When your games ask something of you

I believe the number one reason why my video game habit so exploded two years ago and drew me away from tabletop gaming, in genuine conjunction with the pandino, was the sheer mental and emotional load of navigating this viral doom. It left nothing to spare for more cerebral experiences.

There are tertiary reasons, of course. Physically getting together with friends in a shared space is and was ill-advised at best. Playing board games online (which I did for a good while) kind of sucks. We also finally broke down and bought a Switch which, I mean, come on. But in the end there was nothing stopping me from finding some means of continuing my glut of tabletop RPGs and board games, except my own lack of mental bandwidth.

This fatigue did not only affect my gaming life but many other facets as well. I had to stop reading more challenging theology. I had to step away from the news cycle entirely. Interpersonal relationships became harder to maintain, not only because of the threat of disease but because of the weight of the situation on my own emotional state (I’d already begun a significant foray into my mental health and well-being months before).

So when presented with the option of digging into, say, a weighty board game like Taverns of Tiefenthal requiring meticulous decision-making and rules retention or the familiar comforts of The Lord of the Rings Online…it’s not hard for me to understand why I’ve been going with the latter consistently.

LOTRO is the ultimate comfort game for me because it’s set in such a pleasant world and because I’ve logged enough hours to play it in my sleep. Life sims, Mario, et al, are also on the menu of games with a moderate mental load. Shmups make for an interesting case as their demands are quite high but, given the right game, time of day, and skill level, it can make its way into a more calm and meditative experience. However, even an extended sojourn into the cute worlds of cozy gaming, like Animal Crossing, are not altogether on the rails.

Games are never passive experiences.

My gripes with current AAA titles and their own flirtations with the cutscenes-as-games motif aside, games (tabletop or otherwise) always ask something of us. And the experience remains incomplete until we give in to that demand.

I want to return to Animal Crossing as our primary offender. For hanging around on an island with adorable animal friends seems like a very comfortable proposition. And that’s how I’ve engaged with the game for the last year: if I want to do something, I do it; if I don’t, I don’t. If the game prompts me I’ll go along, but mostly I just want to see my cute island pals and then log off. The candy coated shell, however, belies a game that’s truly a sandbox. It asks for input. And unless one engages the conceit, that this is truly your chance to live your best island life, there really isn’t much on offer.

So when I took the time to answer the demand of the game, that being “What would you actually do if you had a whole island to yourself and all your necessities were met?” I found it that much more engaging. It’s also a great deal more work! Sifting through thousands of accrued items, considering which accompanies which and for what purpose and on what part of the island and so on, is a bit much. Thankfully the Happy Home expansion narrows the decorative choices for you, providing much-needed design practice and a fun mini-game.

Shmups demand my time and attention. I’ve often wished, and even believed, that if I reached some threshold of raw skill then I could begin taking down STGs in rapid succession. But that isn’t how it works. These games must be learned and (in extreme examples) almost memorized. Sitting with a shmup, learning what it wants you to do and how it wants you to do it, is the demand. Until one pays attention, regardless of skill level, one ends up smashing ones head against the monitor in frustration.

LOTRO asks little of me save the suspension of disbelief. But that is for another post.

I believe I have often wished for games to carry me along. Tabletop games don’t offer so much as the possibility of such a lazy river experience; you have to run them yourself or there is simply no game. Perhaps being raised in an era of video gaming that was almost all exertive, where each game had its own inertia, its own immediacy (as progeny of the arcade era), left me with the belief that the game would simply carry me along and all I had to do was push buttons as best I could. I recall having a hard time with JRPGs (and still do) for this very reason.

But now it occurs to me that even the most passive game still asks something of me. Not unlike visual art or design or a novel, the experience is best met with an openness to what the creator asks us of us; its an act of submitting one’s will. If the work is done well, and we do our part, then the experience is sublime. It just takes a little practice.

The perfect example of tabletop versus video gaming.

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