I've been playing Mother 3 the past week. It’s been a real unexpected pleasure. I'd forgotten how placid videogames could be – how contemplative and meditative and slow. I bought a bootlegged copy for my old GBA, and have been huddled in the dark with it every night before bed. It’s taken on an almost ritualistic quality for me: taking a few small steps of progress each night, like making an offering to another world's gods.
My default habit at night is to blitz my brain with trash. Eyes scanning vacant on my phone, I try to overload my brain into a depression, then sleep. There are real, tangible benefits to playing on the GBA, or on any device that can’t connect to the internet. It shuts down all possibility of distraction, offering no alternative to what is currently on screen. I don’t know that I would have committed to Mother 3 in the way I have without these restrictions.
I’d forgotten what it was like to sit with still and static pixel art. Taking in the modest sights of the overworld, its small peaks and valleys and thin traces of coastline, you know immediately – without having to think it consciously – that the landscape is here to evoke a mood, not to be meaningfully interacted with. You don’t dive behind rocks for cover, or probe the earth for treasure. You just look.
I’d forgotten what it meant to play within these limitations. I wasn't sure that such a simple mode of representation could excite my curiosity, as it used to in my childhood.
The first games I ever loved were the strange Sims spin-offs for the Game Boy. I remember looking through screenshots online, and being so excited at seeing your character perched atop a cliff, painting a scraggly canvas print of a sunset. 'I want to be there!', I thought. 'I want to do that!'. Looking back now, I notice that the act of looking at the screenshot, and the act of actually, finally, playing the game, were mechanically identical. You walk your Sim over, you tell them to paint, and then you watch an animation which shows them painting. In both the game and the advertisement: you sit, and you look.
I don’t feel cheated by this realisation. It is obvious that playing the game was in fact a substantively different experience from that had with the advert. There didn’t need to be any underlying mechanical complexity for me to engage more meaningfully with the game. It was only in the game that I was asked to identify with the character, and project myself into their world. I was invited to play. That was enough.
Playing my favourite Game Boy games was play, in the purest sense of the word – in the sense of ‘playing house’ or ‘playing doctors’. You didn’t conquer a set of tasks: you imaginatively inhabited a world. Playing through Mother 3 is ‘play’ in this sense, and it’s a type of engagement I haven’t had with games in a long time. Its combat is enjoyable, but as a kind of punctuation, not as the point. It’s there to give a rhythm to your open-ended wanderings. You scan the landscape primarily for its visual pleasures, and the idle fantasies it suggests to you.
I think the game’s graphical and mechanical limitations have been key in pushing me back to this older type of play.
There seems to be an inverse relationship between how much a game’s visuals will provoke my imagination, and how mechanically complex the game is. Playing through Resident Evil 4 in January, I found the visual spectacle that once captivated me – the claustrophobic isolation of a chilly European woodland – was dulled and glossed over by my brain, even while I was looking at it. I found myself falling into a cynical, depressive-realist stupor, where I treated the game as reducible to its mechanics: something to be rinsed dry, engaged with on only the narrowest and most literal terms. I barrelled through as though the visuals were a hollow illusion, a cheap distraction from the game’s true core of maximally efficient play.
If you were to look through my eyes as I was playing, you would see something akin to a developer’s alpha build, with all objects rendered as vague cubes and low-poly spheres, all the fiction and colour stripped out as irrelevant flourish. I treated the game’s framing, its fantasy – the glue holding all my actions together – as irrelevant. The ‘real game’ was to be found in dull mechanical mastery.
Because Mother 3 offers so few modes of engagement with its environment – just the ‘use’ button – I can’t strip the game down to its mechanical ‘core’. I can only sit, and look. Knowing that the visuals exist primarily for their own sake, I feel compelled to value them for their own sake.
It scares me how little I register the art-design of most games I play. The past two months I’ve been trying to practise mindfulness (and have been doing very badly). But it’s highlighted to me how little attention I pay to the video of videogames, and how much ends up in the landfill of my peripheral vision.
The principles of mindfulness – a focussed awareness of your surroundings, stillness, slowing your mind and puncturing your thoughts – are directly opposed to the way I’m usually compelled to play games. To take two random examples (Doom Eternal, Resident Evil 3, both featuring gorgeous art design): success in these games necessitates a hurried accumulation of thoughts – clinging to your thoughts, rapidly pursuing them, jumping from one failed plan to another as they collapse beneath your feet. You play in a frenzied, sugar-starved state of unending anticipation. In this condition I play only half-consciously, and see almost nothing of the world around me. None of the art sinks in unless I choose to stay still.
