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January 22, 2006

Obsessions and Compulsions

Sideways The Disappointment Artist

Some time ago I watched Sideways on DVD; at the time I hadn't the faintest clue what I would blog about it. Some months later, I happened upon the audiobook version of Jonathan Lethem's collection of essays The Disappointment Artist at the library and eventually it all started to coalesce a bit.

Both of these works have strong elements of obsession. In Sideways, Paul Giamatti's character Miles is obsessed with everything: obsessed with his ex-wife (and her pending remarriage), obsessed with perfecting his novel before he can send it off (and making it more and more like the headache-inspiring tome in The Information), and of course, obsessed with wine, particularly with pinot noir. Certainly, the film is about other things too, and is remarkably funny and fresh; both the director, Alexander Payne, and Paul Giamatti were seriously overlooked by the Academy on this one, with neither of them earning an Oscar nomination for their work here. But when I think back on the film, I remember the central facet of Miles' character being his obsessions, contrasted starkly with his buddy Jack, who appears so laid-back that if he's obsessed about anything, he's obsessed with relaxation. Towards the end of the film, Miles is starting to relax his obsessions, and in so doing, open up his life a little bit.

The Disappointment Artist, which includes an interview with the author in its audio version, presents a series of essays about Lethem's obsessions, which include certain types of music, certain films (including, bizarrely, The Searchers, which gets a full essay here), and comic books, among a few other things. Listening to the book as read by the author gave these obsessions more palpable force, as he still clearly carries these obsessions with him, or at the very least, can clearly remember what it was like to be in their grip.

I thought a long time about this post; I finally gave up on finding exactly the right angle for it and just started writing because I wanted to get something out today, which is the one-year anniversary of this blog. What got me thinking originally about the obsessive elements in these works and the relationship to videogames were a couple of things. The first was the obsessions I was undergoing myself at the time, one of which still grips me: with Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando and with Guitar Hero. The second was my general process of writing this blog, which involves constantly looking ahead to what I'll soon be blogging about, keeping detailed lists of what I read/watched/listened to when, and consultations back to movie reviews and book criticism and what have you. I don't think I'll talk much about this second element, but the first is something that should be familiar to videogamers everywhere.

I've taken a look over my game shelf¹ and thought about the games I can remember there, considering most closely those I've played this year. One very common element through all of these games is the collection/completion elements in them which spur the obsessive in me, who feels a burning need to find all the shines, collect all the figments, discover all the platinum bolts, and perform my absolute best in these games I play. Here's a sampling of just the games I've played at least a time or two in the last year and their corresponding OCD elements:

  • Animal Crossing: Fill the museum with butterflies, dinosaur bones, etc.
  • Ratchet & Clank GC: Platinum bolts, weapons
  • Resident Evil 4: Treasures
  • Psychonauts: Figments, memories, cobwebs, brains, mental baggage
  • God of War: phoenix feathers, unlockables for multiple playthroughs
  • Sly 2: messages in bottles
  • Jade Empire: fighting styles, side-quests
  • Guitar Hero: 5-star performances, multiple levels of difficulty/skill
  • Indigo Prophecy: bonus cards
  • Metroid Prime 2: scans, missile and other power-ups

Now, not every game I played had such elements (a couple notable exceptions being Shadow of the Colossus and Mario Kart Double Dash, which we play obsessively anyway), but it's a pretty overwhelming commonality on my shelf. And you could say that a couple of these above are a bit of a stretch -- Jade Empire's side-quests probably stand out -- but my response to these elements is just as obsessive as with the others, since I'll spend all kinds of time making sure to get every possible side quest in Jade Empire and will be annoyed and frustrated when one escapes me².

There are a number of ways to explain this. One obvious one is to say it's me: that the games I enjoy playing tend to have these sorts of elements to them, and there's just no two ways about it, it's me. I don't think this is the case: I think the list above is indicative of a lot of folks' game shelves in terms of it's obsessive content. Granted, I respond to some of these elements more obsessively than they probably warrant, but they are there to be obsessed over.

Another way to explain it is that game makers are simply trying to include "something for everyone" when they're building their games, and that includes us obsessives out here in gamerland. I don't really think this is the case; I think it's more likely that it's simply ingrained in the culture, and is an easy thing to include in your game to get more time out of it. The recent rise of achievements on Xbox Live via the 360 reinforces this opinion -- now literally every game released for the platform has some sort of OCD element to it.

Regardless of the explanation, I'm going to come right out and give some feedback to my fellow developers on some things I'd like to see in every game which includes these elements. It's probably too late for me to be anything but the obsessive player that I am, but these would at least help me to get through these obsessions a little more quickly.

  • Give me an easily accessible counter. I want to know how I'm doing; I want to know how many things I need to find in your level or area or what have you; I'm completely willing to run all this stuff down, but you need to give me a little help. Sly 2 did a good job of this -- just pressing down on one of the analog sticks would give you an explicit count, at any time, of how many message bottles you had found and how many there were left to find. The original Metroid Prime was rather poor about this -- other than telling you what "percentage" you were through the game, you had no feedback whatsoever how many items were left -- I quit looking for missile powerups when I got to 150 missiles, only to later learn that there were more than 200.
  • Maps are good. It's okay to wait until near the end of the game to give me a map which will help me run these things down, as Ratchet and Clank 2 does, but please provide the option. I spent a good couple of hours in Psychonauts looking for the missing figment on the Napoleon level, nearly making me a candidate for the nuthouse myself. Hey, I'm even willing to spend some in-game cash to get those things; one of the first things I bought in Resident Evil 4 was the map for the treasures.
  • Tell me what good they do, or at least be honest that they gain me nothing. I've been picking up these bonus cards in Indigo Prophecy, having no idea what they're for. Contrast that with the elements in Psychonauts which would lead directly to improved psychic abilities or bonus material such as "the good Chans" that Tim used to always give me a hard time about.
  • Don't make me play through the whole game again, or at least make it easier somehow. God of War breaks this one for me: there's simply no way I'd be able to make it through on super-hard-mode just to watch the movies. It's nice to reward your hard-core players this way, but it leaves me feeling left out in the cold -- I beat your game, why can't I watch the yummy extra content? Ratchet & Clank follows the second half of the rule: you have to go back and play the game some more to get the greatest weapons (though in theory, you could simply play in easy mode for a long long time), but they multiply up your score based on how long you can go without being hit by the enemies, which is generally pretty long.
  • Give me alternative feedback to help me find them. The Sly series is very good about this -- all those message bottles make a little dinging noise. If you listen carefully, you can find them this way, which is great when you've found 99% of them and just need that one more.

And of course, finally, you can think about the last suggestion: don't include them at all, like Shadow of the Colossus, which was one of the most remarkable game experiences I had this year. As with Giamatti's character in Sideways, sometimes you need to let go of your obsessions to grow.

¹My game shelf these days is entirely console titles, since my PC games haven't yet made it out of the boxes they got stowed in when I moved from California. I don't think what I'm discussing here is a purely console-oriented phenomenon by any means, but I haven't exhaustively considered the PC games I've played. (back)
²Most notoriously, there was a closed fist approach quest that I simply couldn't have garnered, but which stayed in my quest log mocking me for almost the whole game. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:44 PM | Comments (4)