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On Boredom and Looking Ahead to 2013

This is the time of year when everybody and their brother coughs up a games they are looking forward to list. (Well,  it was when I wrote the initial draft of this post.) We didn’t have much of that here, but certainly it’s come up on Jumping the Shark. The thing is, for me and video games, there’s not much I’m looking ahead to. I mean I’m sure there will be stuff I play and stuff that, as the year proceeds, I’ll get excited about playing, but I’m as bored to tears these days with the Video Game Preview Circus as I am with the rest of the industry. It’s been a recurring theme this past year that there’s plenty enough going on in the present that precludes me from having any desire to spend time getting amped up about gaming projects that I may or may not see in the next 6 to 12 months.

“Dear, Gaming Industry,” as the cliché goes, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Except, well, it’s you…

How many times have I written in the past two years about how the direction of the industry, combined with where I sit at this particular crossroads in my life, has left me with waning interest in the hobby? At least twice that I can think of. I’m sure there’s more, and at this point I risk verging into broken record territory, but these were the two I could find in the archives that most stood out in my memory:

The Lull of 2011
Pushed Around by the Industry

There’s a money quote in the latter of these:

“Here’s something the 37-year old me can say to a game maker, without a hint of reservation, that the 22-year old me would never have said: I don’t need to play your games. I love games. I’ve always loved games. But my life, and my ability to find contentment in it, is not tied to this business…”

The bellwether for me was the recent Bioshock Infinite trailer.

Kudos to you if you watched that and thought, “Oh, hells yeah!” Seriously, nothing I’m about to say is meant to be judgmental of anyone who is still enthralled with modern mainstream gaming. This is purely personal, and personally? I shrugged. It could not have felt more “meh.” And let’s face it, if the thought of playing Bioshock Infinite contains not even a momentary thrill, even for someone who adored the first two games, then you’ve probably crossed a line somewhere.

I’ve been chewing hard on this over the past couple months and I’ve settled on the idea that the whole big guns, big explosions, big loot thing that pretty well defines the last decade of gaming has grown so stale and repetitive that even games from a franchise with terrific history, with a promising backdrop or story, don’t elicit much of a reaction from me anymore. Whether it’s blowing shit up or harvesting acres and acres of phat loot, nuance on the same exact thing I’ve been doing for forever can only carry me so far.

(What’s funny is I penned all this a couple weeks ago, before reading Mr. Barnes’ Rethinking Mass Murder post. I’ve been sitting on this because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to post it or not. Mike’s excellent post convinced me I should.)

Just so there is no misunderstanding my point, my complaints about RPGs who’s sole mechanic is the acquisition of loot via monster slayage, or shooters that glorify killing by the baker’s dozen, have absolutely nothing to do with personal ethics or moral judgment. This sense of malaise towards killing in games is a feeling that started long before Newtown and it’s not about shame or ethics or The Children. I feel no more shame in gunning down a polygonal representation of a soldier in Human Revolution than I do in putting waste food in my garbage disposal. (Which is to say, maybe a very tiny bit.) I think it’s mostly that I’ve been doing this for 30 years now and it’s just not interesting anymore. Hey, another Sword of Otto Octavious with 30% bonus damage to spiders that I’ll likely dump a couple hours from now when I get the Mace of Mysterio that bumps it up to 35%. Yay?

Hey, look! I’ve leveled for the third time in an hour and can now choose a new skill that I’ll care about for approximately the same amount of time it takes to grow bored watching Hunger Games! (For the record, that’s about six minutes.) And in another half hour I’ll get another another level-up “ding” and pick something new that’s approximately .65% better than the skill I just got. Hazaa?

I’m tired of paying handsomely for the privilege of feeling like a gerbil pacing around the feeder waiting for the next pellet to drop. There was certainly a time when I found all the mechanics at play in mainstream titles exciting, but there was also a time when mainstream titles were more at home innovating and risk-taking, something the gobs and gobs of money involved makes AAA developers nearly incapable of doing anymore. As time marches on, and these experiences grow simultaneously less varied and more rote, it’s all become a thrill of diminishing returns. Unlike the gerbil, however, I’m not going to starve to death if I start skipping these meals. There are no longer enough fancy kill-foozle skills and whacky grenade launchers out there to make it any kind of visceral thrill for me to blow up a bunch of polygons, no matter how cool the ragdoll physics. Frankly, I just don’t give a fuck about all that anymore.

