Fantasy Life, a lesson in existentalism

When you pick up a book, there’s a finite number of pages before the end. When you watch a movie, there’s a limited amount of minutes before the credits roll. But when you play a video game things are different. How long the experience lasts is not strictly predetermined, there’s an element of choice: your choice.

In the recent Hyrule Warriors for Wii U, to complete the main story, called “Legend Mode,” and watch the credits, the playtime is roughly a mere 10 hours. However, players who really invest in the game will tell you there are hundreds of hours to be found in “Adventure Mode.”

Similarly, the new 3DS title Fantasy Life has a plot that can be completed in roughly 20 hours, if you stick with just one of the game’s 12 jobs, called “lives.” But where’s the fun in that? Fantasy Life is a much more fulfilling game when you live a little by trying all 12 different lifestyles. The experience is fuller when you try everything on offer.

The way of our modern society is for everything to be fast-paced and it’s a mindframe many of us have succumbed to. As the cliché goes, we set our sights on the destination and not the journey. We can be too focused on the goal to notice the ball coming our way.

As an adult gamer, playtime risks becoming about the ending. In a busy life games become another thing to conquer and shelve before moving on to the next one. We can forget to relax and enjoy the experience. We think of it as something to get done, forgetting it’s actually our leisure time.

I can remember my childhood of modest means, where adding a new video game to my collection was a rarity, something gifted on special occasions by my parents. Back in those days the worlds of
Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, or Banjo Kazooie and Tooie, even Conker’s Bad Fur Day, they were game worlds that immersed and occupied me for years each.

Fishing at the pond in Ocarina of TimeAs a kid growing up in the ‘90s with Ocarina of Time, if you got stuck in a dungeon, then you would go fishing at the pond or explore for grottos. Like life, you’d keep living in the world while figuring out your problems.

It’s not the way of the world anymore. In adulthood you have an income and you can buy every game that catches your eye, not just choose one every six months. Nowadays gamers don’t explore for weeks or do quests when they’re stuck in the main story; they look up a guide on their smartphone without ever leaving the couch.

Popular franchises like
Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros. base their appeal on living in the thrill of the current race or battle. Their endgame is endless enjoyment in the present, but once a story narrative is added to a game we lose sight of the present for the end. The joy of the experience is lost for the sense of accomplishment.

Between our busy schedules we all too often want something with a beginning and an end. A path we progress along and always know where we are. The
Mario Karts of gaming try to get us out of this enjoyment-defeating pattern, but even then we create goals such as earning all the gold cups before we shelve it and move on.

When you do reach the end of a challenging game there is both a sense of achievement and satisfaction, but also a sombre melancholy that you’ve left the world and the journey is over. There truly is no going back once you go beyond the point of no return. It’s like seeing an engrossing fantasy film at the cinemas, only to then leave and find yourself back in our ordinarily mundane world.

Toni Fellela, in his essay “Link’s Search for Meaning” in the book “The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy” discusses his habit of never completing Legend of Zelda games due to an unwillingness to end the experience. He writes:

“What gives the game its thrill for me is not some end-game payload of killing the big bad guy; it’s the super-involved and detailed process that took me there. I derive a sort of existential joy from collecting the heart pieces, getting letters, giving letters . . . finding free lantern oil.”

Living in the moment: Mario Kart 8!Those of us who put the focus on completing the gaming experience as quickly as possible miss out on something special, something more important: the experience. If there is one ultimate lesson from gaming applicable to life, it is the nature of human existence as a continuum, a continuous experience, not disparate goals.

We think of games in terms such as the first dungeon, the final collectible, or level 40. We focus on the milestones, not the miles getting there. We forget the experience, which is really what we’re there for isn’t it? In life we can focus too much on the goal of attaining our degree instead of actually enjoying our university years. We focus on our goals of marriage and children more than appreciating the relationship itself.

In games we also focus so much on the current objective that we often don’t stop to appreciate the design effort of that town or landscape, or to do some side-quests. Gaming can be an expensive hobby, but by living in the experience of the game you stretch every dollar for more valuable gametime.

Life and games are much more enjoyable when you cherish the experience and make it last. When the credits roll and the game is shelved, the joy of existing is over. This freedom to determine the length of your existence within the gaming world is a unique feature of the video game medium. Once the adventure begins, you choose when the journey ends, not a predetermined amount of minutes or pages.

In games and in life, every experience can only last so long. Why rush them?

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