Video games are a pretty big part of my life. I try to give most genres, if not individual games, a go. Some of them I can’t stand playing … but I still very much want to experience. It’s an interesting dichotomy: Games aren’t like movies, and you can’t sum up the whole in a couple of hours. So, reading it is.
There are a few games that I’ve kept up with over the years, not out of any desire to play them, but out of a fascination with their world building or communities. Anytime a news story, review, or editorial on them pops up in my newsfeed, I stop and go through it. It’s involuntary at this point.
So, here’s a brief list of games that I really dislike playing, and still like reading about anyway.
World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft
I’ve never really enjoyed massively multiplayer online games. Structurally they’re dull, if only because it’s hard to make an exciting combat system that can accommodate literally thousands of people at once. And despite claims of epic world-spanning conflicts and telling your own personal story in an evolving narrative, they inevitably seem to boil down to killing 10 mildly angry-looking sheep in different colored fields.
But WOW is different. World of Warcraft has been continually updated for 16 years, and even at its start, it was based on a world already full of some pretty deep Tolkien-style fantasy lore. There’s so much breadth to the story that you almost can’t help but at least know some of it when you’re interested in games. It’s spilled over into other genres entirely—a bunch of my WOW knowledge comes from the desire to know who the hell the guy on my Hearthstone card is, and why I am not prepared to play him.
There’s also the social aspect. Over a decade and a half of WOW, it’s developed into its own culture, with events that have some fascinating ripples into gaming and culture at large. We could talk about the South Park episode or Leeroy Jenkins, but perhaps the most topically relevant is the Corrupted Blood plague, a game glitch that spread through an online world in a way that mirrored real-world epidemics … and amazingly, became a source of useful information for actual research into the sociology of infectious diseases.
I have not completed a Pokémon game since Pokémon Ruby, waaaaay back in 2003. Don’t get me wrong, I was proper obsessed with the originals, just like everyone else in my fourth grade class. But I’m of the (surprisingly common) opinion that the games never got better than Gold/Silver/Crystal, just the second collection in the series.
But consider: One of the most interesting things about Pokémon is the Pokedex entries, which were sometimes weird and disturbing way back in 1996. Cubone is the original go-to here: a little dinosaur-looking thing that wears the skull of its dead mother as a helmet. With later generation we get Bewear, a giant teddy bear-looking thing that habitually crushes people’s spines, Banette, a former doll that was apparently so angry at being abandoned that it was imbued with life and “seeks the child that disowned it,” or Yamask, a Pokémon that appears to be a dead human spirit that carries a mask of its former face around.
With almost a thousand monsters in the roster at the time of writing, it’s no wonder that the developers of the Pokémon games have had to come up with some wild stuff to fill those Pokedexes. I’m here for them … and for the Drawfee episodes that they spawn.
EVE Online might just be the most fascinating game in history, despite being a little more than a combination of spreadsheets and animated wallpapers. Okay, that’s not fair. At its heart, EVE is a deep game about living out a life as an untethered spaceship pilot, in an online world shaped and reshaped by its thousands of dedicated players. It’s just that it looks a lot like a spreadsheet on top of an animated wallpaper.
But EVE’s universe of star systems and space stations is truly controlled by its players. The developers have stated that more or less anything goes in the game world, so long as you’re not actually hacking the game itself. That means EVE is, essentially, a libertarian utopia. Players cooperate in gigantic guilds called “corporations,” and they’re free to fight or scheme as they please. Several smaller guilds are entirely dedicated to corporate sabotage, available for hire to the highest bidder.
Add in the fact that there’s a tenuous but very real connection between EVE’s in-game currency and actual money in the real world, and suddenly the imaginary city-sized ships and player-controlled star systems are literally invested with value. EVE’s biggest corporate battles involve thousands of players fighting each other in real time, and some of the documented “heists” that have gone down are the stuff of Hollywood heists. It’s enough to make you want to read a book about it—and you can!
It’s always interesting that some video games are essentially attempts to replicate a real-life job—you know, the thing that most people do when they’re not playing video games. I can see the appeal of simulating the workday of, say, a commercial airline pilot, or even a city manager. But a long-haul truck driver? A cook? A farmer?
When I was a kid I’d spend every summer on my grandparents’ ranch in Texas. I’ve done real farming. I can drive a tractor, I can brand a cow, I can build miles and miles of fences. Instead of doing any of that, I make snarky lists on the internet. Farming is a foundation of human life, but it’s also boring, plodding, back-breaking labor, so much so that we’ve used millennia of technological advancement to remove as many humans from the equation as possible.
And yet, there are new Farming Simulator games almost every year, on every platform, with tons of licensed DLC to accurately simulate extremely specific pieces of farming equipment. It’s baffling. It’s fascinating. I suspect that most of the people who find comfort in simulated farming would quickly lose it if they had to sprig a field of hay, or swap out a planter for a mower without any help. But I don’t want to ruin the fantasy for them, so I’ll just sit here and marvel at how I can spend five bucks on an official John Deere CP690 Cotton Picker.
I have never once played a Kingdom Hearts game. The combination of Final Fantasy and animated Disney is not something that I ever thought I would need. But Kingdom Hearts started to catch my eye about 10 years ago, when I noticed that one of the DS games was called Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (pronounced Three Hundred Fifty-Eight Over Two Days).
We’ve since received such titles as Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance and Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue. I figured that any game series that had worse titles than a Street Fighter remix was worthy of at least a little attention.
I still don’t really care about Kingdom Hearts, any more than I do about any other JRPG that isn’t Skies of Arcadia. But trying to decipher its bonkers story is a lot of fun. To believe the various explanations that came out in droves around the release of Kingdom Hearts III, the series’ storyline might be either the most brilliant or the most horrible piece of plotting ever penned by human hands.
It’s also possible that the story cloned itself and then became an evil shadow version that was also a clone and now lives inside the heart of every writer, including me and my clones, and also Sebastian from The Little Mermaid. That was all nonsense. But by Kingdom Hearts standards, it’s pretty tame.
I’ve tried three times to get into the original Dark Souls, and never made it to the second boss. Its slow movement and gotcha combat don’t appeal to me at all, nor does its infamous difficulty. I could spend a few hundred hours gitting gud, I’d just rather spend them on something that’s actually fun. I tried out its sister game Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, just to see if I could get past that with some fun ninja moves. Nope, eventually the frustrating bosses got the best of me.
And that’s a shame, because Dark Souls and its fellow From Software games (Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne) have some of the deepest most satisfying lore around. I know this because I’ve dug into reviews and wiki articles that explain the worlds and characters in them, with the various horrifying bosses being a highlight for how their character design weaves in bits of plot and world history. Most of this is presented organically. You really have to dig into the games themselves to discover how and why the world is the way it is.
Or you can cheat, and read a lore article. Like I do. Because I’m not patient or masochistic enough to play any of these games.