No, these days if I’m going to take time away from everything else in life to play your game, you’re going to have to offer a little more than just another retread experience. You’re going to have to offer me good wine and exotic cheeses and not the same old empty calories. Is it any wonder that the games I’ve most enjoyed in the past year –XCOM, The Walking Dead (the TellTale game), FTL, Mark of the Ninja– are either highly derivative of what I’ve been playing for ages or offer genuine variation on existing mechanics? Mark of the Ninja doesn’t re-write the book for stealth nearly as much as its most ardent fans might want you to believe, but the combination of 2D side-scrolling with vision cones and sound bubbles along with a genuinely interesting story progression does offer something unique from playing yet another paint-by-numbers experience I get from a Dishonored or the latest Bioware opus. That it’s contained in a nicely animated, wholly digestible 10-hour experience doesn’t hurt either.

Given all this, it’s probably not hard to see why my writing frequency has plummeted to approximately nil the past few months. Writing requires passion and, with me, if there’s no passion for the subject (not to mention no paycheck), it’s pretty damn hard to work up the will to write about it. My urge to write has always waxed and waned, but the truth is, I’ve had desire to write these past months, but I’ve had zero desire to write about games, even with some of the immensely pleasurable experiences I’ve had with some of the titles mentioned in the previous paragraph. There’s about a billion other hosers writing reviews for these exact same games, some far better at it than me and some not so much, but regardless of which case, I’ve lost interest in even tacitly competing with them. This isn’t to say I’m totally done writing about games, but that yet another review isn’t where my head is. I think that any game I write about going forward has to give me more to say than merely assessing its bonafides. I can do that on the podcast, which is a weekly quick-hitter that doesn’t involve endless hours of writing and re-writing.

So, I’ve had to ask myself, what is No High Scores going to be to me in 2013? Nothing of what I’ve written above should be interpreted as questioning how much I value NHS, and little would make me sadder than seeing tumbleweeds blow through here. I can’t praise Brandon, Michael, and Matt enough for continuing to keep content running through the front page while I ponder existence and Bill builds his cardboard empire. And, bottom line, I still want to be a part of producing content for this wonderful place, which is a direct reflection of how I feel about everyone here with whom I write and all of you who read. I feel genuinely bad that I can’t match the passion and enthusiasm you all maintain for this hobby. The counter to that is that I have a career that needs more focus than I’ve been giving it, two kids who may need their dad as much as ever this year, and a wonderful relationship (thanks eHarmony!) that I hope to continue building. Throw in a very real need for no less than eight hours of sleep a night and a growing desire to not only read more, but also dip my toe back into the creative writing pool (something I’ve not done consistently since college), and that doesn’t leave much room for feigning interest in a been there, done that industry that’s far more focused on AAA monetization than value for my dollar, not to mention my time. (Indies and small pubs, you are hereby exempted from the preceding generalization. You’re aces in my book.)

So where should that balance come from? Realistically, it probably means my output here will continue to be inconsistent at best, but potentially it means just writing broader. If a game grabs me (or doesn’t) and it gives me something to say, I’ll certainly write about it. But I hope to spend more time just writing about mass media consumption at large and how it has shaped and continues to shape my life and the world around it. I have ideas in mind for a handful of posts already that are, at best, only tangentially related to gaming. Whether that will interest you enough to click through to the full-length articles I can’t begin to guess, but it’s something I want to try and, for those of you willing to ride out that experiment with me, my appreciation is boundless. (Disclaimer: I will never engage in politics writing here nor would I hold you hostage to anything fictional I might lamely try to produce in the coming months. Even I have lines.) For those that aren’t, hey, I get it and hold no hard feelings over that. Presumably, you do come here to read about games, after all. And, hey, hopefully every so often I’ll be able to oblige by still pumping out some real guts level thoughts on those games that come this year that actually do capture and hold my interest.

Regardless of how it all shakes out, here’s to you all and making the most of 2013, whatever it brings!

