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May 30, 2016

On Progression in Games


So how big is your backlog?

I’d like to think that the answer to that varies from one gamer to another, but there are some constants.  Not to open myself up for a heaping helping of Foot in Mouth Stew, but I’d imagine that there’s at least one game that everybody has on the backburner.  Then again, that might be a conservative estimate; with Steam long since established -- along with some pretty generous sales -- maybe plenty of folks are drowning in games.

I’m not in so dire a situation, but there’s a healthy list of games from the past year that I seriously need to get to.  Honestly (and distressingly), there are games from years long since passed that I need to get to -- which by extension means that I need to start over on several games, because they’ve got more dust on them than intact memories.  That makes me wonder if I can be relevant if I talk about games between “recent” and “classic” -- inasmuch as I can be relevant -- but based on my gaming recently, I think I might have figured something out about myself.


One of the games in The Infinite Backlog of Despair [citation needed] is Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain.  It came out back in September of 2015, and while people were talking about every las detail of its story within a month of release, as of writing I’ve only just cleared Mission 16 (itself following about two days of failure), and just barely know who Huey is (and people seem to hate him, I think?).  How many main missions are there in that game?  More than fifty?  I’m going to go ahead and assume it’s more than fifty -- which will accurately represent half my age by the time I finally finish the game.

For what it’s worth, though?  I like the game.  I think that it’s solid (no pun intended).  I can’t say anything substantial about the story, but I’d hope that I’ve put enough time into the gameplay to know that it’s still pretty strong.  Each mission feels like a puzzle that needs to be solved -- with guns and stealth, sure, but it’s still exciting to come up with a plan and act on it on your way to revenge against Cipher.  Well, in theory; if you’re anything like me, something will always go wrong.  Luckily, the game is geared in such a way that even the most thorough of failures presents rewards.  Oh, and thrills too, I guess.


I gave it another go a few weeks ago, what with my need for a runback after failing Mission 16 over and over one night.  But in the time since -- and the time before that -- I’ve started to notice something.  Like I said, I think the game is good, and I want to play more of it (not just to stay “with the times”).  Despite that, I find myself thinking deeply about a certain factor -- something that’s getting harder and harder to overlook.  Something about it makes me yearn for more.

Here’s the thing: I’m not making any progress.

Well, I am.  And I would’ve made a lot more progress by now if I committed to it 100%.  But it’s getting harder and harder for me to shake the feeling that I’m not accomplishing anything -- like I never will, even if I suddenly put in a hundred hours.  Maybe it’s because I’m not playing the game extensively, and maybe it’s because when I do play, it’s at a pace so slow that a crippled snail could lap me.  I do a mission, I succeed (eventually), and I move on to the next.  I make it a point to return to Mother Base every chance I get, so I’m usually greeted by loyal soldiers and/or the loving embrace of DD.  That should be enough, but it isn’t.  Not as much as it could be.


It’s not as if I can comment fully on MGSV, but from what I’ve heard, the game is light on story-based content.  I can certainly believe that, considering the ratio of gameplay time to story time is WAY skewed in favor of gameplay.  The number of events that tell the story of Punished Snake’s journey to hell and the rise of Outer Heaven is limited, without a doubt.  That’s kind of a problem, but not quite the deal-breaker it’d be for normal games; MGSV’s gameplay is basically strong enough to carry me through missions.  That’s especially true, because every misstep and failure makes me want to rush right back in to reclaim my dignity.

But you know me by now, I hope.  Games aren’t exactly legendary for their narratives, but that’s no excuse to drop them in every case.  And really, what better way to gain a sense of progression thank by going through a story with an obvious beginning, middle, and end?  Even if games don’t have insanely high-quality stories (generally speaking), they can still manage that much.  Maybe that’s part of the reason why so many open-world sandbox games have fallen out of favor; they can go on, and on, and on, but the story length doesn’t justify the gameplay length.

I’m not about to knock points off MGSV because it doesn’t have, say, as many cutscenes as earlier installments.  But when I sit down to play it, I can’t help but remember what I could -- and maybe should -- be playing instead.


I’ve made it no secret that I’m a fan of the Tales series, and that’s probably not going to stop anytime soon.  I probably shouldn’t call it quits, seeing as how I’ve just barely gotten into Tales of Zestiria -- and the clock’s ticking on me, what with Berseria creeping ever closer.  For what it’s worth, the parts of Zestiria I’ve seen have been really interesting.  There’s a level of energy to it that’s downright infectious, but in typical Tales fashion, it’s willing to take certain ideas under the microscope.  In a nutshell, the game’s asking what it would be like if you became Jesus, and so far it’s provided some very compelling arguments and moments.

I don’t know how long the game is, but I hope the answer is “as long as it needs to be”.  True, Tales games in the past have artificially extended their run time with loads of backtracking -- Abyss is a pretty clear example -- but it’s still possible to gain a sense of progression just by playing through the story.  Twists and turns, highs and lows, gains and losses, new worlds and new faces, heroes and villains; that’s something that personally appeals to me.  Then again, since those might as well be the basics of storytelling, I don’t think a lot of people would say that it’s a bunch of hot garbage.


