Pointless busywork in video games isn’t pointless at all

Progress isn't just about completing story missions, you know

I told myself over an hour ago that I’d grab “just one more” collectible USB Song in Far Cry 6, but it’s now 1.49am and I’ve just picked up my seventh. I don’t even know why I’m still going, quite frankly. It’s not that I desperately want to listen to them or anything.

I guess I just got a bit caught up in it, like I always do. There’s something wonderfully therapeutic – soothing, even – about stomping around a world without a firm agenda, free to follow the paths in front of you or deviate from them entirely. I can’t say I feel this way about every open-world game or even every set of collectibles, but every now and then I’ll find myself in a world that I can’t help but want to explore every nook and cranny.

That’s the magical thing about gaming, isn’t it? You are the master of your own domain. Whereas films and books give you all the freedom of the Pied Piper with a fancy new flute, games – certain ones, at least – offer freedom and reward curiosity. Yes, there’s usually a story to be told. Yes, there are main missions that will move the tale onwards and open up new pathways. But sometimes I don’t have the concentration to follow complex plot twists, or perhaps I don’t have enough time to take on an hour-long, high-octane combat mission. Sometimes all I want is to mooch about a bit – scaling the mountains, diving into seas, taking endless shots of the wildlife in photo mode – exploring and surveying the world at my own pace.

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Far Cry 6 screenshot
Far Cry 6. Credit: Ubisoft

It seems unbelievable to me now, but I used to shy away from open-world games. Those endlessly blinking icons of unfinished quests didn’t encourage me to press onwards as much as thoroughly put me off, making me feel lazy and ineffectual before I’d even begun. The first time I zoomed out of Assassin’s Creed Origins‘ in-game map, I almost passed out. Why is it so fucking big?! Why is there so much to do? What’s the point of even trying if, after several hours in-game, I’m sitting on Level Four and some areas of this map are out of bounds until players are ranked 50+? I’ll still be trying to unlock this map when I’m drawing a bloody pension.

After wandering around for a little bit, though, I stopped panicking. I realised you’re rewarded XP just for stepping into new areas of the map you haven’t visited before. Sneaking about and taking down unsuspecting enemies all trickles into the XP pot, too, even if those enemies have nothing to do with your main mission. And then it clicks: progress isn’t just about completing story missions. It’s not about finishing the main campaign as quickly as possible. Progress can be whatever you want it to be. Well, didn’t we just agree that you’re the master of your own domain?

Destiny 2‘s open world is perfect for this. Yes, there are weekly chores to complete if you want to keep unlocking Pinnacle Gear and upgrading your Guardian, but if all you want is space and time to unplug your brain and occupy your fingers, few things satisfy that itch in me than hopping onto my Sparrow and shooting off into the Cosmodrome. There’s plenty to do, of course – too much, quite frankly; bounties, Exotic quests, side missions, Lost Sectors, Public Events (remember Public Events?!) – but there’s lots to not do, too. Gathering resources. Clearing out your vault. Seeing how high you can climb a particular tree. Okay, so the latter’s not much use to anyone beyond my own idle curiosity, I guess, but the former two are excellent ways of progressing in a game without, you know, actually progressing.

Destiny 2
Destiny 2. Credit: Bungie

I suspect that’s the problem that sits at the heart of all of this: the nebulous concept of “progress”. It’s as though any activity that doesn’t contribute to the advancement of that overall “completion percentage” on the title page isn’t worth doing at all. Don’t fall for it, though.

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Progress is in the eye of the beholder – even if that means sometimes, there’s no tangible progress at all. Don’t cave to the pressure of completing a game’s main campaign as quickly as possible if you’re just as happy roaming the mountainside, combing the land for crafting materials or collectibles. Some of the most satisfying gaming sessions I’ve had started off with “grinding” XP or resources only to end up someplace entirely different, someplace entirely new. How often have you struggled with a particular boss, nope’d out, gone explorin’ elsewhere – maybe finding the right resource to upgrade your weapon, perhaps, or murdering enough unimportant enemies to secure an extra skill point or two – only to return to take that boss down on your very first retry?

See? Sometimes, pointless busywork isn’t pointless at all.

Vikki Blake is a video games journalist and regular contributor to NME – you can read her past columns here

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