A rampaging dragon soars in Demons Souls
'Demon's Souls' screenshot by author, courtesy of Sony
Games

My Favorite Game of 2020 Required Focus I Didn't Think I Had

At long last, a year of concentration, and the games that reward it.
January 4, 2021, 3:16pm

In the middle of a morning sometime in 1994 or 1995, as my class was being brought in for recess, something odd happened. We were lined up in the long front hallway that led past the K-3 classrooms while the usual roll was taken, but this time the school nurse came out and gave one of my friends a pill in a white paper cup. She made sure he took it, then we all trooped back to our classroom. Afterwards I asked my friend what the pill was. He said it was for the way he acted in class ("It’s to make me less hyper”), but didn't think it did anything. Then he let me on his real plan: to start selling the pills to high school students as soon as they stopped making sure he was still taking them. Meanwhile, he continued to be a master of juvenile chaos.

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This was how I learned about ADHD and for about twenty years it remained all I really knew about the condition. So in truth I'd learned nothing and what I knew was mostly wrong: there were kids who had ADHD and they were very different from me. They were mutinous, compulsive shit-stirrers, whereas I was fairly quiet and conciliatory.

We did however often end up sorted together as bright kids who could not toe the line. They were defiant and obstructive, I would just quietly stop doing work and start ignoring my teachers. If I was caught not paying attention, I could read conversation cues well enough to fake it. If work didn't get done, if projects took forever, that was just a problem of work ethic and willpower. I believed that as well. To an extent I still do, though I'm never going to be sure whether that's an authentic belief or conditioning.

(This is going somewhere, I swear. It's just that my games of the year list won't make sense without it.)

In college I became a heavy smoker. Then I stopped smoking about 10 years ago, and for a long time I felt like it had all gone downhill from there. My health was better, but everything else was worse in ways that were hard to put my finger on. I was haunted by the memory of reading stacks of books, playing games for hours into the night, feeling deeply "present" in every conversation. When I wanted to pay attention to something, I could. It took me a long time to connect this to smoking. I thought it was about the difference in circumstances between the kinds of work and relationships you have in your early 20s versus the life you lead as a freelancer and a writer in your 30s.

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So for about ten years, my relationship with the world felt fragmented. I suspected my own mind had been warped by the internet, with its browser tabs, feeds, instant-everything, and infinite scroll. I couldn't stop hopping between unrelated thoughts, memories, intentions, and impulses. The rare moments I stopped to figure out what my goals or intentions were would be immediately followed by a riptide of distraction or ennui.

I responded with systems. The pomodoro method, bullet journaling, journaling of every other stripe, schedules, more detailed schedules, more flexible schedules, no schedules, checklists, website blockers, apps, calendars, meditation, and rules. Always more rules: this worked once, ergo do it always and forever. If you don't do it, you'll be lost. Woke up at 7 AM rather than 5? Why even bother getting out of bed, you know today's gonna be a write-off.

Crossbowmen in Demon's Souls firing down on the player from above

A visual representation of how it feels when I try to focus on somethhing.

The example of this five-year period where I smoked heavily weighed on me, because it was an aberration and yet it was the only version of myself that I regarded as useful and functional in ways I valued. That guy, living his life in 90-minute increments between Lucky Strikes and drinking a pot and a half of coffee every day and forgetting to eat, had a lot of problems. But he listened to what people were saying. He remembered what he was doing, he knew what he'd just read, and he could think a few turns ahead. He was Not Always a Fuck-Up.

Somewhere in there it occurred to me that this memory of a past life was not just a romanticized portrait of the writer as a young suffering artist, but also reflected a pretty serious psychoactive chemical regime with a relatively extreme amount of uncontrolled stimulants. One that would generate the kind of effects that are the cornerstone of a lot of ADHD treatments. And at last it dawned on me, way back when kids in my age cohort were being diagnosed with it, teachers and physicians tended to look for some rather obvious signs and tells (which were probably the wrong ones, on top of that). Kids like I had been, who were precocious and could mask their own distraction or obliviousness, would slip below the detection threshold that existed in the 90s.

