Guilt-Gaming and State of Decay 2

It’s summer once again, and once again I feel that strange mix of emotions that comes with being between semesters of work. It’s summer: my favorite season when I was a kid. It meant playing baseball or basketball or football every day, swimming, sleeping as late as I wanted and, of course, no school. That warm glow has never left me, and I still consider it my favorite season, one that I look forward to during the school year when papers are piling up and final deadlines grow ever nearer. I can play video games, read for fun, catch up on movies, sleep as late as I want, I tell myself near the end of every spring semester. And yes, I can do some of those things. But when you’re a woefully underpaid grad student who doesn’t have the privilege to teach over the summer, there is a lot of stress that comes with this particular season. Having to save much of the previous semester’s financial aid because you don’t get paid is probably the biggest, and while I was lucky enough to snag a short-term job this summer, I also take my PhD comprehensive exams in August, so this summer has been far from the carefree break that I so miss from my childhood.

I have, however, allowed myself lots of time for video games. Gorging yourself on games over a break can sometimes come with its own sense of guilt, though. Should I really be spending so much time on this? Shouldn’t I be doing something, I dunno, more productive? Are people secretly judging me? Or would they, if they knew how much I was actually gaming? Sometimes these kinds of thoughts are active and present in my mind, but often they sort of sit beneath the surface, manifesting themselves as just an odd sense of sadness or anxiety. And, while these feelings have been popping up as I’ve recently been playing games like God of War and Undertale, I didn’t really feel them when I was playing State of Decay 2.

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Credit: https://www.windowscentral.com/state-of-decay-2-review

The reason this was so surprising to me is that I have a lot of problems with State of Decay 2. Or, I should say, State of Decay 2 has a lot of problems. I didn’t play the first game, but the premise sounded like lots of fun and a close friend was going to be buying and playing it, so I figured I’d give it a shot. It is a shockingly ugly game. I’m not just talking about the design elements, I mean the textures, lighting, modelling, almost everything is very rough, which makes the fact that the game has lots of issues with bugs, loading, and pop-in that much more frustrating. I would have thought they were trading detailed graphics for smooth loading, but that is not the case. Character movements are janky, combat is spotty, and driving is horrendous. These issues are compounded when playing online, even with just two people. I found myself being attacked by invisible zombies, crashing my car into invisible walls, and getting my character stuck in the road beneath a vehicle, all after the gigantic 20Gb patch that was supposed to fix many of those issues — a patch which broke the single player game for me, not allowing me to play at all unless I’m invited to a multiplayer session. The game also feels very game-y, with zombies constantly spawning so that it never feels like a real world with real consequence to your in-game actions. Conveniently enough for the game, there just happens to be a zombie every fifteen yards or so, robbing players of the fear that comes with exploring the unknown, because you always know what to expect after you recognize the obvious patterns.

Yet I played. And played. And played. I finished a single player campaign and despite my many, many complaints, I won’t deny that I had fun doing it. Why? Why did I even keep playing after the first handful of glaring bugs? If I am prone to feeling guilt when playing games that I love, like Civilization Revolution, during the summer, why would I spend so much time playing a game that frustrates the hell out of me, and why did it feel so rewarding doing it?

I think the answer lies in a sense of accomplishment, of working toward something systematically and being good at it. The rewarding sense of skillfully executing a carefully planned campaign. There was a lot to do when I started playing. I needed to make my people happier, collect specific resources to keep them happy enough to stick around, find a new base, clear out plague hearts, recruit new people with skills that would allow me to build new facilities that my new base needed, find and claim useful outposts, help outside factions when I could, and more. It was a lot, but the challenge gave my mind a multi-layered problem to solve. I didn’t have that when playing God of War, Undertale, Life is Strange: Before the Storm, or even Civilization Revolution. When I think back, I had a very similar feeling with Stardew Valley. I began playing that game right in the middle of the fall semester, which was not a smart time to start a game that is known to steal lots of hours of lots of days. And I did indeed play a lot of it. Like, just as much time as I spent playing Breath of the Wild. But it didn’t feel like a waste of time or a guilty pursuit, despite having lots of work to do around my play sessions.

