Sunday, March 26, 2006

3 AM Reassessments

I'm recovering from a bad bout of food poisoning. The first day was pretty much all about my gastrointestinal tract and the rapid exodus of all substances therein. The second day I wasn't feeling quite so horrendous, but couldn't do much of anything but sleep. The third day my head was finally clear, but I wasn't healthy enough to go to work, so I stayed home and played Oblivion all day, which was better for my mental health than thousands of dollars worth of therapy.

Today was a little different, though.

My wife (it STILL feels weird to say that) left early to go visit a friend's new baby, and was gone most of the day, so I kept merrily playing Oblivion...but it wasn't quite the same.

The Elder Scrolls games (of which Oblivion is the fourth in the series) are known for providing huge, detailed fantasy worlds, with extremely open-ended gameplay. There are an incredible number of options open to the user. Simileically speaking, many other video games make the player feel like they're driving a train--you can go faster or slower, but you're basically stuck to one path. Games like Oblivion or Grand Theft Auto, on the other hand, generally make the player feel like they're a hiker plopped down in the middle of a national park--there are marked trails they can take that will get them to a defined destination, but they can also just strike out in any direction that appeals, and see what they run across.

Anyway, that's a very cool thing, and I guess it gets at the heart of what I've always been looking for in video games. There's this nerd fantasy of experiencing a virtual world that feels as real as the real thing, only better, and you can do anything you want within it. Anything at all, completely unconfined by the limitations of your physical being or your emotional shortcomings.

The point of this being that I was playing a beautiful game, in which there are many options, and I suddenly found myself wildly bored. After completing several dozen quests, I started realizing that succeeding at one would just lead to another. I could choose to ignore the quests and spend all my time picking flowers and mushrooms, using these exotic ingredients to concoct potions of my own design...but all that harvesting made me feel like a farmer doing repetitive labor.

I'd gone from being bored in the real world to being bored in a pretend world, only now I was bored in a place where there were elves and vampires and wizards.

Eventually, I just switched it off. This isn't the first time I've felt this way about a game, either. More and more as I get older, I find I'm just not willing to spend the time on stuff like this.

Now, this really isn't intended to be a criticism of Oblivion, which may be a fantastic game if you put in a bit more time and are a little more creative about how you play it. I've had this reaction to a bunch of games that are well-regarded by the community.

My initial interpretation was that I was bored of the game because it wasn't realistic enough, that the environment wasn't really rich enough to grab me and make me suspend disbelief. There's definitely some truth to that statement, too. The thing is, I went to bed and started thinking about it, as I was lying insomniac in the dark, and it seemed like maybe the real issue is that it was a little too real.

A lot of life is drudgery. Many people's lives feel pointless and purposeless a lot of the time. Oblivion provided me a fresh life in which to play, but why should that life be any better or more interesting than the one I have already?

Sure, there are goblins and magic swords, etc. etc. None of those are new to me, having been a nerd for 31 years. The virtual landscape is beautiful and filled with lush vegetation, which I dash through at top speed, eyes only attracted to things that look like they might try to bite me.

It's strange to be presented with limitless options and watch yourself make expedient choices, see your doom of ennui repeated in play as it is in reality.

I've had this thought in the back of my mind for such a long time, that if I just had more options, things would be so much better. Primarily, if I could free myself from needing to have a day job, that I would:

1) write a bunch of Really Important Novels
2) direct a bunch of Really Important Movies
3) be happy

That thought has been a comforting opiate to me as I go through the well-understood, generally-safe, not-highly-rewarding career I've been in for the last ten years. Now I'm thinking, would it just be the same, only with nobody to talk to for eight hours of the day?

That may be over-pessimistic, but the basic premise is valid.

And all of this ridiculous self-analysis comes because I got bored of playing a video game. :)


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