For hardcore gamers, there always seems to be this mini-drought of games in the spring. April and May are the worst offenders. Only the Grand Theft Autos of the world, established franchises, can seemingly open in those months. And just as movies like to open their action blockbusters in the summer and family feel-goods around the holidays, games are becoming more and more seasonal, revving up during the summer to hit full bore in the fall and abruptly stop just before Christmas.
So when I found myself playing a couple casual games recently, just as the gaming season was starting, I was a little surprised. Already there are a couple of tactical shooters out, like Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and Spec Ops: The Line. But I find myself charmed by Lego Batman 2.
Lego Batman Trailer
When Traveller Tale’s Lego games first emerged, they were a revelation. So much fun, and so charming, and constantly rewarding. The way everyday items like benches and bicycles disgorge collectible bits when you bash them into pieces is almost casino-like in how gratifying it is, collecting them as addictive as a slot machine. The Lego Star Wars games let you play through utterly familiar stories (if you’re familiar with the Star Wars stories) but with its particular quirky twists. Now with Lego Batman 2, they are managing to milk that same formula.
I think the reason why I like to play their games is because while ostensibly for kids, a lot of the mechanics engage universally. They’re like Pixar movies. Smart enough that they will always manage to amuse everyone, and graphically outlandish enough that children will never be bored. But perhaps the most notable trait of these games is that they are not stressful. It’s rare to play videogames these days where there’s no stress. Most games like to dial up the stress, or keep you constantly under fire. It’s primal. It taps into the deep-seated lizard brain that just reacts. But Lego Batman 2 doesn’t do that, even as it wears the trappings of a life and death struggle between the titular hero and his evil rogue’s gallery.
When I look at my list of eagerly-anticipated games for the rest of the year, they are all action, all the time. Folks are trying to kill me, and I’ve gotta kill them before they do so. So right now, I don’t mind taking a break. Casual games are like the pile of shaved ginger flakes when you eat sushi – meant to cleanse your palate. But more than anything, I think they suggest that a new kind of game is possible. I think I remember reading an interview with Traveller’s Tales where they admitted that they didn’t want the game to be punishing. That that wasn’t its point. That’s why when you “die” you just break into pieces and re-appear exactly where you died. The only seeming punishment is to lose some of the bits you’ve collected, which will prevent you from unlocking other characters you can appear as. But for the most part, the punishment is negligible.
All this makes me ask the question — why do I play games? A lot of it is fantasy and wish-fulfillment, of course. For instance, yesterday I was swinging around NYC as Spider-Man. The day before I was killing para-military soldiers inSao Paulo. Are these my fantasies? Well, sorta. Not the ones I would choose first, but no one’s making the kinds of games that tap into my real fantasies. And no store would sell them. But I definitely don’t play games to be punished.
This argument reminds me of that saying, that relationships should be hard. That you should have to fight for them, and work at them. But the best relationship I ever had was easy and lovely and full of charm and laughter. My own parents never fought. I think I remember one argument in like, 30 years of marriage. I wonder how eager the hardcore gamers on message boards and forums would be for a “challenge” if instead of a game, it was a relationship. How punishing would they want a relationship? How challenging? If it were full of constant conflict? If their partner just tried to pick fights with them all the time?
I guess what I am saying is that here, at the cusp of the very beginning of this medium called games, conflict will always be a useful engine that engages and entertains, but a casual games like Lego Batman 2 that are very forgiving can go a long way to suck people in. And if they get bored? Well, there’s no shortage of stressful games coming out.
Sherwin Sullivan Tjia is the author of five books: Gentle Fictions, Pedigree Girls (Insomniac Press), The World is a Heartbreaker (Coach House Books), The Hipless Boy (Conundrum Press). His latest is a choose-your-own-adventure story told from the perspective of a cat. It’s called You Are a Cat! (Conundrum Press). His most recent invention, the E-Z-Purr, is a CD with over an hour of cats purring! and is available for purchase from CD Baby.