How The Division helped me better understand games

April 12, 2016 by James O'Connor

Lots of people make special room in their lives for a really important game. Until The Division, I'd never known what that felt like.

I’ve been playing games for over twenty years now, and writing about them for eight. I’ve written, by my own estimate, about 700 reviews, and a Masters thesis about Grand Theft Auto IV. But for all my expertise, sometimes I feel like I don’t really understand games at all. Not all games, though -  only the ones that people seem happy to just about dedicate their lives to.

I have friends who are experts at League of Legends, putting in hundreds of hours and getting up at awkward times of the night to watch championship matches online. I have refused to touch the game because I don’t want to ruin my teammates’ good times with my lack of expertise. I’m a member of a Facebook group for local games-industry Destiny players, which I joined in the hope that it would help me get into Destiny, but it absolutely didn’t work. I have marvelled at people’s creations in Minecraft, but a part of me doesn’t fully understand why, exactly, they’ve made them. I am extremely and genuinely impressed by what people are achieving in these games, but I can’t imagine joining them, or playing like them.

Instead, I often find myself getting excited for games that are criticised for being too short. It’s perhaps telling that I got really excited about Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes when I heard that it was only two hours long; The Phantom Pain, on the other hand, I stopped playing after about ten hours because I know I’d never dig as deep as the game wanted me to. Perhaps it’s because I review so many games, and shorter games are inherently easier to cover, but unless your massive 40+ hour  time sink is a single-player game with ‘Mass Effect’ or ‘Grand Theft Auto’ or ‘Fire Emblem’ on the cover, I’m probably out.

And yet I’ve held out hope that a game will come along and pull me in for hundreds of hours, that the next big, intense, life-consuming game will undo me in that fun way so many players seem to get undone. I often find myself thinking 'maybe this will be the one you’ll get really into'. I excitedly clicked through Diablo 3, right up until Act 2, before I realised that I couldn’t justify the time investment and that the loot drops weren’t doing it for me. I excitedly jumped into Dark Souls, then Dark Souls 2, then Bloodborne, but always found myself a bit anxious about leaving the early bonfires that my avatar seems so relaxed by. I anticipate devotion that never forms. I got pretty into Splatoon, but I'm not sure if that counts, as even then my 10-year-old sister eclipsed my level within two days of getting the game (by which point I'd been playing for weeks). She's hardcore; I'm not.

Before Ubisoft sent me a code for The Division, I’d done enough self-examination to decide that, no, this was not the game for me. I figured that since the publisher had been kind enough to send me a code without first asking if I was covering it anywhere, I should at least give it a play and make a tweet or two if I liked it (or if I hated it, naturally; tweeters gonna tweet). That weekend, I loaded the game up and started chipping away at the opening missions.

It's probably clear from the title that I ended up enjoying the game more than I expected, but I’d like to outline the moment when I realised that the game really, truly had me. Five days after I started, I was playing with my friend Dylan (both level 15), casually working through incidental minor missions to build up HP and find better loot. Neither of us were using chat, but I was taking the lead and choosing tasks for us. We found ourselves drastically outgunned in one skirmish, a super-strong enemy wiping us both out as we desperately floundered to retreat.

Dylan had to drop out, but I decided to go and avenge our deaths. I leapt back into the fray with a new strategy, killed the guys I was there to kill, and was excited to see a blue loot drop. That early in the game, blue drops are not so common. When I picked it up and discovered that it was a new, level-appropriate SMG that eclipsed the assault rifle I had been using, I found myself far more elated than I could have foreseen. I had needed a new gun badly, and this was a perfect fit for how I had been playing. Immediately I was thinking about how this was going to change everything for me. I could really get going in the Dark Zone now. I could catch up with my friends who had outleveled me already. This new gun truly mattered to me. It was the first time in my life that a random loot drop genuinely excited me.

I'm 26 hours into The Division now, which I recognise isn’t actually a huge number. I’m far behind a lot of my friends (I’m still only at level 25, which I plan on changing that this weekend), but I'm loving how invested I’ve become, and fully intend to plug many hours into the game over the months ahead. I'm genuinely annoyed that I haven’t had more time to dedicate to grinding missions to hit level 30 and start the endgame. I'm reading Reddit advice and I’m part of a little Facebook message group, where some friends and I share advice, talk strategies, and prepare for missions together. Some of them are at the endgame, others are striving towards it alongside me. It’s the best.

On the night I wrote this, I had to get up from my computer at one point to go and deconstruct some of my old weapons and parts, having learned that the upcoming 1.1 patch will decrease their value. I’d actually read over the entirety of the 1.1 patch notes, and found myself dispirited by the fact that turrets will no longer suppress enemies – that’s really going to mess with one of my key strategies. I hit up my Facebook Division group to whinge, but also admitted to them that it’s weirdly exciting actually getting upset about patch notes. Reading through and analysing these updates, for my own pleasure rather than for work, is a new experience for me.

After playing The Division I feel like I’ve grasped onto something that I was missing, like I have more of a connection now to why so many people put massive amounts of time into mastering some games. Games can be difficult to come at sometimes, because long-term players build up these vocabularies and understandings that seem alien from the outside, but being able to keep up with all of that is surprisingly exciting.

The Division had the biggest launch of any original gaming property ever. This kind of intense experience, requiring tremendous investment, is a huge part of mainstream gaming. I usually stick to single-player games, and it's been years since I've actively wanted to coordinate with friends on anything other than the occasional casual bout of Rocket League. But with The Division, I get it. I get why someone would want to play this game every single night, why the allure of new loot is so compelling, why someone would want to finish the game and then just keep playing it, getting stronger and stronger. I get it because, for the first time, I’m right there with them.

I understand you, Tom Clancy’s The Division. Here’s to all the late nights ahead.