By Rob Fanzo
If anything, conversation around gaming in 2016 is bringing the games of the upcoming year to the forefront of every discourse. As we have in years past, we look forward to the release of VR, games like Uncharted 4, Hitman, Deus Ex, among many others. Yet, I will look back at the end of this year, as I already know, and remind myself that I started the year with one of the biggest back catalogues from a previous year.
Yes, the year of 2015 was, for me, the year of the open world. A year filled with 100 plus hours of devotion of my time to one game at a time. I died repeatedly in Bloodborne, I lived for the S ranking in Metal Gear The Phantom Pain, I drove hours and hours around the field seeking goals in Rocket League, I spent a ton of time getting lost in the Wild Hunt of Witcher 3, and rocked out the Big Boy in Fallout 4. Those do not count the platinum I earned in Arkham Knight, the countless hours of Battlefront as a storm trooper, and never quite finding the end of the desert in Mad Max. Of course the little guys get forgotten (I am looking at you Order: 1886) for not being open world, but no matter what this past year left me with a backlog of games both open world and linear that I am still swimming in as 2016 begins. This year will see the launch of over 20 PS exclusives alone at my gameplay hours.
With a new year sitting before me, the struggle within me arises. Do I leave behind 2015 like the years before it, along with the games I never finished? Or do I simply continue to plow through them until I no longer have a list, and therefore forego the new releases of 2016? One of the most difficult things as a gamer is to surrender and admit defeat toward an unfinished game.
It is equally difficult to ignore a new release that beckons your attention with its press coverage and its advertisements. Soon, it begins to populate your online friends, consumes their discussion with you, and becomes the most popular streaming games on Twitch and other social services. The firestorm created by this social sphere demands gamers lean one-way or the other. More often than not, it requires gamers create a backlog, as many, like myself, desire to support developers as they continue to produce media in a medium we love. So we sacrifice playing a game to play another. We decide that it is time to move on to the new, and we trade in the old, or it sits on our shelf and collects dust. And although we may support develops financially, that support dissipates as we never finish those games, and decide against making that same purchase again with the attitude that if we never finished the last one, why bother to get the next one? Or we decide we have enough to play, and will wait until it goes on sale. So we skip on purchasing a game, we return them, or we never enjoy and appreciate all elements of them. I find myself in this precarious position as the year begins.
I sat down last night to pick up my save file in Witcher: The Wild Hunt for the first time since right before Phantom Pain released in September. As I began to remember my love for the Witcher, I realized why I had, as so many other games, simply abandoned it. No, it was not the overly complex rich lore, the combat, the branching skill tree, or the overly interesting side quests that had me sidetracked for hours. It was the combination of those things, life, and the sheer need to keep up with the rest of the gaming world.
I had decided on a side, I just did not know it.
I had decided, despite my best efforts, to side with the gamer that refuses to miss out on the newest release. I had to know Arkham Knight, I had to know The Phantom Pain, I had to know about Fallout, Battlefront, Rocket League, Taco Master (yes, that is right blame Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller), Bastion, Soma, Shovel Knight, Tales from the Borderlands, Mad Max, Just Cause 3, Dying Light, and Mortal Kombat X. I had to know the secrets, the gameplay, and the systems of these games.
I had to know about each of these games, damned be it, if it mattered where or what I had accomplished with what I was currently playing. Each new release became the focus of my attention. And as I completed a playthrough of that new release I immediately jumped backwards in time to the previous title. I began to speed rush through games, began to try to frantically tackle the Witcher before Arkham Knight released a month later. Then Rocket League came. I raced through Arkham Knight knowing Rocket League had sidetracked me, and that the Witcher remained an uncompleted mark on my gaming backlog I needed to clear before Phantom Pain arrived.
The race continued all year. And yet, it became a race I never won. In fact, it became part of a larger symptom of my life. Gaming in 2015, for me, became a checklist: a desperate, growing checklist of incomplete games or games missing a key element I would not discover until the end of the year.
That key element arrived on November 10th in the form of Fallout 4. As I continued to play through what I had anticipated as my game of the year (a separate topic for a separate time), I began to feel something inside. Then, near the end of December, I began to realize that one of my most eagerly anticipated games of the year, Fallout 4, had become a labor, not of love, but a labor.
I was heartbroken.
To give this further context, Fallout 3, which I picked up in 2010 about three years after its initial release, is one of my favorite open world games of all time, if not my favorite. Hell, it belongs in my top ten, maybe top five video games of all time. I spent 134 hours in its main game, achieved the platinum, and although I never finished the expansions, spent another chunk of hours playing them. I loved Fallout, and I had been waiting years for another. I even ordered the pip boy edition of Fallout 4 the night it was announced, and had the day off work when it arrived.
