Why I Return To Frustrating Video Games

Since last week, I’ve been reflecting on why I continue to play video games that frustrate me. I was pretty tired when I wrote last week’s post, so it did not initially occur to me that one of the main elements of video games is to present challenges to overcome and while failing to overcome a challenge can be frustrating, video games are usually set up to give you additional opportunities to attempt challenges you’ve failed. As someone who plays video games with a desire for a challenge, a certain amount of frustration goes hand-in-hand with attempting a challenge that actually feels like a challenge. Still, when I think about the moments of frustration in a game that cause me to set it aside, most of the time it has nothing to do with the challenge the game presents and everything to do with my experience as someone attempting to enjoy themselves. Last week’s post included examples of games I’m playing and frustrations that caused me to put the game aside, so I’m going to expand on those for simplicity’s sake.

Dragon’s Dogma is tons of fun, but there are still bugs in the game that occasionally show up and, combined with the lack of clarity about what triggers the game to autosave and the lack of ability to select a specific save (or even view the save before reloading it), this means that when a bug does mess things up for me, I can never be sure where in the game I’m going to be when I reload a save. This doesn’t come up much, since I’m the sort to live with the consequences of my successes or failures, but I’m not going to let myself fail a quest when a bug is what caused me to fail it with no chance for me to prevent it. Which was really two incredibly frustrating thigns back-to-back. A failure outside of my control that shouldn’t have happened followed immediately by the realization that the only way to correct this mistake involved losing half an hour of inventory organization effort in a game that requires you to spend this effort or be punished in exploration and battle. After realizing where my most recent save was despite how much time had passed, I set the game aside and haven’t picked it up since.

In Horizon Forbidden West, one of the closest map-filling spots (the top of a machine the protagonist calls a “tallneck”) in the second major area you unlock is unreachable. You can get to the location easily enough and there’s nothing around there to show that you shouldn’t be there at this time, but there’s nothing around that will allow you to even begin climbing the machine. Given that there had been challenges and puzzles to solve around the other tallnecks I’d already climbed, I spent an hour puzzling around the area, looking for something to start my challenge while fending off the local machines that wanted to kill me. Once it became clear that there was nothing for me to climb, kill, or move that would allow me to start climbing this tall machine, I was about to start climbing local mountains to see if I needed to jump down from further away when the protagonist said that there was no way to climb this machine and that she’d need to come back later. It had been an hour and a half since I spotted the map unlock point and this was the first indication that this was not something I could do until I had unlocked some future ability in this supposedly open-world game. The frustration of this moment, stacking on top of a few other times I’d been trying to do something that seemed possible but actually wasn’t due to some ability I was supposed to unlock later made me set this game aside months ago and play something else instead.

With the pair of Pokémon games, setting them aside was the result of other games coming out. I set aside New Pokémon Snap for Pokémon Legends: Arceus and then set aside Pokémon Legends: Arceus for Horizon Forbidden West. This was made possible by the way that both games require a great deal of repetitive grinding if you’re trying to complete each part of game you encounter, so I had hit a point in each game where I wasn’t really enjoying myself because I had a clear goal that I was struggling to achieve. I’ll own this one a bit more than the others because it was fairly clear from the precedent of past games from the Pokémon franchise and the time I’d already spent on each game that getting through more of the plot would make it easier to pursue those rather grind-oriented goals, but it was still frustrating to have a clear goal that felt acheiveable while knowing that it was going to be made so much easier by completing the plot elements of the game. This is more of a personal frustration, since I would rather not get a pile of unacheivable goals that I can’t actually successfully pursue until I’ve progressed the story. I’d enjoy it more if I didn’t get those goals until when I’m actually capable of completeing them. Or at least some mark that denotes which quests or achievements aren’t meant to be done until after I’ve finished the plot.

While the Pokémon game frustrations have more to do with my personal feelings about the way the games are designed on a fairly micro-level, the frustrations I felt with Horizon Forbidden West and Dragon’s Dogma are issues with the way the games were built. I’m more willing to forgive something that only I have an issue with and I’ve polled my friends, none of whom felt nearly as frustrated as I did by the things I mentioned in the Pokémon games which makes it clear this is a “me” thing. Sure, I’m the person playing the game and things that frustrate me are definitely worth considering when it comes to the way I spend my time, but there’s a vast difference between something that frustrates me because I’m forced to work against my OCD and anxiety and something that frustrates me because I just genuinely don’t enjoy it. If it’s my mental health issues causing me to feel frustrated about something minor, I’m willing to put in the effort to get over that. If it’s not something I enjoy (like the annoyingly self-involved meta plot of Kingdom Hearts 3), I just stop playing the game and basically forget it exists.

I’m even willing to do the work required to get over my frustrations with Dragon’s Dogma. I work in software testing and I know how difficult it can be to track down and solve bugs on something as complex as a video game and given that most of the bugs I’ve run into are weird pathing by NPCs in a game that has extra NPCs that show up or don’t based on your internet connection, the actions of players elsewhere in the world, your place in the overall plot, and your character’s level, I’m willing to acknowledge that sometimes even rock-solid systems mess up if there’s enough stuff happening at once. These problems can be solved of course, this isn’t an excuse for issues that show up in a game, but I’m willing to acknolwedge that I can’t expect perfection and a relatively minor issue most of the time might become a nasty issue in specific circumstances. My frustration is valid, but it is worth acknolwedging that it likely won’t come up again. I’ve learned how much I need to manage my save file to deal with problems like this one, saving is easy to do, and now I should be able to avoid the issue entirely with future similar cases thanks to this experience.

But stuff like Horizon Forbidden West claiming to be an open-world game but not actually being open-world is the sort of thing that makes me question if maybe I should just stay away in the future. Sure, now that I know the game isn’t truly open-world I can go into play sessions with more accurate expectations for my experience, but since the game is still built like an open-world game and the joy I get from it is based primarily in the sorts of things I do in open-world games it might be worth considering spending my time elsewhere. That said, I’ll probably go back to it because I’ve gotten invested in the story and characters, and I want to experience the story they’re telling in video game format rather than looking up a video or reading through the plot. If I run into more stuff that frustrates me like this did, I will probably set it down and not pick it up for a year or two, until I’m out of fun new games and get a craving to revist the world.

Ultimately, though, the reason I go back to games that frustrate me to the point of not enjoying myself is that games, as a medium, are an experience you can enjoy with other people. Any game I can play along with my friends is a game I’ll enjoy, even if its not something I’d ever play by myself (see every MMO ever). And even single-player games ccan be shared experiences, turning something I don’t really enjoy (fixed-position camera Resident Evil games) into a fun-filled filled evening with my friends (watching my ex-roommates play fixed-position camera Resident Evil games). If I don’t enjoy a book, then that’s pretty much it. I can’t really share in the experience of a book the same way I can with a video game. Sure, I could read a book to someone or participate in a book club, but I’m not going to enjoy experiencing the story since we’re all going to have to focus on the book individually to get anything out of it. It requires significant investment into the act of reading the book or listening to someone else read the book that I’m simply not willing to make if I’m not enjoying the book itself.

There’s plenty more I could say about this, about how movies and TV shows can get some of the “group enjoyment” of video games but not all of it, about how talking about books is its own thing entirely centered mostly on the group aspect, and way more that I’ve written a couple different ways and then deleted because it didn’t feel right, but I’m going to stop here. This is long enough. Any longer and I’ll need to figure out how to split this into separate blog posts. Instead, I’ll just revisist this stuff when I feel up for digging into more meta-analysis of my hobbies.

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