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Today’s newsletter is inspired by an email from Iain Noble (hello again, Iain!), who wrote in with a question that tapped into something that’s been on my mind lately. Iain wrote: “One of the criticisms I often hear from non-gamers is that video games are very repetitious. Admittedly there is an element of truth in that many games require some grinding to level up characters, make money and get equipment. Do you think there is a specific personality type that is OK with that, rather like rats repeatedly pressing the same button to get a reward?”
This question reminds me of a story my partner tells about his grandad’s reaction to video games in 1983: “it’s all just pushing buttons, innit?” (This was the partial inspiration for the name of this newsletter, incidentally.) ek bedoel, he’s not wrong, op 'n manier, but also, that’s like saying that reading books is just turning pages. When you don’t understand something well, what you see from the outside is just a series of baffling actions. If you don’t care about tennis then it’s just two people hitting a ball at each other; if you do care about it, and especially if you have any knowledge of it, it’s a battle of wills, a dramatic tactical dance.
A few weeks ago I answered a question from a reader who was berated by his boss for playing on his Nintendo Switch on his lunch break, and a few readers got in touch to share their own stories of the bizarre social stigma that – still! – sometimes comes with gaming. “Wang on about this book or that, discuss the merits or otherwise of the latest Netflix murder-porn if you like, talk about sport – any sport – endlessly and at length, but say one word about how deeply absorbed you are with the latest interactive masterpiece and you may as well have just violently guffed for the looks you get,” wrote Steve Holmes, who also says that eyebrows were raised when he asked for Elden Ring for his 50th birthday. The thing is that almost anything seems boring and inexplicable if you are watching from the outside and don’t understand it. To people who don’t understand games, it probably does look like we’re just rats pushing buttons.
But an athlete or a musician also does the same things over and over again, when practising – and they find meaning, enjoyment and satisfaction in it. In games we’re often developing a skill, whether we’re playing Street Fighter or Fifa or bashing our heads against the same boss in Dark Souls. And some people find it soothing to do the same tasks over and over for a predictable reward. Every player has a different tolerance for repetition in video games, and I do think it comes down to personality. Some of us can apply ourselves with dedication to repetitive tasks such as grinding for XP, farming for equipment or beating a high score, and find pride in the result; others, like me, are novelty seekers, continually looking for a new experience or challenge.
How we play games often reflects how we approach life in general, and where we find our joy. One of the great things about games is that they allow us to express and explore who we are and how we like to behave in all sorts of interesting contexts. I certainly don’t feel like a rat in a cage when I’m playing them (unless I’m playing some awful free-to-play thing won’t let me continue unless I pay some money, and if that’s the case, I’m gonna stop playing pretty quickly). I feel like an adventurer, an explorer. It might look like I’m just pushing buttons, but actually I’m learning, dink, experiencing, reacting. I might even be bettering myself, if developing superhuman Guitar Hero skills or crafting a full set of Rathalos armour in Monster Hunter counts as self-betterment.
So, geen, I don’t think you need a high tolerance for repetition to enjoy video games. The main difference between people who understand video games and those who are dismissive of them isn’t personality, in my experience – it’s exposure. If people cared to look more closely at games and the people who play them, they’d see that it’s a hell of a lot more than pushing buttons.
An atmospheric and unexpectedly emotional puzzle game, LEGO Builder’s Journey tells a story about growing up and what it means to be a parent using minimalist blocks. Each level is a Lego diorama that you can change – or solve – by moving a few bricks around. Where most of the Lego games are gaudy, enjoyable slapstick takes on giant film and entertainment franchises, this one feels more like something that a bunch of art school students came up with during a game jam. It’s exceptionally relaxing and tactile, with soothing sound and a calm aesthetic. This game has been around for a few years, but it’s newly out on PlayStation this week – I’m glad more people can now play it.
Available on: iPhone/iPad, PC/Mac, Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PlayStation
Approximate playtime: two hours
Today’s question is from James Brewer: “I used to be really into gaming on my PC (and SNES if we’re going back that far!), especially games like the Kings Quest series, Monkey Island and 7th Guest/11th Hour. I’ve tried to get back into gaming recently but haven’t found anything that grabs my interest, apart from Uncharted. Are there any games or series you’d recommend?”
The point-and-click adventure game genre that captured you back in the 90s kind of died out for a while, but good news: it’s back now. Broken Age, part of the first wave of the adventure-game comeback, is a wonderful, surreal story with a great cast. Thimbleweed Park might scratch that same itch. I’ve never played The Book of Unwritten Tales, but it is a comedy fantasy game that’s spoken of fondly by my adventure-game-loving friends. The first few Telltale game series were landmark narrative games, particularly The Walking Dead – they’ve got no puzzles, regtig, but they definitely are part of the same family tree as Monkey Island et al. For a series that’s nothing maar atmospheric puzzles, look at The Room. And because you also enjoyed Uncharted, I reckon you’d be up for some more action games with gripping action, the odd puzzle and decent stories: try the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot and Rise of the Tomb Raider (but not Shadow of the Tomb Raider, that game’s a mess). And because it has a surreal air of mystery, like Kings Quest, you might like the creepy English narrative adventure Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. I’m also going to recommend Portal en Portal 2, if you missed them at the time, just because everybody in the world should play them.