I was discussing playing Birth By Sleep (a Kingdom Hearts game) with an acquaintance of mine while in line at the coffee shop, and he was a little confused. The line was long, so we had time to really compare notes. Some of the things he hates about the game don't bother me, because I don't experience the game as he does.
I don't think it's just a matter of preferences. It also has to do with the context of our play—the other things going on around our consoles.
When he plays, he goes into his mancave, shuts the door and bends all his energy to the task at hand. I'm in the opposite boat—a boat full of kids and fuss. I don't get to hide in a cave. I have to play it right out among 'em. It makes the kids' experience of the game as much a part of it as my own, and it keeps me in range of the slings and arrows of everyday life’s distractions and responsibilities.
I tried to explain it by writing out what a standard evening looks like at my house.
My daughter breezes in the front door while watching a cut-scene in her game of Birth By Sleep, exclaiming, "Geeze, Ventus, you're such a girrrrrrl!" A general giggle ensues, then she and several friends who trooped in the door behind her head off to all points on their own pursuits.
I'm in the kitchen, starting dinner. I find the roaster I want, wash my hands, and start taking the roast out of its package. My daughter sticks her head around the corner into the kitchen asking me where she put that one pink and black skirt she wanted to wear to somewhere earlier but decided against at the last minute.
I think for a moment, and then tell her last I saw it was about 4" down from the summit of Mt. Washmore in the laundry hamper. I turn, thinking to go point it out, but I stop as I come to the squishy realization I have a double-handful of dead cow. She wanders off, somehow navigating the house and everyone in it with her eyes still glued to the screen.
Making sure there are none of those spongy things on the bottom, I put the roast in the pan, wipe the counter and wash my hands. Trumpets sound from my Blackberry. It's the Final Fantasy VI version, which means the work script I was running finished Step 3 of 7. It failed on that yesterday. Go me!
Skirt-houseape repeats request for the location of the skirt very loudly. I repeat the location, including more specific directions by way of her brother's ugly flannel penguin boxers. I ignore sounds of a Kaiju-sized rampage through the hamper as I rummage through the spice cupboard on the hunt for the various spices for the roast.
My son appears in the part of the house where normal people would set up a dining room. He cranks up Rock Band 2 and starts playing "Paranoid." I join in loudly from the kitchen to try to get him somewhere near a key. The landline phone rings. Someone else gets it and hands it through the door to my skirt-hunting daughter who is hopefully putting the laundry back in the hamper.
During a post-song reminder that Paranoid-boy really needs to learn to open his mouth when he sings, I start looking for the lid to match the roaster. My daughter shows up looking like the bottom half of Molly Ringwald, re-affirms her assessment of Ventus and his girly-ness, and hands me my PSP while informing me that it is running out of charge. Then she goes into the living room, loads up the PS3 and starts streaming "Lois and Clark" while still talking on the phone to her friend. With my head in the cupboard, I affirm that Dean Cain is, in fact, smokin' hot. Or at least he was 10 years ago.
The lid to the roaster is at the back of the plate cupboard. Sigh. The houseapes doing dishes always adds a point or so to the degree of difficulty on finding anything.
Count noses to come up with a number (then double it on general principles) and get enough potatoes out. One of the houseape-friends walks into the kitchen with a laptop because her character in some miscellaneous online free RPG-thing can now do something cool. My hands and two potatoes drip into the sink while I watch a low-res cute thing do a new shiny-flashy thing. I point out she could set off the combo a little more effectively by doing this one buff from her other character first, then try to lead her through the menus while trying not to drip on her keyboard. She nods, squees, and heads off to the other room to try it out.
Finish scrubbing potatoes and get them in the oven. While I'm washing my hands yet again, the door flies open and the other son, his friend in the navy, navy-friend's girlfriend and three other people I've never met sweep in. Hugs and introductions get handed around while I'm still holding onto the kitchen towel. I plug in my PSP to charge, balancing it on top of the coffee maker out of the way. The opening cutscene starts to play while the UN meeting in my front hallway is trying to figure out if they're “staying for dinner or what.”
With everything in small chunks, even something as tightly plotted and story-driven as a JRPG goes down pretty easily. Much of the narrative “glue” of the story is awash in all the background noise, so that sort of turgid, overwrought stuff doesn't bug me. It still seems silly, but it has to be REALLY bad for me to get enough of it in one dose for it to start to feel cloying.
The phone rings again. It's another friend of the skirt-houseape, but I can't just hand it off. While the caller’s got me, she wants to know if I think so-and-so likes so-and-so because she practically did a pile-driver with his face into the goal area when they were playing Ultimate Frisbee. I demur and hand off the phone to its intended victim.
