piss, and jumped into the wretched hole in the ground.

In fact, he was so disconnected from the events of the previous night that he seemed to be genuinely surprised when word came down from above that he was to be seen immediately. There was even a hint of outrage when he came back down again and told us that he’d been informed that his services were no longer required.

Looking back, I can see his point of view (he was only crazy for a short time, the discs weren’t especially valuable and they were all completely okay) and I expect you will too by the time you finish reading these humble memoirs.

A man, a fellow human being, had suffered a severe mental break. Stress had deprived him of his dignity, his clothes, his immune system (probably) and his livelihood, and all I could think about upon hearing all of this was, “The one night I go home at a sensible time and something good happens!”

I found out recently, in the course of writing this book, that the programmer’s madness was purely of the rage variety. Earlier in the evening he’d been in the pub, about a mile down the road from work, with other members of staff. At some point he’d gone to the toilet, as you do, and his colleagues decided to skull their drinks and scarper, abandoning him first to confusion, then to a dark walk along a road without a pavement or streetlights. By the time he stumbled back into the office he was a race car in the red and he was ready to blow. And blow he did, when another programmer just happened to look at him.

And still all I can think is, “The one night I went home at a sensible time something good happened!”

Originally published on my Pizza Whores blog

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