The Maxis Game Club letters are a short series of letters I wrote back and forth with fellow designer Matt Yang about our video game experiences in 2019. Read the previous letter here.
Is it even possible these days to not feel overwhelmed by the amount of “good” media that we are supposed to consume? With so many outlets and recommendations, I often feel like spending too much time with one game hampers my ability to experience all the great games that I’m not currently playing! Perhaps that’s why, over the past few years, I’ve noticed that I tend to gravitate toward games that allow for satisfying short sessions and have eased away from games that have a long, steep learning curve.
That’s not to say that I can’t spend a lot of time within a game, though I agree that to settle into a game means that it has to give off a feeling of relaxation that I may not have been looking for a few years ago. As much as I love Ape Out and Hades, I can only take the amped up energy of both in small doses, as opposed to taking my time in Baba is You or Wattam or Heaven’s Vault.
To me, it’s not necessarily a lack of lists, but rather a lack of pressure that invites that feeling. It is definitely found in games that have the courage to let the player lead, even if that can make for a feeling of aimlessness at times. I’m reminded of a set of simulator games that aren’t on my top 10 but that I go back to from time to time: House Flipper, Plane Mechanic Simulator, and PC Building Simulator. All three games have simple loops of performing fairly rote, boring tasks, but the ability to make progress at your own pace and the satisfaction of fixing something add together to make an experience that is both calming and confidence-building.
Marrying this kind of low-pressure, low-stakes gameplay along with just a bit of a touching story was enough to propel the Apple Arcade title Assemble with Care to the top three on my list.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk, as promised, at least a bit about Fortnite. As much as it makes me feel like Adam Driver in an SNL skit, 2019 was indeed the year I finally “discovered” Fortnite, which is a high-pressure multiplayer shooter (three things I generally don’t like in my video games!) that somehow makes me feel good when I’m playing it. It combines the list-driven hamster-wheel rewards that motivate me to open and play it often with just enough of a nod toward exploration and personal goal creation. This makes it a Battle Royale game where I often forget that I should be trying to be the last one standing, which is a surprisingly freeing feeling. I expected to dip my toes in to get a quick gauge on this cultural phenomenon, and to realize like I so often have, that it wasn’t really a game for me. But somehow, the more I played it, the more fun I had, and the more I wanted to complete each and every challenge it threw at me.
To circle back, one of the reasons that I come back to Fortnite is because it is a game with a plethora of to-do lists and I want to check off more items on the list. I think the important distinction, though, between a good checklist and a bad checklist is a sense of ownership and a layer of obfuscation. If I can decide what order to check things off in, and if I need to take additional steps to figure out how to even get that check mark on that list, each list item now feels like a tiny puzzle that I am in charge of solving. And solving a bunch of little puzzles to make steady progress toward a clean slate and a job well done? Well, that’ll mean I’m naturally poking and exploring the game along the way, getting to do what I want when I want to.
Before I close this out, I have a question that I’ll kick to you before trying to answer it myself: what do you make of this past decade of gaming? What games of the 2010s will you personally remember or had, in your opinion, the greatest impact on where we are today or where we may go in the future?
Read the next letter here.