I suspect these two games have that in common. On the surface, they certainly seem like games that would add to stress and anxiety, because you have to think carefully about the future and make lots of important decisions that will affect that future. But for some reason it has the opposite effect. I won’t say that playing State of Decay 2 was calming, but it certainly kept some familiar real-world feelings of guilt and anxiety at bay. So, as much as I hated it, it was an interesting, enlightening, and dare I say ‘fun’ experience.

My Favorite Games of 2017

It’s not much of a stretch to say that 2017 was among the best in history for video game releases. Hell, if it weren’t for Chrono Trigger and EarthBound both releasing in 1995, this year might have been the (personal) best year in my nearly thirty years of gaming. I love revisiting the memories I’ve had with games at the end of each year, but this year was particularly fun. Here are my Favorite Fifteen™ of this year.

15. Cosmic Star Heroine

This was another game ‘in the vein of Chrono Trigger’ that ended up not being very much like Chrono Trigger, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun. It wasn’t deep, exactly, but it was easy to get into and had some fun characters and cute dialogue. I wouldn’t mind a steady flow of these kinds of simple, short, low-priced RPGs.

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14. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

I don’t normally care for mobile games, but come on: it’s freaking Animal Crossing. While I would have loved for a more fully featured AC game, I still spend at least an hour playing this game every single day. Plus, its lack of depth gives me hope that Nintendo is still planning on a heftier game for the Switch. But as it is, it’s still got some of that classic Animal Crossing magic. Now, instead of decorating my basement to look like a creepy murder-hole, I do it with my camper. See? Magic.

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13. Star Trek: Bridge Crew

Star Trek: Bridge Crew is like a slice of my dream Star Trek game, which would be a BioWare-esque RPG where you actually go through your last year at Starfleet Academy, graduate, get your first starship and then begin your journey through the stars. I don’t know that we’ll ever see that game, because it seems like licensing costs prevent publishers from having the will to throw enough money at a studio to do the series justice, but this game is an exciting enough sliver. Giving commands from the captain’s chair is exciting, but when you’re in a really tight spot and you jump to the engineer’s station to reroute power, then shove the helmsman aside to jump to warp, and end up back in the captain’s chair to drop shields and go stealth? Pretty awesome.

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12. Star Wars Battlefront II

I was a little upset by how the whole microtransaction debacle prevented reviewers from judging this game from an objective critical distance, but after playing it for a while I could see why they couldn’t. It’s not the money part of it that was constantly nagging at me, distracting me from the game, it was the progression system. I’m still playing it, and it’s still hard to be excited about unlocking things because I know it’s going to take forever and I’ll probably stop playing before I get all of the things that I want. That aside, I can’t deny that I love playing the game – it’s hard not to, being such a big Star Wars fan and being able to fly Darth Maul’s Scimitar over a Separatist battleship, hop around Tattooine as a jumptrooper, or just stand around and exist as Rey. The gameplay is frantic and fun, and I smile almost every single time I’m playing as a droid and I drop a turret, only to hear my character say “good luck, turret!”

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11. Mass Effect Andromeda

While this wasn’t the leap ahead for the series that I was hoping, it was more Mass Effect, which I will probably never complain about. Jumping from planet to planet, navigating relationships with smugglers, traders, and pirates, and (most importantly) wooing a certain spunky, blue teammate, made this adventure worthwhile. I’d have loved for a better villain and more engrossing plot, but I sincerely hope that BioWare doesn’t completely abandon the series. I mean, unless they go back to single-player Knights of the Old Republic games. A fair trade, I’d say.

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10. Everybody’s Golf

More like Everybody’s Gold, am I right? Eh? Eh? No one? Anyway, I was totally shocked by how much I liked this game. I seem to go through phases with sports games, where I buy a new game in each genre every three or four years and get really into it, so I was about due. For me, golf games have to feel right. If the wind doesn’t affect the ball in a realistic way, or my ball bounces oddly, or slopes don’t change the trajectory of the roll like they should, the game just feels wrong. Everybody’s Golf feels very right, though, and I found myself spending a lot of my dwindling mid-semester free time playing hole after hole, hoping to unlock more courses to play with my friend. Good times were had by all.

