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Don't make your video game a crossword puzzle

I never do this, but I just quit a video game.

I'm not the kind of gamer who blows through games, or grabs a little bit of everything like a kid at Golden Corral. I tend to stick with one game longer than other people would consider normal or even fun; heck, I've played dozens of hours of Diablo 3 this year. Yes, it's 2020. Yes, Diablo 3 came out in 2012.

And what's even stranger is that the game I quit is one I was super excited about, more excited than I've been about any game in a while: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Awkward and redundant name aside (Is there another kind of Jedi out there that meant they needed to clarify this was the Star Wars kind?), I was super excited to use Force powers and have lightsaber battles on a modern gaming system. My kids got the hints I was dropping and got it for me for my birthday.

And as soon as I started playing something felt... off.

I dismissed it though, told myself things would get better. I just had to get over the learning curve. I just had to get more Force powers unlocked. I just had to get a handle on the controls, and when I did, things would get really fun, like they had in Horizon: Zero Dawn and Spider-man.

And then one day I realized I hadn't played in more than a week, that I had some time, and I was looking for other things I could do to put off trying to make progress on Fallen Order.

I realized I was treating something that was supposed to be fun like it was a chore, and it was probably time to spend my limited amount of free time on something I actually enjoyed.

So what did I pick up instead?

Another game from years ago (2016 this time, practically a baby compared to Diablo 3)

Yeah. No Man's Sky. And you know what? I immediately started having a great time.

But why?

The best I can figure it out, it comes down to choices.

In Fallen Order, I always felt like there was one "right way" to make progress and the game expected me to keep trying things until I found it. I spent an hours trying to figure out how to get a box or a rolling ball or a swinging pendulum to move in just the right way to open a hallway to the next section of the game. In some games you have to try a hard fight over and over again, but you learn something from each attempt and can try something different. In Fallen Order I would gain force powers only for the game to tell me I couldn't use them. Try to push a bad guy off a cliff? Too bad, he stops himself right at the edge. Learn a skill that lets you throw your lightsaber? Congratulations, if you aim just right you can use that to knock 3 pixels off his health bar. I felt like I was playing against the game designers, not against the game. I felt like I was trying to solve a crossword puzzle, deciphering clues and trying to get into the head of the person who made the puzzle.

And yeah, maybe I'm just getting old and video games are too hard for me. Certainly possible. The fights in Fallen Order would not have frustrated me nearly as much if the character was just a "generic space warrior." But this game promised I could be a jedi. I've watched the movies, I know what a lightsaber does when it hits something. They burn through metal and sever limbs at a stroke. Why does it take me five lightsaber slashes to kill a space beetle?

I wanted swashbuckling space opera. I got wandering around empty hallways trying to figure out how to reach a root. The game tells me I have a spaceship, but why are there only three planets in the entire galaxy that I can visit,?

No Man's Sky shows you a map of a thousand stars and says "you can go to any of those. It's up to you to decide when and how." There are few tense battles. There's a lot of wandering around looking for a certain kind of rock. There isn't even a story, not at any level that matters. But I never tire of looking up into the sky, seeing a pale moon and knowing that I can hop in my spaceship and go there if I want to.

I almost always do.

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