Electron Dance
2Aug/10Off

The Second Game

2000

I loved being a foreigner.

When I moved to Tokyo for my employer, I left behind possessions, a relationship and a whole way of life. The British contingent of our Tokyo office socialised, went places and did stuff as often as it could, a sort of professional replay of our student years. Conversation no longer covered sport or last night's telly: we talked about asking at a Koban where the train station was in Japanese, we talked about braving natto at our favourite izakaya, we talked about the Japanese women in the office putting out Valentine's Day chocolates with the note "Happy VD" attached. You can't have conversations like this living in your own country.

Despite the joy of having no possessions to own me, a year into my tour of duty I found myself buying a PC. And I began playing games again. The full-blooded environments of Thief and GTA III were astonishing. I excavated their experiences completely, devoting all the hours required to know them.

I wanted their secrets.

2005

I wasn't happy returning to the UK and having to stop talking about Japan. Back here there's only so many times you can start a conversation with "When I lived in Tokyo..." before you burn out your audience. I was thinking ahead: I never had any intention to settle in Japan, a sure fire way to turn your love for the country into something more negative.

There was also a Mrs. HM in my life now. You know you have chosen well when your wife is unable to stop playing the original Thief until 5am.

I played Thief: Deadly Shadows after Mrs. HM had completed it. Hints had been dropped on the internet about some awesome level, something about a cradle, something more frightening than the stunning Haunted Cathedral of the original game. When I reached this fabled level, it was too late in the evening to play through it.

But such hunger to taste just a small bite of Shalebridge Cradle! I wanted at least one scare out of it before heading off to bed. A quick jog into the level and I was surprised to find nothing surprising. I kept looking around for a hair-turn-white moment and eventually found a staircase. So as not to spoil it for those who have never experienced it: what happened on that staircase maxed out my adrenaline.

But I wanted more and continued to run around, seeking out more scares. I realised slowly, with dread, that I had destroyed this, the most anticipated of levels. I had run around an environment designed for a player with tentative, respectful steps, rewarding him or her with heart-stopping levels of sweaty fear. The Cradle was about atmosphere and anticipation. Broken. Ruined. Killed. The Big Mac approach to playing games.

What I didn't know at the time was that this was a glimpse of my future.

2008

Rock Paper Shotgun is the devil on your shoulder that whispers: 'Wouldn't that be a nice game to play, don't you think?'

It was RPS who made me ask family to get Sins of A Solar Empire for Christmas. As a game, it was a lot to pick up and learn, particularly as Sins was my first foray into the 4X genre, yet fun is what I had. But playing just one game had sapped weeks.

At this point, my gaming time had degenerated into scraps here and there. I could often go weeks without touching a single game. What if I wanted to get better at Sins or play other scenarios, other races? I wouldn't play anything else for a whole year.

I was also starting to shirk my duty as a game completionist. I just didn't have time to waste on completing something which was anything less than total fun. And the new plague of badges and achievements were meaningless to me, nothing more than another vampire drain on my time. Get the gnome in the rocket in Half-Life: Episode Two? Are you insane?

To this day, I have not played a second game of Sins.

2010

Recently, Gregory Weir's Looming hit the tweets and blogs while I was still being ripped apart by the life-eviscerating Neptune's Pride. But I didn't want to be the late loser to the Looming party.

I fired it up but was tired, lacking the ability to concentrate. I ran around, not stopping to read any of the text being presented nor appreciating the art of this alien place someone had constructed for my benefit. I got angry with myself for squandering another new experience.

My gaming had turned into a loveless marriage: going through the motions, getting nothing out of it.

I'd become a shallow player who couldn't live without quick save for fear of losing seconds, a player unable to embrace anything with depth, demanding optimal play that tutorialises via blipverts and works the pleasure centres instantly. Behind me, narrative and art; ahead, Bejewelled and Tetris. Was this my fate? A gamer of thirty years, raised on Adventure, on Planetfall, on Ultima IV, lost in a forest of casual gaming?

The Real Question

Mrs. HM and I have been playing one particular video game for two years now:

And the long-awaited follow-up is released in the next couple of months. This particular game has unique rules, most of which are transient and in no way obvious. The levels are varied and exciting. But this game eats up time like no other.

Now this is the point where you would expect me to come out with a platitude like "this is all the video game that I need". I'm afraid not. I'm not a cliché in some Hollywood elevator pitch.

In the past, I just had to decide whether I wanted to spend some spare time credits on PC gaming. Present day, I'm bankrupt. There's just no such thing as "spare time" now; there's always something constructive and useful I could be getting on with that I've put off to tomorrow for at least 17 tomorrows. My relationship with games has boiled down to a simple question I never needed to ask before: 'Are games important enough to me that I need to make time for them?'

And the inescapable truth of my story is this: yes, they are.

Even back in Tokyo when I was footloose and fancy-free exploring a foreign land, I found myself hankering after a game of Half-Life. Watching a video of Every Day I Dream The Same Dream is not the same as playing it. Listening to someone tell you about that brilliant moment in Bioshock doesn't come close to the excitement of experiencing it first hand. Covetous can disturb a player with his very participation; a horror story on screen or in print can't do that. And I will never forget the emotional power of Deionarra's sensory stone in Planescape: Torment.

So I admit it. There it is. I am still Adventure, Planetfall and Ultima IV. But I am also Armageddon Empires, VVVVVV, Penumbra and what is yet to come.

I'll play that second game of Sins. I just don't know when.

