Leaving The Comfort Zone

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.


  1. Risingson says:

    I think that must be the natural state of things: being able to enjoy all genres if the games are good. Anyway, none of these games seem to deviate much from the comfort zone. I was thinking of a proper flight sim whrre you need to train a lot, or games where you have to invest a lot of time to learn how to enjoy them as something really out of the comfort zone.

    Yay the comfort zone.

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  2. yhancik says:

    To me, it sometimes comes down to this: there are 120 games I know I want to play. My time is limited. Am I going risk my one hour of guilt-free gaming before getting back to my homeworks to something I’m not interested in (based on what I know)?

    And I know it’s kinda wrong :/

    • cpt_freakout says:

      I don’t think it’s wrong – it’s just about what kinds of experiences you want out of something. If you game only for pleasure, it’s fine. I like to see ‘difficult’ movies because they make me feel things I’d otherwise never do, and I learn a lot about myself (and the world) in the process. My dad hates those movies because to him, the cinema is a place for pleasure only – he gets his self-knowledge somewhere else, and he’d rather see some cool-ass effects in Transformers 80 than the latest Hungarian art film that makes you think about abusive relationships. And that’s perfectly OK! There’s plenty of opportunities in life to get out of your comfort zone, and if gaming is not one of them, there’s nothing to feel bad about.

      • gunny1993 says:

        I think if you want to understand abusive relationships watching any of Micheal Bay’s films is a great way to start.

        … Sorry, you make a good point but your use of Transformers in an example turned me into a vitriolic salt pit and I just HAD to get rid of some of my only slightly justifiable rage.

        I really hate Micheal Bay

    • Unsheep says:

      There’s nothing wrong with that, nobody should have to justify their gaming preferences and priorities.

      The basis for rejection is different. In your case its a matter of prioritizing games you enjoy the most given limited gaming time.

      Its a different matter when people continuously mock and ridicule genres they haven’t even tried, or given a fair chance to understand, just for the sake of it. A good number of gamers, critics and media folk are guilty of this behaviour.

      For example, before American Truck Simulator arrived the Euro Truck games, and their communities, were often the source of ridicule and mockery for mainstream media (including RPS) and mainstream gamers. Yet these games have suddenly become socially acceptable to play.

      Racing sims, 4X strategy games and point-and-click games have also been met with the same tasteless reception at one point or another.

  3. cpt_freakout says:

    You know, I don’t have much trouble going out of my zone in most other hobbies/activities/whatever, but when it comes to games I tend to play the same kinds of things. I’m the kind of person for whom Proteus and Gone Home were revelations, and even though I loved to try out a lot of the little experimental games that Porpentine used to post, they’re not games I look out for anymore. If someone recommends it (or a site I like does) I might give it a shot, but other than that I’ll stick to what I know I like.

    I also don’t like sports games, and find sims to be a bit alienating, so yeah, I’m all about being comfy. What you just wrote about those Truck sims, however, is great, and it makes me want to play one… maybe one day. You’ve encouraged me, though, so I might start trying out games I’d otherwise never do. Thanks!

  4. AtlasIsKing says:

    This article really resonated with me. With a full-time job and lots of commitments I rarely try any games that seem like they will require work to get into, but I recently tried playing the free demo of Rise of Flight on Steam, playing with my rarely-used flightstick.

    Even though the game has an “Easy Flight” setting, I choose not to use it because I’ve found the difficult(ish) process of learning how to fly a WWI fighter plane the way it was meant to be flown incredibly rewarding. The challenge of this difficulty gives the game a great deal of intellectual immersion in addition to its admittedly excellent atmospheric immersion.

    • Jools says:

      When it comes to more complex games with steep learning curves, I think part of the problem is admitting to yourself that you don’t need to “accomplish” anything in one sitting. Spending an hour flailing around pointlessly and crashing your plane into the ground isn’t objectively a greater waste of time than playing something you’re comfortable with and completing a level or whatever. If you’re enjoying yourself, then both are just as worthy of your time.

      Games, like pretty much everything else, are a total waste of time in the long run. And that’s fine.

  5. MOONRGR says:

    A well written article. I have the same feeling of anxiety and hesitance when I am at the gate of a unfamiliar game. I might even purchase that game after reading a cheerful review from RPS, but I rarely summon the strength to click the download button, not to mention that big blue play button.

  6. caff says:

    Dwarf Fortress was one such mind-bendingly alluring game I read about for years before taking some time to learn it.

    It has many faults, notably crashes and requiring the use of multiple add-ons to play “easily”. But by god it’s a rewarding experience. Every game is so unique no matter what you do.

  7. syllopsium says:

    A proper flight stick made such a difference playing OOlite, after 8 bit Elite on a digital joystick decades before. Suddenly it’s possible to match rotation speed and docking becomes enjoyable.

    New is good, though, particularly in the indie scene there’s so many different games out there.

