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2015 has been a strange year for me. I'll spare the detail, but one major change has been that my sleep habits have shifted to what's known as a segmented (or bimodal) pattern. It started happening in the springtime, and rather than fighting it, I just relaxed into the change, accepting the fluctuations, and seeing what happened.
At the time, I feared that I was developing insomnia or that it was a symptom of a much deeper issue. Nine months later, it's had a hugely positive impact on my life. I'm rarely in sleep debt, and most common day-to-day stressors now seem like distant boogeymen. Basically what this means is that I have two sleeps per night, lasting approximately four hours each, although durations can vary. This is broken up by one or two hours of wakefulness, often at 3 or 4am, where I get up and watch some TV, read a book, go for a walk, or, most enjoyable of all: play some video games.
I refuse to look at my phone or check my email after 9pm in the evening, and the same applies to when I'm awake in the early hours of the morning. I'd recommend reading Jonathan Crary's short book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, as to why you need to take responsibility for how the mechanisms of your personal and work lives are collapsing into one another (It's a patchy but worthwhile read; its earliest chapters are its best, I think).
If only sleep was a matter paying a small fee, and listening to a soothing jingle while the screen fades out for a few seconds. Maybe such a solution - 'RPG Zzz' tablets - aren't *that* far-fetched, given our current appetite for encoding our lives.
Anyway, this interval between sleeps is such a chilled piece of cookie-dough downtime. I'm alert and lucid, but have no immediate priorities. And I *love* playing games during this stretch. I feel like a kid again, approaching everything with eager tunnel vision, and little concept of time. There's no pressure on having to hit a certain bedtime, to clockwatch, or to take care of any chores. It's a loose, happy sense of affiliation.
I don't have to worry about when I should go back to sleep, because my body seemingly now takes care of that timing itself. After a play session - perhaps 30 minutes long, 60 minutes, or even 90 - the lull of slumber starts to seep back in, and I finish up on my game, roll into bed, and fall almost immediately to sleep. Seriously, it's the best damned feeling. The very opposite of modernity's brittle preoccupations.
When in this state, I can pick up pretty much any game from my collection, and sink right into it. It's the antithesis of choice-paralysis that I often experience when sitting down to play games when I arrive home from work in the evening: There's so much to play, and so little time!? But this micro-panic doesn't bother me at all during my between-sleeps interval. This doesn't mean that I don't have standards, more that those standards have recalibrated.
One great reflection of this was the Mad Max
game released earlier this year. It's such an odd open-world game. Beneath the surface, it's far more interesting than it appears (an 'opine-world' game, I guess?). Too big, but also too small. It has too many little cogs, but too few large ones: Too much arousal, too little consummation. It crams your eyes with lurid wastelands, but struggles to ask more than hollow tasking in terms of player goals. Eurogamer's Christian Donlan described it wonderfully, in a recent article
"When you play Mad Max, you're not really playing a single video game so much as you're playing a sort of cross-section: a geological sample of where many big-budget video games are at today."
Mad Max is packed with humdrum sub-quests and busywork, the kind that can feel like a disposable grind in no time. Normally, I'd bang my head against such a proposition for a bit, lament its shortcomings, then sell the game or give it away to someone. But thanks to my new sleeping patterns, the game came alive: Each night, I'd mop up a generous bunch of sub-quest targets, pinballing around the map with no firm trajectory in mind. Too zoned out to worry about the game's bland wider context, yet alert enough to appreciate the game's dazzling landscapes and layered systems.
Open-world games have always been in some flux of identity crisis or other, but thanks to the way I've been sleeping this year, it feels like I can now step directly into that flux, and salvage the best of it. This isn't to excuse any criticism of all the peculiar pressures and priorities involved in open-world gaming, of course. But, frankly, I'm probably going to be having more fun with it than is accountable under any conventional umbrella of game evaluation.
So there you have it: Mad Max is one of the games of the year, provided you only play it between 2am and 4am. Gaming without any game plan.