There is a process which repeats, a cycle with no end in sight. As my skill grows, my ability to recognize my own flaws grows with it, and thus, from my perspective, it appears that I’m not growing more skillful at all, or perhaps even that I’m getting worse. The train car I travel in moves with me, and I can only tell by shrinking scenery and a creaking back and forth sway that I’m moving at all.
It’s not uncommon to come back to a game after taking a long break from it and find that one has improved greatly in the interim – as counter-intuitive as that may seem – only to soon thereafter decay back to one’s previous level of performance. Is it just the frame of reference shifting, the increase in skill seeming impressive from the sudden start and leveling off as we get used to our game? Or do we actually sink back down, weighed down by our previous good performance and the new expectations it created within us?
It isn’t just skills that follow this pattern – or, at least, things we traditionally consider skills. The more humble and patient we become the more out of place and ludicrous our remaining pride and aggression seem, the more we try to fit into the world the more we see the ways we stand out, the more accomplished and celebrated we become the more we see ourselves as imposters. Everything is moving, but we keep standing still – even when it was us that drove the change, even when we were the catalyst, even when we are the captains of our destinies, it just never seems that way.
And then we make so many of our games in the opposing shape, cast inverted against the mold our world provides. All feedback, no progress. The numbers go up, the monsters get bigger, the stakes higher, the drama more overblown, while the core of who we are remains untouched. We do not improve, we do not change. We see the progress, instead of being the progress, and when the train leaves we’re not on board.
We’re starting to see the difference, though. We know what progress looks like, and though it can be inspiring viewed from the outside, it isn’t the same as a personal transformation. This is why games are starting to push back. This is why Spelunky will murder you, Dark Souls will murder you, Super Meat Boy will murder you, and you will like it. If the game doesn’t push back, if it doesn’t apply itself against the player, it will never change them. If the game doesn’t push back against your hand – whether it feels like a stone labyrinth wall as in Dark Souls, a Chinese puzzle box as in Antichamber, the wood grain of an old house in Gone Home, the rumbling cartoon machine of Spelunky, or the warm pressure of another hand from Team Fortress 2 and other competitive games – if it doesn’t push back, you will never feel anything at all.
Mere interactivity is meaningless without the pressure of that touch. It is that which makes a game a game. If you don’t have to exert yourself against it, if you cannot feel it pressing back against you, it may as well be a sitcom or the tinkling of chimes in the breeze.
Seeing a train go by may be beautiful – but only the trains you board will take you where you want to go.