Press Start. Such a simple, innocuous command. A directive that lies at the beginning of any player’s journey into a game, that glorious moment when anticipation transforms into reality, and the analog rubber hits the digital road. So why does this moment terrify
me? Maybe not all the time, but often enough where I find myself playing old, familiar gems, in lieu of That Hot New Game Everyone Is Talking About. It's always perplexed me why I was this way, so I think it's about time to do some soul searching and get to the bottom of it.
First, there's the paradox of choice. As a gamer who came of age in the 8 and 16-bit eras, I grew up with very few games. Christmas and birthdays were my ONLY opportunities to play something new, short of visiting a friend’s house—who also had a paltry selection—or borrowing a game from a classmate via a clandestine trade under the lunch table. As a consequence, I learned to appreciate what I had. Regardless of what awful, worthless hunk of PCB shovelware masquerading as a video game I got from aunt Mabel for my birthday, I went home, crammed that cart into my system and gosh darn it, it didn’t come out until I started having fun. I wrung every drop of enjoyment there was to be had out of those games, and when I beat them, I hit reset and went back for more.
Of course we wouldn’t dream of this now, with backlogs in the dozens, or even hundreds, and the ability to hear about a game in the street and start the download before we even get home. Fat On Games
, indeed. There’s this great TED talk by psychologist Barry Schwartz
on the subject of the glut of choices each of us are faced with every day. From hundreds of options of salad dressing in the grocery isle, to the imprecise science of choosing of which cutting-edge cell phone offers the best features. This bottomless pool of options has given us more freedom of choice than we’d ever know what to do with; and therefore the easiest choice to make, is none at all. There's a great quote in that video by Schwartz that has an almost Buddhist quality in its apparent absurdity/simplicity:
“Everything was better back when everything was worse.”
Another reason I’m a bit reticent to fire up a new game—and perhaps one better saved for my therapist’s couch—is my crippling fear of failure. The allure of experiencing an expansive new world and going on a new adventure is only so appealing until I realize I’m probably gonna suck at playing this game for a few days. Of course this is all understandable, and when you think about it, it's a wonder how adaptable gamers truly are. Continuously learning and internalizing complex systems, rules and techniques until they are mastered—or at the very least skilled enough to perform on reflex. Even similarly-genred first person shooters can be played in radically different ways. A Borderlands isn't a Call of Duty isn’t a Bioshock. Approaching these titles the same way would translate into frustration and many, many deaths. And sometimes, you never quite get the hang of things. My recent playthrough of Sleeping Dogs comes to mind. Learning to drive on the left side was like wiping with my other hand; even when you get the hang of it, it still feels weird, and very often things get messy. And let’s not even get started on fighters…there are few games with learning curves as steep. Hell, I’m sure everyone has that one friend who they've been playing Street Fighter with for 20 years, and for 20 years they’ve been furiously mashing on buttons like a toddler on Redbulls and Ritalin—and beating you most of the time too.
There was supposed to be some sort of picture of Sleeping Dogs here, but any image search of that game gets derailed by disgustingly cute doggies.
Which leads to another frustration that is a fact of life of playing practically any open-world game: getting lost and the feeling of helplessness that comes with it. Every new game is like reliving your first day of school all over again: I've got no friends and what if nobody likes me and where do I go for first period and…ARGH!
You spend the first ten hours with your eyes glued to the map like a snot-nosed freshman, praying you don’t wander into a high level zone where Bad Men will beat the crap out of you and take your lunch money. Why subject myself to all that stress, when just a click away I can be whisked off to a world where everybody knows my name, and my enemies cower whenever I walk into the room? Where with just a snap of my fingers I can incinerate entire armies in a hail of fire and brimstone? I grinded for that power, dammit. It’s MINE. Why relinquish it so easily?
Speaking of insecurities, there’s the ever-present threat of disappointment that looms over every new game. The press hype, the glowing previews, the glorious sneak peeks that are brimming over with bullshot. You really have to ask yourself, how many times has a game met expectations? And how many times have you been let down? Don't they say whole review industry is fixed anyway? Rife with furtive payoffs in backrooms and promises of sparkling 9’s and 10’s and GOTY awards? Nah, I’ll just play Half-Life 2 again. It's never let me down yet.
