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Meaningful Experiences

I was browsing Kotaku the other day, and a paragraph struck me:

Nobody ever asks why anyone stopped playing Halo 2. No response would merit it. The game came out in 2004, and three years later, there was Halo 3. At some point, it got old. Another game came along. Friends moved on. It was just a thing you did, and then you went and did something else.

This is something I struggle with, internally. Not Halo 2, but with the general concept.

I used to play a lot of Counter-Strike back in the day. So much so that I was extremely bitter when version 1.6 came out and changed the way a lot of the guns fired (1.5 for life). I transitioned into Warcraft 3-modded Counter-Strike servers – Night Elves went invisible when they stopped moving, Undead had low-gravity and regain health when dealing damage, etc – before finally moving on entirely to Battlefield 2. I played that damn near daily for like four years. Then Magic Online for a while, then World of Warcraft for a decade.

Looking back, what can I even say about any of those decades of gaming?

“I had fun playing Counter-Strike.” Maybe someone else can say “me too,” and then commiserate about X or Y change in the intervening years. But that’s it. We can’t really share our experiences in any further detail – you had to be there in that moment, else it’s just a vague sentiment, if one tries to communicate the feeling at all. WoW is different in the sense that I eventually met my guildmates in the real world – and invited each other to our weddings – but I can’t imagine meaningfully talking with some random WoW player on the street.

Contrast that with, say, any of the Final Fantasy games. Or Silent Hill. Or really any single-player, narrative experience. If someone says their favorite game is Xenogears, I could meaningfully talk with them for hours. We could discuss our favorite team compositions, how shocked we were about X revelation, how funny the mistranlations were, and so on. That means something in a way that “This one time on de_dust…” does not. We played the same game, but had different experiences.

At the same time, I don’t want to denigrate other peoples’ experiences. I wouldn’t suggest that someone hiking in the woods or fishing is wasting their time, despite those discreet events being equally ephemeral and unrelatable. There are people who simply enjoy wandering around virtual worlds, like there are people wandering around the real world. If that’s what you like, keep doing it.

I worry about myself though. I started Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice the other day, and enjoyed the play session. After that, it’s been days and days of Slay the Spire (Ascension 12 with the Silent) and 7 Days to Die. The latter is especially egregious, considering it is in an unfinished Alpha state. Why not put it down and go back to Hellblade, which is – by all accounts – a much deeper experience? Because, in that moment, these other (potentially vapid) experiences are 5% more pleasurable.

“If you’re having fun, what does it matter?” Well… wirehead. Also, having fun, in of itself, is not relatable. Which, I suppose, belies an underlying desire of mine to be relatable or at least capable of conveying relatable experiences. Even if there were people who wanted to read “I had fun playing videogames today,” I wouldn’t want to write just that. There should be something more.

I dunno. It would be one thing if the dilemma was between playing videogames and completing some meaningful task IRL. It’s not. There is nothing more #firstworldproblems than angst surrounding which two leisure activities provides the most long-term utility. Nevertheless, the worry exists, alongside a deeper one as to whether wirehead experiences have increased my fun tolerance beyond the reach of narrative games altogether. Or perhaps I am simply playing the wrong narrative games.

Slain Spire

Remember when I said I wouldn’t buy Battlefield 5 because it would consume all my free time but not “accomplish” anything? Well, I did resist the purchase…

…and promptly put like a dozen or so “empty” hours into Slay the Spire instead.

I think my total hours /played in Slay the Spire at this point is north of 50 hours. Those are rookie numbers compared to Zubon at Kill Ten Rats, who probably put more hours into writing Slay the Spire posts last year than I have playing the game. Which it entirely deserves, by the way – it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s just not a novel experience (to me) anymore, and yet I feel compelled to boot it up any time I spend more than thirty seconds looking at my Steam library.

That’s probably a sign of good game design.

Last year, the devs at MegaCrit tweeted that they were looking at a Switch and mobile version of the game after coming out of Early Access. It’s 2019 and the game is still in Early Access, although there has been a third class added and, more recently, Steam mod support. If and when Slay the Spire ever receives a mobile port, is likely the day that I earn a Corrective Action Report at work.

I can’t wait. Because then I might be able to get home sated, and ready to play something else.

More Than Fun

Some people play videogames just to have fun. I am not one of them.

