Don’t get me wrong. I used to get excited about video games. My first system was an Atari 2600, followed by the Nintendo NES, Super Nintendo, GameCube, Wii, Wii U and the Switch. I’ve owned a Saturn, a Dreamcast, an X-Box, X-Box 360, a Playstation, a PS2 … 3 … 4, not to mention the ten grand I’ve plopped down on gaming computers. Among my favorite series is The Legend of Zelda and Street Fighter. But my feeling of tediousness has been steadily growing over the years, and now unopened games just sit on my shelf for months. At some point in time, gaming became a chore. When I look at an inventory screen to get bombarded by a hundred little empty boxes, I just think to myself . . . work.
After almost four decades of tapping away at controllers, I feel that I’ve seen and done it all. There are very few original ideas in gaming, and even when you come across the occasional weird indie title (Typoman comes to mind) the question then becomes: why would I want to play that? Almost all games fall neatly into a genre: platformer, action, role-playing, racing, fighting—and they are ALL, with little exception, painfully similar. For someone who immerses themselves in gaming culture, the slightest innovations appear to be groundbreaking, but more often than not, these are little more than tweaks. Nintendo’s Wii, with its motion censors, was perhaps the only genuine revolution in recent memory, but then for some reason it was abandoned. Virtual Reality has also failed to wow the general public, because really, who wants to pretend to go to work?
The biggest new idea in shooters, to my knowledge, is auto-cover, a mechanic made popular in Gears of War, and it felt fresh and exciting upon its release, but looking back at it now, much of what you actually do in the game is the same as in every other shooter—running, taking cover, and shooting—just like in Doom, Duke Nukem, Red Faction, Halo, Mass Effect and in about a thousand other clones and sequels. RPGs, if you can even call them that, are no different. Whether it’s World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, Oblivion or The Witcher, you are like a hamster on a spinning wheel, repeating the same actions over and over ad nauseam: killing monsters to collect XP, so you can level up to kill more monsters. Rinse and repeat until the boss is dead and a cut scene comes up to let you know the game is over. Sometimes there’s a decent story in there, but for every Eternal Darkness, The Last of Us or Deus Ex, there are about a hundred titles with zombies/demons/aliens invading [insert fantasy realm here] for no damn reason. Even when the story is passable, I am forced to do so much grinding that my life feels wasted. A few years ago I gave up on a game with great animation, engaging characters and a lot of unique ideas, Ni No Kuni. Beautiful though it was, I simply could not play it. After spending the better part of a night trying to kill the first boss, I realized that I needed to grind to progress in the game, and for those of you not in the know, grinding is the process of fighting the same repetitive creatures, in the same repetitive way, while watching the same repetitive animation, sometimes for hours or even days, just to become powerful enough to win. It’s like trying to watch The Lord of the Rings, and having your Blu-Ray player breakdown so that the same scene plays ten times in a row before moving on to the next scene.
The last game I had the patience to sit through was Star Wars: Battlefront for the PS4. Now I know this isn’t the best example of great game design, but it really isn’t so different than any other FPS, where you are ducking behind walls, taking aim and shooting, like I’ve been doing for the past two decades. Quite frankly, I am sick of it. I AM BORED!!!
Now I won’t go into why tabletop RPGs (real RPGs) like D&D are superior to video games, nor bother explaining how they are tangible, or allow you infinite freedom, or are more social. You can read that here if you want. But I do want to explain why D&D excites me, because with D&D, I get to do different things. Really different things!
Part of the fun for me is creating the game. I get to be a storyteller, an artist, and a level designer. Our current campaign is set on Middle Earth, and the first thing I did was research Tolkien’s world, picking up The Silmarillion, Beren and Lúthien, The Children of Húrin and The Fall of Gondolin. Keep in mind, nobody was telling me to read these books. I read only so much as I was enjoying it. To simulate the war against the Witch-King of Angmar, I bought a 3D puzzle of Middle Earth. Again, I could have bought a simple foldout map from Amazon, but I wanted the 3D mountain pieces. Then I went to a hardware store to get a custom cut of plexiglass, and after careful measuring, added squares to the glass using ribbon tape, resulting in a clear chess board. Placing the board over my Middle Earth map, and chess pieces to track the movements of each unit, I ended up with a layout of the war. This was a personal quest I had set out to achieve. Nobody had told me what to do or how to do it. And it involved a lot more thought than simply following an arrow on a screen. The final product is something I truly feel proud of—an actual, real-life achievement.
To invite my players to our game, I wrote a letter imitating Tolkien’s writing, urging them to send reinforcements for the impending war. It was printed on faux-aged paper, and sealed with the Tree of Gondor, before being sent through the mail. This was a real letter, dripping with ink and melted wax, that you could actually hold in your hands. Unfortunately, I received zero response from my hardcore gamer friends, because when a real letter comes in the real mail asking to embark upon a real-ish quest, I suppose they got confused because there was nobody there to tell them what to do.
For our most recent D&D session, I made a fort and a giant stone head using styrofoam, caulking, Play-Doh and paint. I am always on the lookout for things to make, or unique things I can do, to play outside the box, and by box I mean X-Box.
Now you may be thinking, Nick, I don’t really like making things. I don’t like painting, or sculpting, or being creative in any way. And that’s fine. TRPG’s aren’t for everybody, and I suppose there will always be those who prefer multiple choice gaming: Picking between Door A or Door B. Me? I’ll choose to break down a wall every time. The thing about D&D, and tabletop games in general, is that they can be whatever you want them to be. You can even incorporate video games into it, if you want. I actually did this once, using Super Smash Bros. for a Zelda themed campaign. But D&D never forces you to slog through the same repetitive actions over and over, unless you have a bad DM, in which case you can tell him, “Hey, this is boring. Let’s do something different.” And the best part is, every game is unique. NOBODY else is playing your adventure but YOU. Millions of kids have been Link and Mario and Master Chief and Geralt of Rivia. But only I have been Sir Marek the Brave! And this makes for a truly special experience.
In a few weeks, I am planning a kayaking trip with my players. Yes, a real life kayaking trip, and this is going to be part of the game, because we need to get down the Anduin River somehow. Anything goes in my games, and that will always be more exciting, for me at least, than pressing buttons.