Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Go-anywhere gaming

“How long must we fight these same battles?”– Arngrim, Valkyrie Profile
A string of numbers on the status screen, an accusation: 17:23:45. Seventeen hours and counting over the course of five days; 17 hours of wrist-aching PSP time, 17 hours of thumbing my way through the bullshit of Valkyrie Profile. Calendar full of deadlines, notebooks full of unrealized projects, sink full of dishes, room full of laundry… it’s a full life. What would you do with 17 spare hours in high summer?

These ridiculous gaming jags are getting fewer and farther between, but with infrequency the shame gets sharper. Play like this all the time and it’s a lifestyle… but burn a critical weekend on a six-year-old role-playing game that you’re not even really enjoying – VP went cold at about hour six – and it starts looking a lot like depression. Then again… seventeen hours over five days? That’s just your average drone’s television diet – probably even a little lighter than most folks’. So why does it seem worse, more embarrassing, when it’s a videogame?

‘Cause gaming is nerdy, I guess; as much as the videogame subculture is growing and establishing itself as one of our main streams, its population is still tiny compared to the markets for television and movies and such… when someone decides to lay on the couch for four or five hours eating stale chips and guiding magical fantasy warriors through a bunch of monster battles, he’s wasting time with useless garbage; if the same dude, on the same couch with the same chips, watches magical fantasy warriors fight a bunch of monster battles, he’s spending quality time with Peter Jackson’s swords-n-sorcery masterpiece.

Ah, who am I kidding? Seventeen hours is seventeen hours, and Valkyrie Profile is to Lord of the Rings what a vinyl Zellers Halloween poncho-and-mask combo is to Spider-Man’s costume. I’m not feeling guilty and depressed because our culture isn’t ready to accept gaming as a legitimate pastime… I’m feeling guilty and depressed because I’ve got ten million things to do and I’ve just spent the equivalent of two work days doing sweet fuck all, knowing I was doing wrong, hating nearly every minute of it, and doing it anyway.

Non-gamers… do you know what it’s like, the terror in this? To be grinding, grinding, grinding away at a game for hours, hypnotized by repetition – role-playing games, with their unending series of “just one more” milestones are worst – and all the while there’s a remnant of your consciousness screaming “Fucking stop this nonsense! You’re on a goddamned deadline!”… and you won’t make yourself stop. You’ll make little deals -- I’ll just level up this one guy; I’ll quit at the next save point; after I beat this boss, I’m done – and you’ll screw yourself over on each one. There’s no joy in playing like this, only stress, regret and self-loathing.

Worse is that I’ve been playing on my PSP, and its screen is very shiny. If you’re not careful -- if you let your eyes and brain pull your visual focus back from the glowing depths where your attention needs to be, or if you forget to look away when the screen is black – you get a nice, clear closeup, at the worst possible neck-fat angle, of your face. Your desperate face, eyes dead and glassy, sockets bagged, mouth slack and unsmiling. That same face that was reflected in your childhood glasses of kool-aid, the same face you despairingly OxyCleaned for an hour before your first date… but in these moments, in that black mirror, every spoiled dream from every wasted minute from that moment ‘til now is right there to be mourned.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know how the scorn of non-gamers can really burn sometimes when you put in a solid six hours or more in one sitting. KOTOR comes to mind.

Also I've tried to avoid handhelds ever since the Gameboy color started showing me little snapshots of my gamer face in moments between the action. Not cool Nintendo, not cool.