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Once I finally talked to therapists about my experience of attention and focus, I checked a lot of classic boxes for ADHD. Since then it's been a matter of figuring out the dosages of medication and, yes, the rituals and schedules surrounding it to get a measure of command over my attention. There was no eureka moment, no revelatory experience with a pill. There was just a lot of experimentation and introspection until, sometime in the middle of this year, I landed on a dosage and schedule that worked. Profoundly so.

This was a year of focus verging on fixation. That's the most control I can wrangle out of my own attention: I cannot completely direct it. I am still prone to distraction. I don't really know what it will latch onto… but at least once it's chosen its subject, it sticks. Not always in a comfortable way: there are lots of mornings or afternoons where I should move onto other things but I can't quite stop what I'm doing. I can't put down a problem to address later. I can't really take a break. This is an express, it runs about three or four times a week and in its six hours of operation, and it won't be making any local stops. But at least I will get somewhere, and I'll know where I've been.

In some ways this is a relief. I'd always worried that really, my only problems with attention and focus stemmed from my productivity as a worker. Take away the pressure of employment, and would I even think of my attention and focus as a problem, or would it merely be a comfortable and familiar experience of the world? With ADHD coming under increasingly effective management, I've found most of the benefit has been personal. As I told a friend, my medication is not a "go pill" that turns me into some kind of productivity machine. It just gives me more of whatever experience or interest has caught my attention. That's still as likely to be some complete rabbit-hold "waste of time" as it is to be a chore or part of my job. But whatever it is, I will at least be fully engaged.

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All of this made for a different relationship with games this year. I didn't play as many, but got pulled hard into a few of them. In fact when I think about my games of 2020, almost all of them inspired complete, intense devotion during the time I was playing with them. They are games where I got stuck in loops of trial-and-error until Everything Finally Clicked and I realized, at long last, how to work this.

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The 2019 Carryover Champion: Ace Combat 7

I just didn't expect this game to be as dense with story and point-of-view as it is, nor did I think an arcade fantasy of Cold War aircraft could be so exciting and demanding. I probably spent more time trying to beat the first timed "destruction" missions than I did on anything else this year, an experience that also hinted to me that my relationship to frustration was changing. Once I was over that first difficulty spike (which was more conceptual than anything else) the rest of the game was a mix of awe-inspiring setpieces, white-knuckle combat, and a surprisingly affecting war story.

A train pulls into a frontier town in Desperados 3

'Desperados 3' screenshot courtesy of THQ Nordic

Rob Is a-Puzzlin': Desperados 3

This game is the opposite for Flow, at least for me. Its Saturday Morning Cartoon version of the Wild West masks a punishing series of stealth puzzles that run according to Rube Goldberg logic, and the game is designed to make you fail to execute and idea, repeat until you get it right… and probably realize the idea sucked in the first place and you should take a different tack. All frustrating and annoying except that the game is generally charming and the puzzles are undeniably satisfying when you solve them.

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'Squadrons' screenshot courtesy of EA

Staying on Target: Star Wars: Squadrons

I want more. I wish the campaign were better, in particular its mission structure and wingman AI. I wish there were more variety in the feel of the multiplayer battles. I wish Squadrons were more like what X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter became when the Balance of Power campaign came out and turned it from a sandbox skirmish generator to a narrative Star Wars campaign that you could play with friends. I have played a lot of great Star Wars space combat sims, and Squadrons doesn't quite reach the heights of its now-distant predecessors.

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But… it's Star Wars, innit? The multiplayer works far better than it ever did for me 20 years ago because now I'm not on dial-up. It feels like I am actually in a massive starfighter engagement in a way that I've never been able to experience before. I have engaged in single combat against enemy aces. I've been the last bomber to break through seemingly impenetrable defense to deliver a critical payload. I've spent hours tweaking loadouts and equipment to perfectly match what I want to do with each type of ship. And most importantly, I've done it all while enjoying an excuse to jam a throttle to the stops as I pursue a fleeing enemy, or yank a flight stick into a desperate turn to avoid a looming asteroid. I want more, but honestly, I'm pretty happy just to have Squadrons.

