Flowers for Algalon
Perhaps you remember reading in school the novel Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. Perhaps instead you at one point saw the old black-and-white movie Charlie. Today’s subject matter is similar to these tales, where a mentally handicapped person is experimented upon to make him a genius, but the results don’t last. The story focuses on how people around the main character, Charlie, treat him and how in his pre- and post-surgery state he understands what’s happening. It’s a hard story to read at times, particularly as he knowingly begins to regress into his former state (and, likely, dies, but it’s left vague).
I’ve recently begun to feel a little like Charlie, though only in my gaming life. I used to really appreciate complex games. I really enjoyed Fire Emblem, a very unforgiving turn-based tactical RPG. I loved the micromanagement in 4x games and would fiddle with each individual city/planet/magic tower each turn. I could spend hours trying to figure out the next puzzle in a point-and-click adventure game, trying to combine items, figure out where to put things, or find other items to pick up.
Now I play Bejeweled and like it.
Of course I wasn’t always like that. As a child I enjoyed Mario as much as the next kid, or Sonic’s super-speed (though I never had a Sega system). My second Nintendo game was Hudson’s Adventure Island, and as simplistic as it was, I played the hell out of it. Wolfenstein 3d, Doom, Duke Nukem: they all entertained me for a long time. But as I came across console RPGs, such as Final Fantasy, 7th Saga, and Dragon Warrior, and soon thereafter came across PC RPGs, such as Might and Magic, Syndicate, and Legacy: Realm of Terror, I knew that platformers and shooters weren’t really what was for me. I enjoyed this more character and story-driven play. I enjoyed making and maximizing my characters. And from there, things just got more and more complicated.
It peaked for me in WoW – Yes – WoW. Hardmode raiding – coordinating large groups of people to do difficult tasks – was the peak of that complexity. You had to know your gearing. You had to know your rotation. You had to know the other raiders’ capabilities. You had to know the fight mechanics. You had to hold so much in your head at once that it really was a challenge, compared to, say, Dragon Age, which was fun, but was only a matter of time until you won, since you could reload again and again and again.
Then something broke, and since then, I’ve been regressing. The complexity – mostly of the social interactivity to be honest – of WoW raiding stopped being attractive. I tried a beautifully complicated and micro-management driven 4x game, Star Ruler, and found it too complicated to get in to. I re-tried Fire Emblem and found it repulsively unforgiving. Even Civ 5, a – to be honest – very simple 4x game, frustrates me to no end when it outperforms me.
So instead of playing WoW seriously or spending hours micromanaging cities or trying to figure out the absolute best move in a tactical RPG, I play Puzzle Quest 2, which is just Bejeweled set in a fantasy RPG, or I level in WoW, or I turn Civ 5 down to King mode (just above normal – call it 6 on a difficulty scale of 10 or so) so there’s no way I’ll lose. I spend time playing, rather than having fun playing. I work to avoid failure instead of chasing success.
I’m not proud of any of this. I’m not particularly happy that I’m turning back into the janitor at the local factory (Flowers for Algernon reference – no offense to janitors). I see it happening, and I try to challenge myself (Star Ruler and Fire Emblem, Round 2, were in the past week), but I just can’t get sold on games like that. I’m not particularly into D3, either, as I think it’s too simple, so I’m not completely done just yet, but I think it’s only a matter of time.
I can be academic about this regression and go with Koster, saying that I’ve mastered all the skills those other game teach and am bored with them. I can be a little self-loathing and say that as I age the increasing complexity is no longer the right kind of thinking for my brain (studies actually show that you don’t get mentally slower with old age, just mentally different. You get better at holistic problems and worse at details.). I can make excuses and say that since my job is so mentally taxing (and figuring out how to teach reading and writing to adults, some of whom have a lot of negative baggage regarding education is both mentally and emotionally taxing). I can lay blame and say that WoW broke me. But none of these things really ring true, at least not wholly. I’m sure some mixture of all of them is what’s at play, but to be honest, even that doesn’t feel right.
The truth is I don’t know what’s changed. I’m planning a correspondence on something that I’m having a hard time titling with a mixture of Gaming and mid-life crisis (Mid-game crisis? That sounds like you start but don’t to finish a game. Game-life crisis? That doesn’t really make sense. This is raptor and rapture all over again) and maybe in exploring that I’ll find out more about this, but I’ve seen the shift happening around us recently, and while not everyone I see changing is regressing, some certainly are. Perhaps the regression is really just a return to our roots, a return to a warm, worn-in comforter. Perhaps it really is some type of degeneration. Who knows?
Stubborn (and aged)