(Holy crap this went on way longer than I was anticipating someone take my soap box away from me. My appologies in advance for how length this all was OTL)
I’m finding my mind and heart are saying quite a number of different things with this topic. For myself at least, I’ve often found and used games as a place to experience both moments of tranquility as well as emotional intensity within the safety of my own pacing.
By that I mean, I can completely lose myself in it, but I still have an extremely short rip cord to pull myself out relatively quickly (ie. setting down the controller or just quitting the game).
For the purpose of conveying my own personal benefit of playing games, I’m going to try and convey concepts that multiple games manage to fit into to some degree. That way I don’t have to worry about any particular game getting more text than others.
By far a state I like to occupy the most, ones where I feel myself being dropped into a world that allows me to take in what it gives me bit not feel so strongly a direct tug of the collar on what I should be doing. Where a path forward is clear, but the game seems completely fine to allow me to exist, think, and breathe for as long as I need. My earliest experience (and one I recently had the joy to visit once again) would be Shadow of the Colossus. Being brought in by an emotionally dramatic opening showing a world of beauty that makes you feel small, the game very clearly tells you what is at stake and what the terms and conditions are of your task. Once that’s out of the way though, the game is completely content to let you meander about and get lost. It’s a wonderful way to take in the world, to see what it has to offer and maybe just barely piece together some idea of what the rules and history of the land are. If you ever need to find your way back on the trail though, all you need to do is raise your sword to the sky and follow the ray of light it points to. I’d a much similar experience with Breath of the Wild and while that game tends to follow a more typical sense of game progression, it still very much allows that feeling of freedom in just merely existing (at least until a terrifying octo-laser-robo decides to chase after you). You’re presented with the state of the world, but once all that is setup, you’re more or less free to do as you please. Hunt and gather ingredients for cooking, find shrines with puzzles to tantalize the mind, or my personal favourite, open the map and look at the name of a place and thing “huh, I wonder what’s there”. I also find Journey a rather curious participant of this mode, but with the twist of having someone else to experience the world with. It very closely follows the state of the other games, a mountain in the distance you want to go to, but you’re free to meander about aimlessly with each section, but every once in a while you are presented with another person with their own free will. Often times they’re playing the game just to run through, but sometimes you’ll find someone curiously complacent in just existing for a bit. Drawing in the snow and sand by walking, trying to climb to high and out of reach places, jumping and sliding over dunes of sand. The game even has an achievement for sitting down with another player and meditating in quiet tranquility. The passive nature of it is almost infectious, and there’s a freeing sense of relaxing to the sound of wind blowing sand quietly around you. These games are joyful breaks from the hyper stimulating nature of so many games, often filled with the desire for competitive conquest, both solo and with other players. To be able to drop myself into a world an simply enjoy the feeling of being in something that’s living without thrusting progress against you brings a sense of peace and calm that’s become harder and harder to find. And it’s only made better when the game is perfectly content on waiting for me to make the next step.
While there is a draw to being able to win and succeed, often what brings the most revitalizing feelings for me in games is being able to feel unstoppable. Momentary feelings of perfection where the joy isn’t in doing better than others or even doing your best yet. Instead it’s like finding a trail of light you travel along which just keeps going, and you get lost in the rush and blur of everything else around you. One of my favourite games that allowed me to do this was SSX 3 back in the days of ye olde PS2. While there were races and trick attacks, the most amazing feeling ever in that game was the free ride down from the very top of the mountain all the way to the summit. There were different paths to take, different ways of moving between them, but there was a sense of unmatched joy in just being able to make that trek down, uninterrupted by anyone or the game itself. It only helped further with how the game would modulate background music that was playing based upon what environment you were in or how well you were doing in terms of keeping your speed or doing tricks. This feeling of speed and momentum also carried into a game like Jet Set Radio Future, where you could constantly be in a state of moving forward, even if you were going in circles. Your ability to jump high, grind, and skate along walls with just the right amount of speed that felt like dancing on air. More recent memory of games giving me the same feelings are Rez Infinte’s Area X, where the constant pulse of the music in tandem with the free floating but constant movement (especially when playing the game in VR like holy heck) just feels like a constant wind rushes across your face. In those moments, it’s not the destination or goal that matter. You’re instead given a sense of freedom in movement, where you move too fast and fluid for a static world to even catch hold and slow down, and at least through a video game, feel moments of perfection even if you’re only just pressing buttons.
Failure, Sorrow, and Surmount:
(Spoiler warning ahead: I’ll blur the text where applicable, but it concerns rather story crucial parts of games which, if people don’t want to be spoiled, I won’t force to be shown explicitly.)
This may be one of the more complicated and debatable feelings, but is one that I feel is something only a game can accomplish. Failure and losing is pretty much a given in games, but more often than not it just leads to the end of the game, while often giving players a chance to retry and give another go. But what I find one of the most valuable thing a game can do is present players with situations of experiencing failure and having to endure and continue after those moments. My earliest memory of this was playing Final Fantasy VI (or Final Fantasy III if you’re a real 90s kid). You reach a point in the game where, at any other point of an RPG, would feel like the final climax. A battle to save the world from catastrophe. However regardless of how strong you’ve gotten at that point, you find it impossible to prevent it. Instead to bear witness to a world turned to ruin. Upon regaining control, you find yourself having to face a cold, careless world made dead by terrible power. A similar situation was present in last year’s Nier: Automata, where players are forced to face a situation where any success and sense of progress was almost immediately nullified by a force of chaos bent upon destroying any sense of stability or order. Once all the dust settles, you’re to continue playing, partially to discover the mystery surrounding all of the events, but to also find a sense of purpose and meaning after everything you’ve had to face. The emotional weight put upon you in games like this is at some times overwhelming, and I often found myself physically upset and heartbroken, but in low and hurt moments like these, I found the smaller moments of joy and relief one of the most important and healing moments ever in my time with video games. A curious but still valid example of this can be found in a game like Majora’s Mask where you are instead playing a hero who gets to personally observe the pain and suffering of large cast of characters in a land that’s been given a time limit. But as that hero helps them, even on the smallest level, we start to understand why these people are worth saving. How even though they’ve made mistakes or fallen into sorrow, we still see they have things they consider precious and want to protect, even when they face what seems like doom.
I’m sure there are folk who won’t be able to connect in the same way I do with games like this, but for myself, its one of the most important things for me to have found in games. It allows me to find hope when faced with the dark and it allows me to find joy and comfort in the little things, and that I’m valid to enjoy such things even in the face of a reality that may not be so caring. It validates my sadness and pain, but at the same time encourages me to find a state of mind that allows me peace and allows me to heal.