Here’s a thing I love: going back to an involved game after weeks, months or even years away, after life got in the way or you hit a brick wall, and abruptly abandoned that world. Starting a brand new game from scratch can never offer the same delightful confusion, even though you begin it from a place of even greater ignorance.
Without fail, I go back in to an abandoned game convinced I know how to play it, that it’s a simple matter of resumption and I’ll be romping through it as if I’d never been away. Then, crushing reality. It’s not simply that it takes some time to remember the controls, or the flow of combat, or which device is needed for which action. It’s re-establishing the motivation. What was it that drove me onwards?
When I first drop back in, I see the game underneath the fantasy oh-so-clearly for a few minutes: the character who moves in a slightly robotic way, the slew of visual information telling me my status and objectives. It is, for a few minutes, devoid of my own involvement in that world, whatever quests I was doing or exit I was seeking, whatever I sought to craft or kill or find. It is purely, game, and maybe that’s what someone who doesn’t care about games sees if they pass my screen: all these ridiculous creatures, all these numbers, all these buttons to press, all that seemingly repetitive shooting or stabbing. For a moment, it’s almost laughable.
And then, as muscle memory of the controls fades back in, as some progress bar creeps up, as I spy an item which improves my abilities, as I talk to character whose fate I was concerned with, as I do well in a challenge, meaning fades back in. I start to care. I start to have ambitions. I start to feel a connection between myself and the entity or viewpoint on my screen. And those weeks or months or years disappear; I’ve always been doing this, on this quest or mission or challenge or exploration, and my journey is ongoing.
The ‘game’ fades, it becomes familiar, it becomes my reality. I don’t get this with a brand new game, because by and large it feeds you in slowly, doesn’t overwhelm with too much information or too many concepts, you don’t get that hard disruption, the unforgiving requirement to understand a whole new universe all at once, that going back after a long time away involves.
This week, I experienced this in the Witcher 3, which I’ve been away from for a couple of months. That was long enough for such a complicated game to become deeply unfamiliar. I didn’t remember where I was or what I was doing, and I certainly couldn’t remember how to fight or how all those spells and potions worked. My most recent save was in a field, a hair’s breadth from a pack of bandits, and my ineptitude was glorious. : I was killed three times simply trying to make my way to the nearest town so I could take stock, reset my priorities and fix a broken sword. Movement felt all wrong (in fairness, a patch had added a new movement style during my away time), fights were confusing, and there were so very many quests I apparently had to do. It all seemed so ridiculous.
And then. Something eased into place. All those numbers and arrows and icons began to mean something again. Without my even noticing, they stopped being numbers and arrows and icons and became meaning, became something that was simply, naturally part of my vision. The ridiculous became the personal. I was back. Over a decade ago, I did that with Deus Ex, but the gap was something like two years. Oh, my pitiful bewilderment at trying to work it all out, some twenty hours in, with only the faintest memory of who anyone was or what I was fighting for, what these augmentations did or how to go unseen. I really thought I’d have to restart, that there was no way it would make sense or I could be adept enough to beat its escalating challenges. But I stuck with it, and it came back to. I had never been away, these things had always been important, this had always been my world. That reclamation felt so good.
Try it. Abandon whatever game you’re playing right now, play some other things in the meantime, and come back in a month or two’s time. Suffer a few minutes of clunk and conclusion and the growing conviction that you just can’t do this without starting over, then push through it. Feel that glorious, unspoken moment when it becomes yours again.