Making the mundane meaningful

The best bits of games might be in everyday rituals and processes, argues Jon Bailes.
9/3/2022

Stalked by an evil Yokai spirit in Japanese folk horror game Ikai, I desperately need to acquire a magic charm. It’s a simple item – a strip of paper bearing an inked symbol that you stick on a door to create a spiritual barrier – but it’s not something I’ll find lying around. The only way I’ll obtain one is to locate paper, brush, ink and a table, then sit down and paint it myself. Earlier in this demo (the full game is due at the end of March), I got to practice the ritual in the calmness of daylight, where tracing the shape was a simple chore. Now, with a demon in proximity, I’m under pressure to draw at pace, completely vulnerable since I can’t run or scan the environment while focused on the task at hand.

Whether Ikai ultimately succeeds or not, there’s something to be said for how it injects suspense here into what otherwise could be a simple act of item management. To the extent it works it’s because it won’t let you exit the real-time angst of the situation or render it abstract in a menu screen. Completing every step of the ritual, without shortcuts, is essential. It highlights the tameness of ‘survival horror’ in Resident Evil, where we can mix and swallow herbs from the comfort of a time-frozen inventory.

Processing

Games are full of little processes we execute automatically as part of established play routines – methods of exploration like always going the wrong way first, for example, or taking cover to recharge health, or evaluating our loadout before entering a boss battle. They’re perfectly suited to such procedures and patterns. But sometimes the most meaningful experiences are born from zooming in on the mundane steps within the processes – things that often get condensed down or erased because on the surface they look rather dull.

Even repetitive mechanical procedures that seem incongruous to a compelling experience can be highly valuable. In FAR: Changing Tides, for instance, you execute the same little routine each time you want to set sail. Slide a large, heavy switch to raise the mast, scurry up to the crow’s nest to grab a retractable rope then hop back down and secure it to the deck. And whenever a low bridge approaches, be ready to drop the mast and reset to step one. Or, in Minute of Islands, protagonist Mo has to reboot a series of air filters to stop the spread of deadly fungal spores using her ‘omni-tool’. Each time you locate one of these bio-machines, you follow a set of commands displayed on screen: lock in, crank, plug in, move probe, pump, like following a step-by-step guide to fixing a computer error.

In a sense, these rote processes seem to involve a step too many – like being asked to check your mirrors and seatbelt before beginning a game of Outrun. But labour in FAR contributes to nurturing your relationship with a machine that becomes your home and only hope of salvation, while Mo’s diligent observance of her task is testament to her misplaced sense of duty. Flourishes of busywork are essential to their identity. They throw curveballs of emotion into the calculated balance of abstraction and simulation.

Too often, complex skills and interactions are reduced to a manageable essence to make them briskly convenient at the cost of something deeper. The absurd extreme is the Call of Duty classic ‘Press F to pay respects’, but there are countless comparable examples. I remember playing Fable 2 years ago, and getting married through a process that involved singling out an NPC then standing in front of them and pulling strongman poses, gifting them flowers and finally a ring. It felt so far removed from actual romance rituals as to be meaningless. The time frame was too accelerated, the actions too condensed.

It's great to see, then, that games large and small are increasingly zooming in on the cultural weight, spirituality, dedication, struggle or craft of actions, using repetitive ordinariness to tie us to the lore of their worlds rather than letting us skate over it. In Mundaun, for instance, making coffee involves methodically collecting and combing the required items not merely to increase your maximum health, but as a means of grounding you back in everyday reality between supernatural events. Or there’s Dragon Quest XI, whose ‘fun-sized forge’ mini-game has you craft new equipment – potentially of high quality – by hammering it out yourself, which makes the end result more personal.

I wondered how this kind of hands-on crafting might fit into Elden Ring, where I’ve been using the same sword for nigh on 50 hours without developing a real attachment to it (I can’t even recall its name). I stick with it because upgrade materials are scarce and it would take a lot of time to boost another weapon up to +16, and the time investment is a tangential grind. If I’d at least put some work into crafting and maintaining it, perhaps that would make it more special.

Indeed, weapons in games are almost always eminently disposable objects. Ironically those that feel most precious are the breakable ones in Breath of the Wild, precisely because they’re forcibly limited in use. But what’s the opposite of that – something that’s permanent and sparks a sense of sentimental attachment*? What processes would it take to make our relationship with a weapon as consequential as that with our vehicle in FAR?

And what about consumable items? The Witcher 3 builds its world around absorbing processes and rituals when it comes to investigating crime scenes, following trails, identifying monsters, then collecting ingredients for potions to combat them. Actually mixing and applying these concoctions, however, is an anti-climax, an admin exercise that lacks gravitas next to the rest of your efforts. I’d love for these things to feel like potent mystical mixtures, to be made and handled with care.

As for those herbs in Resident Evil, like crafting in Dragon Quest XI or painting in Ikai, mixing up medicines could be more involving, could go more right or wrong, could require pockets of time. It hardly seems like a stretch to indulge such practicalities in a series that’s long been happy to turn item management into a suitcase packing simulation.

Of course, there are times when abstraction, efficiency and convenience trump the potential benefits of detailed rituals and processes, but more games are showing that these aren’t mere luxury features. Surely there’s more to be made of activities like prayer, summoning, maintenance, healing and so on, not for the sake of realism, but for their narrative power. As Ikai shows, sometimes you have to go the long way round to create the charm.

*No, this isn’t an NFT pitch

Jon Bailes
Jon Bailes is a freelance games critic, social theorist, and author of Ideology and the Virtual City: Videogames, Power Fantasies and Neoliberalism (Zero, 2019).

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