Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Stress and RPGs

This is a slightly more personal post, so it's a bit more about feelings than analysis, so I hope you're ok with that.

I don't, on the whole, cope with stress very well.

When the stressful situation is sudden and intense I cower and freeze even as I watch things happen that I know I have the power to oppose. I am bigger and stronger than a lot of people (and as a child my dad was... notorious within my neighbourhood) but to an extent that never helped, as for most of the time growing up no-one ever really tried to fight me and so the wall between anticipation and action remained steady and strong and it was one I was less and less inclined to break myself. This is a physical explanation, but it applies to and I think informs all conflicts I find myself in the middle of. Without pre-warning in which to prepare myself then no matter what my instincts or intellect tell me I should do, I find that action is tantalisingly out of my grasp.

When the stress is a slow-burn, pressure rather than a blow, I do better in the sense of reaction, but maybe worse in the sense of the toll. What I mean by this is that I respond, I do what needs to be done at the time that it needs to be done by, but it grinds me down and closes out my view. This kind of stress is functionally analogous in many, but not all ways, to bouts of depression. A main difference with depression is that there is no end point, no goal in sight, to make the ground out responses to stimuli a meaningful exchange. You get nothing in return.

I had been quite stressed of late, as I was preparing for a module exam in my accountancy course, although I have taken it now, enabling me to actually do other things like think about writing. I have also been playing The Witcher 2, a hilariously 'adult' RPG in the western style which never knowingly misses the opportunity to give you a badly rendered opportunistic or voyeuristic sex scene with all the eroticism of the old British 'Confessions of...' sex comedies. That's not why I'm playing it, mind, I just really needed to get that off my chest.

When I'm stressed like this, as well as when I'm depressed, I often go in for a CRPG like the Witcher for a number of reasons. One of the effects of the closing down of mental space - imagine it as if you have no peripheral vision, but it's not just vision, it's everything to do with the way you think - is that I can't concentrate on as many stories, or on as deep stories as I might like. In general we're talking one or two long-running TV shows and that's it. I can't do novels, the words just slide off my brain without making an impression or worse, if I'm studying, the very act of picking something up that isn't a text book fills me with guilt.

And yet, I still crave narrative. This is where RPGs fit in, because they are just swimming with narrative. A big old soupy mess of it, with less depth than a paddling pool, but oh so much of it lolloped out at you as and when you want to take it. And below this oil slick of unreconstructed tropage there is the hidden narrative of the player, where you can decide back stories and motivations for yourself and away from the speculation of other media consumers - as although they may have played the game they won't have played your version of the game.

RPGs are not about challenge. Their combat systems are very rarely as deep as they think they are and the entire mechanic emphasises grind rather than skill. Occasionally an element of tactical thinking is required, but even then it often boils down to finding a way to split large groups of enemies down into manageable chunks before mechanically grinding them into a red and twitching mess of manageable chunks for the digitised carrion the coders have included as a stab at dark and serious set dressing. As I said, you're not forcing yourself to learn a whole new mode of play when you pick one up which makes it ideal for those times when you can't.

What RPGs are about is choice, or more specifically an illusion of choice. When the time comes you don't choose to  fight, but more importantly you don't freeze either - you don't choose not to. There is always that glorious moment of glitch as the game shifts from exploration mode to combat mode, as idle animations shift and everyone draws their weapons. I love that moment because it has a certainty of purpose that I can never have myself. No action-game protagonist has ever questioned the legitimacy of action as a response to a threat to their view of how the world ought to be - othrewise they wouldn't be in an action game, they'd be in The Walking Dead*.

They are also about the choices you make in conversation trees, which is again an illusion of control, but a great one. Conversation choices, in a well designed modern RPG, will not fundamentally alter the outcome of the game-as-game. You will still face off against the final boss and achieve some form of victory. Yes, the form of the victory or the form of the world you leave behind may well be different depending on your choices, but this is all narrative and emotion. There is often a best-possible-ending, but even that is subjective. What if your best ending is the one where everyone dies?

But these curtailed choices are what make the games for me, and what make them ideal for those dark periods of stress and depression. When I'm down in the dumps, with what can only be described as a tunnel consciousness, then those are the time that I don't feel I have any choices whatsoever. It is the managing of choice in a CRPG that gives me a view of the possibilities in real life as it reminds me that there are options, and that they do have an effect, but it combines it with a comforting fiction that no matter what you choose it won't be deleteriously bad. It is also nice to get to play with choice in a controlled environment, and what am I doing gaming if I don't like playing with things in a controlled and essentially consequence-less environment?

*I loved that game so hard, but seriously - never play it when you're in the kind of mood where you might be thinking about questioning your life choices. Unless you enjoy being a wreck for the rest of the day.

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