Video games send us to exotic locales, charging us to do countless tasks. Amidst what can feel like a jumbled mess of quests, goals, and waypoints, finding something consistent can be a treat. Let’s look at the ways in which finding something we can do repeatedly in a game can provide a welcome relief from day to day confusion. It can involve patrolling the Martian wasteland or even serving booze to ghosts.
This piece originally appeared on 7/15/16
I’ve been getting back into Destiny recently. It’s been a long time since I played; Vault of Glass was the only raid, Peter Dinklage was still around, and not everyone had a Suros Regime. I didn’t know what to expect. Some things had definitely changed; leveling was a bit different and I couldn’t just pull out my trusty handcannon Thorn and dominate the Crucible. I wasn’t sure what to do so I fell back to what I used to be before I stop playing the game: patrol. Venus, Earth, wherever. I loaded up the generic roam mode, stopped worrying about progress or the meta, and just explored. I collected items, completed simple missions, and fought the Hive or whatever group of space baddies was causing trouble.
It was great. There was a very simple ebb and flow to the process. A certain calm familiarity in retracing steps around the map. I wasn’t leveling up fast or getting all the hottest gear but it didn’t really matter. If I needed to unwind, I could boost up the game, fly to whatever planet I wanted, and know that there was some type of stability and routine awaiting me at the end of the day. Repetition can lead to fatigue but it also can be something meditative or calming. Games are not unique in any sense but I do find they’ve allowed me to create exciting routines, ways to relax that draw a lot of power from how reliably they can be recreated or reproduced. It started when I was a QA tester for games; finding bugs can be laborious but there is a certain flow to testing that’s very exciting. Applying that to my day to day interactions with games has given me a lot of joy.
Whenever I log into Grand Theft Auto Online, beyond the gunplay, heists, and random events, I always do two things. To start with, I dive into the Alamo Sea and let the current carry me down one of the side rivers. It’s remarkably calm for a Grand Theft Auto game. Every now and then, there are some fishermen or hikers but players rarely head out that way and I can just float downstream and relax for a bit before I start more mayhem. I do this without fail every time I’m online. I know the various turns and falls of the river. I have a true familiarity with the space that can only come from repeated contact. The second thing I do? Stealing a jet from the military base. It was the first thing I did with my best friend when we started playing the game and I do it even if he’s not around. It can take a few tries but it allows me to reconnect to my friend.
Repetition is a key rhetorical device in games; it can generate comfort and familiarity. It can also emulate mood. This is VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action. You play as Jill, a bartender at a hole in the wall nicknamed Valhalla. The gameplay is pretty simple; you talk with clients and make their drinks by mixing together certain ingredients. The act of mixing skirts the line between meditative and tedious. On the one hand, it’s the one mechanical constant in the game. It offers a constant and comfortable routine. On the other, the repetition is a way of representing how desperate Jill’s situation is. She is stuck in a job, going nowhere, and caught doing the same work day after day.
This repetition is used in a couple of ways beyond this. Some characters have preferred drinks. You begin to memorize the mixtures and motions attached to them. It’s a highly rhetorical and abstract way of getting the player to remember and connect with non playable characters. Mr. Donovan likes beer, which means that you’ll spend a lot of time going through repeated motions when talking with him. It brings a certain degree of comfort, allowing the player to bond with characters. In some cases, they’re given more freedom and can create their own mixtures. In those moments, the player gets to be more creative and this creativity is stressed by a break in the routine. Furthermore, major breaks from the drink mixing highlights particularly intimate and personal interactions. The game sets up a routine and shatters it when it wants to alter the mood in a relevant manner.
Another bartending game stresses mixology and routine as something with a great deal of power. This is Summon the Apgrod, an indie game by the designer ceMelusine. You play as a bartender at a nightclub, serving beverages to ghosts. In this case, the repetition becomes a type of ritual. There’s a mystical quality to mixing drinks and the use of repetition elevates the affair into something akin to mixing potions. And as the club fill up, changes, and eventually erupts into music, the one constant you have is the act of making drinks. You have something to fall back on as the world shifts around you. A ritual for maintaining a consistent relationship with the game space.
In its worst form, repetition become grinding. The need to cheerlessly slog through content just so you can level up or buy a new piece of armor. Slamming your way through yet another dungeon in order to unlock the hard mode of that same dungeon. But when done right, when done in service of a game’s mood or approached with the proper context, repetition can be welcome. It can ground you in a space, connect you to certain feelings, and provide a unique kind of comfort. You repeat motions and retrace space, re-grounding your experience and managing your mood. So, yeah. I love pulling heists but at the end of the day, I always return to my river...