The Joy of the Replay

Gaming, as a hobby, generally focuses on the new. What novel experiences await us in these new worlds, these new stories, these new mechanics? That’s partially why the launch of consoles is such an exciting event for so many gamers around the world – the promise of what is yet to come. This is, of course, human nature. As a species, we are always hunting down an experience we haven’t had before. For many gamers, this is the latest and greatest titles from the biggest publishers, for others, the boundary-pushing stories in smaller indie titles. For many of us, games don’t have to actually be ‘new’ as long as they are new to us. This is one of the things that can lead to that thing many gamers have come to dread – the backlog. In our hunt for new experiences, we are constantly earmarking games that we want to try, often hopping from one to the next, leaving a trail of them unfinished in our wake.

I myself was like this for a long time. I look back at the massive Nintendo Wii collection I amassed during my early teen years and I feel a sense of pride knowing how many great games are there. Then I think about how many I actually finished, and a small sense of guilt sets in. The same thing happened with my PS3, so when I finally got my hands on a PS4, I decided that it was time to make a change. I started devoting my time more solidly to one game, often not moving on from it until I’d completed the main storyline, and often much of the side content along the way. I can look back on my PS4 collection much more comfortably knowing that I finished a large chunk of those games, and the ones I didn’t were generally ones I didn’t really like so much. This comes with a whole new type of pressure though. When you’re limiting yourself to playing through a game to the end before starting another, you can start to feel a little trapped by it. I became a regular checker of HowLongToBeat, with its collection of average completion times before I started any new game. I wanted to know exactly how much of my time was going to be devoted to this game before I moved on to the next. I still believe that trying to finish games before moving on is a good thing to do, but I can’t help feeling in a rut sometimes when I’m taking on some goliath title like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.

Valhalla’s world is beautiful, but almost intimidatingly big.

Recently then, while taking a break from Valhalla, I booted up God of War, Sony’s massive hit from 2018, and one that I’ve written about recently on this very blog. If you’ve read my thoughts there, you’ll know that the replay has allowed me to explore the game in a much deeper fashion, mopping up some of the activities I hadn’t finished during my first playthrough, and discovering whole new sidequests and content. It almost feels like a whole new game to me. Now obviously, this is, in part, thanks to how little of the side content I actually did in the game during my first time with it, but there I have found another takeaway from this experience – the replay is the best way to spice up your gaming life when you feel stuck. Let me explain why.

First of all, the pressure to actually get to the end of the game is all but gone. I’ve already experienced this story once through, so it’s not like there’s any must-see twists and turns that I might miss out on by putting the game down early. This allows for a more free playstyle than a first playthrough often does. I know that if I get bored of the game I can just stop playing and go back to other, newer games without any real negatives. It’s not going to become another unfinished game on the shelf, and it’s not going to be this little spectre hanging over my time with other games, calling me back to it. In playing God of War for instance, whereas I felt pressure to get it finished the first time, this time I am much more relaxed and taking the game one small step at a time. I’m allowed to be indulgent with myself. I can explore the side content and the Lake of Nine as much as I want, and in any order I want – there’s no niggling feeling that I’m straying too far from where I need to be. I feel… free.

God of War isn’t the only game that I’ve revisited lately. This year I’ve also spent some time with the Bioshock trilogy again, I’ve dipped my toes back into the gloomy waters of Possum Springs in Night In The Woods and I played through Maquette two times. My own inquisitiveness is driving me through these playthroughs – since I can stop anytime, I’m just playing as long as I want to see more of the story or I want to dig through more of the world. Whereas the first time I was more focused on the main story, during a replay I feel more confident just messing around in these virtual playgrounds and exploring the backstories of side characters, the lore of these spaces. I know these worlds much better and deeper than I did before, and I feel the experience is all the richer for it.

Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II might be the next title on my replay list.

I can watch movies and TV shows over and over again, so why was it that until recently, I felt unwilling to revisit games in the same way? I guess I was always on the hunt for those fresh experiences before, but now, having had such positive experiences with replays, I think those feelings might be starting to change. Just while writing this post I’ve thought of a number of other games I’d like to revisit in the near future – Uncharted 4, Dragon Age Inquisition, and many others. Maybe 2021, a year in which it appears many big releases are set to be heavily impacted by COVID-19 and may end up slipping into 2022, will allow us time to pause, take stock of our collections and revisit some of our favourite games from yesteryear. If you’re feeling reticent, just give it a go sometime – I know it changed my outlook massively.

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