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9. What Remains of Edith Finch

Between this and Gone Home, I’m starting to think I just have a thing for walking around big, empty houses and looking through people’s drawers. But what drew me into Gone Home, in part, was the relative mundanity of the house. It was so normal that I found myself appreciating the care that went into making it look like a family had really lived there. In What Remains of Edith Finch I found myself appreciating the care that went into making it look like Tim Burton’s grandmother had once married Dr. Seuss’s grandfather and this is where that family lived. These games are all about detail, about how every bookshelf and stray magazine subtly contributes to the narrative, and this game in particular had so much color and quirk in its nooks and crannies. The overt nod to classic Tales from the Crypt comics also made me way more excited than it should have.

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8. Assassin’s Creed Origins

I don’t know that any game, Assassin’s Creed or otherwise, will give me the same kind of wave-breaking, swash-buckling, booty-plundering thrill that Black Flag did, but Origins was its own kind of special. Yes, the pyramids and deserts and landscapes were beautiful, and the combat was (eventually) satisfying. But what this game did better than any other in the series (that I’ve played) was make its characters seem human and make me care about them. I found myself so impressed by how Bayek changed his demeanor and tone depending on who he was talking to that I plan on writing more on it at some point, but for now I’ll just say that it made him so much more believable and memorable than any other lead character in the series (sorry, Evie, love). That made every mission and story beat that much more meaningful and worthwhile, and I hope they carry that lesson into future games.

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7. Emily is Away Too

Man. Emily is Away Too made me feel more feels in a shorter span than probably any game on this list. I spent a lot of time on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) in my late teens, and a fair proportion of that time was spent flirting (very badly) with girls and wondering if they were flirting back. So this game was not only nostalgic in its interface, but it also did such a good job of capturing the kind of hesitant excitement that came with every winky emote or exchange of favorite bands. Where the first game, Emily is Away, took that and added a cruel twist, this game allows you to actually experience the joy of genuine connection, despite it being completely artificial. And I really loved that.

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6. Injustice 2

I played a lot of fighting games this year, but almost every single one disappointed me on some level. Injustice 2 was easily the exception, blowing away even its predecessor in depth, beauty, and fun. Every character was fun to play in this game, and for the first time in years I found myself looking forward to playing through each of their individual story/arcade modes. The main story mode was just as bizarre but immersive as the first game, but the cinematics were just gorgeous. Speaking of gorgeousness, the character models are stunning in this game, and I couldn’t stop taking screenshots of some of the many awesome characters, like Poison Ivy, Supergirl, and Scarecrow. I played many hours of this game and I still want to go back and play it as I write this. My only wish is that the next Injustice game brings DC’s Blackest Night storyline to the video game world. Zombie Batman versus Star Sapphire Wonder Woman? Yes. Please.

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5. Stardew Valley

“You have to play Stardew Valley,” my friend Tabitha said. Again. And again. For months. I’d put it off long enough, so its release on the Nintendo Switch (which is one reason I’m including it on this list, the other being that it was new to me in 2017) meant that I had run out of excuses. I downloaded it, and after a few hours of playing I thought “well, I guess it’s okay. I’m not sure what the fuss is about, though.” The fuss, Joey-from-a-few-months-ago, is what happens after those first few hours. Stardew Valley is not about the big moments, it’s not about a steady rise and fall of action and drama. It’s a slow, deliberate trek through a subtly touching and immersive town of weird, funny people who are both normal and completely odd. I spent over 170 hours playing Stardew Valley, and I don’t regret a minute of it.

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4. Resident Evil 7

As a Resident Evil fan from the very beginning, I’ve seen the series lose something about what made those first few games on the PlayStation special. I enjoyed Resident Evil 4 and 5, but both were a far cry from the cramped, claustrophobic mansion in the first Resident Evil or the empty and eerily quiet police station of its sequel. Resident Evil 7 captured that atmosphere again, and the fact that it did so in virtual reality is amazing. I wasn’t able to get past the nausea I experienced after the first twenty minutes or so (I didn’t try hard enough, honestly), so I didn’t get to experience it fully, but even without it I felt some of the same intimate terror that the early games evoked. I mentioned my odd penchant for big, old houses earlier, and the designers of this mansion did such a great job of giving each room its own unique brand of gross creepiness. Keeping the player in one general area makes developers put so much more care in the design of that space, and it almost always shows, as it does here. I know the game didn’t do as well financially as some had expected, but I hope that doesn’t dissuade Capcom from making future Resident Evil games in this same gloriously horrific vein.

