Thursday, September 29, 2005

Comfort Gaming

When times are difficult or stressful, many of us look to things that give us comfort against those stresses. Comfort foods are the classic example, but some people do gardening, or yoga, or other activities. I run 5 miles in the dark every morning at 4AM to loosen up my brain and muscles, and I also fall back on some of my favorite video games as a form of stress relief.

In fact, I would say that certain games are like comfort food to me. I call them ‘comfort games’. So what makes a game suitable as a ‘comfort game’? A couple of things are critical – why you play the game and how playing it makes you feel. There is never a bad time to play a comfort game, but there are particular times when you will learn which games are your true ‘friends in times of need’. These are times you don’t really want to talk or need a hug, you just want to be transported somewhere. While there are various games that you can turn to in a certain mood – anger games, humor games, or whatever – a comfort game is something that you actually find relaxing.

Here are the three games that I would most characterize as my primary ‘comfort games’.

Jedi Knight II:
This game was a revelation to me. I was certainly not new to gaming – or Star Wars – in 2001, but for some reason things all fell into place. In 2000 I had configured my Toshiba Portege laptop to run the Jedi Knight and Mysteries of the Sith games which was great since I was traveling one week a month. The family had gotten me the VHS of ‘Episode I’ the day it came out, and I had been keeping an eye out for information on the upcoming ‘Obi-Wan’ PC game. By the time the Obi-Wan game got cancelled and Jedi Knight II was announced, I was fully engaged. It looked exactly like something I wanted to play, and for the next year I gobbled up whatever information I could get. When it was released, I had to stay away for a few days – because my birthday was 7 days after release and I decided to let my family get it for me.

That night, I installed it and just wanted to try it out ... and four hours later I needed to rip myself away to get some sleep. I played the heck out of that game until I finished. And, by the time I finished I realized it was my favorite game ever. Not the 'new infatuation' type, but the real thing. Something had happened when I was playing ... the early areas recaptured my Dark Forces love like an homage, and the Yavin Training section was just a catharsis unlike any other in all of gaming for me. By the time I reached Yavin again, I was totally immersed in the experience and anticipating my next run through the game. And that happened immediately after I finished. Then again after that, and again, and so on.

And each time I play, I am immersed in the characters, the world, the fantasy of the Star Wars universe as a Jedi. Each time I get to Yavin I get goosebumps going through the training. Each time I reach the Doombringer I am totally relaxed facing waves of Stormtroopers and Reborn and Shadowtroopers. And each time I reach the final battle level I rejoice in the glorious music from Return of the Jedi. Indeed the game has brought special love to many themes I had previously glossed over, such as 'Lando's Palace'. I am not blind to the many flaws in the game, nor have I ever been. It is just that - for me - the game is totally transcendent. It captures the right experience in the right way and just totally connects with me in a way that a game never has before or since. And in doing so has become my ultimate comfort game - guaranteed to take me to another place in which I am relaxed and comfortable and thoroughly enjoying the experience.

Gothic 2: It is interesting that a game that ‘gave me the smack down’ at first has become a comfort game. After ‘getting into’ RPG’s through Neverwinter Nights on the Mac, and then playing Knights of the Old Republic on the PC and picking up Baldur’s Gate 2 and the expansion for the Mac, my next RPG was Gothic 2. This is a game that doesn’t wait around for you to get your act together – if you stray from the path early on you will die a quick and painful death.

Yet as I played it, I became very engrained in how the game 'does things'. Perhaps it was the music that drew me in, perhaps the easy style of the protagonist. Maybe it was the lively towns and interesting characters. Whatever it was, I was hooked. The game can get really hard at times, and is unsympathetic to you getting yourself in trouble. Yet I find it a pure pleasure to play, and have completed it several times despite the 60+ hour length. Why? It is a compelling world in which to role-play. You are not given a choice as to who you are, but you are given almost total freedom on how to accomplish things and live life in the world. Combined with everything else, Gothic II remains one of my favorite games and one that I can just slip into and lavish in.

As I was writing this, I learned that 'Gothic 2 Gold' is coming, which will include the 'Night of the Raven' expansion. Can't wait!

Soldier of Fortune II:
This certainly didn't start as a comfort game. There is tense action that will tear you apart throughout the game, the story is droll, the characters hackneyed, and it plays almost exactly the same each time. Yet it has become one of my favorite and most replayed games. Why is that? Quite simple - because of how it feels. It is a nice, solid but simple shooter, but the weapons and locational damage system remain unmatched to this day. While newer games may have more realistic looking and sounding weapons, they all tend to use the 'meatbag' approach to hit damage - you are a generic mass that absorbs damage uniformly, except for your head. SoFII did a wonderful job of making your shots feel like they mattered, and given the weapons you got (particularly the overpowered shotgun!) and the satisfying blood-gurgle as you popped someone's skull with a head-shot, it is a glorious game to replay. And because it is easy to become very familiar with the game, you can work out strategies to taking out areas of enemies in different ways. Very satisfying game, and since I have become very good at it, just a relaxing way to while away an hour here or there.

So how do you predict whether a game will be a comfort game? Who knows?!? I have a hard enough time determining whether or not I'll like a game, and if I do like it I have a hard time figuring out whether it will become a 'replay favorite', or just a fun diversion I only play once or twice. Finding a comfort game takes time and patience. But in the end they can be the most rewarding gaming experiences of your life.

What are your comfort games?

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