Friday, May 31, 2013

The loss of gaming innocence. Or, you can't go back again - until you do.

One of the biggest problems a devout gamer faces is the burden of new game ennui.  After completing a great particularly game, there's a period of mourning that bibliophiles who've just finished a favorite series know all too well.

As the inevitable end draws near, it's not uncommon to prolong your time in a given game world by completing as many obscure sidequests as possible - but ultimately, you know as well as the developers do that it's all in vain.  You'll eventually press on, beat the boss, and after the credits roll the game is sadly shelved.

But sometimes, some rare times, there are games that call us back.

If you're anything like me, you have at least 5-10 unplayed games across a couple of consoles (plus a few impulse digital downloads) sitting around unplayed and waiting for your attention.  Yet when a few hours of unscheduled, precious free time suddenly present themselves you don't think about cracking open a new game.  Instead, you'll find yourself wanting to return to a game whose plot you know inside and out.

Yet, ironically, you can never truly return to a game once you've beaten it.  Sure, you can replay it time and time again - but no matter how hard you try, you'll never be able to recapture the same wide-eyed experience you did when you played through it for the first time.  You know what the plot twists will be, you know which characters will make it and which won't, and you know what fate awaits the antagonist in the game's final act - but you go back anyway.

So, why do we bother replaying games again?

Discounting the possibility of playing as a different protagonist or rolling a Nord instead of a Redguard, the reason is simple: we want to learn to appreciate the intricacies of the story on a deeper, more meaningful level.  We want to laugh at the same awkwardly-translated dialog, rage at the same cheap-ass bossfight, and thrill at the discovery of a rare item all over again - but we also want to go deeper.

I've played through FFVIII at least three times, and I never noticed this 
hidden bit of lore until a friend emailed it over to me last month.

Sometimes, our diligence and loyalty is rewarded with an odd random encounter that we've never had or an intriguing discovery that we never made in pervious playthroughs - and these moments are to be cherished.

Yet more often, especially in the case of rather linear JRPGs, the story presents itself as it did every time before.  Characters enter at the same points, grow after the same hardships, and exit when their time has come.

But if we try hard enough to appreciate the plot as it unfolds and turn off the knowledge of what happens in few scenes, it's possible - for a fleeting moment - to almost, almost recapture the experience we had playing through a game for the first time.

And this is why certain games keep calling us back.  In the same way that an expert turn of a phrase can elicit a wry smile from a reader's face every time it's read, a satisfying moment in a game will evoke the same feelings it did when it was first experienced.

So don't feel guilty about the 5-10 unplayed games you have, sitting unloved in their factory packaging.  They'll still be there in a few weeks - and they'll understand that you need to go back to your earlier gaming loves.

And who knows - maybe in a few years, they'll be able to lure you back with the same twinges of nostalgia.