Here’s another problem I have: Games starting off e-x-c-r-u-c-i-a-t-i-n-g-l-y slow. I don’t know if it’s got something to do with the death of the instruction booklet and the advent of the opening-level training, but a lot of games seem to be intent on holding the players hand for longer and longer periods. I can't count how many times I've poured five, ten hours to a game waiting for it to open up—only to be turned away like a horny teenager in the back of his mom's Camry on prom night. I understand wanting to spread out a game's best parts for pacing's sake, but it shouldn’t take me half a game to get access to all the abilities that make a game what it is. How many times have you gotten a gun or a power or a move very late in the game, and then everything just “clicks.” You finally see the vision of what the designers had planned for the game, and the entire system makes sense. And you're sitting there wondering, WHY THE HELL DID THIS TAKE SO LONG?!!? I'm sure if Mitt was a gamer, he'd call it Trickle Down Gameplay.
Don’t worry kid, you'll get a real one when you're ready.
Why is a guy like Batman leveling up anyway? Isn't he already the World's greatest detective trained in the ninja arts for decades? And yet you have to jump through hoops to 'learn' how to throw a two bit thug across the room.
Welcome to this expansive, exciting world…and here’s your dunce cap and training wheels for the next 7 hours. Try not to poke an eye out on the pointy end, dumbass.
Gameplay isn't the only element that a lot of the time is postponed until the last possible moment. All too often, the story of a game starts off with a bang, a Hollywood blockbuster-esque spectacle even Michael Bay would be proud of. There's a chase sequence on top of a train, filled with dynamite, and the bridge is out—right over the mouth of an active volcano! You fight through a legion of 700 ninjas(mostly by Quick Time Events), but villain just barely gets away with the princess in a helicopter (It's ALWAYS a helicopter.) You're stoked, hands tightly gripped around the controller and ready for the ride of your life. The hero wakes in the starting town, and what do the designers decide is the best course of action to maintain momentum and keep the player's interest? “Dear valiant hero, the one who is destined to save us all, earth's savior and bastion against all that is wrong in the world...would you kindly go kill the rats in my chicken coop?”
The discovery of this prevented me from subjecting you to another one of my awesome photoshops. Thanks Bethesda!
But you do it. Gladly, even. Anything to open up the next leg of the story right? You can't wait to find out the main character's backstory, or the reason the Bad Guy wants to exterminate humanity, or the reason why there's an ancient dragon living in the center of the planet...and then you get another fetch quest. And then another. And another. By the time you realize whats going on, three quarters of the game is over, and you start to wonder if there is no underlying story to this game, but it's just fetch quests all the way down. I'll never be able to figure out why busy work is considered a valid gameplay element in this day and age. A healthy respect of the player's time and dedication to maintaining interest should always be at the top of the list for any game designer.
But short of any real or perceived shortcomings the next game around the corner may have, there's one reason above all that I find myself playing FFVII for the 27th time, or doing yet another run of SMB3 on a lazy Saturday afternoon, or revisiting my town in Animal Crossing yet again, long after I've paid off my debt to that bastard slumlord of a raccoon. It's nostalgia and familiarity.
Leigh Alexander has a great piece on this effect
I believe one of the main drives that enables people to endure is the power of nostalgia. When we were kids, games fascinated, inspired and intrigued us, acting as windows into other worlds. Simple bits, line art and softly glowing green text were the scaffolding we fleshed out with our imaginations. Every single one of us has at least one story about how a game saved a summer, created bonds between friends, between parent and child. We learned the power of this medium in ways we’ll never forget, and that still motivate us today.
Playing a familiar game is like listening to a song you know and singing along. You know when every drum hit comes, and when its time for that awesome high note or guitar solo. There's a rapport that one can only get from knowing every nook and cranny of a game. When every extra life, every shortcut, every warp whistle is yours to wield. No secrets are held, no boss a worthy challenge. Playing something that you know
, know is like seeing the code in the Matrix.
Now is every new game guilty of these problems? Of course not. We are living in the most incredible and exciting time for gaming ever. Am I guilty of complaining about a distinctly #FirstWorldProblem, bemoaning having too many good games to play, clutching childishly to the well-worn blanket of nostalgia? Most likely. Do I have a clinical case of being completely unable to cope with change? Definitely. But whenever I reach for my game rack, and I get that nagging sensation in the pit of my stomach telling me to give that tried and true classic a spin instead of ripping the shrink wrap off that new title, I hesitate. I ask myself what it means, and I've come to the conclusion it all boils down to trust. Trust that I know I'll have fun, trust in my abilities, trust in the memories and experiences which have defined me as a gamer—and that's not a feeling to be taken lightly, right?