RPS has sealed itself inside a chocolate egg for the duration of the UK’s long holiday weekend, to emerge only when the reign of Mr Hops The Doom Rabbit has run its dread course. While we slumber, enjoy these fine words previously published as part of our Supporter program.
I’ve long inclined more towards anxiousness than ambition, and I’m becoming more so as tired bones increasingly seek to stay in known and safe places. I’m not just talking about throwing myself down mountains or entering rooms full of young people hepped up on goofballs – I’m similarly hesitant about unknown-quantity games too. Professionally, I am duty-bound to fight the instinct to shy away from something that I can’t immediately equate to something else at first glance, and thank God – because most of the best gaming experiences I’ve had recently are those which forced me out of my comfort zone.
With Rocket League, I played a sports game, lured in by lurid metal and explosive jetpacks, and the apparent silliness of the whole cars-wot-play-foot-to-ball concept. Even though it’s got ‘league’ in the title, Rocket League is stealth sport, carrying itself like absurd sci-fi rather than the extremely smart encapsulation of what makes people so competitive about balls and nets that it really is. I was barely half an hour into Rocket League when I realised I’d lapsed into joyfully inane football commentator spiel. The excitement of a run towards goal, the crushing-then-forgotten gloom of a squandered opportunity. Sports! I was doing sports! And it was ridiculously exciting. The spaces outside my comfort zone are so much more thrilling.
Similarly vehicular but entirely opposite in tone, we’ve got Euro Truck Simulator 2 and, more recently, the glorious road trip zen of its follow-up American Truck Simulator. For too many years I’d looked upon anything simulatory (unless the word ‘immersive’ was in the mix) with deep suspicion, convinced it was necessarily the inhumanly tedious and fiddly preserve of vehicle nerds, occasionally crossing over into ironic snark.
I wince now at how closed-minded I was, and at the awfulness of man like me considering some other niche interest to be worthy of disdain. More meaningfully, I discovered that the right simulator is as much about state of mind as it is precision recreation of engineering. It’s about having unfettered access to machines which allow rapid traversal of places I shall probably never visit. It’s about learning to control something unwieldy and dangerous then, once it is mastered, feels fluid and powerful. It’s about the road.
Related has been a return to space sims. Granted, this involves returning to something I used to do as much as it does dabbling in unknown waters, but even so, I’d drifted away when these games seemed to become too complex and unforgiving for my all-too-Star-Warsy tastes. It took Elite Dangerous – again, admittedly the return of an old name rather than the casting of a brand new one – to bring me back, but that on its own wouldn’t have been enough. It was about the controllers. Ridiculous, beautiful, hideous flight sticks which do a good job of replicating the physicality of what we imagine hauling several tons of shuddering metal through the skies might be like.
Flight sticks themselves I’d seen as preposterous and overblown for years, buttons and HAT switches for the sake of it, but I realise now that it all goes into the pot of feeling like there is a true physical connection between what I do with my hands and what happens on my screen. I’m excited about VR, but at the same time I struggle to believe that it’s ever going to feel as satisfyingly there as slamming a chunky plastic throttle forwards. I no longer fear games designed for such a controller, and my PC is only a more exciting piece of games wizardry for it.
Most recently, I had to fight almost overwhelming terror when I saw screenshots of extreme management game Factorio, all those spaghetti junctions of conveyor belts and belching machines of uncertain purpose, and thought “nope, there’s just no way my tiny, useless mind can possibly understand that.” This time, I saw the weakness and was more determined to challenge it. I’ll write more about Factorio specifically soon, but I’m so glad I dove in rather than ran away. Those screenshots make sense to me now, and the construction of the game, the way tiny acorns of mining grow into tangled rainforests of automated industrial complexity. Fantastic contraptions I could never have imagined, built organically as needs change and grow. And now I feel in control of something which terrified me.
Those aren’t the only ones, but I know my innate fearfulness ain’t fixed yet. I must continue to fight the part of my mind which falls too easily into XCOMs and Far Cries. Comfort eating only brooks more comfort eating.