For a while now, I’ve been going down the management career path in that elaborate Sims game called “Real Life.” Recently I had the pleasure of applying for and receiving a promotion. Going through the interview process, it was absolutely critical to be simultaneously the most confident person in the room and the most humble. To accomplish this I had to build an artificial image of who I am, and then right before the interview step into that skin — the skin of a person far more talented than I feel I am — and pretend to be the guy who can Get it Done.
And then, once the interviews were done and the decision made, I had to come to terms with the fact that the person inside that GiD skin is still me. Just me. Same old me that did that thing I did before. Only now, everyone is waiting for me to live up to who I said I was, which, let’s be honest, isn’t necessarily easy.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m extremely excited about my new work. Energized daily by the things I hope myself and my team of 40 talented professionals can accomplish. I’m frequently awoken in the middle of the night by a buzz rattling through my body that just wants me to hop up and do … something! But I’m also keenly aware of my limitations, and every now and again, right before an important meeting or discussion with a colleague, I worry that they’re going to find me out. “Hey,” they will say, “you’re not ‘Get it Done’ skin guy; you’re just Sean.” And, they will be right.
Which is why I don’t play games like Demon’s Souls.
Wait! Don’t go. Let me ‘splain.
I have a healthy respect for those who can still find relaxation by being tasked and taxed. I hear people who really love deep and complex strategy games talk about diving in for weeks without even getting close to winning a game in a traditional way. They talk about the small victories, the long slogging march through hell, and how the strife of the journey alone is the prize. And, honestly, I don’t know what the hell they are talking about.
I play video games because that’s one of the easiest ways to create my artificial skin, whatever it is that thing is supposed to be. And GiD guy exists in video games perhaps more clearly than he exists anywhere else. He’s the guy who cleaned up the last seven players in a Counter Strike match. He’s the guy who plays The Who songs on drums at the Expert level in Rock Band. He’s the guy who totally pwns Bronze Leaguers in StarCraft 2. And, yes, all of these accomplishments, such as they are, are totally meaningless constructions of imaginary artifice.
That’s appropriate, because GiD guy is made of the same stuff.
But, because I’ve cultivated this gamer identity, I also can’t learn to enjoy a game where the victory is in losing slightly better than before. After all, I’m playing games as much for a sense of individual empowerment as for anything else. I want to feel good about my accomplishments for the majority of time I’m playing. It feels unhealthy.
The problem is it’s hard to stop being GiD guy. When I am at rest, at play even, I want to still be that guy.
This is part of the reason I loved Portal. Portal makes me feel like the smartest person on the planet. It’s not that Portal is never challenging, but it’s just challenging enough, and even then only briefly and never for too long. Playing Portal, I never have the sense that I might just encounter the unsolvable problem that leads to a shame-filled, slinking, hang-dog, sad-Charlie Brown-music walk to the computer for a GameFAQs check. I get more than enough unsolvable problems everywhere else in my day, thank you very much.
“Yes,” you may say, “but don’t you understand that the ego-inflating vectors of a game like Portal are wholly artificial? They are designed to not be too hard, to make you feel disproportionately smart, to be an illusion of achievement and hollow reinforcement for ultimately having a developer grab your face and turn it toward the answer.” This is a good point. Thank you for describing how I’d like most future game designers to design games for me.
For some of you, I know this is the fork in the road where we must accept that we cannot travel together, that our own personal brands of emotional dysfunction are incompatible. We will shake hands and never look back — you imagining me being carried by sneering imps as my face goes slack, my expression deadens and a thin trickle of saliva escapes from the corner of my mouth as my brain dissolves; me imagining you running pointlessly into wall after wall until finally, bloodied and broken, you are forced to admit that none of it means anything after all.
Come, my imps. GiD guy’s feet are tired.