It’s half past noon. The two of us are eating burritos and half watching 30 Rock.
“We should cut through the ice caves,” my girlfriend says suddenly. “We can kill a shopkeeper with one of the landmines and steal his stuff. We might nab a jetpack.”
“But what about Olmec? Won’t he be summoning his little bastard henchmen if we don’t start from the beginning?”
“Oh yeah. We could handle that if we got enough bombs along the way, maybe.”
We have a lot of discussions like this about Spelunky, often when we’re not even playing the game. Sometimes at dinner, sometimes when we’re walking the dog. It’s just there in the background of our lives as a constant battle we’re planning or waging together for riches and adventure. Spelunky is the best kind of game, the kind that you play even when the console is off and you’re working or kicked back in a chair trying to relax; it weasels its way into your brain, encouraging you to map out tactics and strategies to use in your next session.
Of course it’s not enough for a game just to stick with you: there are plenty of awful and mediocre games that can occupy your brain space when you’re not playing them (the catastrophe that is Watch Dogs’ wasted potential is never far from my mind for some reason). Instead, what I mean is games that specifically encourage you to play them in your mental space in a way that ties into those games thematically.
Spelunky is just as much about careful planning as it is having fast reflexes and knowing what to do when danger appears out of nowhere, which works because the game is attempting to emulate the experience of being Indiana Jones, with your protagonist sidestepping spike traps and running away from giant boulders. Uncharted, another game that cribs hard from Spielberg’s classic movies, does not strive to take up our time outside of the actual game itself. It’s about immediate joys: the squeezing of the trigger, the haymaker that sends a henchman falling into the great abyss. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of entertainment, of course, but it’s just not as long-lasting or as interesting as the complexity that Spelunky presents.
Complexity is in itself not the mark of a great game. I’ve often found myself quitting and uninstalling games like Crusader Kings II because they’re impenetrably dense to new players. However, games that house a quiet sort of complexity, those that present themselves as easy to understand but difficult to master, are usually the ones that encourage their players to keep thinking about and playing them even when they’re not directly in front of the game itself. Her Story, which puts you in the shoes of someone accessing a police database in order to solve a decades-old crime, is one such game.
Her Story is immediately understandable. Typing in keywords like “murder” and “Bob Dylan,” you search for videos of a woman being interviewed by the police and watch them, trying to piece together not just who did the crime but what the crime was in the first place. It’s basically a giant jigsaw puzzle that forces you to put your search engine and wiki-diving skills to the test in order to find and unlock more videos, some of them pertinent to your investigation, others merely red herrings. I spent a few days playing Her Story and when I was away from the game I kept a small notebook in my back pocket. Every now and then my thoughts would drift back to the game and I’d write down whatever realization or musing I had about the investigation.
Maybe I was going down the wrong path, getting hung up on an insignificant detail or misinterpreting something the suspect had said. I had become a couch detective working overtime on a case that kept nibbling at the corners of my brain. I had not chosen to roleplay as this character as much as the game’s meticulous design had led me to embrace that role automatically. I had no choice but to live out Her Story if I was to have any hope of beating it, which is ultimately why a game that’s so deceptively simple works so well: it slowly introduces you to its fantasy and then traps you inside, refusing to let you out until you’ve earned release, even if takes days or even months.
It’s a strange, sometimes masochistic joy that you find in only a handful of games, like XCOM or Fire Emblem, where you become more than someone playing a glorified chess game, but instead a military leader who spends their off-hours fretting about the fragile lives of their troops, lives that once snuffed out are gone for good. Massive online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft and Destiny also actively encourage the collision of real-life and digital worlds thanks to a design that benefits players who form clans and schedule raids with friends, planning that often occurs outside of the game over the likes of party chat and email. This need for constant communication and planning reinforces the notion in both games that you’re part of a giant force leading a crusade against foes (while nabbing some nice loot along the way, of course).
It’s not enough to say that these are games that “stay with us.” More than simply dominating critical chatter, they represent just how deeply games are becoming entrenched in our lives. The bleed into our reality, refusing to let go of our attention, demanding to go on even when we’ve supposedly finished with them simply because they’re not done with us. Sometimes there is no off switch. And what a wonderful, terrifying thing that is.
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