Attack of the Free Games!
Games used to be fighting off aliens, mutants, or thugs who made the fatal mistake of walking along a street from right to left when you were walking left to right. Now games have to fight an even more dangerous foe: thousands other games. It’s a fractal battle for your mind, and the weapons they’re using make the Cerebral Bore look like a gentle massage.
We live in a more amazing world of videogames than Captain N, because he only got one new game a week, and let’s be honest, most of them sucked. You’d save up to buy one game but the store kept Bayou Billy on the same shelf as Contra. That’s like keeping the Hanta virus in a candy shop, except kids won’t desperately convince themselves they like infection because they spent months of pocket money on it.
Now we have the internet, and enough free-to-play and downloadable demos to play for the rest of your life without spending a cent on anything but pile cream. Which is why the big budget games are designed to latch onto your life like a Metroid, and have even less interest in your continued survival. Diablo 3 just announced another 100 levels (fantastic news for fans of clicking on things until little numbers get bigger), Call of Duty is now an arms merchant that sells both sides the battlefield as well as the guns, Team Fortress 2 has unleashed yet another new mode, and the World of Warcraft is going the YouTube cute-video route by bringing in a land of pandas for people to play with. EA’s arsenal of sports games make more money from smaller adjustments than brain surgeons, and they affect their market’s minds longer.
Modern game franchises have more interest in dominating your life than most dictatorships, who still make money even when you don’t like them. Because in the old days they only had to fight against the real world. Now they have to fight against fun.
The first fifteen minutes of a good new game are more fun than a day at Level 85. Massively multiplayer games expect days of dedication for a single new item. But change the game and you instantly get an entirely new world. The thrill of discovery, the satisfaction of working out new mechanics, the self-organizing pleasure of your own brain rewiring itself to try out new things. That’s also where you want to be to claim the advantages of video games making you smarter. If you’re always trying new things and feeling good, that’s how you want to be. When you play the same game forty thousand times to earn a new icon, you’re not playing, you’re cutting a furrow in your own mind to turn yourself into an assembly line robot designed to give the developers money.
Dejobaan’s Aaaaa! is literally a leap into madness, basejumping off a TRON tower that someone has filled with rave, and it’s a score-attack game so as soon as you’ve worked out what on Earth you restart to do it better. Spelunky randomly generates a new world every time you play, while Minecraft lets you build your own. And share it with friends. Right now, right here, no matter what other console you have, you can be inspired by a man who makes Morgan Freeman sound like he’s huffing helium, shoot Nazis, and try a game which eats lives. Just Cause 2’s demo is an island made entirely of army vehicles, petroleum facilities, and your ability to grapple over and blow up both. And if you haven’t played Audiosurf yet then I’m truly sorry about your deafness, as that is the only possible excuse.
After the demo ends you’ve already had fun, can roll on to the next brand-new experience, or – at worst – decide you like it and want to keep playing! Compare this to spending five hours moving a progress bar from 99 to 99.9, then refusing to sleep because you’re about to complete something. That sort of achievement training is so demeaning Pavlov’s dog would refuse to piss on you.
Demos aren’t about independent games, they’re just about trying something new. Of course you want to keep playing the good games, especially when they involve doing things you’re now excellent at to other players. As it should be. But the next time you spend an hour cursing at dropped connections, poor matchmaking, and idiotic team-mates ruining your evening, maybe it’s time to try something fast, fun, free, and entirely new.
Luke McKinney knows booze & video games. He recently risked his soul with Magic: The Gathering and still has nightmares about tapping twenty-dollar cards without that being sex slang. Follow him on Tumblr.