Often, I play video games. Sometimes, I think about them. This is one of those times.
I tidied my kitchen recently. Bear with me. I was in an extended period of working from home, and punctuated the 9-5 of writing content about storage companies and executive recruitment firms with bringing order to a room that had gone a little bit off the rails. It’s the oldest story – I moved in with a couple of flatmates a year ago, and things that were shoved into place on the day we moved have remained there. There was a genuine pleasure to be taken in throwing away spices that expired in 2010 and had since turned into terrifying powder and creating order in the space, rather than a chaos in which you covered pasta in red sauce then crept miserably away. Utter routine, utterly satisfying.
A conversation on Twitter about my preparations in Destiny 2 for the then upcoming Warmind DLC put into sudden focus the idea that you can (and many of us do) play video games for the same reason, for the same satisfying catharsis of fitting the last available book into the last available space on the shelf and admiring your entirely undramatic handiwork. The secret truth of the AAA games industry, which eats dollars and shits cinematic experiences, is that it’s really good at simulating the satisfaction of utter mundanity.
Tetris is probably the ur-example of this. Tetris, the game of tidying. Tetris, where being good at arranging things is the only life skill you need. Tetris, which does not butter my parsnips.
At least as far as I’m concerned, for a game to properly generate the satisfaction of just sorting things out it needs specificity. Tetris, Bejewelled and your other match-3 powerhouses are too abstract. Who is swapping the technicolour lumps around? Why? Our funny little minds need to know.
The game I keep going back to for this is The Witcher 3. The gruff knackeredness of Geralt. The authentically shitty spring weather of the world. My favourite part of the game took place by chance (as far as I know) within about 20 minutes of switching it on for the first time. You arrive in the game needing to find out where a friendly witch has gone, so you ride out to the nearest garrison to ask the local Big Man. I rode through a sunny afternoon with the light pooling like treacle as it broke through the forest canopy, and glimmering on the lake which the road ran alongside. After I found the garrison and fell up and down some stairs for a bit, I found the bigwig and had a chat and he gave me a quest. I was hot on the trail. The game was on! As our conversation ended a high wind started blowing, and within sixty seconds it was absolutely shitting it down. Geralt, ever dour, fell down some stairs and rode silently off into the rain.
That grounding in place and person makes it the perfect game to ignore the plot altogether and sort. Quests are well written and rewarding, but these days the main reason I load the Witcher up is to take my sulky friend Gerald into town to buy him some new trousers and have a pint and a ploughman’s in the pub. There’s enough world there to give you an actual flavour of the particular experience of wandering around looking for something to wear with that shirt and therefore the satisfaction of actually finding it, but you can do it while sitting down and eating a biscuit.
I recently started a new game of the Witcher 3, having treated myself to the DLC at last. I was planning to race through the plot, ignore the side quests and speed on through to the new quests and new lands I’d just installed. Within minutes of landing in White Orchard, though, the old compulsion took over and I was carefully hoovering up map icons with the satisfaction of a born Roomba, and visiting merchants to balance Gerald’s inventory, check out the local trouser* supply and perhaps tick a few items off my shopping list.
The best games I’ve found to satisfy this mad compulsion towards order (negligible in my offline life. That kitchen was a fluke) are life or farming simulators. Harvest Moon followed me everywhere as a teenager. I keep a holiday home in Animal Crossing where I pick shells off the beach and fights with an officious bird. Stardew Valley is my happy place, and my one summer as the Blueberry King of Ham Farm is something I have to force myself to leave off CVs. Harvest Moon might be more farm-y, Animal Crossing might be more lifey, but they all fit this lovely Venn Diagram where ‘productive sorting out’ overlaps ‘having a chat with some local maniacs’.
With a transatlantic flight coming up, I thought I needed something handily portable that promised that satisfying routine of utter tedium. I think I have a new love. Rune Factory 4 on the 3DS might just be perfect. It’s a farming game that keeps threatening to break out into plot. You begin the game falling off an airship into a dragon’s house and wake with amnesia! This is not the reassuring mundanity I signed up for. Fortunately, the dragon decides that you’ve been put on this earth (at speed) to farm turnips. She turns over her back garden to you, and makes you prince of the town for at present hazy reasons. Fortunately, the only powers and responsibilities being prince confers are the ability to save up for a new backpack and to arrange festivals for the colourful (barking) residents.
The outbreaks of RPG plot always subside quickly, and serve mostly to underline the routine pleasures of hoeing, sowing, watering and harvesting. When you’ve finished on the farm in the morning you’re free to potter about the town, enjoying the little vignettes of life playing out in front of you. Everyone has a fresh (mostly) chunk of dialogue each day, and if you catch two people together you might get to eavesdrop on a short dialogue. Yesterday I noticed half a dozen characters trooping into the same building and realised they were sitting down for lunch together. I was charmed.
My adventures in Rune Factory so far have covered my groundbreaking debut turnip harvest; expanding my farming operation to tap the lucrative potato market; buying an oven by mistake; and taking part in the town cooking contest. I only know two recipes and I accidentally threw all the ingredients for one of them into a bin, so I had to submit a solitary pickled turnip as my entry. I did not place. It’s like a gently benign version of Withnail’s holiday-by-mistake.
More than farming, certainly more than RPG heroing, these games simulate being in a community. And I think that’s why they scratch an itch for people. They’re life on a scale that you can comprehend entirely. Taking Gerald into town to buy trousers is a knowable proposition, in a way that real life so often fails to be. Very few of us live in communities that let you wander around to hear everyone’s unique barks for the day in the space of 20 minutes. The world is vast, unknowable, and spinning its way towards destruction ever faster every day in a way we can’t influence. I can’t even influence whether my flatmates do the washing up. If I tidy, entropy will only come and un-bloody-tidy everything again. In the face of grim reality, I’ll gladly take grumpy Gerald trouser shopping, for a bit at least. Success and sorting on that level is at least within my powers and not susceptible to being snatched away by events beyond my control.
I hope that’s more or less explained how I feel because I have to go now. The farmer’s market’s on in Destiny 2 and I want to see what that nice Mr Xur has for me this weekend.
*It is always, always trousers