Welcome back to Punished Chat, yet another series I told myself I would do way more often than I actually do. In this edition, I spoke with The Punished Backlog founder David Silbert to discuss the difficulties trying to manage our gaming backlog, how writing about games has changed how we play and what we play, and how there are too many damn RPGs we’ll never finish.
Sam Martinelli: So, we have greater access to different games than we ever have and games are longer than ever, and it’s just hard to manage all of that. If you’re someone like you or me, we’re always trying to find different kinds of experiences, but we also want to play new games right when they come out so we can understand the cultural zeitgeist behind each title. So the first thing I wanted to talk about is: What are you playing right now, and what is being pushed aside in your backlog? What will you get to once you’re done with what you’re playing right now?
David Silbert: I mentioned briefly on my most recent Weekend at Dave’s that I’m primarily focused on what I call “backlog keys,” A.K.A. catching up on any previous entries to an upcoming release, or any kind of spiritual predecessor made by the same developer. I’m trying to catch up, because I haven’t done the necessary homework to really justify getting the new game. So recently, I just finished Quantum Break because Control is out this week. Right now, I’m playing Metal Gear Solid V, and even though it’s not related to Death Stranding, one of the biggest upcoming releases of this year, it feels weird to me not to finish a Hideo Kojima game in time for his weirdest and most eccentric entry yet. So that’s what I’ve been working on. I’ve also been playing The Witcher 3, because hopefully I can finish that before Cyberpunk 2077 comes out next year. So I’ve been working on a couple of bigger games. I’ve mostly been playing games on Xbox One, particularly because of the convenience of Game Pass.
S: I’m just going to tell you right now: You’re never going to finish The Witcher 3. It never ends!
D: I know! At some point I just have to decide whether I’ll just play the main story, skip all the side quests, skip all the monster hunts…
S: The main story is still, like, 50 hours!
D: I know, right? I’m maybe halfway through the main story, and I’ve been playing it for years. So, it’s going to be a while.
S: I wanted to get back to Game Pass for a second. What keeps happening to me is I’ll buy or download a new game, tell myself “This is what I’m going to play now,” but then I’ll check Kotaku, which then reports that Devil May Cry 5 is now on Game Pass. I haven’t played a single game in that series, and when that game originally came out earlier this year I sort of ignored it. But now that it’s free, I’m going to play it anyway and just push everything else to the side. Are you getting that too, where you see something pop up on Game Pass and say “I’m going to play this now” and push The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V to the backlog? Not even Game Pass; you could see a new game on Twitch Prime or a Steam sale or something.
D: That’s a good question! Maybe it’s just the way I collect games, but I find that with Game Pass, I’ve already purchased most of these games before they’re on Game Pass. DMC5 is kind of the first AAA game that caught my attention on the service, but I’ve been good about holding back on certain games like that one. I own the first four Devil May Cry games, I think I beat the first two back in the day, I played some of DMC3, but DMC5 hasn’t really been on my radar. But just hearing about you playing it, I’m tempted to drop everything and play it! So it’s tough to navigate the waters with what to play next. That’s why I’ve tried to orient myself by getting my feet wet in a series first before justifying playing the next one. But it’s getting increasingly difficult with services like Game Pass, Twitch Prime, Humble Bundle, etc.
S: Just a quick note on Devil May Cry 5: I’ve been enjoying it, and I’ve also had some galaxy-brain level takes on its religious themes, which is just such a ME way of doing it. But I’m having a good time. It’s also total anime garbage.
Anyway, are you getting the idea that with some backlog games, at a certain point you realize you’re never going to play some of them? Like there’s just never going to be a point where I’m actually going to have time for that? For example, and I know you said I should play this, but I have Battle Chef Brigade on PC that I got for free a year ago. I haven’t touched it, and I feel like I never will.
D: Yeah, I respect that. I would implore you to try it! But I think I’m kind of in denial about certain things. There are a ton of games that have been “on the backlog” for a while. For example, my backlog is mostly full of RPGs, even though I can’t remember the last RPG I completed. But I’ve got loose ends that range from Tales games to Final Fantasy games, Persona, Dragon Quest…
S: And those games are so long too!
D: Exactly! And in my head I tell myself I’ll finish all of them. But I do honestly feel like every game that’s in my backlog is something I actually want to play. I mean, there are some games… I’m not ever going to finish Mercenaries 2, if you can remember that game. I’m not going to play that. I’m not going to play Just Cause 3. I’m good on those. But I feel like there’s a case of denial where I have a long, long list that gets even longer when we have really good years like 2019, where it’s really hard to justify going back and playing old stuff when so many good new games are coming out.
S: I don’t know exactly at what point in your life you are, but I’m in my late 20s. I live with my girlfriend and I work a full time job. I don’t have the time, nor do I even want the time, to start Persona 5, for example, and embark on this 100-hour RPG. It’s going to take me a whole year to play that game! And if I do that, I can’t really do anything else. Here’s another example: I downloaded Ashen, and I haven’t touched it. So anytime I see it in my library, I figure I could either start this new game and learn all these new systems, or I can just play another five hours of Super Mario Maker 2 or Smash Bros. or Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3. You know, games I’m already familiar with that I can pick up and play fairly seamlessly. And that’s another way these things pile up.
