Can you teach an old gamer new tricks? It's something that I've been thinking a lot about lately. Starting a couple of years ago, I noticed I was driving myself nuts with the way I was playing the games that I had been excited about. I've never been a completionist, but I found that when I was hyped for a new release, I would have an irresistible desire to see all the story and complete all the side quests. This compulsion was causing me to complete optional material even when I wasn't enjoying the content itself. It left me wondering why I was torturing myself and whether I could stop falling into this trap.
I first noticed this issue playing Yakuza 5. I adore the Yakuza series; its blend of serious crime drama with wacky side quests has made it a favorite. While Yakuza games aren't the largest open world experiences, it's still possible to get lost in the incredible number of side stories and minigames the games offer. By the time Yakuza 5 released, I was completely hooked on the series and was spending countless hours racing taxis, going to batting cages, doing impromptu dance battles, and completing every side quest that was offered. Halfway through Yakuza 5, I ran face-first into a side quest that stopped me in my tracks. Yakuza 5 allows you to play as Haruka, the oft-abducted adopted daughter of Kazuma Kiryu. At one-point Haruka meets a comedian that needs a partner for a competition. This involves a Manzai act, a traditional style of comedy in Japan where one person plays a straight man and the other is a funny man trading jokes back and forth quickly. In this case, Haruka is playing the straight man and the player must select the correct response quickly. It looks like this in Yakuza 5:
This was an impossible minigame because I suck at rhythm games and, because of subtitles, I was too slow for the fast-paced comedy the game is mimicking. The way for a non-Japanese speaker to complete this quest is to memorize the timing, but I just couldn't get it down. I must have attempted this at least eight or nine times; I was getting mad enough to want to throw the controller across the room before I had the obvious epiphany: quit playing, it's optional you nitwit! Then the tension that had built up trying to complete everything was gone. I was able to relax and enjoy the rest of the game. It's odd that the desire to not miss anything entertaining could lead to a miserable playing experience.
A similar problem cropped up for me earlier this year with Persona 5. In earlier Persona games, I would often just ignore social links that I didn't care for, especially on the first playthrough, and I would typically just skip most side quests completely. In Persona 3, I avoided Fuuka and Kenji — the classmate who had a crush on his teacher — as these were characters I quickly came to loathe. While Persona 4 didn't have any characters I disliked to the same degree, I still prioritized my time away from social links like Eri and Hisano. Perhaps my memory of the social links that didn't click in earlier games had faded, but all those years of hype for Persona 5 built this burning desire to complete every side quest and max every social link. Combined with the bonuses for completing social links, I had trouble dropping characters like Mishima and Ryuji that I didn't care for. I recognized at the time that I didn't like these characters, but I just kept choosing them when they were available. Not that ditching them would have radically changed my opinion of that game, but with a playtime close to one hundred hours, making it shorter and culling some of the weaker characters couldn't have hurt.
These negative experiences where expectations were influencing the way I played are juxtaposed with some games that I went into without excitement creating the impulse to consume everything, and I ended up enjoying them all the more for it. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a game that I never would have touched if it hadn't been free via PlayStation Plus. I read some positive things about it, but a first-person stealth shooter is the exact opposite of the kind of game I generally enjoy. Since I'm usually terrible at stealth games, I played it on easy and that turned out to be a great decision; allowing me to shoot my way out of most bad situations. I enjoyed the story and aesthetics, as well as being able to customize Jensen to fit my playstyle. It was a game where a lack of expectations allowed me to relax, ignore any side quest that didn't seem entertaining, and I had a fantastic time.
I had a similar experience with Final Fantasy XV. I'm not a big Final Fantasy fan, but I received Final Fantasy XV as a gift and decided to give it a go. Once again, I went with easy difficulty because, though I loved the spectacle, I didn't care to learn the intricacies of the battle system. I quickly bailed on bounty hunts since I wasn't that hooked by the combat, and I ignored most of the other side quests that didn't involve chocobos. Because I wasn't as invested in the Final Fantasy series, I didn't have any hang-ups about enjoying the parts of the game that I liked and ignoring the parts that I didn't care for. This allowed me to unwind and enjoy the road trip with Noctis and company. Honestly, I had more fun playing Final Fantasy XV than Persona 5, and I never would have expected that a year ago.
These contrasting experiences with Final Fantasy XV, Persona 5, and others led me to reevaluate the way I was approaching games. I wanted to avoid getting sucked down the rabbit hole of uninteresting quests that were ruining otherwise good gaming experiences. I decided to make a conscious effort to cut back on side quests, ignore characters I didn't find interesting, be more willing to play games on easy when combat wasn't the draw, and try more games outside my comfort zone. So, how has that been working out? Well, results have been mixed so far.
I recently completed Summon Night 6: Lost Borders and, while I was able to avoid the numerous side maps the game offered, even the concentrating effect of having a review to write wasn't enough to keep me away from optional conversations. Some of my favorite moments from Summon Night 5 occurred in side conversations, but the vast majority in Summon Night 6 were interminably dull.
(Warning: watching more than two minutes of conversation about potatoes may cause drowsiness)
The best way I know to describe my compulsion for reading them was like a gambling addiction. With a slot machine, a person knows that the odds are completely stacked against them, but they pull that lever chasing the high that comes with winning. I quickly understood that side conversations in Summon Night 6 were pointless and boring, but I kept clicking on the next one, chasing the mythical vignette that was going to be hilarious and make up for the mediocrity. Unfortunately, that scene never materialized and all I was left with was a sense of regret at the hours I spent reading about potatoes and other pointless inanity. I suppose I'm fortunate becoming addicted to boring prose doesn't lead to bankruptcy.
Thank goodness, my efforts have borne more fruit with Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana. I'm a huge Falcom fan, and Ys is one of my favorite series. This is the sort of game where I would typically be sucked into doing everything: completing every side quest, maxing every character, exploring every nook and cranny on the map, and chasing the true ending. That's essentially what happened to me with the previous game, Ys: Memories of Celceta. Toward the end of Celceta, I got wrapped up in attempting to complete the exploration and finish all the side quests before the final dungeon. I found that to be a frustrating experience and consequently I never finished the game. I was determined to not let that happen again. This time, I managed to hold fast to my rules. I ignored side quests that I couldn't accomplish while pursuing the main story. I managed to restrain myself from maxing the relationships and when I discovered how many quests remained to receive the true ending, YouTube was my friend. Ys VIII is probably my favorite in the series and the way I played had a large role in that.
It feels awkward, admitting to my own failings publicly, but the fear of missing out on entertaining bits of story in my favorite games was ruining the overall experience. It's an uncomfortable realization that I have weird personality ticks that, if I'm not careful about, can make what's supposed to be entertainment into a source of stress. This isn't the first time I've course corrected with this hobby and I doubt it will be the last. Apparently, I'm the sort of person that needs rules to keep from falling into bad habits. While Summon Night 6 shows I'm still struggling, hopefully being aware of the problem means I won't fall into this self-made trap so often.