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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Getting to Know Me

I’m really pushing the limits, this time. The accelerator is all the way down. The RPMs are pegged. I couldn’t get any more power out of her if I wanted it.

My palms sweat with the knowledge that my lead isn’t anywhere near big enough. I can see the runner up in my rear view mirror. There’s one more turn before the checkered flag. I ease off the throttle, feather the handbrake and try to slide into the turn without losing too much speed.

My outside wheels leave the pavement, dropping my speed. My quarterpanel barely grazes the guardrail. My opponent zips by me as if he were on a slot-car track. I take the silver.


I fail to stifle the urge to curse a blue streak while I successfully quash the desire to smash the controller, the console, and the developers responsible for the game into a fine powder. This would be the tenth time I lost on that track. Today. I’ll give it a half dozen more tries before shutting the console down in disgust, but I’ll never come closer to winning the race than I did just now.

In a week, I’ll try again and do worse than today’s worst run because my muscles will have forgotten the skills that got me to that race in the first place.

At some point during this cycle of defeat and rage my wife will ask a question for which I have no answer:

Why do you play these again?

It’s not completely rhetorical, but it’s close. As a gamer herself, she knows the answer to why we play games is enjoyment. But it’s clear that I’m not enjoying the experience now, so why am I bothering?

It’s not like I have this much trouble with other genres. I’m not the best FPS player in the world, but I can hold my own in any single player game out there on normal difficulty. I can handle any platformer out there that I take an interest in, and I used to be almost competitive at fighting games. Beat-em-ups and Shoot-em-ups were my mother’s milk as a gamer, and the infinite permutations of Final Fight and Raiden cost me more quarters than I care to admit.

The racing genre, however, is beyond my skill. Oh, I’m fine early on, but later, when the cars become fast and the AI becomes omnipotent, at my best I still lose every race. No matter how many times I drive a given track, no matter how I try to learn the ins and outs of cornering, no matter how good I think I do on a course, I still take second place at best.

As a wiser robot than I will say, second place is just a fancy word for losing.

So why do I bother with racing games. Well, the short answer is that I don’t anymore.

It was not an easy decision to make. I’m an all or nothing kind of guy (that’s the Danny Rhebus way, after all). To admit that I’m not good at a particular kind of game was tantamount to an admission of being a bad gamer in general. I didn’t want to be one of those ghettoized players that play only Madden sequels or Call of Duty games and pretend that makes them “hardcore gamers.” No sir, if I was going to call myself a gamer of any sort, I had to be good at everything.

This is, I think you’ll agree, a perfectly ridiculous way of viewing the world. In the first place, my ability to enjoy Dwarf Fortress in all its ascii goodness already puts the lie to the notion that I would become one of those bizarre Gamestop denizens with the hair products and expensive girlfriends that bought an Xbox 360 to play Halo 3 but wouldn’t know Gordon Freeman if he walked up to them and broke their noses with a crowbar.

(It’s guys like you that are the reason why we have a billion GTA and God of War clones but no sequel to God Hand. Why don’t you go impregnate your girlfriend and stop wrecking up my hobby? Jerk.)

In the second place, it’s not like I hate all racing games. I love the Burnout series, or as I call it “The Racing Game For People Who Hate Racing Games.”

But all this is besides the point, which I actually do have. And that point is this: It’s okay to not like certain genres. [em] It’s even okay to not like them if you’re not good at them.[/em]

This might be a controversial conclusion for some. In a former stage of development, I would have berated myself for chickening out. After all, who wants to be the guy who only plays games he’s good at?

Well, I do. Sort of. It’s not that I don’t want a challenge, or can’t handle one. It’s just that, as a father of two with a new house to worry about, I don’t have a lot of time to invest in any given game. It’s just sensible to say that any game that takes too long to get to the enjoyable stage is off my list. I’m not going to drive that track over and over again until I finally master it to the point where driving it is enjoyable for me. I’d much rather spend that time in a shooter blowing things and bad guys up in a world where the rechargeable health bar or a steady supply of health packs that mean I don’t have to play the game perfectly to progress and have a good time.

So yeah, I’ll stick with genres that I have a proficiency in. Fortunately for me, that means the only ones that are on the outs are racing games and RTS games. And if that makes some people think I’m less of a man, well, I can live with that. I’d rather be happy knowing my limits than angry trying to live up to someone elses.

And that racing game from the intro? That’s long gone. I traded it in on something fun. I’ll admit to feeling a twinge of regret at having let the game beat me. But only a twinge.