Another part I want to talk about is FOMO (fear of missing out), because we’re all constantly on social media, we’re all on Twitter, we’re all looking at gaming blogs and websites. And we’re seeing that not only are big new games coming out constantly, but it almost feels like the time during which you can enjoy something is three weeks and then everyone just moves on. There are some exceptions, as it seems like people will be talking about Fire Emblem: Three Houses for a while. But I feel like I’ve already missed all of the Devil May Cry 5 discourse.
D: You bring up a really good point. You used the word zeitgeist before, and I think that’s definitely the way to describe what’s going on now. And social media has definitely helped make this more prevalent. Take Super Mario Maker 2: if you were to get on the Mario Maker 2 train now or even a few months from now, you’ve missed out on essentially an entire summer’s worth of Twitter discourse, where prominent game makers (including the developer behind Celeste) are sharing their levels online. You’ve missed the Dan Ryckert levels and everything that comes with that. You could try and delve through Twitter to find things in the past, and I’m sure certain dedicated people will continue to churn out levels and share them on social media. But it’s almost like an AR thing, where you go out and search for levels the way you would go outside and play Pokémon Go or something. If you missed that initial period, that initial zeitgeist, you’re almost missing out on a core part of the experience. That’s why there is this constant FOMO that I feel as well.
For certain games, especially single player games, it’s a little different though. I’ve made the decision not to get Control just yet, since I just played Quantum Break recently and have had my Remedy fill, but I feel like I won’t miss too much by waiting that one out. It’s a contained single player experience, and there’s no multiplayer aspect or live services attached to it. So I could come back to that game, realistically, a year or two down the line and have just as good a time with it. Maybe it’ll even be on Game Pass or something. And if I play it later, I think I’d still get the same experience I would have if I got it day one. (Post-recording note: Sike. I bought it, damn it all, because I have absolutely no self-control.)
S: I think for a lot of single player games, you’re right. Still, that doesn’t stop me from buying the games I want and playing them later. There’s another aspect to it, however, where even single player games have tons of updates. Think about where No Man’s Sky is now. When the Next update came out, it felt like an entirely new game even though it was just an updated version of the same game. The Beyond update releases a year later, and once again No Man’s Sky feels fresh and new. So if you’re thinking to yourself, “It’s August, I feel like playing a new game,” would you maybe just want to get back into No Man’s Sky after the new update, especially since people will probably move on from the game again in a month or so? Or do I try something new?
Honestly, it adds a lot of stress, and that’s not something you want from video games at all. Sea of Thieves is like this too — you get to a certain point in the game where you can’t really do new quests on your own. You have to get your friends back on board, but if your friends aren’t playing it anymore, you sort of miss out on this new content.
D: Fortnite has this same issue. Somewhere along the line, I just stopped playing Fortnite because the game has developed so far from the base game that I feel kind of lost jumping in ten months later. I don’t know the new weapons, there are mechs now, and I feel totally lost. I’ve completely missed out on everything new and culturally relevant about it from last year, and I feel like that impacts my willingness to go back and try certain games, since they’ve maybe developed too much. It sucks to go back to something and have it feel unrecognizable, with so much updated and outright changed head-to-toe, that it’s almost daunting.
S: It makes me think about what my life as a gamer would be like if I were a teenager now instead of when I was in the late 2000s. Back then, you still had to pay full price for your games, and my parents weren’t going to buy me everything I wanted, so I had to save up money throughout the year and spend on something that would last me a few months at least. So back then I would think, “I have $60, so I’ll buy Gears of War 2 or Guitar Hero III (or whatever else I played in high school). I’m going to play this game as much as I can.” But now the prevalent philosophy in game development is not to create a game that by itself lasts a long time; it’s to create a game that lasts for a little while and then we’ll add more stuff later. That pushes every single other thing you have to the side.
Switching to another topic: Since we both write about games, that does change how we play and what we choose to play. Like, before I wrote about games, I would mostly just play Nintendo games and NBA 2K. How has your taste in gaming and how you pick games changed since you started writing?
D: First and foremost, writing hasn’t impacted the games that I like. I still consider myself first and foremost a lover of RPGs and action-adventure games. Certain genres are still important to me, but writing for games has made me play a wider variety of stuff. I used to think I had diverse taste, but now I try to almost mellow out my personal genre interest in an effort to be impartial and give everything a chance. Ultimately, when you’re writing about something, you want to give an objective opinion but with a splash of your own thoughts in it too.
Writing has also forced me to prioritize games that I might not have previously for timing reasons. For example, I just picked up Astral Chain partially because if I wait a couple months down the line, maybe that whole cultural relevance is gone and I’ve missed an opportunity to write about it for the site. So I’m always trying to play something that’s somewhat relevant now; that way, if I come up with something I want to write about, it’s not totally lost to the ether due to timing.
