I’m not a very adventurous gamer. For the last twenty or so years I’ve return to the same classic franchises — Pokémon, Zelda, The Sims — again and again, opting to replay my favorites rather than venturing into new territory. I found comfort in those replays, like visiting a town where I’d spent a lot of time as a child, and I’ve measured my own growth using them as a yardstick.
In the last year or so, though, I’ve found myself drawn to plenty of new games. (New for me, mostly, since I’m always like four years late to all pop culture.) I put in a cool 70 hours on Stardew Valley before it came out for the Switch and I decided to start my pleasant, hypnotically boring farm adventure over from the beginning; I spent plane rides hunched over moving phone games like Florence and Oxenfree. I got a little drunk watching Into the Spider-Verse and marched up to Target to buy the last copy of Spider-Man for PS4 that they had, and have mostly spent my time swinging through New York City and trying to find the buildings where I used to work IRL. In all, I’ve probably started or finished about a dozen new games lately, a dramatic step up from my usual two or three.
I don’t really have a compelling reason for this shift. Buying a Switch helped, of course, as does its insanely ever-expanding catalog. Reading Kotaku and Polygon more regularly, and listening to this delightful podcast called Into the Aether, stoked my hunger for newness as well. There is, of course, the reason anyone claims they’re doing anything lately, which is that the world is as chaotic and draining as it’s ever been and we’re all in search of an escape. I’m sure this is true for me as well — how could it not be? — but I think my desire is more solipsistic. I’m getting older. I’ve lived in this city for a long time. I like staying home more than I used to, and when I’m there, I like burrowing into an activity, whether it’s reading or knitting or (way less than I should be) writing, and playing games has sprung up in that vein. They’ve always been a part of my life; now it’s just that I’m consciously choosing them.
The games I like have a few things in common: they’ve got a strong emotional component, about loneliness or failure or figuring out who you are; their music is beautiful; they are earnest even when they veer into jokey or self-referential territory. They vary in length and scope tremendously, and now that I, nearing 30 and finally achieving my 8-year-old fantasies, own a Switch, a 3DS, a PS4, and an iPhone with a lot of space for impulse downloads, they span all sorts of platforms.
And there are plenty of games I have no interest in whatsoever. I don’t tend to like anything scary or particularly bloody. I don’t like guns, I don’t like maddening puzzles, and I don’t like anything that’s so loud or goofy as to be exhausting. I am very easily frustrated (Hollow Knight has caused me more anguish recently than subway delays and allergies combined) and impatient (no text will ever scroll fast enough for me) but I’m trying to work through those, to get more comfortable with a little discomfort.
What I’m looking for in my games is a place. A warm one, a safe one, to go when I’m sad or sick or bored, when I’m looking for a little hideout from the world. Where even if it’s hard or takes a long time, I’ll be able to get across to the other side, to feel like I’ve accomplished something even if it’s not “real.” Because the feelings games leave me with are real, the same way the things I make are, and I want to articulate them more fully and regularly now that I’ve picked up the controller again.
Graphic by Aude White