There and Back Again

There’s a part of me that begrudges that I can’t high-five the robot as I’m exiting the drop ship. Like the dozens that have come before it, this mission is easy to wrap my head around. Rival faction of highly skilled pilots and fighters are going to be dropping in to the engagement zone, along with my faction and teammates. We’re to defeat as many as we can, with titan support coming mid-mission, and try to not get ourselves too thoroughly killed. Simple enough. Our boots thud on the metal as we dive out of the ship, and the open sky surrounds us as we all plumet toward first contact.

Given enough time and opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of games.

Since the end goal of learning is to improve most behaviors to basic, repeatable patterns of routine, games will inevitably lead players to taking something enjoyable, stripping away the process and discovery parts that are the most unique and fulfilling, and repeat the components that provide the most reward for the least risk. Or drill an experience so thoroughly that whatever fun it once held is lost, simply because it’s the most efficient use of time. For MMOs, this means grinding the most profitable missions repeatedly. For shooters, it often means optimizing a short list of the the highest-tier weapons. For RPGs, often a single enemy encounter repeated exhaustively is the key to finding an ultimate weapon, a special magic, or getting a shiny Pokemon.

For me personally, this interacts with my play experience a single way: I return to loops. Despite the proliferation of indie bundles, developer packs, subscription services, monthly free games, digital sales, and hype cycles giving me a giant collection of games I’ve never started or played, I find myself booting the same few games. Somehow, I return to the five or so play experiences I can pick up, loop a few times, and then put down.

My skates glide smoothly across the edges of the building. Bullets ricochet violently from the bricks, and the pale yellow trails I leave as I drive across the walls paint frenetic poetry across the buildings. I’m alone on point, again, but my team should hopefully be here soon. My voice carries the joyful energy of a man unburdened by misery, but I’m counting the seconds until I have team support. Even though death is a temporary nuisance more than the hard stop of a last breath, I find myself increasingly aggravated as I die, live, move, and die again. For such a team-based experience, it’s terribly aggravating to work so hard on capturing the point when my teammates are doing anything but.

I drift across the open air, turning around before bouncing in a new direction. Although I’m doing my best to avoid bouncing in a pattern, my pathways all lead to the same few bits of cover, breaking my opponents’ firing lines so I spend more time behind cover than exposed. No cover is perfect, or even always that good, but even a second of delay is another second my team has to catch up. When I hear the basso whump of a hammer strike, I finally let myself exhale. I think I may yet have a chance to capture the point…

I’m not sure if it’s a function of my mental health or just the ways I’ve changed over the years, but I find it difficult to look at the gauntlet of new mechanics and story beats to learn when starting a new game, or reteaching myself the important details of a game I’d stopped mid-way through. All of the energy it would take to start other games, at a glance, feels exhausting. So instead I turn to loops. Titanfall 2, Overwatch, and Soul Calibur VI are endlessly repeatable, require little effort from me to go from menu immediately into play until I’ve exhausted my desire to keep going, so they become my mainstays.

Siegfried, a great sword fighter, slashing across the air in Soul Calibur VI.

If it is a function of mental health that keeps me returning to my gaming ouroboros, I can’t help but feel like I’m doing myself a disservice. Although I have several games I can play and explore, the cycles are simple, they’re easy, and they’re repetitive. It’s so easy to fall back into the same pattern. Familiar gameplay loop, familiar movement interactions, familiar knowledge base, and tragically, familiar moods. It means that it requires no invested energy to sit down and play, but if that little energy is all I have to invest on that day, then it’s wasted on something that, at best, will do little more than maintain whatever mood I have when I start.

For days when my mood is already low, which is usually what causes me to have low energy, I throw away some of my spoons on something that’s going to keep me low. Then I wake up the next day with low energy, sit down to boot up another loop, which is then wasted on something that, at best, will do little more than maintain whatever mood I have when I start…

The pattern repeats.

I’m one set and two rounds down, and my opponent is still better than me. Though I’m not precisely a slouch, I find my little patterns of play are betraying me. Although I’d developed a wide range of tools to use in multiple situations, they’re all steering me wrong now. I feint high, dip low, and sweep at the legs. My opponent reads the feint, and drops their guard low while I’m still pivoting my attack. My weapon strikes their guard, and they rise with an attack. I’m too slow, fumble my defense, and catch a great sword slash across my torso. Although I’d already landed a handful of hits, this one strike does more than my last two combos, and I spiral through the air.

Another hit like that, and I’m undoubtedly toast. So I back off, and assess. My opponent has more reach than I do, they strike about as quickly as I do, and they can sustain a few more of the combos I can reliably pull off. This is all too likely to be another loss, after a string of five of them. It’s frustrating to feel like my full suite of techniques and strategies are just so much noise, incapable of taking on even the most pattern-driven of my opponents. I feint a charge, sidestep, and dash back. They commit to a swing, I see the attack starting, so I press forward, just out of range, and strike. Their sword is my entire body height, but I slip just after the swing and lunge. My full reach, plus sword length, is just too little. I viciously stab the air centimeters from their chest. The second swing of their sword falls shortly after, onto my head. My unconscious body crumples to the ground.

I struggle a lot with enjoying games because of this. In my mind, they either mean committing to a new mountain to climb, or settling back on old familiar standbys. Often, neither feels appealing. Which is part of the problem, games shouldn’t feel like a chore. I know it’s my own psychology dumping me down this hole, but it’s a hole I feel like I didn’t dig out alone. Games are multifaceted things, that encompass a lot of effort from developers, reporting from journalists, opinions from critics, and hype cycles from the community, and all of these things make up the final package of what a game is for any given player.

The pattern repeats.

The hardest part is once I’ve started a loop, part of that energy is already spent, but I know unless I spend even more to drag myself out of it, I’ll just end up dumping some of my day, and some of the mood I could have recovered, on a waste of time. Even if I do really well, and my team lands a victory or my fighter comes out victorious, I know whatever joy I get from the moment won’t be as enriching because I’ve gone down this road so many times that it’s very optimized, very efficient, but only rarely fun.

And so again, I find myself on a drop ship, metal feet rapping absent rhythms as my legs shuffle in place before we drop. The robot in front of me shouts for a high-five, and I cannot give him one, no matter how much I want to. This loop has us both trapped. But maybe after this game I’ll pick up where I left off on Dream Daddy. I haven’t seen Craig in a while.

Maybe after, I’ll go for a jog. It is spring again, after all, I bet the weather’s gotten pretty nice since I’ve last gone out.

Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer, editor, and friendship enthusiast. Assuming you want to pursue his friendship, he would absolutely love for you to do so on Twitter.