The singer in Rock Band area finishes some thumping thing with a Chuck Berry flourish and joins the gang that now fills the entryway and half my kitchen. After a bunch more hugging and yattering, half of the new additions plus the singer sweep out to watch a friend play poker down at the bar. The ones too young to get past the bouncer head to the living room to watch someone demonstrate the gliding mission in Assassin’s Creed 2.
Skirt-houseape hangs up the phone, goes to the Rock Band area, switches disks, and starts hammering on the drums. A couple of the watchers come to join in. I mutter an unladylike word, open the oven door and pull out the potatoes just far enough to sprinkle them with salt and pepper. I forgot to season them before putting them in.
Finally, it’s my turn. I take a sip of coffee, lean against the counter and load my game on the PSP while trying to remember exactly why I'd decided to go back to Enchanted Kingdom last time I got to play. Skirt-houseape hears “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” looping and asks me why I went back there. I point out she's playing “Eight Days a Week” again so she has no room to talk.
Time passes with everything tumbling around like a pile of puppies. The trumpets blare from my Blackberry again as Step 4 gives way to Step 5.
The combat system is driving me nuts. It’s hard for me to manage the buildup in skills over such a long game. The game requires careful progression of skills and memorization of complex command structures to get through the higher difficulty levels. This all enters a whole new realm of annoyance when you basically have to re-learn the game every other day while in the middle of those harder fights.
After some ignominious defeats, I remember the buttons that trigger the D-Link commands again, which raise your chance of victory dramatically since Terra can't heal himself at all at this point but Maleficent and Aqua can. Now that I can survive walking through the area, I earn three levels on Terra and unlock another Finish that is very helpful in making those spinning green things dead.
The flock in living room degenerates from Assassin’s Creed to gabbing and watching something annoying on YouTube.
While a load screen is running, I pull the green beans out of the fridge and start snapping and pulling strings. All the interruptions of cutscenes and load screens are annoying to some, but to me they are natural pauses where I can watch what's going on while doing something else with my hands, a break from the ever-present "Where's the savepoint?" burden. Those pauses let me work the game into my life more easily by allowing me to keep up with other tasks while gaming.
The Rock Band gang is still playing Beatles. They pass a microphone through the window into the kitchen and lean it on the side of the coffee maker so I can help them with the high harmonies and that low bit about the lorry on "You Never Give Me Your Money.”
By the time the song is over the game-load is done, but I'm not ready to get back to it. No problem. The game just sits with my little ship out in space. I put the beans in a bowl while I re-wash the internal parts of the steamer because “I don't know what he washed them with but it certainly wasn't soap.” The Rock Band gang starts giggling, and I realize I muttered loud enough for them to hear. Load the cleaned parts and beans into the steamer, sprinkle with lemon pepper, and start it cooking.
This starts plinking it's way in from the living room when someone decides someone else HAS to hear it. Then they want to try it. I have to explain in the proper voice that, “The Enrichment Center apologizes, but the computer that Mario Paint Composer is installed on is currently involved in Step 5 of 7 and cannot be utilized at this time.” A wave of slot-machine-style eye rolls sloshes all the way to the living room couch. Go me!
It’s time to do final preparations. I send Skirt-houseape out “to give Col. Guile a haircut.” (This is household code for “go trim about 4 inches off the chive plant on the patio.”) I text the gang at the bar that the food’s ready. Now I have 10 minutes to get lost in Radiant Garden because I’m remembering the layout from Kingdom Hearts II. D'oh.
The rest of the gang tromps back in, and that’s the signal for my kitchen to become a solid people-meat object as all hands descend to get plates, silverware, glasses, condiments and etc. ready. I lay out the food and the line forms at the dishwasher.
After making sure everyone has what they need and they're all settled, I remind them all to put their dishes in the sink when they're done, grab the PSP and the charger, and escape to my room. I try to build Terra up into some semblance of functionality while I wait for my phone to blare the opening trumpet voluntary to The Last Starfighter, which heralds the end of Step 5 in my script at work.
Lord, Terra is still slow. Maybe I better grind that level again.
I wrote out this standard evening and showed it to my friend. He couldn't even get through a bare outline without getting lost. He thought it was weird.
It’s not weird to me; it’s the way it’s always been. My experience playing tabletop role-playing games back in junior high involved doing dishes while killing orcs. When I was grown I remember many an evening with my ex husband, our roommate and I handing off Wing Commander or playing Champions while fielding the kids between us. I’m not even sure I could play it my friend’s way. I don’t know what I’d do with myself.
He made me think. I’m not sure I’m ready to draw any conclusions from this. But I do know a lot of people who play games his way—mono-focused and in the mancave—and I do wonder about the barrier created by game design, or even criticism, that only considers his way of playing.