Anatomy of an All-Nighter
That time you stayed up all night playing a game — the all-nighter — it's a common practice among gamers of all stripes. Observed from the outside, all-nighters can look ugly, often tendered as Exhibit A by the plaintiff in Responsibilities v. Gamer. Conversely, in discussions about what makes a game great, they are often cited to illustrate how compelling, immersive, engaging and other buzzwords a game can be.
For many in the GWJ community whose circumstances lean towards the "-woodge" side of the acronym, the all-nighter is one of the few viable ways to find time for gaming that don't involve incurring some form of injury or disease — that is, until I can convince my employer that sitting at my PC with a controller and headset yelling "BAM! EAT IT!" is work-related.
Despite the all-nighter being a go-to gaming gambit, the critics have a point. All-nighters are mentally and physically gruelling. We can often push a session too far, such that we are severely debuffed upon return to the mundane, non-gaming aspects of our lives. Like democracy, the all-nighter isn't perfect, but often it is merely the least worst option for squeezing in some gaming time. At least it appears that way when we start out.
Relax, folks. I'm not here to judge you, wring my hands or pose rhetorical questions. This is a safe space. I just want to float a theory: Every all-nighter, regardless of the game or the player, is fundamentally the same. They all contain the same basic stages. (My research is based on extensive field testing, but a singularly small sample group, so consider this a form of peer review.)
Here are the 5 stages of the all-nighter. Each stage is named after a soldier ability in XCOM, because that's the kind of flair that gets you noticed.
1. Bring Em On
The night is young, everything is possible. The fridge is full, pizza is on the way. Excitement crackles in the air — and not just because you can turn your sound system up.
Often this stage coincides with the joy of starting a new game, or a new campaign; the prompt for the all-nighter in the first place.
You have a deep appreciation for every aspect of the game you are playing. The publisher's splash screen makes you fist-pump. You are super-excited about camera effects, about how the water looks. Simply being in the gameworld gives you a "shopping-bag-in-American-Beauty" moment.
During this phase, you take a "stop and smell the flowers" approach to your game: you don't mind downloading the system update, grinding, scanning planets, redoing a dungeon, or actually picking flowers. You read every book, talk to every townsperson, watch every cutscene, pursue every trophy. You feel a profound gratitude towards the wonderful game designers, who included so much wonderful STUFF for you to DO. You tip the pizza delivery person $20.
Testimonial: "Sure, I'll try the Fight Night Champion campaign on Legacy Mode. First, I have to get the colour of my shorts just right. Then perhaps I should do all 27 of the tutorials. Wow, look at those punching bag physics."
2. In the Zone
This is the sweet spot. You've been gaming a few hours, and it's awesome. Normally about now you'd be thinking about bed, but not tonight. You're in for the long haul and loving every minute of it. This is what gaming used to be like, in the good old days, when you were actually 6 and had no consoles. Time for another beer/soda/bag of chips.
You have pushed past tutorials, training missions and early levels. You feel a warm inner glow emanating from your core. It's probably the food and beverages, but you tell yourself it's the beginnings of a sense of mastery of the game, that you've calculated the gradient of the learning curve and now you're doing ollies off of it.
Given your progress, you estimate that at this rate, there'll be no problem knocking off the rest before bed. Maybe you'll even have time to start another game. There's so much time left.
Testimonial: "I can see why people find [game] annoying, but once you push through the first 5 hours, it really opens up."
3. Will to Survive
This stage begins the moment you look up and notice the clock has skipped forward 2 hours when it only felt like 15 minutes.
It dawns on you that soon it literally will dawn on you. The formerly boundless horizons of time have contracted sharply into a specific point. There will be an end to this session and you must adjust your expectations, usually downwards. Gamewise, you've still got such a long way to go.
With clenched jaw, you decide: I'll just push on through this level, finish this questline, get to the next area. Your determination releases a hidden packet of energy from a gland somewhere. You inhale, and carry on.
Testimonial: "I defy thee, Giant Water Horse with Crab's Legs and Lightning Attack coming from Eyes. You will fall ere morn."
This is the strange witching hour when you and the Wall get acquainted.
Your body has commenced the boring part of metabolising all that alcohol, sugar, caffeine, corn dust and god knows what else. Mental acuity drops as your kidneys and liver divert power from your brain.
You hunch. You squint. You drool. Your hands feel like a packet of dutch almond fingers. A muscle twinges in the side of your neck. Errors creep into your play. Combos get sloppy. Things take inexplicably longer than usual. You walk into a room and forget why.
You're on autopilot, operating largely on muscle memory. In terms of game progress, you're shuffling along like Cliff Young.
Many players drop off at this stage, especially if playing a game with long loading screens. Most of us push through because we know that once we go to sleep, our precious gaming time will be over for the foreseeable.
During this stage I once got lost in a corridor in Skyrim for 45 minutes.
Testimonial: "I can't jump. Why can't I jump? I can't move either. Am I paralysed? How do I get rid of paralysis? I can't access my inventory. I need to consult a walkthrough. Nup, no answers. Geez, the stupid game's broken. I'm going to send an angry email to the publisher demanding an instant patch or a full refund! Oh ... my controller's run out of charge."
Your face hurts from snarling at the tweeting birds. A neighbour bustles and whistles: who the hell is ever that goddamn happy? Then the leafblower starts. The revving roar hits you behind your eyes. Now you know how Trotsky felt.
The screen blurs, coalesces. 9 times out of 10 it says "YOU ARE DEAD." The other time, it's just plain frozen up.
Every molecule in your body says one thing over and over: bed.
You stumble down the hallway. Your thumb feels like a remaindered peach, or your left hand has atrophied into the Wasdy Claw.
As you fall into the bed, you think "They were right. Everyone was right. Never again."
Testimonial: "Yay, games?"