  8. Dinger says:

    While I wholeheartedly enjoy the combination of personal curiosity and external compulsion that drives us to discover new and engaging aspects of our existence, I must protest the use of the term “comfort zone”. These days, “to get someone out of their comfort zone” has come to embrace both the notion of “compel someone to advance in their skills” and “keep an employee perpetually stressed”. Yes, we all need to get out of ruts, but being comfortable is a luxury denied to most human beings since the dawn of agriculture; we should strain to make others comfortable, to allow them to live well, all the while pushing them to be better human beings.

    After all, there’s a world of great games out there.

  9. Jievo says:

    I’m shocking for the comfort zone, and I really do have the free time to do something about it – but I treasure that feeling of safety and comfort, I guess, much as I know it’s wrong. I could find a game that EVERYONE has played, that I would love, just from reading a handful of rps articles, and I could do that every week for a year and barely scratch the surface of the BIG, BIG games I should be trying. Add to that the big games I’ve started, loved but never gotten too far into before I drifted away. I always fall back to the same old stuff – FIFA, Age of Empires 1 and 2, Medieval 2 Total War, Mass Effect trilogy playthroughs, Dragon Age Origins, the Jedi Knight series and the KOTOR games… That makes up an alarming amount of my gaming time. And I’m shocking for just wasting evenings watching crap on youtube or reading pointless articles rather than actually doing something I’d enjoy like stimulating my mind with a new game or a good book. I own Dragon Age Inquisition and there is NO WAY I won’t love that game yet I’ve still failed to get around to it. It’s hopeless, the comfort zone is too strong.

  10. Simbosan says:

    I have a well defined and well trodden set of comfort zones, MMO, ARPG and the occasional other type such us arcade driving or FPS. But I see no reason to worry about leaving the zone. Gaming is such a low stress unwinding process that I have no particular need to justify what I do or any moral imperative to try to push into stuff I don’t really enjoy.

    For example,I hate RTS games, I hate real time RTS even more. Being crap at them and hating them is a chicken and egg thing, which came first? I’ve tried to like them cos I got them for free, but nope. Hate. All PvP games? Nah, sod that.

    As a games journalist I would think that pushing the boundaries is simply being professional, so good on yer.

    • GWOP says:

      “I hate RTS games, I hate real time RTS even more”

      Er, RTS already means real time strategy, so putting another ‘real time’ before it is a bit redundant.

    • Risingson says:

      Why do you hate games you are bad at? It is a bit absurd.

      • tigerfort says:

        I used to share a house with a guy would dismiss any game he couldn’t instantly beat on the hardest difficulty setting as “boring rubbish”. (He only ever played any game on the hardest setting, because he regarded himself as a “hard-core gamer”; I regarded him as a bit of an idiot, but we all make our own choices.)

  11. Jackablade says:

    I don’t think I need Factorio. I’ve got Substance Designer if I want to wire together a confusing tangled mess of parts that might eventually do something vaguely useful.

    On the topic at hand, I was very reluctant to pick up Stardew Valley on account of the farming looking fiddly (water tile, move one over, water next tile), appearing to be more scripted than systemic and the character art being super ugly.

    Eventually people convinced me to try it. It’s not necessarily the farming game I most want – while it’s more systemic than it initially appears it does many things (farming, fishing, mining, monster fighting, character interaction, romance…) in broad strokes rather than focusing on building up ones farming infrastructure, it’s a game that I’m enjoying far more than I expected.
    I’m still tempted to get in and fix some of the character world art but I like the characters even with their giant square eyes and lack of jaws.

    TL;DR – Stardew Valley is unexpectedly enjoyable, which given how many people have said that, shouldn’t have been all that unexpected.

  12. michelle174 says:

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  13. Unsheep says:

    Its great you took the step to try something new, I’ve been there many times myself, I’ve been just as ignorant.

    Trying games for yourself – blocking out what mainstream media and mainstream gamers are saying – is always the best cure for ignorance, as they are the main sources and instigators of it.

    Maybe now you also understand why so many people enjoy other sports games, the thrill and excitement you experienced in Rocket League is the same as those experienced by fans of PES, NHL, Madden and so on.

    Maybe now you also understand why people love simulation games and strategic city-builders. In other words, maybe you’ve grown more empathy, becoming a more tolerant and open-minded person.

    There’s also the tangible benefits of finding new genres or sub-genres to enjoy, in that you now have even more games to choose from. Suddenly each year of gaming actually becomes a good year, as you can enjoy more of the games that are being released in the year.

    The people who complain about “bad years in gaming” are those with the most narrow taste and selection in games. The ones most ignorant and close-minded.

    So good for you, is what I’m saying.

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  15. RaveTurned says:

    While all the screenshots you see of Factorio have these tangled messes of belts and tunnels and pipes taking taking who-knows-what to who-knows-where, when you play it yourself you start of with just open space, some ores, and maybe some trees. All the belts and furnaces and whatever else are placed there by you for a purpose, so you know what each line is doing at the point where you place them. By the time you get to anything like those crazy screenshots you’ll have a much better idea of what it’s all doing than someone who’s just looking at it for the first time.

    Of course, you do have moments where some complex production line that you were planning to improve later has stopped working, and as you look at it you realise you have no idea how you made it work the first time and have to figure it all out again… but that’s part of the fun! :)