Have you ever listened to a mindless comedy sketch or watched a show like America’s Funniest Home Videos (or equivalent)? Or realized that you somehow sat through the national average of 5+ hours of television a day? I always feel empty inside afterwards – I had “fun” in the moment, but then the moment is over and the fun evaporates as if it never existed. Because arguably it never did.

To me, having fun isn’t enough. I am not in search for some meaningless amusement to while the time away until oblivion; if that is all you’re looking for, I might recommend heroin or masturbation. I am looking for fun + X, where X is something I am going to remember more than five seconds into the refractory period. It doesn’t always have to be a profound, life-changing epiphany. It just has to be something.

Some people just view videogames as entertainment. Games are certainly that. But they don’t have to be just that however, and I would say that they shouldn’t be just that. If something can be more, it should be more.

I want games that set fire to my imagination, that grip me emotionally, that change the way I look at the world, that make me want to be a better person. I will also settle for games that break new ground or do familiar things in clever ways. The world has plenty enough slot machines and similar wirehead simulators; we don’t need more Loot Caves, we need more Plato Caves.

Are there better avenues than videogames to sate these desires? Maybe. Books have been changing peoples’ lives for thousands of years, for sure. At the same time, I don’t see a particularly compelling argument that we need sequester life-affirming experiences to one particular medium or another. As we have seen, games can be accessible in ways that Tolkien (etc) may not be. A substitute, even a poor one, is often better than nothing.

If you say such games do not exist, I will disagree. I have played them. Chances are you have played them too. They will be the ones at the top of your “most favorite games” list. They will be the titles you still think about and talk about decades after you stopped playing them.

There is a time and a place for the Flappy Birds and Candy Crush Saga games of the world, don’t get me wrong. But just like this compilation video of guys getting hit in the balls, you’re going to turn it off and feel nothing. Except, perhaps, remorse.

TitanSide PlanetFall

After gorging myself on Titanfall for the past few days, I just wanted to re-affirm my impressions from earlier.

This = Very Fun

This = Very Fun

Essentially, Titanfall is the quintessential wirehead game: an absolute orgy of sensory experiences surrounding a hungry engine of time destruction. Respawns take less than five seconds. Time-to-Kill is better measured in mouse clicks. The game is so frantic and fast-paced that the 90 seconds inbetween matches feels like an eternity. This is the sort of game where nobody would have time to type “GOGOGO” if there were even a chat interface in-game, which there isn’t. There’s one in the lobby, but it’s sole function seems to be pre-game prognosticating (“Lame, they have two G6 players. GG”) and post-game trash talking/ragequits. There is also voice chat, but it too seems superfluous – what sort of coordination is possible or even necessary when your foes could be cloaked and across the map in 15 seconds or less?

I have never owned a Call of Duty or Medal of Honor game, so this could all be old news for some of you. I cut my teeth on Counter-Strike and Halo and Battlefield 2 which, at least back in the day, seemed to take a bit longer.

This = Less Fun

This = Less Fun

What is somewhat sad is my motivation for playing the game. Essentially, I’m playing it as a PlanetSide 2 substitute. They aren’t really comparable games at all, but sometimes you just want to shoot people in the face, sci-fi style. PlanetSide 2 was failing on the “people to shoot” front, and there is every indication that it’s eternal beta is catching up with it. Specifically, either it’s hemorrhaging players or hemorrhaging paying customers (or both). Anything less than a 24v24 hex is a waste of time, and even the few freebie kills from the spawn room of hopeless defenses is losing its luster.

And by the way, can I just reiterate how asinine faction-specific game experiences can be? I chose VS more than a year ago and have almost all of my unlocks and such spent on that character. There is not a single moment in which I have not regret that choice. I have infinite more fun on my TR and NC alts based solely on their faction-specific missile launchers. Infinite! About the only redeeming factor for VS is the Lasher (which is garbage 98% of the time) and the fact that the Scythe fighter jet thing doesn’t have bars across the cockpit windows. That’s it. A single TR or NC dude with a rocket launcher is a threat; a single VS dude with a missile launcher is a threat 10 minutes from now.

I brought up the Titanfall vs PlanetSide 2 comparison for another reason: I’m realizing the inherent imbalance of level-based unlocks. In Ps2, you are given a menu to select upgrades from. In Titanfall, you unlock things at certain levels, or occasionally based on achievements. I recently unlocked Satchel charges, for example, and it is better than grenades by a factor of a little over 9000. Most upgrades are technically sidegrades-with-downsides, but usually you’ll find that you can more than compensate for the trade-off. What you can’t really compensate for is that your guns or whatever can/will be weaker than those who played longer.

