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Doing it right - whatever "right" is
Playing video games isn't my job, even when I write about it for a newsletter. But how did I get to a point where it DOES feel like one? Can that be fixed?
I bought The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky on November 24, 2016; It cost me $10.99. I picked it primarily because the hype around the sheer volume of the dialogue, and the depth that side characters and NPCs got, aside from the main story. Always having a reason to talk to people, and seeing them have their own little stories progress in parallel with my own adventures, was something that few RPGs do right.
While I won't disagree with that hype, I still haven't completed it. It's not a long game (for an RPG), with the average HowLongToBeat being 40 hours; considering I just polished off 80 hours with Baldur's Gate 3 over the last month, it shouldn't have lasted this long.
That "you have to play it, dude" has kind of become a weight around the game because it's become another example of my struggle to "play something properly." I've written about this in the past, but especially after finishing Baldur's Gate 3, I've realized that it's gotten worse.
In an effort to make sure that I don't have to play a game again (in order to get it off my backlog, and to move on to something else), I end up using walkthroughs to the point of not interacting much with choices that are the whole point of the experience.
Especially for longer titles, I'm treating the enjoyment of these games as a job: play it, get what you're supposed to out of it (whatever that may be), be able to talk about it, but don't have to play it again. Do everything you can in one playthrough.
This is starting to feel a bit bad, because it’s almost defeating the purpose of gaming as a hobby. I’m still in “gotta do this and make it work for me” mode.
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I've seen a lot of tweets recently that touch on this kind of feeling: "Gaming is not as good as it used to be", or the feeling that as we age, the desire to "keep up" has forced us into habits that defeat the purpose of play. I tend to like RPGs because of their expanded focus on story and in theory, player choice: the irony is that I find myself looking up optimal builds, the "correct" choices, or the way to get through something with as little combat as possible because that tends to drag time on.
In Baldur's Gate 3, this resulted in a jack-of-all-trades character that got the "best" endings possible for all parties involved. Almost every quest was accompanied with a tab open in another monitor with a wiki page.
In Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, this involved making sure I was gathering all the materials needed for the "true" ending of the game, which I likely never would have found otherwise. With Trails in the Sky, I'm literally going through the motions, going where a walkthrough is telling me, and completing every sidequest I can, just to say "I've done it all, and I never have to touch it again."
The funny thing is, all those statements make it sound like I hate these titles, and I don't. I actually enjoy them, but find myself saying "Alright Matt, engage properly" and having to consciously say "You're not wasting your time if you don't see everything at once."
I don't know whether this is video games becoming less of a hobby for me, or whether I've fallen prey to the commodification of a hobby. I've written about the latter multiple times, and it's very interesting to me to see others not being able to name the urge to contentify their experience, primarily for social media. The democratization of content creation means that every experience needs to be shared — by stream, video, or tweet — because there's something that can be claimed from it — money, clout, or camaraderie.
I'm mostly curious about whether this kind of feeling can be reversed, and whether younger gamers are going to have this kind of experience baked in so thoroughly that the "playing for the point of playing" doesn't even cross their mind.
That desperation to associate my time with value comes from an insecurity that I could be doing all I could in order to get as far as I can. Obviously, that's something that's my own problem, and exacerbated by the exposure to other peoples' success on social media.
My only real recourse is further self-awareness in the moment — locking myself in positions where I can't modify the game to experience everything, or look up the most optimal solutions.
I think that's why I keep coming back to Death Stranding as perhaps my most-enjoyed game of the last few years: there's no absolutely-optimal way to do a route, and your goal is much about helping other people as it is about clutching a specific timer for that latest "Legend of Legend of Legend" emblem beside your ID. The experience is inherently rewarding, and I don't feel the need to prove to anyone that I'm "doing it right."
I've been pondering what exact "reward" I get from consuming games in "the right way", and have landed on a couple things:
Time: The ability to say that I have experience all I can in one 60 hour playthrough instead of two 40 hour playthroughs means that I can move on to experiencing other things in a shorter timeframe.
Social Utility: More things consumed (and speaking to point #1, in a shorter time frame) means I have more expertise, and a bigger variety of things to talk about. This maybe isn't as big of a deal if you aren't writing about games, but there's always that feeling of "this person has consumed a lot, and is able to speak on them; they must know their stuff."
Peace of Mind: If it's "done", it's "done" for good. Unless there's specific choices that require commitment (ie, a "good" vs "evil" character), if I'm getting everything done in one run, I know that I can comfortably leave the game behind.
Even typing that #3, I'm thinking "Matt, why would you want to do that if it was an enjoyable experience?" Isn't that why I keep going back for hikes in Death Stranding? If I suddenly "completed it all", wouldn't I be a little disappointed that there wasn't something left to do?
And in the vein of “being able to talk about it means I can make stuff out of it, which means I could make money, and be more stable, which means…”, there’s obviously something to address that isn’t a game’s (or gaming in general’s) fault; a hobby that gives me entertainment isn’t the only way I can resolve the kind of financial insecurity that makes people monetize their hobbies.
I wonder if there's just a hesitance in some cases, like with Trails in the Sky, that I'm generally not enjoying it, which in turn means that "my taste is shit", because other people regard it highly. That insecurity has always been present with me, and it's kept me from engaging with things I'm only maybe 5/10 interested in, but could potentially enjoy more.
I watched the entirety of The Orville late last year and have been going through the first season of The X-Files specifically to combat this "I'm only 5/10 interested, I'm just not going to start, because it might be a waste of time." While I can't say that The Orville was an all-time favourite show, I definitely enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and it gave me a greater appreciation for why I liked Star Trek: The Next Generation. With The X-Files, I can say that I'm liking it enough to write episode recaps, even though I haven't touched it in months (since I got a new job).
This piece came about because now that I'm done Baldur's Gate, I want to knuckle down and finally kill that Trails in the Sky demon in my Steam backlog; I just felt it was a little unfair to characterize it as such when it's a fine, interesting and unique RPG.
I just can't help but wonder how I'm going to feel when it's done: relieved? Indifferent? Resentful that it took me that long? In reality, it's it's not Trails in the Sky's fault that I'm arguably playing games "wrong"; I also want to keep those feelings from creeping in to more games that don't deserve it.