But stories aren’t a total requirement for a good game, are they?  If they were, stuff like Pac-Man and Galaga would’ve never gotten off the ground.  So in the case of games, there’s more than one way to create a sense of progression.  Stories are the obvious way to make that happen (and something I personally appreciate), but the strength of the medium is that it features an active element, not just a passive one.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the gameplay aspect of a game is a pretty important one.

Maybe that’s why I’ve tried my hand at online play in Street Fighter V.  Well, it’s partly because I need to gain more experience so that I don’t get steamrolled in matches against my brother (Alex is NO JOKE, no matter what tier lists might say), but that’s the clincher.  I gain a sense of progression because even if there’s no dedicated story yet, I can gain something by improving my skills.  I can learn how to play better, as well as learn how to use each character effectively.  It’s a journey I’m taking alongside my boys Birdie and Rashid, and stepping away from the console each time leaves me with something gained -- even if that “something” is a dump truck’s worth of salt.


Then again, maybe I’m overthinking the whole thing.  I do that sometimes.  Maybe it’s not always about having something new burned into your memories, but just the fact that you managed to have fun for a couple of hours.  Granted that’s a form of progression in itself -- going from “bored” to “satisfied” -- but the important thing is that a good game can justify its presence with top-notch gameplay.  The end goal is “fun”.  Or you could say “entertainment” in a broader sense, i.e. if you’re dealing with the grisly content of something like BioShock

In theory, I’m the sort who wants something meaningful gained from each and every gaming session.  In practice, there have been times when I just want to sit down and play something.  Powering through the three main Uncharted games for the sake of writing about them (and preparing for A Thief’s End) reminded me that you don’t need to play games just to hyper-analyze them for the sake of writing about them…especially if it leads to a miserable experience, but whatever.  Sometimes, it’s all about plopping in a disk, taking a seat, and mashing buttons to make cool stuff happen on a screen.  The guys on Extra Credits call it “abnegation”, and it’s a concept with some serious ground swell.


I don’t think any of us gamers are spoiled for choice these days.  Maybe that’s part of the problem; there’s so much to choose from, whether it’s a new release or an old favorite, that it ends up being paralyzing.  Sure, I want to play Tales of Zestiria, but how will I ever learn some decent Guile combos if I don’t play Street Fighter V?  But why would I play that when Ratchet and Clank is right there, and itching to take me through a colorful space adventure? 

But wait, when was the last time I played Xenoblade Chronicles X?  Why would I ever touch anything else when there’s a sprawling, beautiful planet to explore?  The only reason I can think of is to head back to Yharnam and bumble my way to the end of Bloodborne.  Except there’s STILL MGSV sitting right there, and I’ll keep taking heat for not finishing it until I actually, you know, finish it.  Cripes, if there’s an equivalent to The End that can die based on how long you’re away from the game, then he’d have long since reincarnated as a flamingo or something -- and then died again and reincarnated into a cassowary.


Obviously, there are a lot of ways to convey progress.  You could call Tales of Zestiria and Xenoblade Chronicles X JRPGs, but their methods couldn’t be more different.  Zestiria opts for a traditional approach, so leading man Sorey and his friends travel the world to try and stop the outbreak of hellions.  In Xenoblade Chronicles X, you play as a created character tasked with preparing a fallen space-ark for colonization of an alien planet (and recovering scattered parts from said space-ark), but it’s VERY easy to lose your place in the story in the face of the real game: scouting and exploring as many corners of Mira as you can. 

The game’s not worse off for it by having the story take a backseat; the progression is the exploration, and I personally find that incredible.  It’s a stark contrast to, say, a Ubisoft game where you climb up to a high point and/or activate a radio tower so you can earn the right to do more chores.  I feel like I’m in a world, and on an adventure, and doing my part to ensure humanity’s survival.  There’s a story (and context, just as critically), but it’s the gameplay that’s carried my playthrough past the 40-hour mark already…and I’ve only just earned my mech.  Stuck on a different planet, indeed.


I guess that’s all a testament to the power and versatility of the medium.  When it’s firing on all cylinders, a good game can create a sense of progress in any number of ways.  An engaging story, a world worth exploring, a chance to boost your skills, watching a character evolve -- the list goes on and on.  It behooves a game to specialize, and follow the adage of “whatever you do, do it well”.  But once it has that game plan down, gamers are going to be in for a good time.

Where does that leave me, then?  Well, I know I said that I shouldn’t hyper-analyze everything I play, but I’m going to keep doing it anyway because I’m me.  That’s fine, though.  I want to see what the medium can offer, and how it goes about offering it.  Is it successful at what it’s trying to offer?  Is it creating that ever-important sense of progression?  IS it fun?  Those are answers that’ll differ for everybody, but I plan to find my own from here on out.

So I guess that means The Infinite Backlog of Despair [citation needed] will live on for a while yet.  But I ain’t even mad.


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