Note: This article contains spoilers for the whole of Bravely Default. Not that the sequel doesn’t spoil the same plot twists within its first five minutes, but, ya know, just so you’re aware.
Alright, remember Final Fantasy 6? Remember all the groundbreaking, amazing compositions by Nobuo Uematsu? Songs that were not only musically wonderful but also never failed to properly set the mood for a location or scene? Yeah… I pretty much played Final Fantasy 6 (Final Fantasy 3 then) on mute. Same for Breath of Fire 2. Same for The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Same for a lot of games.
You may be asking why I would do such a thing. Do I hate music? Can’t stand chiptunes? Maybe some sort of ear issue involving an infection from Bizarro World? No, no, and no. For Final Fantasy 6 in particular, I love the music, and even, when forced to go on a camping trip the year after FF6’s release, I recorded half the songs right off the TV via an ancient tape recorder. So why do I remember playing that game the most on mute? Simple: I was doing something else.
This will likely come as a shock to no one, but my original “gaming room” was the basement of my parents’ home. I wasn’t allowed to have a TV in my bedroom (for much the same reason I wasn’t allowed to have a Gameboy), but my parents didn’t want to have to watch Super Mario Bros. all day, either, so my hobby was segregated to the basement. “My basement” was also likely exactly what you’re picturing: old, beat furniture (but kept because you never know when we might need a spare couch [?]), a closet filled with old clothing that would be released to Goodwill thirty years later, and, most importantly, a pair of ancient televisions. Both TVs were castoffs, chunks of electronics that were initially kept incase these newfangled sets failed in their first month, and, in time, they were pretty much forgotten in the bowels of the house. They weren’t the best televisions, neither large nor possessing a fidelity that could confirm if Mega Man was supposed to be blue (green is fine). People talk about playing retro games with modern high-definition, but if I play Wizards and Warriors on a television that allows me to actually see what’s going on, I don’t feel like I’m actually playing Wizards and Warriors.
Regardless, two televisions made me soon realize that I could be using both televisions at the same time. So, one TV was set up at one end of the room with a complete cable hookup, and the other managed the gaming systems (A SNES and NES [and later, N64 and Playstation] all running through one ganged RF switch chain). The basement was big (technically a room plus what was once a garage), so it wasn’t like both televisions were on top of each other, so I happily played a number of video games while some random sitcom was airing at my back. If I really liked the show, I’d mute the game, but crank up the program. If nothing was on, it was fine background noise.
JRPGs were ideal for this setup, because, while their stories were exciting and astounding to a young Goggle Bob, what would eventually become “cutscenes” were short and generally separated by hours of traipsing through monster-packed dungeons. I want to say the sheer spectacle of Final Fantasy 7 broke me of my ADD habits, but grinding my way to better materia (mostly through bird breeding) set me right back to “what else is on?” And, yes, my first playthrough of Ocarina of Time was set to my discovery of Ben Folds (give or take Five) primarily because I couldn’t be more bored schlepping across that overworld trying to find skulltulas.
Some of my greatest memories of gaming are of me barely paying attention to gaming.
This ADD habit has continued into adulthood, but in some unusual ways. There is no doubt video games have become more immersive over the years, and, while I may once have been able to enjoy Prince of Persia on a dingy screen while watching something else, modern editions beg to be blown up to six foot displays and marveled at at all times. But then you have something like, say, Hyrule Warriors, a game that puts the grind in grinding, and contains more content than anyone could ever reasonably complete. You want me to beat this area with Princess Ruto? She’s level 8, and the recommended level is 80. Well, I think that means I’m going to play this game while binge watching Jessica Jones. Then I’m accomplishing two things! I’m an adult!
Now, obviously, this is a huge reason I enjoy the WiiU. Being able to get that “widescreen experience” for the lavish visuals is great, but then when I want to reexplore old areas for red coins or whatever, I can shrink it down to the gamepad and play while watching what I will. And while the WiiU’s “tablet” is a new innovation, portable systems have offered this luxury for years. Heck, if you consider cell phones to be “portable gaming systems”, then my ADD doesn’t sound all that bad. Unless you want to tell me people are sitting down to exclusively play Candy Crush…
But there is a conflict with this system. I want games to have stories. I want games to be interesting. If I’m playing a game for forty hours, I want there to have been a point, a reason I was fighting against the bad guy. It doesn’t have to be that way for every game, but anything with vaguely RPG trappings practically requires a plot that matters. It doesn’t have to be War and Peace, but I’d like something a little more complicated than Mario and Peach.
When a story dominates the plot, I have to pay attention to it. I can’t watch Orange is the New Black and work through Saint’s Row at the same time, because then I might confuse one Piper for a Rowdy Roddy one. Their plotlines are very different!
So, what I want is a portable game that has a plot, but has enjoyable mechanics, and, after the plot is well and established, backs the hell off so I can enjoy those mechanics while doing something else.
I am, of course, talking about Pokémon.
Pokémon has its own plot and story, and it’s worth paying it some attention, but after its completion, it gets out of dodge, and that’s that. Now all you have is a world you understand, villains that are on the run, and 720 pokémon to play with. I think that’s a good recipe to have some fun while maybe watching some trashy anime.
But that does occasionally feel… empty. I’m building up the best pokémon team, like no one ever has, but what am I doing it for? I’ll have these Level 100 Gardevoirs to… what… beat up children online? Like, it’s cool to beat other players, but there’s no real goal to work toward, no future for my poor Pokémon. I’m already the champion of the league, at what point do I just become a bully?
Bravely Default tried to allay my fears of “not making a difference”… and created its own problems.