Emerging from My Hiatus from Big Budget Games

I just started playing Mafia III. It’s the first big budget game that I have played in over a year. The last such game that I played was Metal Gear Solid V, a game that released in September of 2015. Prior to that I can’t remember what big budget title I played.

This is pretty weird for a guy who spent the 2000s and much of the early 2010s playing nearly every big budget release that came out, from Assassin’s Creed to Call of Duty, from the Batman: Arkham games to every Grand Theft Auto since Grand Theft Auto III (including the Tales from X City titles to Chinatown Wars).

I’ve been writing about games pretty seriously and very regularly since around 2002, and doing so, I always felt the need to “keep up”, to know what everyone was talking about, what everyone was plunking down 60 bucks for.

As you can imagine, I got burned out. As a result, for probably the last two to three years, I’ve almost exclusively played indie games (well, and a fair amount of League of Legends). I hadn’t grown to hate gaming. I’m an avid gamer, card games, board games, video games, you name it, I’ll play it. I’d gotten burned out on scope and maybe on spectacle in video games.

I started off this year playing games like Oxenfree and The Flame in the Flood, little games with straightforward goals, like playing out a story or mastering some basic survival mechanics. The most recent games that I’ve played are Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving, two games that are about 15 minutes long each with little interaction required on the part of the player. Before that, I played Virginia, a two hour cinematic “game”.

At no point did I consciously set out to make 2016 a year of playing exclusively “little games”, nor did I intend to do so in 2015 (though I mostly did as well), but the last two years have found me gravitating towards minimalistic games, games that focus on largely singular game mechanics, or games that even abandon mostly traditional gameplay for the sake of becoming little storytelling engines, games, perhaps, best defined as being limited in scope.

These games have gotten me focused on singular ideas, singular mechanisms, and I think that I have been gratified to be granted such narrow focus for a time. Focus has always been something that I have wrestled with, as I tend to think a lot of things at once, favoring multitasking to simply taking on a single task at a time.

In a sense and in the past, I think that the most recent forms of bigger budget gaming, open world games especially, have been a way of feeding my own mania for organizing and managing a lot of things all at once. Gaming, as a hobby, perhaps more broadly (if one likes especially fiddly and complex types of games — which I do), feeds such manias in people like myself who feel like they are only accomplishing things if they are mastering a whole lot of concepts all at once.

Back in 2012 and even as early as 2010, I wrote a couple of essays about the ways in which games of a certain scope were beginning to remind me more of work than of play (see ”Post-It Note Role-Playing or the White Collar Workers of Skyrim and Fallout: The ‘To Do’ List Simulator”). These essays seem prescient to me now of my semi-rejection of games with vast worlds, subquests upon subquests, collectibles, in-game maps full of waypoints and markers, and management of everything from skill trees to entire economies and my subsequent retreat to games in which you just do one or two things really well.

So, it is with some trepidation that I load myself into New Bordeaux, the fictional version of a 1968 New Orleans, that serves as the setting of Mafia III. The game has, perhaps thankfully, eased me slowly into its universe through a few fairly linear opening story missions in order to fill me in on the basics of combat and the background of the characters involved in its story. But even now, I am beginning to watch menus full of collectibles grow, the game introducing me to the concepts of capturing and controlling “rackets”, a seeming way to develop my own fortune and to understand and exploit the economic system of the game, and to add more markers to its world map.

Trepidatious though I might feel on the one hand, however, at the same time, I find myself drawn into the web of systems unfolding with a vague sense of glee. I’ve spent some time conquering little worlds for awhile now and that clearly has its merits, but it may be time to enlarge the scope of my goals once more and conquer something bigger, something more intricate, something that at least seems more grand and less quiet than the smaller spaces that I have occupied in my most recent gaming experiences. Something feels good and familiar about the way that I am sifting through menus and thinking about how area control mechanics might be best balanced against accomplishing more primary mission goals. At least this early in, this game seems like it might be a little fiddly, and I haven’t flexed my “dealing with something a little fiddly” muscles in awhile. Something about the way I’m thinking about the game is firing off little familiar signals of what I had previously enjoyed about games with vast worlds and many different systems.

Now, I feel like I can hear the thoughts of some readers now already: “But Mafia III is a sucky game, man”, “It’s no Skyrim or Fallout 4”, “It’s so simple”, etc. But whether Mafia III specifically is or isn’t the best way to re-enter the world of larger games and their worlds is hardly the point — or hardly my point in this article anyway. I have no idea whether the game is good or bad, stupid complex or stupid simple. Instead, I only know that it is giving off the vibe of a kind of game that I have grown burn out on, but that I also used to love.

Stepping back from that for awhile seems reasonable to me. Sometimes distance is necessary to avoid turning love into loathing. However, I’ve been distant for long enough. Grander worlds at least imply grander ambitions, and I’m ready to feel a little more ambitious once again in my gaming habits. I’m ready for a little more scope, and I’m ready for a lot more spectacle.