Rekindling the Videogame Flame

Unlike listening to music, watching movies, or reading, I recently got to a point in which I simply couldn't stand to spend another minute playing videogames. In fact, I actually went nearly four months without picking up a controller to play a single game that I wasn't being paid to write about for work. It's easy to blame this on the dearth of good summer games, the scores of uninspired sequels to last year's sequels, or even just a shifting of priorities in my personal life. And while it's true that I did spend an abundant amount of time mountain biking this year, this is hardly the reason for the falling-out I've had with my lifelong hobby.

Looking to my left I see a bookshelf weighed down with nearly 400 games for consoles ranging from the Sega Master System to the Microsoft Xbox. I've actually seen the credits roll on a scant fraction of them and many are still in shrinkwrap. Based on conversations I've had online with other gamers -- one who had taken to referring to this phenomena as his "Shrinkwrap Shrine" -- I know I'm not alone. The notion of buying more games than we can possibly finish is a problem that seems to be afflicting many adult gamers and it, in my opinion has two root causes. It's important to distinguish between the unfinished game and the unopened game. I'll address the latter first.

Rags to Riches
Ever since I was a twelve year old subscriber to Nintendo Power, I've been an avid fan of videogames and have spent a small part of nearly every day seeking out information on upcoming releases. When I was a kid, I would read the game rags cover to cover, clip out previews, study screenshots, and ultimately decide upon the handful of games that I would strive to get in the upcoming year. After all, I was reliant primarily on my birthday and Christmas to increase my games collection and, knowing that a new game could be months away, I played each game repeatedly. It wasn't enough to complete the Legend of Zelda, but I strove to beat it on a single life. It wasn't enough to see the end credits of Life Force one time, but I made them roll nearly every day for several weeks straight. Similarly, I knocked Mike Tyson to the mat hundreds of times. And so did all the other kids I knew.

Flash forward to today. I'm a grown man with above-average household income and have the independence to purchase whatever games I so choose. Although I've recently made an effort to limit the number of games I purchase, for several years it was not uncommon for me to buy a new game every week or two. After all, one doesn't accumulate 80 Playstation 2 titles by filling out Christmas Lists and crossing their fingers. What myself and, I believe, many other adult gamers have experienced is a subconscious urge to swing the pendulum as far as it will go away from the gaming habits of our youth. We've paid our dues as children. We spent weeks if not months playing the same game repeatedly -- perhaps obsessively so -- and nobody is going to make us do it again. So we use our not-always-so-discretional income to buy every game that sparks our interest. We don't save money to buy a game. We don't wait for a special occasion. A run to the game store to check out the new releases every Tuesday has become as noneventful as stopping for milk and bread on the way home from work.

I could write a book on the many ways in which Americans have elevated the act of spending money to an artform, and the ease at which myself and my fellow gamers drop $50 on a new videogame would be right up there with in-car plasma televisions. For some, there is no shame in having a collection of unopened games. Some find it a reason to brag. I find it embarrassing. And despite having recently bought a stack of games at the big annual sale at Toys R' Us, the game I'm playing the most right now has been on my shelf unopened for nearly 4 years. It's the original Ratchet & Clank for those who are curious and it's just as good today as the reviewers said it was back in 2001. What this has taught me is that just because I didn't play the game when it was new, doesn't mean I need to rush out and buy the newest installment. The original can still knock your socks off. And I admit, this advice sounds rather obvious, and almost cliche, but until you dust off an overlooked game and give it a try you might find yourself continuing to spend more money adding to your collection than you spend time enjoying those games you already have.

Getting Over the Hump
One of the reasons we gamers buy so many games is that our attention spans have shrunk and we are more easily frustrated. Just as we have perfected the art of spending money, we have also developed very narrow ranges of acceptance as to what constitutes a good game, or even one that is deemed playable. Many times I find myself playing a game and actually looking for things to criticize about it. The camera isn't perfect, the controls are unintuitive, the enemy intelligence is weak, the graphics bland, the sound effects are canned, the save system is annoying, etc., etc. And instead of being entertained -- which is the ultimate goal of playing videogames as far as I'm concerned -- we're annoyed and frustrated. Granted, there are some really bad games out there that aren't worthy of our time, but for the most part we do it to ourselves.

Recently, I have made a conscious effort to leave one game in the Xbox, the Playstation 2, the Gamecube, and the Nintendo DS and not remove it until I have completed it. I rotate between the consoles depending on my mood and make sure to have a stylistically unique game in each system. For example, right now I'm playing Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, Ratchet & Clank, Ribbit King, and Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow on these machines, respectively. Since I've begun this force-gameplay I've completed Trace Memory on the Nintendo DS and am near completion on most of the forementioned games.

It's hard work to stick with a game when you have dozens of other games that you might want to dust off or go out and buy. So why do it? If we continue to allow ourselves to get so easily frustrated and so quick to "shelve" a title, all we're going to do is spend more and more money on games that will most assuredly meet the same end -- unfinished and dusty. I'm not suggesting that all games deserve to be finished and that spending moeny is a bad thing. Definitely not, but we need to do a better job of becoming self-aware.

