Written by Irrenoid - December 27th, 2022
The empty void of middling mental demotivation is familiar to most of us. Whether through the irritating static hum of work-school-home tedium or the continual brain drain of mental illness that saps our head chems dry, we’ve all known the feeling of the eternal search for just a crumb of dopamine to some degree. That neverending journey recently led me to Sonic Frontiers, a game I’ve been following to a near-obsessive degree for a long while now (much to the noted chagrin of my friends; sorry dudes, I love you all, but gotta go fast). Despite its rocky first impressions, I’ve watched the blue blur’s massive new adventure slowly morph into the bombastically theatrical comeback of a legendary gaming underdog I’ve been happily calling a part of my life for over 20 years. It was an infectiously addictive patchwork Frankenstein of a game with incredible boss battles, arguably the best soundtrack in recent gaming memory, and a cheesily charismatic story with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. It was a memorable escape where the whole sum was leagues more than its wobbly parts, from the relaxed vibes of lo-fi fishing to the interdimensional utopian consciousness narrative paradigm. Earlier in 2022, that dopamine fix was centered around Elden Ring, a wildly unexpected treasure for me (given that I’m not much of a Souls fan beyond Bloodbourne) that I’ve since clocked almost half a thousand hours into as of this article. These two games have slotted nicely into my repertoire of “games I’ll obsessively replay for another decade." So why do these genuinely engaging gaming experiences feel so unequivocally rare for me and many others these days? Why can’t I even feign interest (let alone actually be interested) in so many new titles getting frequent press coverage? Whenever the urge arises to dip my head into the murky swamp water of socioculturally relevant games and the discourse surrounding them, I feel suffocated to the point of apathy, and I am far from the only one feeling this way.
A claustrophobic realization hit me with the nuance of a neutron star during the last few weeks of sleepless nights spent recovering from surgery and binge-playing Age of Empires II and Sonic Frontiers. These days, we aren’t resonating with unforgettable characters or forming core memories playing couch-co-op until 3 am with our buddies, nor are we accompanying said nights with an alluring box of double extra cheese pizza with stuffed crust while Avenged Sevenfold’s Chapter Four blares in glorious half-dead radio-hiss quality amidst an ascending air current of stale joint smoke. We're not looking to keep our youthful spirits engaged while still growing mentally and physically; we're instead settling for “platforms” containing downtrodden game design elements that function tenfold worse than the apparent military-grade stability of their integrated systemic wallet vacuums. Remember how Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal had some of the most creative weapons and skins unlocked by clearing levels and finding secret paths and collectibles, rather than utilizing the most popular current feature in gaming's general sphere, connecting your credit card? I understand the need and place for cosmetic microtransactions in free-to-play games (they have to be able to recoup development costs somehow), but we're getting to a point where a substantial portion of AAA games are designed to enable market shares rather than sharing experiences. That description also doesn't even remotely begin to address the dystopian wallet war between consumer and corporation within the unethical void of the Crypto/NFT landscape.
Modern gaming feels like an exhaustive and expensive routine, a pattern that gets less fun with every new restriction touted as the future of entertainment you should (supposedly) be excited for. A repetitive quagmire of hoping a game you're excited about isn't buggy, rushed, or riddled with shady business practices from overlord executives who haven't played a video game since 1992. What about the plot; surely stories in gaming are taking advantage of the latest technology to reach new narrative heights, right? There are some contemporary examples of games with fantastic stories, sure. However, for every engaging and memorable tale, there are a hundred more passionless husks littering the grim grey shelves of your local Gamestop that's being kept on life support by four clinically depressed employees and a grumpy cat. Plenty of games from our childhood and teenage years were sociopolitically focused and had messages to say, some notable messages at that. However, the message is, more often than not, all these new games have to offer nowadays. We can try to dismiss this problem as “just mainstream games,” but even franchises like Call of Duty understood how to balance tonality in years past, “Remember - no Russian.” Can you say that fighting tooth and nail to get discount gaming headphones to work correctly or dealing with the petty drama of private Discord servers is worth spending hours of your ever-dwindling free time playing half-baked mediocre corporate bile? I’d rather have fun during my free time engaging in experiences I find joy in either by myself or with those I care about, not “a little bit of fun here and there just because I’m joking around with my buds.”
I’m not saying that games should be free from serious stances, as the potential for powerful artistic expression is, arguably, most potent in gaming as a format. Yet, despite that, when the message eclipses the game itself, you’re essentially surrounding a proverbial fire with an air-tight glass dome. Message-focused games like The Last of Us Part II attempt to drive home the impact of cyclical violence by forcing the player to kill dogs and watch detailed cheating boat-sex cutscenes in graphic fashion, but does anyone who isn’t irrevocably jaded or numb to the point of twisting their psyche actually want those experiences? While the intentions are noble, as someone who was emotionally and physically abused, I don’t want my escapism to constantly remind me of the thoughts I’m trying to get relief from. Realistically, most people don't want to be continuously reminded of the worst times they went through, and not a soul should be guilted into reliving trauma just because the product making them relive it is considered a “socially conscious” trend. People don’t want to pay nearly a hundred bucks for an experience that treats them like shit and makes them feel like shit, regardless of how photorealistic the dirt on the ground looks. This all loops back to the more outstanding issue that game culture is no longer about having fun alone or with friends. Gaming has morphed into an amalgamated blob of wallet-siphoning from AAA companies (that really should have been boycotted into irrelevancy by now) and narcissistic soapboxing from writers who want to validate their insecurities to the point where anything that isn’t hyperbolic praise is treated as vitriolic personal attacks. It's no wonder that let's plays, long-form reviews, and streaming sessions on Twitch and Youtube have boomed; people would much rather connect with others watching someone with fun commentary suffer through a mediocre or lousy game rather than waste money on the game themselves.
Since we’ve been talking about messages a lot, what’s my general message here? If a game doesn’t bring you joy, don’t dump money into it. If a game's plot or themes make you uncomfortable, don’t feel guilted by your social circles into buying it. On the other hand, if a game looks like it’ll scratch the proverbial itch for you, regardless of why, loudly and proudly play it and share your experiences, regardless of public opinion. Check out an indie game with only two or three reviews sometime; there’s so much more out there than just what social media addicts tell you to care about. Who would you rather be; the person who feels peaceful with a genuine smile on their face playing games they dig and having a blast with a few trustworthy lifelong buddies and tuning out the social noise - or would you want to be the lonely person admired by strangers for a short amount of time, a person who is so addicted to the attention rush of drama that strict self-destructive adherence to social guidelines becomes a daily standard? I'd much rather be considered the annoying fan who won't shut up about Sonic Frontiers rather than a dopamine-deprived shell waiting for something socially relevant to give me a brief five minutes of happiness once every few months. Please consider who you are as a person and how you game in the modern age; while you’re on that thought train, think about why the entertainment that helped you once before is no longer letting you keep your demons at bay.