How to Defeat your Anxiety in Tekken

This past year is the year in which I fell deeper into my anxiety than I ever thought possible, had a panic attack at work, and ended up quitting my job.

This past year is also the year in which I played through the entirety of the Tekken video game franchise.

As I am terrified of starting to talk about the former, I’m going to begin by talking about the latter.

For the uninitiated, Tekken is a fighting game — created by Namco — that focuses on the Mishima family. Through a series of pointlessly, but delightfully, complex backstories, each game follows the tournament — named the King of Iron Fist Tournament — that the Mishima family put on each year to find the ultimate warrior.

I was gifted all seven of the current games as a birthday present in November of last year by my partner after hinting (not so subtly) that I wanted to play through the entirety of the franchise. To set the scene, I was sitting cross-legged on my bed, face covered in ketchup from the sausage sandwich I’d just finished eating and was given an enormous box and a defined order in which to unwrap the parcels within it.

Not only were each of the games in there, but so were the appropriate consoles. The first in the series, aptly named simply Tekken, was released in 1995; this meant it required a PS1. The most recent in the series, shrewdly named Tekken 7, needs a PS4. As you might guess, all of the games in the interim require the intermediate consoles.

The only one that I’d previously owned was Tekken 3, shared with my older brother when we were children. Like the ten year old that I still am on the inside, I ran downstairs, plugged the PS1 into my TV, shoved in the Tekken disc, and was satiated for the rest of the day.

Over the coming months, I spent as much time as possible beating each of the games in order, not wanting to leave a single stone unturned. Although I was unaware of it, each minute that I spent playing was time that I couldn’t think about how unhappy and unfulfilled I was. My day job was at a large aeronautical firm as a software engineer. I would spend the day unmotivated, unchallenged and uncaring, only to come home and spend the evening beating the computer-controlled characters into submission through a combination of grapples, twists and slams. It was cathartic in all of the base-human-instinct ways, and it got me through.

But I was about to become one of the only people in the world who played Tekken for the plot.

The series begins with the very first King of Iron First Tournament. The apparent protagonist of this game, Kazuya Mishima, fights his way through all of the various opponents, to face his evil father — and head of the family company — Heihachi Mishima. Upon beating his father in combat and proving his worth, Kazuya surprises the player by then chucking his father’s unconscious body over the edge of a cliff.

Now, bear in mind that all of these details come from a 34-second clip, portrayed by rudimentary (slightly goofy) Playstation 1 graphics. It still manages to be shocking. The protagonist is arguably more villainous than the supposed villain of the piece but is confident and unhesitating in his decision. It makes you feel guilty for having rooted for this character in the first place and makes you question what the morals of this game were supposed to be. But beyond what some could argue is my pretentious moral reasoning, it made it intriguing.

I was hooked.

As I tore through the first three games, I saw that this world expanded beyond that of the turbulent Mishima family drama into its expansive cast of playable characters. Everyone had their reasons for entering each tournament, and each subsequent game in the series added more and more backstory, breathing both breadth and depth of life into this world.

When I was younger, I would always read and re-read the manual to the game — as I did with all of my video games — desperate to pull as much encyclopaedic knowledge into my brain as possible. It felt like there was always something new to learn about these characters hidden behind a menu or in the footnote of a page, and it kept this world feeling fresh.

The world that continued to feel staler and staler was my work life. It was becoming clearer and clearer that I was trapped in a team that desperately fought against change and improvement. It had already been decided how it worked well. Any minutiae of improvement had to be compromised and pared down. Nothing had changed before, and so nothing would be able to change now.

I picked up the tradition of reading manuals during my playthrough. For each new game, I would inhale the manual before sitting down to play. It felt like a form of checking in with a fictional friend, seeing where each of them had got to in the time since I’d seen them last. The comfort of the routine of knowing how each game would feel, and what I would do when I got there, brought a rhythm to my free time.

An aggressive, guttural, NO-HOW-DID-HE-HIT-ME-I-WAS-BLOCKING, free time.

When I’d defeated Heihachi Mishima for the second time, this time at the end of Tekken 3, the pattern of my experience of the game started to fall apart. Each manual started to contain a little bit less information about the characters, and there were some drastic overhauls to the game itself. The series made the jump from Playstation 1 to Playstation 2 and it was time for innovation. Just not the kind that I wanted.

The next two games, Tekken 4 and Tekken 5, brought in mechanical changes to the gameplay. The characters’ movements were sped up to make it “more realistic”, but resulted in hyperactive hamsters slapping each other. It was now possible to essentially pin your opponent against a wall; fun if you’re the one doing the pinning, but endlessly frustrating the other way around. Nevertheless, I soldiered on. These games made me feel better.

Meanwhile, at my day job, I was able to secure a move to a new team within the same company. “It was only the mind-numbing work before,” I told myself. “Being part of a team in charge of innovation will let me pioneer change.”

The method and subject on which I was working changed, but the mentality of the people I was working for persisted. In circumstances now ostensibly at the forefront of new ideas and positive thinking, each day was stymied with new unfulfilled promises and being chastised for not managing to score in a constantly moving goalpost.

