Better Than Life

So, I fucked up. As is my wont. Regular readers will know that fucking up is something that I feel I have a special knack for – though I’m also aware that I probably fuck up just as much as the rest of the population, but just *feel* it more – or even just that I think I do.

Anyway, it was a super-minor fuck-up, simply leaving something on the bus – but it dropped me into that temporary fuck-up fugue state. You know the one where you just feel like being quiet and sleepy and reading poetry and drinking cocoa and listening to the rain on a tin roof?

Except this time, I had all that and I wanted to play Shadowrun Returns.

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Shadowrun Returns

Now Shadowrun Returns, for those not in the know, is an old-style roleplaying video game, converted from an old-style roleplaying game. It’s a perfect simulacrum of Planescape / Baldur’s Gate / Fallout. It just ticks all the boxes that my sad brain wants – an escape route from a stupid world, to one where I have control over my decisions, where I can load after fuck-ups so that they never happened, and where I can decide the sort of character I want to be and how I develop rather than putting up with the outgrowths of damned determinism.

Except that in the game, there’s Better Than Life. It’s a life simulation that’s literally better than life, like In Philip K Dick stories like We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (aka Total Recall). And because it’s better than life, no-one wants to give it up – it’s horribly psychologically addictive, partially because it allows slum-dwellers of the future to escape their grim reality, partially for the reasons that all computer games are addictive, because they’ve dopamine-stimulator factories par excellence.

So in the game I was looking to for solace from my depression at the real world there’s a game that gives solace from the real world. And has exactly the same negative side effects.

Because that’s the thing. Going into Shadowrun doesn’t fix my fuck-up. It doesn’t solve my problems. It doesn’t make them go away when I get out of the game. It just puts them off, and gives your brain a chance to relax – but not to understand, learn, or change.

When Shadowrun was first created, as a tabletop roleplaying game, computer game addiction was a cyberpunk trope, like mobile phones and international computer networks, that sounded cool but probably would never happen, like the predictions of 50s sci-fi writers mostly didn’t happen.

Yet nowadays, with cybercafe deaths and Candy Crush as superb signs of the current state of addiction, BTL seems almost parochial as an SFF prediction, too normal for comment. What, yes, we might get to the point where evil game developers are manipulating people to spend all their time and money in games? That’s happened. And that, to me, is slightly terrifying.

The Money Farm

To the tune of: Money, Money – Cabaret
The Money Farm

Buy a PC Gamer-approved product every day this week and you get reward points. You’ve levelled up, now you’re a PCG Ambassador, so you get a PCG fan kit. Meanwhile, your health insurance is incentivising you to walk as it’s worried about your heart rate, and a tobacco firm is incentivising you not to read The Guardian because of its coverage of cancer risk. You get an achievement from the local council for not giving money to a tramp, and your eyetracking device is giving you bonus points for reading every line of an advert (but not the small print). It’s a nightmare and it’s coming.

What no one is mentioning is a crash, a bubble bursting. There’s a risk that social gaming could collapse overnight. Yet this is unlikely, because the place where it’s based, Facebook, is now so central to our lives. Instead, social gaming is spilling out virally into the world, and its effectiveness in altering our behaviour means it’s soon going to be affecting you in ways you may not even notice.

An excerpt from a feature I wrote for PC Gamer, in the issue on sale now. I’ll put up the uncut version when my contract allows.

Achievements Quandary

Xbox 360 achievements let you get points that total up to mean exactly nothing. Hence, I feel no obligation to play games for achievements and even feel a little disgusted with myself for playing games with achievements. Hence, I don’t want to play Xbox 360 games.

However… I also get a feeling whenever I’m playing a game that doesn’t have achievement points (PC or even Wii) that I’m wasting my time because I could be getting points. No matter that I don’t want to, no matter that I think they’re a worthlessI grinding measurement towards inevitable death, I still get that urge to get them when I’m not playing 360.

I’m finding it almost impossible to play any game for more than an hour at the moment. Help!

360 Hangovers

My face feels like it’s stuck to the pillow, and there’s a ringing in my ears that isn’t just the alarm. I vaguely remember dreaming about fighting a knight in a train, then eating some chokeberries. I drag my head up and the instant headache and scummy mouth is so repugnant, I assume I must have been drinking. I check my pockets and am nicely surprised; a wodge of cash is still there, there’s no outrageous taxi receipts, no ludicrously priced bills for London cocktails or ladies of the night (slightly cheaper than the cocktails, I hear). Thinking some PR must have been buying the drinks, I stumble into the living room, and the TV’s on. A familiar theme tune bangs out, with Patrick Stewart intoning over the top. Everything clears up. Playing Oblivion ’til three again? On a work night? I wish I’d been out drinking…

I shouldn’t be playing this game this much. I know off by heart the locations of every shop in every city, have run over the map for hours on end, just for kicks and yet, a couple of hundred hours in, I’ve still not completed half the quests, am nowhere near completing the main quest and have only just stopped being a vampire (thanks to the Vile Lair download pack). I’ve not only stopped doing the quests, I’ve started making up my own. Taking pictures of the flowers, seeing how high I can get my bounty, making the largest pile of naked dead people in a city square, and endlessly just exploring dungeons, just to see what’s in there. Oh and lots of running away. I speak to the members of the Thieve’s Guild more than I do my family (but, then, my family aren’t so hot at laundering goods.) I’ve wondered about checking into that clinic in Amsterdam to see if I can cure my addiction.

I recognise now that unless I complete all the quests, I’m never going to be able to let this game go. So, thanks to suggestions from friends, I’m now rebuilding my life around getting the game finished. I now do sit-ups whilst watching the screen, nap at work in my lunch-hour to recoup those precious minutes for later play, and have set up a credits system, where an hour of cooking, cleaning or eating bags me an hour fighting gobbos. I’m even aiming to take up smoking when the quests end just so I’ve got a secondary addiction to take over. The only cloud on the horizon is Bethesda; they insist on realising new, addictive downloads every fricking fortnight, and won’t promise me that they’ll stop doing it because they’re making a nice profit out of me.