It's Marching On

2016, huh?

Despite my consistent protests against, time has decided to continue to progress for another year. Time and I have a complex relationship, one that I’ve been navigating within videogames for as long as I’ve been playing them. It’s a relationship I’ve spent the better part of the week trying to unpack.

Awesome Games Done Quick is wrapping up as I write this, which has grown into a truly fantastic show over the last few years. There’s a lot to learn from it, especially as a formal presentation of a niche interest to a wider audience. With each passing GDQ, there is greater focus on contextualising every single action with plain and engaging commentary, it is constructed to make itself interesting to those who may not know why it is interesting.

The show is a showcase, of performance and of skill, yes, but it’s primarily a showcase of an idea: speedrunning. The selection of runs is always broad, featuring games from every era ran in every style imaginable. Races, TAS, Glitches, No-Glitches, Blind, etc; space is given to a variety of interpretations of the idea of speedrunning, all of which are given equal weight. To watch it is to navigate your own relationship with that idea, find out where your particular fascination lies, and ask yourself why that might be.

My favourite runs are straightforward – no glitches, no physics tricks – usually in games that I’m familiar with. I enjoy seeing games get broken, I’m always one to marvel at the limits of a wide possibility space, but these vanilla runs resonate with me more. I’m drawn to something recognisable performed at peak productivity. It isn’t the speed that draws me to that idea, but the fluidity of motion, the removal of any and all gaps in the process. Not a second is wasted.

I tend to play games in a similar fashion. My favourite shooters emphasise fluidity of movement, shooting a mere one of your tools which allow you to navigate the environment as best as you can. When I play a Call of Duty, I fight against the design, which asks for a metered style of play following the pace of your AI buddies through the front lines. Instead, I sprint forward, attempting to reach the marker in the shortest time possible, only bringing my gun up to shoot when I need to clear a path or stop getting hit.

Black Ops III is straight up the worst about this, with areas either requiring a total clearing of enemies, or (more frequently) that ol’ standby, needing to escort your AI buddy through the battlefield to open the locked door in your way. The addition of robotic enemies has the main effect of turning them into bullet sponges, and the newly slow melee attack enforces a more considered approach. The game pushes back against any real feeling of motion, but doesn’t use a measured pace to any effect either, and left me railing against it for the entire way too long running time.

Similarly, Tomb Raider: Anniversary ended up pushing me away because of its approach to progress. Unlike Black Ops III, I don’t think Anniversary is a bad game, but the focus on increasingly obscure solutions to interlocking environmental puzzles completely shifts the game’s relationship with the player. Legend is a game concerned with the feeling of inhabiting Lara Croft’s body, the puzzle elements greatly simplified and the platforming elements lengthier and with more precise rhythm.

Anniversary, by virtue of returning to the series’ roots, is more concerned with the feeling of inhabiting Lara Croft’s mind. It’s superbly effective at communicating a sense of smallness upon the player, and the solutions come not from moving smoothly, but from finding the one lever of four that you happened to miss somewhere back in the fuck off cavern. I interpret this time spent banging my head against the puzzle as wasted time, partially because the puzzles are more than a little arbitrary, but far more than that, I think it’s because I have this need for my time to be spent productively.

On this week’s Beastcast, Austin Walker discussed this idea in relation to Alex Pieschel’s review of the Final Fantasy VII debug room. For the most part, we know that values of productivity that we judge ourselves by are almost all complete garbage, merely the effects of being raised into late capitalism, but removing that mental programming from our brains is nigh impossible, not the least of all because society isn’t opt-out. I can try to be okay with spending more time figuring out something in a game, but I can’t be okay with my unemployment, for example. In order to make a living, we have to engage with these systems, and so it’s going to affect our engagement with the art that we interact with whether we like it or not.

As I often do, I spent a good part of today thinking of Lana Polansky’s fantastic piece Daydreaming is Healthy: An Apology for Wasting Time. So many games are designed specifically to blend so seamlessly into those patterns of thinking that we have to make an active, concerted effort to fight them.

Yesterday, two thirds into a run of Ninja Gaiden Black, I saved my game and caught a look at the slot above, where I’d saved my game in that spot last time I played. It’s perhaps the only game from my childhood which I revisit yearly, like returning to the comfort of my Grandma’s hot chocolate. Last year’s save was exactly two minutes behind me.

Much like the speedrunners referenced in Pieschel’s review, much like those in the runs I watch, I’d ‘solved’ my favourite game. It’s no longer a space to play, it’s a performance I undergo, like drumming along perfectly to an album from my youth. I use the same weapons on the same bosses, I approach the encounters in the same order, I take no risks and make no false moves, getting only incrementally faster and better with each passing attempt. And I didn’t even set out with that goal in mind.

Going forward, I want to be better about making that effort. I want to be okay with spending an evening playing something for no other reason because I needed it. I want to be okay with not letting my productivity define me. I want to I want to free myself of the need to be constantly, always moving forward. But I know that isn’t a realistic expectation, and that’s okay.

After all, there’s just not enough time.