[This article contains thematic spoilers and emotional reactions to both Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line, but no specific details.]
Every year we have the same problem. Sometimes it’s not so bad and there’s a few decent exceptions to the rule, but by and large, there’s a four month period to every year during which the gaming industry dries up. The major games simply stop. A summer drought, if you will.
Things started looking dire around the beginning of May. I was looking forward (for the sake of budgeting) to see what games would be out in the next few months. I knew I was down for Max Payne within a week or two but beyond that the world was my oyster. Then I saw the future and it was… barren. Don’t get me wrong, we still had the fabled E3 convention, the increasingly successful Evo Fighting Game Tournament and all the news and coverage that would show up between. But dammit, I’m a gamer, and sometimes I tire of the cultural aspect and just wanna play.
You know how this goes: The first step is always denial. I buy Max Payne 3 and I play it as if it were the last game in a golden age before the abyss. My last hope is a game in which all there is to do is dive through the air and gun down targets. I spend 70 hours playing a game and the only new mechanic on display was that when I shoot dudes in the face, I get to watch all the fleshy sinew and broken bone fragments splinter out of their eyelids — and we weren’t even out of May yet! This continues on significantly longer than I care to admit…
Facing down the first week of June and my heartbeat is steadying. I’m on a permanent adrenaline rush that comes from spending two hours a day for three weeks flying through the air in slow motion but it’s only a matter of days until the Electronic Entertainment Expo. The next game I’ll get my hands on is Borderlands 2 in September and E3 is my last chance to get any serious gaming coverage before the two month media blackout the industry faces (or at least that’s what my head is telling me, even though it’s never been that bad before). And just like that, E3 is over and I’ve determined nothing other than the knowledge that nobody at E3 has any idea who it is that’s watching the live streams of either their poorly scripted or generally insane press conferences. And there’s still 3 months until September.
Suddenly we’re approaching July and things are looking okay. I’ve been reading some books that I bought years ago but never got around to. I’ve saved enough money from not buying video-games that I’ve managed to put a pretty decent dent in that future-proof Gaming PC I’ve been planning to build for a year. At some point in the past month or two, Bioshock Infinite was delayed by about 6 months and so I replayed the original. I haven’t played Irrational’s meta-satirical Objectivist tragedy in years and being older, wiser, more learned in the philosophies of lunatics, discover hidden depths of meaning, larger doses of irony and some truly admirable characters that are all new to me. I’m playing one of my favorite games for the first time, all over again.
Long day at work. Long walk home. Long podcast to distract. Short game mentioned, or at least an episodic game. That seems new for me, episodic gaming. The Walking Dead: Episode 2 has just been released. I don’t care about this franchise but I’m hearing good things. Each episode is cheap. Cheap enough to try? That night I find out. Cheap enough to try, buy and stick with as long as it takes. The characters, set up and emotion is unparalleled by anything I’ve seen not only in a game but in even The Walking Dead television show. If the writers of this game wrote that show, I would still be watching. Instead I’m playing something new and having a fantastic time.
The itch has come back. Three and a half hours of episodic gaming isn’t filling my time and I do something I’ve never done before. I buy a game I know nothing about on a whim. It’s called Spec Ops: The Line and I don’t like it. Standard macho bullshit backed up by mediocre gameplay and clunky graphics. But I keep playing, because I paid my money and I’m getting its worth. Three days pass and I play when I can until the game grabs me. It doesn’t grab me my mind, or my trigger finger; it grabs my throat and tightens its grip. I panic and make decisions in a virtual environment that I’m not proud of. If I’d made a different decision, I’d feel the same. The only way to escape the guilt is to stop playing. But I paid my money and I’m getting its worth. By the time the credits roll, I realize I’m an asshole. How many games can provide such clarity?
Now we’re about a month away from the pre-fall line up of major blockbuster video games for the year. I have a few games I’d never have considered a month ago that come out before the heavy hitters appear. Throughout this period of calm among the industry I’ve reflected a great deal more than I’d expected. I’ve rekindled with old loves and made new friends. I’ve faced the worst of myself in my pride and the best of myself in my openness. And none of this would have happened if I had cared about the outcome of a single game that I’ve played. My view may be tainted somewhat by a lack of choice…in October, I imagine I’ll be more likely to purchase Need for Speed: Most Wanted than ‘Indie Game Title X’. But for these few months I was liberated. Liberated from confirmation bias and freed from a circular hype machine. I got to see things from the perspective of someone who just doesn’t know any better and in it’s own way there’s value to that.