Monday, January 10, 2011

This One Goes Out to the One I Love

Okay folks, that’s a wrap. I mean, not to be a buzz-kill but the holidays are over and it’s time to get back to the grind (or start grinding, as the case may be). Between returning to the dreaded day-job and battling any number of New Year’s resolutions, it can be increasingly difficult to dedicate what little free time remains to our one, true (non-human) love: videogames. Of course, it’s our business as self-respecting game geeks to make time, and as such, one of my favorite post-present-season rituals is sifting through the year’s bounty in search of a title or two that truly deserve that extra chunk of hard drive space. Admittedly, coming to a consensus can be a difficult task. I have to remind myself that enduring the long, steady hours required of most single-player campaigns also requires at least half those hours be subject to the many squabbles, sighs, and sideways glares I am bound to receive in abundance from my infinitely patient and incredibly lovely wife. Let’s face it, significant others and gaming consoles were just not designed for compatibility, so it is imperative that every moment count. Well then, how does one choose? I’m sure there’s a mathematical formula out there somewhere that could churn out a statistically viable response, but sometimes you just need to go with your gut and play what feels... comfortable.

As a very lucky son and husband, I received loads of new games to sift through after pulling in a modest completely ridiculous haul this year. From Civ V to Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood to Demon’s Souls, I’ve certainly got my bases—and platforms—covered. But despite the magnetism of an unopened disc still fresh in the cellophane, I can’t help but be drawn to some of the epic works I’ve already become so familiar with. This comes as no surprise, of course. When one craves some semblance of comfort, they often turn to what they already know. For instance, I could start a new Dragon Age campaign. I’ve been toying with the notion of going back and playing a dark elf who lets his blade do the talking when confronted by the prejudices of Ferelden. Or I might revisit the original Mass Effect and try to play through both titles as the same Renegade FemShep (as should be canon, imo). I’ve been meaning to revisit Alpha Protocol for a veteran run-through, and I still haven’t finished Deadly Premonition. Hell, it’s been years since I booted up The Longest Journey—I wonder if I still have a copy lying around?

Dang, see what I mean? These are perfect examples of what I would consider to be comfort games; those old stand-bys you just know are gonna rock your world because they’ve rocked it before. The game-journo community may not always agree with the degree to which these games have the potential to rock, but that’s OK. In fact, that’s what makes them truly yours. As far as I’m concerned, this love can’t be reduced to graphical screen-by-screen comparisons, Metacritic scores, or blog-roll hype (despite many of my examples having fared well in each of those arenas). If these games pass critical muster, that’s great but let’s be real: there are some games that you just want to play because YOU JUST WANT TO PLAY THEM. For whatever reason, these particular games just make me happy and, despite putting the wife through all the late dinners, deaf ears, and Neanderthal grunts of, “five more minutes, hon”, they’re worth it.

All of a sudden, in a fit of over-analysis, I begin to lose confidence in everything I know about myself as a gamer. Some of these games involve a fairly huge commitment, and I am not one for half-assing it. Do I really want to play any of these again, right now? I anxiously continue to deliberate over which of these massive worlds to dive back into, and my head grows a little heavy. I feel the sidequesting, free-roaming and endless looting weighing on the back of my mind and suddenly, it begins to seem like 10PM on a Sunday night. Don’t get me wrong, I love open-world adventure games and RPGs (obvs), but sometimes getting back into the grind, starting fresh knowing perfectly well how long a stint you’re in for—well, it can feel like work. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s not a very comforting thought. At this moment, I want to skip the power-leveling and get right to the fun bits. If I’m being honest with myself, I suppose I need to consider the fact that maybe I don’t feel like playing any of these games, whatsoever.

*Gasp!* Is that even possible?

Then it hits me. Like a bass guitar to Krist Novoselic’s head, it hits me hard. More than anything, more than any grandiose adventure through space, history, fantasy, or pageantry, I’d rather be rocking. I mean: Rocking. The fuck. OUT. Ah, Rock Band, why didn’t I think of it before?! It’s a perfectly customizable experience. There’s no pressure to grind through a series of B-list tracks just to get to the hits. It boasts an INSANE amount of DLC (the quantity of which I own being equally insane, in the clinical sense). Time also becomes less of a factor with the make-your-own setlist feature, which gives the player total control over the level of epicness with which to get their rock on, from one-hit wonders to bottomless pits of hot licks.

But possibly best of all, it affords me the opportunity to actually play a videogame with my wife. It’s true, although she abhors the long hours I spend whiling away on “the Xbox”, she’s a HUGE Rock Band fan. Just then, I turn towards the front door and wish my wife would walk through it, home early from work. I realize it was never a marathon sesh of obsessive RPG-ing that was going to scratch my itch, it’s playing Rock Band with her. I mean, who would have thought? I’ve yet to find a more traditional game she can stomach, yet Rock Band has become sort of a routine for us. After putting in a solid eight hour work day, we almost always find ourselves coming home, kicking our shoes off, and trading in our button-ups for plastic instruments. I’m not sure what it is, and maybe it doesn’t need explaining, but there is something so goddamn magical about putting a controller and a mic in the hands of a naysayer and hearing them not only say “yay,” but “fuckin’ A!” In fact, she’s far more hardcore than I am. On a regular basis, she requests the use of my XBL gamer profile for her character so she can get credit on the leaderboards. I suppose this makes sense, considering she also consistently scores in like, the top 100 (atta gurl!) and is infinitely more talented than I when it comes to vocals. I just like to sit back on drums, watch her take center stage, and enjoy this kind of White Stripes-in-reverse thing that we do.

It’s fun, and you know what? It just feels comfortable. More than that, it’s doing one of the things I love most, with the person I love doing the most things with. There’s something about sharing this piece of gaming with her that just makes it that much better. Really, I suppose it boils down to the fact that I get to share a part of myself with her—a part she wouldn’t otherwise get to see. I mean, not really, not unless she were in on the experience too. After all, she digs it just as much (or more) than I do! So more than just a way to let off steam and hang out after work, Rock Band has become our virtual dinner table. Instead of, “What did you do today, honey?” it’s “What songs you wanna play tonight?” Then, as we discuss our day, scrolling through the catalog and choosing a setlist for our band, Sonic Youth Group (epic logo pictured at right), something miraculous happens. We actually spend the evening together in an intimate and fulfilling way AND play some videogames at the same time. Imagine that!

The point is that beyond all the troll-slaying, mutant-mashing, treasure-troving and dialog-tree-climbing, what I really look forward to is getting the band back together for another cozy jam sesh. But enough about me, what say you? Do you have a Rock Band of your own? A game firing on so many pistons that it transcends mere player interaction and brings to the table a deeper, more personal experience altogether? I’m new here, and I’d love to get to know y’all by hearing about some of your comfort games in the comments. So please, have at it and rock on, dudes!
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Lead image courtesy of MortonM. "Home Sweet Home" image provided by Charlene Gey at ArgentaCollaborative. Pattern created by John Lohman (spritestitch.com).
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