Irresistible Backlog meets Movable Object

[Advance warning: this article does not contain any spoilers, but it does contain personal experiences and may be regarded as navel-gazing. In it I talk about some problems I have had with my game collection and what I’ve been doing to mitigate or combat them. I try to make a few jokes at my expense to make it less dull. Read on and consider yourself warned…]

I’ve been getting ruthless with myself over the last few months. As ruthless as I can be, anyway. I only recently began eating meat after ten years of vegetarianism; I’m largely pacifistic and prefer to avoid or defuse violent or tense situations. I like everything to be chilled out and ruthlessness does not come naturally to me.

But I’m not talking that kind of ruthlessness. I’m talking about dealing with the aftershocks of reckless spending. Not ruthlessly hunting down bankers and city boys, boiling them up and serving them to our hungry new lost generation. Though I’d certainly play that game.

No, I’m talking about dealing with my backlog. Again. Apologies if you are sick of this topic – if I weren’t smack in the middle of it, I sure would be.

Here’s the context: since 2011 I’ve been using a site called the Backloggery to index my collection of games and to track how much or little I’ve done with each title. The site offers a few basic tools to help you track your progress through your backlog, providing stats on how many games you’ve marked as beaten or completed (the distinction is essentially ” the credits have rolled  vs. I’ve done everything”) against how many games you’ve added. A positive number implies good progress. Here’s my progress year by year:

Backloggery 2011 to 2014

I am, quite clearly, fucked. It’s the same conclusion AJ reached last year after spending nearly six months aggressively tackling his backlog: no matter how hard he pushed himself to play through games rather than leaving them forgotten on a pile somewhere, there were always new acquisitions or other previously purchased titles lurking here and there to offset any ‘progress’.

Hell, my Backloggery account doesn’t even include all of my SNES, Mega Drive or Master System games, nor the library of Atari 2600 games my girlfriend has stashed in the same cupboard. Let’s not even begin to talk about the ROMs I have gathered over the years – old games for obsolete systems that I’ve a vague desire to play without spending £80 on eBay for a decaying box of ancient circuit boards.

I’ve come to believe there’s a strange madness inherent in attempting to tackle your video game backlog. Some lucky people come with a built-in lack of concern for such things; our own Dylan is one such. Others, like AJ and myself, have a desire to finish and to complete even where it may override other impulses (for example, I may force myself to finish a game even after it has stopped being fun – I’m almost finished and the final boss is just two more hours away!). This is clearly not rational from most perspectives.

There are also consumer considerations. There’s a lot of weird psychology around the ways we buy and consume goods. Late capitalism is all-round weird, particularly when combined with the shame or guilt that may unavoidably pervade our lives. There are few other points in history where a pug onesie would be something people would buy, and yet today here we are*.

I’m no psychologist and it’s a long time since I specifically read into these subjects so I shan’t try and sketch a bigger picture here. What I will do is note that I have, since my teens, had a vaguely puritanical impulse to make the utmost use of anything I own. This has led to strange projects like the creation of spreadsheets listing the unread books on my shelves, or enormous playlists of albums and songs that I have not yet listened to. Of course games too have come in for this treatment.

I remember as far back as fourteen years ago, looking at my copy of Microprose’s Starlord and thinking “I really shouldn’t buy any more games until I finish this and those half-dozen other games”. That was all the way back when I could afford one or two games out of a bargain bin every month or so. Today the economics are very different, both in terms of what’s available and in terms of my disposable income**. What has not changed is how unnecessary it is to believe that a game must be beaten – even if that concept is hard-coded into the gamer’s lexicon.

Over the past year I’ve come to regard this beat-the-backlog impulse as an affliction that distracts me from the reasons I actually play and write about games – they are fun and challenging, it’s an interesting and developing medium – and instead leaves me focusing on pointless distractions like ticking items off a list.

There may be some deep-rooted desire to avoid waste, or to justify my purchases by squeezing the most from them, behind the strange behaviours I describe. It’s akin to sitting in front of a gigantic bowl of mashed potato that I neither need nor want, but rather than turning away once I have eaten my fill I am forcing spoonful after spoonful down my gullet, because if I do not then it will only end up in the bin. What a waste! (But who made all that mashed potato anyway?)

So I have been forcing myself to be ruthless. I’ve not yet fully weaned myself off the Backloggery – I like databases, I like organised central things that act as an aid to my terrible memory – but I have gone through it and drawn a line through a lot of titles. Of 957 games listed in my account, 353 are marked as beaten or complete whilst 85 are marked as unfinished or unplayed. That doesn’t add up, which is because the remaining 519 are marked as ‘null’. I initially used this category to denote multiplayer or score attack style games which had no end state, but I’ve increasingly begun using it to hide away games that I’ve no plan to ever finish.

Take, for example, the R.I.P. trilogy, acquired during a Steam sale for 99p or some equally negligible sum. It may be an okay level-based arena shooter once you’ve gotten into it, but there are a huge number of superior shooters out there so why maintain the expectation that I will actually play beyond the half hour dabble I’ve managed so far? Nope, into the null pile they go.

At this point my ‘unfinished’ category largely consists of games I actively want to play through – at least until I reach a point where enjoyment or interest turns to displeasure or boredom. And I’m no longer going to force myself past that point just so that I can tick an item off a list and feel that I didn’t waste some money in the past. Dead Space recently fell foul of this: I was enjoying it well enough until I hit the asteroid field turret section. There I decided I was done with the game. Sorry, Visceral Games! Next time think twice about that sort of absolute crap.

I’ve considered deleting or ignoring my Backloggery account going forwards; trying to entirely free myself of the impulses I’ve come to regard as both ridiculous and detrimental. I’ve decided against it – for now – as the account remains a useful source of prompts for the over-gamed man. It provides reminders that I still need to sit down with Pathologic, Resonance of Fate, Ensign-1, Ico and Omikron: the Nomad Soul. It helps remind me of games I may forget I own – unplayed titles that came alongside others in a bundle or sale, or hand-me-down gifts for old consoles like Dai Senryaku VII, all of which I want to at least experience first-hand.

I’m working to push back against the parts of my own biochemistry, my own impulses and psychological tics, that lead me toward irrational distractions. I may never be able to change the way my brain works, but I can bend it toward my own benefit: to remind me of what I still most want to pursue and experience, all in the ongoing search for new experiences, interesting design and gameplay, and the breadth of experience demanded of someone who lives and breathes video games.

Besides, if that list of unfinished games ever hit zero, I suspect I’d feel a little lost.


[* Speaking of ridiculous purchasing habits, my girlfriend has just walked up to me holding six bottles of shampoo, trying not to laugh. Apparently I have been buying it via various deals without realising I already have several years’ worth of hair cleaning products. Make of that what you will.]

[** The trend I describe in this article – for my acquisitions to outpace ‘beating’ or ‘completing’ games – has continued through 2014 despite my financial situation changing, resulting in my not buying any new or expensive (£15+) games, and generally trying to avoid buying games as much as possible. Good games can be legally found for next to nothing, or nothing, with immense ease – even when you’re not actively seeking them.]