Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
It seems like fun. That’s how they get you.
Let’s say you’ve played games for a very long time and have tried almost everything. You’ve been a girl surviving in a sadistic testing facility. A young boy flinging nukes of psychic love at dogs and hippies. You’ve dodged the advances of a pyramid-headed figment of your inadequacies. RPGs requiring heavy story investment reap the biggest rewards. The twisting storylines of Baldur’s Gate II and Planescape: Torment coruscated into your consciousness and ignited your imagination. You feel confident, infinite. Between the lines of these virtual stories, you are boundless. However, you owe these games back what they delivered to you. After 60 hours of shuttling across Sigil’s pan-dimensional doorways, you will feel like never going there again. Not until after a long time. You feel drained, hollow. You want to relive the euphoria but the temporal and emotional investment scares you. You are not young anymore. Responsibilities have forced you to reshuffle your priorities. Besides, you are not guaranteed to feel the same things. Wonder previously felt might not be evoked at all.
On the other hand, there’s Marvel: Avengers Alliance. It’s also an RPG. Gameplay’s rudimentary turn-based. Vanilla. It also has a kind of story, stretched over its “free to play” frame. The story unfolds like an empty cardboard box—there’s nothing to it, really. Something about space gems that amplify the user’s strength like hand carried steroids. Heroes and villains are vying for a piece of this crystallized wild card to level the gamma-blasted playing field. You play a space gem-doped SHIELD agent who’s matching muscles with the Marvel roster. The storyline’s a slow burn, but the dialogue sparks and shines. From the get-go, there’s already some choice banter between Nick Fury and Iron Man. Between everyone, for that matter. It’s witty and at times, self-aware. A quip thrown, a reference caught. One of Wolverine’s skills is called, “Come at Me, Bub”. She Hulk has one move called “Motion Granite”. She’s a lawyer and also a giant, green strongwoman. Think about it. The characters models are well-drawn and presented in a stark, classy chiaroscuro. Nice touch. A lot of love was put into this game.
[In Quality Control, we discuss our guiltiest pleasures in gaming.]
You say to yourself, “Fine, I’ll give it a try.” Countless hours of grinding aren’t a requirement because you’re given finite energy, a set amount of turns each day. You’re going to approach this casual-like. An hour or so every day? After work? Sure, sounds easy enough. You drop in, use up your energy, and you get out. Things are mellow. Things are smooth. You try to follow the story as it wends a lazy trail around and about the Marvel canon. You laugh at the jokes. You level up. You’re done in an hour and you think, “Oh, this is pretty light.” The narrative and the mechanics aren’t as arcane as your regular RPG. The characters feel familiar and all the exposition is done through clever dialogue. It doesn’t make you stay up all night grinding for materials or hunting for save points. It is pleasant, simple. You just tend to think, oh, what a nice little game.
You go through the following day and you feel great. No weight of permanent character death or impending genocide on your shoulders. And it’s free, too. Well, not entirely. There are some people who pay to win. Wallet Warriors, they’re called. 14 year olds with access to their daddy’s credit card and not his love and attention. They’re dressed to the nines; their armories stocked to the rafters with gold-exclusive content. But whatever; they’re inconsequential. M:AA is still fun. That is what matters. That is what makes you decide to play it again the next night. And the next night. Pretty soon, you’re getting enough Command Points from boss fights to buy your favorite heroes. Nightcrawler, you fuzzy elf! Get in my team for a group hug!
Then PvP season arrives. Teams with 30,000-point attack and defense bonuses completely wreck your shit. Whoever you challenge is a titan. You’ve had enough. You go online and look to forums for advice. Wow, you think, this is a pretty complex game. Soon, you are jettisoned from idyllic Marvel-Pokemon babytown and into the unforgiving crapsack wasteland of turn order, type exploitation, and energy efficiency. Those space gems you ignored in the beginning? You poor fool! They’re important! Of course they are! The adorable warmth you used to regard your She Hulk-Nightcrawler team curdles when you learn of their messy skillset and mediocre stats. Nightcrawler, for the love of Christ. What were you thinking? Pull yourself together! Replace your lineup, re-equip your agent, and replay the same mission ten, twenty, seventy times because it gives you the most amount of CP per run.
You start abbreviating game terms. Time is better spent clicking than talking. Command Points become CP. Ghost Rider, GR. Captain America, cheap goddamned jerkoff who single-handedly concusses your team into submission. You lose again. You try again. It’s getting late and you’re still playing. The work you took home is shoved in a pile at the back of your mind. One more. Just one more PvP fight before you got to sleep.
Goddammit. Invisible Woman is cutting your men down. Playdom should nerf her. No! Critical hits everywhere! No. Wait…yes! Thank you, Storm. Thank you, Protective Shroud. Throw out a Blizzard to mop up aaaand bam. You won. You are fine. Everything is great and the world is beautiful. It is 12:30 AM and you have classes at 6:45. You should shut the PC down.
But you can’t. Not just yet. That last bout leveled up your agent. Your energy’s completely refilled. Okay. That’s okay. 60 energy, 6 fights, 6 minutes. Easy, you can do this. You need 6 minutes to burn up the energy. Then bed. Who knows? You might even get 5 Command Points as a boss roulette reward. That new Quicksilver costume looks good. You want to look good, right?
It is 2:00. Already? The bed is beckoning. Your eyes flutter open and you see that your PvP counter has refreshed. Not yet, bed. You want one more win. You need one more win. One more win and you will validate the effectiveness of your team: Storm-Doctor Strange-Infiltrator Agent. One more win and you will blitz through the codified, cookie-cutter Human Torch-Invisible Woman tandems infecting the metagame. One more win and all the time you have sacrificed will be worth it. All the time you could have spent writing, learning, maintaining friendships, bettering yourself, dealing with your social anxieties and undesirable personality traits, playing video games that can offer you an emotional experience other than frustration and obsession and dependence. One more win—
One more win and you will be happy again.