Video games are a difficult medium to stay up to date on. In addition to their rather expensive cost, many games require a significant amount of playtime in order to see everything it has to offer. While movies require a defined and manageable time commitment, completing a video game can take anywhere from two hours for a game like Journey to over 300 hours for something like Skyrim. It’s this kind of commitment, combined with the frequently rapid pace of new releases, that gives rise to the scourge of gamers everywhere: the backlog. These are the games we haven’t finished, the ones we promised our friends we’d play through, the missing links that seem so vital to understanding what is happening in modern gaming.
The Retro Classic
If you were going to teach a history class about video games, these would be the required texts. They’re the foundation for the industry, the titles everyone knows about even if they haven’t played them, the games in your backlog that you actively feel guilty about. Whether it’s The Legend of Zelda or Doom, they’re often the first of their kind and were so revolutionary for their time that they feel almost as good to play now as the slew of new releases. Almost.
The thing that makes going back through video game’s history difficult is the absence of comforts we’ve come to know in the modern age. Random difficulty spikes, awkward control schemes, and sometimes incoherent design are some of the hurdles present to anyone trying to get into retro games. The trick to overcoming these obstacles is adapting your brain to learn how the game is communicating with you. If you’ve only played games released in the last decade, odds are you’re going to have to do some serious brain rewiring. This can also make it tough to shake the feeling that you’re walking through a history lesson, experiencing something you’re supposed to see, rather than playing a game. If you’re able to get past these mostly mental blocks however, the simplicity of many classic games can be revelatory, illuminating some of the fundamental game design principles that are still relevant today. It’s in these moments when exploring the backlog becomes truly rewarding.
Likelihood of completion: Possible
The Modern Classic
Due to the constant march of progress, the “classic” games category of the backlog features an ever-expanding library of titles, yet there is something comforting about discovering a gem that wasn’t made in the distant past before HD graphics and regenerating health meters. Maybe you slept on a clear Game of the Year winner, or perhaps you just didn’t have the right console to play that one exclusive title.
Playing through critically acclaimed games a year or two after their release has both benefits and downsides. For one, you’re often able to pick up a cheap copy of the game filled to the brim with content that has been added since release. It’s also much easier to slip into playing a recent release than a retro one as game design has become much more streamlined when communicating with players. This means that the reason for the game’s excellence is often much easier to pick up on because it is clear why the game is a standout among its contemporaries. The downside hinges on whether or not players accept this.
Unlike with retro classics, where someone’s negative experience might be chalked up to the game’s age, a poor experience with a recent well-received game indicates a conflict between the player’s preferences and the gaming industry’s general interests. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, the kinds of conversations that come about when discussing the negative aspects of critically acclaimed games are perhaps the most important ones we can have. The point, however, is that experiencing a newer critically acclaimed game comes with expectations (read: baggage). The result is a point of view that, whether positive or negative, bears relevance on the gaming world of today. While they’re often the meeting ground for building new communities, these games are also the battleground where the future of the industry is decided.
Likelihood of completion: Moderately high
The Half-Finished Game
I’m sure this has happened to you at least once. You’ve been playing a game that you genuinely enjoy, perhaps even love, when something happens. That generic thing called Life gets in the way, another game you’re equally as excited for comes out during a lull in the story, or you just suddenly, inexplicably lose interest. Months go by and periodically you think of starting back where you left off, but something just keeps holding you back.
These are some of the most heartbreaking games in the backlog because, while you may have a true desire to finish them, it is often very difficult to go back, especially if you’ve spent significant time away. You don’t remember all the plot details. You can’t seem to figure out how to navigate the environments as easily. Why is the jump button “Y” instead of “A”? Were the enemies always this difficult? These questions and the sense of discomfort at feeling somehow out of place in a world you once knew so well brings you to the logical question: Should I start it all over again?
But who has the time to wade through basic tutorials, sit through unskippable cinematics, and spend hours traveling through a world just to get back to where you were months ago? It feels wrong to keep progressing when the sense of continuity has been broken after months away, but it would be irritating to go through the same motions you performed so long ago. So you make a decision, and either choose your discomfort or let the game sit on your shelf and gather dust. It’s a shame too. You really wanted to see how it ended.
Likelihood of completion: Low
The Monster that is your Steam Library
Don’t pretend like it’s not there. That glowering figure looming over you whenever you load up that Skyrim save file and start in on hour 427. We’ve all been there during one of Steam’s Summer or Holiday Sales. Splinter Cell: Blacklist for only 10 bucks? Sign me up! The new Tomb Raider for 66% off? Shut up and take my money! The deals are just too good to pass up. It’s like you’d be losing money if you didn’t buy them.
Essentially an entire backlog unto itself, the thing about the Steam backlog is how relentless its growth is, yet how easy it should be to stop adding to it. Even though we all know how difficult it is to find time to play so many games, the small percent chance that we might finally start Spec Ops: The Line if we just purchase it makes the 50% sale hard to resist. Sometimes these games fit in one of the above categories and sometimes they’re a more spontaneous purchase. Regardless, each individual game slowly fades into the amorphous amoeba that is the steadily growing number of games in your Steam Library.
It’s as if your list of games grows exponentially every six months without you doing anything. Yet while you gain access to virtually any video game experience you can think of, the abundance of choice becomes paralyzing. How are you supposed to choose any one of the innumerable games to engage in? You don’t want to end up with dozens of half-finished games installed on your computer. So what do you do?
The general consensus seems to be: Don’t worry about it. Let’s play GTA V instead.
Likelihood of completion: Will follow you to your deathbed
**What games are taking up space in your backlog? Have you still not touched Skyrim after six years and three re-releases? Is the platforming joy of Mario an abstract concept to you? Let us know in the comments!**