Glutted on Games: How Many is Too Many?

I have a backlog problem. This is not unique. It’s so not unique it’s a cliche. My excuse is like many excuses: I grew up fascinated with games, but didn’t have the money to actually have any until after college. And suppose your salary grows some at about the time bundles and deep sales become a thing, and it’s very easy to end up with hundreds of games, many of which are only of marginal interest, most of which you will never finish.

On the one hand, I find it easy to feel guilty about this, all this extra money I could have used for something else (realistically: more take-out and books). On the other hand, I can get this idea that having all of this will do for me what working as a video store clerk did for Quentin Tarantino: Make me just that super literate in games.

The truth is, guilt probably isn’t that reasonable of a response, and the other truth is, I don’t know how educational it really is to have a copy of Tobe’s Vertical Adventure, since I’m not really sure what it is. What I do know is that finishing isn’t all that important, and that’s even assuming a game has a win state. I have these early game memories of playing Tie Fighter at my grandparents’ house, or watching a friend play Ocarina of Time, or using the fail states of Red Baron and Oregon Trail 2 to draft stories, sometimes actually written. And these are valuable memories, even though, in many cases, I never did more than sample. I have a copy of Red Baron today. I could play it at any time. But firing small red dots into vague grey shapes on the horizon won’t ever be quite the same. It isn’t about graphics moving, it’s about the whens and whys you experienced something. Context changes. Old haunts can be comfortable, but there may be nothing left to explore.

Exploration is my thing, discovery. I’m greedy and value games that are generous. Not always with length, but difference. Some difference. Anywhere. There’s a line, of course, between having a balanced collection that offers some of everything and a lot of a favored type (RPGs), and having a collection for distractable people, and I leap back and forth over that line. Worse, I can also have this tendency to feel like I ought to finish something I don’t love at all, and that’s not always rational. Merited. Do I need to play WizOrb because I own it, like a hundred or so other games that filled out bundles, but don’t interest me? There could be wonders inside WizOrb, but probably not my wonders. Games are my favorite medium, but it’s story I’m hungry for. It doesn’t have to be spelled out. Just give me a frame or few and I’ll fill in the rest.

At the same time, I’m more impatient and less willing to meet a game halfway than I was when I was a young teenager. I’m spoiled. I can still appreciate the treasure in a clumsy, ugly, and wildly ambitious novelty like Deadly Premonition. I can call it a good game hiding in the skin of a bad one and getting some mileage out of how it’s dressed, rather than “so bad it’s good.” But it is ambitious. It does a lot of the work for me. I am spoiled on density. Something like King of Dragon Pass or Academagia or even a Grand Theft Auto take some of their quality from close readings. From time spent. I completely understand why Rockstar comes under fire for its depictions of women, but I can’t shake a phrase from a radio commercial in Grand Theft Auto V about “It’s masculine posturing, just like everything else you do.” Is a game a power fantasy if it also hates you?

Thing is, I wanted to be literate, but each year, I also grow more specialized, more demanding. I grow less likely to play large percentages of what I already have. My bundle buying has left me with too many competent games that just don’t stand out otherwise. If Crusader Kings 2 and Alpha Centauri provide strategy and amusing disaster with excellent atmosphere and enough narrative to build war stories on, why should I bother getting any strategy games that lack those elements? Why should I bother playing strategy games that are less than completely excellent in every way. If I can have, and do have, five billion Heroes and Might and Magic-likes, why should I ever get another game about gathering an army and fighting turn-based battles? I run into the same problem I run into with books and increasingly film: your ability to enjoy any given piece is blunted the more you’ve seen it before.

I want to spend at least 10 minutes with everything I have. Eventually. It’ll take a while. I want to make sure there’s something I’m not writing off because of lack of polish, or because of less than stellar presentation on the store page. I’m still convinced Consortium will be special once I get it working: I’m not so convinced of Telltale’s Back to the Future games, or 1C’s Elven Legacy. But I haven’t really given them a chance. If I give it a chance, like Sacred Citadel, and find nothing personally worth pursuing, well, that’s another thing entirely.