I don’t know that I’m complaining, exactly. Feeling under siege is explicitly the point of both RE3 and Doom, and both do a fantastic job of pummelling your psychology to fit your assigned role. I guess it’s just strange to me. As a long-time PS3 player, I’m new to the PS4. Slick textures, slicker loading times, the apocalyptic noise and heat of its fan: I’m never not aware I’m causing climate change when I play it. The industry’s push for new hardware is almost solely justified by claims to increased graphical fidelity. I really can’t help noticing then, in the harsh light of the console’s conspicuous excess, and the rainforests I can smell burning in its CPU, the complete failure of its scenery to even register in my eyes. I barely even notice it. It’s obscenely absurd.
By virtue of its simple demands of me, the gentle landscapes of Mother 3 have stayed with me far more.
I have noticed, by the way, that I’ve managed to spend 1000 words talking about Mother 3, without ever once actually talking about Mother 3. Bear with us, I’m sorry; this is the sort of thing you produce when you’re only four hours in to the game, but would nonetheless like to write something. I’m hoping to write more on the game itself soon, when uni finishes for the summer and I have some free time.
But I’d like to quickly return to something I touched on at the start. I feel good when I have played Mother 3. I don’t just feel good when I play it – I feel good when I have played it. I find that the game refreshes and rejuvenates me. This is not something I can say for most games I play.
I find games intensely joyful, and valuable things, but only when I am playing them. Whenever I have to stop, I find they bring a vicious aftertaste. There seems to be a direct correlation between when I play videogames (even only a little, say once a week), and when I become antisocial, brutally irritable, disinterested in life. This is as true of Mario Galaxy as it is of something as wilfully nasty as, say Brutal Doom.
Baruch Spinoza has a really interesting theory of pleasure. Unlike Freud (who thinks of pleasure as ‘the temporary satisfaction of a pre-existing need’), Spinoza sees pleasure as “the experience of the augmentation of the body's capacity to act”. So, for example: when we dance, we feel joy because our capacity to act has been expanded. The music, alcohol, and presence of a crowd, has made possible certain behaviours and emotions that you could not previously have experienced. The same is true of sex, of reading, of talking with a friend. Your body can now do things it could not do in isolation.
Pain, conversely, is to be understood as “the diminution of the body’s capacity to act”.
I wonder if this framework captures something about why I find games both so joyful, and so destructive. Games – whether Mother 3 or Doom Eternal – give me virtual bodies, with the capacity to act in ways I really could not without them. But it is only in a game like Mother 3 that I can take these expanded capacities with me beyond the game. Doom attunes your body to a very particular rhythm, one that finds no parallel in everyday life. Mother, on the other hand, asks for patience and curiosity, for a mindful awareness of very simple visual pleasures. Mother 3 fosters skills and modes of appreciation – expanded capacities – that I can take with me outside of the game; Doom fosters a mindset that primes me to be hostile, self-centred, and impatiently hunting pleasure. My capacity to act in the world – to relate to or even care about other people – is measurably and materially diminished.
I can't seem to neatly segregate games away from the rest of my life. What I do with my free time impacts on my life and personality. I know that many people here grew up in the context of moral panics around videogames, and I sense a resistance to thinking of games in these terms. But it’s not an exaggeration to say that I, personally, come away from action games as an altered person. I’m more liable to see the substance of my life – my friends, education and relationships – as obstacles to the receipt of a more perfect pleasure.
I recognised this years ago. But I set myself up for failure when I understood the task to be rejecting games together, choosing between pleasure and sobriety. That isn’t the task. The task is to brutally excise the pleasures that turn me against my own wellbeing, and cultivate new pleasures: pleasures which are sustainable, but just as overpoweringly joyful and strong. The slower steps of Mother 3 feel like a step in the right direction.
Footnote 1: I wonder what is it that makes action games a sustainable pleasure for other people? I think snobbery and shame and fear of social exclusion are big contributing factors in lowering my mood when I play them. I feel acutely aware that I’m accumulating a set of tastes that aren't appreciated in the world, and that I’m losing the opportunity to develop tastes which are. Maybe those who have games as a shared language with friends don't deal with the lethargy and depression that games induce in me. Playing games actively strengthens their bond with their friends, their capacity to share in a collective joy.
Footnote 2: Andy Kelly’s ‘Other Places’ series is a great example of how much more evocative virtual spaces can be when you’re not burdened with calculating how to make your way through them.