[Trigger warning: homelessness, sexual assault, suicide, police brutality, and misogyny.]
I’ve never been homeless before.
I’ve always been poor.
When it comes to the many thin and transparent layers of poverty, every new day feels like a potential step in the right or wrong direction. I was raised by a single mother with a disability, gradually cast out over the years from a white middle-class family too deep in their nasty bias to financially and emotionally support a deaf woman and her biracial daughter. I’ve been on the cusp of prestige—occasionally visiting my grandparents’ gated beach-side community in my younger days and marveling at the borderline fantasy land at my disposal.
More familiar became the sting of poverty—living in trailers throughout junior high and moving to a new apartment every few years afterwards with the omnipresent hope that my mother’s Section 8 benefits wouldn’t dry up anytime soon. I learned to take good care of my things, knowing it’d be a while before I could get a new radio or book if I was careless.
But I’ve never been homeless.
Playing 12hrs was a pinch to the arm—a reminder of the still-cozy haze draped over my mind from the everyday things I still take for granted. I’ve always had a warm place to tuck down at the end of the night and consistent access to phone service and internet. I’ve never wanted for regular food or shelter from the elements. Even a little pocket change from my recent part-time online job feels like a lavish luxury compared to the many months prior of soul-sucking unemployment.
It’s easy to slip into a cautious monotony when your own troubles can seem like too much to deal with without taking on the troubles of others. 12hrs doesn’t let you do that. You’re asked to give a name to the homeless person you’ve seen sitting outside the bus plaza or church entryway and help them survive the night.
I named her Viola.
My first playthrough lasted a few minutes. I became accustomed to Viola’s surroundings, filing away each location into ‘dangerous’ and ‘not dangerous’—not unlike my day-to-day experiences walking outside. Being a woman means you learn to avoid sparsely populated areas and ‘ignore’ catcalls filling up your peripherals. Being a person of color means you steer clear of all-white neighborhoods if you can help it and adopt an unassuming presence if you can’t. I’ve never been a stranger to perceiving the world as a particularly elaborate cage, its bars becoming visible the moment you take a step in the wrong direction or someone stares at you too long.
Where I faltered was my deep-seated artist’s curiosity as to the limits of the game. I knew, as subconsciously as breathing without thinking, that the dark and poorly reputed train yard was no place for me. Regardless, I went. I was killed—the music blaring my mistake. The artist in me appreciated the touch. The survivor in me chastised the error angrily.
I tried a second time. “I’ll be less curious this time around,” I told myself. I remembered where I’d gone before and skipped a few destinations. I knew begging was the only option to get food or caffeine into my system, so I went through the process of begging for change and cycling through the alternating disaffected and angry responses of passerby. It’s an incredibly lonely task and I wonder about the numbness that must set in after the five hundredth time of asking for strangers’ financial scraps. I still don’t want to risk falling asleep and getting through the rest of the night without effort—even in areas dark and far removed from wandering eyes. I stayed away from the train yard this time and hopped onto the train instead. This time, I end up caught by the police and thrown in jail.
Years of being tempered into a social chameleon has afforded me a sick sort of pride in my sense of survival—barely suspended above the cognitive dissonance that I’m far from the toughest on the block. While my brain tells me that this game is teaching me many useful things about the world around me, my gut continues to rage. I should be able to survive this. I’ve been tantalizingly close. I have so many people I care about.
I should be able to survive this.
All bets were off the third time around. Painful pride barely masked the sense of dread I felt—the potential truth that if I couldn’t figure this out, I’m missing vital information on my own quest for survival in a world that’s (at best) out to get me constantly. My brain worked overtime to remember each location I went to with crystal clarity, even as the crushing tedium of retracing my steps and reviewing my piss-poor options over and over and over again threatened to weigh me down.
A brief scene on a bridge showed the suicidal thoughts that can set in when the cycle becomes too painful to continue. I avoided potential arguments with people I encountered and instinctively resorted to a tension-reducing lie when confronted by a cop even as my throat clutched at this all too familiar fear. I met a dog in a yard and shared my burger with it. Even through a flat screen, the companionship was welcome.
When the music changed to a lilting, happy melody and the screen told me I made it, I was unbalanced. Tears were in my eyes.
I’m no stranger to passing a homeless person on the street. I’m familiar with the cycle of denial and distraction that comes when someone less fortunate than you is too close to ignore. When you, yourself, have been poor and felt the threat of a night at a shelter looming above your head, however distant, it can be easy to become jealously guarded. “I don’t have much, so I can’t afford to lose it” wars endlessly with, “That could’ve been me. I know I would’ve wanted help.” We’ve all looked at our phone. Fiddled with the car radio. Raised our voices in conversation to drown out pleas. I’ve done it. You’ve done it.
When I give out change, it’s usually to those I read as homeless women. A nigh-pathological fear of men usually stays my hand and diverts my gaze, even with the knowledge I’d have an easier time hurting them than they could me. (The endless complaints about ‘reducing panhandling’ and ‘doing something about the bums’ reinforces this every time I open the local paper.) Empathy regularly butts heads with survival. Divide-and-conquer is a gross reality of poverty, and one I’m no stranger to. Black and white is more comfortable by a significant margin, with gray too discomforting and time-consuming to deal with.
12hrs danced uncomfortably close with preexisting social mores while staying just out of reach due to my own sheer luck. When it comes down to it, that’s all it really is—no matter how desperately American meritocracy would have you believe otherwise; homelessness is a symptom of a system that would sooner see houses empty, slightly expired food tossed into the garbage, and people wasting to nothing on the streets or beneath bridges before admitting its virus-like hubris. It’s no coincidence that the majority of homeless people are mentally ill and of color—transgender and sex worker and veteran and every intersection in-between. People pushed from mainstream society to the edge of their limits and beyond.
I wonder how many people like Viola jumped off that bridge. I wonder how many people out there didn’t make it through the night yesterday. Who won’t tonight.
Media exists to communicate what can’t be tangibly seen or felt. You crank up a song to vicariously live out your emotions while cleaning your kitchen or sink into a book while on a long bus trip to give your mind a break. Video games remain a fascinating middle-ground between observer and actor, putting you smack dab in the shoes of people you don’t even know and seeing the world through their eyes in real-time. It’s not the exact same thing as experiencing certain issues or events firsthand, but it doesn’t have to be—art is what connects humans together regardless of personal experience, bridging the gap where walls would normally be built and rarely climbed.
12hrs uses a minimalist approach to keep the focus where it needs to be, with a stream-of-conscious narrative and simple, looping musical track cementing its atmosphere. While a few typos exist here and there, its lasting impact is more than the glitzy and ultimately empty experiences of many AAA titles can claim to give as of late. While I can always appreciate the work that goes into realistic graphics and tight gameplay, the biggest source of interest for me has always been the emotions and thoughts that stay with me long after my console or computer has turned off. That could be a relaxed heart rate, a deep sense of validation, or brief escapism. Even better is when I’m fortunate enough to play a game that alters how I interact with people once I step outside again.
12hrs is free to play on Steam. Don’t forget to upvote!