Dear Stephen, Jenn, and Chris,
Maybe that’s too strong a statement, but in retrospect I realize I put Dragon Age: Inquisition on the list largely because I just kept playing it. But what was it that brought me back again and again? It wasn’t the romantic relationships, which, while entertaining—and novel in their diversity—felt tacked on to the rest of the experience. It wasn’t the serviceable but unremarkable battle system. And it wasn’t the deep, Tolkien-esque backstory, which often revealed itself exactly as Jenn described Kentucky Route Zero, dropping discrete chunks of story rather than loot. So what was it?
It gave me things to fight, and things to love, and world building so deep that it felt like staring into a chasm, like I could trip forward and fall into it and never hit the ground. But ultimately, Dragon Age felt like a lot of travel and no destination. The ride itself was not unpleasant, but what drew me back again were the potential and the promise that if only I worked and waited long enough I would feel something more. But I’m not sure the game ever delivered, and the fact that I still say I’m not sure after playing more than 75 hours seems telling. Even after you’ve won the final battle, the game offers to let you keep exploring, fetching, and fighting through the secondary tasks you never completed. Even then, part of me thought: Maybe. Maybe if I just keep playing, I’ll get that feeling I’ve been waiting for. It’s a game that will certainly give you the room to keep going and going. As Stephen asked so poignantly, What was it all for? If you have to ask the question, I think you already have your answer.
In these twilight moments of Video Game Club, I’d like to focus on the quality that made me want to play two of my favorite games from the past year over and over again: cool.
Cool is a highly subjective quality, and one that can be difficult to put your finger on. Indeed, one of the things that seems to hold back mainstream games culturally is their captivity to a notion of cool defined primarily by violence and apathy—the performative indifference of a burly antihero killing a hundred men a minute, his face uncreased by emotion. As a lifelong nerd, I’ve always located cool someplace very different, in both passion and expertise. For me, cool isn’t flicking a cigarette into someone’s face; it’s the effortless genius of a musician who throws away the sheet music and plays a jaw-dropping solo. It’s the moment when Luke Skywalker flips off his guidance system, closes his eyes, and fires the perfectly placed torpedo that destroys the Death Star, completely on instinct. (I said I was a nerd, right?)
In short, cool is the moment where experience and ability coalesce into an easy, seductive brilliance. It’s deeply pleasurable to be talented and successful, to be very, very good at something difficult—or at least, to play a game that makes you feel like you are.
It’s why I fell in love with Threes!, a simple mobile puzzle game in which you combine numbered cards into bigger and bigger numbers (and bigger and bigger monsters) on a 4-by-4 grid. Play it long enough, and you’ll experience a moment when the mechanical experience of swiping up and down, left and right starts to shift, like a magic-eye illusion sliding into focus. Suddenly, the game takes on a sense of cadence and flow that feels less about analyzing individual moves and more about an intuitive rhythm—less about the steps, and more about the dance.
I felt it even more acutely in Crypt of the Necrodancer, in which players fight enemies (zombies, bats, dragons) by hopping back and forth on squares to the beat of highly infectious dance songs, negotiating their rhythmic attack patterns with your own counter-rhythms. Once you start moving, you can’t stop; take a step off the beat in Necrodancer even just to pause, and the Technicolor radiance on the floor disappears, leaving a drab dungeon beneath your feet. Not cool, says the game. But these are setbacks, not failures; cool is always within reach. Just slip back into the beat like you totally meant to do that all along, and soon the floor is singing with color again. No one even noticed, the game says. You’re still cool.
By locking you into a beat and punishing hesitation, Necrodancer forces you even more quickly into a state of flow; indeed, it demands it. Much like actually dancing—and actually being cool—the greatest thing about these moments is that you don’t even need to think about them. Indeed, you shouldn’t, because overthinking is the easiest way to screw them up. That’s the other pleasure this experience of flow provides: Rather than being paralyzed with indecision or fear, you move without hesitation; your thought and your action are the same motion. You’re free.
There are challenges and frustrations in Threes and Necrodancer, of course, like when you realize you’ve locked yourself into an awkward configuration of cards, or trapped yourself in a corner with enemies that won’t be easy to dance away from. But hey, ease isn’t cool unless it’s achieved in the face of difficulty. As with many games, what makes them so rewarding is their balance of tension and release, the way they yield at the equilibrium point of effort and reward, and offer the immense satisfaction of breaking through again and again to brilliance. Both Necrodancer and Threes always made me feel like I was constantly heading to a higher level, not because the game announced it or assigned it a number, but because I was there, man.
Maybe that’s why Dragon Age didn’t work, in the end. Because even when I succeeded, I never really felt that successful. And for all the time that Dragon Age spent telling me how special my character was—the most special girl in the whole wide world!—it didn’t actually do very much to make me feel that way. As you note, Chris, the actual experience of playing the game was pretty humdrum, kind of like going to an office, even if that office was very beautiful and full of elves.
Gameplay is indeed important, especially when it tells a very different story than the story you’re playing. I spent dozens of hours roaming a gorgeous fantasy world that supposedly revolved around me but ultimately felt about as important as an accountant in a Burger King crown. And I played a card-matching game on a 4-by-4 grid that made me feel like the coolest person in the world. I don’t regret the time I put into Dragon Age, exactly. It promised me a lot and it gave me a lot—of time, of space, of story—but in the end I’m not sure it ever added up to more.
Stephen, do you have any closing thoughts on the games of the year? Is there perhaps a text-based survival mobile game you want to recommend that will consume the lives of everyone it touches?