On friendship, Apology Simulator and apologies as a tool for personal growth
This piece contains some spoilers. If you haven’t played the game yet, you can do it here.
Some time ago I played Apology Simulator, a short text-based game that puts you in the role of people who are writing apology letters of various nature. Apologies are something that I believe we don’t talk nearly enough about, and also a topic that is rarely explored in videogames, so it immediately piqued my interest. The game lets you compose letters by picking from a handful of lines, right until you feel satisfied — or, sometimes, the least dissatisfied — and then you hit send. Composing a message this way is frustrating, and that is by design: after writing your letter, the game sends it back to you, and lets you decide whether you’re going to accept the apologies you just wrote or not. It’s a powerful way to show the fact that sometimes the messages we send sound much better to us than they actually are.
The whole experience immediately felt familiar to me, and that may be in part because last year I spent quite some time writing, erasing and rewriting apology letters to someone I had wronged. Despite many of the situations in the game being far from my personal experience, I still could recognize a lot of the same mistakes I made months ago while writing my very own apology letters: being too dramatic, saying the word “me” too often and using my problems as an excuse. Reading those sentences laid down that way had a powerful effect on me, even though I had already come to terms with the fact that I had sent a couple of extremely poor apology letters to my friend. Back then, I wrote those letters to fix things, without even knowing exactly what went wrong — Did I even really think I had to apologize? Not really; all I knew was that I was losing a friend, and I had to do something, anything, to stop it from happening. I didn’t even notice it, but I was sending those apologies to try to fix the situation. At the time, I also didn’t really understand what an apology should accomplish.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an apology as follows:
apol·o·gy | \ ə-ˈpä-lə-jē
an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret.
It sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? But human interactions are complicated, and the way the game is structured shows that apologies can easily be weaponized. We can use them to shame the other person: “I’m sorry I wasn’t good enough for you”; we can admit our mistakes while blaming the other person for them: “I’m sorry, I didn’t think you would be so sensitive”; and we can send a passive-aggressive apology that serves the only purpose of hurting others. We can do all of that, while still being able to say “but I did apologize!”. This is a strategy that is often used by abusers, and one that does indeed work when we trust someone and we want to believe that they mean well.
Apologies are not a topic we discuss very often. We tend to take them for granted: we bump into someone and we say we’re sorry, or we raise our voice and then come back and admit we were too rude — but apologizing for something that really hurt someone else takes a lot of self awareness, and a lot of patience: you have to accept the fact that, despite meaning well, you fucked up. A lot of the letters in this game make you feel bad. I found myself thinking “I wish I could apologize better, it sounds like I was a real asshole to this person”, but I couldn’t. Some of this game’s characters seem to only apologize to get things off their chests — and they ultimately only do it for themselves, rather than for the other person. Who am I to judge them, though? Sometimes apologies can fail in fulfilling their purpose, but can still give us closure. The game also shows that a relationship’s power dynamics can change the way apologies are perceived: someone in a position of power (your boss, for example) will expect them to be accepted — and you better do it, or you can wave your job goodbye. Sometimes non-professional relationships can have similar toxic dynamics, too.
The way the letters are structured underlines the fact that insincere apologies are inherently useless for the purpose they’re supposed to serve: addressing what we’ve done wrong, consoling the other person and reassuring them that we’re going to work on ourselves to not let it happen again. In some of the letters most of the lines are toxic, which shows that apologizing when you don’t really mean it can do more harm than good. One aspect really struck me: after sending some slightly unsatisfying letters, the game allowed me to compose one that was almost a carbon copy of the latest one I sent my friend more than a year ago — albeit less lengthy and verbose. That moment felt cathartic, as it let me write what I wanted to say back then in a concise, straightforward manner. It helped me let go: I finally had some sort of closure. I found myself watching the end credits of this short game at 4 am, crying my eyes out.
What I didn’t understand back then about the ending of that friendship was that I couldn’t possibly change what happened: some relationships simply don’t work out. I used apologies as a way to get in touch again, to beg my friend to give me some closure. As someone who has such a hard time connecting with other people, losing someone makes me feel like I’m losing the potential for growing old with them, learning things from them and learning the story of how they got to be who they are — and, hopefully, gifting them all these same things in return.
I don’t believe in destiny, soulmates, or that some people are meant to be together, but I do believe there are multiple people in the world who can make us happy and be our companions. This also means that the one friend we lost is unique and irreplaceable in their own special way. My clumsy attempts at preserving my friendships ultimately came from a good place, and that has to be enough to forgive myself for them. I thought I had my reasons; I thought: “If I explain my reasons well, maybe one day that person will see something that reminds them of me, think about it for a while and realize that I meant well. Maybe one day I could even be something good that happened to them, and not an unpleasant memory. If I can’t have our friendship, at least I’d like to be a happy memory”. That’s why I thought that I had to do more, to explain more — so I apologized more. But relationships aren’t slot machines where you put effort in and affection comes out; you have to do the right things, and I definitely did not do that; and sometimes, even doing the right things won’t work. The ending — or temporary distance — of a love, be it platonic, romantic or anything in between — doesn’t necessarily have to be fixed. People come and go from other people’s lives all the time; that’s the natural state of human relationships, and it will always be.
I was surprised to find a game that explores the complex world of apologies and unfolds so many of its nuances, and that does it so well. I believe that apologizing is a very underrated tool for personal growth. Personally, I tend to do it too often, and while this behavior is in part rooted in my insecurities, this game helped me understand that apologies are really important to me. It reinforced my belief that I don’t necessarily have to apologize less — alright, maybe so, but only when it’s coming from a place of insecurity — but that I should rather surround myself with people who don’t see it as a weakness; people I can grow with, who can change with me and who are okay with making mistakes and letting me make them. I want to be free to be my odd self, and have in my life people who can fuck up and be their odd selves, too.
Apologizing is not easy, but it’s a powerful tool we have at our disposal to heal our relationships and grow; still, it should be used sparingly. Being able to recognize that we all occasionally make mistakes is one of the most valuable things one can learn. That kind of awareness is surely one of the most important things I look for in potential friends and partners. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I sit down and examine the way I behave with others, and will promptly apologize if I realize I didn’t treat others the way I’d like to be treated, as I believe everyone should do — because we all fuck up sometimes, don’t we?