I am victorious. I know this because the slightly stilted female voice told me so. She’s kind of haughty, but calm and reassuring with a pseudo-British accent and the enunciation of Julie Andrews, which is slightly erotic for reasons I can’t identify. The pronouncement is accompanied by soothing chimes and gongs, like the constant, life-affirming patter of the electronic therapy white noise you hear in a Vegas casino, and it serves the same purpose. Every time I hear it, it makes me want to hear it again. I want more victory, more soothing reassurances – more life. So I keep playing.
My name is Russ, and I’m addicted to Puzzle Quest.
Today I’m pleased to unveil the fruits of our art team’s labors, the branding for my column here at The Escapist. I’ve been writing some sort of missive here every Monday for about a year, but we haven’t deigned to call it anything until now. To brand this space, I’ve resurrected my old “Smile and Nod” column title from the GWJ days. I wrote an editorial once per week for almost two years under the Smile and Nod aegis for GWJ, so when The Escapist asked what I wanted to call this new column, it’s the only title that made sense. Also, they wouldn’t let me use “The Eagle Semen Guy.” The art folks were kind of enough to make a cheerful, yet creepy set of pics for the new column, and so now I feel all at home. Two years later. These things take time.
So, as I’m wont to do, I was sitting around yesterday trying to decide what I wanted to write about on Monday, and my mind kept wandering back to Puzzle Quest. And then instead of thinking about playing it, I was playing it. And then the sun, which had previously been up, was down, and I realized I’d spent an entire day playing a stupid, little puzzle game that makes me feel like one of Pavlov’s dogs. And even this realization didn’t persuade me to turn the damn thing off.
If I’d ever gone to an AA meeting, I’d know which step this was; the one where you accept your problem, but still don’t care. But I haven’t, so I don’t. But that’s where I am. I know I’m not just doing it to relax, I know I can’t quit any time and I know it’s going to suck me down into a nether region of my own devising and leave me a tortured, empty shell of a man. And yet I don’t care. I’m imagining Julie Andrews dressed as a Vegas showgirl, twirling a peacock feather in her slender hand as she congratulates me on yet another victory. Victory is sexy. Victory is good. Victory is right. Who cares if it’s killing me?
If you haven’t played it, Puzzle Quest is like the spawn of an unholy union between Bejeweled and Final Fantasy; all the pick up and play appeal of a casual game with all the stamina of a roleplaying game, and all the addictiveness of both. It’s like drinking coffee laced with a shot of espresso with a Red Bull backer. Playing the game is almost exactly like playing Bejeweled: You swap out jewels to power up attacks and then cast spells to defeat your opponents. And although this makes no sense in real-world terms, it’s incredibly fun to play. By defeating enemies, you grow stronger, explore more of the world, uncover artifacts and then rinse and repeat in increasing levels of difficulty. And there’s crafting.
I spent an hour yesterday training my giant spider. He was perfectly good right out of the factory, but if his levels go up, I can avoid random encounters on my way to actual story quests. But leveling up the spider is hard; you have to fight him, and each time he levels up, he gets stronger. And the matches are timed, and the time decreases the stronger the spider gets. If you don’t match the gems in time, you lose health. Lose enough, and it’s game over. So I sat there for an hour with a clock ticking in my ear, hurriedly matching gems, fighting a battle over and over that got harder each time – grinding, in other words – ostensibly to avoid the annoyance of … grinding. These are the moments when self-awareness is a curse.
I used to laugh at colleagues, friends and acquaintances who obsessively play MMOGs like WoW, logging on just to grind a level or two, acquire more gold or, heaven forfend, an epic mount. Now I realize I’m no different. Or, perhaps, worse. WoW at least is a premium product. I’m like the guy in the trailer park making bathtub meth and looking down on folks who snort cocaine.
Those of us in, as the PR flaks call it, “the enthusiast community” scoff at cries that videogames are addictive, writing off the news reports and morning variety show paranoia as yellow journalism at best, or perhaps a lack of perspective. And yet they aren’t. Videogames are addictive. Games like Puzzle Quest are designed specifically to engage the player for as long as possible, setting up short-attention span challenges and offering frequent rewards. It’s not an accident you feel as if you can’t turn them off – they’re made to make you feel that way. But so what?
Over the weekend I spent about 10 hours total shopping, hiking in the North Carolina woods, jogging, cleaning house and socializing. Looking back on those hours, I feel a justifiable sense of accomplishment. My pants fit better, my cupboard is full, I’ve logged three new geocaches and I had a lovely conversation with two of the writers of the fabulous The Tick comic book. These are things worth leaving the house for. And yet, all weekend I couldn’t wait to get back home to play more Puzzle Quest. I suppose this makes me, as an older generation would say, “a functioning gameaholic.” To all outward appearances, I’m leading a normal, full life. And yet behind closed doors, I’m mainlining Julie Andrews.
So, according to some, I have a problem. Again I ask: So what? Games are addictive because they generate happiness. Not by introducing chemicals that fool your brain into believing you’re happy – like nicotine – or by stimulating endorphin production – like sex – but because playing them is actually fun, and you are happy when you do so. In this respect, games are as dangerous as puppies and cotton candy, going to the fair or your first, timid kiss.
They say if you live long enough, everything you enjoy will be proven to be bad for you. Newsflash: No one lives forever. Doctors and psychologists are obsessive about your health. They’re like IT professionals for your well-being; the perfect system is one the user never gets to use. If you were to walk into your doctor’s office tomorrow and tell him you’ve decided to eat nothing but protein mush, exercise for an hour everyday and stay away from anything that might injure you or cause you pain, he’d probably faint with joy, because that’s the only way to ensure you won’t die more quickly than you absolutely have to. But you can’t live like that. That’s what we call a “joyless” existence.
As humans, we need challenge, we need a little suffering and we need our pleasure. We need to sit around doing nothing every once in a while. We need to become addicted to things. We need play. If that’s a crime, sue me, not the game makers. I’m the one holding the controller.
Russ Pitts is an associate editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com. Smile and Nod appears every Monday.