Thursday 27 August 2020

Every condition of comfort reveals in turn its discomfort

Way back in the early 7th Century (or maybe it was 2004) when I first got into MMOs with City of Heroes the idea of playing a game for years at a time was unusual. Up to that point most of the games I played had a story, or at least structure, of some sort, and therefore an ending. It might have been a lengthy RPG with character development, revelations, and a climactic battle of good against evil; it might have been an FPS with a couple of lines in a text file about scientists accidentally opening a portal to hell and a climactic battle of good against mecha-spider-brain-thing with chainguns. Flight sims often had campaigns that took you through real or imagined conflicts, sports games could have seasons or leagues. Of course there was replayability – different decisions, characters, difficulty levels, trying for higher scores or faster runs – but there was a pretty clear idea of finishing a game. Back in the early days of this blog I pondered the never-ending nature of MMOs, when a monthly subscription was nigh-ubiquitous as the business model, and like a lone prophet demonstrating incredible foresight (or Captain Obvious taking “The Bleedin’ Obvious” as his specialist subject in Mastermind) postulated that subscriptions weren’t for everyone and different payment models would be good.

Fast forward to today and the game-as-a-service model is far more common, persistent elements, unlocks and the like the rule rather than the exception. I’ve had plenty of extended runs in games, from those heady days of City of Heroes (must’ve been five-plus years in the end, at varying intensity), but I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a stable gaming landscape as at present.

Firstly there’s War Thunder, now approaching the seven and a half year mark. The core gameplay has hardly changed in that time (capture things, shoot enemy) but the game has expanded from aircraft alone to now include tanks and ships, with an ever-increasing range of nations and vehicles represented, so there’s always something to work towards unlocking. I haven’t been heavily playing it for some time now; there’s one of the usual summer events running at the moment involving considerable grind to get new vehicles, I haven’t bothered with those for at least a couple of years now. A single battle, though, is (on average) a satisfying thing. A sensible length (10-20 minutes), minimal hanging around, and with some progression towards unlocking a new vehicle (albeit rather glacial in later tiers) to scratch the working-towards-something itch. After focusing on flying fighters for a while I can change things up with small, fast boats, or ground attack aircraft, or larger, slower ships, or tanks (though I find myself frustrated more often in ground forces, so haven’t been played them nearly as much).

My most consistent game-of-choice has been Destiny 2, now coming up on three years. I’ve had a few breaks, played other big games like Far Cry 5, Red Dead Redemption 2, The Division 2, Anthem, and Borderlands 3, but drifted away from all of them, not with a bang but a whimper. I don’t recall any specific moment in any of them that made me think “that’s it, I’m quitting and never coming back!”, they just got a bit same-y, I stopped loading them up, and for reasons I can’t entirely pin down I keep drifting back to Destiny 2. The combat just clicks; there’s movement and pace rather than crouching behind cover, but not so much that my poor aged reflexes can’t keep up. There are plenty of minions that can be despatched with a single well-placed shot rather than endless bullet-sponges, but enough tougher opponents and bosses to keep things varied. Like War Thunder it offers discrete chunks of 10-20 minute activities so you can dip in, or chain a bunch together for longer sessions. There’s PvE, PvP or a hybrid of the two, and incentives to mix up activities and weapon loads, albeit the bounty system is still a little admin-heavy. Grouping is casual, matchmaking throwing together random teams for the activities that need them, I don’t go for the raids and dungeons that need more involved co-ordination. The seasons and expansions are arriving at about the right rate, by the time I’m butting up against the limits of progression in one there’s usually another on the way. It just seems to hit that Goldilocks zone for me in so many ways.

Things are pretty static on the mobile front as well, Marvel Puzzle Quest ticks along with an ever-expanding range of characters to ensure there’s always a progress bar to be ticking up, and it turns out that an 8×8 grid in 2048 Ultimate might, indeed, last forever, as the game I started in November 2019 shows no sign of even getting to a half-full board. It’s the perfect Listening On A Conference Call game, (almost) mindless swiping so you can keep track of the call (avoiding the awkward pause when you miss being asked for your input and have to deploy the “oh, whoops, I was on mute then when I just gave a full and comprehensive answer to what was the question again?” technique), but keeps you busy enough that you don’t doze off and disrupt the call with loud snoring.

It’s an exceedingly comfortable comfort zone I seem to have found myself in; sufficiently different games like Slay The Spire have at least given a little variety to spice up the gaming life but I don’t want to get stuck in too much of a rut. I’m sure something big will come along in the future; Cyberpunk 2077, perhaps, though I’m trying not to build up unreasonable anticipation. In the meantime Melmoth has been enjoying Remnant: From The Ashes, so as it’s on sale I think might pop in and see if a bit of tentacle-type unpleasantness offers a bit of a diversion.