But I buy fewer and fewer bundles. You want to take a chance on everything, when you’re in it for a dollar, when you’re in it for free, and isn’t it fantastically privileged to have that option, that “problem.” It’s almost like a public library for my favorite medium. But I let myself go wild enough that I don’t even know what I have. I can’t be grateful. It’s like checking out every book in the library and hoarding it in your closet. You look back and go “oh,” but you still reach for the titles that are more familiar. More abundance seems less attractive than finding something special, finding the best and nurturing it and sharing it and understanding what makes it beautiful. And that means I need to slow down. In everything, really. Rush to finish, rush to beat, rush to have, rush to be, rush to eat everything in front of me, and hope that the barrage of detail and minutiae turns me wise, turns me powerful.

It doesn’t. I can do more with less. I am privileged and fortunate in many ways (self-eating and wounded in others, but this is how it’s been), but I have not always had the luxury of more. I may not have it in the future. When I was young, I savored everything, because I did not have the power of having new things whenever I wanted them. Everything was precious, even planes that stalled out if you turned the nose up too quick, and enemies that were nothing but pale blocks against the horizon.

You grow older and everything is less likely to strike you as NEW. But every moment is precious. It is perhaps not right to sanctify some moments and not others, to call time spent playing video games wasted (or to call time serving someone else’s needs for money wasted, at that). Perhaps you remember an article, some years ago, that the time spent mastering Dark Souls would be better spent reading War and Peace.

Well, I’ve read it. It’s worth it. Dark Souls is also worth the time, if you wish to give it. We must all give back to the world, we all must balance those we love with what we want and need, we all need to survive where we can, and how we spend our time is perhaps not what we do, but how we do it and how we share it. These are old platitudes. But I need the reminder sometimes.

2014 could be spectacular, if I give it the chance.


Frozen (spoilers for all who enter here)

Anna’s problem is she’s genre-savvy, but she doesn’t know she’s in the wrong genre. Please contrast with Rapunzel in Tangled or Giselle in Enchanted, who may spawn into rough worlds, but bring a genre’s worth of sweetness with them. Anna looks like she’s got a universe of sweetness in those big eyes, but it’s a lie, as sure as Elsa’s big ol’ song Let it Go is a lie. It’s tempting, easy, to see Elsa as the broken one who needs transformation, but both sisters are deeply wounded. Both sisters have difficult paths to walk; if this is a princess movie, it’s far from an entirely light and frothy one.

In fact, Frozen may be more softly subversive at its core than I was initially willing to think of it. Observe how both girls try to find happiness. Elsa runs off to be herself by herself, where no one can see her to judge her and her crazy magic powers. Anna, she tries to find a boy, any boy, and neither of these paths are right. Elsa’s choice is based in fear — and so is Anna’s. Immediately marrying the first prince you see isn’t just youthful naiveté, it’s escape. It’s flat out running away. I don’t have to worry about Elsa’s continued rejection if I have a contingency plan, and now I have a boy, I have a plan, and everything will be all right.

Anna spends most of the movie in “everything will be all right” mode, and she’s wrong. Everything isn’t going to be all right; the gulf between her and Elsa could never be mended by just talking. I mean, we’re talking about years of this crazed mutual isolation, with Elsa hollowing herself out because she’s “bad” and she’s “innately destructive” and she “hurts people,” sure, that’s obvious. But Anna, well, again, she’s not dissimilar. Sure, she doesn’t have the intense guilt, the immense parental pressure. She’s just the princess, not the future queen, and she doesn’t have to amount to anything. But not having pressure while a silent sibling is bearing it and bearing it, having so much parental focus swung thataway, well, that’s not healthy either. Anna, she’s running herself in circles with no one and no one, and loneliness has a way of feeling like a deficiency. Why won’t anyone love me?

If Elsa feels like to be seen, to be exposed, is to be hurt, for Anna, it’s to be invisible. Take a look at these girls. Even after Elsa runs, she’s horribly visible. All the people she’s trying to avoid trek right for her, and she falls because she’s got no one to watch her back, because for all her bravura claims of “letting go,” walling off, running, shouting “go away” are all the patterns she knows at this point. You can’t break those patterns with a song.