S: I definitely understand what you’re saying about trying to have a more objective look at games. What truly has changed for me is that I’m less hesitant to spend money and time on games that I’m not certain I’m going to like. Previously, I would only dedicate time and money to something like GTA V or Super Mario Maker, games that I knew I would enjoy and spend a lot of time playing. Now I’m more likely to buy something different because maybe I can write about it or it could help give me a new view on other games. So that’s why I’ve recently made the efforts to play games like Chrono Trigger and EarthBound, games that I used to dismiss because I “didn’t like games like that.” And through playing those games, I learned that genre delineations by themselves don’t really matter all that much; it’s more specific mechanics I do or don’t like. Playing Chrono Trigger, for example, made me realize that I don’t dislike JRPGs, but that I do hate random encounters.
Also, after playing Bioshock Infinite, which is one of my least favorite games ever made, I thought to myself, “Do I just not like shooters?” Then later on I played Titanfall 2, and I realized that I do usually like shooters, I just don’t like overzealous, racist storylines. But that’s the thing! When you have a wider array of games that you try out, especially with Game Pass and other services, you realize what you like and what you don’t like and it’s not about genres. It’s not even about eras either; I played Battlefield 1 a few years ago, and I thought that game was just sad and boring. I didn’t remember Call of Duty: World at War being like that! By playing more and more games from all genres and eras, you can definitely gain new perspectives. That’s why I ultimately downloaded and played Devil May Cry 5 on Game Pass, because I felt at the very least it could teach me something new about a series I’ve never played and a genre I often avoid.
D: Right! Totally agree.
S: Last question: What would you do if your backlog was magically cleared? Let’s say you have a week in between right now and the next game you want to play, and your backlog is fully empty. Would you try random new games? Would you go back and replay old games? What would you do?
D: This is obviously a dream scenario, but it’s wonderful to think about. I think nowadays the indie scene is bigger than it’s ever been, in that there are more interesting indie games (which are longer than ever) than there ever have been. So if I had the time, I would be searching for little nuggets of games that I’ve heard rumblings about that I haven’t had the chance to play. It reminds me of how Kei and I annually go to PAX East to play all sorts of cool games that have since come out with no media coverage whatsoever. That seems super intriguing to me, but I can’t see those games being part of my backlog anytime soon. So if my backlog were eliminated, I could see myself scouring Steam, Humble, Epic Store, anything for these little games that don’t get a lot of attention otherwise. Maybe some hidden PSVR gems as well.
I’d also like to communicate those gems to a larger audience, because these great smaller games often get overlooked. For example, I like to plug Cosmic Star Heroine a lot because I love that game’s approach to RPG combat. Iconoclasts is another one that was overlooked last year. I feel like that’s part of the fun of playing games, and you can easily lose track of that when you’re trying to make a neat list of games you need to complete before you start exploring to find a new game.
S: That’s a fun way of looking at it! The joke I made in my notes here is that I would finally play Morrowind if my backlog cleared. But the reality is that I would try to get really into a game that I don’t plan to finish, and that I would feel okay if I were never able to play it otherwise. Maybe not Morrowind, but I could see myself trying to get into World of Warcraft Classic or Final Fantasy XIV, some kind of MMO. I tend to dislike MMOs because they often feel like pointless time sinks, but if there’s nothing else on the docket I could see myself giving one a real shot to see why people care so much about these games, because right now I just don’t have the time for them.
D: That’s a great answer, because I keep hearing great things about Final Fantasy XIV and the new Shadowbringers expansion, which some say is one of the best Final Fantasy stories out there. But I just know I’m never going to play it, because who has the time? It’s not even about the money, I simply just don’t have the time to play a 1,000-hour game.
S: I read somewhere that the Shadowbringers expansion requires you to be level 70 before you can play it. That’s the worst part of MMOs. When I played WoW for a bit in high school (and luckily I just used a friend’s account so I didn’t have to pay for it) I would play for a few hours and find myself grossly underleveled if I wanted to move on to better quests. I don’t want to grind for that! Who has the time?!
D: The only MMO I remember playing back in the day was Runescape, and it had some good moments! It was an interesting MMO-lite. But I don’t think I’ll ever play another MMO again.
S: The other thing I might do if I had a clear backlog… since I never actually owned a PlayStation 2, I would buy one and play all kinds of games that nobody makes anymore, like Jak and Daxter or Ratchet & Clank.
D: Such a great system! And it existed during such a different time too, where developers weren’t always making games with big open worlds. These games were typically linear and shorter (I think you could beat the first Devil May Cry in 6 to 8 hours), which was nice.
S: It’s funny: I can’t tell you how refreshing it’s been lately to play games like DMC5, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, and Yooka-Laylee, all games that, for better or worse, are relatively brief and linear but know what they are and don’t try to overstay their welcome. They’re not the future of anything; you mash buttons and shit happens.
D: Sometimes, that’s all you need.
If you enjoyed today’s conversation, be sure to check out my previous Punished Chat, during which I talk all about JRPGs.