I am wasting my time.
I’m standing behind a wall as three Cannibals approach. I immediately press the 2 key, using Pull and sending two of them flying into the air, disabled. Almost certainly killed. I wait a second, and Pull the third, scanning for threats, then moving onto the next conflict. It’s my first time playing Mass Effect III multiplayer on Gold difficulty, so I’m anxious that I might let my teammates down. But I have faith in my character. The Asari Justicar can immediately respond to any kind of enemy. Her Pull takes care of the red-coded health bars. Her Reave destroys yellow-coded armor efficiently. Plus I’ve got a new Disciple pistol that tears through purple-coded barriers and blue-coded shields. I mention the colors because that’s how I’m seeing the game. My eyes flick to the top of the screen and I press the appropriate button. I barely even see the animations. I’m in a nearly totally abstracted, zen-like state, and having a blast. It’s the most consistently activated I’ve been in a video game in months, maybe years.
It’s an utter waste.
I’m back in Crusader Kings II, this time playing the King Of Sweden. My vassals have put me in an awkward position of changing my laws to succession-by-seniority, where the oldest male member of the family takes the throne. Eventually, this is going to lead to a terrible king. Eventually, my game will be ruined. But while I’m a strong position, I’m doing well externally, recapturing Norwegian incursions into my territory and capturing Finland from pagans. Then it happens: a weak family member with no power-base inherits, the previous king’s son decides he doesn’t want to wait, and suddenly I’m left with a rump state, quickly devoured by ambitious dukes. My failure is epic; it is hilarious and frustrating in equal measure.
There’s no reason for this.
This time, I’m going to make Skyrim work. I load up on mods. I spend hours searching for the best. I set the difficulty how I want it. I resolve to not abuse fast travel, to not abuse the compass system, and to relax about whether I’m doing character right or wrong. And I do. Sure, I struggle with mod stability, tweak performance constantly, and do the first few quests to get the shouts as soon as possible. It’s still Skyrim, though, with all the great and frustrating that entails.
This, too, is not a good use of my time.
I’m not saying that these things are a waste of time because they’re video games. I think gaming is as good a hobby as most: it keeps the mind active, encourages problem-solving, tells interesting stories, even may have some positive physiological responses like improved visual perception. No, the problem is that for me, as a games writer, playing games that I’ve already played and understood doesn’t help my career.
And I’ve pretty well exhausted each of these three games. I joke that Mass Effect has paid several months rent, but hell, I’ve brainstormed spinoffs, analyzed the ending (twice!), examined its genre, and put its setting into a wider Science-Fiction context. And oh yes, praised the multiplayer. Crusader Kings II is similar, with a review, a podcast, my analysis here at Bit Creature, in addition to an upcoming interview feature. And Skyrim, O my Skyrim, I’ve written so much about it that I literally made small talk about the weather.
I’m saying that these are games that I find compelling, both to play and to discuss. I would play only these, and games like them, if given the opportunity. That’s the kind of gamer I am. That’s the kind of gamer a lot of people are. But it’s not the kind of gamer I feel like I should be in order to be a games writer.
Yet this month I broke. I couldn’t handle not playing the games I wanted to play anymore. Perhaps it was forcing myself to play a game far longer than it needed to be for a review, but regardless, I could no longer force myself to prioritize breadth of knowledge over the depth of what I’ve taken to calling “supergames.” These are games that are designed to be played infinitely, or at least, played so much that they exclude other games. They’re Civilization, they’re Call Of Duty multiplayer, they’re World Of Warcraft, they’re Farmville, they’re Football Manager, they’re The Sims, they’re Rock Band. And they’re sure as hell Minecraft. They’re not slickly designed blockbusters with 8-15 hour campaigns. Nor are they lovable indie platformers with reality manipulation and a wistful tone.
I bring this up not just to complain about how hard my job is or whatever (although it’s worth noting how often game writers are forced to do things they dislike), but because games writers focusing on breadth over depth has effects on the entire industry. There’s a concept that it’s possible to play all the great and important games. When publications do Game Of The Year lists, the assumption is that the contributors have had the chance to play all or most of the important games of the year. Yet that grows less and less possible to do, if it ever was.
This changes according to different media. I also work for The A.V. Club, which publishes Best Of list across all different media. Seeing all of film’s wide releases in a given year, in a given country, seems entirely doable. Television, so long as you set a few limits on types of shows, seems equally plausible. Music, however? We do an overall list, but it’s clearly limited by genre and by exposure. And books—who could ever say that they could read all the great books published in a year while getting anything else done, let alone all the important books in history. The list implicitly acknowledges that—it’s just the critics naming their particular favorites, not a top 10.
This means that people who play supergames are underserved in most games press. A significant portion of gamers will focus on just a few games per year, or maybe even one game for half a decade. And yes, the games press have some columns and columnists that focus on that—I talk about western RPGs, some sites have Mod-of-the-Week roundups, and so on. But the press, in general, is filled with generalists (or at least would-be generalists).
At an intellectual level, I can grasp why we focus on contained games over the infinite supergames. The games industry needs money, which works via new games, via advertisements, via positive reviews. All these things help. If we all played Civilization all day, a lot of people, games writers included, would probably be out of jobs.
Yet by prioritizing the shorter, contained games, we’re doing a disservice to the way many people play games. We focus on the new and the now, with only the aforementioned Game Of The Year lists giving games writers a structured opportunity to look back. We lose our history as it happens. This also continues to bias games writers toward games they can grasp. If you play one game in a month, it lasting eight hours is a negative. If you play eight games, the shorter, better, self-contained stories are going to feel stronger. Note the wide praise for The Walking Dead and Journey this year. These are great games, but they’re also games that are perfectly suited for the time constraints faced by game writers. Longer-form games, like Crusader Kings II, Torchlight II, or FTL are going to be at an inherent disadvantage.
And beyond that, at a personal level, it’s just exhausting to try to play everything. I feel like I’m pulled in dozen different directions. My attention is shattered. Trying to play everything on my backlog feels impossible. So I want to apologize to Mark Of The Ninja, Sword & Sworcery, Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning, Crysis, Cave Story, Bayonetta, and Red Dead Redemption, to name a very small few, for not having the time to play them. But I also feel compelled to apologize to The Secret World, Persona 3, Shogun 2: Total War, Left 4 Dead 2, and The Sims 3 for not being able to play them enough. Hell, while I’m at it, I may as well admit that my attempts at general knowledge in other media are falling behind too. I’ve been stuck in season two of Breaking Bad for six months now.
The break I had this month (break is a fascinating term here, considering I felt broken) has helped me realize that this just isn’t working for me. I wonder how most games writers, or players who try to keep up, deal with it. Perhaps it’s just me. But either way, it’s a critical aspect of games writing and games culture that’s underrepresented within its discourse. For my sanity’s sake, I’m going to stop trying to play everything; I’m going to try to stop feeling like I’m wasting my time as a games writer if I play the games I want to play.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have 10 new games from the Steam sale, along with Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition and Far Cry 3 to review this week.
About the Author:
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a contributing writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq, Gameranx, and Unwinnable.