Look at Anna, who can’t be found. She’s the protagonist of this story, because she has to do the finding. Rustles up Kristoff, treks up to Elsa, struggles to find her prince before time runs out. And when time’s actually running out, she’s only found by a snowman, of all people and things, who’s willing to die for a little summer. All he can give her is an epiphany — and it’s initially the wrong one, because this is a movie full of wrong epiphanies. I’ll talk a bit about those trolls in the coda, but part of the problem is how Anna hears. She’s genre-savvy, but in the wrong genre.

Look at it again. Both girls are dying of the cold. I see the movie, I’m disappointed that they’d literalized the original Snow Queen’s “frozen heart,” which has more to do with being alone and caring about nothing, nothing, nothing than, you know, literally turning to ice.

Except I looked at it again. Anna’s hair turns white before we start dipping into some freezy body horror, and Elsa, pale-haired Elsa’s been frozen for years. “Let it Go” isn’t actually about freedom. It’s about accepting that cold is all you’ll ever feel. And just because Anna presents friendly, sweet, extroverted doesn’t mean that her heart’s been healthy all this time. It’s partly cultural, maybe, that we see extroversion as a sign of happiness, but even if Elsa is all reserve and Anna is just that rambunctiously lovable, you don’t marry the first prince you see because you’re just so in love with life. Anna is looking for someone to save her. That’s how the story’s supposed to go if you’re a sad princess. If it’s not the prince, just Kristoff, then. Whoever! Even Elsa. Can’t someone just love me, the world looks so empty without love.

The only way Anna or Elsa get out of their cycles is that at the last minute, and I mean the literal last, Anna realizes why a snowman might actually risk oblivion for a little summer. What that actually means. Why asking Elsa to, you know, please remove the winter so we can have a better time, isn’t the right action. Anna realizes that kissing a boy isn’t going to fix her heart, and it never was. And even here she hesitates, because it looks like that boy might finally find her, and to say that none of her dreams and future matter at the cost of her sister’s life is not easy. She has to hesitate. The whole weight of the movie rests here on the definition of love, and maybe, just maybe, love is not a feeling, but a decision.

And this is what saves them both. Elsa would have done it for Anna, too, sure, but she can’t for two reasons. 1. Everyone knows where Elsa is, but no one sees Anna. She can surprise the prince, because she was never more than an afterthought anyway. 2. Part of what Elsa has to learn is that she’s worth saving. She has to learn that before she can understand she can survive without the cold and concealment she’s used to (notably, even the fragile snowman makes it). And Anna learns that she’s much more than just what she can cling to.

Both girls find their strength without losing their natures — Elsa doesn’t suddenly turn into a summer witch and Anna is still going to perky and like her lonely reindeer boy. And everything is all right only after both girls have reached their nadir.

May as well note: Anna would not have survived her moment of selfless sacrifice if she had not been at her freezing nadir.

It’s all maybe more delicate and complex than it seems at a first glance, and that middle, which wanders, does wander. Still, Elsa and Anna need to heal the gulfs in their hearts before they can be happy, be bold, and that takes love beyond fear. Everything else is just hopeful posturing and detours. But to get to our destination, to even realize what our destination is, we need the hope and the detours. A proper epiphany takes a journey, doesn’t it.

* On the trolls. I’m not sure how trustworthy those little jerks are. They have a way of giving advice that is technically correct, but phrased in such a way to be more harm than good. Look at poor little Kristoff. He speaks of them with love, but that’s how you tend to speak of family, isn’t it, even if they’re not so kind to you. The “Fix-er-upper” song makes nice enough lyrical points and contrasts the openly flawed humanity of Kristoff with the too-good, too-convenient appearance of the prince. I can even argue that this song helps Anna realize that real relationships are messy because people are messy, and if it looks too smooth, it is too smooth. Sucking a little is the human condition.

But it’s still an uncomfortable song, because there’s just that touch of meanness to it. And I can’t help but notice that every time you follow a troll’s advice, you end up in the wrong place. I’m choosing to see that as intentional. The misdirection can’t be all on the parents or all on Anna, because it happens twice. Watch out for trolls, I say. They may be right in some sense, but they have the empathy of a rock, and that skews everything.