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The Right Game at the Right Time

It's that time of year again - every digital game storefront is having some kind of end-of year sale, meanwhile, that backlog just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Sometimes, it may feel like finding the right game for right now can be a bigger and more complicated challenge than anything the games themselves have to offer. With such widespread availability, particularly when factoring in a half-century's worth of titles basically available on demand (depending on your current definition of "availability" vs. "legality”), option paralysis is a real possibility, and, for some of us, a guaranteed certainty.

There are the obvious, concrete factors to consider: the amount of time you can dedicate, what your setup is capable of running, what you've already started and how close you are to completing any of those games. These are pretty straightforward to calculate, particularly with the help of tools like HowLongToBeat and your choice of review sites. But there are more intangible qualities to consider, and they can be harder to tackle, which is why I'd like to focus on them here - understanding is the first step to addressing any problem.

A lot of my writing here has been about tackling an aspect of electronic gaming that I can only describe as "feel:" the cumulative effect of all a game's elements and the way they interact with a player's experience. These elements can be atmospheric, mechanical, or even the base visuals. Just as with any other art and media, the best experience with a game is when that "feel" meshes with what the audience is expecting and consistent with what they're bringing in themselves. As an example, various stressful events and the deepening autumn (something I always associate with loss and decay) have recently left me wanting games consistent that feeling. So,  I've returned to Fallout 3 and plan to do likewise with Demon's Souls, two games that do an excellent job of presenting broken, but recognizable worlds - settings that still resemble the places people lived, but are now merely haunted echoes. The monsters in these games, too, all betray their pre-cataclysm origins, whether it be radscorpions and mutants, or madmen and enchanted weaponry. In all fairness, though, I have had some time in these games previously, and knew what to expect going in, but through reviews, footage, and simple word-of-mouth, it's still possible to get an idea for a game's "feel" long before you start playing, even if it's not the full picture.

Of course, what an audience is expecting isn't necessarily something that matches how they feel - very often, it's more about how they want to feel. That's why people turn to certain games and genres when they want cheering up, or act out the destructive impulses they might not be able to otherwise, or give themselves a good scare when they feel like they need it. As I discussed in the Retrogame Therapy post, I think is fundamentally an act of catharsis rather than escapism. We aren't always aware of what we want, though, so making your choice this way requires both self-reflection and awareness of what available titles have to offer. I'm sure that most discussions of "mindfulness" aren't intended towards narrowing down a selection of video games (in fact, I'd say that far too many are steered in the opposite direction - towards capitalist notions of "productivity"), but that's one name for achieving this kind of perspective.

So how can we put this process into practice? If you've already built up a library, it's good to start with what you have available. If you've tried titles out, you probably already have an idea of how they made you feel - it's worth it to keep lists of these or even (if you're using a backlog site or some other kind of tracking system) tagging them appropriately. If you haven't tried them, yet, make an effort to recall what brought you to acquire that game in the first place. If you're accessing them through a launching system like Steam or GOG Galaxy, you're just a click away from pulling up the storefront to see how the game is being advertised. Visuals are a good cue, too, since this is a medium that relies heavily on representational imagery. We first interact with our games on a visual level before we even start, and things like character design and color schemes were ways that games told stories long before they could have any text. We may not be in the arcade era of of "attract" screens giving prospective players an idea of whether they'd be interested, but gameplay footage is easy to find and often linked to those same storefronts. If you're feeling worried about spoilers, you can even try to find the original advertisements used to promote the game - although, when getting your information from the people with a major financial stake in the product, you should try and pair it with an outside opinion. Is the game actually the one being promoted? We don't get a lot of bait-and-switches any more, but our time and money are both limited, and this is a way that nobody likes to be fooled. (Save that for a professional fool, like a renaissance jester or gaming narrative blogger.)

We also want to keep themes in mind: does this game engage with the kinds of ideas you want to explore, with the kinds of spaces you wish to occupy? Again, the nature of the medium and the way it's presented means a lot of this is upfront, but it's still worth bearing in mind. If something isn't thematically compatible with what you're feeling, it probably won't be satisfying no matter how many other ways the game works for you. The way that you play is also important: is this something that works in the amount of time you have available? Aside from genre conventions (shmups and fighting games don't require a lot of time in individual sessions, for instance, but can often require a lot of time cumulatively to master their mechanics and processes), this can be a tricky area - you really may not know until you've put a little time into it. But again, you can get a pretty good feel through gameplay footage.

Finally, it's worth it to know when something isn't working for you, and being able to differentiate between a game that's not right for you and a game that's not right for right now. If something is intriguing to you but you aren't able to make it click, make a note of it, along with what you do and don't like. It can simply be that your life, the one you're bringing with you to the game, isn't compatible with the story it's trying to tell... but your life in a few months or even years may be. Electronic games are just as variable as the lives we lead and the stories we tell, and sometimes we aren't the right person for that game... but someday, we may very well be.

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