In any case, the one thing Titanfall absolutely must fix (and soon) is it’s utterly repulsive and/or non-existent matchmaking system. There is a “beta” version out there for Attrition and Hardpoint modes, but I cannot begin to imagine what that is supposed to mean in any context. Is it really that difficult to not have matches like this:

This = Rage Quit Worthy

This = Rage Quit Worthy

Those special symbols are sorta like the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer tags, e.g. it denotes a player who hit level 50 and reset their progress to level 1. After “Generation 2” it also requires you to earn 4-5 special achievements in order to unlock the, ahem, next generation. It’s not fucking titan science to, you know, spread those guys around. Hell, I don’t even care if the G5 player is a skill-less noob somehow (pretty difficult to imagine), it’s just goddamn demoralizing heading into a 6v6 match of any kind looking down that sort of barrel. Give us the G5 and G2 and let them keep the G4 and G3. Bam! Balance! What’s worse is that you’re stuck in the same lobby of people from match to match unless you specifically leave, which tends to cement the winning teams harder and harder.

Anyway: Titanfall. Shooty-shooty, explosions, instant-kill jump kicks, wall-running. I spacebar through the 5-second kill cams so I can perma-sprint into the adrenalin high faster.

Wirehead

I have obviously been posting a lot about Guild Wars 2, mainly because that is what I have been doing for the last few weeks. There are some additional such posts in the pipeline. But behind all this seeming enthusiasm lies the similar feeling of… offness that Spinks talked about.

While playing, I feel an irrational need to hit every resource node I come across. It feels good. Which is… good. Fine. But when I think about the game as a whole, I see no future in it for me. So many people online and in-game mention that the lack of endgame progression is not an issue because you are not paying a subscription. “Just stop playing.”

…but this is an MMO.

An MMO, to me, makes no sense to play sporadically. If you are not committed to the idea of playing often (or everyday), what are you doing? Why am I hitting resource nodes and selling things and hoarding gems if I will be uninstalling in a few months? Doing something only tangentially fun for weeks (e.g. dailies) makes sense to me if your final reward is something you can reasonably use for X amount of time. If you immediately stop after achieving the goal, my time retroactively feels wasted.

Nevermind how the “community” aspect is supposed to develop without player continuity.

Think about Tiny Tower, or 10000000, or any number of “time-management” iOS games. I bought 10000000 off of a Penny Arcade recommendation, and it is basically Bejeweled with RPG elements. I got really into it, maximizing resource gains, plotting out upgrades, “grinding,” and so on. Then I won. And felt empty.

I get post-game depression fairly often, a vague feeling of loss. Even if I had fun along the way, the post-game mood usually makes me question why I bothered in the first place. What mitigates such feelings is usually the sense that I still accumulated something, be it twitch-skills from FPS games (pro skills from Counter-Strike carry over into Battlefield 3, etc) or the experience of a story in the case of many RPGs or proper books. I played Xenogears over a decade ago for 80 hours one time, and I still think about it occasionally.

I will not think about Tiny Tower or 10000000 a decade from now. Nor, potentially, Guild Wars 2. Those games were/have been/are fun to play, respectively. But I am not looking for opportunities to kill time with amusing diversions. I do not have enough time, in fact. What I am looking for are opportunities to “invest” my time, or at least a simulation thereof, while having fun too.

Scott Adams once quipped that the last invention humanity will ever make is a Holodeck. As soon as that was built and marketed, humanity would collectively starve to death inside a Holodeck two weeks later. The future is actually much simpler than Holodecks or realistic VR headsets and such – the future is a wire in your brain that stimulates your nucleus accumbens directly. Watching college sports or playing MMOs or contemplating the vastness of the universe are all primitive methods of manually fondling your glands. The dark secret of The Matrix is that the overlay was completely unnecessary – a little bit of electricity in the right spot removes the inefficient middleman of reality.

The above may seem a non sequitur, but here is the connection: I feel Guild Wars 2 is simply a wire in my head. It generates good feelings, but doesn’t mean anything. It is a personal problem, of course. But all problems are ultimately personal problems. And I grow increasingly weary of doing fun things while simultaneously waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Playing Guild Wars 2 feels like going to Disneyland ahead of the apocalypse.

“So stop playing.” I’m sorry, I cannot hear you over the humming of this wire in my head.