Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a brash young man gradually mellows over the years, gains perspective on life’s annoyances, and begins to respond to setbacks in a more measured, thoughtful way. At some point, I realized I was this walking stereotype. The things that annoyed me in years past had gradually become easier to take in stride. I can’t do anything about a traffic jam. The old lady at the grocery store who insists on paying for two apples with a personal check will finish when she’s finished. A single bad day at work isn’t a sign that I should abandon all my earthly possessions and become a monk. Life is a marathon, and patience is the key to winning.
However, this general mellowing hasn’t completely extended to my attitude towards games. In fact, it’s often the opposite. I find myself increasingly impatient with games. I tell myself that I don’t have the time to invest in a 50 hour RPG. I don’t like being asked to slog through a long manual or parse obscure game mechanics. Long cutscenes? Widely-spaced checkpoints? Load times? I don’t have time for any of that, or so I think.
I’m not sure where this mindset comes from, but I’m inclined to blame the non-gaming world. I know I can’t control life’s random occurrences, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that a big chunk of being a responsible adult is dealing with unexpected inconveniences and poorly-designed systems with as much grace and flexibility as possible.
Games are alluring because they can, at least theoretically, offer an alternative. Their worlds can be clear, orderly, and logical. They can have specific, achievable goals. They can provide a wondrous, entertaining diversion from life’s ordinary events. In short, they offer the promise of efficient, dependable pleasure. I think of video games as one of the precious few sanctuaries immune to the random bullshit that crops up elsewhere. My patience reserves are usually running pretty low by the time I get around to firing up a game, which makes unexpected roadblocks all the more taxing.
In reality, this mindset is neither logical, fair, nor helpful to me or the games I play. Actually, many of the games that try my patience end up teaching me the virtue of that hard-won personality trait, and they do so in a context far more pleasant than an immovable traffic jam.
I noticed this while playing Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, an adventure game with a modern meta-narrative wrapped in a surprisingly traditional adventure game system. Initially I was irritated by the character’s slow walking speed and the game’s insistence on elaborate (and unskippable) scene transitions. The puzzles and battles were similarly demanding. Failing a battle sequence requires you start over at the very beginning. Some of the challenges require trial and error. The separate phases of the game are dependent on the phases of the moon (that is, until you discover ways to skirt this rule). This annoyed me until I realized that fighting the game’s pace wouldn’t help anything. I slowed down and began noticing the smaller details. The pixel art was actually very expressive, the slow movement speed allowed me to appreciate the subtle musical shifts, and repeating battles taught me that attacks patterns were quantized with the game’s soundtrack. Trite as it sounds, I stopped to smell the digital roses and came away the better for it.
This isn’t an isolated occurrence. I’m currently playing through Dishonored, a stealth game whose plot is told through subtle environmental features along with a host of found documents. Piecing together the social and political factions of the game’s world by rifling through diaries isn’t the fastest way to digest a plot. Stalking a single guard for five minutes before making an (often unsuccessful) attempt to subdue him isn’t the most direct way of dealing with a problem. I was a bit freaked out when I discovered that I had spent a couple hours chipping away at a single assassination mission until I realized that was exactly the point. I had to adjust my expectations about how I would be interacting with the game: Dishonored is about building and rebuilding a series of cascading plans and then having the persistence to carry them out. It isn’t the most direct approach towards excitement, but it yields a long-term sense of satisfaction that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve with the raw efficiency of a machine gun.
But what if the waiting game is measured in weeks, rather than minutes? This worried me before starting Telltale’s excellent The Walking Dead episodic game series. I hadn’t played the first few episodes, so I was able to experience them consecutively, in much the same way that I watch television (i.e., consuming entire seasons in a week via Netflix or Hulu). After catching up, I was initially irritated that I’d have to wait a month before resuming Lee and Clementine’s journey. This inconvenience soon morphed into something positive when I realized that waiting meant that I was part of a larger shared experience. Each episode has given rise to virtual water cooler moments where my friends hash out our choices and make predictions for what might be in store in the next episodes. The time between episodes has given me the chance to revisit my decisions and even reinterpret the actions of particular characters. This time-enforced lesson in restraint has increased the amount of thought that I’ve given the series, and has definitely changed the way I approached subsequent episodes.
In the end, maybe games aren’t actually the last bastion of instant gratification that I’ve built them up to be. And this is okay because the idea that games are somehow separate from the rest of life is a flawed assumption anyway. Life is a marathon after all, and video games are yet another part of it. Rather than offering me a chance to shed my patience with the press of a button, they instead invite me to continually relearn one of most valuable traits one can possess.