Todd Brakke

Todd was born in Ann Arbor with a Michigan helmet in one hand and a mouse in the other. (Never you mind the logistics of this.) He grew, vertically anyway, and proceeded to spend over 16 years as a development editor for Pearson Education, publishing books, videos, and digital learning products under the Que and Sams Publishing imprints. Because that wasn't enough of a challenge, Todd has also been a 20-year part-time snob about video games, writing reviews, features, and more for multiple outlets. Follow him on Twitter @ubrakto or check it out his website at ToddsFoolery.com.

18 thoughts on “On Boredom and Looking Ahead to 2013

  1. I can very much sympathize. And, to be honest, I don’t actually come to this site for just the gaming stuff. It’s what brought me here, but what keeps me coming back, day after day, is that I actually like reading what you guys write. I can relate, and it feels like you all are coming from a similar place, and it’s especially nice to read articles from people who genuinely have lives outside of gaming. So I say, bring on the more esoteric posts. After all, there really is more to life then shallow games.

    1. Thanks very much for that! We’ve definitely got a good crew here. Like I said above, I give full props to Michael, Matt, and Brandon for continuing to churn out good stuff every week.

  2. I’m stuck with echoing zerowyrm’s statements. What brought me here was sober reflection, genuine unashamed writing and unhyped blogs.

    More and more I see publicity news with users comments complaining or excited for things which really make no sense to me. Everything feels warped. Dante’s hair is now different. Don’t buy it. Syndicate is a first person shooter. ok… Don’t buy it or give it time. Too much “I’m not a fan of this thing and I want you to hate this thing too”, what possible difference does it make to people if “Call of All Your Duties” is popular. So what. The self importance is quite outstanding.

    I think the majority of us here are in the same boat although I’d argue its a pretty good time for the pursuit of gaming. Yes the supermarket gaming produce has gone stale but the small fruit and veg stall is brimming with tasty treats. The resurgence of confident independent gaming has been a revelation and I hope it continues. We can all look forward to the Cave and whoever else has a burst of inspiration which has been missing from the safe option of consumer gaming.

  3. I mostly come here for the podcast, so don’t stop doing that. Whatever else is posted I read and enjoy, unless it’s about games I don’t care for. Which is a lot of games – this past year I’ve finished Mass Effect 3, Witcher 2, Mark of the Ninja, XCOM and FTL (as much as you can “finish” the last two). 5 finished games in a year. Sure, I’ve dabbled in others – I still have to muster the will to finish Dishonored, I’ve replayed Fallout 2 for the third time (…without finishing it once) and tried out a few others, usually to put them aside after a week or two (Star Trek Online and The Old Republic come to mind – MMOs aren’t really my thing).

    My point, in as much as there is a point, is that I’m perfectly fine with playing only the stuff that really captures my attention. I still follow the news for dozens of games in development, I even get excited for a dozen or so, but when it comes to actually playing them… Meh.

  4. I’m with you, Todd. Someone said on twitter recently, “If you don’t think every year is the best year for gaming, then you’re not a gamer.” Whelp, I’m not a gamer then. This year had some highlights like Mark of the Ninja, but overall, it was a disappointment. Halo 4 is a very different game than prior Halos (in a lot of bad ways, thanks Call of Duty), Mass Effect 3 had a clusterf*ck ending and even before that, it felt tiny and rushed. Darksiders 2 didn’t quite recapture the magic of the first. I still haven’t picked up XCOM, though. And I got Witcher 2 for Christmas.

    There are two games I have my eye on for 2013: Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm and BioShock: Infinite. But beyond that, not much. Part of that is that we’re about to start a new console generation and there’s not much announced for fall. Not that it matters. Afterall, I don’t have $500 to buy a new console at launch anyway. So 2013 is going to be an off year for my Xbox/PC.

    BUT! iOS continues to shine. I just finished Avernum: Escape from the Pit. Hot damn! This is one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. The game is huge. The writing is snappy. The setting is unique and evocative. And I got it for <$10 and played it for 40+ hours. And then there's Battle of the Bulge which is a fantastic war game. There's more coming in 2013, too: http://pockettactics.com/2013/01/08/recon-report-our-most-anticipated-ios-games-of-2013/ Not to mention more boardgame ports. So I am very excited about iOS in 2013.

