Stalker: Call of Pripyat: game over?

, | Game diaries

I’ve been having a fantastic time with this dark and immersive and scary and imaginative and weird game. And then I fall down a funny rabbit hole. After the last play session, I did more writing about the game than playing the game. I enjoy engaging with the game is a creative and reflective way. I was also, I admit, thinking about how much people might like to read what I wrote. My game diary was gonna be good! And sexy! And funny! Fun to do, and it was going to get me accolades and possibly women? Man gaming is wonderful.

After the jump, gaming isn’t wonderful

But when I next had time to play, a few nights later, I didn’t really want to. I stared at the icon for a while, and found myself daunted by the task of generating material for this game diary. The play experience had become about something else. So I put it down. And played something else for a while. A long while.

And just now, when I loaded it up, the world of the Zone was no longer as immersive and absorbing as it had been. It was just a bleak world in which I had to complete a number of tasks, most of which involved a hell of a lot of running. It’s a big game world.

Stalker had been bleached of its narrative force. And that gets me thinking about gamers in general.

As a roundabout way of getting to a point, I’ll use another example. How many of you played Dragon Age for the first 10 hours, simply amazed at the detail of the world and the depth of the history, enjoying the hell out of the combat systems, the skill progression, the funny conversations your party members have as you wander around? And then how many of you became less and less entranced with those same things, and began to feel the combat sections were too long, and frustrated by the lack of player agency and in-game expressiveness, and confused by similar-seeming spells and abilities, and started seeing the world as arbitrarily detailed and bland? Enough so that after 20 hours, you put the damn game down frustrated and with a vague sense that something had been taken from you?

And how many of you then kept going, choosing to master the game systems in spite of the bland world, rote questing, and overlong combat sections? How often do gamers do this in general? Continue playing a game out of the same sense of duty we bring to finishing books we’re no longer interested in? Do we do it simply to check the box off the list, or do we feel like we need to finish out of some weird obligation to our former selves, who were so titillated and engaged with the thing at the beginning? How often do we play games after we’ve lost our imaginative engagement with them? And what amazing confluence of personal satisfaction and design brilliance must combine to carry us through an entire 10-20 hour game with that sense of magic and possibility that we started with?

Fallout has always done it for me. The world is so familiar but so strangely different, so bleak but well-imagined, and the general struggle of the people in it so relate-able that I’ve spent more time thinking about that world and fiction than any other. Far Cry 2 carried me for a long time, music turned off, immersed in the African savanna. Portal was just, well, perfect. Duh. Some games just capture me.

I’ve got to be in a personal space where I have the time and inclination to commit to a game world. Committing to a game is like taking time to read. It’s not something I do to kill the time. If I’m preoccupied with personal problems, gaming tends not to offer a respite. It provides no joy if I am tired, frustrated with my life, not feeling self-actualized, fighting with someone, and/or the thousand other preoccupied and upset ways I can feel throughout my week.

Also, when I play, I play for less time than I used to. I don’t think it’s because games are changing. I am. I have less patience, I am turned off more easily, I have less time, and I’m more picky about how I spend that time. When I do game, it is usually only for an hour or so. Unless I’m really engaged with a game, or playing with friends, gaming can’t hold my interest for more than an hour or so each day.

For those of you who play long hours each evening, are you fooling yourselves? Are you really enjoying yourself, or do you just not know what else to do with your time? Is inertia carrying you into the experience instead of joy? Might as well earn that last piece of Valkyrie armor. Just tick a few more towns off the ‘100% complete’ list. Finish this because “everyone else” has. Check another game off that ol’ backlog…

So, to get back to Stalker, it was depressing, to say the least, to realize I no longer had much interest in playing. The blush was off the rose, the honeymoon was over, and if I was going to reinvest in this amazingly presented world, I was going to have to put in some time and energy into it. I would have to recommit to it.

Up next: renewed vows
Click here for the previous Stalker game diary.

DoomMunky is also Mick, a theater and voiceover actor in the Bay Area. He bikes everywhere and recently became a pretty damn good pie maker.