The Pandemic Papers: How Slowing Down Improved My Gaming Experience
This has been a long year, and as we head into the holidays it seems as good a time as any to share some resources; the games and stories that offered a light in the darkness, a simple escape, or a moment of meaning. We hope that if you are reading this and find yourself in need of a lift, then you might find inspiration in The Pandemic Papers.
You might not have heard, but CD Projekt Red released a game this year. The hype for Cyberpunk 2077 was huge even before we were all confined to our living rooms for months on end, a game that promised so much. As the Green Goblin says in Raimi’s first Spider-Man, the only thing people love more than a hero is to watch a hero fail. So it has been in our vicious news cycle, the sadly familiar toxicity of passionate fans turning their energy towards tearing down a project that people worked away on for the better part of a decade. Now I’m not here to claim that all this ire is unwarranted, Cyberpunk 2077’s release was well and truly bungled by a company that was trying to please all people – a fool’s errand. What I want to do instead, is talk about why there was so much hype in the first place, that super power that made CD Projekt such a hero, their world-class attention to detail, and how it made me love slow-gaming.
The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is an exceptional game. A sprawling map, memorable characters, enormous expansions, heck even the card-based mini-game was spun off into its own franchise. I first began playing the Wild Hunt two years ago, and have returned over and over because it is one of the first games that felt alive in some way. From the very first choice I made, I was obesessed by the meta-game mechanic of my own moral compass guiding decisions. This first choice was whether or not I turned in an arsonist who seemed to have carried out a racially-motivated hate-crime. I felt a pang of guilt as I tore the arsonist away from his dependant younger brother, and that turned into knot of dread as the dwarven blacksmith who initiated the quest then turned out to be in league with the occupying Nilfgardian army and had the arsonist hung out of pettiness. This is the magic that CD Projekt achieved with the Witcher 3, I didn’t care about the gold or prize I won for completing the quest, I felt a real moral quandary about the decisions I made and it altered the way I played as a result.
I have always been a slow gamer, more interested in fiddling with the in-game camera to create cinematic framing than rushing to scale every tower. However, during the pandemic (and much inspired by this excellent Mark Brown GMTK video) I slowed down even more. Not every game holds up under this approach, walk too slowly through Skyrim and you notice the duplicated NPCs and muddy textures, but with the Witcher 3 I was endlessly rewarded for taking the time to really appreciate the work that CD Projekt had done. My first move was to cut the HUD, no more following the little dotted line as Brown puts it in his video. Gamers are conditioned to spending so much of time eyeing 1/20th of the screen, that we can miss a lot of details sprinkled along the patch. A small child playing with a bow, 7 cats wandering around outside the 7 Cats Inn, sure these are innocuous and don’t involve gameplay, however they make the world of the Witcher 3 feel lived in – and I would’ve missed them had I been watching the radar.
Losing the mini-map forces you to play differently. The Witcher 3 has an enormous map, crisscrossed by rambling trails that wind around woodland and widen into settlements small and large. Having to stop and pull out the actual map meant that I was making mental directions for how to get to my destination; “take the 2nd left, then turn right after the bridge” etc etc. This created a new level of gameplay, where I began memorising the landmarks I could see rather than fast-travelling to the mission start. By engaging in this act of “slow-gaming” I found that how I played the role of Geralt began to transform. The more I tried to move through the game world in a realistic way, the more he felt like a real person to me. I would always make sure when going indoors to leave my trusty steed under some shelter from the rain, and after a particularly harrowing encounter with a nest of giant spiders I would allow Geralt a wine from his own estate to remind him of happier times.
What I found remarkable about the Witcher 3, was how much CD Projekt rewarded me for going the extra mile to really look around at the world they created. A great example is when I was meandering around Toussant in the aftermath of a gory massacre in the excellent Blood and Wine Expansion, when I spotted a plume of smoke. Upon following the smoke, I found myself at the tournament grounds where weary guards were piling bodies onto a fire. This gruesome display was not part of any quest, and could easily have been missed, however it gave me an opportunity to reflect on all of Geralt’s actions during the quest, and the sad fact that haunts every hero – you can’t save everyone.
A much less macabre example followed the wonderful wedding quest in the Hearts of Stone expansion. The quest involves all manner of wedding-related activities from dancing to chasing pigs (which they should do at every wedding!), and after all of Geralt’s grim experiences it was a joy to guide him through some light entertainment for once. Much like a real wedding, I was so enamoured with this quest that I was sad when it was over, and so the next in-game day I went back to the venue. In a some games, the venue would be back to its pre-wedding state, or else left as it was without any guests. Instead what I found were guests lazing around with a hangover, or else clearing up debris from the night before. I even examined the stage where the band had played, and found their set list which included titles like “Hey, Donny Boy” and “The Roving Redanian”.
Since my slow-gaming epiphany, I’ve been applying the strategy to a number of games, with mixed results. Playing GTA V in first-person with no HUD can be relaxing if you’re just just using road signs to find your way, or else quite intense when you’re running from the cops with no idea what their search radius is. Meanwhile, Red Dead Redemption 2 became a meditative experience as I turned off all game-elements, and just followed the setting sun. Obviously this approach doesn’t work for every game; Arkham Asylum quickly became confusing without waypoints, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was simply just too large to navigate without a radar. Some games aren’t meant to be played slow, I doubt I would last long in Doom Eternal if I stopped to smell the roses. It also isn’t great for a whole gaming experience, in The Witcher 3 I always need my health and stamina to show during combat, and some quests I honestly needed that little dotted line or I would never have found the item or enemy I was seeking. In general, however, playing more slowly has given me a greater appreciation for the hard work that goes into the construction of our digital playgrounds, and on some occasions it has enhanced the gameplay experience immeasurably.
Bringing this all back to Cyberpunk 2077, and the sad state of its launch. The internet has been ablaze with gamers vilifying CD Projekt developers for lacklustre quality control, or else the corporate decision makers who forced unrealistic timelines and a multi-console launch. My twitter timeline is filled with videos showing the bugs that are hilarious at best, game-breaking at worst, and I totally understand the frustration.
As I have waxed lyrical about how the world of the Witcher 3 was so life-like I had to slow down to appreciate it, I am incredibly disappointed that the followup is riddled with immersion-breaking issues. I truly believe, however, that the main reason the response to Cyberpunk’s launch has been so vitriolic is because of our impatience. Gamers don’t like waiting; we want constant news and trailers for upcoming games, we complain about delays, and we are overjoyed at the absence of loading screens. As so many reviewers have pointed out, Cyberpunk 2077 will be patched and updated until it is not only playable, but likely up to the incredibly high standard that CD Projekt are capable of. Until then, I will be slowing down and enjoying my time in a host of other games, because if there’s one thing this pandemic has taught me, its that you’ve got to enjoy the little things.