Computer Games — Escapism or Additional Emotional Pillar?

Sometimes when I reflect back on all the beer I drink I feel ashamed. Then I look into the glass and think about the workers in the brewery and all of their hopes and dreams. If I didn’t drink this beer, they might be out of work and their dreams would be shattered. Then I say to myself, it is better that I drink this beer and let their dreams come true than be selfish and worry about my liver.
Jack Handey

The following quote:

“They don’t have movies where you come from, do they?”
“We had something similar a few hundred years ago, but they lost their appeal when people discovered their real lives were more interesting.”
“Still, it’s nice to take a break from your life now and then, don’t you think?”
Crewman Cutler and Dr. Phlox in “Enterprise”

pretty much sums up my attitude about computer games. No question about it, they can be fun. But just because they are fun does not mean that they are also “good”, for you, for others, or for something.

On the one hand they are an incredible waste of time, distracting from actually making life meaningful, an inconsequential shifting of bits and bytes (although some might disagree on the negative effects of violent games). But on the other hand … they are a bit like lucid dreams. You can live different lives, make experiences you cannot do any other way. And it can function as an additional emotional pillar holding you up, if the other ones (work, private life, creative projects) either fail or you need a break from them. Computer games can get an instant escapism if life gets a bit … stressful.

Given that the later is currently the case for me — and things are likely to go this way for a while, I started to revisit my attitude regarding computer games. I usually watch walkthroughs (with an occasional game here and there), so I’m usually in it for the story. Computer games (still) have more freedom when it comes to story telling than movies (although some ideologically driven social justice warriors do their best at trying to “sanitize” them). But given that I needed a pillar that is instantly available when I need a break from work, private life, and creative projects (or they become too stressful), I recently got a PlayStation 4.

Might sound strange, but I wanted a system that is completely separate from my usual infrastructure. The PS4 shares the external screen with my MacBook Pro, but that’s about it. Otherwise it’s separate from my work on my computer, it’s only available at home. In short, playing is like an event, not something I do en passant.

The first game I tried out (= spend a few days playing) was Tomb Raider (2013, in the Definitive Edition from 2014). And waow. It’s been a while since I had these emotions why playing a computer game. Even XCOM was more a strategical planning plus “roll of the dice” anxiety. Slow thinking with the occasional random chance influencing the results. But Tomb Raider was more action and skills — a bit like climbing, when you reach a difficult part. The overall narrative of the story was well structured, so at times the anxiety, deep breaths and concentrating on the next moves felt like walking through a storm. So, yup, a nice break from life and to feel alive — in a different kind of way.

Doesn’t beat other kinds of activities, but when these are not available or you need a break from them — then, yup, it has something. And Tomb Raider is a good game to learn how to use a PS4 controller. I died a lot, but given that the game puts you back into the situation immediately before you made the mistake, that makes it easy to learn from mistakes. And if a “mistake” gets you impaled on a Naginata, one quickly learns wisdom (or at least better hand-eye coordination).

I would include a trailer of the game here, but I haven’t found one that represents how I feel about the game. So I’ve added a small gallery (spoilers!):

The problem with the trailers I’ve seen so far is that the focus is either too much on the back-story or (way) too much on the fighting. Which is actually the about the only real criticism I have about the game. I liked the first 1/4 and the last part much more than the middle of the game. Trying to survive when insane people (and hungry animals) try to kill you made much more sense than the “I’m going to kill you all with my rocket launcher”. Especially given that her health regenerates quickly (what is she, a female Wolverine?) and that of her enemies does not. But the struggle in the beginning with the crossroad events of fighting off wolves or escaping the hunting party. Waow. Likewise the showdown at the end.

So much for gun safety (look for the red dot on the pistol). Click to enlarge.

Otherwise there are only minor points — the characters a bit too stereotypical (soft black guy, white geek boy, etc.) and a few actions a bit … questionable. I mean, really? Taping two rifle mags together “jungle style” in order to quickly change them? So that one bump against anything in that extremely dirty environment will probably cause weapon to jam? And in the end scene, standing on the deck of a ship with the pistol safety off? Yes, it was a traumatic experience on that island, but standing on the metal deck of a ship with a gun that fires when you accidentally touch the trigger?

But otherwise a great game. Beautiful landscapes, gruesome death scenes. Looking forward to more — from time to time.

And yup, the time spend was not productive in the classical sense, but needed to recharge. Ah, and I think I was quite successful the second time around (okay, I admit, I had to look up where to find a couple of things).

Score the second time I played the game. Click to enlarge.


P.S.: Why the quote in the beginning of this posting and not the one from Enterprise as intro quote? I already used the Enterprise quote and regarding the intro quote — playing Tomb Raider reminded me just how much effort and skill goes into games like these. It’s an incredible creative project in itself and it would be really sad to let it go to waste.