You’d think that playing a game isn’t meant to be hard work.
And yet here I sit for yet another night, unwilling or unable to play any further through Demon’s Souls, MLB 09: The Show, Pathologic, or The Witcher. They’re all good games – in their own way, excellent ones. And, Harry’s challenges notwithstanding, it’s not that I’m distracted or have some sort of collection compulsion. So why is it that I can’t stomach the thought of loading them up?
You walk an old woman up a graveyard path to a bench in the distance. She sits. A scene takes place. When it’s over, you lead her out of the graveyard.
The game offers only a bare modicum of control, deliberately designed to stress the discomfort of the protagonist and create a similar player response; she walks with visible difficulty, hips creaking with every step. Moving a mere fifty metres is a test of one’s patience. Unlike Passage, it’s impossible to leave the path, possibly emphasizing how our life choices gradually lead us to a single unavoidable conclusion.
After an eternity she sat on the bench, and together we reflected on the ephemeral nature of life. Sometime after a minute or so, her head nodded and she passed away, leaving me to my thoughts. And so, I thought.
I thought, “Why the hell aren’t I enjoying this?”
I think it’s because quite simply, they aren’t fun. Neither’s Pathologic – if Demon’s Souls is my current abusive spouse who I repeatedly return to despite knowing better, Pathologic‘s my freakish uncle who simply enjoys screwing with my mind for the fun of it. And yet, intellectually, I love the idea of them all. Pathologic embodies Russian futility and resilience in a way STALKER only hints at – the game takes place in a world where everyone dies and nothing you can possibly do will ever save any of them. At least, not in the long run. The controls are designed to thwart you, the environments are designed to be repetitive and claustrophobic, and the mechanics to deliberately grind you down, reducing you to the grubbing beast you really are. And, if that weren’t enough of a unique experience, it’s also enormously self-referential – whether the events that take place are meant to be “reality” is heavily open to interpretation. All the world’s a stage and we, dear players, are merely actors, playing our respective roles.
Sounds pretty good, eh?
For whatever reason, I keep buying them. Every time I load up Steam, The Witcher tempts me with its ethical ambiguity and Pathologic sits there staring at me, a beckoning grotesque. But lately, every time I think of loading them, I crumble and load Torchlight instead. Why is that?
Quentin Smith said it better than I ever could:
My time with Pathologic is over. And before anyone points this out as a problem with the game, I should point out that on finishing Schindler’s List there’s no great desire to rewind the tape, crack open another beer and watch that sucker again.
It’s like reading Anna Karenina twice – I’m sure there are those that may have enjoyed it enough to justify a second or third reading, but I’m not in that camp. Don’t get me wrong – I can’t stand Dan Brown, it’s just that there’s only so much voluntary time I seem to be able to allocate to brain food. I can appreciate The Good Earth, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it.
Quite simply, I’m torn – I desperately want to celebrate games like The Graveyard and Pathologic for their creativity, their gravitas, and their sheer ballsy approach to redefining what a “game” is. In fact, the two play an excellent foil to each other – The Graveyard is largely passive and over in less than ten minutes, using a single mechanic to communicate its message, while Pathologic takes over 120 hours to fully experience and is positively bursting with backstory and metaphor. Yet both speak to the human condition, forcing internal reflection by confronting the player with the absurdity of playing a game that isn’t.
I get them. I appreciate them. I want to play them. And yet, I find myself playing them not so much out of enjoyment, but almost out of obligation – I want more games like these to be made and, more importantly, I treasure the insights they give me. Randy Smith, developer of Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, makes a good point: a game need not necessarily be fun to be interesting. What’s equally as important is that it be engaging, as long as the developer is honest about the intentions of the game. Games needn’t be fun; the experiences they can offer can be unique, not only within their context, but to me specifically. Much like The Path, the worlds they create are defined not necessarily by the developer, but by my actions, my interpretation of the events that take place, and the influence of my personal life experiences.
I just don’t seem to like playing them. But, maybe that’s the point. And, maybe that’s not a problem.