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3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Simple yet elegant is how I might sum up Breath of the Wild. One of the things I pay attention to in open world games is how dense and varied the topography and foliage is, and at first glance this game might seem to be lacking in that department. But after you start travelling the plains, gliding from mountains, scurrying along cliffs, you begin to see how smoothly everything flows together. That tree is there for a reason. That cluster of rocks is not there by chance. That half-buried statue means something. This Hyrule is not thick with action and activity. It is empty. Lonely. But it has so much life.

Add that to the simple but versatile combat, the beautiful art style, and the low-demand high-reward narrative, and Breath of the Wild ended up being my favorite Zelda game of all time.

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2. Horizon Zero Dawn

Like other games on this list, Horizon Zero Dawn surprised me by how good it was. When Sony used the game as their showpiece for E3 2016, I thought “huh. It looks okay, I guess. I mean, I don’t get why cavepeople are fighting robot dinosaurs, and that seems like a bit of a gimmick, but it looks pretty, I suppose.” Once again, Joey-from-the-past, you were wrong. Breath of the Wild’s open world was indeed beautiful and visually poetic, but Horizon’s world was also gorgeous and extravagantly rich with not only life, but hidden relics of a forgotten world. I love both worlds, but I found myself pausing and just looking a lot more often in this game. I probably spent at least a few hours in photo mode, and that’s no exaggeration. Every moonbeam breaking through lush bushes, glowing machine eye bearing down on me, haze of fog hanging over a thick forest, had me captivated.

It wasn’t just the visuals of this game that won my heart, though. The characters, Aloy especially, were nuanced and subtle, believable and human. The voice acting was top-notch, the sci-fi storytelling was superb, the pacing managed to feel brisk despite being an open world game, and holy hell was the combat satisfying. When I began the game I felt intimidated by how deadly the machines seemed, especially the larger ones, but once I got a handle on dodging and aiming, I began to crave the challenge of a particularly ferocious robo-dino (or dino-robo?). I couldn’t survive by blindly button-mashing or hacking-and-slashing like in some other action RPGs, I had to think about my surroundings, my enemies’ weakness, the tools I had on hand, and the best weapon for the job. It was a deep but not impenetrable combat system, and it’s a big part of why the game became progressively more enjoyable as I ventured into new areas filled with ever-deadly machines. But I’ve said enough, I think. I loved this game. A lot.

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1. Persona 5

Speaking of loving a game a lot, though, hot freaking damn did I love Persona 5. I wrote a whole blog about it not long ago, so I’ll try and keep this short, but this is the kind of game that only comes along once in a great while for me. A game that I think about at random points every few days, without even realizing I’m doing it. I spent something like 360 hours playing it to completion almost three times and yet I sometimes find myself wanting to start it up again. If Atlus releases the screenshot restriction on PS4, in fact, I will almost certainly play it again this coming summer. I love the art style, the fast-paced combat, the characters, the humor, the world… I’m rambling. I probably can’t say it better than I already have in my previous blog, but this game is truly special to me. It’s objectively an incredible game, but subjectively it scratched some internal itch for me that makes it one of my favorite games of all time. I’m a broken record, I know. But I really do love it to death.

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There are two games that don’t qualify for me, because even though Mario Kart 8 DX is new to the Switch, it’s not new to me, and while Final Fantasy XV is new to me, it’s not new to any platform that I played it on (and it was released in 2016). But I mention them because I played a whole lot of both of them in 2017, making it an even more magical year for me as far as video games go.

And I still haven’t played everything 2017 had to offer, unfortunately. I need to finish Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I bought but haven’t gotten around to Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Super Mario Odyssey, and South Park: The Fractured but Whole, and I really want to check out Doki Doki Literature Club! 2017, it seems, is the gift that keeps on giving, and I’m glad to have had the chance to take part in it.