Yet, here I was, sitting there, in my chair, after 85 hours of gameplay thinking to myself I wonder how much more I have to do to finish this game? Can I blow through it in one night so I can move on to AC:Syndicate? How much more do I need to do before I get the platinum? I knew I was afraid of forgetting about those other games. Those games that for the better part of a year had absorbed over 200 hours of my time. Yet, what also consumed my time was not just my concern for forgetting, but for not having the time to play until completion games like Syndicate or The Witcher. My OCD could not deal with these unfinished projects. I began to realize that this path was familiar. I walked it with The Evil Within, with Alien Isolation. Two great games I began and then life, other games, work got in the way. They are part of a regretful backlog I continue to harvest on my shelf, and now even though less daunting, a digital shelf called the “Library” by my PS4.
The closest I akin this to is a mild form of depression mixed with Stockholm syndrome. I fell in love with Fallout, but no longer because it was Fallout, but because it now held me captive as a prisoner who wanted to go off and explore other games, but felt grounded in the need to finish what I started, what I loved. My OCD to finish what I start, find every inch of a map, and my minor love for trophies aside, I had become part of an unhealthy gaming relationship with Fallout 4 and myself. The worst part of this: I knew how unhealthy it was becoming, and yet I persisted. My frustration, my anxiety, my desire to finish pushed me through until I got the platinum 120 hours in, and yet, I felt empty. As that trophy showed up in the upper left hand of corner of my screen I felt cheap, and as though I had not really earned it, or enjoyed it, but as if I had checked another item off of an ever growing list in life.
For days I stared at it, hoping to feel the same joy as I did when I accomplished it in Fallout 3. Nothing. Nothing except the desire to go back in to Fallout 4 and find more locations (I had currently 210 when I finished), to find more secrets, to unlock more weapons, to see the other two endings. It had become my first incomplete platinum.
Then two things happened: I had a conversation with my fiancée about checklists, and how my students I teach see assignments as checklists and not opportunities to learn, to grow, to develop, to fall in love with a topic, idea, or subject. During our discourse, we discovered I had done the same thing with reading books, and perhaps with games. They had become a checklist. That same day, I listened to Kinda Funny’s own Greg Miller and Colin Moriarty talk about Colin’s attitude toward games. Colin made several comments that reflected on his feelings, but I soon realized also reflected, in many ways, on my own. He summed it up to two things: 1. He himself was going to play games he wanted to play and not rush through them and 2. That we cannot possibly play all the games there are or that we want to play.
These two conversations made me realize my problem: I had stripped away the joy of gaming for the checkbox that says I have had this experience and I am ready for the next one. I had lost my joy for gaming. The reason I play, the experience I soak in, the narratives that are told were reduced to quickly reading the text and hitting the cross button to move on to the next piece of dialogue so I could platinum a game that I had waited over five years to play.
And I had done this all year long.
Looking back, 2016 will be the year I started with a gigantic backlog of games from 2015. I still have Mad Max, I want to play Syndicate, Phantom Pain is still sans two missions and some side ops, and well The Evil Within and Alien Isolation are still on the back burner, but that is fine. They do not have to stay there. New games are coming it is true. This year holds a lot of promise not just for PS4, but for VR and redefining how we play video games. And yes, Uncharted 4 will still be a day one purchase and play for me.
But I plan on spending some time on that backlog. I already have with a game from last May. The Witcher 3 and I are on nightly rides through Velen and Kaer Morhen, and somewhere between those two places I have rediscovered something: my love for gaming. If I spend an hour and go nowhere except to craft my armor, find a new location, and play a game of Gwent, then at least I know I enjoyed every second of it.
Yes, my 2016 will be different. I am resolved to remember the joy in gaming. Now, when I pick up Bastion on my Vita for ten minutes at a time, I do not worry about maximizing those ten minutes to complete a level. I ask myself, did I enjoy that ten minutes? When I hunt the Wild Hunt in The Witcher I will enjoy the hunt. When I finally dive back into Bloodborne’s DLC I will die repeatedly, but enjoy and learn from those deaths. Does this mean there will be times when I will spend a half hour dying before I shut it off to move on to something else? Yes. Will I enjoy those deaths repeatedly? I doubt it. What I do not doubt is this: I will enjoy every moment of every game I pick up. I will know that I played a game like Bloodborne, and that even when that game or any kicks my ass, it is the joy of the experience, not the victory of completing a task so I can check a box that will define my 2016. Although, as I await Dark Souls 3’s arrival in the spring, I still believe any victory in a Miyazaki game is worth checking off my list.