Boy oh boy, in the romantic, halcyon days of the home computer, playing a videogame was arduous. Putting aside now antiquated ideas of difficulty like pixel-perfect jumps, black magic was required before we could actually play a game.
First, there was no downloading. Computer owners faced either a trip to a local computer store or filling in an order form and posting it off with a letter and a cheque in the post. Sometimes the latter was the only option, particularly if you were not an owner of a ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 which were the leading platforms in the UK. Of course, there’s still a strong retail component today but I haven’t bought a physical copy of a game in years. Even though I hate PayPal, I still groan whenever a store page doesn’t offer a PayPal option because I have to get up, leave the room and find a debit card. Dude, wayyyy too much hard work. Games are supposed to be fun!
Of course, once I’ve downloaded the game, which can take anything from a few seconds to an hour depending on my broadband and the size of the game, it’s time to play. Not so in medieval times of yore. Nope, for the owner of an Atari 800 computer, it was insert cassette tape, turn on computer holding down the START key, press PLAY and hit RETURN. And then wait five minutes. Or maybe ten. Or maybe—BOOT ERROR
Happy happy joy joy. Rewind and try again and maybe this time—BOOT ERROR
No one desires a return to the tape loading days. I mean, why would you? What could possibly be gained from waiting so long you might not have time to play the very game you’ve been waiting for?
Today, the time between the moment I perceive the existence of a game to the moment I play can be less than a minute. It is astonishing how much time technology has saved us. We don’t have to worry about the “opportunity cost” of playing a game because if we don’t like it or we get bored or we’re having a bad Everyday Shooter day then we can switch to something else quickly. Playing has never been more efficient. Tutorials aside, developers are getting better at respecting our time.
That would doesn’t sit right with the word game, does it?
Do you think anyone just sat in front of the computer quietly waiting for a game to load? Probably not. Maybe they chatted with their friends, played an analogue game or read a book. Or watched TV if anything good was on. How likely was it that something good would be on? For most of 1980s, there were only four channels available in the UK: BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4.
What does it mean for something good to be on TV anyway? An episode of Doctor Who? An edition of Horizon about nuclear physics? How about The Computer Programme?
Only four channels. Maybe you had a VCR to watch something interesting recorded from a previous day, maybe you didn’t. It was more likely you put the TV on anyway and watched what was on. You’d put up with it – and hey, who would’ve guessed a series about the Roman Empire was interesting after all and you could live without spaceships and nuclear physics.
That kind of moment happened all the time. Just four channels meant you discovered all sorts of television programmes that you would never have gone looking for. We didn’t have choice, which is the mantra of the modern consumer industry.
Today, choice is infinite. Free channels are now in the double figures, pay channels I have no idea. PVRs are widespread – so we can stock up on more television than we can possibly devour. DVDs for every series and film can be purchased. Replay services like iPlayer and 4oD are available online. There’s no reason to watch anything you didn’t choose to watch. Thank God our lives are so efficient now.
The paradox of choice haunts us, though. There’s still an opportunity cost when presented with a massive range of televisual experiences that you can watch here and now. Hmm… Persepolis or the next episode of Buffy? Hmm, Persepolis sounds a bit heavy, maybe another time. Buffy. Always Buffy. And so it goes.
I’d love to spend some time exploring Occult Chronicles (Cryptic Comet, 2013) but, damn, it sounds like a lot of work having to read a manual. But if I play Everyday Shooter (Queasy Games, 2007) or the Paranautical Activity beta (Code Avarice, 2013) I don’t have to think too hard. Just shoot. Time is limited, no commitment required. Love it. I make a choice.
But while I play Everyday Shooter, part of me wonders if I should have tried to make more progress in Metro 2033 (4A Games, 2010), because that seems like an interesting game. Then everyone is hassling me to have a go at Mass Effect (Bioware, 2007). And, Christ, call yourself a games writer and you haven’t played Pathologic (Ice-Pick Lodge, 2005) yet? What is wrong with you? Playing a shooter you’ve played many times before?
Close the game. Play something else. But which one? Not that much time left to play something. How can I possibly choose which one I want to play? I’ll just switch to Paranautical Activity and make myself feel good that I’m playing something recent.
A first world problem that the modern player lives with is the game backlog. And it sucks the joy out of playing. We play to complete, to finish, to conquer and move on. Playing one game means you’re not playing another. On Twitter, your friends tell you how much fun they’re having playing a game you’re not currently playing. You loser. So we play with a sense of anxiety, questioning each moment. At its worst, the fun becomes an interrogation. And we want to get games done so we can move onto more fun. Achievements beg us to play for the win, but the braying crowds of unplayed games squat at the back of our mind.
It’s why I stopped buying bundles and sales. I have more than enough games and I would prefer to enjoy what I’ve got than rush through them, missing all that heavenly glory.
But what I really miss is the discovery borne of four simple television channels. Sometimes it would be nice to have all that choice torn asunder, instead of reading twenty indie press releases and watching ten new teaser trailers each day. Give me a moment to think carefully about one game, just one game, that is someone else’s choice, something I’d not have considered.
And that’s why I love IndieGameStand. Selling just one game every four days, it’s the only store front I take seriously.