The way I play games has changed a lot over the last decade. Much of it is what you’d expect from a maturing – or aging – gamer. I don’t have as much free time now, for example, so I tend to prefer shorter games than I did before. Or ones which value my downtime as highly as I do, at any rate.
Generally speaking, these changes have been for the best. I play a wider variety of games now than I used to and I’ve become more selective about what I’ll sink my time in to. Gone are the days of completing every Tony Hawk challenge just to unlock all the skaters.
There’s one change I’m less keen on though; one which I have to fight against constantly. I call it sleepgaming and I think it’s a growing problem for many seasoned gamers.
Put simply, what I call sleepgaming is a side effect of being very game literate; of having played so many games that I know what to do without being told. An example might be walking into a roomful of boxes and immediately recognising the nature of a puzzle, then immediately jumping in and moving boxes around.
Put all the boxes on switches to open the door; a lifetime of Tomb Raider has trained me to recognise this situation and act without thinking. What’s the worst that could happen?
Now, I’m not criticising games that feature such situations. It’s good that developers can communicate goals and tools so quickly and clearly. Getting lost down blind alleys is never fun. And sleepgaming isn’t merely recognising the nature of a puzzle anyway – it’s leaping in to solve it straight away. Without thinking.
Lately I’ve been playing a game called Papa & Yo. It’s about a boy who enters a magical world and befriends a monster addicted to rage-inducing frogs, using that friendship to parallel his real-world relationship with an abusive father. It’s clever, it’s beautiful, I highly recommend it…
…And I’ve been sleepgaming through parts of it. I walk into a new room and at first my x-ray eyes don’t see the abandoned toys and empty streets; they see blocks and buttons, switches and gears. And my instinct is just to leap at these things immediately. If I want to do more – if I want to actually question where I am or what I’m doing - I have to consciously take a step back.
Sleepgaming isn’t something I choose to do. It’s just how a lifetime of games has conditioned me to behave. You don’t progress through a game by understanding a message or questioning an environment; you do it by putting blocks on switches. So, I’ve learned not to look at levels for what they are, but merely how I can move through them.
This saddens me. For all the graphical advances games have made, some would have been just as effective without high-definition textures or detailed environment designs because I (and many other gamers, I suspect) just fail to see them.
When was the last time you entered a temple in Tomb Raider and were just blown away with awe? When was the last time your brain didn’t immediately highlight the blocks you can push and the collectibles in the corners?
There’s a lot of good to be said for effective foregrounding, but I also think there’s a lot to be said against it in some situations. Unless the only thing a game wants to offer is the sort of numbing, brain-off escapism usually associated with daytime TV; unless designers really do want us to live in a worldful of safety nets and just move blocks without thinking.