There’s no getting around the fact that 2020 has been a rough year. We’ve all taken different avenues through which to weather its storm, and, for many of us, a significant path was paved by video games. We all play for different reasons. In recent times, my compulsion to play has revolved around a desire to witness great storytelling and experience stories that are greater than myself. But this year that compulsion…changed. Because I somehow found myself captivated by two “story-less” (to varying degrees) titles: Grand Theft Auto Online and Fallout 76. As well, while The Elder Scrolls Online is far from “story-less,” my reasons for playing it centered less on reading ESO tales themselves and more about playing with others. Together, this odd trio of games breathed life into an aspect of games that I had always known but never directly acknowledged: the joy of self-direction.
For a long time, video games often followed the rules of a “game,” thereby being something one could either win or lose. “Winning” a video game meant different things, from getting the highest score to saving the princess to beating a final boss. There was usually a set endpoint, a point at which the player could play no further in the game, and the only choice was to start over. Up to just a few years, all the games I chose to play met these criteria. Granted, how I made my way to the end was often my choice, but there was always an end. I couldn’t save the galaxy any more than I already did; I couldn’t become greater than the greatest hero I already was; I couldn’t alter a destiny that had already been written by lawmen or treasure-gathering or princesses in need of saving. Once the game was over, the only choice before me was to start over.
It was through Fallout 76 that I unknowingly took my first step into goal-less gameplay. Pre-Wastelanders, very little direction was given to newly-freed vault dwellers. The only story to follow was that which was left behind by Vault 76’s overseer, and it’s a fine story. But the very world of the West Virginia wildlands proved far more interesting. And even though there were lots more stories to find, I became deeply drawn in by simple act of exploration. Many of my early sessions in Fallout 76 consisted of little more than me (and sometimes my group) looking at the map, setting a waypoint in an unexplored spot, and heading off with both excitement and trepidation. Sure, I followed a few story threads throughout the world, but more often than not, I made my own goals within each session, goals that ranged from “find all the train stations in X region” to “collect enough of X, Y, and Z for crafting.”
With the self-direction bug now caught, I entered The Elder Scrolls Online without a plan. Picking up the version of the game with the Morrowind chapter, my character automatically started on an island called Vvardenfell. I met up with my husband’s new character, and we set off questing. We had no strategy, no direction, no sense of exactly where to go or what we were supposed to be doing, and it was…freeing. It also made the routine-driven part of my burst in madness, just a little, but the freedom from being told what to do and where to go felt fantastic and scary all at once. I was eventually able to let go of the need to play the game “correctly,” and simply play. Was I leveling properly? Who knows! Did I have the best gear? Maybe, and maybe not! Did I have the right quest in queue? No clue! It wasn’t until many levels later that I found out that there is a kinda, sorta, “right” way to play ESO, but by then, it didn’t matter. I had forged my own path in the game; I had found my own “right” way to play along with a new sense of delight for gaming.
If ESO helped water the seed of self-directed gaming planted by Fallout 76, Grand Theft Auto Online brought it to fruition. In it, I was only given two directions: (1) make money, and (2) make even more money in order to become San Andreas’s richest criminal entrepreneur. How that money was made was completely up to me. I could plan and execute elaborate heists, follow a variety of missions given by familiar and unfamiliar NPCs, set up different businesses, race fancy vehicles of all sorts, eliminate gangs, sell goods, or play PVP until the end of time. Or, I could do none of those things and simply cause general mayhem with friends and other acquaintances, and then maybe get a chunk of change for “good behavior.” I might have thought that I had played sandbox games before, but I don’t think I truly understood the concept until GTAO. Since entering its grand arena at level 1, I’ve tried a little of everything, from the different heists to finding collectibles to racing. Each time I log into the game, I have a different experience, sometimes fun, sometimes less so, but never do any of them feel wasted, because each one was my choice.
So much of 2020 has revolved around making choices, maybe it’s only natural that my gaming veered off in this direction, too. There remain parts of me that tug at a need to revisit old friends (in Dragon Age), explore the galaxy one more time (in Mass Effect), take on new challenges from the backlog (too many games to mention!) or simply try something new (got a shiny new Game Pass trial, after all). The year isn’t over yet, and I have no idea how it will all turn out, but I’m thankful that 2020 has been one of the most personally memorable gaming years I’ve had in a long time. ESO, FO76, and GTAO (and hey, you can certainly throw The Sims 4 in there, too!) may just be drops in the bucket, but they are ones that I personally put there, and I’ve no regrets, thankfully.
All images, including lede, were taken by author during PS4 gameplay of Grand Theft Auto Online (© Rockstar Games), Fallout 76 (© Bethesda Softworks, LLC), and The Elder Scrolls Online (©Bethesda Softworks, LLC).