Will Hindmarch is a writer, designer, and mooncalf. You can find some of his stories for sale online at Amazon, DriveThruFiction, and other sites. Long ago, in ages past, he wrote things at wordstudio.net.
(Update: Looking back, I feel sort of silly sharing this. To be clear, I don’t think my changing relationship with video games is due to the games or gamers—not really. I’m just musing here, wondering why it is that I can’t dive into games like I used to. I still don’t know what’s up there. So it goes.)
Listen, can I confess something to you? Lately I’ve been having some trouble with video games.
I’m super excited to play some of the games on my to-play list but I don’t know when I’m supposed to do that. The impulse that used to signal me to play video games often gets met by different pastimes right now—for me, at least. By the end of my day, when I might otherwise power up my console, I find myself torn.
- Music: “The Last Man,” from The Fountain, music by Clint Mansell
It’s a multifaceted problem. For comparison’s sake, consider how I operate at my desk. When I’m there, I’m almost always doing two things at once, whether I’m working or not.
When I’m working on something largely visual, like the layout for a book, I listen to podcasts at the same time. I listen to Wil and friends talk gaming with Gabe Newell and Co. at Valve. I listen to writers talk shop on the Nerdist Writer’s Panel. I listen to Ken Hite and Robin D. Laws talk about stuff. I get to take in know-how and stories at the same time I get to create things. I like that.
When I’m writing, I put on music. I get to absorb music and generate prose at the same time. This helps me escape my environment a little bit and put myself into a headspace that’s a few mental clicks away from the pressures of the blank page.
I often devise a playlist for the project I’m working on. For example, while writing “A Desert is Implicit,” I listened to a playlist I called “Future Desert,” populated with things like the soundtracks from Halo: ODST, Journey, Caprica, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Other playlists, like “Futuristic Operatic,” “Mission Driven,” and “Epic Fantastic” get played for a variety of projects that sort of sync up thematically.
- Music: ”Goodbye Renegade” from Tron: Uprising, music by Joseph Trapanese
These sorts of support structures aren’t necessary, though; they’re luxuries. They give me a chance to do two things once and get more day out of my day. They help work feel more like play.
I say this because it’s important, in my experience, to be able to write without rituals. I don’t need music to write. One way I know the work’s going well is when a playlist runs out and I discover I’ve been writing in silence for an hour. That’s flow.
When I can, I use music to influence mood and pacing in RPG play, too. (I’ve written about the DM as DJ before.) It creates this wonderful second channel of information at the game table. There, again, I’m trying to do two things at once.
- Music: ”A Man, A Plan, A Code, Dubai,” from Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, music by Michael Giacchino
Some games make it easier for me do two things at once. When I’m playing an MMO like LOTRO, I can put on a podcast or chat with friends while I’m also traversing Middle-earth, reading little quest stories, and battling orcs. So I’ve been questing in LOTRO rather a lot lately.
When it comes to actual play, I feel like devoting all of my attention to one game isn’t as good a use of my time as taking in a podcast and doing some work all at the same time. Sometimes this is because I’m excited about work and sometimes this is because I haven’t earned the time to play yet. (I often make an exception for tabletop RPGs, though. Because.)
That’s not the whole problem, though.
When I want to play a game, I also want to explore a world. I want to absorb a creative work. I want to take in a good story, maybe.
Sometimes playing a video game feels like the hardest way to experience a world I want to explore. I want to travel the wonderfully peculiar world of Dishonored but I don’t want to mess up the experience by, you know, sucking at the game. Sometimes I love that tension between the player and the game—that tension that turns on the idea that the fate of this character, this story, this world is up to you, so don’t mess it up. Sometimes, though, I just want to be able to tour a game world without all the blaring and shooting and ticking time-bombs. I don’t want to have to fight every step of the way.
(Maybe it’s no surprise that my favorite games are probably Thief and Thief 2, which allow players a lot of control over their pacing. Those games couple great world-building with compelling tactical play and a lot of meaningful exploration. I love them so.)
To be honest, my taste for game violence is changing. I love a good action sequence but I’m moving away from games that revel in death-dealing. For me, at least, the difference between a game that says “Go slay 10 orcs” and a game that says “Go slay 10 people, fuck yeah!” is a tangible, affecting difference.
- Music: ”Atlantis of the Sands” from Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, music by Greg Edmonson
Here’s where I’m a hypocrite, though. I’ve played the Uncharted games over and over even though they do something that irks me about a lot of games: they ask me to strike down hordes of faceless goons. The thing, though, is that those Uncharted games are well modulated, rising and falling in their action and suspense and punctuating it all with humor and character beats that go a long way with me. (Yes, we could also see that as making light of violence in a different way—I said I’m a hypocrite.)
Honestly, and this is just coming out of my head now, I think part of the problem is also this: The video games on my to-play list sometimes feel like homework. I mean, I want to play them, but I also want to poke around and explore them. Instead, though, I feel like I’m playing them too slowly to keep up with the online discussion of them before the Next Big Game comes out.
When I hear about how many hours it takes to finish a game, I get sort of disappointed. That leads me to think the goal isn’t to enjoy a game—to savor or explore—but to chug it down. I don’t want to rush through a game so I can lament how short it was. I want to stop and look at the art, hear from the NPCs, and study the gameplay.
That seems like a richer experience to me, engaging both my player’s aesthetics and my designer’s appreciation. I need to make more time to play—it won’t make itself—in part so I can stay up on the tech and the talk, but also so that I can play to appreciate. That’s always a good time for me. That feels like doing two things at once.
- Music: “You Were Right About Everything,” Erin McKeown