Taking a step back to look forward

Image by Flickr user Ian Muttoo
Image by Flickr user Ian Muttoo

As the summer gets rolling, my time with games grows thinner and thinner. Just this past weekend I turned on the ol’ 360 to play a little South Park: The Stick of Truth for the first time in nearly 3 weeks. I picked up a couple new games in Steam and put in a few minutes of gameplay, but I’ve no idea when I’ll next have any substantial time to become further frustrated with Guacamelee or return to whatever the heck I was doing in The Witcher. Summertime has been like that for me for awhile – gaming has to take a backseat to things like vacations, renovations, work, and life in general. I’m not complaining, I’m used to the cycle by now, and I’ve even come to welcome it, this time “off.” With summer generally being a time scant of new game releases, it’s sometimes spoken of as the time to get through the backlog. I’d say that’s about right – over the next couple months, when I do have opportunities to play, I’m not going to be seeking something new; rather I’m going to turn to that which I already have.

Summer is usually also the time when many of us take time to gaze into our gaming futures —  dreaming of new and exciting fall and winter releases, of the things we will play upon entering a necessary hibernation. Having watched the major conferences from this year’s E3, there are several games that I’d like to have in my future, such as Dragon Age: InquisitionGrim Fandango HDXenoblade Chronicles X, and the Wii U Legend of Zelda game. (As well as titles not shown like Kingdom Hearts 3 and Final Fantasy XV.) But this year, this summer, for whatever reason, my thoughts have traveled beyond the games themselves into thinking about what I want from gaming generally in the future. Personally, 2014 roughly marks the 30th anniversary of my history with video games (it all started with the Donkey Kong Jr. Game & Watch), and maybe that has something to do with this wellspring.

When this mess first started, video games were just another activity with, like playing with Barbies and He-Man action figures or drawing outside the lines in coloring books. Over the years they came to take on special meaning as I connected with other players and formed lasting bonds through gaming.  They also came to serve as signposts, markers of times good and bad. And they also spent plenty of time sitting forgotten and lonely as I pursued other ventures. Latent feelings turned intense upon first playing Mass Effect and Grand Theft Auto IV, and the addiction then occurred swiftly. I simply had to play games…had to. There was no other form of entertainment, only games. That façade crumbled on its own as life evolved in ways expected and unexpected. And now, today, at this very moment, I’m honestly not sure what role video games play in my life. Call it a mid-life gaming crisis, but after watching E3 this year, I feel compelled to take a step back and really ask myself what do I want from gaming? After some consideration, I’ve come up with three guiding visions. They aren’t particularly unique, but for me, when an avalanche of new games occur and I feel completely overwhelmed, they help me feel grounded in a hobby that seeks to sweep people off their feet.

Have fun.

Now before you mutter “way to go Captain Obvious,” just think about it — it’s totally easy to take for granted that games should be fun. I’m one of those people that easily falls for series and sequels. If I’ve played a game that I really enjoyed, I’ll blindly shell out money for future titles. And if the games turn out to be stinkers, I’ll offer up excuse after excuse as to why I should keep playing, most of which involve the phrase, “I paid, so I gotta play.” Y’all, no more. I learned my lesson with Dragon Age II and Epic Mickey 2. Fine games they are from some, but not for me. If I pick up a game that I end up not liking, it’s getting re-sold/traded post haste, and I’m not going to feel bad about it. I’m done feeling guilty about incomplete games in my backlog that I don’t care for and know I’m never going to play. I’m done following some supposed path that gamemakers set out for the indecisive. I’m done giving in to gaming “flavors of the week.” If I’m not having fun with a game (frustrations aside), I’m not going to continue playing it. Having fun has to be tantamount during my gaming sessions, precious as they are.

Become engaged.

It’s one thing to have fun while playing a game but it’s another thing to become immersed in the game itself. I find a good Mario game to be quite enjoyable, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m engaging in the game as I’m playing. No matter the pipes I take, the number of coins I collect, or the times I spend ogling Mario’s cute animal “suits,” I’ll always reach Bowser and Mario will save the day. But for every game that is simply a joy to play, I need to seek two games that will make me actually think about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I know I don’t have the most time in the world to wax philosophical over choice in a particular mission or quest, but that isn’t to say that I can’t find at least a little meaning in my actions while I’m fighting the bad guys. This also doesn’t mean taking on 100+ hour games dripping with complex plots either. I’ve put in a little time with LIMBO recently; it’s incredibly engaging and it hasn’t uttered a single word.

Allow the uncomfortable.

