In the past, some of my favorite aspects of getting a new game were being able to get lost in a new experience, facing new challenges, or being consumed with the element of unknown danger around every corner. The unknown and unknowable of a new game was fresh, enticing, and engaging in a way that playing an old favorite could never be. Yet as the need for hi-speed and the lust of always online caught up with households the world over, enjoying a new game for what it should have been (that is, new) became harder and harder. Whether it was a trip to Gamefaqs or Cheatplanet, a Steam or Xbox Live message from a buddy, or a spoiler found within the pages of an Official Xbox Magazine article (no I did not have a PS3, why do you ask), you were bound to have seen, heard, or read about something that takes the surprise out of what was supposed to be a brand-new experience.
This wasn’t a problem at first, in fact, I was excited that video games were starting to become something accessible and talked about. Before all those then-modern vehicles of communication, video gaming for me existed in isolated pockets of scattered friend groups, passing information and recommendations like a secret society, doing our best to thrive in a world that didn’t know about us and didn’t care. It felt good to finally be out in the open with gaming, and with that openness and sharing of information came a level of preparedness for harder titles that began to interest me as I grew. After all, the entire first half of Dark Souls was incredibly easy after I found out about the over-powered Drake Sword, acquired by dropping down to an out-of-the-way ledge to shoot hundreds of arrows at a dragon’s tail (attached to a dragon reigning terror and fire down on the bridge above). That weapon, coupled with other nuggets of walkthrough information, helped me slog through a very challenging experience before I had the presence of mind to sharpen my skillset and approach the game from a different strategic angle.
But something was happening. With my new-found success due to the Drake Sword, I felt a gnawing feeling growing in the back of my mind. I was starting to become addicted to this pre-cog level of video game knowledge. Instead of acquiring knowledge and tips as a result of having already played a game, I would pick up a new title, rush home, hop on the family PC, and print off pages and pages of juicy walkthrough goodness, poring over it while the game’s title screen music looped near-endlessly. When I finally did hit start to begin and get into the first missions, I was totally prepared for every enemy and item drop, I knew the moveset and strategy to every boss fight, and I knew all the secret paths and dialogue option triggers. Armed with all my knowledge and ability to anticipate every possibility the game could throw my way, I was in control of my gameplay experience. But should I have been?
With this increased level of control, was I actually playing the game, or dictating how the game would play for me? Examining my journey over the course of a few successful game completions that left me ultimately unsatisfied, I see now it was the latter. This continued for some time, and as I accrued more and more of those coveted achievements and found all the rare and hidden ways to extract maximum Gamerscore out of every walkthrough-optimized $60 experience, my love for gaming began to wane. I know now that this because I make a much better game player than I do game decider, I should leave those decisions to the best game-deciders, the developers. At the time, however, I made excuses for my fading passion, saying to myself, “Oh life is just busier now, this is just what it’s like when a childhood passion travels with you into adulthood, you just love it less as time goes on.” I felt that way for a long time.
I don’t know what made me change my ways, but right around finishing my entirely Wiki’d playthrough of Fallout 4, I was looking for a challenge. So, I picked up Dark Souls 3, and I told myself this would be a blind run. No walkthroughs, no Youtube guides, no Wikis. When I first set out on my journey, I was wracked with anxiety. What if I missed a powerful weapon, what if I forgot to check in with an NPC, or forget to bring them a crucial item to secure their aid in an upcoming boss fight? What if I fail to complete the events of the game in perfect sequence, barring me from entry into the super-secret bonus area? I would have to be on my toes, playing at the top of my game to be ready for every twist and turn begging me to get lost, every new challenge, and element of unknown danger around every corner. So, I did. And just like that, I was gaming again. Playing through Dark Souls 3 blind was one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences of my life. I am not fantastically good at Dark Souls 3, I won’t be setting any speedrun records or finding any hidden areas or items unknown to the DS community already. I’m not bragging about my blind run, the only noteworthy thing I accomplished during my playthrough is rediscovering my love for gaming. It’s a win for me, and I am happy, but I realize now that I still have a long way to go. I still have a potion problem.
You see, when I took away the Wikis and walkthroughs, the videos and cheatsheets, I made a mistake. I replaced that addiction to knowledge with another vice, a vice that fills my bags to the brim with consumables and causes any romp through an inventory screen to be filled with anxiety and questioning. I have a hoarding problem, to the point where the choice to spend a speed boost, pop a stamina buff or apply a poison coat to my blade causes me great pause. I never want to spend any of these consumables, because what if after consumption, I’ll need them again!? Once you use it it's gone! What if I don’t find another poison vial and the next boss is weak to poison? I’ll be kicking myself if that’s the case. So I sit, bags full and character un-buffed, refusing to let go of those precious potions and herbs in case of a later need.
In essence, when I cut myself off from meta-knowledge, I cured a symptom. My disease is control, or more specifically, how I react when I don’t have control. By holding on to these consumables I attempt to hold on to control over the game. This control allows me to once again dictate the terms of my gameplay session, by ensuring that I am prepared for every possible outcome the game can throw at me. This leads once again to a scenario where I am not quite playing the game as I am telling the game how it may play me.
So why do I do this? Why can’t I just play a damn game, and not have to worry about controlling everything? Is this a normal human response to video gaming? If so, are there others like me, and what are their stories?