Through my experiment these past couple weeks I have noticed something. Each and every time I have the urge to toss a controller or unleash a profanity-laden tyrade in the direction of the game console, it was because I was at the hump. You know the hump. It's the point in the game where for some reason the difficulty curve has dramatically steepened; or perhaps too many gameplay elements were clumsily introduced simultaneously; or perhaps where the gameplay briefly takes a stroll in left field. It's easy to become frustrated when hitting the hump. But, as I have found recently, the hump is often short-lived and it seems that not only do games get progressively more enjoyable on the other side of the hump, but they also get easier. The key is to acknowledge this spot as the hump, take a break from it, and come back to it fresh and positive. Accept that it might be frustrating and that it might not meet your lofty expectations, but also understand that it will likely get better again soon.

I recently hit the hump on Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath. I was starting to think the game was rubbish, that the reviewers were all on crack, and that the game was as annoying as could be. This was at approximately the fourth or fifth bounty mission in the game. But rather than shelve it and miss the majority of the experience, I simply went and played some Ribbit King and came back to it the next night. I ultimately summited the hump and a switch inside me was thrown. A connection was made. I have become one with the controls, more understanding of the gameplay, and feel as if I now know exactly what the developers expect of me. And I'm enjoying myself. I look forward to completing this game sometime this week.

The Kiss Goodnight
As someone who has been authoring videogame strategy guides for over 5 years now, it is entirely possible that my experiences with leisurely gaming are vastly different from the average gamer. I am often told by people that they can't believe I actually play games in my spare time, as they wouldn't dare perform their job duties as a hobby. This is where that whole issue of "passion" comes in. We see it mentioned all the time in interviews with game developers and even on some company websites as a fundamental job requirement. I was losing the passion. And despite still continuing to play games and forever buying new games, I think many other gamers have lost the passion as well.

Like any relationship, we need to work on it to make it work, to keep those flames of passion alive. By acknowledging what I was doing wrong with my approach to this wonderful hobby, I have not only rekindled my excitement for gaming, but I'm also finishing games. And, perhaps more importantly, I’m enjoying my time with them more than ever. In a perfect world, games wouldn’t have a hump or forever be tempting us with ever-shinier graphics and bullet-point features that don’t live up to the hype. But this world isn’t perfect and, as consumers and enthusiasts, we need to do right by ourselves. As I see it, we have a choice. We could forever be chasing the next great game and continue our downward spiral of pessimism or we could embrace the fact that ultimately, an hour’s worth of hump-ified frustration with a title is worth the satisfaction of having a completed game on the shelf and perhaps a number of hours of enjoyment.

3 comments:

theoneandonlyfetalpig said...

Hello Doug-

I came across your article via Dubious Quality, and I enjoyed it. For me, that period came in high school. I spent way too much money on PlayStation games, and by the time I sold them (I got a Dreamcast, VMU, Onimusha, extra controller and Ready 2 Rumble Boxing for $.09 after massively bad choice in trade-ins) I had well over sixty, mostly purchased new, and largely unbeaten. While I didn't quite have enough games (or better things to do) that I wouldn't bother opening them, Very few ever were actually played more than once or twice, and any sort of hump usually turned me off to them for good. It always took something really extraordinary to keep me going, where in the Genesis days I would keep at the same thing, so I definitely empathize with that.

Quick attempts at satisfying curiosity follow:

Tell me, by the time you finish assembling a guide, how sick are you of a game, what sorts of games, if any, still manage to hold some appeal? I'm normally not one to beat a game to the one hundredth percent (especially without some sort of fantastic reward beyond a little pride), so being forced to do it is interesting. How much involvement do the developers have in making sure the guide is complete? Does it vary widely?

I didn't read the rest of your posts yet, but if you haven't already, I would love to read one about a behind-the-scenes look into the guide-making process, as I often would buy the guides to games I'd barely play on a whim (once I bought one for a game I thought I had, but didn't, whoops), and sometimes got more enjoyment out of them than the game itself (I'm a real sucker for the nuts and bolts part of RTS games, for example).

Anyhow, keep up the good work!

Yarac said...

Doug,

I'm going to have to disagree with you here. Just as a bad book is a bad book, and a bad movie is a bad movie, forcing yourself to complete a bad game is a complete waste of time.

But that's the obvious. Let's deal with the not so obvious, such as games/movies/books that are universally considered classics.

Most people feel obligated to appreciate the classics, knowing that others have found valuable material within them, and hoping that we will too. So we persevere even though we aren't enjoying it.

The point is that we relate to the classics in different ways at different times in our lives. Forcing ourselves to complete a classic just for the sake of completion is often useless.

However, years later, something may happen in your life that suddenly makes the classic's message crystalize. That's the time to go back and complete it.

My point - try as much as you want so you know what's out there, but don't finish it unless (or until) it speaks to you.

zeros said...

I disagree with yarac's suggestion that a game should not be finished until it "speaks" to the player. Games are a unique medium in that progressing in a given title often requires acquisition of new skills and adaptation to unusual gameplay details. This is unlike movie watching or reading in the sense that the mechanics of each activity are basic and do not change. Sure, a difficult text may necessitate additional information or "higher level" vocabulary than the reader/viewer may be armed with, but he is not re-learning how to read. I liken playing through the "hump" to learning an instrument, or any unfamiliar mechanical process.

Also, games are arguably more dynamic than movies and books in the feature of interactivity. A game may be blessed with a brilliant narrative, but certain gameplay details may frustrate its telling. In this case, playing through the "hump" allows access to a games good, maybe even redeeming, qualities.