Going back to the idea that I play what I know, in the future I want to take on more of what I don’t know or haven’t experienced in ages. For me this means relying less on platformers and RPGs and returning to point-and-click games and world building games (which generally go pass/fail for me). It also means taking on more virtual media experiences, games that do not follow the “win-lose” schema but rather allow players to understand something wholly different from that which we know as “video games.” For example, I’m dying to one day play Journey, but I am also still extremely uncomfortable with the idea of playing randomly online. This fear isn’t really something I can explain (you can see that I haven’t even come to terms with it myself), but hopefully someday it’ll wash away as I take (baby) steps into the unknown.

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By what guiding principles, if any, do you seek to play video games? What roles do video games fulfill in your lives, and do you think that those roles will change over time or remain static?

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Hatm0nster says:

    I get what you mean when you say you felt you *had* to play games. Whether or not it’s intended, the hobby somehow starts to become all encompassing. I think it’s because we want to experience as much of it as we possibly can, and conclude that the only way to do that is to spend as much time with it as possible.

    We almost don’t even want to question it, as if the thought itself is counter-productive. In my case I’ve *had* to play games because it’s what I’ve always done. They’re still enjoyable, but I’ve tired of the need to play. And that’s caused some changes.

    I only have a couple guidelines too: I must enjoy it. It must not be out of character, and I must have reason to play beyond the gameplay itself.

    I’ve played far too many games for the wrong reasons: they were popular and I didn’t want to miss out, they were produced by developers who made stuff I liked in the past, my friends were playing them, etc. It’s led to a simple rule: If it’s not fun then don’t play it. It’s why I’m staying clear of Dark Souls. All my friends rave about how frustratingly hard it is and that somehow because of that it’s good. I just don’t have the patience for that anymore, so Dark Souls would be wasted on me.

    The second is born from experience too. As an example, I’ve never enjoyed a game where I play as a criminal/villain/murderer (I’m talking brutal and murderous, not Sly Cooper). Each time I’ve done it, it’s left a bad taste in mouth. I don’t like it and therefore won’t play a game that puts me in that role. So no GTA, no Prototype, and so on. I don’t have time to waste on it.

    The last is pretty much inline with your second one Cary, what’s a game really worth if it doesn’t engage?

    If I may ask, was this something you were thinking about for a long while or was something that just popped up while playing one day?

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    1. cary says:

      I really like your second point. If I find a game character or cast to be personally distasteful or grating, either in their actions or personalities, then the game gets bonked from my playlist. (No Turok, no Wolfenstein for me. It even happened with Epic Mickey 2 — I found Oswald to be so very annoying, and that made me really sad caught he’s a good character.)

      These thoughts have been percolating in my mind ever since I finished Dragon Age II. And what caused me to finally “vocalize” them was Guacamelee. When I stopped Dragon Age II about halfway through, I couldn’t have disliked it more. It was not fun, engaging, or different. But with Inquisition on the way, I felt like I was obliged to complete it. After a long break, I went back to the game and finished it, but the experience was so very hollow and dismal. I felt like I had truly wasted my time, and it really made me think “what the heck am I doing playing a game I hate?”

      With Guacamelee, it’s hard to explain the turmoil. I love, love, love exploring the game. It’s beautiful and wacky and contains really brilliant moment of gameplay. But I hate, hate, hate the complexity of its controls and that it’ll go from easy to brutal in a matter of levels. I know part of it is my aging reflexes and impatience (which only adds to my own internal frustrations with life in general), but I still feel compelled to complete the game. That I must endure its hardships in order to feel validated. Even though I know just good it will feel upon being victorious, I honestly don’t know if it’s worth it. But thoughts of quitting are heartbreaking. Ugh, talk about a rock and hard place.

      (Man, anyone who says gaming isn’t emotional doesn’t know the half of it!)

      Like

  2. cary says:

    Reblogged this on Recollections of Play and commented:

    In case you hadn’t noticed, I write about video games, a lot. Not a lot compared to some bloggers, but a lot for me. And because I’m the one to blame for starting this train, there are times when I feel that I have to keep it going no matter the cost. In the recent past, this has driven my gaming down a path strewn with debris from the outside. This approach doesn’t quell my inner desire to play as much as it makes me feel like I MUST play only because…I MUST! I MUST CONTRIBUTE TO THE COMMUNITY! That’s all well and good sometimes, but the feelings that comes with this self-fulfilling prophecy turn out to be hollow and meaningless. In this post I wrote for United We Game, I take a step back from my current reality to reflect on why I play games in the first place and to answer the question “what do I want from gaming?”

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