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Posted by HM

Electron Dance Highlights

Comments (11) Trackbacks (4)
  1. This was a delightful read, and unexpectedly comforting for someone graduating college soon. Though I sometimes wonder if my massive collection of PS2 games is fated to consist of mostly unfinished titles, much like my ever-growing collection of music may never be entirely listened to.

    In fact, I sometimes feel burned out by being a sort of music completionist as you were with games; I try to avoid dwelling on music I’ve already listened to once and try to get through my collection (music blogs can be oddly cruel in their gift-giving, you see).

  2. Ah yes, I have problems with keeping on top of music as well. Music is something to be savoured not simply stuck in the background, but MP3 player during commute is how I get most of my music listening done these days. Do people still hang out and just listen to music? I don’t think we have time for these kind of antiquated luxuries any more.

    I actually haven’t played anything other than little Flash thingys since our Neptune’s Pride game reached its natural conclusion. That was weeks ago. I lie; I installed Morrowind and answered some questions after I got off a ship. Then I put my head on the keyboard and snored.

  3. Actually, I have a friend with a projector who spaces out listening to music with others while a visualizer is running. Granted, there’s still visual stimulation, but since it’s unspecific the music is what sticks.

    I rarely put on music for its own sake, though a really rousing song will make me stop doing what I’m doing to sing along, dance poorly, instrument mime, etc.

    For some reason, it feels strange to put on music while playing games that have a soundtrack of their own, even if I’ve heard it a billion times and can turn it off.

  4. Great post!

    Glad to hear you’ll be sticking around for whatever’s coming next in games-land. It’s going to be exciting.

    I’m only a college student meself, but I can most definitely sympathize with the questions you arrived at. There are always other commitments and hobbies trying to pull me away from gaming. It’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve realized and accepted that these things are more to me than a silly pastime. To give up on games would be to turn my back on part of who I am, no matter what I was doing with the extra time.

  5. @BeamSplashX: Can I visit your friend? That sounds great. Unless he plays visualizations of Country & Western. I’m not sure I’d dig that. You remind me of Jeff Minter’s Lightsynth work from Psychedelia and Colourspace up to present-day Neon.

    @Prettiest Boy: Thanks, this post has been kicking around in my head for a long time, but kept avoiding it for fear of coming across AWESOMELY NEGATIVE. Unfortunately I seem to spend my gaming periods reading game blogs and buying great game offers, although I did just spend this afternoon (of my day off with no Mrs. HM or Little HM) on part 1 of The Curfew which isn’t bad, but takes a bit of getting used to.

    Maybe I need dump something, Johnny Mnemonic style, like my childhood. I’m not sure that helps, but I’m just typing out loud here.

  6. I watched Johnny Mnemonic on my 21st birthday. All I can say is…

    “YOU GOT PARENTS AND STUFF?!”

  7. At 27 and with no kids I have to say I already feel what you’re saying here is also happening to me(which brings to mind The Smiths now that I write it).

    I’m fairly sure If I made a graph of the number of games I’ve completed each year it would peak when I was age 19 and be a slow trend down from there.

    I’ll keep fighting the good fight though, just not quite as often.

  8. Bloody hell, that was cathartic. I’ve had an article like this kicking around in the drafts of my Google docs for ages and yeah, it really is hard to not come across all negative and deflated. You’ve reflected many of my own sentiments exactly.

    Watching my RSS feeder fill up with New Stuff is a joke and makes me realise how I can’t possibly keep up with the world, so much so that I didn’t even know you’d been featured in the Sunday Papers what, yesterday? My game list is also a joke that gets bigger and bigger while ever my RSS feeds keep throwing New Stuff at me. It’s just bollocks isn’t it? *sob*

    I’ve got to say Spotify is my best friend these days when it comes to music because I can pop pretty much anything on while I’m miserably attempting to catch up on my RSS feeds or writing, browsing, wasting precious time etc. @BeamSplashX: I can’t play music over games either, it just feels wrong even if I don’t care for the soundtrack or know it inside out.

    I was only saying the other day to a few friends how I’d rather work less and have a pay freeze than have a pay rise. Time is my most important currency these days and spending it at work hurts the old student in me.

  9. @Winterborn The idea of plotting a graph of games completed vs age is something I’m not even going to touch with a barge pole. Before all these sales came along, I had been reducing my game purchases, intending to focus on the small ghetto of games I was nurturing. But as you can now buy a game for the same price as a Big Coffee Chain coffee, and it’s hard to resist the siren call of these wonderful things, one click away.

    @GreggB I think I have about 20-30 games I haven’t even installed once. And what do I do? Go out and start playing Leave Home, Revenge of the Titans and Immortal Defense. With the RSS feeds, I have good and bad days and tend to be more brutal with the feeds than I used to be. Music wise, I have a subscription with eMusic but I keep missing the deadline each month to download a pocket of songs.

    But – good to hear that I’m not the only one wrestling with this problem. Let’s start a self-help group.

  10. I loved this post– I should have said so earlier. Also, congrats on getting mentioned on RPS!

    I’ve never been one to finish games, mostly because I’m not actually very good at most games, and because I have a super-short games attention span. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like as I grow older and lose the time and occasion I have to play the games I DO manage to finish. But it’s heartening to read something like this from someone who’s been there already.

  11. Thanks Laura. And also thanks for correcting one of my assumptions – somehow I’d always thought of you as a completer/finisher. Maybe I’m getting confused with Kent who seems to spend all his waking hours on Demon’s Souls.