    1. You know, I think there are still plenty of good games out there and coming, but less and less they’re are they the ones getting the most attention (or coming from the AAA-driven studios). It’ll be interesting to see what the next Xbox has to offer, if it’s something I’ll be willing to spend money on at launch or not. These days my current Xbox is an Amazon/Netflix streaming devices and a Lego game player for my kids.

  5. As far as your involvement in the site, I have noticed that NHS overall is a little down in volume. Same with twitter, too. (Bill and Brandon are quieter as well). The twitter part is a little disappointing because I liked seeing you all in my feed. You’ve done a great job of establishing a close relationship with your readers and I hope you don’t let that fall away.

    Please keep doing the podcast; it’s great for my Monday mornings. As far as the site goes, don’t feel like you “have” to write for it. But as prior history has shown, it can support a wide variety of topics. I’m more than happy to hear about however you’re gaming: consoles, PCs, iOS, pen and paper.

    Most of all, I’d say, don’t let it bum you out. Gaming’s supposed to be fun, either on your own or with friends.

  6. You are hardly alone, Todd. Many of my 30-something friends are becoming singularly uninterested in gaming lately.

    AAA development is not much to write home about. Game production costs and that means no risks and does more to stagnate the industry than promote it.

    Small development or smaller niche titles are where it’s at. I like big titles still, don’t get me wrong, but the small stuff has all the promise.

    The most anticipated titles for me so far this year are the new Rayman and the new Fire Emblem. And I am hoping the Wii U will generate some interesting titles. It has loads of potential, if anybody does anything with it.

    I am a gamer at heart. I like video, board, RPGs. But I totally see where you could burnt out on the whole thing by this point. Lot of current industry trends are awful and not for the love of gaming but for the love of bleeding the player of money bit by bit.

    1. The industry trends are just strangling video games right now, like you say here it’s moved away from the love of gaming.

      If you look back in the 1970s, 1980s, even into the 1990s…there was so much more joy and passion in game design. Eastern and Western. You had guys like Larry Kitchen, Dani Bunten, and so forth that were making these more or less garage productions. Or you had folks like John Romero, Sid Meier, and so forth doing larger scale projects but you still felt the love and joy for the medium there. Because there weren’t usually shareholders or millions of dollars on the line.

      That all changed when EA and Activision started to believe that they were the new MGM and Paramount. Big money came in, passion projects disappeared, and now what we’re left with at the end of a long console generation as far as AAA goes is a slurry of failed shooter and action games with just a small number of blockbuster successes.

      I do think it’s why folks have latched on to the Portal 2s, the Fezes, the Journeys, etc…because there is a thirst for that kind of passion and heart, the whole nostalgia thing is really more about wanting to get back to those kinds of simple gaming values than it is about chiptunes. It’s a dangerous trap though, because the retro thing winds up being regressive instead of reflective, and innovation is falsely assumed.

      1. It’s funny you mention Dani Bunten; the fact we don’t have a 4-player Live/PSN version of M.U.L.E. is a crime against gods and men.

  7. Yeah, you know it’s funny you mentioned Bioshock Infinite…before I was incredibly excited about it because I love the other two (especially the second)…but no, I’m not really excited about shooting the place up as it were, and after rethinking the issues of violence and the utter stagnation of creativity, I’m realizing that I’m actually quite disappointed that the best Ken Levine and co. can come up with for Bioshock stories in terms of gameplay is shooting and killing. I kind of had an epiphany when I realized that Bioshock could have been even BETTER if you never fired a single bullet, if it were all about exploration, atmosphere, revelation, and tension. But nope, splicers run at your face, you shotgun them to death. Boring.

    I’m very much at the “boredom” stage too, which is why I haven’t written as much about video games lately. NOTHING, save for GOME, Rayman, Lego LOTR, and XCOM are holding my interest. ZombiU did for a while, but then I realized that I wasn’t really enjoying the gameplay, it was the concept I was enjoying. The gameplay itself was tedious. I played through all of Little Inferno because it was so utterly compelling, but it was also nothing like any game I’ve ever played. And it was actually about something other than killing something else.

