Has this ever happened to you?
You’re a player of video games – what one might call a “gamer.” You’ve probably built up a backlog because of Steam sales and fall release schedules and not having time to play video games because of the rest of your life interfering. So you have some free time, you take the game off the top of the stack (or proverbial stack, as the case may be) and start playing. For the sake of argument, let’s call this hypothetical game Alan Wake.
So it turns out you don’t really dig this game that much, which is too bad, but it happens. Still, you’re desperate to fill the endless holidays hours (hypothetically) somehow or other, and this is the perfect time to check some things off the list, so you choose another. And another. Nothing clicks. This one is deeply flawed; that one just isn’t your thing. You give up on new titles and boot up a mainstay, a known quantity, maybe more than one. (Let’s call this game Endless Space. Or maybe Soul Calibur. Even Dark Souls.) And despite the glories of past sessions, the record of unbridled enthusiasm that can set you on logging embarrassing numbers of hours on a game, you can barely stand to play it. (Or them.)
You’ve got gamer’s block.
The most insidious part of gamer’s block is that it goes widely undiagnosed.
It’s all very well to talk about gamer’s block’s more famous cousin, writer’s block. The ethereal disruption of one’s creative forces, inevitably the only thing holding you back from your career as a novelist, your lasting contribution to culture and society, is a crime we can all rally against. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a heck of a bout with writer’s block in my time. My usual output here wouldn’t necessarily suggest that. Mostly, it afflicts my fiction projects. I’ve got some kind of…fictional-affective writer’s block, I guess.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. (I’m not 100% positive what I am here to talk about, but let’s go with the gamer’s block thing, because it’s a distressing experience.)
Worrying about having trouble enjoying a high-tech luxury like video games is sort of a first world problem, I know. And who cares? Read a book. Go play outside. There are worse things. But when you all but live and breathe games (with video or without), falling out of love can be a shock. Discovering that somehow you aren’t the player you were so certain you were is something like an identity crisis when this hobby pervades your personal and professional life. I found myself asking the question, “Why isn’t this fun?” in a manner I’m not used to: not “What design decisions have led to this being less fun than it could be?”, but “What is wrong with me right now that I’m not enjoying this?” It’s weird.
In the midst of this failure at escapism, one might observe that Alan Wake is a somewhat coincidental choice. A game about a writer with writer’s block is the first domino in the gamer’s block elaborate but precarious domino design resembling Abraham Lincoln and taking up the whole basement, practically. (This year has been one for the record books when it comes to me and mixing just the wrong game with real life happenings.)
I could dissect what I didn’t care for about Alan Wake objectively. I moved on to other games because of those things. None appealed, across genre, across medium. And day after day I was drawn back to Alan Wake, knowing full well that I’d tire of it within fifteen minutes tops, but at least I felt a need to finish it. I started to feel like I was trying to escape that game, like Alan tries to escape the Dark Force, or whatever it’s called. I ran to a nontrivial number of games and found no shelter. And this has happened before, at other times, with other games.
This makes me realize how important I am to my play experience. I know that the player brings any number of things to the game, that no amount of designing can ever control the player experience, only nudge it in vague directions. I’ve argued this point, and used this point to argue other points, for years. To me, this seems fundamental. And nothing illustrates it quite like the experience of not enjoying something when all the right pieces seem to be in place.
It’s times like these I think back to moments when I’ve had the opposite experience, marathon gaming sessions over short periods of time with a single game. One year during college, the first few weeks of my summer vacation before other stuff started happening, I bludgeoned Persona 3 into submission over the course of about 12 days or so – and that’s an 80 hour JRPG. You can do the math. I’ve occasionally had the wherewithal to finish a release within 72 hours of it hitting the shelves – notably, say, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. And I’m fond of both of these games, and can go on about why I like them just as easily as why I dislike Alan Wake…but they are hardly my perfect games. Persona 3 and MGS4 both have plenty of flaws that I identify as flaws, parts of their package I don’t enjoy. Yet they captured my attention like few games have, ever.
I spend a bit of time in contemplation of these mood swings, these polarizing experiences of the act of playing games that seems to defy what the games are. To say that sometimes I’m just “in the mood” feels unsatisfactory – that happens, too, but I feel like it’s a different phenomenon. And this frustrates both the player and the designer in me.
I’m optimistic that the holiday bounty of some titles I’ve been looking forward to will break me out of my gamer’s block. In the meantime, though, has this ever happened to you? Have you ever liked or disliked a game for no discernible reason? Discuss!