This was the environment in which my anxiety thrived. In deciding to chase professional fulfillment in another team, I left a situation where I was working with a group of friends. With the natural distancing that occurs when you’re not forced to interact with people every day, there was both a literal and metaphorical wall now between us.

As anxiety loves to do, it would feed me these thoughts and doubts. Not only was the unfulfillment in my job making me question my professional decisions up to that point, but it was also telling me that the friends I’d made were deliberately excluding me from things. That without my proximity to them, I quickly slipped beneath their notice.

So I overcompensated. I’d look for things to send people to prove how smart or funny I was. I would check obsessively to see if they’d planned anything. None of it made me feel any better. If they didn’t respond to my message, I wasn’t doing enough to earn their attention. If I didn’t hear anything, it was because they were making plans without me. Search. Send. Check. Check again. Search. Send. Check. Then check one more time for good measure. Day after day. Again and again. Maybe this time it’ll finally be enough.

That was about when I had the panic attack at my desk. A trip to the doctor later, I went home, where I’m pretty sure I continued to have a panic attack for the rest of the day. To say “It sucked” is an understatement, but it’s the only accurate way to describe the sense of being trapped in your own body, unable to remember a time when you didn’t feel like this.

It well and truly sucked.

A while later, when I opened the Tekken 6 box and saw that there wasn’t a manual anymore, it simultaneously felt over- and underwhelming. This wasn’t it. This wasn’t what I wanted it to be. By rote, I released the disc from its case and pushed it into the PS3. The opening cinematic blared from the speakers as Kazuya Mishima’s son — Jin Kazama — declared war on the entirety of the world. The batshit insanity of the plot that the Tekken universe is known for had reached its apex. But I couldn’t find the ability to care.

The game itself didn’t fare much better when I started playing it. The game relied heavily on its improved fighting mechanics, desperate to regain its edge with competitive gamers. The plot was relegated to an awkward, clunky game mode that felt like it belonged in the original Playstation 1 game. Desperate to make it work after getting this far and committing this much time, I tried to push through.

There was nothing there to grab onto.

I stopped playing Tekken for six months.

This time was filled with desperate attempts to redefine myself within my current job. I spent money on new clothes. I changed my schedule to slot in more time for reading new books that were definitely going to change my perspective. Each small change would convince me for a while that I could make this way of life work, but would be quickly followed by an emotional collapse when everything else in my day-to-day life remained stalwart.

I was at an impasse.

When I decided to skip Tekken 6 and go straight to the seventh installment, the completionist in me balked, but I quickly shut down that part of my brain; I needed to see what had been done in Tekken 7.

As has hopefully been made clear, the game is no stranger to Mishima family drama. By this point, the ownership of the company has been passed around through every conceivable combination of presidents. The family has shot each other, endlessly punched each other, and even, famously, thrown each other into active volcanoes (and survived). However, one thing remains constant: the King of Iron First Tournament.

There is a moment towards the beginning of Tekken 7 where, having failed to locate either his evil son, Kazuya, or his conflicted-but-maybe-also-evil grandson Jin, the patriarch Heihachi Mishima suddenly gets to his feet and yells “WE SHOULD HAVE A TOURNAMENT”. He’s immediately dismissed and pushed back down onto his chair. It’s a rare self-aware moment for the franchise, played for pure comedy, but hit me.

The Mishimas are a family driven by pride, honour, and, most crucially, vengeance. An eternal and literal contest passed from generation to generation, always as an attempt to right all of the wrongs that came before. Every time the current owner of the company finds themselves in a tough decision, they fall back on the only thing they know how to do: throw a martial arts tournament. And, as expected, every time, this base reaction ends up only causing more harm than before.

I realised that I was stuck in a cycle of anxiety and crippling self-doubt, but was refusing to do anything to change it. In my head, the reason that I was treated by the company in the way that I was, was entirely my own doing. I didn’t know how to play the corporate game. So I buckled down. I locked onto the compulsive behaviours that occasionally made me feel better and kept doing them, regardless of how the situation turned out.

As I was slogging through Tekken 6, I would tell myself that I needed to make it work. These were games that I not only found fulfillment in as a child but recently as an adult; these were games that still had positive aspects to them, even if the whole negated the sum of its parts. I had not enjoyed a Tekken game at all since the third installment but was refusing to admit it to myself.

And so I quit my job.

I quit the career that I’d been building for nearly six years to start from scratch. I joined a much smaller company at the very bottom and started learning brand new skills. From the very first day, I have found that I’ve never been more challenged and out of my depth, but I’ve honestly never been happier. Not only is the work itself more engaging, but the culture is also one of enthusiasm, encouragement and positivity.

It’s the beginning of a new chapter in my life.

Tekken 7 is a return to form for the franchise. Not only does the over twenty-five-year saga of the Mishima family finally come to a head, but the game itself is also paying off the seeds that were planted when Kazuya first threw his father over that cliff, the game itself is near-perfect in its mechanics. Battles have an unmatched fluidity, making chaining combos feel achievable for the first time.

The most noticeable improvement in user experience is the introduction of new “dramatic zoom” mechanics. It reinforces parts of the battle in which either powerful moves have been executed or those edge-of-your-seat moments. They truly take this series from something functioning on nostalgia and iteration and have turned it into something fresh, new, and exciting.

I only wish it had a manual to read.