essay, video games

Just enough human

I was looking at my games list a couple of hours ago. If you have and use Xbox 360 frequently, you know what I am talking about. It’s the list that shows you what games you have played on your account and how many achievements you have gotten in each game. There is the title of the game. Your number. And then the total number of distinct achievements possible. It’s that last number that drives me a little crazy. I knew I should not have been looking at the list. I knew what it would do to me. Yet I did it anyway.

I can become a bit driven sometimes. I can take up the load of trying to Get Something Done and then act toward that goal without regard for anything else. I’ve stayed up all night reading a book or watching a shows. I’ll keep saying The next chapter, I’ll stop then. Just one more episode. Just one more. I will slowly, inch by inch, run myself right off the metaphorical cliff. I’ve done it more than a few times. With video games though the compulsion can get bad. With the 360 specifically, it is the worst. Right there, in simple to read text — four numbers — is where I am and where I feel I should be.

It tells me right there. You have 25 of 50 achievements. You have 5 of 12. You have 2 of 10. You have o of 14. It lays it all out for me in nice clear numbers. No having to read paragraphs or having to remember if I got the certain sword in the certain town during that one role-playing game. No, there are numbers. Clean, clear and often irresistible numbers. Simple digits that speak to me of what I yet to do. Things I should do. Things I ought to do. Where did I put that game again?

It’s that easy for me to slip into trying to hunt down where I placed a game, where I might have left it. Before long, I’ve found the game — after displacing the contents of at least half the room — and I’m playing it again. But not because I actually want to or like to revisit some nostalgic locale. No, it’s because I have more achievements to get. Things I have to do. It’s a dangerous drive to pick back up. Sometimes it can lead to surprises, hidden areas. Half-forgotten memories. Other times, it’s 20 hours later worth of playing and the realization that, yes, I stopped trying to get this same achievement the first time for this very reason. Too hard.

Sometimes, that’s enough. I can just think back to frustration of trying to get the extra points, into the secret area, and stop myself. I can think about the hours spent repeating the same few steps, watching the same annoying cut-scene over and over and over. That often works. But not always. And not with games where I know the actual gameplay is not hard, is not actually very challenging. I would just have to invest more time into the game. In this case, I was thinking about Too Human.

I’m not going to argue that it is a good game. It isn’t. The story stops abruptly and only really comes together if squint at it from a distance. The fact that you can, as was demonstrated by a friend of mine, “close your eyes, waggle the sticks and you win” did very endear it to most people. Nearly everyone disliked the game for one reason or another. I’m not even excepting myself from that list. I actively dislike it too. But, and here is why it is important, it was my first Xbox 360 game to be played under my own profile.

I came to the system quite late, as I usually do for most technology. I don’t have the money to pursue the latest and greatest, I settle for the Last Year’s Best or Previous Generation goods.  Well, I usually do. I happen to come across a used system sale and have some money. Why not be part of the current console generation for once? I asked myself. Okay, okay. But just this once. I answered back. So, there I was, new used system.

I didn’t have any games for several months. What I settled on doing was renting them. I’d played for a few hours and, if I didn’t like it, I’d just return it for something else. Not exactly the best way to get to know a system, but it worked for awhile. I’d try a game, maybe like it. If so, I’d write it down for eventual purchase. After awhile, I had a decent list. Of course, this was all after I played  Too Human.

I’m not totally sure why I picked that game first. I think it might have been because the podcasts I was listening to at the time were talking it up. It was supposed to be The Next Big Thing from the people — from the person — who created Eternal Darkness, Denis Dyack et al. It had a dark fantasy feel and I always lean toward that genre anyway.  Regardless of the reason, it was the game I picked to be played first. The game I was to beat first — this being before the try, try then buy strategy — before moving on to others.

All I remember about the story from the game was that the protagonist, who Google reminds me was named Baldur, was not enough technology-based. He was, as per the title, ‘too human’. This factored into the story at various points I vaguely remember and which not actually important. In fact, the only thing I remember being of worth with the story is that the protagonist becomes very driven, forsaking all other things. When his allies and friends tell him not to pursue the road he is on, he ignores them. He keeps on going and going, slewing monsters in his wake, taking on all tasks, until he gets to where he wants to be. Until he kills the person he is after. It’s funny, I don’t even remember who he was trying to kill, only that he was compulsive about the task.

There is probably a lesson there. Something like “The light at the end of the tunnel is really the on-coming train” or “Be careful what you wish for”. Something that spoke of the danger of becoming too obsessed, the danger of staying focused on one single item to the downfall of everything else around you. If I knew the right saying, I would fill it in here. I would type it out so that you, along with me, would remember it.

Maybe it’s more of just something you learn over time. After all, I didn’t decide to spend time on trying to find a copy of Too Human despite the fact that I do not have all the achievements. I could though. I thought about how much money it might cost me to get a used copy, how easy it would be to order it online right now. I could stop typing and go order it. But I don’t. I know where that road leads. I know the cost of that journey. While the numbers due indeed not lie, I know not to trust them.

I turned the system off. After looking at the numbers, those pretty little numbers, I turned it off. Once I got past Too Human, I knew I was going to go to the next game. And then the next one. I would scan through every game list, all those things left undone and pick and chose. I can get those. And those. That one too. It would all be easy. I could compile a list and start making my way through them. I’ve done it before. But not this time. This time, I chose to stop before I started. Before I became a slave to the technology, I made the choice every human gamer always has: the option to turn the machine off.