As I compile my Quarterly Review over at Processed Grass, I have come to the sad realization that in a world of digital downloads, bite-sized games, and tent pole January releases I have played one game released in 2011. Sure I have poked around at my backlog, finally getting a bit of time to dive in to Darksiders and Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time, but all I have ended up playing consistently has been Pokemon: Black Version, and before that a few Nintendo DS games that I had been meaning to spend a bit more time with before bigger releases overshadowed them. With the 3DS hitting the North American wilds just a day earlier I got to thinking about why it is, with so many options, I have spent so much time with my handheld lately.
The major reason, I believe, is the accessibility that a handheld offers. I don't have any problems asking it to share a night with me, but it won't get offended if I only have time for a quickie. The DS doesn't judge (the PSP, maybe, but the PSPMinis may take umbrage with that statement). I can relax in bed when I should be asleep and put a few more hours in to The World Ends With You, or if I really need to get to sleep popping in some Picross DS is a simple way to close off the day. I remember growing up and reading a book before going to bed, setting it down on the night side table and being carried away to that night's beautiful dark twisted fantasies. Perhaps it's indicative of the technology age that I now, despite finding darker and more twisted fantasies, do the same thing with the book shaped Nintendo DS. The action becomes habitual, cracking open the spine, turning on the light, and finding a small burst of gratification that builds toward a larger goal. Sure there are a few differences, but the process for reading before bed and playing DS are fairly similar.
Fairly joyful, always rewarding.
Rewarding because one of the reasons I love games - pause to remind readers that the Metal Gear Solid series houses four of my favorite games ever (including the top spot with MGS2) - is the way it allows me to experience a narrative. For me great game design is not about opening up a world entirely, or setting checkpoints that don't force me to replay frustrating portions of a game, they help, but that's not what makes a game 'work.' What handheld games, and many of my favorite console and PC games, benefit most from is that contract between developer and player that, I interpret, reads: 'Here is my vision. Savor the experience at your leisure, discover what I have tucked away in spots where many may gloss over, don't just stare at the pixels, enter the world.' Approachability and Accessibility. Whether I play for a five minute burst or a binge session I am moving the narrative along at my own pace.
Surely this is not the crux of good game design, but it is one of the qualities that I perceive to be much more prevalent in handheld gaming than it is in console games. When playing console games I feel I either need to choose between those concentrated bursts or the multi-hour binge sessions. My favorite game from last year, Super Meat Boy, was one that I felt blended both of these perfectly. The levels were all straight forward, but they were contained enough that I could sit down, play a couple of levels, and stop with a feeling of accomplishment. Similarly, the day I purchased the game I probably played it for three hours straight, and the satisfaction derived was neither more nor less than when I played in shorter bursts.
Do I regret not taking the time to experience many of the year's most intriguing games so far? Of course, I think everyone who writes about games wishes there was more time for gaming. However, it's reassuring to know that even when life gets hectic, when final papers start piling up, when it seems like I have not booted up my consoles for close to a month, that my handheld is waiting for me to dump another hundred staggered hours in to Picross, Pokemon, Final Fantasy Tactics, or any of the other countless titles left to be experienced.
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