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: Inquisition, Grim Fandango HD, Xenoblade 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.
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.
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.
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?