Stephen, Laura, and Chris,
Certainly there are people who devote themselves to plumbing a single video game for months on end, or longer. For my own part, I tend toward video games (and TV shows and comic books) I know are working toward a foreseeable conclusion, because I’m a fatalist and a commitment-phobe.
But I do understand the appeal in the opposite, especially when it comes to persistent online worlds, which might evolve, might fluctuate socially and economically, just as any living world would. The storyline for such a game might seem superficial and beige and incipient, at least to a layperson; only the most dedicated players will eventually be rewarded with intricate, collectible lores and arcane narrative texture. Just as there are players stocking up on rare and legendary loot, there is such thing as story completionists. All these players are experiencing, in essence, a wholly different game—and presumably, a much more gratifying one—than the rest of us ever will.
So I think that’s understandable, Stephen—to, as you say, envy those people who have both free time and diligence enough to pitch themselves headlong into online multiplayer games. Less enviable, though, is being married to one of those people.
Oof! That probably came out wrong.
What I mean to say, without any sardonicism this time, is: 2014 was the year the pause button died.
My earliest inkling was in June, during the Destiny alpha, when my husband-to-be first claimed he could not put the controller down. I blogged about my ire the following month. My husband-to-be eventually gave up Destiny … not for me, but for Elite: Dangerous.
“So,” I said to him wryly, “this is the trade?” For whatever it’s worth, Elite: Dangerous is, by now, at the top of my 2014 video games list, although, like Chris’ list, mine is ordered pretty arbitrarily.
10. Shovel Knight
9. The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo
7. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
6. Pixel Rift, a demo for the Oculus Rift
4. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U
3. Super Smash Bros. for 3DS (I’m just trying to be charming, here)
1. Elite: Dangerous
Both Elite: Dangerous and Destiny are absolute exemplars of persistent worlds—although the latter, Destiny, is so innovative as a genre mashup, the neologism “shared-world shooter” was coined this year just to describe it. But where persistent ought to simply mean “continuous,” both games have taken the word to mean “insistent” instead.
Chris Kohler wrote brilliantly on this subject in his September Wired column, “Destiny Is Great, if You Can Ignore Your Life”:
I stand, throwing my arms in the air. “Who is this for? Whose life does this fit into?” I ask. I am, at this moment, incredulous. We are about to have a baby; I cannot even answer the door. The combination of this blink-and-you’re-vaporized difficulty and an inability to pause the action, it seems to me, restricts Destiny’s audience to people who can afford to shut off the world for vast stretches at a time. This is not a game that wants to fill the odd hours in my life, it demands all of it.
“The game is always afoot,” a representative for Bungie said. “Can’t pause Destiny. Can’t pause Twitter. Can’t pause life.”
That, right there, is a chilling credo. (As one Gamergater tweeted to me, “You never get off this train!” which I think is a reference to The Hunger Games.) While life itself may not have a pause button, I think we can all agree that social media is, at its very worst, often a too-aggressive incursion. Many of us keep tabs on social media out of anxiety: We’re scared of what might happen if we ever look away. That isn’t a good feeling, and I am concerned that, in their hope to be “addictive,” video games are striving to model exactly that. As Kohler wrote: “What if Destiny is successful to the point that this is what big triple-A console games become? Does that just cut me out entirely?”
Other friends—gamers who are fathers, mostly—have wondered the same thing to me about the Oculus Rift. It’s immersive, it’s splendid, but exactly how much of a person’s presence does it subsume? (My husband-to-be uses our Oculus to play Elite: Dangerous and, although we are now much more communicative than we were during his Destiny period, I do shout “Dock! Dock the spaceship! Find a dock!” 15 minutes before I think I’ll need him.)
And yet it might be time for me to concede that this is the new normal. Diablo III and the excellent Divinity: Original Sin both grok that addictive free-to-play/click-for-reward Skinner box. Like Destiny and Elite, they all, as Stephen intuits, do the exact same thing mechanically. And as Laura points out—though this is perhaps not her intent—even a narrative-driven work of magical realism like Kentucky Route Zero rewards both patience and “completionism.” The game drops plot rather than loot.
And of course, there’s the ultimate cookie-clicker game, the summit of completionism—Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, for Android and iOS, pussyfooting its way into my top 10 games of the year. Playing it requires an inordinate amount of time, cash, or both; straying too long from the game might result in dropping from C- to D-list status, which is precisely what happened to me when I took too long to get my shattered Galaxy Tab replaced.
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is the Destiny of mobile games: it uses both grinding and anxiety, just as social media do, to keep its players helplessly hooked. You can’t shut it off; you can either uninstall it or start losing. (And Hollywood notifies you whenever it’s time to play again! How long until shared-world shooters start nagging your iPhone, letting you know the “persistent world” is moving on without you?)
This is the era of the “unpausable,” ushered in by persistent Internet connections, by smartphones and hot spots and the death of disc-based media. There is no excuse not to play, because you are always connected! You are already playing. You are always playing.
Anyway, I also really enjoyed P.T. for PlayStation 4.