Game over(load)

Pub date December 21, 2010

GAMER 2010, TAKE TWO For the first time in my life, in 2010, I feel the weight of games yet unplayed. Soon, 2011 will begin, and the ghosts of my gaming fecklessness will lurk, dormant, on my hard drive, pregnant with the possibility of fun.

Maybe it’s just that I finally got a life; I am now too busy to head out to GameStop on a Tuesday morning, come home with a new game, and only take a break — for lunch — around 7:30. Maybe games have gotten harder, or I’ve gotten worse — are all those mistimed jumps and bungled headshots adding up? Maybe there’s a simpler answer: games have gotten better, and there are many, many more of them.

With each passing month, it grows harder to prioritize, to write off vast swathes of the medium in the hopes of maintaining a schedule that actually allows for gainful employment. Indie games are becoming more ambitious, jabbing the mega-budgeted mainstream in the ribs with the elbow of unfettered creativity. Minecraft, coded by Swedish programmer Markus Persson in his spare time, has attained nearly 2 million registered users, despite debuting in mid-May alongside the putative game of the year, Rockstar’s cowboy epic Red Dead Redemption.

You also start with a backlog of old games: last year’s modern classics and overlooked gems (one day, I will finish Psychonauts), not to mention the really old games that are increasingly available for a Monopoly-money pittance on networks like Xbox LIVE, Playstation Network, Wii Network, and Valve’s potent PC-gaming service Steam — an insidious piece of software that is the gaming equivalent of having a drug dealer literally living in your house.

As if the congestion wasn’t already bad enough, you can never really finish a game anymore. Downloadable content (DLC) has extended the shelf-life of marquee titles almost indefinitely, allowing developers to graft on missions, characters, and crucial plot developments long after the game has been boxed and shipped, thanks to the aforementioned download services. In general, these add-ons don’t provide much in the way of bang-for-buck, though that may change with time. Nevertheless, in some cases, pertaining particularly to popular multiplayer first-person shooters, purchasing DLC is a prerequisite for participation.

Even if you manage to scale your towering “to play” list, the release schedule simply refuses to cooperate. Sid Meier’s Civilization is the game that made me the addict I am today, and when Civilization V was slated for a Sept. 21 release, I was ecstatic. But a round of Civilization takes about 10 hours, and Dead Rising 2 lurked, hungry for brains, on the horizon, ready to hit store shelves the following week. Next to it, juggling a ball with a confident smirk, was FIFA 11, sharing the same release date. I didn’t stand a chance. In the end, the strategy classic got shamefully short shrift.

Whatever guilt I felt at betraying my childhood obsession was assuaged by countless six-minute soccer showdowns and the corpses of exactly 2,129 zombies. Then, just at the time I was ready to consider diving back into Civ, (or at least to compose Mr. Meier an apologetic letter), Fallout: New Vegas ushered in Armageddon.

To date, I have invested nearly 50 hours of gleeful postnuclear role-playing. Despite this effort, there is much of the game I will probably never see. At a certain point, I had to move on, lest I get hopelessly behind. Thanks to the month of December — the annual industry doldrums — some catch up has been played, but not nearly enough. Two weeks from now, we’ll have a new year. Five weeks from now, we’ll have Dead Space 2, and the backlog will begin again.