Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Video games have a way of making me feel like I’m under immense time pressure. This is not inherently the fault of those games. After all, they are making sure that they can provide an appropriate amount of play time for the dollars of their audience, and if they don’t do that they will be absolutely annihilated in the Steam reviews and forum posts of an angry audience.
There is perhaps no game that adequately expresses this calculation of dollars to time as well as Hidden Folks, and I find it nightmarishly, unthinkably stressful to play. Why do I feel this way? Because it’s a game that eats time.
Hidden Folks is Where’s Waldo? for the gaming set. It takes place on an unbelievably large black and white canvas, and on that canvas are hundreds (thousands?) of little objects, animals, and people. At the bottom of the screen, there are a number of things for you to find. A pitchfork. A waving woman. A wombat-looking thing. You zoom in and out of the screen, panning across this massive scene, combing the visual field for these little goofy things. As Mike Diver wrote back in February of last year, there’s “no against-the-clock pressure to contend with.” In his word, it’s “nice.”
My experience with Hidden Folks isn’t nice. I experience it as an unending nightmare that demands my attention and my time. I experience it as an object that wants me to sink my time and my energy into it. It is stressful for me. What accounts for the difference between our experiences?
I cannot escape the feeling that this is a game that is meant to capture my attention and hold me, still, on my couch for a long period of time. After all, isn’t that what Waldo or the I SPY books were all meant to be doing? They are the gamification of the activity of hunting for a needle in a haystack, and one cannot passively interact with those books and hope to succeed in finding all (or even half) of the objects that you are supposed to be hunting for. They are books that were designed to eat the free time of children, preventing them from running around or screaming or doing whatever else a kid might do when they’re not hunting for a deflated basketball in a haunted house.
While the hidden object game genre has carried the torch of Waldo or the I SPY books into the video game present, those games have mostly existed in the casual game space, and Hidden Folks is more like those games than it is anything else in contemporary gaming. But while I was intensely reflecting on how Hidden Folks uses attention as its raw materials for interaction, I began to also consider that other games that I enjoy might also be working on the same basic assumptions.
Hidden Folks monopolizes your attention as its core mechanic, and it puts that front and center. But other games that I love, like Battlefield 1 or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, are doing the exact same thing. They are giving me a wide range of visual and auditory material that I am intended to develop a kind of mastery over, and that mastery can only be achieved by spending huge amounts of time staring at the screen, manipulating my keyboard or controller, and investing all of my mental energy in understanding the experiences that I am having.
We might say that there is a scale of “intensity” to games. Rather than thinking of games as hardcore or casual (or “midcore”), it might be more beneficial to understand how much effort, concentration, and dedication any given game requires to progress significantly. Within this paradigm, Hidden Folks and Battlefield 1 are on the side one side of the spectrum as “most intense” while Life is Strange or Poly Bridge are on another side of the scale as “less intense.”
While those games certainly reward intense study (and, believe me, I’ve put a lot of time into thinking about Life is Strange), they do not demand it. It’s impossible to play Hidden Folks without intensive, serious focus; one could, if one wanted, treat Life is Strange like a popcorn tv show and still get the full experience. While I’m floating this here just as a general idea, intensity might allow us to get better grips talking about the difference between games that require deep concentration and focus and others that can be picked up and dropped more readily.
I’m looking to limit my intense games in 2018. There are ten thousand things that compete for our attention every day, almost all of them bad, and my deep knowledge of exactly how much to lead a shot in the PS4 version of Battlefield 1 doesn’t seem to be doing me any favors. My dedication to constantly delving deeper with that game isn’t delivering me any life-affirming, new experiences. Instead, I am getting the same ones that I have been getting in some form since Call of Duty 4’s excellent multiplayer got me interested in online shooting. The same goes for Hidden Folks and any of these other games that need me to quietly and intently focus on them to get at the real meat of the game.
I want 2018 to be a year of generous experiences. Less intense, more thoughtful experiences. Two-hour visual novels, short adventure games, and AAA games that have something to say and aren’t afraid to take a side and defend it. I need 2018 to be a year of games that will enrich my life in equal compensation to how much time I dedicate to them. I’m not saying that PUBG isn’t enriching, but to some degree it’s a game about reading the patch notes, and I want less of that and more small, direct, wonderful experiences that don’t need me to read a single thing that isn’t communicated in the game.
As for Hidden Folks, as beautiful as it is, I’m dropping it. It’s a sinking stone, and I’m tied to it, but I’m trying to swim. And it’s going to be hard enough staying afloat in 2018.
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