    I actually canceled all of my preorders recently…DMC, Ni No Kuni, Anarchy Reigns…stuff I was previously really excited about. I don’t have to buy any of these. I can Gamefly them. If they interest me enough to own, maybe I’ll buy them when they’re under $20. The only upcoming two games I will definitely buy and play are Rayman Legends and the MGS title. Anything else is not worth owning. Not anymore. Not that I suddenly don’t like video games, but my standards are just much higher than what developers are currently marketing. I’m not putting any more money toward developers that aren’t making an effort to do something fresh, innovative, forwardthinking, or _joyful_. I’m sick to death of games being so full of negativity, hatefulness, cynicism, and misery.

    At the end of it all, I’m really kind of optimistic though. With new consoles on the horizon, this is really an opportunity for developers to step up and create new gameplay experiences to define the upcoming generation. Just as past generations and hardware have been defined by platformers, shooters, RPGs, and FPS. There’s a chance to get out of the fucking military shooter/third person action game quagmire. There’s a chance to bring some class and integrity into games, to explore games-as-art more.

    The way so many late-generation games have tanked, the writing is on the wall. Taking it back to Animal Man…evolve or die.

    1. Every generation starts and ends with the whiff of unfulfilled promises.

      Each generation pushes the boundary in some way but it always seems to be pushing fidelity. At some point we will finally achieve true photo-realistic graphics… then what?

      The regressive retro experience shouldn’t happen. What if you had a Monkey Island with a deeper script, more ways to solve a puzzle. What if you could make an open world adventure game in the spirit of Monkey Island with 50 ways to complete it. What if’s…. you can apply that logic to any of your favoured genres.

      That’s where the innovation should have gone. Pushing the tech in the right direction. Not in slapping the words Co-op on a tired concept and hoping that works.

      Making things look more like the real things we already have? Putting the pips in the virtual apple. No wonder were a bit jaded. That’s far easier then creating compelling Ai.

  8. Having played computer games since before I could read (hello Starflight and Alley Cat!) and having grown up with the wildly inventive period of the late eighties through nineties I find myself as an adult with vastly more money than time (hello child!)

    Scraping together the enthusiasm to play, let alone finish, games has become a chore. So many titles exist to artificially grind time away and the few that don’t are too far in between. I completely understand how you all feel and hope that you find a way to include NoHighScores in your life without having it focus so heavily on games.

    There are entire cultures enmeshed around the core topic that I’m sure your readership would enjoy interacting with you on just as much as much as on the games themselves.

    Either way, thanks for all the fish.

  9. Write about whatever you want, I will keep reading. No High Scores is my refuge from the hype machine and marketing driven content of just about every other gaming site. I will take a thoughtful, sincere article once a week on NHS about the topic of your choice over the traffic generating quick hits that can be found anywhere else on the web.

    In particular, I like the long-term, episodic articles Brandon is doing for NFS:MW. Many games require a few hours before you find the gameplay groove, or pick up on the subtleties of design (like the intermittent light flare and dust in NFS:MW). The constant push of new releases seems to give short shrift to whatever came out last week, making these multi-hour products seem disposable, which is a shame for those games that are not.

    Mr. Barnes mentioned cancelling all his 2013 pre-orders, and I recently did the same thing. I would like to spend more time on fewer games, rather than vice versa. There is such a dearth of anything legitimately innovative and new, it is hard to get fired up for the umpteenth sequel of the same brown-gray shooter series, or whatever.

    I hope you find something to spark your interest again. I am a life-long console gamer, but have recently installed Steam on my laptop and have been enjoying playing casual games (Orcs Must Die is my current favorite) while learning a new-to-me control scheme. I am also playing Fallout 3, which is my first RPG, and am loving the sense of discovery and exploration as I manage my resources while wandering the Wasteland. I have not been this sucked into a game in a long time, and it is making all other experiences seem shallow and empty.

  10. on some level, the gaming industry still perceives the market to be the younger crowd, but also the people who typically get into the gaming industry are also young people who enjoy playing games.
    what they look for and who they target in a game is completley different than what would appeal to you. in many ways, it’s always been that way from the very beginning i think
    and since it appeals to the younger crowd who (obviously) have more time on their hands, the time requirement for such games also can’t attract the older crowd who can only do a handful of hours here or there a week

    it’s only a logical conclusion that you’d be tired of it all

    but perhaps thats why the indie market thrives
    the older generation of game makers end up making their own studio to do what they want based on their old ideals, which appeals to the older generation of gamers and possibly some younger gamers as well

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