A game like a warm hug
My copy of Secret of Mana is long since dead, and this makes me very unhappy, because it means I don’t have a copy of the game right now. I know, I could buy it on the Wii’s virtual console (although I’d prefer it on the 3DS – Nintendo’s strict limitations on where you can buy older games is kind of absurd), but at the moment I can’t always justify the cost. But that’s not the point. I miss the game and I would play through it again right now, despite having dozens of newer games to play that I’ve never even beaten once.
Is this partly because of the ways that players gravitate toward the familiar over the novel? Naturally. But there’s something more to it. Some games just feel welcoming, even if you’ve played them countless times before, even if the game’s plot is anything but warm and welcoming. There are games that just feel like a big warm hug, welcoming you back no matter how long you’ve been away.
You’d think that this would be the same as a list of favorite games, or even the best games ever, but it really isn’t. I don’t place much stock in lists of the best games available, but I’d be hard-pressed to pick Secret of Mana over, say, Super Metroid. The latter is a better example of what the SNES was capable of doing, it’s better paced, and it stands on its own compared to the legions of SNES RPGs that would compete with Secret of Mana. But something about Super Metroid just doesn’t have that hug-like quality. I adore both games, I find them fun, I think they’re both stellar, but one of them feels warm and welcoming and the other is, well, a game.
Nor is it about age, either. I played Doom II a long time before I played Katamari Damacy, but the latter is the game I’d describe as feeling more hug-like. And plot isn’t a consideration – I feel more of a hug from Final Fantasy VI‘s apocalyptic chronicle or Final Fantasy Tactics and its scathing religious commentary than the happy-go-lucky adventures of Final Fantasy III. It’s not even about like, as I enjoy and will say great things about all of the games I’ve listed.
So what is it? I think it comes down to a few factors.
Nostalgia in a pure sense. As much as nostalgia can be a force to blind us to the present, you can also have nostalgia that reminds you of good times in the past. For a game to really feel comfortable and familiar, it needs to strongly evoke memories of a particular time and place. I have very strong memories of playing the largely forgotten Genesis game Crusader of Centy on winter afternoons, of sitting in my first apartment with my wife rolling up balls in Katamari Damacy, of idly sitting in my room and buffing up my jobs in Final Fantasy Tactics. Playing the games evokes a pleasant sense of familiarity.
Knowledge that doesn’t require reference. In order to remember what classes are unlocked how in Final Fantasy Tactics, I glance briefly at a chart and then I’m good for another several months; that knowledge is baked deep into my brain. I don’t need to look at a walkthrough to know where I need to go next in Final Fantasy VI. Sit me down with Super Mario Bros. 3 and I can make my way to World 8 without a problem and unlock the Warp Whistles as if I had programmed the game. This is why games like World of Warcraft easily fall out of being warm hugs – as your knowledge becomes invalidated, remembering how to play the game requires more and more effort and becomes less reflexive.
Minimal ramp-up. From the start of Secret of Mana to your first experience with the game’s core gameplay takes about three minutes. Sure, there are more wrinkles than that, but you aren’t waiting very long to start playing what you’ll be playing from then on out. Saints Row the Third has you causing mayhem within a minute. By contrast, it takes you at least a good twenty minutes of play before you’re into the core gameplay of Mass Effect. You can’t just start a new game and start playing, you need to do a whole bunch of preamble first.
Note that none of these conditions make a game better or worse. I will happily swear before a jury that World of Warcraft is a better game than Crusader of Centy, although I can’t imagine what trial in the world would have that as a requirement. But that isn’t the point. If I pick up Mass Effect, it’s because I plan to play through the entire series again, and I’m in for the long haul – but I’ll pick up Final Fantasy VI and play for a while, then put it down, and I’ll do so without an ounce of guilt.
Because, you know, sometimes you want a hug.
It’s this sensation, I think, that really screws with our sense of good games compared to favorite games. I’ve never much card for fighting games as a whole, but I can have a healthy respect for them. There are some very good fighting games out there with solid balance and interesting rosters. But when it comes to how I want to spend my time, I’d generally pick a title that might be a worse game while still being more fun for me to just far around in it. You can prove to me that Grand Theft Auto IV is a better game all around than Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, but the former is just a game to me and the latter is a title I have specific fond memories of. It’s not just about quality.
My advice? Think about what games feel like hugs and make them a point of your game collection. Because yes, I could build a collection based around what games are best, but I’d rather have one based around the games that feel more important to me. Sure, sometimes that means that I’ll leave a game on my shelf for years, and you might look at me with disbelief that I’ve got that while I gave away games that are, objectively, better titles.
But it’s not just about quality, it’s about what you feel. And sometimes you just need that nice hug.