Restoring My Faith in Humanity
This past summer, I had more time that any 29 year old with a life plan should have — an entire Summer off. Our graduate program doesn’t do Summer classes which is an oddity as most other physical therapy programs have you doing a lot in the summer. All this means is instead of taking a manageable amount of credits each summer, our program shoves all of those classes along with your other coursework to see if you snap like a brittle asparagus stalk. Don’t worry though folks – I believe in a bend, don’t break mental state.
Anyways, with all this free time, I decided it would be cool to achievement hunt and get to some Xbox 360 games I had purchased but never gotten around to playing. First up was Thief, a remake of a popular franchise that I only played part of it’s original incarnation on a sample PC game disc. This Yotube review describes it as “loveless sex. You can enjoy it, but something just feels wrong.” I never thought of comparing the basis of Grindr to a video game other than pokemon.
Second up was Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Now this game is in a whole different stratosphere: acclaimed director, killer game reviews, excellent franchise with years of staying power. This game, though, is a bit different than the predecessors. Still present are the annoying, endless cut scenes and convoluted story line that takes a video-game historian to unravel (and there are multiple sources who try and fill this role) but then they add on several administrative pieces that made me feel like I was manager of 40, part-time, minimum-wage employees again. Every few missions brought more and more responsibilities to you as Big Boss. The game became more of a chore: learning more and more about the administrative aspects while doing redundant missions without any personal drive to do so as the story presentation was a wreck.
(Two asides: 1 – the story presentation in these games were always a wreck, but the game was usually fun enough to play without getting caught up in that 2- there was a very cool moment in this game where you think you are going to assassinate some people but something very different happens, so props for that one moment). I came to realize a couple of facts.
- First, that modern games are about as shoving as much content into one experience regardless of how well it goes. I’m thinking L.A. Noire here as they created an entire, vibrant city that you didn’t interact with to do the main storyline. Instead, they recreated my morning commute.
- Second, I was thinking I was no longer a gamer.
Why was I wasting my time on these experiences that weren’t really fun? I had decided to start teaching myself guitar, and wouldn’t have the 60 hours I sunk into MGSV:PP been much better to use on that? I had started a lot of stoicism reading, and I was somewhat conflicted with where to spend my time in the best way possible.
It’s one thing to spend 60 hours of time on something that is truly leisure time which refreshes me to help my duty towards self and man but a far more different one to spend it on an activity that neither refreshes nor furthers humankind.
So because Seneca told me to, I decided to give up games for good. I had played games since I was 4 or 5 but no more as I was going to use other activities as my downtime.
This worked for an entire semester until I got a message from a friend telling me he had picked up the SNES Classic Edition with all the games preloaded onto it. The retro-gaming craze hit me like it did all other 25-40 year olds; we still really like games, just not necessarily all the ones that are coming out now.
Riding the nostalgia wave, I decided I wanted to replay all the greats from my childhood consoles, and what better game to start with than Super Mario Bros. 3?
Within minutes of playing, this game reminded me that a “practicing” stoic can partake in a quixotic, indulgent game and come out completely refreshed. No administrative tasks here. No complex control systems and button combinations. No 20-minute, cut scenes between stages.
Within the first world, I was laughing like I hadn’t done in a video game for years: the momentum Mario sometimes carries himself with made me easily panic on ledges, overreact, and thus get carried away taking risky jumps to only get too close to an edge and repeat the cycle. Cheating death is clearly a great way to release serotonin.
My other favorite part was when the game would lull me to sleep with the same old jump/enemy patterns and spring a new one on me. This would make me shout in laughter “You got me! You got me!” in between bouts of laughter.
I knew where those warp whistles were, but decided against using them wanting to go through the game stages more organically and not jump ahead. Good thing I did because that allowed me to stockpile enough lives to get through the final stage. In particular, there is one where the sun chases you around and you have to jump across music blocks that was devilishly hard.
I was surprised about the amount of times I could actually feel tension in my body while playing this game. During several jumps I would lurch over and contract my abs, as to brace myself for a misstep while storing potential energy. When coming up to a place of repeated failure, I would have a deep exhale and kind of pep talk myself to face it again. Whenever I passed those parts, I felt instantly gratified, as if I had accomplished something monumental.
The juxtaposition between this experience (SMB. 3) and my last (MGSV) was the reason for the wordy backdrop of this post (and to throw in a Grindr reference). In one corner we had technology’s latest, jam-packed with multiple modes, missions, and stuffz, and it could only get a rise out of me a couple times from one mission. In the other, we have game that could fit on a floppy disc, had just a few MINI-games (and I mean mini), and 6 possible buttons and it was able to give me a legit 7 hours of pure enjoyment.
I’m not sure whether this says more about current games, the game I chose as comparison, my nostalgia or the staying power of some of the classics, but I’m going to gab about the last one.
Super Mario Brothers 3 is just fun. You can pick it up, and within 60 seconds, you know exactly what you are supposed to do. The power ups add enough variability, the mini-games perfect breaks in between stages and the small strategic decisions of whether to use a now or save it for a stage I REALLY have trouble with makes it all worthwhile. No cut scenes, no administrative tasks, no achievements, no relearning control systems. Just your enjoyment that’s immediately available to you.
When I knew I was going to make this blog and try and get back into gaming, I decided to go with the most ubiquitous choice and unanimously loved game there was. If I couldn’t get excited about SMB3, then none of this was going to work. I’ve spent the past few days reading the arguments of retro vs. modern games, and just about every single one brings up the same point and counterpoints. Like anything else, gaming is an experience and thus subjective. All I would like to posit is that there is a lot of magic in these 8-bit and 16-bit experiences, and it might surprise you how a return to simplicity can make you enjoy it all again.