My review of Elden Ring, Guilty Gear, my brain chemistry…or maybe something else entirely.
Something strange happens when you play video games. You can find yourself developing a unique relationship to the game, like it’s more of a push-and-pull than a film, TV show, or comic. I hear a lot of people talk about their experiences with games through the metaphor of “climbing the mountain.”
It doesn’t take a lot of searching to find people comparing their experiences with Dark Souls, Spelunky, or Celeste with climbing a mountain. It makes sense. Games can ask a lot of you. They ask for time and patience and technical skill. Blood, sweat, and tears. When people conquer these games, their anecdotes can almost take on a spiritual tone. They become tales of failing, persevering, and conquering. When they fall, they get back up.
Fighting games, rhythm games, platformers, MOBAs…everyone has a story with one of these “skill-based” games that pushed them to their limit. When they stick with it long enough, it quickly becomes a way of life. The shape it takes in their life is almost more like a sport, or weightlifting, or learning to paint or play the piano. Sometimes people surprise themselves with what they’re capable of.
It’s a high mountain to climb, but it brings a huge pay-off. Victory brings personal satisfaction. People like feeling their own steady improvement.
When people critique games that are overly addictive or “dumb” or poorly designed, they’re often stacking them against these skill-based games that reward real work and dedication.
When I read about these experiences and achievements, it’s really inspiring. Or, at least, I want them to be. Instead, the inspiration is quickly followed by a sinking feeling in my stomach.
I just don’t know if I remember how to climb the mountain anymore.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: I generally had a pretty easy time in school. Taking tests came easy to me, paying attention came easy to me, and impressing teachers came easy to me. I could memorize what we learned in class, regurgitate it onto the test, and get good grades. I didn’t really struggle much in middle school, high school, even college. Even my teachers for art and music didn’t push me hard. I’ll fast-forward through the rest of the “gifted kid” sob story, because you know how it ends: I entered the real world not feeling like I had the strength to overcome obstacles.
It wasn’t clear at first. But as the years went on, I noticed a feeling that was starting to bother me.
I didn’t feel as quick as I used to. I didn’t feel as confident. I didn’t feel like I was still picking up on skills, honing the ones I had started in school, or soaking in new information the way I used to. I didn’t feel the same drive I had with drawing every day after school, or playing in my high school’s marching band. Doing things for my job felt increasingly difficult and stressful, even when they should be simple.
To put it bluntly, I feel like I’ve forgotten how to learn. Lost at sea. I don’t even know where to start anymore.
I’m fascinated with tales of people who delve into fighting games. There’s such a strong “Rocky training montage” vibe to it. You’re intimidated by the genre, you dip your toes in, you get beat to the floor, and then you start the training. Months, or years, later you’ve found a deep satisfaction and pride in your life. You come out the other side with newfound skills, friends, and rivalries. It’s a community built on mutual respect. It’s sharpening iron against iron. It’s submitting yourself to a genre that isn’t going to “hold your hand.” You have to reach out to the community’s hand instead, and pull each other out of the dirt.
Every time I see a story like this, I rush to the store and buy a fighting game.
Then I play it for a day, realize I don’t enjoy it, I’m bad at it, I’m never going to get better at it, and I put it down. And that’s on me, not the game. The games seem like a lot of fun, I know they’re well designed, and the community aspect sounds fun on paper. Like Charlie Brown and the football, each time feels like the one where it’s finally going to click and I’m going to pull it off. I get my hopes up that I’ll have that training montage and feeling of achievement. To this day, it’s never worked out, and I can’t imagine it working out in the foreseeable future. I don’t know if it’s an attention deficiency or a motivation deficiency, but something is missing.
The same thing happens with FromSoftware games. A new one will come out and I’ll see countless stories of people diving in, starting from nothing, and pushing through. Even people who didn’t think they’d ever enjoy tough games tell themselves “Today’s the day I’m gonna start!” and they really do it. They read guides, they listen to friends, they watch videos, and they give it their best shot. Eventually it clicks. And thus, a new FromSoftware fan is born. They climbed the mountain.
You can guess what I do when I hear these tales of perseverance. You know me, I rush to the store and I buy a FromSoftware game.
When I play it, it feels like trying to walk through a brick wall. I get frustrated. To be honest, I almost take it personally. I want to believe that I can be one of those people too. I close my eyes and try to imagine what it’s like to have motivation like that. I try to imagine what it’s like to have a hunger for learning.
I open my eyes and that spark of determination never comes.
It’s not really that big of a deal though. Right? It doesn’t matter if I get into fighting games. Or get into Dark Souls. Or get into any video game, frankly. Not everything is for everyone at the end of the day. I should stop stressing about it and play the games I enjoy.
That’s what I tell myself, but something about it feels much more pervasive.
I want to learn Blender. I want to learn the drums. I want to get better at animating. I want to get better at life drawing. I want to learn to write music. It’d be nice to know another language. I dream of being able to play piano.
But when I try to start learning any of these things…I feel that same Dark Souls brick wall. Everything feels impossible. What is supposed to motivate me to push through something when, inevitably, it’s hard at first and I still suck at it? Why should I pursue these things, better myself, and achieve my goals when it’s easier to just stay in my lane?
