Lamentations of getting stuck in a video game

VR juggling through portals in Half-Life: Alyx

Do you need a hint?

I’ll be the first to admit that I get stuck in video games a lot, whether it’s a shooter, simulator, or open-world adventure. I am very much cool with the idea of using wikis (you paid for the game — enjoy it how you want), but recently, I’ve been trying to challenge myself more and not get so frustrated when I can’t immediately figure out what to do.

You see, there is more than one way to get stuck in a video game.

The first is when you come up against a challenge you don’t know how to beat. You know exactly what you need to be doing, you just can’t overcome the challenge the game is presenting. Usually this comes in the form of a boss fight or a difficult platforming section — any gameplay section that requires precise inputs and timing will do.

Sometimes it’s just hard

As someone who got into games for their narrative content, this has always been a problem for me. It’s taken literal years of practice to get to the point where I’m somewhat competent at shooting and traversal. My somewhat recent Call of Duty obsession has been a big help, but what really did it for me was getting into Hades at the start of the pandemic.

That game completely changed the way I approach games now. Because of Supergiant’s ingenious modular difficulty settings, I was able to wade into difficult gameplay rather than jumping into the deep end. I loved the gameplay, characters, and aesthetic of Hades enough that I stuck with it for hundreds of hours, all the while working my way up to the coveted 32 heat run. If you haven’t played Hades, that means I completed a run with really, really difficult settings.

Anyway, even with all that practice, I still get stuck on game difficulty constantly. While I’m getting better at keeping my cool, my biggest problem is that I panic when things get intense and resort to button mashing, which is a surefire way to make sure you wind up dead. At least now I’m making myself try and try again, rather than always handing over the controller to a friend the second I get overwhelmed.

The idea that prompted this whole feature in the first place was playing Control and getting stuck on a training course I had to complete to get a power-up. I know, I know, it’s only a training course, but I’ll pin it on the controller because it’s super hard to aim quickly at… stationary targets. Anyway, I told myself I wasn’t going to do anything else until I beat it, and after about an hour and a half and two rage quits, I finally beat it.

Am I better for it? Yes. Is it much easier to do if you’re using a mouse and keyboard? My roommate says yes, so I’m taking that as proof. Not my fault.

Where am I going again?

The second way to get stuck in a game is the classic “I have no idea what to do right now” situation.

This conundrum can occur when you’re, say, stuck in a particularly head-scratching puzzle — or trying to find the dialogue options you need to say in just the right order to progress. Then there’s my least favorite scenario of all: the “what am I supposed to be doing?”

This manifests itself as me running around in circles trying to figure out my objective. Some of the worst cases of this happen in linear narrative games where I can’t figure out the one way I’m supposed to go — like the time I was playing The Last of Us and spent a good twenty minutes wandering around, only to find the way forward was a waist-high hole in the wall marked with yellow caution tape. I get pretty annoyed at how hand-holdy objective markers can be, but every once in a while I find myself wishing I had a little bit more direction.

A lot of what makes games fun is their ability to make us feel like our interactions with a virtual world/story/interface matter, whether they “really matter” or not. Things start to get a bit wonky, then, when we don’t engage with the game the way its designers wanted us to, whether we’re doing that intentionally or not.

The interesting thing about being stuck is that for the most part, games aren’t designed for us to remain static. With few exceptions, the whole point of an interactive medium is that we’re supposed to engage with a game and move it forward — whether it’s through its mechanics, story, environments, etc.

Games are about change

Games thrive on the idea of change. Think leveling up, or getting closer to that landmark in the distance, or the character changes that happen as you progress through a story. Getting stuck in a video game is not (usually) part of the plan. They’re not designed for us to just sit there and do nothing. (Although some games have used the subversion of this idea to great effect). Even games where you spend a lot of time in one place, like a simulator, rely on constant change surrounding your home base, whether it’s while you’re there or not.

So, when we don’t progress through a game in the way that the developers intended, the game turns into something of a liminal space — whether you’re doing it intentionally or not. Often characters will start idling, scratching their heads, or shuffling their feet, to highlight their unnatural lack of movement. Sometimes they start outright talking about what they need to be doing next, giving a not-so-subtle hint to help confused players. In rare cases, they’ll speak directly to you.

I love the inclusion of details like this because the developers not only had to think about how to nudge stuck players forward, but also because they’re inadvertently acknowledging the idea that “you’re not supposed to be here this long.” It’s a characteristic of the medium that we discuss in theory a lot, but not as much in practice: the game can’t exist without the player, because it physically cannot progress without active inputs, whatever those might look like. How cool is that?

Getting stuck in a video game can be voluntary (and fun)

With the growing popularity of practices like speedrunning (which I happen to love), in-game timers, and self-imposed challenges, I feel like we’re constantly being rushed through games. This is especially true when there are so many of them out there, it’s to your benefit to get through one as quickly as possible to move on to the next.

Personally, I love taking my time in a game. If I’m playing a game for its immersive, interactive world, I’m damn well gonna slow down and enjoy it. I’m known among friends for not being the most efficient of players, but I find a lot of enjoyment in games by sometimes just standing around an environment and wondering what it’s like for the NPCs to inhabit that space. That’s the last type of stuck: the self-imposed one.

There’s something fun about pushing back on what a game expects of you and simply soaking it in for a while. If you’re not prone to stopping and smelling the roses, I recommend going to a beautiful environment in your favorite game and chilling there for a while. Sometimes, being stuck isn’t so bad.

Noelle Warner