Recently, I played through the Mass Effect trilogy again. This was the third time I’ve done so since Mass Effect 3 was released in 2012. Say what you will about the ending of the trilogy; the games are fantastic. The storytelling is the best part, and making decisions along the way, even for the third time in a row, is delightful. But why did I go back to Mass Effect when I have so many other games to play? As a busy adult, I only have so much time to squeeze games into my schedule, and more often than not, I tend to pick smaller experiences that only take me a few hours to play. Games like the Tomb Raider reboot or Firewatch are short enough experiences that I can finish in a reasonable time frame, but also still feel like I got something out of it. Playing through not one, but three Mass Effect games took way more hours than I typically allot for a game experience these days.
Mass Effect isn’t the only one, though. I’ve played through Morrowind and Skyrim again in the last year. I’ve played through Dragon Age Origins more than four or five times. Then there are the shorter retro games that I’ve played countless times. I can’t tell you how many times a year I play through Mega Man 2 or The Legend of Zelda. These aren’t long, but they still could have been time spent playing something new and exciting. Is it just because these are some of my favorite games of all time? Is it just a sense of nostalgia? I think there are a few reasons.
I like going back to familiar games particularly when I’m on full mental capacity. What I mean by that is when my brain has been on overdrive for days or weeks, I just want something I don’t have to give my full attention. I work a pretty mentally demanding job, and oftentimes when I get home, I just want to zone out. If I’m not content to sit on my ass and watch Netflix and still play a game, I’ll pop something in that I know I can enjoy and still finish without too much mental effort. These are the nights when I turn to the Mega Mans or the Zeldas. I take in the graphics, atmosphere, music, and familiar game mechanics as I blast my way through to the end. I feel satisfied but not particularly challenged, and that’s nice.
When I’ve been running on fumes for weeks, I may want to resort to one of those longer experiences like a Morrowind or a Mass Effect. I can get myself lost in a familiar and beautiful world; somewhere where I don’t have to worry about virtual server infrastructure and storage arrays (I work in IT). I drink in the sights, sounds, and story without having to constantly work at figuring out complex puzzles or where to go next.
On the flip side of zoning out and enjoying a game without pushing myself to the limits, I sometimes pop in a game I’m familiar with because I want the challenge. I’m a casual speed runner of The Legend of Zelda and (to a much lesser extent) Mega Man 2. I’m not going to set any world records, but I like to try and shave time off my runs of those games on occasion. I’ve gotten just under one hour on Zelda, and some days I feel like I can do no wrong, and I just want to give it another shot to see if I can get that time even lower.
Adjusting difficulties of those games you’ve mastered can be fun too. For years and years I always played Mega Man 2 on the “Normal” difficulty, but when that just got too easy for me, I started challenging myself to playing on “Difficult”. I’ve gotten to the point where I can almost beat Mega Man 2 on “Difficult” without perishing once. There are also a few other games that I’m pretty damn familiar with that I’ve beaten once or twice that I feel like I could be better at. Legendary Wings is one of those games that I’m not great at, and while I’ve beaten it, I feel like I could try to get it down to a no death run at some point. The point is that I am able to play something familiar that I enjoy and challenge myself without having to learn an entirely new game. This almost goes hand in hand with my previous reason, but I will still blankly play through a Mega Man game without rushing, so it really just all depends on my mood.
Then there is my obsession with the artistic side of games. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back to a game just because I heard something off of it’s soundtrack recently and couldn’t get it out of my head. Donkey Kong Country is a big offender here, as are any Final Fantasy games. Wanting to reexperience stories is also a big reason I’ll go back to a longer game. While I’m largely finished playing the Final Fantasies or other older RPGs due to this reason, the ones that give me more choices to attack the narrative from a different angle keep me coming back. This is a big reason for my multiple playthroughs of Bioware titles like Dragon Age Origins. I love the lore and characters in these games, and being able to go through another time and take part in those things again while still having a slightly different experience is satisfying as hell.
The bottom line is, I love playing REALLY good games, and sometimes I just want to play something I know I’ll enjoy. It’s almost like going to your favorite restaurant where you order the same dish over and over. It’s not that you don’t want to taste a new meal that you may love, you just don’t want to risk wasting your time with something less than awesome when you know the known quantity will get the job done. As much as I want to pick up and play that 60 hour masterpiece game that I’ve never played before, I just don’t want to risk paying for it, playing hours of it, hate it, and never go back to it again. (I’m looking at you Xenoblade Chronicles X.) The flip side to this is that I’m kind of wasting my time in my safe zone when I could be finding that brand new favorite game. I have a huge library of backlogged games that I still need to finish, and I’m playing Super Mario Bros 3 for the bajillionth time. I guess with everything else, you have to find that balance, that happy medium between indulging you nostalgia and your safe gaming picks and venturing into the unknown.