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Or 'The Conveyor Belt'

My favourite era of game-playing:

City of Heroes and World of Warcraft, circa 2005. They were all I cared about for months or maybe years, games whose systems I suspect I understood more than any other, due to sheer time spent with them, and talking about them with friends and allies. I couldn’t realistically play an MMO now, as my affection has been dulled by a time-shortage and by ennui for their grand-scale Skinner boxes, but I am nostalgic for a time where they were my everything. Well-worn records I played over and over, and it felt special every time.

There’d be other games, sure, but they were but fleeting distractions from one ongoing conversation and thought process. Somewhere I’ve got an external hard drive filled with nothing but thousands of screenshots from early WoW. I’d felt I had to record and commemorate every moment. Because I had the time and mental space to.

Even if I weren’t a games critic I’m sure I’d feel overwhelmed today. Do you? Don't you? So many games. So many games.

Back when we started RPS, there were days when we didn’t know what to write about, and that was when we only ran a handful of posts per day anyway. The PC was stuck in a transitional period, still hanging onto discs by its fingernails even as Steam steadily and inevitably recruited more and more publishers to its ranks. A game being an indie game was still something to remark upon, rather than take as a given. Big publishers only cared about Xbox, small devs weren’t great at getting the word out by themselves, Kickstarter would have sounded like a hippy fantasy and Early Access like high cynicism (as, in a few cases, it is). There weren’t many games, so we went pretty deep into much of what we did get, both on the site and in person.

So many games now. You don't want to see our inbox. I don’t begrudge or lament this: to see the PC so vibrant, and to see so many smart people able to put their ideas and talents in front of an audience is nothing but wonderful. To not have days where there's nothing to say is ideal. What I lament is missing out: it’s not possible to play everything, and even what there is time for I’m not able to sit and stew with, long enough to write something that goes a little deeper long after the event. Bar the occasional diary – i.e. ‘when Alec somehow convinces his colleagues that the site would most benefit from him playing one RPG all day, every day for a couple of weeks’ – I churn through games, onto the next one before the last one has had chance to sink into my brain. New cement poured over wet handprints, insights lost before they can fully form.

Add to that the anxiety of not being part of the conversation, of wanting to have common ground with friends and peers, and I find I’m still playing more mainstream fare than ‘indie’ (sarcastic quote marks included because no-one knows what that word even means anymore), depriving myself of the opportunity to experience games which might trigger brand new thoughts. Oh God, give me a clone, give me a sleep machine, give me anything to double my time and double what I can play. Or the opposite. Take all the games away. Let me sit with one for a month or more, let my brain naturally spool analysis and critique about it in idle moments, in the shower, at the dinner table, in conversation about something else, and let me feel like a game is for me, rather than one more title snatched off the infinite conveyor belt. Let me not worry that I’m missing out, let me just take all I can from what’s in front of me.

I’m older now too, of course. Without the responsibilities of a family and a home of my own necessitating so much time away from the screen I feel so comfortable in front of, I’m sure I’d be spending lunchtimes, evenings and weekends with Dota or LOL, Hearthstone or Bloodborne, or even going through Kentucky Route Zero with a fine mental toothcomb. I could be an expert at one thing, rather than (or in addition to) a hopefully thoughtful filtering system for hundreds.

Again: I don't begrudge this. I’m beyond spoilt for choice, but more importantly that means that others, with less traditional (for the games industry, at least) mindsets, lifestyles and tastes, are slowly-slowly being offered any choice at all for the first time. The slow-motion explosion in games for anyone and by anyone is a cultural blessing. I’d never want a return to a time when big publishers owned the schedule, and in turn the entire conversation, but I have to adapt to knowing there are now so many conversations I can’t be a part of, or have to leave early.

I understand all too well why a 30 or 40-something vinyl neophyte returns to expensive and cumbersome nostalgia, because he misses the act of a music purchase feeling special and personal, because he wants something to play over and over again, thrilling in the physical interaction, pulling a little more from the songs each time. He does this even though the MP3 age means he’s exposed to and enjoys so much more music than he once was, that he is in a far more enlightened and diverse era thanks the great leveller that is the internet.

I can't pretend that's not in me too. I do miss the quiet. I miss building one thing up, both before and after the actual experience of it. I’ve seen more new ideas in the last year than in the last 35, but I worry that they’ve all sped past me on that great conveyor belt before I can grab hold of them.

Anyway, now I’m going to go and play The Witcher for three dozen hours. First-world problems.

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