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'Total War: Troy' screenshot courtesy of Sega

They Will Sing of My Wrath: Total War: Troy

Look, I hate how much time I spent messing around with agents in this game, or haggling over timber and bronze with AI factions. But on balance this was one of my most intense strategy experiences of the year, and one that pushed back on my plans and objectives in really satisfying ways. The widening scope of this mythic war, the clumsy and recalcitrant allies you have to work with, the profound unfairness of watching a good battle plan come undone because Achilles son of Peleus can single-handedly slaughter hundreds of troops including your own heroes… this is what I want from mythic strategy gaming. I ended up spending way more time re-fighting the Trojan War than I ever thought I would, and came away feeling like it had mostly been time extremely well-spent.

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'Iron Harvest' screenshot courtesy of Deep Silver

They Don't Make Them Like This Anymore: Iron Harvest

When I first played a beta build of Iron Harvest, I was a bit worried at how much it was just like Company of Heroes. But here's the thing: it's just like Company of Heroes. If you have to steal, steal from probably the best RTS of its type.

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While Iron Harvest is an imperfect imitation (units feel far less responsive to orders and make far less effective use of the terrain automatically than their COH counterparts), it excels in a very important regard: the campaigns are truly great. It throws a lot of mission variety at you and while I might wish there were a few more "build a giant base and go hard" type battles, when those massive showstoppers arrive, they are worth it as armies of enormous, crude mechs engage in nonstop, running combat while leveling huge swaths of European cities and countryside. It's also a welcome change of pace to encounter an RTS inspired by a moment in history that's often ignored in games: the wars of nationalist and ideological struggle fought in the wake of World War I. Iron Harvest heavily fictionalizes its setting, but the complexities and contradictions of conflict in the wake of a collapsed political order come through surprisingly well in its campaigns. It's a nice change and improvement from the Hollywood-inspired fare of Company of Heroes.

I Died: Demon's Souls Remastered

I couldn't quite pick the moment when Demon's Souls Remastered got its hooks into me. I was bad at it, I didn't know what I was doing or what I was supposed to be doing, and progress was incredibly difficult. I was mostly poking around the game trying to decide if I wanted to get into it, answering that question necessarily involved getting extremely into Demon's Souls. 

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My first boss kill in Demons Souls

There was a moment early in the Boletarian Palace where I realized I'd had a really successful run so far and didn't want to throw it away, so I had Patrick parachute into my game to explain How Demon's Souls Works. Or there was the long night of my own soul where I just couldn't sleep until I'd beaten the Tower Knight, but first I had to spend hours un-tilting myself and passing through different stages of frustration and despair. There was my cautious, careful exploration of the Tower of Latria and the way slowly, almost without being aware of it, I went from being a terrified mouse scurrying around the dark corners of the level to an apex predator using it as a hunting ground. There was my painstaking, tortured progress through the Valley of Defilement, where my chief adversary was impatience as I learned and re-learned how treacherous the level was and how it punished the slightest inattention or carelessness.

That tension was… delicious. I don't play a lot of games that create it. The closest comparison is horror games but there's a difference: a lot of times those games have an atmosphere of dread and danger but the game underneath is more forgiving and less lethal than it wishes to appear. In Demon's Souls, my character and all my painstaking progress is genuinely in danger at every moment. It's a game that demands and rewards a level of focus that I genuinely find elusive, but is probably my favorite mode of being. It's not that I find a lot of value in what I've accomplished in Demon's Souls, but the mix of focus, investigations, reflection, and practice that the game has required of me has been priceless. I'm so glad I was able, at long last, to develop a relationship with this kind of game. It was my favorite gaming experience of this year.