To put it bluntly: how do you learn new things?
I try to remember what it was like back in school. In class, I absorbed everything the teacher said (and occasionally took notes on looseleaf) and then repackaged it into exactly the test answers and essays that they wanted to see. When I got home, I did art. I didn’t even see it as “art” at first, I was just making comics and posting them online because I wanted to be cool and funny, and I hated playing outside. It felt fun and natural to me, even more than watching TV or playing video games.
In school, I learned facts. At home, I was learning skills. It was a decent system. Of course, life was conveniently structured that way for me, as it is for many kids. I wasn’t doing anything with plans or aspirations. Kids are just funneled into these things, if they have a support system.
But I wonder sometimes, perhaps cynically…it was just instant gratification, wasn’t it?
Earning an “A” on material I had just learned in class a week prior. Drawing a character from my own imagination, being excited by seeing its existence, and then getting attention for it on the internet. Getting pats on the head and praise for doing stuff, even if I wasn’t meeting my full potential.
All of these things were instant rewards for the effort I was putting in. I put in the amount of effort that I felt like applying that day, and then instantly got rewarded for it no matter what. Maybe it wasn’t the act of learning that I even enjoyed, it was the act of being praised. Those types of rewards, and that type of praise, are hard to come by as an adult.
Even when I reflect on these things, I don’t blame anyone. It’s not my parents’ fault; they were just kind and supportive the best way they knew how. It wasn’t my teachers’ fault; I was doing fine in class, even in advanced classes. It wasn’t even my own fault…I was just a child, living out my childhood the way I most wanted to. I can’t imagine stepping out of a time machine and scolding my kid self for not being “more productive” or “living up to his potential.” That would be grim.
It’s no use feeling bitter about these things. I don’t want to look at my childhood with jealousy. I don’t want to look at people enjoying Elden Ring with jealousy. I don’t want to look at illustrators learning 3D modeling with jealousy.
I want to look forward, and get a piece of my life back.
Usually when I write things on Medium Dot Com, I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to say. I have an ending in mind, a thought I want to impart from me to you. This time, we might not be so lucky.
This piece has been swirling around my head for months, lost at sea along with me. I don’t know where it’s going and I don’t know where I’m going either. This story doesn’t end with me enjoying Guilty Gear Strive. This story doesn’t end with me beating Elden Ring. Those things never happened.
It just feels so unbearably hard to do anything these days. To do anything new, or challenging. To do anything outside of the easiest and most mundane routine. To do anything that lets me “live up to my potential” or “brush up my skills.”
How can I learn new life skills and pursue new hobbies when I can’t even muster the spirit to conquer a video game?
It feels hard to be persistent and persevere. To be brave and try something, even when you know it’ll be hard. A muddled noise in my brain keeps telling me I don’t want to be persistent or brave, even when I know deep down that can’t be true. There’s got to be more to me than what I am today. I can be brave, can’t I?
Maybe you can relate to what I’m saying. Maybe you can’t. Maybe you’re screaming something at your screen right now. Something about finding support for depression, or anxiety, or ADHD, or executive dysfunction, or something else entirely. Maybe you’ve found the solution for yourself. Maybe you’ve found the solution for me. Maybe you think I’m whining. Maybe you think I’m spilling a lot of ink on this, and am still dancing around whatever the true issue is.
If I felt confident that this was an anxiety thing, or an ADHD thing, or something I could put a cut-and-dry medical label on, then I would know how to bring this piece in for a landing. I’d be lying if I said I was confident enough to preach about mental health. I can’t preach about mental health when I don’t even know what I’m saying.
As it is, I can imagine several different futures for me. They’re not all bad. I can see myself continuing to scrape by at my job, be satisfactory at what I do, and continue to play the same old video games, eat the same old food, draw the same old stuff, and do the same old things. A life of comfort, maybe. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most people work their ass off for a chance at it. Please don’t mistake me for being ungrateful.
But even on good days, comfortable days…I still feel the shadow of that mountain looming over me. I climbed so fast as a kid and now I’ve just been walking in circles, hiking around the fire of a cozy campsite while time and opportunity keep passing me by. The shadow reminds me that I need to get back to climbing, I need to get my tools together and remember how to do this thing.
It’s not as hard as it looks. It can’t be, right? That’s what I tell myself. If I did it as a kid, I could do it again.
If I took notes as a kid, I can do it again.
If I sat through lectures as a kid, I can do it again.
If I drew daily as a kid, I can do it again.
If I took classes as a kid, I can do it again.
If I followed program tutorials as a kid, I can do it again.
If I did things for the pure fun of doing them, and didn’t worry about what others thought, and didn’t worry about failing…I should be able to do it again.
Maybe it’ll all be okay. Maybe I’ll reread these desperate words next year and smile, having accomplished this goal already. Maybe I’ll buckle down, get this feeling under control, and chart new paths towards new heights. Maybe I’ll put a pen to paper and make all sorts of plans to learn piano, write music, make 3D models, and pick up a new language. Maybe I’ll be a new me.
Until then…Street Fighter 6 is looking pretty good.
But when I run to the store this time and get beat down into the dirt, I wonder if I’ll want to stand back up.