When choosing a game to play I make a series of judgements based on what mood I might be in and what I desire to get out of that game. These judgements tend to lump the games I own into one of two categories: games I wish to be fully engaged with and games I simply wish to relax with. Games as simple experiences are nothing new, in fact fully immersive and story-heavy games are much newer in their popularity. Setting aside mobile gaming, on either smartphones or handheld consoles where time and attention are typically very limited by the environment, games I choose to play on home consoles alone can be a more immersive or more simple experience. In recent memory the two games that fit neatly into these categories were Minecraft on the PC and The Last of Us on the PS3. These games offer very different things and therefore the experiences I receive from them means my play habits and reasons for playing them differ greatly as well.
Minecraft, a title arguably responsible for the indie game boom, started as something very simple in its public alpha and beta builds. It eventually grew to emphasize the adventure aspects of combat and boss hunting, but what it began as was less akin to an adventure game and more like virtual Legos. The building and creating aspect was always the main draw for me, and I would usually turn off the monsters for fear that they might destroy the hard work I put into my creations. What I grew to expect, and came to receive, out of Minecraft was a very free form quiet exercise in creativity. Everyday for an hour after work I would add more to my buildings, sometimes while listening to the TV or a podcast in the background, and it fit very nicely into a relaxation schedule. There were no failure conditions, there was no wrong thing to make. Though at the time the game lacked a designated creative mode, so it was still possible to die from things like a high fall or fire, any accidental deaths posed little in the way of setback or stress. In this new mode the player is given access to any and all resources and can even set the way the world generates. But as the name of the game implies, I was in it for two things: mining and crafting. Gathering enough resources, maintaining the tools necessary for mining, charting out old mine shafts, these were all as important to me as constructing something out of those gathered resources. And it was all a simple process of collecting and building, designing and refining that design, and exploring the map for the next great place to build the next great thing. Eventually the game would open itself to multiplayer where, not long after, great groups of people far more organized than I would build amazing cities and replicas of fictitious or real world landmarks. The hours put into these projects put anything I envisioned to shame, and yet I would still grow inspired by them. For a couple years I continued to dedicate myself to building my little world, not worried about anything else, simply letting my creative desires push me around. And unlike real Legos, my old Minecraft world is not taking up space on a shelf and collecting dust.
The other kind of game, the more immersive and engaging kind, puts me in a wholly different mood. Instead of carefree ease, these games actually impart a great deal of stress, though the stress is often rewarded in some way. These games are not played with anything else as distraction, often they are played on days off from work and usually for long stretches of time. The Last of Us fits this bill as it offers an engaging and emotional story from the very beginning, frightening environments and enemies, and an understated soundtrack not to be missed. Though filled with a great deal of action, some of it unavoidable, The Last of Us is best played as stealthily as possible. Distracting and listening for enemies, waiting in frozen panic as a blind enemy walks by only inches away and knowing that one grab from them is an instant death. The game is fraught with moments designed to challenge and distress the player while showing them a finely crafted narrative. Likewise, the game demands undivided attention with its use of subtle environment cues and devious traps set by the other people in the world. Much of the attachment to the main characters, Joel and Ellie, is fostered through normal gameplay where they will casually talk to one another. Experiences like these might ultimately last only about twenty or thirty hours, but each play session is much longer and the demands on the player are much greater. Any stress I feel in the game, any frustration at failure, is swept away by the compelling nature of a game this engaging. Like watching a good TV series, the player is hooked on the characters and desperately needs to find out what happens to them next and how the story ends despite the hardships the player faces along the way.
We have all played games just to unwind and all of us here have enjoyed many deep and engrossing games. Which do you find you play more of these days? Simpler experiences or more demanding ones?