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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.

YouTube video

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!

Terminal State ===>The Doldrums


In case you haven’t noticed, there really hasn’t been Jacqueline frackin’ poo-poo coming out in terms of console games lately. It’s almost like we’ve reached that stage where all that releases for the major platforms are movie tie-ins and half-hearted sequels that are too early for the next-gen boat. But we’re still a year or more out from the Xbox 720 Netflix Player, which will have a credit card reader attached for you to pay for every bullet you fire in Call of Duty, and the PS4, which will debut at a thousand dollars retail with a new Crash Bandicoot game designed to really show off that hardware. To quote Belgian EBM masters Front 242, we’re in the doldrums.

Sure, there’s a load of stuff coming later this year. Are you read for some football? Of course you are. There’s Borderlands 2: Bride of Borderlands, Call of Duty 7: Black Ops 2: Son of Black Ops., and Assassin’s Creed 3: Exio versus Frankenstein.  Do I want to play these? Sure. With a shrug, because there’s not much else shakin’. Maybe Dishonored. I hope it’s good. The only things I’m unapologetically excited for are Platinum’s Metal Gear brawler and Bioshock Infinite. And Anarchy Reigns, if it ever releases in the US.

Maybe it’s just my own ennui talking, but it seems like we’re hitting a wall, scraping the bottom of the barrel. Stop me if I’m wrong, but was anyone genuinely excited about Max Payne 3? Or the new Ghost Recon game, which I liked but almost completely lost interest in less than halfway through its duration? It’s as if The Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition appeared and made everything else seem terrible by comparison. I’ve come to really love Dragon’s Dogma, but it still feels like it’s in the shadow of CD Projekt Red’s masterpiece.  Looking over at my Forever Shelf, those are the only two 2012 releases I still own.

It’s almost like console games are done, stick a fork in ‘em.  But maybe that’s just me. One thing’s for sure, we’ve gone for months now without an “event” release. You know, The Game Everybody is Playing. What was the last one, Mass Effect 3? Lately, it seems like every release has been The Game Everyone Is Waiting to Go On the  Steam Sale. I’m actually relieved that I’m not professionally obliged to review any of the current trickle of tripe.

Oddly, I’m finding myself retreating into areas of video gaming that are pretty foreign to me. I’ve been playing- get ready for this- JRPGs.  Yeah. Even Final Fantasy XIII, which far more innovative than you’d expect and not nearly as bad as some have made it out to be. I’ve been poking around with Persona 3 Portable, Crimson Gem Saga, Yggra Union, and Xenogears.  Classic SRPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics and Front Mission 3. Even more marginal but potentially interesting titles like Resonance of Fate and Star Ocean: The Last Hope have my attention. I thought I had sworn off any game with random encounters and text windows with deet-deet-deet typed out dialogue. I thought that the story about the kid waking up in some backwater fantasy town with amnesia was over for me.  But now, I’m finding this genre terrible and terribly comforting in an age where console gaming is apparently in a steady decline, about to crash on a rock called Ouya in a ship commandeered by clueless game company execs.

Playing these old, frankly quite obsolete games is refreshing. There’s no hype, no marketing, no additional purchases required.  No online drama. No crybabies whining for endings to change and signing petitions. Just slow, meticulous pacing in an handcrafted world with completely unique rules and systems between each game,  occasional extraordinary art direction given the technical limitations, and the comfort of numbers popping out of pixelated monsters in camouflaged spreadsheet combat.  I’m relishing in the almost unfathomable depth and promise of tens of hours of play at the outset.  It’s totally reactionary to the video game design paradigm circa 2012, I know this.


These games- even some of the most recent ones- are reminding me of some of the qualities that are being lost in the march toward DLC everything and the decline of the Japanese games industry. Qualities that I cherished, took for granted, and now miss. I miss the weird esotericism of games, the idiosyncrasies of design and interface that have been refined out of existence. I miss the sense of craft and world building that games like Xenogears accomplished with simple not-Hollywood-at-all writing, ancient graphics, and memorable music. There was a handcrafted look and feel to some of those games that you just don’t see anymore when they’re stamped out of the Unreal Engine 3 master mold.

It’s also ironic in a way, diving into this very niche genre to escape the mainstream stagnation as we approach the terminal state of this console generation. There was a time when JRPGs were a major draw. But these days, they’re like bullet hell shooters. A very specific, very rigid, and very formal kind of genre that just isn’t as approachable to Joe Console as linear third-person adventures, golden ledge platformers, multiplayer shooters, or directionless sandbox games are. Hard, opaque, detailed…all traits I’m more interested in than polished, expensive, and accessible right now.

There’s also the fact that I am increasingly disinterested in the direction that console games are heading in the next generation- the Casual Games Armageddon was greatly exaggerated, the problem is the sales models and marketing schemes that we’re about to be subjected to. As many industry folks have said, this longer than usual console cycle is at the stage where it’s squashing innovation and as profits tumble, the idiots in charge are looking for ways to monetize the garbage they’re already making. Instead of getting back to the notion of providing quality games, value for the money, and creating consumer loyalty.

I never thought I’d find a way out of these doldrums in JRPGs, let alone a Final Fantasy title. But there it is, and I find myself wondering if I’ll bother to pick up any of the Fall AAA releases, knowing full well that if I wait until Christmas I’ll be able to practically buy them two or even three for the price of one on launch day. But by that time, when the breeze picks up, I might be lost in a Ys game.