Let’s Play Shogi!

Sometime around the start of the month, I started playing Brave Fencer Musashi again.

Quarantine has been a strange, mostly stationary journey for me. In the time since it started, I’ve primarily found myself sitting in one of a handful of rooms, passing the hours by mindlessly browsing the internet, watching videos online in some form or another, and giving myself little projects to start and complete over the course of a few hours or days. Any given day over the past year can probably be described accurately with any one or two of those. Sometimes the projects were as simple as converting DVDs to video files. Sometimes the projects were going through ancient message boards looking for ways to convince Windows that any given controller is an X Input controller. Some were just spending hours on emulation wikis trying to understand the workings of emulators, BIOS files, and plugins.

The end result of any of these projects, or videos, or browsing is always the same, the passage of time without much significantly changing. The quality of life changes of the projects were more alterations than improvements. The videos and browsing were never tutorials, educational, or focused on teaching or improving a skill. I am, in terms of skills and greater understanding, in more or less exactly the position I was in this time last year.

Much like these projects, my approach to games was rather similar. Log onto a game whose steps were simple, understandable, and direct, and accomplish them until the finish line was both visible and achievable, and do that. This primarily manifested in games like Titanfall 2 or Grand Theft Auto Online, whose gameplay loops were and remain strictly expectationless, and offer little more than pretty sounds and flashing lights at the endpoint. Nothing really gets done, no significant changes in me or my work have arisen.

Yet I am just here, in one of a handful of rooms, passing the hours.

If anything, these cycles keep me from experiencing the sort of engagement and challenges that feed my work. There are several games I’ve never played before, and would absolutely love to experience their narratives. To have my emotions enthralled or challenged would be something that would be undoubtedly healthy, instead of just splashing around in a quagmire of emotional and ludic mud, seeing people be rude in reply to “Good luck and have fun, everyone!” in a Titanfall 2 match. I could be doing so much more, and the barriers in front of me that keep me from doing so are so very small.

Going back to Brave Fencer Musashi, I haven’t played this game for over a decade. Most of its experiences feel fresh after years of other media. Although a few moments might spark a memory or two, playing through the early moments of the game have been akin to a new experience. There is, however, one particular piece of trivia I remember about the late game. There is a moment in it where I will either be quizzed on, or must play, a game of Shogi. I don’t precisely recall which.

Shogi, for those unaware, is a game of strategy in which two players move various pieces across a board, using the movement mechanics of each piece to capture their opponents pieces. It is in several ways similar to Chess, though Shogi has a few more pieces and a few more things the player has to additionally keep track of. Much like Chess, it is a game that is not overly difficult to get a basic understanding of, though the ability to engage in high-level play takes experience, practice, and dedication.

The only forewarning players have about this Shogi challenge is a library, available to the player from an early moment, with a book called “Let’s Play Shogi,” where each chapter is a brief explanation of what the pieces are called, and how they move. As the player progresses through the game, more chapters of Let’s Play Shogi become available, and the player can learn more about the game.

As of March 31st, at time of writing, I have not gotten very far in Brave Fencer Musashi. The game is older than I remember, and its age shows in a lot of little places that make playing feel a bit more trudging than it probably should, but that isn’t the reason I’ve stopped playing. I have, over several instances, paused my slow-going progress to return to the castle, menu-hop my way over to the library, and take a deep breath and commit to reading the first chapter of Let’s Play Shoji.

At which point I back out, never having even selected the book from the menu.

I still haven’t read my way through the first chapter. There are more lines of text in any one of these paragraphs than there are in the full chapters of Lets Play Shogi, but the very idea of teaching myself something relatively new is a sheer cliff in the face of the kind of directionless malaise of existence that is quarantine time. I know I can learn these rules, I’ve done it before. This wouldn’t have been my first time beating Brave Fencer Musashi, had I actually done so. But the idea of actually committing to something new, and investing energy into it for a prolonged period enough to complete it, feels impossible. Anything more than a mostly thoughtless cycle of simple pleasures or long-held old comforts feels impossible.

I know a large part of this is quarantine, and the mental strain of living life with very strict limits on where, with whom, and how is slowly eroding at the foundations necessary to enjoy a range of things that are normally enjoyable. I understand that any existing mental health issue is going to be magnified by the circumstances of the pandemic, and that I am naturally going to struggle coping with something that I have no meaningful ability to change. On a purely conscious level, I understand all of this fully. However, the experience of knowing these things and feeling incapable of getting myself to do or enjoy things I actually enjoy doing is taking its own toll.

A book is inviting me to play Shogi. Why is it so very hard just to say “Yes”?

Sometime next month, I hope to finish playing Brave Fencer Musashi, and perhaps even be able to talk about my experience learning to play Shogi.

Thoughts?