Three Quick Ways to Change Your Relationship with Games in 2017

Opinion
February 3, 2017 by James O'Connor

We all need a refresh.

2017 should be a solid year for games. Whatever’s happening with VR is gonna keep happening, the Nintendo Switch will either break or heal my heart, and a few times a day someone on my Twitter feed will admit that they just preordered an upcoming game despite hating the way the industry incentivizes preorders.

Gaming-focused new year resolutions usually boil down to the same few things: clear that backlog, stop spending all your money during Steam sales, finally go back and finish Ocarina of Time. But forget about those long-term goals for a moment: sometimes it’s easy to get burned out on games, especially when the world looks like it’s in trouble, life is hard, and celebrating games can feel trivial in the face of the industry’s worst practices and patrons. Sometimes you need a quick-fix, something that rejigs your perception, like a splash of cold water to the face moments after walking up. Here’s three methods I’ve used to reframe my relationship with games when I’ve needed to.

A quick note before this list: I did not include any items which explicitly ask you to play games that explore different experiences from your own, or give voice to the traditionally voiceless, or which are made by diverse teams. The items in this list are intended as short-term goals for yourself. On the other hand, engaging with work that gives you a greater sense of the world, and the people within it, should be a constant goal. You should do it with movies, TV, books, every form of art, and you should do it constantly. It’ll open you up to a lot of different experiences and creations, but it’s not a short-term option— it’s something you should be practicing regularly as part of your media consumption. Okay? Okay.

Watch the Full Credit Sequence of an Ubisoft Game

I hated Assassin’s Creed 3. The last time I ever played it, my Xbox 360 overheated and shut down 10 minutes into the session, and I was flooded with relief. But I have one fond memory from it: I remember a point in the game where I trudged up a snowy mountain, climbed up a tree to view a distant cabin, and thought to myself, “what a weird privilege it is to be bored by something so fundamentally amazing.’”

Have a look at the credits for just about any Ubisoft game. Think about how many individual names are in there, because there will be a lot. Think about how hard they worked on this game, how hard they worked just to be in the building. Imagine the day they were hired, the thrill of that moment –they must really feel like they’d ‘made it’. When crunch hit, of course, they might not have felt the same way – the industry has a severe labor problem, and it’s unlikely that anyone in those credits was slacking off. It’s a miracle that games get made at all.

Imagine the person who conceived that bullshit mechanic you hated, who went home and excitedly told their family or friends about how their idea was actually going to be a part of the game. Imagine how excited the team behind all those ‘climb this stupid tower’ mechanics in Ubisoft titles must have been to see it working in-game. This is something I try to come back to sometimes, even with the games I hate – it’s amazing that all these people came together and used their talents to make all of this stuff, and it’s incredible that technology has reached a point where any of this is possible. As a critic, it’s important to draw a distinction between what you admire and what you don’t like, but even if you’re not interested in writing a review it’s worth looking at that long, long list of names and thinking about who those people are, what their lives are like, what brought them there.

Remembering that there are real people behind everything you consume or interact with, people with different backgrounds and beliefs and aspirations, people who are living their dreams, growing disillusioned, feeling their pride give way to exhaustion and then their exhaustion being forgotten as their sense of pride returns, is probably going to be an important thing to do this year. Why not start here?

Revisit Whichever Segment of the Industry You’ve Been Telling Everyone is Dying

At any given point, you’ll find people who are claiming that indie game development is now the only interesting part of the industry, or that the indie market has been oversaturated to the point of meaninglessness. Maybe you hold one of these views right now!

When 2016 ended and a few outlets asked me to nominate my favorite games of the year, I felt a weird twinge of guilt at the lists I ended up producing. Of my top ten games of the year, only two of them – Inside and Firewatch – were indies, and fairly mainstream ones at that. I thought that it was an incredibly strong year for huge AAA games – the strongest of this console generation without a doubt.

On the other end of the scale, though, I saw plenty of people having the exact opposite reaction to 2016, proclaiming it an amazing year for indie games. Their top 10 lists were made up entirely of smaller titles, worked on by a handful of people, many of them released exclusively on itch.io.

I never got around to playing ISLANDS: Non Places. Or Read Only Memories. Or Darkest Dungeon, VA11-Hall-A, The House Abandon, Wheels of Aurelia, or any of those other smaller titles that people loved so much last year. At the same time, I know people skipped over Titanfall 2 (my personal game of the year), Uncharted 4, The Division (a game I still love despite everything), and plenty of other games that were exciting and grand all exceptionally well-made.

I also neglected games on my phone because the 3DS was, in my mind, on a hot streak this year; I’m sure for plenty of people the opposite is true. Have you ever had a moment, though, where you discovered a new genre, or a new studio, or a game maker that opened up a whole new area of interest for you? Have you had a moment like the one I did when I first played Broken Sword and lost my mind at the existence of the point-and-click adventure genre? Who knows when a moment like that will hit next if you broaden your gaming horizons!

Replay Bayonetta

Or, like, a different game. Hear me out.

Last week, I started replaying Bayonetta on Wii U, working through the game in small chunks in-between doing other things. The point of the replay was to work up to playing Bayonetta 2, a game I never properly played despite being hugely excited about its release, and I’m finding myself very glad that I returned to the original, a game I loved deeply back when I first played it.

It’s interesting returning to a game and finding that your relationship to it has changed, while the level of love you hold for it has held consistent. There are problems with Bayonetta that I either never noticed, had forgotten about, or wasn’t bothered by the first time: there are bouts of slowdown, a few particularly irritating quick-time events, and a handful of camera quirks. My 2010 ‘take’ on the game’s plot as largely satirical doesn’t hold as much weight now, although I feel like I have a better grasp now of the explicit references it makes to other games (and more tools to discuss the complexity of Bayonetta’s sexualized persona in a nuanced way, if need be, partly because of all the great writing that has been released on that subject in the subsequent years). But there are also things that I love about the game that had receded from my memory. I’ve always thought of Bayonetta as a game of excess that was always ramping up, but I’d forgotten how malleable the combat is – it’s deep, and it communicates its depth in battle, but doesn’t really force you to dive all the way in for your entire first playthrough. It makes you master timing and placement, to become smart, before you can really start digging into the more complex moves and strategies.

Replaying Bayonetta in January of 2017 makes me feel the same way it did when I blasted through it in two days over January 2010. It’s a game that reminds me of the ways games can talk to us, can teach us over time, can make us feel good and strong and capable while at the same time making it clear that there’s always more that we could be doing. I suspect that Dark Souls does the same thing for a lot of people, albeit by beating them down and building them back up rather than gifting them with constant euphoria.

If there’s a game that makes you feel good about games in general, it’s worth going back and giving it another play. Or just play Bayonetta, if you haven’t already. It’s the best.